Queerness and Queer Feelings in Inside Out

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Last night I watched Inside Out for the first — but certainly not the last — time. A friend and colleague of mine saw it when it was in theatres and told me that I must see it. I write about teen girls and feelings, so this movie was basically made for me. She was right. A lot of my personal and academic life has been spent thinking about our relationship to “negative” feelings, or what affect theorist Sianne Ngai calls “ugly feelings.” A list of negative/ugly feelings would include: sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, disgust, melancholy, irritation, regret, despair, shame, self-hatred, bitterness, defeatism, and loneliness. Anger has perhaps been one of the hardest for me to deal with, but fear, anxiety, sadness, shame, and loneliness have all found their homes with me at some point in time.


Interestingly in Inside Out, the ugly feelings actually outweigh the good. Populating the psyche of the film’s protagonist, an 11 year old girl named Riley, are five emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Joy has basically been the emotion controlling all of the action up until Riley’s dad gets a job at a tech start up and the family moves from Minnesota to San Fransisco. After the family moves things start to go wrong and it is Sadness that is the ostensible cause of things falling apart, failing, and becoming queer.

First the plot summary, then more on Sadness’s queerness. So everything is going fine for Riley. She’s got good friends, is a great hockey player, and has a pretty spectacularly awesome relationship with her parents. But the move comes as a shock, to both Riley and the five feelings. The house isn’t as nice, the moving truck goes missing, and Sadness steps in to “ruin” Riley’s first day at her new school. Sadness starts to turn the core memories from joyful to sad, resulting in her and Joy being sucked up into the maze of Riley’s Long Term Memory — leaving Fear, Anger, and Disgust to run the show. The rest of the movie centres around Joy and Sadness making it back to the headquarters to set everything straight (and yes, I want you to read the double entendre there).


If I were to borrow Sara Ahmed’s now famous term, I think we can say that Sadness is the Feminist Killjoy of Inside Out. She’s the film’s queer subject who makes us see that it’s not always possible (or sustainable) to be the happy girl. I want to think about “queerness” capaciously, as Judith Halberstam does in The Queer Art of Failure. Halberstam’s text analyzes various forms of “low art” and “low theory,” including children’s movies. According to Halberstam, queerness is monstrosity in Shrek, disability in Finding Nemo, and species disphoria in Babe. Halberstam writes that “Queer fairy tales are often organized around heroes who are in some way ‘different’ and whose difference is offensive to some larger community.” Taking up Halberstam’s definition of queerness, I want to argue that Sadness is the figure of queerness in Inside Out. As Joy tells us when introducing Sadness, “I don’t actually know what she does.” She is the film’s unknown and abject figure.

I also want to think about Sadness’s “queerness” in relation to Heather Love’s Feeling Backward. Love talks about queerness in relation to lost pasts and histories of losing. “I see the art of losing as a particularly queer art,” she writes. The queer subject has a different relationship to time: they feel backwards. For Love, to “feel backwards” means on the one hand that you feel out of place or out of sorts. But it also means that one’s relation to time is rooted in looking backwards rather than forwards. Sadness’s relation to losing is made clear throughout the film. One of Sadness’s favourite memories is when Riley loses a hockey game. Sadness loves this memory because it resulted in Riley’s family and teammates providing her with support (Sadness, we soon realize, is capable of acknowleding that with sadness comes joy). Sadness also represents lost past, as she turns Riley’s Joyful memories into sad ones by accidentally — and then purposefully — touching them. And it is her queer touch — none of the other feelings have the capacity to change the emotions of the memory balls — that results in the collapse of Riley’s Personality Islands. In Inside Out, Sadness queers Joy, and queers affect itself.

As film critics have noted, this isn’t really a movie about Riley, so much as it is about Joy and Sadness. If we want to read Sadness as the figure of queerness, we can see her “out-of-placeness” on Riley’s first day at her new school. Joy assigns tasks to Fear, Anger, and Disgust, but then tells Sadness that her job is to keep all of the sadness (i.e. herself) within a little circle that Joy has drawn on the floor (this scene might have been one of the saddest for me. So much love for Sadness here).


Joy spends most of her time in the movie trying to micro-manage Sadness’s actions and very little trying to understand her. But Sadness wants us to understand her. “Crying” she tells Joy, “helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems.” This isn’t just a movie about Joy learning to make space for Sadness, but it’s one that involves Joy learning about her own limits. As she scrambles around Long Term Memory, holding the core memory balls that are left, and dragging a too-sad-to-move Sadness behind her, we watch as Joy’s hair becomes more and more frazzled and exhausted. What we learn, and what Joy learns, is that you can’t do it all on your own. The imperative to always be happy and full of joy is just, well, exhausting.

And this is why, maybe, I found this moment between Riley and her mother so troubling: “Through all this confusion,” her mom tells her, “you’ve stayed our happy girl.” Riley’s father is very worried about work, she notes, so “if we could keep smiling, it’ll be a big help.” Buried underneath Riley’s mother’s comment is the commonly used (and highly neoliberal) phrase of “I’m only happy if you’re happy” (a phrase that Sara Ahmed talks about at length in The Promise of Happiness). The pressure to always be “our happy girl” is one that Riley and Joy can’t actually bear.


Perhaps my favourite message of the film is not just that you need to make space for sadness, but that sometimes, even oftentimes, our experiences of the world are made up of many emotions. While Riley is an infant and child, her memories are associated with one of the five emotions. Feelings are much more black and white for the child. But at the end of the film, Joy and Sadness come together to help Riley reconnect with her parents. It is Sadness who hold the power to get Riley to abandon her runaway back to Minnesota plan, get off of the bus, and return back home: Riley must miss her parents (i.e. feel sad) if she’s going to turn around. UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, who consulted with Pixar’s Pete Docter on the film, points out that sadness is a powerful tool, a trigger that sends kids back to their parents for comfort and connection. In a conversation with Dan Kois from SlateKeltner tells Kois that “You gotta hang on to that sadness.” As Kois rightly points out, in the tumult of early adolescence, sadness is the thing that can bring parent and child back together.

The film’s queerness now takes shape in the mixing of affects. At the start of the film the memory balls are associated with one emotion, signified by the fact that the ball is green or yellow or blue. But when Sadness and Joy come together at the end to get Riley to return home, the memory balls are made up of more than one colour (I searched and searched and couldn’t find an image of the multicoloured balls at the end, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that they’re beautiful). And, rather poignantly, the control board has been replaced to reflect the complexity of Riley’s emotions. Added to the board is an alarm labelled “PUBERTY,” which Disgust pronounces as “poo-berty” when she asks the other emotions what it means. They’ll just have to wait to find out.

Ambivalent emotions are something that I discuss a lot in my dissertation, especially in relation to adolescent female friendship. Basically, what I argue is that there is no such thing as an unambivalent friendship. Instead of seeing ambivalence as bad, I want to work towards an understanding of ambivalence as a) kind of pretty normal; and b) generative. Ambivalence can actually enable us to foster more ethical and intimate relationships with others. Adam Phillips explains how “In Freud’s vision we are, above all, ambivalent animals: wherever we hate we love, wherever we love we hate. If someone can satisfy us, they can frustrate us; and if someone can frustrate us we always believe they can satisfy us.” I think that this is one of the messages of Inside Out that Joy and the viewer must come to accept. If we can make space for the “queer” desires of Sadness then we might make space for greater intimacy with others and more ethical kinds of relating not just with others, but to our own complex psychic states.

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This post was written by Margeaux


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