"It's Just a Phase:" Gender Fluidity and Erasure in Pixar's Inside Out

I like Inside Out a lot. It's smart, clever, fun, sad, funny, poignant, therapuetic, and other things, too! It's thematically sharp and narratively compact with an efficient, innovative visual system. It also adds another page to the increasingly complicated conversation Pixar's movies have with gender presentation and representation and studio intent.

So here's how I read the gender subtext of the film: Riley Anderson is a gender fluid character, a person who identifies as both masculine and feminine (and who may identify more as one or the other at any particular time). Gender is performative, and the kinds of gender performance we see in Inside Out are a little topical -- women swooning over buff Brazilian helicopter pilots, men ignoring their families because of sports while working in tech (for that matter, what does Riley's mother do for work? I only assume this is not a single-income household because of the hilarious cost of supporting a family in San Francisco on one income). The same men and women in the film who perform gender "typically" have emotions that are represented by avatars performing exclusively in the same gender: Riley's mother and father, her new teacher, the boy who can't speak because he's so smitten, the bus driver. So this is the framework for gender that the text is offering: The more exclusively masculine or feminine your emotional avatars present themselves, the more typically masculine or feminine you perform. So we have Riley, who has a mix of masculine and feminine emotional avatars, who dresses (presents) neutrally and whose interests and characteristics cycle back and forth regularly between things we think of as typically masculine (hockey, etc.) and typically feminine (unicorns, etc.). None of these things individually, except the composition of her emotional avatars, strongly suggest gender fluidity. Lots of feminine women like hockey and lots of very masculine men like unicorns, just as a starter, but taken altogether in combination with her emotional world, I think the text is highly suggestive -- enough so that I'm comfortable in my feeling that Riley Anderson is a gender fluid character.

This is, I might add, a really cool and important and happy making addition to the world of representation in film.

I love this.

This kind of representation really is important because of the kind pf pervasively toxic intolerance toward non-binary gender that a culture like ours fosters -- the kind of intolerance that manifests on the VERY FIRST PAGE of a simple Google search for "Inside Out gender," which includes a hit for a Reddit thread with the subject "Riley has a gender identity disorder."

A note here on a few things before I talk about some things that complicate the text here: 1) I'm referring to Riley as she because she seems happy with that in the movie, not because I'm ignoring the role pronouns play in gender performance and presentation. This may be a misreading of Riley's preferences on my part, but I have precious little to go on there. 2) Gender fluidity is different from sexuality. I've seen people wondering whether the diversity of genders in Riley's head means that she's bisexual. It's certainly possible that Riley is bisexual, but the text shows us a pretty clear attraction just to boys, so that's what I'll go with in the absence of anything else. 3) Gender fluid is not the same as trans, for what I hope are obvious reasons.

So the tricky, more complicated part, then. Here's how Pixar intended gender fluidity to be read in the film: It's just a phase.

This isn't entirely fair. It's also a narrative convenience. In an interview he did with Cinemablend, director Pete Docter gave some indication of how he and Pixar founder John Lasseter interpret the gender mix in Riley's head, particularly as it contrasts with the gender essentialism we see in her parents'. For Docter, these choices were efficient. Riley's emotions provide balance among the cast, but her parents' emotions provide clarity during complicated scene transitions -- particularly those required during the dinner scene prominently featured in the film's marketing. In Lasseter's words, gender fluidity is a childhood state and gender itself solidifies and becomes essential as we age. For the moment, I'm not interested in Docter's more formally practical implementation of gender, but Lasseter's comments are complicated.

On the one hand, see, I think Lasseter is correct. Chldhood and young adult development are periods of intense change, exploration, and self-discovery as we move toward a more stable adult identity. One of the ways this could manifest is definitely gender. I can clearly remember my own experimentations with presentation (vascillating wildly between different styles of clothing, lengths of hair, speech mannerisms, and so on) and serious explorations of the other key aspects of my identity as it is today, including but not limited to sexuality, race, and religion. These things were fluid in the sense that they appeared to change dramatically as I tried on more and more identities that didn't fit in the search for ones that did.

