Inside Out: The Adventure of Life and Complex Emotions (With Discussion Questions)

inside-out-anger-smoresEarlier this week, I took my little sister to see Inside Out, a film I had been eagerly anticipating since the first news came out about its production. This is the third time this year that I’ve shown Marissa a movie that made her cry, but it’s probably the first time that the tears stemmed from something that directly applied to her daily life and sense of self. (For the record, the other two movies were Selma and Jurassic Park.)

Inside Out follows the emotions inside the head of Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven year-old girl who is coping with a move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Although her parents ask her to stay strong and be their happy girl, Riley has complicated emotions about the situation. Specifically, Joy (Amy Poehler) is trying her best to keep Riley upbeat, while Sadness (Phyllis Smith) keeps touching Riley’s memories, making her blue. Meanwhile, Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (HRH Mindy Kaling) have a lot to say about San Francisco in general.

Inside Riley’s head, there are core memories that support “islands” of her personality, such as Hockey Island, Family Island, Honesty Island, and Friendship Island. These core memories are at the heart of who Riley is. While trying to keep Sadness from touching the core memories (after Riley cries in school, creating a core memory that was not controlled by Joy), Joy accidentally gets the memories, Sadness, and herself sent to Long Term Memory. She must get back to the control center and restore the memories or else Riley won’t be herself, or happy, again.

Be the Happy Girl

Not discounting that gorgeous opening sequence from UpInside Out may be Pixar’s smartest, most mature film yet. What I especially appreciate is the way the narrative actually focuses on a fairly common experience–a big move–and makes it an epic journey by following Riley’s emotions. At its heart, the film is about a girl navigating complicated feelings. There’s a lot that someone could do here with Affect Theory and the way this story presents and anthropomorphizes emotion. Additionally, the narrative touches, lightly but significantly, on the pressure that is put on particular emotions over others. Riley is asked by her mother to be her happy girl, in an attempt to help Riley’s father not be so stressed about his new job. On one hand, this emphasis on happiness in the face of change is pretty common in both parenting and contemporary culture, in which good thoughts and a good attitude are supposed to overcome all obstacles. On the other hand, there is a gendered nuance to the expectation for Riley to be happy and joyful, even when the move has taken away her favorite places and people.

Sadness and Joy

But, importantly, these expectations about the value of Joy over Sadness set the stage for Joy to see the value in Sadness. Sadness is able to comfort people by hearing them out or by drawing those who love them close. Sadness has important insights. And, as it turns out, Sadness is often close to Joy’s favorite memories. Joy and Sadness are the team at the heart of the action and as Joy learns to see Sadness as valuable, it becomes clear that Sadness was not messing up by turning Riley’s memories sad, she was an important part of the moving process. By preventing Riley from feeling sad, Joy just left her stuck with Anger, Fear, and Disgust, unable to cope with what she was feeling or to lean on her parents. The action and the metaphor work beautifully together. It’s a fairly nuanced lesson about emotions that I think opens a door for talking about mental and emotional health, balance, honesty, and coping mechanisms. (See more below)

On a personal note, I am a Midwestern girl about a month away from moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. I have my own mixed emotions and this movie just made me weep openly in a way that was cathartic and helpful and pleasing.

The Upgraded Controls

So, once the conflict of the film is resolved, Riley’s feelings get an upgraded control panel that allows them to work together. She can experience more than one emotion at once and her memories reflect that. The process of opening up about her sadness and allowing it to affect her joy enables Riley to mature and be joyful again. I thought that was a pretty realistic way of closing the film. There can’t be much real resolution, given that Riley is only 12 (“What could happen?”), but it sets the stage for Riley’s emotions to continue to evolve and for adults and kids to think about their own “control panels.”

