On Sherlock and Other Feelings ⎟ Bildungsroman

Dear Reader,

Do you remember sitting in grade 9 English (or if you’re not in North America, the age of about 13/14) learning the word bildungsroman? It’s rather an ugly word, it’s like trying to spit your tongue out and juggle it. A bildungsroman is a novel or story in which the main character, or protagonist, comes of age or develops. Usually, young people read them because, they too, are coming of age. For example, the Harry Potter series is a bildungsroman in which the protagonists and other students at Hogwarts develop into adults and learn about the complicated morals of the (adult) world.

A lot of the time, books that follow the development of a main character will also employ archetypal representations of good and evil. Sometimes, there is a slight complication of those tropes, but, usually, they glare right at you. Consider the way that Voldemort is just evil. Consider the way that the Slytherins are, likewise, represented as evil, evil eleven-year-old children. Now, Rowling complicates our ideas of good and evil with Harry’s struggle between understanding his own goodness in the face of Voldemort’s semi-possession of his mind in book five. She also complicates it with the character of Snape. Yes, an abusive teacher that frightens his students, but also, a hero to some? I have a difficult time with Snape, but he is meant to be read as someone who changed their mind about something because it was someone for whom he particularly cared. The author sets up clear lines between the states of pure goodness (think Lily, who sacrificed herself for her child) and pure evil (think Voldemort, who tried to kill said child), as if such categories truly exist, in order to play around with ideas of good and evil. At times, Rowling complicates persons somewhat effectively such as Dumbledore, but other times she uses Dudley’s fatness as an indicator that he is bad. We are just meant to read some characters as good and some as bad, especially some bodies are good and others as bad.

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This type of heavy-handed coding is also clear in Western films. You know, those racist ones where white guys ride ride horses and call themselves cowboys. There is always a lot of salooning, frisky whisky, spurring spurs, and blink-speed shooting. The good guys wore white hats, and the bad guys wore black hats. This was in part because it saved a lot of story-telling time for audiences to have a coded way to read the film and the story. It also made it easier for audiences to distinguish between two cowboys (because white people look the same). Most importantly, white, whiteness, and the white hat were meant to be read in terms of white equating with goodness, purity, and morality. Blackness, read as the opposite of whiteness, was thus sinister, evil, and immoral or, perhaps, amoral. This, of course, also applies to how race has been used in film, literature, and popular culture.

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Let’s parse these things out a little bit. When Harry defeats Voldemort we get a glimpse of the heroes happy life in the epilogue. We are to read that ending as a happy ending. Our characters have developed, they have children, and their children are going to Hogwarts, where they will grow into wizards and witches and maintain the status quo. (I am not including The Cursed Child or Fantastic Beasts in this discussion.) The end message is that Harry, Hermione, and Ron have triumphed and the world is good. Likewise, in a western film, when the good guy expels the baddie, all is well in the world. The order of the cosmos have returned to a state of flourishing, principled, law-abiding, and, I suppose, happy status quo. There really isn’t any development beyond that because everything that could be done is done. We move onto another story, imagining that these characters are moral and developed characters. Think about how Disney princesses get married, and the story that young viewers are told is that that is the happy ending they should want in life. The adults in the room chortle knowingly; life is far more difficult and less certain than this Romantic ideal.

When we engage with these types of stories, we need to consider the motivation of the story. Why and how does this character or these characters come of age? What lessons do they learn? What are we supposed to learn from their actions? How can we learn to grow up like these characters? What will it take for us to reach a final state of goodness? (Hint: there is no such thing, but more on that later). Inculcating people to particular behaviours is not a new concept, but specifically targeting young people and children is new enough. In the eighteenth century, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote a book called The Social Contract (1762). He wanted ‘man’ to be forced to be free in his new world order; there was to be a return to nature and a lot of outdoor dancing (a noble-savage trope, popular in this era). But people needed to know how to be ideal citizens in the world, Rousseau thought. So, he taught them with his novel/bildungsroman/educational guide Emile, or On Education (1762). A young boy, Emile, and girl, Sophie, are shown to grow up and learn to be the right kinds of people.

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Rousseau indoctrination à la life-style guide creates stable statuses for our two grown-up protagonists: the manly man and the passive woman. (Please note the use of creates in the previous sentence; such ideas of gender are man-made, not inherent.) A lot of bildungsroman follow the same trajectory. The character grows to be an (young) adult, and their future is boundless and hopeful because of the lessons they’ve learnt along the way.

