Mar 13, 2018

"I Don't Understand You," + Disney and Mindless Crap

Recently, for some reason my mother and I were talking about Peter Pan. Actually, I was trying to tell her that crocodiles and alligators were not the same thing and somehow this lead to a discussion on the similarities between the Lost Boys from Neverland and the group of boys who stole and picked pockets for Fagan in the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist.
For some reason I wanted to talk about the crocodile from Peter Pan, and tried to keep returning to it, which eventually caused my mom to burst out, “Oh my god, you were obsessed with that crocodile!” with a dramatic eye-roll. I found this outburst quite diverting.  I mean, I knew I was mildly obsessed with crocodiles and alligators now, but to learn that I had been that way as a young child? Intriguing.
My favorite parts of Peter Pan were the escape-artist shadow at the beginning and any scene with the crocodile. That’s it. I was fiercely disappointed in any rendition of Peter Pan that did not dedicate the proper amount of screen time to the crocodile, and would promptly leave the room or theatre. And yes, it’s a crocodile, not an alligator, because he swims around in both fresh- and saltwater, whereas alligators do not have functioning salt glands and prefer freshwater since they have no method of osmoregulation.
My mother frequently says to me, “I don’t understand you,” in a disturbing, somewhat insulting, fatalistic tone, and I used to be rather hurt by this, back when she first started saying it in a truly grim way sometime around my late teens. But having spoken and reminisced about my childhood with her a number of times, I now realize that she has been itching to say this to me for probably my whole life.
“I couldn’t understand it,” She continued on, “out of the whole movie what you fixated on the most was the crocodile! Out of everything, even the flying kids and Tinkerbell! I couldn’t even tell if you were scared of the crocodile or… what! You were just… you enjoyed it so much, you were enthralled…by that crocodile.” She then went on to list off the characters after it became apparent that I had no idea who Tinkerbell was, had forgotten every single name except Peter Pan, and thought Jane Fonda was the actor who played him.
My mother’s response to this was, “When you were little I was so, so concerned about exposing you to … fiction,” she emphasized the word like it was the ninth circle of Hell, with a small shudder of disgust, “Because you could take something like a plot device or a character and immediately incorporate it into something else, some other story – or worse – reality!” She gestured expansively to the area around where we sat on the couch. We stared at each other for a second. “I didn’t know what you were going to take into your head and mangle next, or worse, what you were going to tell other people! Like that time you told your entire first grade class that your father had been kidnapped by gypsies. Once you told someone that I was from an island. They came up to me later asking which one. You had said something like, ‘My mom is from an island but I forget which one,’ which made it seem like I was from somewhere in the Caribbean. But I’m not, I’m from Long Island.” She stared at me. I stared back, thinking people from Long Island were shockingly snobby about Long Island.
“So I tried to keep you away from Disney movies and mindless crap like that” – at this I was distracted from pondering my mild surprise at her native Long Islander-ness by an even more shocking realization.
 Suddenly, I knew. I got it.
All the reasons my mom had claimed to be against Disney – the racism and blatant sexism of most films, their portrayal of girls and female characters through overdeveloped bodies and always the same body type/female form, which taught young girls that they had to look at themselves through the male gaze, the unnecessary romance, royalty (my mother is very against royalty) – all of it was a front for the fact that my mom couldn’t trust me.
All of those reasons were secondary to the threat of me losing touch with reality so early in life. She had noticed that I was an extremely sensitive and only sometimes perceptive child and that I reacted, seemingly without pattern, to certain bits of complete fiction. And she felt really apprehensive about that.
Which is ironic for a number of reasons. I wasn’t the type of kid who believed in Santa Claus. But I didn’t react predictably. Until around middle school I was pretty sure that “Neverland” was another name for the Netherlands, as in what it was really called in the Netherland language, similar to “Iranian” and “Persian” or “Russia” and “the USSR.”  As a young child, I also couldn’t seem to absorb the name Marilyn. I called the people with that name “Maryland,” even after being corrected repeatedly. There were people named Virginia, Georgia, Carolina and even Arizona. Why not Maryland?  
