Oct 14, 2015

Elsa and Harry Potter and Marginalization

I was going to write a post today about how grateful I am for the trials in my life, listing the trials and then saying what I gained from them. But I feel like that would be too self-indulgent. I think it would be a good exercise for me, but not sure it belongs in a blog post.

Instead, I'm going to write a completely nerdy post about Frozen and Harry Potter, book 5, and psychology.

I struggle with the fact that people are bothered by the themes of marginalization, struggle, and coping in these stories.

Today I turned Frozen on for my kids. I need to take it easy because of baby issues in this pregnancy. And with three energetic small children at home, and older kids who can help all at school, I've been resorting to a movie in the mornings after we complete our schoolwork. And I realized, I really love the story, Frozen. I know that some of my friends and family struggle with this story because of themes they see in it. And the references to certain portions of the population who are marginalized by popular culture. IN short, the assumption that Elsa's story is a story about homosexuality, her struggle to control her feelings and try to hide.

It doesn't bother me, honestly, if that particular marginalizing trait is what the writers and producers were thinking of when they wrote Elsa's story. I personally don't find it a problem. We've got someone who is struggling, hard, with something. Who is frightened to be close to those around her because she's worried she'll taint them or harm them with her struggles. So she gets more and more tied up in her anxiety and introspection, and ends up hurting a whole bunch of people because she is unwilling to face what's going on inside her and let people know about it.

And the resolution of Elsa's story is not a problem either, I don't think. It's when she lets fear rule her that she hurts others. It's when she lets love rule her that she can control her powers. And in the end, we're talking about a pair of sisters who love each other very, very much.

I have a few sisters who have struggled with marginalization. One of my sisters really struggles with anxiety, social phobias, and as a kid, sensory processing. She really struggled on her mission. And she was marginalized for her struggles simply because she couldn't operate in the usual way.

Elsa's story of marginalization is one I identify with strongly. And to delve a bit further. I struggle with the backlash people have had against Frozen and it's supposed agenda, because it shows, so very clearly, how people are still stuck in the place of struggling, not with choices people make, but *difference*. People struggle with struggles in others they can't ignore. If we're talking specifically about same-gender attraction or homosexuality, people still struggle with the fact that it even exists. And with the idea that a person cannot help those particular feelings.

I feel like it's time to put that aside. You can't tell someone they're wrong for how they feel. Sorry. And honestly, it's not your job to tell people they're wrong for what choices they make, either, unless you've got some kind of stewardship over them--you're a bishop, you're a parent. If a bishop or parent is doing their job, they are tapping directly into the spirit and Heavenly Father's will, so words and ideas will come to them that will help the person. And a good bishop or parent will agonize over every word, every decision, as they help their child negotiate this challenge. If you are someone who is a friend, your role is support. Kindness. Tolerance. Imagine how much a parent agonizes over how to help their child, how careful they are in saying the right things, making the right decisions. If you ever do say something to someone struggling with an issue that marginalizes them, you'd better agonize just as much, think just as hard, and be just as inspired before you ever open your mouth.

Whew. Wasn't planning on getting that feisty.

Anyway. Elsa's good in my book. Let it go, girl. Let people see who you are, and allow those who love you to get close to you as you negotiate whatever difficult, vulnerable issues your ice-castles represent.

In the same vein, a lot of people struggled with Harry when he suddenly got angsty and sullen and started yelling at people in the fifth book.

Personally, I had the opposite reaction. As I read that book, I felt how real it was. His reactions, his needs, his frustrations and journey. Let's think about this for a sec, OK? He's got a completely neglectful family and he's turning fifteen, an age where most people struggle with feelings and hormones and etc. I've been around a lot of fifteen year olds, and let's just say that most of them aren't pleasant to be around at times. So Harry, in this book, suddenly became REAL for me.

And that's not all, either. Remember what happened just before the start of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix? He spent all year being shunned by his peers, even his best friend in the world, as he negotiated challenge after challenge that nearly took his life. He was kidnapped and nearly killed, and watched as his friend Cedric was murdered.

If Rowling had continued with a cheery, unassuming, upbeat Harry in book five, I would have thrown it across the room. And I suspect many of you would have, too. He had just undergone some pretty intense trauma. And the fact that, after these horrible events, he was suddenly again isolated from all his support groups, from all news, even, from knowing what was even coming next... if you read the story, you'll see signs of his shell-shock. Overreaction, intense fear, intense feelings of paranoia and loneliness. Harry, in this story, was a Hero. Because he overcame all this, forgave his friends, and finally (finally) began sharing with them and letting them fully into his world. This was the book where things got real--for the reader, for Harry, and for all his relationships.

And then remember what he did in this book--how patient and restrained he was even as he was tortured by a sadistic teacher, the courage and integrity of his actions as he went against the establishment he knew was wrong in order to protect people he cared about as he formed the Defense Association. And then how he finally let his friends help him--allowed them into his worries and trauma and the danger that surrounded him, as he went to find out what happened to his godfather. This is the book where Harry finally sealed his goodness, for me. HE went through stuff. He reacted the way people who struggle with trauma react. And he overcame it.

If you want a story about someone who never questioned anything, who reacted calmly and sweetly to every trauma in his life, and always smiled and was cheerful, you're not going to find it in Harry. You're also not going to find it in the New Testament.

I feel like the fact that these stories have raised such reactions in our culture is a sign of a problem that really disheartens me.... people don't want to see it. They don't want to see struggle, they don't want to see or identify with situations where they don't have all the answers. They'd like their stories to be wrapped up in perfect, easily-lauded packages and their characters to be heroes in the way that supermodels are air-brushed, edited, and impossible to emulate.

