“Our culture is biased against quiet and reserved people, but introverts are responsible for some of humanity's greatest achievements,” declared Susan Cain in 2012.
Since then, the internet has become awash with information about Introversion, much of it from reputable psychologists, therapists and authors quoting well-established, science-based studies. Introversion is having a moment—you might even say it has become “cool.”
So you’d think that, by now, an accurate portrayal of Introversion would have shown up in our films.
Instead, what most movies offer us is a bunch of old-fashioned stereotypes about Introverts that persist despite all the scholarly work available to anyone with an interest. You know the ones: Introverts are awkward, shy, geeky, rude, they don’t like people, they always want to be alone…
Is it just me who struggles to see herself accurately represented in film and TV? To figure this out, I found large groups of Introverts and Extraverts on Facebook and asked them this question: Which movies most accurately represent introversion?
I was surprised to find that both Introverts and Extraverts gave similar answers—and neither group had a good understanding of Introversion. It seems that Introvert myths prevail, even among Introverts. I kept getting movies that portrayed Introverts as mentally unstable, mean, painfully shy or just weird.
But take heart, fellow Introverts. After much searching, I found five great movies in which the main character is truly Introverted. Not insane, unlikeable or strange, just Introverted.
#1: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
We open with our Introvert, Joel, quietly narrating from his journal. We don’t know it yet, but he has just had the memories of his lost love erased from his mind. He then has a change of heart and desperately searches his inner world for a safe “place” to hide her memory and save the relationship. As we follow him in his search, we learn that he is sensitive and falls in love easily, he feels and ponders deep emotions, and he hates parties.
Joel’s superpower is imagination, and it goes into overdrive as he dives deeply inward to hide his love, Clementine. His rich inner vision provides the landscape in which old memories and new images merge to save their story. Albert Einstein said "Imagination is more important than knowledge" because he knew that humankind does not evolve without it. Likewise, Joel evolves personally as he comes to grips with what he feels.
Here we find an Introvert who is an average, sensitive guy, albeit shy with women. And this time it’s the Extravert, Clementine, who’s unstable. Now that’s a switch. And although Joel is distraught for much of the movie, we see him as one who pines when loving too much, not mentally ill or strange.
- Watch it to see: the Introvert’s superpower of imagination.
I love it when the hero of the movie is a bad-ass Introvert like Batman or Spiderman. And true to Introvert form, the main character of Drive remains anonymous throughout the movie and we never learn his name. He doesn’t appear shy, but purposely reserved. He is the “Driver” and he “drives.” Quietly intense with a dark backstory, his one wish is to save his friend and her son. And that admirable Introvert quality, loyalty, becomes a theme for much of the movie.
The Driver’s Introvert superpower is observation. He is keenly attuned to both his environment, and to people. On the street he sees everything, astute to every detail, every obstacle, and every opportunity. He knows in advance where to focus. Whether behind the wheel or foiling his foes, he keeps his attention on the singular road ahead of him.
The Driver impresses me as someone who grew up in an Extraverted world that was not made for him, so he becomes resilient, self-sufficient and composed. His dark side is happenstance. You get the feeling that his Introverted nature is at the center of his being— good guy or bad guy, it doesn’t matter because either way he’s a skilled observer, and an Introvert.
- Watch it to see: the Introvert’s superpower of observation.
#3: Perks of Being a Wallflower
This main character, Charlie, is sometimes pegged as Introverted based on his social anxiety, but that’s not what makes him an Introvert. Charlie is introspective, attentive and has fewer words than his classmates. He thinks before he speaks. When words finally leave his mouth, they mean something. He is selectively social and his connection with his two new friends becomes a deep bond.
Charlie’s story is infused with his Introvert superpower—seeing people for who they are. He sees Sam’s soul instead of the promiscuous, troubled girl she became after childhood abuse. And Patrick, who is secretly dating Brad, comes to know Charlie as a friend who sees him beyond his sexuality. Charlie’s friends feel known, maybe for the first time, for who they genuinely are. This fosters trust and, like many Introverts, Charlie becomes a confidant.
When we meet Charlie, he struggles in quiet isolation with the suicide of his friend and memories of abuse. But by the end of the movie Charlie experiences healing with the care of his friends and he becomes comfortable being himself. We then get a real sense of Charlie’s true nature and, as with any Introvert, he didn’t need to be fixed. Charlie just needed to be loved.
- Watch it to see: the Introvert’s superpower of seeing people.
#4: The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
James Martin is unassuming, but not socially shy. A middle-aged haberdasher who finds himself on a capsized ship, he is third “in command” of terrified passengers that need saving. Contrasted with the first two in command, a rebellious priest and an angry cop, James is a quiet, stable, compassionate strength to all he helps. And by the way, he’s on a New Year’s Eve cruise by himself and he’s ok with that.
Never dismiss the Introvert’s superpower of giving behind-the-scenes support or its value in real life! James saves lives by working one-on-one with the most vulnerable, like Nonnie, who can’t make the journey out. His introspective nature is not lost even amidst the chaos, as he comforts her with his personal insights. When needed, he emerges from the background and gives commands that hold the group together. He is the calm that gives the desperately needed support that saves lives.
When this vintage movie was filmed the idea of Introversion wasn’t on the radar for most people, yet this character is so clearly an Introvert without the accompanying myths. Here is a man, kind and perceptive, assertive when needed, that cares deeply for people. He helps to save the group with the often-underappreciated gifts of an Introvert.
- Watch it to see: the Introvert’s superpower of giving behind-the-scenes support.
This portrayal of Lincoln highlights a quiet centeredness that runs deep despite the chaos around him. The agonizing decisions he faces require support, and Lincoln must convince the people around him to pass the 13th amendment. A known introspective book worm with a disdain for parties, Lincoln obeys his inner, moral compass while winning the hearts and minds of those who knew him. How did he do this, you ask? With his Introvert superpower of leadership.
We often think of leadership as the gift of Extraverts, but don’t be fooled by this stereotype. I don’t know a better example of a great leader than the introverted Lincoln. His inward focus blocked the distractions of dissenters and heartbreaks as he developed deeper, trusting relationships with the people closest to him, and received their support for his plans. A skilled listener with a sense of humor, Lincoln was adept at making down-to-earth connections with those he needed most.
Introverts make strong, caring leaders and sometimes, depending on the situation, make better ones than Extraverts. While Extraverts can dominate and become the center of attention, an Introverted leader is more likely to be quietly resolved and focused, which is what is needed in turbulent times, like a civil war.
- Watch it to see: the Introvert’s superpower of leadership.
The next time you see an “Introverted” character that is mentally ill, socially outcast or just a jerk, remind yourself that these are not the traits of Introversion – they are stereotypes, and they’re painful to watch for any Introvert who wants better representation on the silver screen!
But as these five movies show, movie-makers can and do get it right when they understand what Introversion is (and what it isn’t). Let’s encourage the industry to create more of these richer, multi-layered characterizations in the future. Heroes don’t always have to be “men of action” to have great impact and do great things.