Inside Out – The Reconciliation Of The Fractured Self

Thoughts On: Inside Out (2015)

Stepping inside the head of a girl transitioning into hard times, we get to see her world turned inside out.

Inside Out is perfect in a way that kind of tingles. With beautiful animation, great direction, good editing, but a masterful story, Inside Out is one of the greatest animated films I’ve ever seen. Its every moment pulsates and reverberates with an understanding of the Disney-Pixar craft, and so its no surprise that it projects one of their most articulate and touching narratives of all time. Whilst this isn’t subtextually as complex as, for example, Monsters Inc, Inside Out manages to balance its deeply metaphorical side with its more accessible side. Thus, as most people could tell you, Inside Out is a film about growing up and embracing the wide range of human emotions. However, there is nuance and more to this story than just this, and so this is what we’ll explore today.

For practically all of modern human history, societies have found a means of representing one fundamental idea: the fractal nature of the individual. Ancient societies, such as the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, represented this through polytheism, a belief in multiple gods and goddesses. In Roman mythology, Cupid was the god of desire, Mars was the god of war and Vulcan was the god of fire. There are a plethora of other gods, including the 12 central and a myriad of other peripheral figures, that all represented different aspects of humanity and society. With these three examples, however, we can see expressed three central human attributes: violence and aggression, love and affection, and creativity and malleable change. Furthermore, we have an example of a fundamental representation of the idea that people, and in turn societies, are made up of separate, even individual, compartments that, only together, make a cohesive, functional whole.

As time progressed many societies converged upon one God, relying on monotheism for meaning and a unifying force in the individual and amongst the masses. Abstractly and non-universally, this implied a change in humanity whereby we took control of ourselves whilst maintaining an idea of a literal higher power and purpose. This higher concept, this God, for many cultures, was a guiding force that gave people the freedom and free will to live as an individual who could, to a degree, lead their own life. No longer did it then seem that Mars would embody societies and drive them towards war. However, with a belief in a literal God remained a concept of embodiment; i.e, the devil, demons or evil embodying someone. And thus there still remained an idea of fractal societies and people existing through forces of evil, good and shades in between. But, as time again progressed, God became ever more abstract and less literal. This signalled to some that society was breaking down. It is at this point that we begin to approach the 20th century where Nietzsche declares that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” in his 1882 collection, The Gay Science. This idea of “God is dead” deeply worried Nietzsche, which is seemingly why he proposed that we have to become supermen and in turn gods ourselves.

With Freud, who was greatly influenced by Nietzsche, seemed to come an answer to this proposition. Freud brought back, into mainstream thought, the idea of the fractal nature of the individual. He did this by suggesting, not that gods controlled us and our emotions, but that our unconscious and subconscious mind did. And in this hazy realm of non-consciousness came three abstract personalities – what some would call gods. These were the ego, superego and the id. Without wanting to delve too deeply into these concepts, Freud, having resurrected polytheism’s essential understanding of humans as fractured beings, gave us new tools of self-expression. However, over the 20th century Freudian and Jungian psychology faded out of popularity.

In the latter half of the 20th century, however, Paul Ekman proposed the concept of the “6 Basic Emotions”. These, as you may know, are fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, anger and surprise. (He also proposed a seventh, and that was contempt). Ekman was not the first to propose a list of core or fundamental emotions, but, it was his list that seemingly stuck. Thus, in the modern day, we usually describe ourselves through emotions as opposed to gods and our unconscious (though, both of these ideas remain relevant, and even important). This has its positives and negatives, much like polytheism, monotheism and psychoanalysis do, and they manifest in society. However, much like societies before ourselves had to make the gods happy, walk righteously under one god, reconcile with their childhood or confront their shadow, we have to manage our emotions. And thus we find ourselves at the narrative expression of this idea through Inside Out, which, who knows, may be a significant marker of thinking in our day and age in the future (much like many of the Pixar and Disney films could be).

When we now take a look at our main characters, they may seem a little more important and profound than you’d initially assume…

However, let us take a step back. Ekman proposed that there were six or seven core emotions. Why are there only five represented here? The truth is, there are many theories and many different numbers concerning core emotions. It was decided, by Pete Docter and with Ekman’s aid, that five would be the right amount of emotions for the sake of simplicity. There are nonetheless many more emotions expressed by this film than these five. For example, we get contempt and nostalgia through a combination of the references to memory with sadness and anger. And, most important of all, this film lets surprise be represented physically in Riley’s inner world.

Surprise, the discovery of the new, can lead to creation…

But, taken badly, surprise leads to destruction…

All of this is of course dictated by the unknown world. Thus, surprise will come to be one of the most important ’emotions’ of this film. This is because this is a coming-of-age story in which Riley moves into her transition away from childhood and into adulthood. This movement is catalysed by, in essence, life happening.