Discussion Questions for Kids (And Other Movie Buddies)

I think one of the best parts about Inside Out is how it creates a space for talking about emotions and how we understand and react to them. Possibly because the action of the film is so minimal on Riley’s part, it could be easy for kids and other viewers to insert themselves into Riley’s position, or to think about what might be going on inside their own heads in experiences in which they have mixed emotions. Here are some possible discussion questions for after viewing the film, some of which were asked of me by my little sister:

  1. Disney-Pixar-Inside-OutWhy do you think Joy and Sadness were the first two emotions?
  2. Which emotions do you think most control how you react to things?
  3. What is disgust? Describe a time when you felt disgusted.
  4. What are you most afraid of? How might Fear react to your nightmares?
  5. What makes you angry? Why?
  6. Describe a time when you had mixed emotions. Can you imagine what the conversation between those emotions would be?
  7. Was if fair for Riley’s mom to ask her to be happy for her dad?
  8. What are the islands of your personality? What are some core memories that you think shaped who you are?
  9. Do you have a memory that used to be happy, but now you feel sad about? Why? How do our feelings about events change over time?
  10. Do you think people like some emotions more than others? What does that tell us about how people expect us to behave? Is it okay to act differently?
  11. Is there a time in which you expressed emotions and were embarrassed by them? Why were you embarrassed? Is it okay to be vulnerable?
  12. What was your favorite part of Riley’s brain? Why?
  13. How did the different parts of the brain work together to create Riley’s experience of the world?
  14. What are some moments in the film in which feelings lead to conflict? How might the conflict have been avoided or resolved?
  15. How does Riley grow at the end of the film? How does Joy grow? What about Mom and Dad?
  16. Is there a reason for the gendering of certain emotions? (Why are Joy, Sadness, and Disgust female and Anger and Fear male?) Are there stereotypes present in the film’s depiction of emotion?
  17. Do you have any questions about emotions, how to express them, or how to cope with them?

Like Orange is the New Black? Check out these Documentaries

crime after crimeToday the third season of Orange is the New Black debuts on Netflix. Although my affection for the hit series is waning, it does important work bringing the experiences of incarcerated women, women of color, poor women, and LBGTQ women onto the radar of a large audience. In some research I’ve been doing, I’ve been watching many documentary films and shows that deal with the criminal justice system. Here are some shows and films you might enjoy if you like Orange is the New Black or want to know more about the experiences of people in prison.

Crime After CrimeThis documentary focuses on the work of two lawyers to help free Debbie, a woman in prison for life for conspiring to murder her abusive boyfriend. The film highlights developing legal issues around domestic violence, police, and the courts, as well as intersectional experiences of race, class, and gender. Plus, one of the lawyers is an Orthodox Jew and the film was made in part through funding by Jewish organizations, so there’s an added layer of religion that I found fascinating.

Lost for Life: This documentary explores the stories of people serving life sentences for crimes that they committed as teenagers. It’s a startling and moving film about the lives of the incarcerated and the connection between the juvenile courts and the prison industrial complex.

Death Row Stories: This CNN series, narrated by Susan Sarandon (you know, because of Dead Man Walking…), details the experiences and legal cases of people on death row, mostly people who were wrongly sentenced and the people working to get their sentences overturned or commuted. It’s fairly hit and miss, but when it hits, the stories are pretty incredible.

Frontline: Death by FireThis Frontline episode goes through the trial and sentencing of a man found guilty of an arson that killed his three daughters. As I learned on Catching Killers (an awesome series about forensic science), arson is really hard to prove and the science is often pretty bad. The documentary makes a pretty compelling case that an innocent man was executed due to mistaken police work and the political motivations of Texas politicians.

Frontline: Locked Up in AmericaIn a series of Frontline episodes, you can learn about some controversial issues in the American prison system, including solitary confinement.

Dear Younger Me: Being In Love is Not the Best Thing


Photo by Jessica Branstetter Photography

A couple of months ago, I was out with friends and we were talking about the then-current trend of “Dear Younger Me” letters going around the internet. Years ago, I composed a series of letters to myself at various ages, leading up to a birthday (which, I can’t remember). In the bar that night, however, I distilled my reflections to one curt line: being in love is not the best thing.

Lest you hear that advice with a bitter tone, let me first say that I am rather deeply in love with a man who I am set to marry in less than five months. I honestly cannot imagine another person who I would rather be partnered with. I love him; I like him; I trust him. My love life is peaceful and happy. This last, and best, love, however, is my seventh relationship. Partly, I am reminded of the delightfully bad TV-movie Lucky Seven. Mostly, I know that I have clocked plenty of hurt hours to get to where I am today.

