It has begun. Network stations have, liberally or ilLiberally, began playing all of the Christmas films they can muster. Predictably, many of them are made-for-TV, and those are the ones I really cannot abide. Elf and The Grinch have been listed, too. I am not much an Elf fan, but I do love Zooey Deschanel’s Baby It’s Cold Outside. This introduction is descending into the 12 days of Christmas? 10 days? I think I’m confusing Christmas carols and Shakespeare, now. This is about the Grinch and why it is all the things!
The Grinch, all media versions, are holiday classics. Like, Dr Seuss’s The Lorax, there is a clear moral. Christmas is about community and time spent together. But the 2000 remake starring Jim Carrey does much more than remind us of the meaning of Christmas, if there is one meaning or any meaning of Christmas (that’s your decision). The film touches on issues of bullying, race, fetishism, depression, and (perhaps a bit ironically for the film industry) the capitalism of Christmas. I argue that the overall Christmas tone of the film should be overlooked in favour of the paradigmatic shifts proposed by the film. To be blunt, the Grinch is othered–he doesn’t look like the rest of the Whos: he is a different colour, and he is bullied because of this difference. Little Cindy-Lou Who (get ready for this) forces the Whos to rethink who they are and what it means to be a Who! As she is a child on a bildungsroman quest, it is easy to overlook that she causes a paradigmatic shift in her whole society. Additionally, the holiday nature of the film falls into the trope as it consistently reminds us that at Christmas we must learn to love our neighbour–is this because we want Santa to bring us better presents? Hmm? So, let’s keep some of the hints of Christmas, since they inform chronology, but let’s really dive into The Grinch to see beneath the layers.
Because Canadians like to be Green & discuss our layers (we wear many) // PDI/DreamWorks
Cindy Lou is chagrinned by the commodity nature of Christmas. In order to hear her speak behind the wall of presents she is carrying, her father, Lou, has to remove a present where her face is. When she raises her concerns about buying so much, he shushes her because it’s Christmas; that’s just what is done. This introduction to Whoville, Cindy, and Lou establishes a normative society that is driven by consumption, spending money on Christmas, and competition to have the best Christmas (seemingly). Cindy Lou’s mother even steals a traffic light so she can have the best Christmas light display. At heart, her parents are not bad people, but the status quo is deeply engrained into their behaviour. Most individuals who do not recognize their privilege are not nefarious; they must unlearn the privilege that they may have and/or that they reinforce. Cindy Lou questions the consumptive-normative society in which she lives, and she is ridiculed for it by those in positions of authority because that is how norms eradicate outliers–shame into same.
Indeed, after a brief encounter with the Grinch, who saves her from being crushed by an ironically large and destructive “fragile” parcel stamp, Cindy Lou questions the narrative of an inherently evil Grinch. She embarks on a quest to understand the Grinch through a series of interviews of those who raised him and who knew him when he was young. Every O.G, Original Grinch, needs an origins story. But, what we learn from the interviews forces us to consider the Grinch less as a baddie and more as an individual who was excessively bullied and made to feel different. His isolation on Mount Crumpit is not an evil lair but the only place to which he could escape.
These revelations, to which I will return in a moment, inspire Cindy Lou to nominate the Grinch as Holiday Cheermeister in the Whos Whobilation. The mayor, one of the Grinch’s more persistent bullies, does not want this. Indeed, he prefers to reassert his own authority by being singularly nominated as Cheermeister and winning. For, the image that Whoville projects is one that invokes and embodies all of the cheer and happiness of Christmas. The mayor must be the cheeriest and the jolliest. The mayor has to embody this role, but he is not actually those things at all. Cindy Lou nominates the Grinch because she believes that the Grinch will be her salvation to find what Christmas, and perhaps life, mean to her. An existential crisis surrounding Santa Claus, how witty.
Typically, when Cindy Lou voices her nomination, everyone gasps in shock and fearful awe. Who would dare tarnish the Whos’ vision of happiness by even speaking his name? This is important. As Cindy Lou and the mayor begin to have a polite argument about nominating the Grinch, we learn that even the Grinch’s name defines a negative. The Grinch is not seen as an individual or subject; he is designated as a synonym for all things anti-Who, for things unchristmas, not the norm. The mayor quotes from The Book of Who, “[t]he word grinch shall apply, when holiday cheer is in short supply.” The Grinch, fundamentally, cannot be Holiday Cheermeister because his very name contradicts it. This locks the perception of the Grinch into a category of not belonging, of being other. The codebook or law book of Who negates the Grinch’s inclusivity amongst the Whos. The Whos, however, agree with Cindy Lou because she outwits the mayor. He tauntingly forecasts doom, and says that it will be shown he knew best all along.