For a long time, I operated under the misunderstanding that when they said, “all-terrain vehicles” in car ads, they were saying “alt-terrain,” as in alternative terrain vehicles, like the duck boats in Boston that can drive around on land and then drive right into the harbor and float around. I thought there were cars like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  How could I be trusted to understand the oversimplification and dishonesty of Disney’s animated universe?
I have never seen most Disney animated movies, and I get an odd reaction when I reveal this to friends and family, like I never had a childhood. Which is foolish. I think I actually had more of a childhood because my mom silently, without making any rules or any declaration of any kind, prohibited Disney from entering our home. If I was given Disney themed things, like toys, movies or coloring books, they would just disappear. In fact, I only learned as an adult that all coloring books would disappear from our house – they were another thing my mom was against. I never noticed because I couldn’t even sit still to open a coloring book, I was barely aware such things existed outside of waiting rooms, schools – you know, places where one waited for real life to begin. Coloring tools, however, I greatly enjoyed. I thought the undersides of tables were under-decorated and took it upon myself to create large, abstract murals on flat blank surfaces that would often not be found until weeks, months or years later. My mom often said that I was the kind of child who could always entertain herself, no matter what. She would then pause, like she was holding back a “but” before going to on to say, “It’s amazing really, how well you entertained yourself,” in a darker tone, still with that “but” lurking in the air. These episodes were often in the company of friends or relatives, who would continue looking at my mother in a smiling yet slightly apprehensive way, as the “but” became more and more apparent, perhaps noticing what very few people do, that my mother wasn’t really smiling proudly at me, but grimacing as she went on with, “You were so creative,” gritting her teeth, “So, so creative… and also destructive.” At this point, she would have turned more towards me and the other people would have these slightly frozen, anticipating expressions. “I learned I had to watch you carefully. Often, when you were being the quietest, you were actually coming up with some nefarious plot that I had to somehow foresee and nip in the bud. It was exhausting.” She would finish emphatically. She then turned back to the other, now greatly entertained people, and say seriously, “She was a fiend.” Delivering this final pronouncement, she would look at me out of the corner of a narrowed eye and whisper, “She still is.”
Oh, yes, I definitely had a childhood. In fact, the shockingly low number of people who trust me with large knives might create the impression that it hasn’t really ended. Why do I carry around large knives?  When I carry around large scissors, I lose them. I think people steal them from me. But knives? In addition to the general sense of alarm the sight of a large knife seems to conjure, no one touches them because they don’t want to leave fingerprints on a murder weapon. This is what Disney has done, created a misplaced fear of large knives in people when, in reality, it’s the small, hidden knives that people should fear.
Oddly, though, multiple people have claimed that I didn’t have a childhood or severely missed out on an integral childhood experience after learning that I didn’t watch Disney movies, or have a Disney-influenced childhood.
Disney does not equal childhood.
Something that I’ve also heard people say in documentaries, film classes, and while reminiscing about their childhood is “oh, [this movie] taught me how to feel anger, fear, triumph, etc.”

I don’t really understand that statement. Real life is supposed to teach you those emotions, through experiences. The first time I heard something like that, I felt wildly thrown off and spent the entire discussion staring off into space thinking about it, about what that person could possibly have meant, since the direct meaning is kind of impossible, right? The way a person learns about emotions is through experiencing them, there is no substitute for that. And it’s wrong to think that you have experienced something, just because you have seen it in a movie. I have seen a lot of horse-riding in films, I have probably watched hundreds of hours of people riding horses. I myself, however, have never ridden a horse, so it would be wrong to think I know how to, or that I have some insight into the process.  

