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Actually, Inside Out's Gender Norms Are A Major Problem

Repeating tired stereotypes as "just how it is" has ripple effects on society, even--or perhaps especially--in a kids' movie, and Pixar can and should do better.

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I honestly do love the vast majority of Inside Out ... despite the fact that this post is going to be all negative stuff--sorry! I've had to admit to myself that the dominant emotion at my Headquarters control console is probably Disgust...

At first, I got a little annoyed in the theater that the family seems to be picking up its life and centering all its goals around the Dad's job, but I told myself at the time "Some parents get really great opportunities they can't pass up. People move for jobs. That is A Thing that happens, and it doesn't have to imply male-centric social norms."


The movie still reinforces that social norm: Dad is portrayed as the one having the big ideas for the family, being the central provider, and Mom has no job that I could make out, and seems to do the majority of the child-rearing and home-and-hearth stuff. And BLEGH. Even the whole speech Riley's mom gave her about how they appreciate how positive she is came with some rather squicky undertones about the womenfolk needing to fall in line with the Man of the House's goals. Amanda Marcotte seems to think the film offers a critique of the gendered expectation that women be the positive emotional support, but I honestly didn't see that in the work itself. While Marcotte's critique is definitely spot-on for a lot of real women and girls' lived experiences, I don't think that in-universe the movie actually criticized or challenged these gender norms, or even understood why this is problematic.

Frankly, I don't believe for a second that the scriptwriters of Inside Out simply flipped a coin as to which parent would be the one starting up the new company. Rather, I find it vastly more likely that those writing the story (mostly men in the key development positions, although half the second-tier story team were women) simply went with the cultural default of the father moving for his work, perhaps not even realizing that this (like everything in the world) represents a political choice. However, even if the choice to have the father be the ambitious one was pure happenstance...

... it still reinforces harmful social norms, all the more so because it is completely unquestioned.

And let's make no mistake, unquestioned social norms in media have huge effects on how people perceive the world, what choices they make, and what they believe is "reasonable." That which we see reflected in fiction affects how we interpret normal in real life. Or, in other words, representation matters. (And no, I don't have any patience for those who claim "it's only a movie!" or "it's just fiction!" Frankly, if humans were immune to obviously-fictionalized portrayals affecting our behavior, the entirety of advertising simply Would. Not. Exist. So before you try that line of argument, please remember that an industry is making $166 billion annually in the US alone off the fact that you're wrong.)

So, when yet another piece of media presents the Man of the House moving for a job opportunity, it doesn't happen in a vacuum. It happens in a culture where women are routinely expected to place a higher value on their family's needs than on their own career advancement, so a woman who wants to move her family for her career is seen as an aberration who is making an unreasonable demand because this situation varies from our unquestioned assumptions about gender dynamics, as reflected to us yet again in Inside Out.

This norm may also affect women's economic potential in indirect ways, with employers assuming women won't accept positions involving relocation and just not offering them in the first place, or employers being reluctant to promote a women in case she leaves the firm should her husband want to relocate for his job. Showing men as the ones who "normally" move for their jobs can also have some pretty major adverse effects for the men who do go along with a wife/girlfriend who has a professional opportunity requiring relocation. What's more, the unquestioned portrayal of the man as the mover and shaker behind a startup has real consequences for unconscious biases regarding who is seen as a legitimate candidate for venture capital funding and thus who becomes successful and influential. Let alone the fact that this story takes place in San Francisco, what with Silicon Valley's well-documented problem with bro culture (yes, every single one of these is a different example).

It is in this setting, it is not enough that Inside Out simply has no overt political message about the gender dynamics of startups and relocation. Tacitly reflecting the dominant norm IS a political message, and a harmful one. Furthermore, what makes it even more frustrating is that NONE of this tacit sexism is even necessary. Literally NOTHING about the main crux of Inside Out's plot would have to change at all if Riley's mother were the one pursuing a career opportunity. It wouldn't even need to be a plot point: she could simply be there as a taken-at-face-value role model for young women, just as much as the current Dad is a taken-at-face-value representative of the status quo. I do acknowledge, however, that if handled clumsily the rest of the movie could read as "look what happens to kids when Mommy neglects them for unwomanly career ambitions!" To prevent that unfortunate implication, the movie could have presented both parents as working on a startup together--all it would take is a teensy little line indicating Mom is the software engineer and Dad is doing marketing and BAM, gender stereotypes upended and positive role models created! It would even become a great example of coequal spouses working together and supporting each other, a dynamic that we see WAAAY too rarely in movies in general. This would also have the advantage of letting the parents' screen time be taken up with jointly fretting over their business venture, which would be a hell of a lot more plausible than some of the inexplicably bad parenting they demonstrate in the movie, which is another topic for my next post...

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