Now, let’s return, first, to Cindy Lou’s interviews and then to the Grinch. Cindy Lou interviews the Grinch’s guardians, who describe him as a good child. He loved Santa, and the clip shows him eating a Santa dish. They still praise him, even though he used their family heirlooms to create a gift for the girl he liked, Martha May. Cindy Lou interviews Martha May and Augustus May (who is the mayor); they were both classmates of the Grinch. Martha May is in an eroticized trance when she discusses the Grinch. At times, it is hard to decide whether she fancies him because of him or because he is green. Indeed, as a youth she says to the Grinch that her favourite colours are red and, suggestively, green. It is racial fetishization. His green-ness is highlighted and made aware to him. His difference makes him attractive. Or, perhaps, she is addressing his difference and affirming it as valuable and meaningful. We have to consider both readings.
The young Grinch, like a young Hegel or Marx, goes home and makes Martha May an angel ornament. He is proud of his work, but just as he is noting how great he feels, he remembers that Augustus and the other boys say “He’s eight years old and has a beard.” So, the Grinch attempts to shave his face for the first time. As it goes, he cuts himself and places itty-bitty pieces of tissue over his cuts. When he goes to school he shame-facedly hides behind the coats and underneath a paper bag. He conceals the shame he feels, but he wants to give Martha May the gift he made. To do so, the teacher forces him to reveal his face. In doing so, everyone in the class laughs at the Grinch, except Martha May. She feels his pain. Augustus yells, “Look at that hack job.” So, the Grinch throws a Christmas tree in the most dramatic way possible and runs away to Mount Crumpit, significantly, the trash mountain of the Whos. This act reveals a lot about the self-worth that the Grinch feels. He feels like garbage; he is discarded, so easily, by his peers. He is made to feel unwanted, disgusting, unloveable.
So, when we meet the Grinch and we learn that he hates the Whos, in a scene such as this, we must not read it in a binary of Christmas and evil. Cindy Lou’s disavowal of the Whos’ consumptive (pun intended) Christmas spirit is further fleshed out by their treatment and willful abandonment of the Grinch. Indeed, the Grinch’s character offers us a view into how bullying, particularly bullying based on outward difference such as race, fosters depression and isolation.
Cindy Lou delivers the Cheermeister invitation to the Grinch, who eventually accepts. He attends the Cheermeister celebration, where he is literally stuffed with Christmas cheer, as he is forced to eat pudding after pudding. He consumes Christmas and is, in turn, consumed by it. Indeed, after the mayor publicly bullies the Grinch, to reaffirm the Grinch’s place as other and unwelcome, the Grinch calls out the Whos’ materialism. “These gifts are dazzling,” the Grinch interrupts the mayor’s proposal to Martha May, “That’s what it’s always been about: Gifts! GIFTS! GIFTS! GIFTS! You know what happens to all of your gifts? The come to me, in the garbage…The AVARICE! The avarice never ends! …Look, I don’t want to make waves, but this whole Christmas season is stupid! Stupid! STUPID!” He then causes a chaotic scene, wherein the Christmas tree goes up in flames. The Grinch is about to take the trash shoot back to Mount Crumpit, when he sees that the Whos belief in their materialistic Christmas is unshakeable, as they replace the fallen tree.
The Grinch leaves, exasperated. He then formulates his plan to steal Christmas from the Whos. The end of the film may easily fall into a simple narrative that the Grinch has learnt that Christmas has value. But, importantly, Cindy Lou, in her desire to make her life have meaning beyond the consumer-driven Whoville Christmas, listens to the advice of our favourite existentialist, Sartre. Of course this is all implicit, Sartre does not replace Santa to teach Cindy Lou what bad faith is. Cindy Lou knows that listening to authority through blind faith is not living well. Instead, when all the presents are gone and the Mayor begins to condemn Cindy Lou, her father reiterates what Cindy Lou has been saying all along. Maybe Christmas (read: life) shouldn’t be about gifts and getting things; it should be about meaningful choices and meaningful relationships.
The scene when the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes may also be misread. The Grinch hears that the Whos have shifted their destructive, wasteful paradigmatic construction of Christmas (read: world view). They project joy as they welcome each other’s company and cheer. When the Grinch cries that he is feeling something, it is so reminiscent of learning to feel joy as one learns to heal (at whatever pace) in depression. Of course, one’s joy and happiness should not be held in relation to others and how others view us. But let’s consider that moment. The Whos have shifted their entire paradigmatic framework. Imagine how incredibly momentous that is. The value-system that claimed he was lesser was dismantled. The Grinch proclaiming that he can feel is more a moment that reveals he can be vulnerable with others and that he need not fear that. He does not need to be guarded. His heart grows three sizes because he is not held back by a society that perceives his difference as negation.
The live-action Grinch is far more clever than we might, initially, give it credit. It tackles bullying, race, and depression whilst wrapped up in the neat package of Christmas cheer. Christmas is usually the opportunity for big-industries, such as film, to moralize about human nature. Yet, in the non-human world of Whoville, our own societal fissures are revealed to us. The Grinch forgives and Whoville is no longer exclusionary or even tolerant—the Whos of Whoville are welcoming and inclusive.
Heaps of Love,
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