I also think the text at least attempts to support Lasseter's point of view. There are occasional references throughout the movie to things being "phases," like Riley's pre-adolescent mood swings or her eventual infatuation with boy bands. The idea of the developmental phase is in this way, though less important than some of the others, one of the film's clearly flagged motifs. We also get this visually in different ways, as Riley's core memories and the characteristics associated with them transition from one phase in her life to the next, and as the organizational structure of her emotions enters a new, more cooperative phase at the end, and even in a throwaway joke about the inevitability of puberty.

So if it's easy for me to read Inside Out as representing a gender fluid character, it's just as easy -- and more fully supported by the studio's intent, if not the text itself -- to read Riley as a character whose masculinity is a phase that she will -- and is in fact destined to -- grow out of.

I hate this.

I don't think that it's a stretch to see the "it's a phase" approach to gender fluidity as the same kind of toxic logic that understands any other kind of queer identity (say, homosexuality) as "just a phase," or the kind of thinking that, for instance, would go ahead and assume that Riley's gender identity is a genuine freaking disorder. Because there are gender fluid people who will actually see themselves in Riley who will also be genuinely hurt by the idea that their shared identity is supposed to disappear over time. The way that disappearance is being enforced is called erasure, a way of normalizing one kind of identity by ignoring the existence of any others. Erasure can be literal, like people who send their gay kids to camps to literally erase their homosexuality. It can be micro-aggressive, like what Pixar may be doing here, acknowledging and dismissing the existence of personhood in the same casual breath. It can be pervasive, like how black churches are being targeted right now in a series of organized domestic terrorist attacks while CNN gives us wall to wall coverage of a CVS fire sandwiched between panel discussions of celebrity boobs. Erasure, let's be clear is bad.

So if Pixar is erasing gender fluidity by passing the one potentially gender fluid character in its collection off as just being in a phase, that's bad.

But, to circle back around, I'm not convinced the text actually supports the just a phase reading, studio intent or no. Because what I see in the extended cast is a boy Riley's age who has clearly defined masculine emotional avatars and an older (which is to say late teens, early twenties) employee at a pizza store whose emotional avatars are mixed. That's direct textual evidence that the film itself does not support the idea that children have mixed emotional avatars that somehow sort out their collective genders during puberty.

So. To repeat. I love this.

And I think, to close, that this is one of several entries in a very difficult relationship that Pixar has with representation in general and gender essentialism as a subset of that. Andy plays with toys like a typical boy. Bonnie eventually plays with those same toys like a typical girl would. Scaring in Monster's Inc. is a field dominated by men. The Incredibles depicts the definition of a nuclear family (Helen fricking Parr is a stay-at-home-freaking-mom!). When Eve finds a life growing inside her, she finds herself irresistably programmed to protect it.

Rightly taking criticism for all this, despite how brilliant those films are in other ways, Pixar made Brave, which itself then brilliantly depicted gender as performance (a performance on both sides that could be and was shown to be as effective as it could also be and often was ineffectual), and intelligently subverted a lot of uncomfortable princess tropes that come with the Disney baggage. The text of Brave is largely brilliant -- it does fail to include women widely in its background, but it succeeds in so many other ways. And yet along the way, the studio didn't really know how to deal with this. The production history is murky, but we do know that original director Brenda Chapman was fired mid-production and replaced with Mark Andrews. And, in all frankness, Andrews's commentary track for the film can be downright hard to listen to, and frequently muddies the questions of how much he really understood about gender in the film and how much the film we got actually represents the vision he had. All of this history places Inside Out firmly in the middle of a complicated and ongoing conversation that Pixar has long struggled with regarding gender, representation, erasure, and studio intent.

So at its best, Inside Out is a brilliant and emotionally honest movie that represents a gender fluid person without itself being about gender fluid or queer issues (and representation in films that aren't about representation is important, too). At its worst, it's a brilliant and emotionally honest movie that erases the possibility of gender fluidity within its frames. I don't believe that the correct point of view is that the real answer lies somewhere in the middle. I think, in this case, the real answer is both of those things at the same time, contradicting each other at every step.