I’ll start with Sadness because I felt a lot of resonance there. I read a critique of the film that Sadness’ character “normalizes depression,” but maybe we need a dose of that. We’ve so pathologized life’s grief, sadness and feeling low that we have a whole industry around “treating” the feelings while ignoring what to me are obvious causes of them. We live in a culture where even our friends direct us to professionals (without thinking that having to pay someone to listen to you might just make you feel shittier) or police; the rate of expert deferral is keeping pace with the rate of “mental illness” diagnosis. And in my experience, it’s true that memories that sadness touches don’t “turn back.” It’s not that you can’t heal, it’s that “healing” doesn’t always mean “happy.”
Hidden within the plot is the affirmation to be yourself and, incidentally, why telling people to “snap out of” their depression doesn’t work: fear, anger, disgust can’t be joy. Joy can’t be sadness. Sadness can’t be fear, or joy. Each of those characters played integral roles in saving Riley and each was comically awful at trying to be any other emotion.
Still, the character “Joy” came off as a little manic to me, honestly, probably because being happy all the time is completely impossible, yet it’s what our culture and many of our relationships ask of us. As an interesting thought experiment, I tried to imagine what Riley’s Fear and Anger would be like if they were female (the emotions in her parents’ heads were either all female or all male, respectively). Fear as a female would be instantly diagnosed as having a panic disorder and Anger would be written off as a bitch. If they (God forbid) do a sequel, perhaps they could explore the roles gender plays in shaping emotions – how they’re felt and how they’re perceived. Or, for that matter, how sadness might be felt in the heart, how joy might be felt in the gut, how fear might be felt in the spine, since emotions aren’t just in your head (which is not at all to say they aren’t rational).
Speaking of stereotypes, this movie also heavily relied on and reinforced some entrenched ones that, while imminently relatable, are also very harmful – the out-of-touch, distant dad distracted by sports, the dutiful mom mostly hovering but occasionally taking a break for a two-dimensional fantasy to relieve the pressures of being the only parent paying attention to their kid. While this movie was topographically clever, it wasn’t that inventive. The main character, who’s emotional roller coaster we’re on for the duration of the film, is a girl. In many ways, this further entrenches the trope of the unstable, moody, fantasy-boy crazy – and therefore easily dismissable – girl/woman and, taken together with the way men are portrayed in this film, you get exactly the kind of deadly dichotomy that is fueling sexism and rising rates of despair in America: women are expected to be “emotional” and so not taken seriously and men are emasculated and feminized (because it’s still an insult to be compared to a girl) for being emotional at all. How creative and innovative would it have been had the main character been a boy and we got to explore the emotional world from a young boy’s mind’s point of view?
There are truly funny parts of the film and there are parts that I found myself laughing reflexively at and then regretting it – like the cabana boy the mom fantasizes about, or the unmerited show of force by the dad to “discipline” his clearly suffering daughter. Those are not cases of “it’s funny because it’s true” but rather “it’s funny because we’ve been told it’s true.”
I’ll not dwell too much on my irritation at the happy, fluffy bow at the end of the film, where, though things will never be the same, things are all kittens and moonbeams again. That’s grotesquely overdone but, to be fair, it’s easier to pull off the truer-to-life (read: ambiguous, painful, unresolved) ending in writing as opposed to film so I’ll just leave that there.
Ultimately, though, did we miss how this whole thing was about saving one’s self? Riley was pretty much alone for most of the movie and yet, Joy was consistently able to rally the troops, able to keep the whole thing running, keep dragging Sadness along, until they got back to headquarters. Maybe it’s just me but I don’t relate at all to being able to power my joy for that long on my own and I sure hope people don’t think this is really an accurate representation of how people can get through hard times. We need each other; when we’re young, we need our parents, when we’re older, we need our friends, spouses and communities. We cannot, no matter what America or any clever movie it produces says, do this war called life on our own, no matter how strong our joy may be.