By Eric Peterson, Senior Consultant

This week, Pixar is releasing a new movie called “Inside Out.”  The story is about an 11-year old girl moving from the Midwest to San Francisco and the emotional rollercoaster that it brings to a child. Most of the movie takes place in “Headquarters” or her brain and focuses on her emotions.  They are, from left to right: Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear, and Sadness.

Inside OutThe truth is, I probably didn’t need to tell you which character was which emotion. If you’re looking for anger, of course you are going to pick the short red dude with the flat head and if you are looking for fear, the rail-thin, bowtie-clad, sweater-vest-wearing purple guy who is biting his nails is probably a safe bet.

The first time I saw this photo I was in a way, delighted. This group looks like an ensemble that naturally sees their world in very different ways, which will inevitably lead to conflict, and therefore will hopefully lead to laughter from audiences of all ages. However, upon closer inspection, I noticed something else: Our inherent bias about emotions is perfectly personified.

1. Anger, is the shortest of the five characters. Did you know that taller people are routinely paid more than shorter people? According to the Universities of Florida and North Carolina, one inch of height is worth approximately $789 per year (T.A. Judge, D.M. Cable, Journal of Applied Psychology, 2004). So it is entirely possible that Anger is pissed off because he’s getting paid less than the other emotions. More likely, it speaks to the “Napoleon Complex” we often assign to short men, almost like an expectation. It also strikes me that Anger is male, even though these are a girl’s emotions. Is Anger a man because the artists want us to, at some level, like all of these characters? And is it just easier to empathize with an angry male than an angry female?

2. Fear is also male, but an unrealistically thin male, the opposite of a stereotypical “manly man” who would, of course, be brawny and stand with excellent posture. He is dressed like a prototype nerd, which begs the question, why not a girl nerd? Is Fear male because girls aren’t stereotypically bookish, or because the opposite of a girl nerd is “pretty” as opposed to “strong”?

3.  Joy is clearly white. True, the other emotions sport skin colors that do not really exist in nature, but it is telling that the emotion with the most positive aspect was given lily-white skin. Also worth noting is that Joy is the tallest and while she and Disgust could both be described as “pretty,” it seems that Joy pulls this off with much less effort. Disgust’s dress, coiffure, eyelashes, and cute shoes all indicate someone who monitors her appearance in a way that Joy does not. And yet, she is probably the least stereotypical character in the bunch; I would have predicted Disgust to be a moody type who wears a lot of black, sports poor posture and chain-smokes. Then again, this is a movie for kids.

4. Finally, Sadness is a bespectacled overweight girl, in a bulky, shapeless sweater. And we don’t really need to be told what to think about a fat girl, do we? You cannot even pass through a grocery line without seeing tabloids that advertise “Best and Worst Beach Bodies,” and you do not need to look at any of the pictures to have a real sense of what “Best” and “Worst” looks like. And here we have a cartoon, presenting an audience of young children with an image of exactly what Sadness looks like, and we wonder why girls in America are developing eating disorders by the time they are six years old?

I understand why these characters were designed this way – at least I think I do. It is easy for the artists, as well as the audience, because it is expedient. I assume there is  a lot of plot that  the filmmakers wanted to cram in there  and any way to give your audience an easy-to-understand shortcut may be a welcome strategy. But I wonder what effect it would have had on a young audience by showing them a woman who can be angry, a muscleman who is scared (for no other reason than just being scared), a thin girl who feels sadness (because that’s been known to happen), and a shorter, rounder girl who epitomizes Joy? Would it have hurt anyone? Could it have helped?