Politics & Policy

The Monster-Victim Mix-Up

Anyone who thinks monsters are just "misunderstood" has misunderstood monsters.

I’ve seen How to Train Your Dragon twice. My daughter loves it (the lead dragon reminds us of her cat). And I think it’s pretty great too. (Note: Some pretty obvious spoilers heading your way.)

Perhaps I’m mellowing in my middle years, but I don’t much mind what Entertainment Weekly calls the movie’s “layer of age-of-terror allegory about the ignorance bred by jingoism.” This refers to the fact that the Vikings in the film have been raised for seven generations to kill dragons: “It’s what we do.”

But the hero, Hiccup, an alienated, smart-mouthed teen, discovers that dragons are actually inclined to be lovable, sweet-tempered companions, if only his fellow Vikings could get over their stubborn ignorance and prejudice and give the monsters a chance. It’s all been a misunderstanding, and in the end, dragons and Vikings learn to love one another.

My long-standing complaint against this sort of story — aside from its being a complete cliché — is that it teaches kids there’s no such thing as monsters. No, I’m not keen on telling kids that there are things that go bump in the night or beasts in the closet — particularly when that means I have to spend half the night with a terrified kid in my bed.

But monsters once served an important purpose. The word’s Latin and French roots mean a grave warning or omen. Monster stories once told us that evil exists and that we shouldn’t assume all motives are good and kind.

Sure, kids today are taught to yell “Stranger danger!” or some such when approached at the mall, but you won’t find that sort of lesson in popular children’s books and cartoons. And, let the record show, some of those strangers really are a horrific, soul-sickening danger and not merely misunderstood.

It was no trivial decision to populate Sesame Street with cuddly “monsters.” Even Oscar the Grouch is really just a softy. And a few years ago, they rewrote Cookie Monster’s telos; he now says that cookies are merely a “sometimes food,” causing some, including Stephen Colbert, to ask whether Cookie Monster had “abandoned the pro-cookie agenda.”

I’m not so nostalgic as to believe that the world that produced the Grimm fairy tales is preferable to that which gave us Monsters, Inc. But the improvement didn’t come without drawbacks.

Meanness is no longer innate; it’s the unfortunate side effect of being misunderstood, the forgivable self-defense mechanism of victims.

For instance, when Hollywood rewrote How the Grinch Stole Christmas for the live-action movie with Jim Carrey, the refrain “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch” no longer really applied. Instead of having “termites in his smile” and “garlic in his soul,” the Grinch was actually the victim of closed-minded Whovillians. His transformation into Christmas hero isn’t so much a powerful metamorphosis as it is a moral victory against the bullies.

Psychological explanations for why there are bad people have their place. What bothers me is the tendency to explain away the objectively evil as merely misunderstood and the misunderstood as objectively evil. We all sympathize with Tony Soprano, even though he’s a brutal murderer. Hannibal Lecter, it turns out, was a victim of the Nazis. In the real world, how many times have we heard the motives of terrorists explained away as the regrettable but rational responses of victims?

Meanwhile, merely disagreeing over gay marriage or health-care reform is a damning, self-dehumanizing act. Without trying to keep score in terms of political rhetoric, surely we can all agree that there’s a tendency to assume the other side is not only wrong, but has knowingly embraced evil motives.

Back in Hollywood, the least sympathetic people are often not true villains but merely “judgmental” people who refuse to understand the misunderstood on their own terms.

Which brings us back to How to Train Your Dragon. My daughter would have liked it less, but a refreshing and more realistic ending would have had the Vikings enlisting their new, fire-breathing pets in a massive invasion of Europe, laying waste to all they saw and bringing the hated Christians to heel. Because that’s really what Vikings do.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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