I was once in a documentary film class where we watched a film called Below Sea Level, directed by Gianfranco Rosi. It showed us a community of essentially homeless people living in a squatter-esque settlement in the middle of the desert called Slab City, California, over a period of five years. These were people who were trying to survive on a day-to-day level, who had experienced trauma and were seriously scarred, in multiple apparent and subtle ways. The filmmaker had managed to get close to a few of them, and over the period of five years, they had opened up to him, shared what they were proud of with him, what they enjoyed and how they lived their lives. But over the period of five years, some them died from starvation, drug overdoses, violence with each other, or just disappeared. These were people who, it was clear to me, had suffered in some way and could not fold themselves back into society. There were older men who had been in the Vietnam War, a mother who had lost custody of her child, people who had been institutionalized either in prison or in mental asylums. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t enjoy a donut, if they had one. And when the movie ended, we circled up for a discussion and right away people in the class started talking about how nice it was, to see that those people were happy. That they could be happy with their lives. I was stunned. I briefly and irrationally had this sudden hope that maybe the people in this class with me, a collection and range of all different ages, experiences and perspectives, had spent the last two hours watching some other movie. But no. I actually started crying then, and immediately embarked on some serious breathing exercises to get myself back under control because I don’t cry, and I especially don’t cry in front of strangers.  And I was surrounded by strangers, who I suddenly felt irreparably separated from. As wildly and abruptly as I had been flung into the depths of depression and isolation by my classmates’ commentary, I felt an odd kinship with the subjects of the film. For an instant, I was exhausted by the widening gap between me and everyone around me, and felt like it would be fine if I just walked out of the room and out of a society I felt so alienated by. That it would be fine if I abandoned everyone before I could feel abandoned. But I also realized that’s not me. I’m not like the residents of Slab City.  That’s not what I’m meant for, because I’m capable of more.  I have a vast vocabulary at my disposal, as well as the power of sarcasm and mockery, and my fighting spirit. I can bridge the gap, because I am not like the people who live below sea level, nor am I like the people who feel good about themselves because they think they recognize happiness in others, who are so clearly desperate and struggling to function.
That’s right. I lost it.
I think I (very calmly) burst out, “How can you people say that what we just spent two hours watching was happiness?” Four or five people, who seemed slightly put off with me for some reason, took it upon themselves to explain the moments in the film where they perceived that the people were happy. Like proof, or something. I scoffed at their proof. “You think just because they can laugh about a bird doing tricks, they’re happy?” I was honestly asking, because I still couldn’t quite believe that anyone would come away from this film with that understanding, but I was also trying give them a chance to recognize that maybe they were wrong. But no, my questions just made them firm in their convictions. Well, about two of them, the rest seemed to drop into silence and resort to watching with wide eyes as I proceeded to fight with the professor of the class and a guest-lecturer/professional documentary film maker.
I asked them, “You think you can recognize happiness?”
And they were like, “Yes, better than you can,” with these looks on their faces like, we are almost forty and you are twenty.
I asked, “You think you can recognize happiness in the people from that film?” pointing at the blank screen where the film had been projected.
And before they could respond to that one, I shot off, “You think you can understand what happiness means to the individuals who live the way we saw in that film?”
Here one of them said, “Well, they are living the way they want to—” but I cut him off because that was a seriously misguided way of thinking I couldn’t even address.
“You think your perspective and relationship with happiness is like theirs?”
And they were like “Happiness is happiness, this film is proof of that.”
I stared at them in disbelief and said, “I think that’s bullshit and you’re deluding yourselves.” And I started to cry. As in, really cry. I hadn’t cried so openly in front of such a large group of people since I had presented a monologue from journal entries as a Nazi in eighth grade.
A couple people started talking over each other, a few of them visiting professors from other universities, a few of them guest documentary filmmakers. I ignored them.
I looked at the woman who had been my staunchest opponent and said to her, “If you think that you, sitting here in that dress, have any idea what their lives are like—”
“What does my dress have to do with it?” Dimly I recognized that she was seriously offended now, and everyone else was confused. This woman, over the past week, had worn a different flower-patterned cotton-linen dress every single day. They were like imitation Marimekko dresses, cut on the bias, some had pleats, none had wrinkles. Those dresses had been tailored to her height and she was under five feet tall.  I could tell that serious money, time and effort had been sunk into her wardrobe and I don’t know how or why, but this had somehow become central to my point about the film. But I had to backpedal.