Dude. Elsa's pretty awesome. Think of all the fear she inherited, and how she managed it for so long... she was pretty strong. And think of all she had to negotiate. Anna's pretty awesome too. Loving, non-judgmental, always sure that her sister would do the right thing, willing to be hurt by her in order to help her. WE should all be Annas to those around us, and hope that our loved ones are Annas in return when we end up in our own ice-castles.

We need to remember that struggle does not equal sin. Someone who isn't always reacting exactly as you think they should may be operating under burdens you cannot understand. Their reactions and coping mechanisms may not be what you think you'd choose, but you'll never known until you're there. And just because someone doesn't seem perfectly happy or cheerful, just because they can't run as fast as you think they should, does not mean they aren't doing exactly what God expects them to do. It doesn't mean they aren't working as hard as they can. And you can either be the one who reaches out and lifts up those around you who are struggling, or you can be their stumbling-block by judging them and reinforcing their marginalization.

I studied traumatic grief, bereavement, and PTSD with a BYU professor for two years. Do you know what the one variable is, the one thing that can make a difference for someone in terms of outcomes and recovery?

Social support.

That is the one thing that seems to make a difference, if you're looking at the numbers and symptom severity. So this is the ironic, kind of hilarious thing about it: the very people who are uncomfortable around someone because they aren't coping, are the ones emphasizing those poor coping mechanisms. If you isolate someone because you don't like how they're handling their struggles, you are part of the problem. You could even say, you are prolonging and perhaps causing the very things in the other person that are making you uncomfortable.

If you really want to change someone's trajectory, you will be warm, welcoming and friendly. You will include rather than marginalize. And for that reason, I'm really glad there are Annas, Olafs, Hermiones, Rons, and especially Luna Lovegoods in the world.


Laura Blackham said...

Funny thing about Order of the Phoenix: I was close to Harry's age in the book at the time it came out, and dealing with the same sorts of emotions and past traumas myself. So when he acted "emo" in this book (Still take issue with that description), I actually found myself relating to him and enjoying the book a lot more. Well...."enjoying". It is not a cheerful book. It deals with all kinds of problems that teens go through, and helps us remember that ignoring how we feel and putting down kids for being "emo" is not healthy and it's not fair. We need the bad with the good. We need the struggle with the resolution. Otherwise, it pretty much spits the face of those who actually have struggled, and it teaches an ultimately damaging and damning message.

You know, Sarah, Mom actually sent me a copy of Mile 21 while I was on my mission. I was with my last companion when I read it, and I'm sure that Mom's told you about what happened. I recognize that Mile 21 isn't exactly "missionary reading", but at that point I seriously did not care. I would be hiding in the bedroom by myself with it, which as I type it makes me recall the potent fear I was feeling at the time and the helplessness that went along with it. Mile 21 isn't a happy Mormon book, but it helped me through that challenge. Super cheesy, but it is true. When I saw the review a little while later that criticized the book for not having a "kind" protagonist, it was pretty upsetting. It seemed to be criticizing me for being angry and upset about what happened.

People often read/watch fiction to escape reality, which is okay. But I personally think that fiction is an amazing therapeutic tool, in that it can help us look at the uncomfortable and outright scary parts of ourselves and our history that we would not acknowledge otherwise. It reaches out to a different part of our brain that is more open and susceptible to suggestion, I think. Which sounds kind of 1984ish, but you get the point.

I think a lot of people were uncomfortable with Frozen not only because it seemed to be addressing an uncomfortable topic, but because so many people latched on to that interpretation. At the same time, it also made them remember times where they were scared or unhappy, which is not the usual Disney fare. Harry Potter is the same way - people went in expecting one thing, and they got something else that wasn't BAD, it was just different and maybe hit a little too close to home. And when we're confronted with uncomfortable emotions like that, we prefer to pretend that those things don't exist and that this idea is silly or threatening to our mental well-being.

So yeah. Marginalization and dismissal. It's not good for you, or anyone around you. Like meth. Or explosions.

Sarah Dunster said...

meth and explosions bad :) I'm glad my book helped you, and I felt similar things when I read that review. I guess we have to forgive people for not wanting to empathise. But it is hard <3

Sarah Dunster said...

meth and explosions bad :) I'm glad my book helped you, and I felt similar things when I read that review. I guess we have to forgive people for not wanting to empathise. But it is hard <3

Janell said...

Apparently I have been under a rock. I haven't ever heard anyone express concern or appreciation that Frozen may be about homosexuality. What - because Elsa is so overwhelmed by personal struggles that she isn't investing interest in boys? Or because she is a female hiding her true self? There are a lot of things we can be afraid of sharing or being beyond homosexuality. Good for those who can relate to the film. And raspberries for who think that one possible interpretation of the film ruins it.

For me the question is how do we be Anna, Hermoine, or Luna? I suppose you answered that as prescribing being kind, loving, thoughtful, and supportive. It's just I don't know the "correct" actions or "correct" words and fear my efforts will be misunderstood or rejected.

Sarah Dunster said...

Janell, I totally identify with that feeling. I guess it's a process. Mostly it's just inclusion. Seeing someone who's often alone, and sitting next to them and talking to them. Maybe, once they seem comfortable, inviting them over to hang out for dinner or a game night or something. Or offering service they might seem to need.

I think that nurturing a friendship or association is like parenting--a process that starts with awkwardness and nervousness and slowly develops into something solid that can be relied upon by both parties. And mostly, marginalized people need friendship.