Click to see full image. Characters Copyright Disney/Pixar 2015

In the past 9 days I've seen Disney/Pixar's newest effort, Inside Out twice. Happily, I can report that it was well worth seeing both times. The film's scale (personal, intimate and empathetic outside of Riley's head, and rather catastrophic within) yield some of Pixar's most emotionally accomplished moments since Toy Story 3. I found the film's discussion about understanding and embracing each and every emotion that you feel, and really understanding the necessity of sadness to be a compelling discussion to spur in the realm of children's media.Riley is treated respectfully as an ordinary 11 year old girl, and the audience is able to relate to her struggles as she moves because she's convincing, which is certainly wonderful to see. It also stood as a welcome return to form for Pixar in my view. 

Despite it's universal themes and easy to relate to heart, I left the film both times feeling frustrated. The obvious, minor gripes aren't the ones that kept me feeling this way, as a dinner scene that plays with the minds of both parents plays out as a bit predictable, and the drawing out of the tears in one particular story beat is as manipulative as it is effective. Riding home with my friends through a tornado (seriously), I articulated my frustration with the film; we're seeing what I feel is the most universal story told by Pixar thus far, and yet the core family are not people of color.

For many, this won't seem like a big deal, since the film is so successful on many fronts. Understand, I really did like the film a lot, but given that most of Pixar's human protagonists are white save for Russel in Up and Boo in Monsters Inc. and many are voiced by white actors, this film felt like a rather critical missed opportunity for Pixar to be 'pioneering' in more ways than one. This realization was only heightened by the fleeting, but numerous glimpses at people of color that we see in the film between Riley's classmates and her teacher at the school, but it ends up having a strange effect of the people of color present in most of Pixar's films feeling like wallpaper in a primarily white world. 

So, it makes me wonder, would it really have hurt the film to make the family at it's core people of color? In the case of (my favorite) Disney film, Lilo and Stitch, the focus on a Hawaiian family repairing itself is remarkably refreshing without being tokenizing, and the film has yielded as much capital for Disney as a business as it has acclaim as a creative venture. As we drove through that tornado, a friend of mine said that it would be a huge risk for Pixar to take, and that if it failed, Disney would bite down and reel in. While that isn't unfathomable, it's really sad that a change of ethnicity in the main characters with the same script would be such a risk, or that I could be seen as a huge risk by proxy from a studio with as much sway over the visibility of animation in America as Pixar. 

Additionally, doing so would be a strong move for big studios making inclusive media. From the time that we're small, children of color, especially girls and women of color are pigeonholed into roles by the media that we're given and consume. Whether the people who make it realize or not, they do reinforce the way that we ourselves look at our existence, what we can accomplish and whether we are even 'able' to tell certain kinds of stories or do certain things. It also paints Eurocentricity as the default rather than an option, and reinforces the exoticizing of anything that does not fit the white template that our stories have largely accepted as the 'default' experience. Finally, in a subtle and I'm sure in many ways not exactly intentional way in regards to Pixar, it's reductive. On the flipside, asking us to really empathize with a cast of characters that isn't white could easily start many young viewers on the path to actually be able to do that in their day to day lives, and not assume that there is a 'default' color in terms of our entertainment.

There is nothing that would've changed about the story or film's structure with people of color, but it would have meant a lot to make that decision for so many viewers to be seen by the creators that we're supporting, a good number of which are (I assume and hope) people of color themselves. Part of this makes me wonder as a viewer about how many involved in the initial planning of a film from a Pixar or Dreamworks or Laika or Disney are people of color with the sway to ask "why are we defaulting to white?" in this kind of circumstance. Another part makes me wonder why I and other people of color are a risky demographic to portray and represent in a Pixar film. Yet another makes me worried that unconscious bias with critics and viewers would have engaged with the film differently if the family were people of color, which is a shame. 

Inside Out is well worth watching, but for me, Pixar is plenty brilliant, but not brave enough, and seeing this film was a jarring reminder that seeing someone who looks like me, or more generally doesn't look blonde, blue eyed and pale in this kind of story is seen as 'brave' or 'risky' at all, rather than 'viable' or 'interesting'.

 

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