Pixar’s Inside Out and the Literature of Interiority

A look at portrayals of the mind in film & literature

“Do you ever look at somebody and wonder, what is going on inside their head?” the first line of Pixar’s celebrated film from 2015, Inside Out, asks. Certainly, this is a question that many of the studio’s films pose. Pixar’s best work, after all, like much of the best literature, explores both the inner and outer worlds of its characters, resisting the urge — more common in non-Pixar Disney movies — to reduce its characters into one-dimensional heroes and villains.

In Inside Out, the emotions of a young American girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) become personified into separate, distinct characters — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger (played respectively by Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, and Lewis Black) — who literally navigate the evolving landscapes of Riley’s mind. The film garnered substantial critical acclaim on its release and inspired a number of essays on both the neuroscientific and philosophical implications of its depiction of how our emotions work. I fell in love with the film myself as it began, when composer Michael Giacchino’s gorgeous opening, “Bundle of Joy,” began to play. Relatively few critics, however, have dealt with the books behind the kind of imagery we see in the film, specifically with the long, rich history in literature of portraying interior worlds — and how those may differ or relate to Inside Out’s vision of the mind.

The personified emotions in ‘Inside Out’

For some critics, there is a key difference between literature and film: the former can easily show the inner worlds of a character — their version of Inside Out — while the latter can’t quite get inside a character’s head, constrained as they are by the camera’s external gaze. A.O. Scott, in his review of Inside Out for the New York Times, indeed begins with this idea: “Literature, the thinking goes, is uniquely able to show us the flow of thought and feeling from within, but the camera’s eye and the two-dimensional screen can’t take us past the external signs of consciousness.”

Yet some films do manage to show us how a character thinks, and perhaps the better way to conceptualize this is in terms of how movies may do so. Federico Fellini’s 1965 film, Juliet of the Spirits, a beautifully surreal rendering of the protagonist Juliet’s mind, accomplishes this by altering the landscape of the movie to outwardly represent her dreamlike visions and thoughts. In Ma Vie en Rose (1997), a painful piece about a child named Ludovic trying to deal with gender dysphoria, director Alain Berliner relies on brighter color tones to signify happier times, and bluer tones to suggest how Ludovic’s mood darkens as her parents try to force her to be the boy they think she is. The anime film Paprika (2006) introduces hallucinatory settings which evolve to represent the dreams of its characters.

Top: Stills from ‘Ma Vie en Rose’ (1997). Bottom: Scenes from ‘Paprika’ (2006)

Sublime and shifting as its landscapes may be, Inside Out’s approach is still rather more conservative, in that the conceit it uses to show interiority is easy to follow and never feels random or disorganized. Although Riley’s train of thought goes, as the character Bing-Bong suggests, “all over the place,” it is represented by a literal locomotive confined to a track. By contrast, although there is organization in the depiction of internal thoughts in the work of a writer like James Joyce, the result feels less organized, more fractured — and, perhaps because of this, more accurate. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake reveal a disquieting truth: the way our trains of thought leap unceremoniously from one track to another, whether we want them to or not.

The map to the mind in ‘Inside Out’

What does it mean to show a mind? How should one capture a mind, its hallways with their shadows and lamps, the galleries, the attic we push so many crates and catastrophes into, the basement we fear to step too deeply down in on certain nights of the soul, the insides and outsides too vast for this creaky metaphor of a mind as mansion, of brain as abode? Both film and literature must translate from a highly complex, dense internal language of neurons and synapses to one with half or less of the words, and some things will be lost as they do. Depicting interiority is never lossless. But once we acknowledge this, we can anticipate it better in our art. The art of depicting the human mind, in more ways than one, is the art of learning to lessen loss, and of learning that supremely important of life lessons, broadly applied: how to gain, even when we lose.

For a transgender person like me, interiority can feel both essential and accursed. How I see myself — how everyone sees themselves — is based on internal identification: I am this, I like this, I see myself like this. We have mental mirrors, which show us ourselves, show us identity aspects we already largely just know even before looking into said mirror: our sexual orientation, our likes and dislikes in the things we’ve experienced, and, of course, our sense of gender.

How we depict interiority can be political. There is a long history of portraying certain classes or groups of people as being less capable of thinking deeply, less capable of nuance, than others. I deeply admire James Baldwin’s seminal novel of queer experience, Giovanni’s Room; all the same, I still remember how I cringed reading the inner thoughts of the narrator when he came across people who may have been transgender women (they were described as presenting as women, calling each other by female pronouns) and reacted to them with revulsion. Their “utter grotesqueness made me uneasy,” he reflects, “perhaps in the same way that the sight of monkeys eating their own excrement turns some people’s stomachs. They might not mind so much,” he adds in a sentence that could have come out of Heart of Darkness, “if monkeys did not — so grotesquely — resemble human beings.” The “grotesque” characters are given little chance to exist in the novel beyond this. Sometimes, the books we love hurt us, too.