As my life as a single woman comes to a close, I’ve found myself reflecting often about what this period of my life has meant to me, what makes me happy, what quirks and habits I need to keep through the transition, and how I got here. Sometimes I will be reminded of past boyfriends and, overwhelmingly, my thoughts land on, “how the heck did I think that would work out?!” For the most part, I have no ill-will toward any ex-boyfriend, just laughing wonder at the lack of self-knowledge that went into particular pairings.

The conventional wisdom would suggest that with each relationship and subsequent breakup I was supposed to learn something that would help me in future romantic endeavors. First, I think that’s shortsighted and fails to account for the importance of non-romantic relationships. Second, I don’t love the mantra that everything happens for a reason, because sometimes that reason was that I made stupid decisions. Yes, I have made many, varied, dramatic mistakes in my dating life. I have learned from them and, I think, earned a black-belt in monogamy. But, when I think about the times in which I have grown the most, they have more often than not been times when I was either single or at a 2,000 mile distance from my partner.

Living alone for six years has been one of the most important experiences of my life. Two thumbs up. I know how to fix toilets and sinks and how to imperfectly hang things on the wall. I have moved furniture and changed tires and worked out while drinking wine. I know that I can take care of myself. And I’ve had the time and space to really enjoy being on my own. Being single or long-distance for so long has also provided me with the time and space to nurture my friendships. Years ago, my mother cautioned me against putting boyfriends ahead of my friendships. I scoffed that would never do that, feared that I did, and made it a cardinal law of my life to nurture my friendships. My friends are a treasury of generous life-knowledge and love. Thank you, Mom. I’ve also been able to enjoy my family as an adult single person, spending more time than is probably usual at my parents’ house, enjoying the company of my family, making peace with past hurts, and getting to know my mother woman-to-woman. That has been an enormous gift, teaching me about growing up, atoning for past idiocy (by which I mean ages 13-17), and becoming my own woman without necessarily eschewing my mother’s influence. Just as with boyfriends, in family and friendship, I had to let go of the desperate need of approval to maintain healthy love. Thank you, dear therapist. In short, although I am still at times an angsty brat, I know that I am surrounded by other angsty brats who love me. (That is the best thing.)

So, being in love is not the best thing. And if I could go back to 15 years-old, on the precipice of starting to date, I would tell younger Kasey not to worry a lot about romantic relationships. That it is okay to need a great deal of love, but that it doesn’t have to be romantic to be fulfilling. That the fear of being alone is a trap. Being alone can kick ass, but single =/= alone. That it’s easier to find love by caring for those around you than to chase it down like the heroine in a romantic comedy.

It would be dishonest to suggest that having someone who I respect so much, and who is under no obligation to love me, think that I am the bee’s knees didn’t do wonders for my relationship with myself and with love in general. It has. A lot of the good this love has done for me, however, stems from Julio not engaging much of my angst with much more than, “I’m here for you. Please be kind to yourself.” The peace in our relationship, and his peaceful response to my relationship with myself, has given me some much needed quiet to grow that maybe I wouldn’t have given myself. I also know that I speak from the secure place of being in a loving, accepted-by-our-kin, hetero-relationship.

Being in love can be wonderful, yes, and even transformative. It can also really suck and bring out the worst in people. Before you start quoting the Bible, or C.S. Lewis, or Carrie Bradshaw to me, I know that what I’m saying isn’t particularly philosophically complex or even original, but for what it’s worth, in my experience these are the things that are as good as being in love (in no particular order):

  • Deep, respectful partnership of any kind
  • Long-term friendship
  • An evolving relationship with a higher power
  • Being alone, in the quiet, and enjoying the minutia of the life you’ve made for yourself.
  • Sitting with the mystery of what is yet to come.
  • Working hard at something you enjoy
  • Filling your bed with books, or pets, or whatever you want.
  • Spending time with your family and getting to know them, on your own, as an adult.
  • Traveling alone.
  • Learning to at least know yourself, if self-love and acceptance prove elusive.
  • Going to the movies by yourself and eating the whole box of Mike and Ikes.