Life, seen through a responsible adult’s eyes, is not all fun and games. This is because life is made up of chaos, entropy and a lot of forces trying to do you harm. To confront life, you must prepare for the unexpected by constructing a flexible, evolving tool kit with which you can cope with almost anything. And this is indeed maturity; it is letting go of life as a dream, of life as seen through a child’s eyes; a life filled with almost constant joy thanks only to naivety and parents.

As an adult, you must construct your own happiness whilst dealing with the chaos of life. This is represented by Inside Out through our look into the parents’ minds:

There are a plethora of things that these two images tell us, but there are two key ideas that we’ll pick up on. The first is that adults have a different panel to a child’s: each emotion has their own controls. Secondly, there is nonetheless someone in the director’s chair in centre. Unlike with Riley, however, Joy is not in control in the parents’ mind. Instead, sadness and anger are.

This is one of the most expressive and pertinent ideas in this entire film. Whilst we are told, by the end of this film, that joy alone cannot rule a person’s mind, it is here that we are told that more daunting emotions must take control. So, whilst we’d all like to think that we’re lead primarily by joy in life, most people aren’t. As we have discussed, life is difficult and it forces us to forge our own happiness and create a tool kit with which to confront it. Contrary to what a child would believe, to confront the world, you can’t just be positive. This doesn’t mean that positive thinking and the whole branch of positive psychology is null. However, it does mean that, reprising a Jungian idea, people must embrace their shadow and dark side. The mother is shown to do this by letting sadness be her guiding emotion whilst the father utilises anger. Interestingly, sadness is then attributed to an imaginary image love…

… and anger an imaginary hockey game…

Whilst these are jokes based on the personalities of the parents, this also reveals how these core emotions, as negative as they seemingly are, function. Starting with anger, we see a form of destruction that can also create something positive. Anger is then, in a certain sense, what Riley channels when she plays hockey…

… and we hear this to be true when Anger has to take over as this game starts. In this respect, anger is shown to motivate competition and the joy it offers. So, whilst Anger will play his part in the protection of Riley and her sense of self, he is not just darkness, but a combination of the good and the bad. However, whist Riley’s dad is an influence upon her, much like Anger is, anger doesn’t play a huge role in this narrative. Instead, the conflict throughout is between Joy and Sadness.

As is implied initially through Riley’s mother, Sadness seems to be a kind of understanding or empathy; it is only by empathising with someone that can you be compassionate, and it is also only through understanding that you can learn to let things go. We see this manifest itself with this later, crucial moment:

Sadness, through empathy and understanding, manages to raise Bing Bong’s spirits. By accepting his despair, instead of suppressing it through positivity as Joy would suggest, Bing Bong soon manages to move on and again be happy. This is one of the core elements of Riley’s final lesson:

What develops from this reconciliation between Sadness and Joy in Riley is both the ability to let go and be weak, but also be strong again. This is so important because, with only Joy, life becomes deluded, and this is made clear with the expansion of this core memory…

… to include sadness…

However, letting go and being weak before regaining strength as a means of maturing, is signified best through one key moment: Bing Bong’s death.

To grow up and accept that sadness, in a certain respect, must run your life, you must first learn what it means to let the things that need to be let go, go. Bing Bong’s death is then the realisation that Riley is no longer a child, which can be a difficult thing to endure, but it is nonetheless something we must all go through. We can assume, because her ‘headquarters’ is run by sadness, that Riley’s mother also had to learn how to let go for the better. Conversely, her father would have had to learn how to control his frustrations and turn them towards positive creation. (Or, at least, these would be their core, defining lessons in life; we all must learn how to control all of our emotions). However, with Riley learning a similar lesson to what her mother had to have, we see her accept that there is something that can flourish from the destruction and challenging of self.

There is conflict along this road of maturation with Joy refusing to let Sadness take control, and such leads to the decimation of Riley’s personality:

But, this destruction of personality only eventually leads to the growth of something new and better:

Thus, the judgement and questioning of her core being, and ultimately its deconstruction, is what teaches her that, from darkness, essentially comes a brighter light than one she has ever seen before.

Coming towards a conclusion, what we ultimately see with Riley maturing into a more complex and stronger person is the reconciliation of the many parts of her fractured self. This story is then a meta-narrative constructed over thousands upon thousands of years that ultimately sees all the gods that rule over, and the subconscious elements that reside with, the human complex come into peace, ready to confront the ominous beast that is reality, as someone moves closer towards adulthood. For this, Inside Out is not just a masterpiece, but a truly significant story of our times in my view. However, with all of that said, what are your thoughts on Inside Out and all we’ve covered today?



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