Defending Disney: Cinderella

Cinderella-cinderella-1647895-800-600

Cinderella is by far the Disney film that has earned the most controversy –and this fact blows my mind. I honestly, truly do not understand this, and not because I think the film is good. No, this is absolutely my least favorite Disney Princess movie. No, my confusion is simply because this movie is so incredibly bland that I don’t really see how it can be offensive.

My problems with Cinderella are not ideological at all. I have the least political reasons imaginable, and probably the nerdiest, for disliking this movie. My first problem is that the animation changed. If I recall my film history correctly, it’s because of one or more deaths in the company, but I don’t have a citation on that so someone may need to check for me. Regardless, the Grimm’s illustration-style, dark, broody, lush, Germanic look of Snow White and Pinocchio  (which I am not going to review other than to say it is actually a really scary movie) was replaced with a French-inspired, light, frothy, pastel look. It’s been compared to illustrations by C.E. Brock, which I’m not sure is intentional, but makes sense.

pnpbrockwc13

However, I simply don’t like it. My artistic tastes are for more detailed, lush animation styles and I find Cinderella a little too clean and polished and frothy for my liking.

Cinderella and the prince

My other problem with Cinderella is that the music is actually really bad. Sure, the film won an Oscar for best song, but other than that song, really think about the soundtrack. Do you ever find your self humming it? Do you think, “You know, Cinderella has some really classic tunes!” My guess is not. The music is extremely bland. The love song is literally dominated by humming, which is never a good sign. The second most sing-able tune is “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes”, which is in itself a lyrically vague statement and paired with a forgettable la-de-da type tune, which is only memorable because it is so simplistic. “Sing Sweet Nightingale” serves no storytelling purpose, is lyrically not even related to the plot, and is extremely boring. Sure, it’s technically interesting, from a sound-mixing perspective. Ilene Woods harmonizes with herself in the scene, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that she does have a very nice voice. But, since this is 1950, and I do like my music of the era, I have to say that song is not really something you want to tune into now. And, then there’s the mice. I hate the mice. I hate their voices so, so much. I’ve heard people say that their song is actually good, but no. It can’t be. Because it’s sung by the mice! I’ve never been into that chipmunk sound, and this is no exception. If I wanted to hear that, I’d just suck helium from a balloon.

So, my two major complaints are out of the way, what can we say about the story and what are the controversies?

On the left: Cinderella is the worst role-model for women ever, because she is passive, never does anything for herself, and waits around to be saved from her situation.

On the right: Like Snow White, this film doesn’t offend most conservatives, but some have been pointing out that the prince is just incidental.

Everyone:  The prince falls in love with Cinderella because of her clothes.

First of all, I’d like to make a wild and daring statement and say that Cinderella suffers from unsophisticated storytelling. Oh, I know. Radical. I bet everyone thought this was the animated Rashomon.

A dream is a wish your heart makes... five different and conflicting ways, and even beyond the dead!

A dream is a wish your heart makes… five different and conflicting ways, and even beyond the dead!

I know, it’s a children’s film, it’s Disney. We shouldn’t expect extremely complicated storytelling. However, I think that story expectations are where the problems come in. For example, the story is set in a fantasy world, and it has castles and royalty. But, the art design borrows heavily from 1950s fashion. Without making a clear setting in the story, the viewer starts to get an idea that this is the 1950s, but with fantasy elements. And, because of this, Cinderella seems like kind of a putz. In the original story, she cannot leave. Where would she go? But, if this is the 1950s, there’s a real sense that Cinderella is suffering from codependency and could probably leave if she wanted to. That’s why so many feminists find her infuriating. However, I’d like to point out that Cinderella isn’t a 1950s woman. She just looks like one. Think of it this way: Cinderella, the drawing, is a 1950s woman illustration who was “cast” as Cinderella the character, a fantasy character in a semi-medieval world where she is not going to be able to leave, go to New York, get a flat and work as a typist. For all intents and purposes, Cinderella is stuck and has nowhere to go.

pictures-of-cinderella18-cinderellainfo-com

Honestly, I find this controversy fairly silly because it’s actually a great parable for how not to be as a woman. In a world where women are often pitted against one another, through competition and a consumer culture which encourages this kind of comparison to one another, Cinderella shows just how ugly jealousy and pettiness really is. The dynamic of the evil stepmother and Cinderella, as well as the step-sisters (who are more stupid and bratty than straight-up evil) is actually very interesting and carries some valuable lessons. Lady Tremaine is manipulative, cunning, and her one sense of control and power is to ruin her step-daughter’s life. We all have met people who are like this in some sense, whether they are classmates, peers, co-workers, relatives, employers, and so on, there are people who find their power trips just through trying to destroy another person. They tend to narrow in on sweet-tempered people, as well, like Cinderella. This could be useful to point out to children, how manipulative and power-hungry people can behave. And, it’s interesting that the mother twists her daughters into doing her bullying for her, daughters who the film portrays as otherwise just kind of lazy. They’d probably be happy with just eating breakfast in bed and lounging around, but their laziness, pettiness, and delusional belief that they will become celebrities (marry the prince) makes them downright abusive. If that’s not a timely lesson to this day, I don’t know what is!

disney

Even though I never really liked this movie as a kid, it was hard not to feel sad right at this scene.

Even though I never really liked this movie as a kid, it was hard not to feel sad right at this scene.