Book Review: Tease by Amanda Maciel

tease amanda macielTease by Amanda Maciel

Tease follows the court case following the suicide of Emma Putnam, holding the girls and boys who bullied her responsible for her death. The novel has a pulled-from-the-headlines quality, after cases such as that of Phoebe Prince, which lead to harsher anti-bullying legislation and the emergence of “bullycide” in popular conversations around bullying and aggression. Filtered through the thoughts and memories of Sara Wharton, a high school junior, the novel takes the reader through the build up to Emma’s suicide and the aftermath for those who are being held responsible. Although it is packaged like a thriller, Tease actually deals fairly movingly with how awful high school can be. Although some elements of the story, particularly the romantic plots are a little after school special-y, I think Maciel depicts with care and nuance a young woman trying to deal with issues that are just slightly beyond her emotional maturity.

Tease is painfully sad in the way that it depicts the thoughts and feelings of its teenage characters, particularly Sara, whose perspective the story is told through. Rather than demonizing the mean girls for ganging up on the new girl, the novel looks behind the aggressive behavior to the pain that causes Sara and Brielle to lash out. In some ways it’s a sentimental move, but I think it is strikingly effective and authentic in the way that it depicts the conflicting emotions Sara feels when she gives in to Brielle’s pressure, whether it comes to bullying, having sex, or smaller issues like how she dresses or speaks. By the end of the novel, Sara’s defense that everyone at school was mean so she doesn’t see why she should be held responsible for the suicide still reads as alarmingly immature, but it’s also kind of sympathetic. That’s how well the characters are constructed.

Incidentally, a book about bullying in pop culture that I contributed to is now available for purchase. Bullying in Popular Culture  focuses on the depiction of bullying in film, television, and novels. My chapter addresses the codification of the “mean girl” archetype and the rules of “girl world” in movies and TV.


Birchbox Book Club: Better Than Before

Better Than BeforeBetter Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin

I received a copy of Better Than Before to review as part of the Birchbox Book Club, and I was so happy to have it. When I was awarded a dissertation fellowship, I was like “This is amazing! I get to be a full-time writer for a year.” And it has been fruitful and wonderful in many ways, and frustrating in others. Not having the regular rhythm of classes and teaching, and adding a truckload of internalized pressure, have made me feel like I’m in a panicked freefall many days. A good routine would go a long, long way to helping me feel more balanced. So, how can Better Than Before help?

The Book

In Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin, author of the bestseller The Happiness Project, argues that our habits are the secret to our happiness. I appreciate that she treats happiness as a process without getting over-sentimental about it:

When we change our habits, we change our lives. We can use decision making to choose habits we want to form, we can use willpower to get the habit started; then–and this is the best part–we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. We take our hands off the wheel of decision, our foot off the gas of willpower, and rely on the cruise control of habits. (12)

The theory follows, then, that when we don’t have to put so much willpower into structuring our lives, it frees up our minds and our energy for other pursuits and allows us more mindfulness, and thus happiness, in our days. Sounds good enough to me. But how?

I used to have great habits and then I…don’t know what happened. Getting them started up again has been a years-long process of trial and error. What I like most about Rubin’s book is that it addresses habit formation as a matter of self-awareness and it starts to get at the blocks that keep us from doing things that we know we love and we know are good for us.

Rubin addresses the topic in a highly-conversational, very Type-A tone, based on both research and her own experiences. The book is divided into five sections that cover self-knowledge, pillars for structuring habits, how to get started, desires and pitfalls, and how we are “unique, just like everyone else.” She bases her approach to habit formation on her model of the Four Tendencies: Upholders, Obligers, Questioners, and Rebels. (You can take a quiz here.) In short, the Tendencies are a model for thinking about what expectations you are likely to meet. For example, Upholders meet all expectations. Obligers are more likely to meet others’ expectations than their own. I tend to be a little bundle of contradictions in most things, so I really don’t think I fall neatly into any one camp. If I had to choose, I’d be a Questioner (meets inner expectations; resists outer, unless I think they’re valid), but I can be an Obliger sometimes too. And sometimes a rebel. If I’m making a change, I don’t want someone else to think it’s their idea or I’m doing it for someone other than me. Brat. When I took the quiz in the back of the book, I gave roughly equal answers for each of the Tendencies. I’m a pain, I know. Skeptical as I was about the Tendencies, just thinking about what motivates me to meet expectations was helpful.