For cisgender people, there is usually little need to translate at least the gendered aspect of how we see ourselves for the sake of the outside world. But for many binary and non-binary trans people, that need exists: we often want to bring who we see ourselves as on the inside to the outside, so others can see us for who we are, too. I always saw myself as female because when I thought of myself, that was simply who I was. It was counterintuitive to consistently not be addressed as, or told I was not, a girl. People sometimes mistakenly think someone “decides” they are transgender because of their preference for the types of things stereotypically associated with one gender: the colors they are drawn to, the toys they play with, or other such nonsense. No — we see ourselves consistently as a gender in the same way any cisgender person does, even if for some of us our sense is that we don’t feel categorically like one thing or the other. The reaction of incomprehension and bewilderment to this fact by some cis people is a failure of imagination and empathy — a failure to look beyond external presentation to accept the possibility of another interiority. And as joyful as it can feel to be oneself, sadness follows close behind; whenever someone tells me I cannot be a woman simply because of my birth, it hurts, like seeing, suddenly, that the bridge of myself I have been walking along leads to Nowhere.

From the beginning of Inside Out, the characters of Joy and Sadness are connected in subtle ways. Joy’s hair is blue, like Sadness’ skin, and Sadness is the first emotion to appear besides Joy. Joy matures after she learns to accept the wisdom Sadness has to offer, and Sadness, too, learns from Joy. Emotions are permeable and interdependent, not separate; joy and sadness only work when they work together, like facing mirrors, leading back to one another. They are sister sentiments. And they equally have a function in making Riley whole; Sadness, after all, saves her in the end.

One of the small, silly reasons I loved Inside Out: Joy was a woman for Riley from the very start, just as joy was for me — and then came sadness, for a long set of blue years.

But I might never have come out at all, if not for the weight of all that blue.

There is a long history of the literature of interiority — literature that examines or attempts to depict the mind of a character. All literature, to some degree, arguably does this, but some texts make it far more of a focus. Perhaps the most overt examples of literary interiority appear in the twentieth century in connection with Modernism: Surrealism, which aimed to depict the inner life of dreaming, the subconscious, and the irrational; and the technique of stream of consciousness, which attempts to depict the unfiltered thought processes occurring within a character’s mind. Given Surrealism’s connection to the visual through its depiction of dreams, Surrealist literature is often less well-known than Surrealist paintings, sculptures, or film — even as each tries, with the unique qualities of its medium, to portray an oneiric illogicality. Literature which echoes this sense of the dreamlike, like Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye, seems disorienting to read, yet that is precisely because it is a subtle, cinematic form of literary interiority capturing the feeling of dreaming and hallucinating.

The term “stream of consciousness” was coined in 1890 by William James — brother of Henry — in The Principles of Psychology. For William, consciousness was fluid, not able to be “chopped up in bits,” but rather more like “a river or stream.” In 1918, May Sinclair first applied the term “stream of consciousness” directly to a work of literature in a review of Dorothy Richardson’s novel Pointed Roofs, thus cementing the term as a reference to the device so many psychological novels would later use (though Richardson herself in fact detested the term). Writing that relies on stream of consciousness — like work by William Faulkner, José Saramago, Keri Hulme, Gabriel García Márquez, and Marcel Proust — often does show consciousness more faithfully than conventional prose.

But attempting to depict the interior life of characters, of course, dates back long before Sinclair and James. A distinctive early example of interiority comes from the Heian-era Japanese writer Sei Shōnagon, lady-in-waiting to the Empress Teishi, whose observational miscellany, The Pillow Book, was completed in the eleventh century. The book is eclectic and diverse, leaping from prose scenes to detailed descriptions to quips to lists, which sometimes resemble listicles. With such blunt and wonderful section titles as “Hateful Things,” “Elegant Things,” “Things That Should Be Short,” and “It is So Stiflingly Hot,” The Pillow Book offers a series of windows into the author’s mind. In “Hateful Things,” for instance, Shōnagon shares the following infuriating memories, and their terseness reveals much about her:

A flight of crows circles about with loud caws.

An admirer has come on a clandestine visit, but a dog catches sight of him and starts barking. One feels like killing the beast.

One has been foolish enough to invite a man to spend the night in an unsuitable place — and then he starts snoring.

Nonfiction does not always show us the writer’s mind. Perhaps surprisingly and unsurprisingly, fiction, which creates people, seems more often to directly depict how someone thinks. But Shōnagon does just this. Scattered and seemingly random, the patchwork lists and impressions of The Pillow Book capture the brain better than any orderly document could.

