Why The Grinch Is Everything ⎜Bullies, Race, Fetishism, and Depression

Universal Pictures

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.

Universal Pictures

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.

Universal Pictures

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.

Universal Pictures

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.

Universal Pictures

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.

Universal Pictures

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.

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The Litigation Mermaid: Ideas of Consent and Contracts

Disney / GIPHY

Ariel signs a contract. Ursula acquires Ariel’s voice. Ariel has three days to kiss Eric, and, if she fails to do so, her soul becomes Ursula’s. Poor Unfortunate Souls, indeed. Although, Ursula is cast off as a villain in The Little Mermaid as an othered body—a powerful female, who is not a merman, and compared to Ariel’s slim waistline, fat. Her otherness is meant to vilify her in the context of Ariel’s so-called innocent quest for love and a different kind of othered body. It is arguable that The Little Mermaid is as much about the legal truths of contracts as it is a doe-eyed love story. In fact, I also argue that this film is not so doe-eyed, but a tale of sexual awakening and includes ideas of consent, if not outright comments on the subject.

First, let’s discuss the terms and conditions of Ariel’s agreement to Ursula. Ariel is not naively signing her soul and voice away; Ursula tells her the results of not paying a debt. Ursula shows a mermaid and man who wanted to become more attractive to impress one another, a vanity which costs them their souls. Arguably, their souls were in peril before Ursula got to them. Indeed, Ursula’s own size and curves emphasize the hubris of the choices of the mermaid/man to slim down her waisteline and to bulk his pecks, instead of just accepting themselves and each other for who they are [naive, right?]. Ariel and other Disney Princesses have unrealistic body types, Ursula’s parable about weight undeniably shows how unrealistic and disastrous coveting these body types are. Indeed, as we see in Ursula’s later transformation to woo Eric, she may chose to look however she wants. Ultimately, Ursula’s entire song “Pour Unfortunate Souls” shows the dangers of covetousness and hubris.

Disney / GIPHY

For example, underwater, Ariel is used to doing as she pleases. She is out-spoken, fearless, and adventurous. But to get above water, Ariel must give her voice to Ursula. The agreement is not all that unfair. In true trinity fashion, Ursula exchanges three days as a human with Ariel for her voice and Ariel needs to acquire “true love’s kiss.” Ariel agrees, and signs her name to the contract. 

Disney / GIPHY

Now, we all know that Ursula wants to use Ariel’s wish to be human to acquire King Triton’s throne and triton to rule the waters. She will manipulate the contract in order to acquire the goods from Prince Eric, so Ariel’s soul will become hers. Yet, the film focuses on Ursula’s contract with Ariel and her final contract with Triton. The presence of the legally binding contract is more authoritative than Triton’s sovereignty, his foul temper. Indeed, let us examine Triton’s court and his behaviour. Like the French Kings, a luxurious court life is meant to symbolize divine right and kingship. We see that his other daughters behave frivolously and sing little ditties to keep the court amused. Entertainment is the opiate of the masses—bread and circuses. But this style of kingship sacrifices the populace for the grandeur and splendour of court life.

Moreover, Ariel is, from the start, shown to be irresponsible to court life because she is not at the concert. Instead, she searches shipwrecks for signs of human and their wares. Ariel seeks the other–the humans that mermaids/men, and underwater life fear. Indeed, humans are seen as a chaotic and harmful force to the water’s ecosystem. Their waste is worrisome to Triton, and that his youngest and dearest daughter collects the detritus completely unnerves him. Instead of explaining himself to us or Ariel, he finds his daughter worshipping the idol of Prince Eric and destroys it all. HUMANS?! BADDIES! (Thanks Triton) But Ursula is willing to transgress the boundaries between land and water, human and not-human. Ursula sends Ariel into the human world after she sacrificed her voice in exchange for the legs. Ariel is, thus, still tied to the underwater world because her voice is trapped under water in a legally binding contract with Ursula. Moreover, Ursula’s contracts do pull Ariel back into the water and even has the power to unravel Triton’s power. So, instead of simply seeing the patriarchal forces of the film play out, we must note that Ursula’s contracts are more powerful than Triton. This is why she is scary. She can overpower Triton. It is when she starts to use Triton’s triton (phallus?) that she is undone and defeated by Eric. Triumphing not only over Ursula, at her death, but also over Triton’s waters. Ariel and Eric do, indeed, get married on a boat and Triton has to concede to Ariel and Eric’s love. Ursula’s disruption to Triton’s authority forever changes the relationship between land and water.

Before I discuss the presence of consent in the film, I discuss the othering of Ursula’s body. We’ve already touched on the divisive quality of man and nature in the film—this divisiveness is a type of othering. The human world is othered because it is different from the underwater world over which Triton reigns. It is seen as a negative place because it is not known, and it is inhabited by difference. See the song “Under The Sea” to drive this point home. Now, the othering of Ursula body is similar in idea. Ursula is immediately identified as a villain in the film. Is it the darkness with which she is associated? She does not look like the white, pristine mermaids/men. Is it that she is not white? Is is that her sexuality is overt, where the barely clad mermaids are somehow innocent and chaste? She is also a woman with, seemingly, unnatural powers. But, where Triton uses his triton to ‘magic’ events, Ursula actually relies on contracts for power. She relies on an enlightenment-based principle of contract and law to make agreements and settle debts. The results of unpaid debts are, indeed, ghastly. Who really wants to look like a slug or a piece of old sea kelp? The questions raised show that Ursula’s legal actions are blurred and convoluted by the fact that she is a non-white, not skinny, woman. Ursula’s marginalization should keep her oppressed, but she has power.