After the Four Tendencies, Rubin explores other distinctions that may shape a person’s habits. This is my favorite part of the book. She prompts you to consider, for example, if you’re a lark or an owl; a marathoner, a sprinter, or a procrastinator; an underbuyer or overbuyer; a finisher or an opener; promotion-focused or prevention-focused; and more. With each distinction, she briefly discusses how your other personality traits may help you to frame your habits in a way that you will be more successful sticking to them. It’s good stuff.

The following sections, “Pillars of Habits” and “The Best Time to Begin” get more into the nuts and bolts of starting new habits, with examples drawn from Rubin’s own life and relationships. While a lot of the tips here are things I’ve read elsewhere, such as at Zen Habits or Life Hacks, the continual use of the Tendencies and the other distinctions to think through how habits can be formed successfully makes the book more useful than it might otherwise be. That’s where Rubin’s book is better than texts I’ve read before, and offers more helpful solutions: it treats habit as a personal process rather than prescribing umbrella solutions for everyone.

While I don’t think 100% of the book made sense for me personally (I especially struggled with the Four Tendencies), I think it is a wonderful guide for thinking about your own habits and how you approach them. The opportunity for guided self-reflection and tips that you can take or leave as inspiration is worth the cover price.

The Kasey
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I Am Malala: Comparing the Young Reader Edition to the “Original”

I Am Malala CoversIn the last chapter of my dissertation, I examine the rhetoric around girls’ education in the Global South through “texts” such as the UN’s Girl Up campaign materials, I Am Malala and Malala Yousafzai’s speeches, and the docu-drama Girl Rising. When I talked about the work, several people asked me if I had read the young readers edition of I Am Malala. Because I was kind of disappointed in the New York Times bestselling edition written with Christina Lamb, and because much of my dissertation focuses on how girls tell their own stories, I decided I should check it out. Surprisingly, I thought the young readers edition was the better of the two books. My (admittedly pretty skeptical) assumption was that the young readers edition would be a dumbed-down, cleaned up version of Malala’s story. Although I think that the Christina Lamb version does give more context to the story, which is important and useful, I think the biggest difference between the two books is that the latter sounds more like the Malala we hear in her speeches. The young readers edition focuses more on Malala’s story itself and uses more direct language as well. Not only was it more enjoyable to read, it seemed more like she had actually written it herself.

Narrative Voice and Scope

Honestly, I don’t think that the young readers edition is an easier read on the basis of language. I think that its marketing as for young people rests on the assumption that young people would be less interested in the history of the Swat valley and of Malala’s family (which is, perhaps, a problematic assumption). The part of the first I Am Malala that bothered me most was the emphasis put on her father’s growth and education. I think that some of the background about Pakistan and Pashtun culture was really helpful, and the young readers edition could have used more of it, but the narrative in the young readers edition, like the tone of voice, focuses more immediately on Malala’s experiences. For example, after the prologue, the Lamb edition opens with the celebration of Malala’s birth–unusual for her culture–before transitioning into five chapters of historical and cultural context. In the young readers edition, the first chapter “Free as a Bird” starts with an introduction to Malala as she is today, weaving in details about her family, her village, and her culture. It dives right into her story, giving some details about her family, but excluding the narrative of her father’s education that the Lamb book starts with. Although the details about Ziauddin Yousafzai and Pashtun culture are, no doubt, important for understanding where Malala comes from, the young readers edition is more focused on her memories of her life experiences.

The young readers edition also portrays her mother as a more active and included member of the family, putting more emphasis on the work she did in her community, feeding and housing people who needed assistance. In one part, this service is depicted as part of Pashtun hospitality, but it is also attributed to her mother’s character, presenting her as a brave and determined counterpart to Malala’s father.