Like Shōnagon, but more focused on narrative, much of Virginia Woolf’s work attempted to capture that strange, protean element of the human mind: sometimes fluid, sometimes like a mist, now solid as something is brought into sharp focus. This is clear in those novels of hers which rove between minds and perceptions, as in Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves, and To the Lighthouse. But the clearest example may be one of her shortest pieces, a story from 1925 called “The Mark on the Wall.” Virtually the entire story is a narrator’s meditation upon the identity of a distant mark on the wall, though each thought pulls further and further away from the mark itself. “How readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object,” the narrator thinks early on in the story, “lifting it a little way, as ants carry a blade of straw so feverishly, and then leave it by the end.” Near the end another character appears and abruptly reveals that the mark is most likely a snail, leaving Woolf’s narrator disappointed at having the source of their interior rumination reduced to something so prosaic.

In “A Sketch of the Past,” an essay posthumously published by her husband, Woolf further delineates the ways in which our inner and exterior worlds connect. She describes feeling “shocks” while engaged in mundane things, during which she will suddenly have a great epiphany. This phenomenon she ultimately calls a “philosophy”:

“at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself … I see this when I have a shock.”

Much literature that captures human experience thoroughly and well contends with this idea of sudden, unbidden thoughts. Such thoughts may reveal our desires — or, even, the things we do not want but inexplicably still think up. In Patricia Highsmith’s seminal novel of lesbian love, The Price of Salt, the character Therese — who has fallen in love with a striking, regal woman named Carol — has a sudden extraordinary thought as she is being driven for the first time to Carol’s home: as they motor through a tunnel, Therese imagines the ceiling caving in on the car, crushing everything.

Still from Todd Haynes’ ‘Carol’ (2015), adapted from ‘The Price of Salt’

It is something one might desire and not desire all at once, the type of contradictory yet comprehensible thought so many of us have likely experienced. Therese, after all, is afraid of losing Carol. And so at the height of their bliss she imagines something that on the one hand would leave them suspended in it forever, while it would on the other see that bliss snuffed out.

This is the dark side of interiority: that our happiest memories can shift so easily, sometimes, into our nightmares.

In Inside Out, memories are stored in marble-like balls, each depicting a clear-cut scene from Riley’s life. Each of her memory balls, too, bears the color of one or more of the core emotions.

Still from ‘Inside Out’

So often we depict memories like this: as discrete scenes. Yet to me memories more often feel like glimpses, fluid snapshots. My first kiss, with a woman, under a guinep-orange evening; my first kiss, living as a woman, a sea away; my first kiss with a man, atop the blue-and-saffron cover of my bed, in the reptilian heat of an afternoon; a cluster of bamboos juddering against one another like bones, in a field of yellowing razor grass near my former home in Dominica; a languid Sunday, reggae from a past decade carrying on the wind across the valley from the speaker inside a distant house; blowing into bamboo cannons and their burst as they fire into the December night, alongside the excited laughs of me and my cousins, my aunt and uncle; a vast sea turtle hidden inside a crevice, the world filled with the drone of my own breath through scuba gear, bubbles floating up like little jellyfish.

Memories — like emotions — are permeable. They can change. And one ingenious aspect of Pixar’s film is to show how Riley’s happy memories can become sad, and vice versa. Perhaps this, too, is key to interiority: that as our memories change, so too do we.

Inside Out leaves us with some unresolved curiosities. It revels in the pathetic fallacy, a term coined by John Ruskin, referring to the phenomenon of ascribing human emotions to non-human entities or objects. While not necessarily a bad thing, anthropomorphizing emotions may not be the most accurate way to describe them. The embodied emotions residing in Riley’s head, like those of the pizza waitress in the end credits, are all mixed in terms of gender, and yet those of her parents and teacher are shown to be uniformly gendered. Is this a commentary on how gender expression is sometimes more fluid in children, or are some of the characters genderqueer? The movie never clarifies this. How do each of the emotions think? And, by showing Riley’s emotions having agency, it begs the question of whether Riley actually has free will, if she is in fact being controlled by her emotions. Like a kind of giant robot, she is literally steered — the word her emotions use — by a control panel inside her head, and the language of the film (“core memory,” “memory dump,” Joy asking “who is in charge of programming” during Riley’s surreal nightmares) merely reinforces this.

All the same, Inside Out is as much about what it shows as what it suggests. “What could happen?” Joy asks in the film’s final line, as Riley approaches the cusp of puberty — indicated by a mysterious button that reads “PUBERTY” on the control panel inside her mind. It’s a jokey line, but it also reveals what the greatest writers of interiority know: sometimes, the best way to reveal a mind is by leaving something unsaid — to let its resonances collect in the spaces of silence.

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