I remember, as a child, watching Ursula and knowing right away that she was meant to be recognized as the baddie. Ariel’s innocence was so starkly contrasted in Ursula’s knowledge of being sexy and what men want. Not mermen…real men. For example: 

Disney // Giphy

Yes, Ursula has curves. Yes, Ursula is sexy. She knows the importance of body language. Look at that butt. DAYAMM. Also, those red lips. You can see that she is aware she is sexy. But there is also this discomfort present. Why should she feel sexy? She doesn’t look like Ariel. She is not skinny. She is not doe-eyed. She is not the daughter of the King. She is not… But her sexuality and knowledge of sexuality is unmistakeable. Her own self-awareness is lost on children as a negative inference, but Ursula’s character should be seen as an empowered female character. A character who has to fight and play dirty for what she wants. Is it only dirty because she is a woman? Negative adjectives are attached to women’s actions, whereas a male character would be considered a hero–trying to claim power from Triton, a king who creates margins and alienation. Ursula has made her own spaces to assert her power. Ursula certainly does not hold her tongue. She even wields Ariel’s voice in the film.

Disney / GIPHY

Ursula’s assertion of power is captured in her claim: “It’s she who holds her tongue who gets her man.” Whose tongue? Ariels! Ursula has her voice and Ariel’s voice. With it, she is able to manipulate Eric into falling in love with her. Note that when Ariel regains her voice after the sea-creature shenanigans at the wedding, Eric immediately races to Ariel. It is not female submissiveness, but the assertion of power and authority that negotiates power relations in the water and out–the voice.

Disney / GIPHY

Ursula’s character is sexy. That is undeniable. Eight (ten) arms are better than two? Anyway, Ariel’s character is understood as an unaware, innocent, young girl seeking her true love. Prince Eric. *swoons* But Ariel’s character should not be understood as an non-sexual being. Ariel is experiencing a sexual awakening in the film. Ariel is crushing on Eric like no other crush before. Haha. Lies. We’ve all been there. But Ariel is awakened, and she wants to be part of Eric’s world. Although Ariel’s character is chastised as a child and she is very childlike, it is undeniable that she is older than these characteristics. She is portrayed as naive and chaste, but she makes the contract with Ursula. She knows she wants to leave the water to find Eric.

Disney / GIPHY

Disney / GIPHY

Although, Ariel’s character appeals to children, the film, even unknowingly, expresses the sexual awakening of a young woman. Perhaps, that she metamorphoses into a human with legs—literally, becoming a woman, her sexual awakening is complete.

Now, speaking of sexual awakenings and our massive crush on Prince Eric. So dreamy. *giggles* It is all so sudden. Oh yes, where was I? Let us move to our final discussion, that of consent. Ursula told Ariel that she had three days to make her humanness permanent by having true love’s kiss—can it be true love if both parties cannot communicate openly with one another? No! So, perhaps Ursula’s contract was always filled with clauses and impossible loopholes in her favour. But, I digress. The song “Kiss the Girl” has often been read as a moment where the kiss is meant to happen to the girl, but, arguably, Ariel’s friends are her voice in this scene. She WANTS to kiss Eric and for Eric to want to kiss her. Alas, the boat is upturned at the end of the scene, and maybe we can consider Ursula to be a bastion of consent, rather than trying to stop all possible kissing moments [cock block]. [Of course, Ursula’s attempt to marry Eric is an example of consent gone to pooh]. But even if Eric does kiss Ariel, consent is not present. Eric does not know who Ariel is, and Ariel is using him to become human.

Disney / GIPHY

Ariel and Eric cannot kiss until both parties can communicate. The kiss is not consensual until communication is present. And while Ursula has Ariel’s voice, communication is impossible and so, too, is consent. Writing or sign language are not necessarily options because of the premise of the contract; indeed, there is a scene where Ariel attempts to communicate by signing, but Eric cannot understand her signs. Finally, it is when Ariel speaks, Eric recognizes her and they both go to kiss. But they are stopped as Ariel changes back into a mermaid. The contract to kiss him was not known by both parties; communication has failed. When the contracts binding Ariel to Ursula are resolved, Triton signs a contract to release her, Eric fights to save Ariel. This happens in very quick succession, but the events that unravel show the necessity of consent.

In conclusion: 

Disney / GIPHY

Yes, The Little Mermaid has its issues that many feminists have discussed more eloquently than I, but I think that there are also instances where women are shown to have power, sexual awareness, and consent. Indeed, Ursula’s knowledge of contracts is an area that could, perhaps, be explored. Octopi Law School; Under the Sea Academy of Law; The Eight Balancing Arms of Justice….I could go on.