Dr. Jessica Johnson: ‘Inside Out 2’ and emotional health

The kid in me really enjoyed Disney Pixar’s “Inside Out 2,” the sequel to the beloved 2015 film that introduced us to Riley, an only child who is somewhat shy but has a big heart of kindness. I actually think the first film was funnier as it tackled Riley’s growing emotions of Joy, Fear, Sadness, Disgust and Anger from a young girl to the beginning of her preteen years. The setup of Riley’s emotions controlling her actions through a console in her brain was quite creative along with depicting how long-term and short-term memories were stored. The mind construction workers, whom critics described as “jellybean-like characters,” were hilarious as they kept everything together from running the Train of Thought to putting on REM-show dream productions at night. Riley’s life overall is a happy one. She’s well cared for by her parents and has a close friend group. The first challenge of navigating emotional and social changes comes when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Joy, Fear, Sadness, Disgust and Anger struggle a bit to get Riley through being “the new girl at school” and overcoming doubts in trying out for a youth hockey team. At the end of the film, the mind workers bring an expanded console for the emotions to operate that includes a large, red puberty button. This was the hint for the primary theme in the second storyline.

Upon seeing “Inside Out 2,” I was interested in the approach the writers would take in portraying Riley going through puberty in our present time. I have been following some of the research being conducted on how American girls are reaching puberty much earlier and how this is adversely affecting their mental health. Donna Jackson Nakazawa, author of “Girls on the Brink: Helping Our Daughters Thrive in an Era of Increased Anxiety, Depression and Social Media,” shared in an April interview with UCLA Health that early puberty in girls brings on accelerated “stress machinery” due to the release of estrogen. From her survey research of girls throughout the country, Nakazawa pointed out that many feel like their lives “are one endless performance.” “They are performing to be liked and followed online, they are performing at school, and they are exhausted,” she explains. With Riley now a teenager in “Inside Out 2,” her “stress machinery” hits a climax as the new emotions of Anxiety, Envy, Ennui (boredom), and Embarrassment are introduced to her brain’s headquarters. In many ways, Riley is “performing” as she is determined to be accepted in her high school’s popular peer group of upperclassmen on the girls’ hockey team. Envy and Disgust become rivals in trying to make Riley do and say the right things to appear cool, which catapults Anxiety to take over the console and “bottle up” Riley’s older emotions. While this is a funny scene, the underlying implications are serious as Riley comes close to making a critical mistake that would jeopardize her tryout for the team. Her Sense of Self is being attacked as she wrestles with the core values her parents taught her.

I think most adults who saw “Inside Out 2” would agree that being a teenager is much harder these days. In thinking back to my aspirations going into the ninth grade, my experience was a little similar to Riley’s in that I was trying to make my high school band. I took up playing the clarinet in the eighth grade, and using my piano skills to help me figure out the fingering chart, I learned to play well enough to make the cut. I did meet new people my freshman year, but I also had the comfort of many of my middle school classmates attending the same high school. However, I never felt immense pressure to “perform” to be popular, and my friends ended up adoring me for my unique quirkiness.

As Riley is able to overcome her teenage temptations in the film, she continues to adjust to how others view her. I thought about this more while I was looking up encouraging Bible verses for young girls. Isaiah 62:3 came up in my search, which says that we are considered “a crown of glory and splendor in the hand of the Lord” (Amplified). Girls like Riley who are fighting daily pressures of attempting to be well-liked by their peers also need spiritual assurance that they are exceedingly beautiful in God’s sight. This will strengthen their Sense of Self in a world that constantly tugs at their mental well-being.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. Her opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.