Emotion and Metaphor

by Tess Adair

(Note: this post contains some spoilers for the animated film Inside Out.)


In my experience, human beings are just like the TARDIS--bigger on the inside. And that, essentially, is the premise of Inside Out--it’s all about the inner workings of the human mind, writ large through the metaphor of brain-as-ecosystem/workplace.


The protagonist of Inside Out is Joy, specifically 11-year-old girl Riley’s joy, who is largely in charge of running Riley’s brain and personality. The other main characters in Riley’s head are Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness. Interestingly, the film does show that Joy is not the default showrunner for everybody: in Riley’s father, Anger is in charge, while in her mother, Sadness appears to be at the helm. (In a cute scene over the credits, we see that the disinterested teenager working at the pizza place is run by Disgust, and that all her emotions are sure they hate something at the moment but don’t seem to know what it is. Oh, and the cool girl in Riley’s class is run by Fear, who obsesses over the idea that everyone will see through her--which poignantly reminded me of everything I’ve read lately about the “Fraud Police.”)

Of course, I should note that in a lot of ways, the emotions in the film are over-simplified. Human emotions do not neatly break down into the five categories the movie names. But for the film to come in under, say, 500 hours, a good number of sacrifices had to be made. I do know the creative team played around with a number of different emotion combinations, and I think the configuration they went with, while not 100% true to life, worked extremely well, both artistically and psychologically.


Here is where I get into much more spoiler-y territory, so if you want to watch this movie with your own blank slate, click away now.

So, when the film begins, Joy is Riley’s motivator. Joy runs everything in Riley’s head, fuels most of Riley’s decisions, and guides all her other emotions--letting them take over when necessary but overriding them at times, too.


Perhaps predictably, Joy doesn’t like Sadness very much. With every other emotion, she assigns them important tasks and listens to their input, but Sadness she pushes to the back, at one point literally drawing her a small circle and telling her not to step outside of it, lest she end up affecting something. Essentially, Joy doesn’t see the point of Sadness: while she believes that Riley’s other emotions serve a useful purpose, she doesn’t think Sadness brings anything to the table.


So, of course, Sadness is at the heart of the movie’s crisis.

See, the impetus for the Emotions’ plot is that young Riley and her family move from Minnesota to San Francisco. And all of a sudden, things in her head just don’t work quite the same way anymore.


Now, when Sadness touches one of Riley’s bright shiney memory balls, which are almost all Joy-dominated--they turn sad. And they won’t turn back.


The first time this happens, Joy freaks out and asks out loud, “What is happening?”


To me, the answer was obvious: Riley is growing up.


Unless you’re an abuse survivor or one of those rags-to-riches ass holes, my guess is that, overall, you are not quite as joyous now as you were when you were a child. As Louis CK once put it: children are still full of excitement about life, but adults are more worn-out by it.

The memory turning from joyous to sad reminded me of something else too, something an English teacher once said: all memories are inherently sad. Bad memories are sad for their content, but happy memories are sad because they are gone.


Now, all of Riley’s happy memories belong to a world she can no longer access--her past in Minnesota. This makes every once-happy memory susceptible to Sadness infection.


And Joy doesn’t know what to do. Once the memory has turned sad, she seems to have no ability to turn it back.


But that’s okay. Joy’s job here is not to defeat Sadness. Her job is to learn why Sadness is important.


Like I mentioned above, I think all of this, in the end, boils down to growing up. After all, what is growing up but learning how to accept sadness and the role it plays in our lives? The longer we live on this planet, the more upsets and minor to major tragedies we encounter. If you can’t learn how to live with sadness, you’re not going to get very far.

I'm all about the sad puppies today, apparently.

I'm all about the sad puppies today, apparently.

Joy spends most of the movie trying to limit Sadness, to prevent her from controlling or affecting anything. She’s sure that everything Sadness touches becomes terrible and useless. She even tries to make Sadness less sad, usually be reminding her of various wonderful things they’ve experienced through Riley.


In particular, she reminds Sadness of a day after one of Riley’s hockey games, when the team lifted her up on their shoulders and had some fun.


To Joy’s surprise, Sadness loves that one--because that was the day that Riley missed the winning goal and caused her team to lose. In her obsessive commitment to positivity, Joy forgot the earlier part of that day.


At the film’s climax, Joy finally makes the necessary connection--the team only ever came over and created that happy moment that she remembered because Riley was so sad about missing her shot. This realization allows Joy to do the very thing she’s been avoiding for so long--let Sadness take over for a little while.


Nobody can ever get what they want all the time. Eventually, you will experience loss. You will experience frustration, and disappointment, and regret. It cannot be avoided. The things you once loved will disappear and fade, and other new things that you want may be out of your reach.


Nobody wants to feel sad. But sometimes you need it.

You know, I always feel kinda funny when I watch something that was intended for children and can’t help but think that most adults would benefit from it as well. Inside Out is one of those.


One of the continuing challenges we face as adults is how to deal with our negative emotions. When to reign them in, when to let them take over. The healthiest way to do either. Sadness is probably the hardest one to deal with. (Although I do think that anyone trying to ban Muslims right now is giving either fear or anger way too much power. Actually, that’s pretty much all racists.)


The problem with sadness is that on top of sucking, it feels useless. It makes us feel like we’re weak or wrong, or like we’re a burden on other people. (Much like how Sadness in the film starts to think that she ruins everything, so Riley is better off without her.)


But if you don’t let yourself feel it, you’ll never learn from it. You deny yourself an opportunity to grow. And you deny others an opportunity to help you. And you won’t really be able to get over it.


It’s hard, of course. I know I don’t always let myself feel it, even when I know I should.


But honestly? This movie is a pretty good answer to that. I’m not sure there’s a human being alive who can get through this without feeling a crash wave of sadness.


And I say go for it. Feel that hurt. It’s good for you, I promise.


Kinda like broccoli fed to you like an airplane.