This is rather dissatisfying. Isn’t it? Are any of our lives actually like that? I doubt it. We should be chortling at it, knowingly, because we don’t just learn a lesson once and know how to live correctly, as it were, for all of our lives. Also, I’m certain that bildungsroman novels have generally precluded the inclusion of other races because most of these growing-up opportunities were likely only available to white protagonists–boys and their dogs.

Moreover, this stasis of reaching the clarity of pubescence is rather a sham. We might be told that we are going to get to a point where we’ve reached moral untouchability, but that’s simply not true. People aren’t either good or evil. For instance, one might suppose themselves to be a good person, but perhaps that doesn’t fit with the fact that you told someone’s secret to someone else or you said something cruel about another person to make that other person feel the anger you feel. And yet, one might also do kind things, too. I wrestle with this idea of a dichotomy that seems to be solid state of good versus bad.

This is where Sherlock comes in. In the first few seasons, the characters tried to remain relatively themselves, but they rubbed off on each other provoking change. Watson learnt that he really wanted to be a soldier again. Sherlock learnt that he could be more vulnerable.  Without giving any plot twists away, this new season, while a little unlikeable for other reasons, has these characters seriously interrogate their morals. There is not just a state of goodness to be occupied, but it is a conscientious journey. It is an act in motion.

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Formidable story-telling reminds the reader/viewer/listener/audience to query their ideas of good and bad. We may do good or bad things, but those things have to be complicated beyond a tropism of ‘good’ or ‘evil’ (we should always be complicating how we view people as good or bad, and how we have come to understand what those terms mean). Of course, as I think about the polarized villains such as Moriarty and Magnussen, I’m sure some of you will query this stance. Recall that Sherlock and these villains have many of the same traits. It is often the uniqueness of Sherlock that is employed against him as a foil. We are meant to align Sherlock with these villains and the danger that he might easily slip into being a villain. What is it that Sergeant Donavon says to Watson? “One day we’ll be standing around a body, and Sherlock Holmes will be the one who puts it there” (“Lady in Pink”). The traits of the villains encourages the audience to view Sherlock’s character as constantly in danger of slippage into evilness, but, as we learn from Mrs Hudson, Sherlock’s responses are always emotional. Also, we cannot forget both Irene Adler and Mary and their complicated roles as both villains and heroes.

The idea of character growth within the Sherlock narrative is fitting because Watson is our meta-narrator, informing us about Sherlock and his adventures. Watson strives to paint Sherlock sympathetically to his readers. We are hyper aware of this meta-narration, particularly with the release of the Abominable Bride,” in which the audience comes face to face with Sherlock Holmes in his nineteenth- and twenty-first-century portrayals and Watson’s intentional framing of the stories explicitly shown when Mrs Hudson rebukes him for cutting her lines. It is the on-going space for growth within a narrative of puzzles of crime that force the characters to confront their own morality and values and how they match up with their own crisis of self.

I’d like to extrapolate from these literary and filmic examples to my own life. I think we grow up reading books, assuming that we’ve got it figured out by the time we’re fifteen. We declare ourselves to be Hermiones or Lunas, but in doing so, sometimes we fail to recognize the complexities of our selves. Certainly, this is not easy, or at least, not always easy. Working to understand ourselves and quieten our ego in the face of making our world equitable and the goal of empathy teaches us how to see ourselves and other people as complex beings with multiple and conflicting emotions. Sometimes, intentions are all in order, but the heart fails to grab the bit. It’s hard to convince yourself to move past the things you feel, even if it would seem easier if you could just switch on a dime. It isn’t always possible. Learning to be fair and kind in the face of what is difficult is not an easy lesson. If it were, then we would already live in a fair world. We don’t always have kindness or the capability for kindness; that’s okay, we’ll try better together. Take the time you need, dear ones. Stare sadly into the distance, wipe that tear, look for friendship and love, feel joy, feel angst, feel ecstatic. Learn to be kind, for in our endeavour to kindness we should be the physically impossible perpetual motion of learning to have empathy and compassion. You’ll slip up. I’ll slip up. You’ll lose your temper, and so will I. But we’ll always be growing.

So, dear reader, just when you thought your journey was over, it’s time you head into the woods and find the most gnarled tree. The grooves, the slopes, the dips, the crevices, the moss growing all over, that is what your bildungsroman should look like. It’s complicated, compelled to grow and pay host to other lives.

 

Heaps of love,

Kat

 

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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!

Focus!

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.

Heaps of Love,
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