“I mean, you’re here.” I said gesturing to where she sat, “You are obviously functioning and the people in that film are obviously not.” I paused here for a breath and wiped away some tears, and it was gratifying when no one interrupted me and I realized that I had finally struck a chord. “You care about the way you look, and you’re working towards something. I can tell you see a future for yourself, you’re participating in society and because of that, you are in a completely different world from those people,” I pointed at the blank screen again. And yeah, I was still crying. Everyone was staring at me with very serious expressions now, and I felt like I had to apologize because it seemed like I couldn’t stop crying now. But I didn’t want to.
“I don’t mean to spring this emotional episode on you guys, and I really don’t mean to insult anyone here, but when you started talking about how it was nice to see people like that who were happy, and when you started listing off the scenes that were proof they were happy, I suddenly felt like I had watched a completely different documentary than the one you were talking about.” I paused here to look at the people I had been fighting with and was vaguely surprised to see a collection of concerned and somewhat shocked expressions. One person looked on the verge of tears.
“I don’t think this film is showing that they’re happy, regardless of their circumstances. They are so clearly unhappy. Something went wrong in these people’s lives at some point, they have some trauma that we can’t possibly understand, that they can’t get past. They are wounded, seriously injured people who are not healing. They’ve stopped participating in the world. They don’t see a future for themselves anymore, there’s something stopping them from imagining it. But my point is, you,” and I pointed to the professor here, “Said something like, ‘they chose this way of life, they’re happy,’ and I think that’s very wrong. I don’t think anyone would chose to be unable to imagine a future for themselves, and I don’t think anyone who watches this film has the right to say that what we see is happiness, or to ever assume that we understand them enough to identify happiness in their lives. We only understand our own happiness, no one else’s.”
I was done. I felt emotionally wrecked and my throat hurt. I hadn’t stopped crying. The expressions of the people I’d been arguing with looked kind of worried, and everyone was sort of staring off into space. The professor asked the rest of the class if they felt similarly to me and one or two people jumped in, immediately agreeing with what I had said but also adding their own observations about the film. Later on, the professor said that in the years he had shown Below Sea Level to his classes no one had had quite the reaction I’d had, which in turn made him question his own ideas about the film and if he should stop presenting it to his classes. He also asked everyone if they would be willing to watch the film again, and almost everyone said no, except me, which also contrasted sharply with the responses of other classes, who normally were more than willing to watch it again.  
Perhaps it had been my somewhat uncontrolled emotional response, traumatizing everyone.  Perhaps it was because once I revealed an incredibly painful perspective of a film that had managed to deceptively disguise some of the most disturbing aspects with big wide-angle shots and nice music, it became difficult to see the film in the same innocent and seemingly innocuous way of before.  Suddenly, people were afraid of watching Below Sea Level again after I had taken a stand and declared, “You don’t know what happiness means to anyone other than yourself.”
The result of either is the same – once again, I had ruined the feelings of general pleasantness and good will for another group of people, basically innocent strangers who wandered into this class, not knowing what they in for, not knowing that amongst them was young woman who was going take things personally, think about life seriously and emotionally scar them all.
I find it odd that what people seem to truly care about in a film is if they can return to their lives unchanged and unaffected. Un-polarized. They don’t mind seeing emotions in a movie, but they don’t want to see a movie that will make them question themselves, that will make them emotional.
Why then is the statement, “[this movie] taught me how to feel [this emotion],” so popular?
After hearing this sentiment expressed a number of times, I have now come to an idea that the people who choose to say this powerful statement about whatever movie, or television show they feel strongly towards, don’t truly understand what they are saying, but at the same time, mean what they say. I don’t think their purpose is to nullify their actual, individual, real life experiences but that somehow, in their memory, and how they personally think of certain emotions, they have inserted (maybe replaced a certain memory with) a scene or movie that portrayed an emotion in a way they liked or could identify with. Perhaps this scene or movie gave them something they couldn’t come up with in real life at the time they experienced it.
