06/23/2015 01:05 am ET Updated Jun 23, 2016

'Inside Out', a Girls Story

Last week I got to see Pixar's new movie, Inside Out. It's fantastic -- nothing like mourning the loss of childhood while eating buttered popcorn.

A good kids' movie operates on two levels: there's slapstick for the kids, and double entendre for adults. Pixar's new movie, Inside Out, has a third level: a simple but powerful message for social change.

In Inside Out, 11-year-old Riley moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, giving up her home, her friends, and her ice hockey team in the process. When the moving truck gets lost, she winds up in a sleeping bag on her floor. But the tragedy isn't what happens around her, but within her; not only does Riley stop feeling joy, she also becomes numb to her sadness.

Movie director Pete Docter was inspired to create this story after watching his own adolescent daughter withdraw. His observation reflects a well-documented trend that we at Girls Leadership see every day. When we ask elementary school girls what they think or how they feel, we receive loud, self-assured opinions; but by middle school, the more common response is a shrug, a guttural sound, or silence.

The daughter in Inside Out is refreshingly unencumbered by typical gender norms. But the pressures to act the "good girl" are there in subtle ways. In one scene, Riley's mom thanks her for being so easy going, asks her to keep it up, and tenderly sighs, "I don't know what we did to deserve you." Riley is being taught, like many girls, that it is more important to take care of other people's feelings than her own.

The implications of this wide-spread phenomenon -- a Girls Inc. study reported that 74 percent of girls feel pressure to please everyone -- go beyond girls' intra-personal experience, affecting their inter-personal, public, and potentially professional experience. When a girl disconnects from her thoughts and feelings, she looses knowledge of what she needs and wants. She can't effectively self-advocate, take risks, or ask for help.

I began to cry for Riley as I watched sadness and joy disappear farther and father from her consciousness. The story here is bigger than just one girl. The loss of self-awareness often follows girls into adulthood, as women prioritize the feelings of their children, colleagues and partners over their own. Ultimately, this is all of our loss, when our society and culture lack the full contribution of women in leadership in across business, government, science, and art.

Inside Out shows kids that there is value in all of their emotions. But it can be hard to maintain that message. As I walked out of the movie theatre, I saw the inevitable display of movie-themed toys, lip balms and t-shirts. Predictably, the blue Sadness t-shirt was 'ladies' only. And the red Anger t-shirt? Just for boys. This film is a powerful start, but we have more to do help kids connect with all feelings without fear and stereotype.

To continue the Inside Out dialogue with your child, visit the Girls Leadership Inside Out Discussion Guide.