This essay originally appeared on TYCI as part of my Girls on Film series.
There’s a reason this column is named girls and not women, and it’s not because infantilisation is so in right now. It’s because, rightly or wrongly, ‘girls’ is probably the broadest term we have that covers the whole age spectrum of people identifying as or being identified as female. (Except, I suppose, “females” as a noun, but that noun also includes cats and giraffes and spiders, and the representation of animals is a topic for a whole other column.) This month I’m going to look at girls in the most accurate sense of the word, in two animated films about female childhood.
Inside Out is the latest acclaimed entry into the Pixar canon, telling the story of 11-year-old Riley and the emotions that rule her. I’m going to look at it alongside a slightly more obscure release from this year, an Irish film called Song of the Sea. They’re not necessarily the most obvious pair for comparison – Inside Out is a typically modern Pixar affair, all cutting-edge 3D animation and contemporary American reference points, while Song of the Sea is a hand-drawn story rooted in traditional Celtic mythologies. But both stories are all about emotional suppression and its consequences, and both feature an interesting mish-mash of gender politics that invests girls with a certain degree of power while also enacting some tired tropes about the gulf between masculine and feminine.
Inside Out is only the second Pixar film ever to feature a female lead (and the first where she isn’t a princess), and a film where the focal point is literally the inside of a young girl’s head makes a welcome change. As others have pointed out, one of the main pressures little girls are put under (before they’re old enough to face the intensely contradictory and multifold pressures that come with female puberty) is the pressure to be happy, cheerful, smiling, and always pleasantly agreeable to the adults around them. “Where’s my happy girl?” asks dad in Inside Out, and mum provides backup: “your dad’s under a lot of pressure, but if you and I can keep smiling, it’d be a big help. We can do that for him, right?” Men deal with the pressure of careers and businesses and investments and the other practicalities of real life; the most important support women and girls can offer, these lines suggest, is to keep a smiling, soothing face for them. It’s not the most encouraging message. But the film is about how sometimes, it’s okay not to keep smiling; about how giddy, bossy Joy cannot always be enough to hold a person together. In the trajectory to adulthood, emotional states become intermingled and memories distorted, and sadness cannot and should not always be shut out and hidden away.
Song of the Sea features a similar allegory of emotional suppression. The central villain of the piece is Macha, an old witch who sucks feelings out of people and turns them to stone. But we learn that, much like Joy in Inside Out, she was first driven not by cruelty but by a desperation to defeat sadness, to insulate people from the bad feelings that she sees consuming them and “take away the pain”. This caregiving impulse has always been associated with femininity: by trying to take away people’s sadness, both Joy and Macha are performing a kind of emotional labour that is considered women’s work. At the same time, though, women have also been associated with emotional excess, supposedly unable to control their own rampant feelings, and both characters can be seen as trying to exert control over emotions as a defiant form of power – Joy clings to her status as the boss of the emotional headquarters, while Macha turns more and more vicious, sending out her owls to turn people to stone and hoarding their feelings in jars. But the witch has also become dependent upon her own powers: each time fury or frustration threatens to overwhelm her she drains her emotion into a jar, to the point where half her own body has turned to stone.
Unlike Inside Out, Song of the Sea revolves not around a girl but a brother-sister pair, Ben and his sister Saoirse who, as we cut to the year of her 6th birthday, has yet to utter a single word. The main mythological source for the film is the Celtic story of the selkie, a seal-like creature that sheds its skin on land to take human form. Saoirse, like her mother before her, is a selkie, and only her voice can release all the creatures that have been turned to stone. But to sing she needs her selkie skin, and under Ben’s leadership the pair travel from the city back to their remote island home to retrieve it. This is a story, then, in which a little girl is the most precious and powerful of things, but who – until the final 15 minutes – never speaks. Never mind getting a look inside her head: for most of the film, we don’t even get the faintest suggestion of what might be on her mind. Saoirse is defined by her importance and by her frailness; she is the key to freedom and the thing that must be protected, while her brother is the one who does, who protects, who goes through an emotionally transformative journey.
It is an old woman who turns the creatures of the mythological world to stone and a young girl who sets them free: in this sense, perhaps, the feminine is the centre of power in Song of the Sea. But in the tropes of mythic storytelling, the feminine has always been assigned a particular place in the networks of power and agency. Women and girls can exercise power at the level of the imaginative, the supernatural, the poetic, but all this at the expense of more mundane kinds of agency, like control over their own human life or the ability to speak as an independent person. The film’s climactic scene is a dramatic image of Saoirse finding her voice; but it’s significant that she finds her voice in song, not speech. She sings music that has existed for a long time before her and that seems, in some sense, to pass through her (the female musical voice, in fact, has always been constructed first and foremost as an instrument rather than a player). And it is Ben who must teach her the song in the first place, coaxing it out of her before she fades to quiet nothingness.