Later, when telling the story of her shooting, the story relies more on her experiences as a narrative strategy to depict trauma. While the Lamb version goes into extensive detail about Malala’s medical treatment and the decisions that were made by doctors, politicians, and Malala’s parents before and following her transfer to Manchester, the young readers edition cuts from her shooting (“The last thing I remember is thinking about my exam the next day. After that everything went black.” (130)) to her waking up, disoriented, in Manchester days later (“I woke up on 16 October to a lot of people standing around looking at me. They all had four eyes, two noses, and two mouths. I blinked, but it did no good. I was seeing everything in double.” (133)). Continue reading

Book Review: Veronica Mars: Mr. Kiss and Tell

tumblr_nijjmiYZWC1qd9a66o1_500If you’re still missing Veronica Mars after the movie, the Veronica Mars novels, written by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham are just what you need. The first novel in the series, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line, picks up after the movie ends and runs with Veronica’s decision to stay in Neptune working as a private investigator, much to Keith’s chagrin. Although the narration is in third person, rather than the trademark first person snark of the TV show, in the writing the characters come through clearly. The books capture the essence of the show surprisingly well. It’s like getting engrossed in a brand new episode. While the first book establishes the new trajectory of the series, the second book Mr. Kiss and Tell (out just in time for my January birthday) starts to get at the hard boiled issues I always loved Veronica Mars for. Running with the bigger story started in the movie, Veronica, Keith, and crew continue to fight police corruption in Neptune. In the mystery, Veronica is tasked with investigating the rape of Meg Manning’s little sister (remember her!?). There’s also familiar antics, such as Veronica making herself fit into tiny spaces–this time Wallace’s gym bag–and employing Mac with high-tech cyber stalking.

Many have written about the feminism of Veronica Mars, including the magnificent Megan Peters and me in Veronica Mars and Philosophy. I think, perhaps more than anything, the approach the series takes to rape and rape culture is its biggest claim to feminist fame. Without giving the reader a crash course in Veronica’s history with rape (there’s a bit of background mentioned, but nothing at-length), Mr. Kiss and Tell gives the reader another case in which Veronica fights for justice on behalf of another woman, when everyone else is more concerned with proving that she’s lying so they can avoid liability. I don’t want to go into too much detail, because I want you to read the book, but I was impressed by how it handled the police, the press, and the rhetoric of violence against women.

In true Veronica Mars fashion, the police are criticized for their failure to respond adequately to rape charges. And, as usual, this portrayal is tempered by our knowledge that Keith Mars was a good cop, and, this time, with the return of Leo D’Amato (sigh. I love him.), who is now working for the San Diego PD.  Aside from the usual Lamb-is-corrupt issues, an officer makes a joke about how you can’t rape a prostitute that I’m not going to reproduce here, because it’s as bad as you’d think. What I find more compelling, however, is how Veronica’s case gets stalled because of police procedure that isn’t obviously mishandled. In this way, the book points out how violence against certain bodies can get caught up in politics that delay or derail justice. For example:

“Veronica, there’s no prosecutor in the country who’d take this to trial. And if they did, the defense would just turn the whole thing into a bad joke.”
“I’m not laughing.”
“Neither am I, okay?” For the first time a defensive note crept into his voice. “But I can’t bring him in if the Neptune DA doesn’t want to prosecute. You understand what I’m saying?”

Veronica’s need to take matters of justice into her own hands is largely portrayed as being the result of her seeing through the he-said-she-said nature of the allegations, refusing to blame the victim, and understanding that a woman’s sexual history does not have any bearing on her rights. She’s not perfect and she does have some doubts about the young woman who she is trying to help, but she sticks to good detective work and the pursuit of truth. That’s why she’s a feminist role model and why, in addition to the resistance to presenting violence in a titillating manner, I think the series consistently handles rape better than pretty much anything else I’ve seen. Although the victim in the story is an attractive young white girl, the narrative is also critical of the way that certain victims of violence have a monopoly on the attention and the sympathy of the media.

As Veronica gets older in the series (she’s 29 now), she starts to make decisions that land in increasingly murky territory, although for the best of intentions. That has me really curious for how the books will continue to show Veronica evolving and I suspect that she will get more hard boiled as time goes by, even if she does still have that sparkly pixie spy magic going for her.

Oh, and she gets a dog and names it Pony. Thank you so much for that, Rob Thomas.