In my opinion, the assumption that a Disney movie epitomizes what an American childhood is supposed to feel like overestimates the importance of crafting images for kids, instead of letting them use their own imagination and develop their own critical thinking skills.
I am glad that the images I was shown as a child didn’t make me into a person who is so intent on seeing an image of the world that reassures them, who depends on that reassurance, that their automatic response to seeing desperation and heartbreak in others is to think, “Oh they chose that, they must be happy somehow since it was their choice.”  I have taken so many film classes, focused on critique, production and history, and often times I was in a room that was at least seventy-five percent male. I remember one class that had, by my count, thirty-six students in it and only four of them, including myself, were women. The TA of that class used to tease me about how I got into “heated discussions” with certain other students every time we met, but when I sarcastically asked him if I should just stay silent then, he promptly said in all seriousness, “No, because then we wouldn’t have any girls who spoke.”
I think there’s a link here between women always being portrayed and criticized as the emotional sex and their fear of being completely discounted when they show any emotion, or when they care, and the lack of women behind the camera. It’s ironic that people even wonder about that, how can we confidently go forward when we face so much more scrutiny for having emotions than men do? Our emotions are not any more out of control than men’s.  Yet it’s clear to me that my ability to feel and show emotion is a strength. I have been able to make more connections and convincing arguments, write better papers, and tell more powerful stories because I am not afraid to be emotional about something and I can make other people feel emotional too.
I don’t want to make happy, fairy-tale ending, romance movies. I want to make movies that don’t end in two people falling in love or getting married, but don’t have to contain gratuitous violence. I want to make movies that show love, but don’t make you, as the audience, feel like there’s a checklist somewhere that everyone is being measured against. And I have a lot of ideas and half-written screenplays. I have literally spent my life collecting bits and pieces of the perfect story. So I’ve thought about my audience a lot. And I’ve thought about the kind of audience that Disney has created.  
I think the only Disney movie my mom purposefully brought into our home and allowed me to watch was Mulan. I saw the Little Mermaid once, somewhere, and my mom forever rued the occasion she had relinquished control of me to some other mother for an afternoon of basically sitting still. I have never seen the Lion King, Snow White, Bambi, or any of those movies where animals behave like humans. Actually, I did see Homeward Bound, but those were real trained animals with a voice over.
My mom seemed to really hate the effect Disney movies had on me and children in general, and she also didn’t seem to buy into the idea that children should watch movies that are just for them, or the idea of children’s tables, children’s utensils, children-sized plastic cars. I don’t think I was exposed to a television or movies until I was three or four. The screen of the Sony television we had was about twelve inches by twelve inches, and sometimes only showed things in black and white. I remember its click-y buttons. I remember trying to draw on it with crayons.  
As a child, I saw a mélange of movies I was probably a bit too young for. Like Titanic, which I saw when I was around five. Also, Face/Off, Fast and Furious, Princess Mononoke, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, starring Yun-Fat Chow, one of my mother’s favorite actors because he was so handsome, and Stand and Deliver.  Children’s movies I did see were James and the Giant Peach (1996), Harriet the Spy (1996), Matilda (1996), From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1995), Alaska, the Indian in the Cupboard (which I cried about), Free Willy, Shaolin Soccer.  When I asked to see Cinderella, I saw a Cinderella movie where Whoopi Goldberg was the queen and Whitney Houston was the fairy godmother (fairy-god-mother, a concept I had trouble wrapping my head around).  Ultimately, as a result of my mom being so against Disney (she’s even against amusement parks), I saw movies that were even more imaginative, artistic and stimulating than the uniform Disney animation.  
And I learned some things from talking with my mom. One is that she has never understood me, which makes me feel a lot better about the way she says, “I don’t understand you, Parisa,” because it’s not new, she’s always felt that way!  The second is that people from Long Island are surprising snobby about Long Island.

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