Both films, though ostensibly about children, are revealing too in their depiction of the adult relationships that structure children’s lives, and the gendered assumptions they contain. In Inside Out, Riley’s emotional avatars are of mixed gender: Joy, Sadness and Disgust are depicted and voiced as female, while Anger and Fear read as male. (There’s something interesting about those choices in themselves: in this age of panic over the “crisis of masculinity”, anger and fear might well be regarded as interdependent modes of response to the loss of patriarchal power.) But when we enter the heads of mum and dad, something odd happens: the emotional headquarters of adults, it turns out, are segregated single-sex spaces. Mum’s emotions are women, each bespectacled and brown-haired like her. They work calmly and cooperatively, and roll their eyes in long-suffering despair at dad’s emotional disconnection, which is framed as axiomatically masculine. When we cut to dad’s head, his all-male emotions are too preoccupied with sports to be fully present in family life. Eventually catching onto his wife’s pointed look, they panic: “What did she say?” “No-one was listening!” “Is it garbage night? We left the toilet seat up! What? What is it, woman?!”
It’s pretty banal domestic humour, the kind of thing that belongs in an advert for cleaning products or a bad stand-up set, and the scene sits uncomfortably with the rest of the film’s take on the complexity of human personality. Riley’s story insists that a young girl can contain the sardonic teenage femininity enacted by Disgust and the square-jawed, shouty masculinity of Anger, as well as all the other emotions that exist in between, bickering and often at odds with one another. But adult women, it seems to say, can only contain mumsy miniatures of themselves, caricatures of the sighing, sensible, maternal person that wives and mothers are expected to be. Adult men, meanwhile, function like military units, complete with a commanding officer addressed by his subordinates as “Sir”, a DEFCON alert and a “fire” command that triggers dad “putting the foot down” – because while mums coax and sympathise and collaborate, dads are there to exercise an authority that is directly, if unintentionally, equated with armed violence.
It’s unclear whether mum and dad have always just been more pure in their gendered conformity – Riley, after all, is growing up in an era that offers a certain degree more freedom to exist as a cocktail of masculine and feminine qualities, where girls can like pretty dresses and playing hockey – or whether, when someone pushes that big red ‘puberty’ button, the emotions will go through some kind of sexual metamorphosis that quashes any trace of gender deviance and initiates a new era of pure, uncomplicated femaleness.
The parental relationship in Song of the Sea is slightly more complex, though it still plays into certain tropes of marital relations. We’re no longer in the realm of bad stand-up, but instead the equally vast realm of traditional folk tales about doomed marriages. Selkie myths are old stories, and they have always been particularly entangled with anxieties about marriage and family. A selkie, the story often goes, seduces or falls in love with a human being; a child is born, but the selkie, sooner or later, returns to the sea. Aside from some of the intriguing anthropological explanations for the roots of such myths, their symbolic content seems to spring from some of the fears that underpin human experiences of love and family and domesticity: the fear of abandonment, of the loved one leaving or being snatched away, of being left holding the child. And they are also, perhaps, about the fear of distance that haunts all human interactions and romantic relationships most of all: the terror of another person being so unknowable that they might be, quite literally, another species. That notion of being ‘another species’, of course, has been one of the most enduring tropes of the romantic self-help industry and of gendered representation more generally. Selkie myths, it could be argued, are partly about the conviction that men and women are so fundamentally different that they can never really know each other.
In the first scenes of Song of the Sea, the mother clutches a heavily pregnant stomach and groans in gestures that suggest, when she vanishes from the narrative, the obvious explanation of death in childbirth. This, indeed, is the default explanation for any absent mother: the act of fleeing has generally been the reserve of men, and fathers tend only to be left holding the baby after the tragedy of death, as opposed to the more mundane everyday desertions that mothers have always endured. Selkie or not, mothers in general have always had a curiously mythic function, as the most imaginatively significant figure in all of our origin stories and psychological dramas and narratives of personhood. The mother is imagined to be the pillar at the centre of the familial house, the glue that holds the family together, the matriarch of the home (even while that home exists in a patriarchal world), the one who births and raises men (even while, for most of history, she has no material rights over her own children). The absent mother, then, provokes a different kind of family structure, one that revolves around the space she has left behind. In Song of the Sea, the father’s mourning renders him passive and withdrawn, and his own overbearing mother steps in and takes ownership of the family. She closely resembles the witch Macha, echoing her refrain of “I know what’s best for you” and enforcing a similar emotional regulation, unable to accept her son’s mourning or the children’s attachment to their home.
The grandmother stakes her claim to the children on the basis of concern for their safety, and there’s a strong whiff of the old trope that men are simply incapable of childrearing and caregiving by themselves. Much like the suggestion in Inside Out that men are domestically useless, leaving up the toilet seat and clumsily bumbling through interactions with their children, it can sometimes be an alluring trope – after all, it’s not often that women are culturally seen as the more capable ones, which is probably why we still so often hear women joking about men’s inability to clean properly or describing dads as ‘babysitting’. But it leads down all sorts of dangerous paths towards natural roles and unacknowledged labour where women always lose out. Inside Out and Song of the Sea are both films that handle human emotions deftly and approach mental health with tact and intelligence, but taken together they’re also a reminder that, from the shores of old Irish mythology to the kitchens of contemporary San Francisco, family relationships (at least those of the traditional heterosexual marriage-and-kids variety) remain constrained by old assumptions about what women’s and men’s minds look like.