Inside Out: Is Joy the VILLAIN?

Welcome to this special Wisecrack Edition on The Philosophy of Inside Out, where we dive into the deeper meaning of the beloved film that taught us all a little more about our emotions.

Written by: Alec Opperman
Directed & Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey
Assistant Editor: Justin Saltzer
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon

Inside Out: Is Joy the VILLAIN?

Hey everyone, it’s Jared, and today we’re unpacking the Disney/Pixar film Inside Out.

Released in 2015, Inside Out received critical acclaim, not only for its entertainment value, but for its light-hearted approach to how our brains work. The film’s creators consulted heavily with psychologists to make sure that the whimsical world was also rooted in actual science. Not that little Gremlins are actually controlling your brain, or anything.

For the sake of a brief primer, let’s first dive in to the film’s several insights on psychology. First, First, psychologists now have a better understanding of how our current emotions can color past memories. The other big insight is how our emotions actually interact with the rational part of our brain.

We have this notion in society that emotions come in like a wrecking ball and mess up our otherwise functional, and rational, brains. According to consulting psychologists Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman, that’s actually the opposite of what modern science is telling us. They say our brains use emotion to “organize — rather than disrupt — rational thinking.” For instance, one study they cite finds that anger makes us more aware of what is unfair around us, which isn’t the worst thing to happen if life just keeps taking a dump on you. We all know that fear helps us not wander into the middle of the road, or that disgust limits our urge to eat that month-old Chipotle in our fridge.

We see this in the movie too, anger gets shit done. Fear makes sure Riley doesn’t die.

Another observation is the way our brain remembers things. Most of the things we remember get sent to the cerebral dustbin, like what we ate for breakfast last Tuesday or that six hours of TV you just mindlessly watched. But sometimes our brain is confronted with something new and useful, or emotionally important, and it decides to file it away in long-term memory. When Riley falls asleep, all of the useless information from the day gets dumped and our brain decides what is important enough to get stored.

But while the science is interesting, we’re mostly just here to point out that the way we’ve been watching Inside Out is terribly wrong.

Take a moment and think about the movie for a second. Who’s the good guy? You probably pictured Joy, the ostensible hero of the story. But think for another second – who’s the bad guy? You might have pictured Riley’s crappy family, or just drawn a blank. But neither of those are quite right.

I want to argue the Joy is the villain of Inside Out. The most obvious way to watch Inside Out is the journey of Joy, our protagonist who has to recover a core memory from the depths of Riley’s mind before Riley’s inner psyche is permanently damaged. At the end, Joy learns a valuable lesson, that sometimes, you have to let sadness butt in.

We could watch Inside Out another way, as the story of gleeful egomaniac who has tampered with and irreparably harmed an innocent girl’s brain. Along the way, she even manages to kill Riley’s best friend, even if accidentally. Joy is the source of all the problems. She’s the one who tried tampering with the core memories in the first place and her journey to recover it just ends up making everything worse.

The overall problem seems to be that Joy is kind of a fascist, bossing around and organizing the other emotions like a petty dictator. I mean, everything goes downhill after Sadness touches a memory, and Joy determines that this is a bad thing. Put in this context, Inside Out seems to be a commentary on the compulsory happiness of 20th century society.

In today’s world, not being happy simply isn’t an option. An array of doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, self-help gurus, school counselors and human resources departments mandate that we take care of ourselves, maintain a positive outlook, and if not, get some drugs that will help us get there. But nowhere is it discussed that all those other emotions get shit done. There’s a good chance your favorite album or movie was written by some brooding artist dealing with tons of unpleasant emotions. I’m not trying to valorize things like depression, here, but to try to wipe them from our minds seems equally dangerous.

This modern distorted view of happiness is so ingrained in us that it’s hard to imagine the not-so-distant past when this wasn’t true. Friedrich Nietzsche famously said “Mankind does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that.” Then again, Nietzsche was German, so..

To simply be happy with your current situation is terrible blanket advice. But this is precisely what society tells us: that happiness is a personal responsibility, a struggle that plays out in our own mind. Inside Out embodies this logic by its very structure. The bulk of the drama takes place inside Riley’s mind, not her surroundings. Why is it that the impersonal machinations of capitalism which drive Riley’s father to leave his home to accumulate wealth remains outside the scope of acceptable children’s movie villains? One might argue that it’s too complicated, but they personified neuroscience in a kid-friendly format, for Chrissake.

As economic sociologist William Davies argues in his book The Happiness Industry, this compulsory happiness is no mere coincidence, but a central component of neoliberal capitalism. Happiness, according to Davies, is being manipulated by managers, corporations and advertisers to get us to work harder and buy more. Our society wants to put Joy behind the wheel of our minds, and to push out emotions like anger, which, as we’ve learned, can make us acutely aware of injustice.

The point is, to simply be happy omits all sorts of questions like: Why am I working a job I hate to begin with? Is the source of my sadness and anger the result of an unjust system? In one telling scene, Riley is asked by her mother to take hardship in stride, and put on a smile for her father. In other words, we’re all miserable, but at least put on a happy facade.

One problem with Inside Out is that it limits our psyche to the drama that plays out in our mind and not the outside world. As Davies argues, “the relentless fascination with quantities of subjective feeling can only possibly divert critical attention away from broader political and economics problems.” “Happiness science,” he says, “is critique turned inwards.” Instead of viewing Riley’s depression as a neural event, we should also look at is as a problem of disempowerment.

In real life, we see this with corporate-style mindfulness meditation and Silicon Valley-esque work spaces that boast ping pong tables and kegs of beer. Nevermind that you work 14 hours a day, don’t sleep enough and perform mind-numbing work, your job is FUN.

Joy embodies this logic. From the very first scene, we see her muscling Sadness out of the way.

By accidentally casting Joy as the villain of Inside Out, the movie implicitly criticizes this logic. Joy sets Riley on a downhill spiral of depression after compulsively wishing to maintain happiness in the face of hardship. It’s only in the film’s climax, when Anger, Disgust, Fear and Sadness work together is Riley set on the path to a better mental state.

Does this mean we should all be angsty dopes lugging around a copy of Fight Club? Of course not, or I guess, to each their own. The real point is that emotions like sadness and anger make us better people, and create a more robust kind of happiness. Eudaimonia is a concept from Ancient Greek philosophy, meaning happiness espoused by Plato, Aristotle, and many more. Plato argued that Eudaimonia wasn’t a mere pursuit of pleasure but tied to a pursuit of virtue and justice. The person seeking only earthly hedonist pleasure was not truly happy, because their inner sense of virtue created internal strife and disharmony And that seems to be what Inside Out is about, after a careful viewing.

So what do you think? Is Joy a pawn of our corporate overlords? Let us know in the comments.

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