Now, in all fairness, there is a point to Cinderella’s character problems, but it’s not anti-feminism. In fact, supposedly this was the fairytale Walt Disney related to the most, because he had received such luck in his own career and art. (There’s a good review for the movie on http://www.thatguywiththeglasses.com, if anyone is interested.) If he related to Cinderella, it seems unlikely he’d create her to be a character with bad morals. No, Cinderella’s problem once again goes back to some unsophisticated storytelling. She’s just really boring. She’s passive. If Snow White is an optimist with a go-get-’em attitude, who is always doing something to improve her situation and make friends, Cinderella is the opposite. She’s actually not very optimistic and gives up easily. When she’s interrupted in making her dress, she doesn’t decide to sneakily make it at night. She just leaves it, wistfully, and the mice and birds make it for her. Her character doesn’t do very much. And, I think the writers realized this because we have endless padding with the mice and birds doing all the action we’d probably rather see the main character do. This, I assume, is actually a fault of the same technical difficulties in Snow White: humans are hard to animate, and mice aren’t. Unfortunately for me, I hate the mice, so all of these scenes are tedious and annoying to me.

However, I don’t think Cinderella is a bad character. I think she’s a poorly-written character. But, she does have good traits. If Snow White is optimistic, Cinderella is hopeful. She doesn’t see the good in all her situations like Snow White does (which, again, is because she’s in a literally abusive household, so that makes sense) but she is hopeful. She has an idea that someday things will get better. That’s the message of the story: life gets better. And, sometimes children are in bad situations that they can’t really change. We do need messages that life sometimes just does get better. Kids change and bullies grow up and you eventually graduate and life can get better. It’s a good idea to remember when this film was made: 1950. This is a postwar movie. And, the world needed a little of that sort of hope, that despite situations the civilians could not change, life does indeed get better. That’s a good message.

disney_quotes_cinderella_1

Now, as for the prince, he, too, suffers from being poorly written. He’s not really an important character, again hampered by animation technicalities but also just not being important. If you think that boys won’t get into the movie because of this, then I don’t blame you. But, here’s the thing, I never related to either Cinderella or the prince as a kid. I used to pretend to be many Disney characters, and I don’t remember ever pretending to be either of these two. I found them extremely boring. I think that the filmmakers kind of realized this and so we do have active characters, male and female, in the mice and birds. Tragically, for me, these characters are just nails-on-a-chalkboard annoying, but I know some kids really loved them. And, I admit, I did like Gus as a child. Though, now, I just like the cat. The cat the the fairy godmother. But, if you think kids are going to get ideas that women should just wait around and men are prizes for being good, I think you might be too invested in Disney as your moral compass in adult life. Kids probably won’t get that idea and most likely will see a very simplistic good-vs-bad story that also includes magic and talking animals. I wouldn’t worry too much.

However, for all the conservative worry about how fathers are portrayed in media, I’m shocked no one seems to hate the king. The king is horrible. He is like this tyrant who has an all-consuming drive to have grandkids, not because he wants heirs but because he’s lonely. And he’s willing to sell out his son to all the fame-obsessed women of the community just so they will breed. He even tries to kill the duke when this doesn’t work out. The duke is literally terrified of being executed when he accidentally breaks the glass slipper. The king is an ass. A lonely ass, but an ass. However, as a kid, I never got how creepy that was, so my guess is it’s not too damaging. It is, however, really weird. The prince doesn’t even go searching for Cinderella. The king sets that up because he’s maniacal in his desire to be a grandfather. This is a super weird twist, and I don’t know why people don’t mention it very often.

The madness of King Disney-guy...

The madness of King Disney-guy…

As for the prince only picking Cinderella for her clothes or whatever else people have problems with: the prince is barely a character. His voice actor is not even credited. Male characters are just technically hard to animate, and the story isn’t written well. It’s not a scheme or a plot to teach bad lessons. But, it isn’t written very well, and these problems will later be addressed in the far-superior Sleeping Beauty.

I feel like I’ve been unfairly harsh on the movie, however, and I’d like to point out some decent scenes. While I don’t like the overall look of the film, I do appreciate Mary Blair’s original concept, which is very much based on Romantic and Rococo art.

download (1)

I don’t like Rococo. It makes me anxious, and I think it looks cluttered and garish. But, this is a matter of taste, and I have to admit that at least there is a lot of thought and effort that went into emulating the artistic styles for the movie.

Portrait of Mademoiselle Guimard as Terpsichore by Jacques-Louis David Jacques-Louis David

Portrait of Mademoiselle Guimard as Terpsichore by Jacques-Louis David Jacques-Louis David

Also, the movement looks wonderful. Cinderella moves in a far more fluid manner than Snow White and the characters look more realistic. There’s a lot of grace to Cinderella’s movements. She’s very elegant, and there must have been incredible patience in getting all those frames to create her beautifully fluid motion. Also, there are some animation scenes that I do like and think really work. I love the scene when the fairy godmother creates her coach and horses, et cetera. And, then there’s the scene when Cinderella finally gets her dress and glass slippers. This is a technically brilliant moment of animation, and Disney himself considered it the most beautiful scene in any of his films. And, yeah, it’s that good. Even though I don’t think that the movie is as artistic as Snow White, and I do find a lot of the film very boring, every time I think I wouldn’t recommend it to a child I remember that the child wouldn’t get to see this scene. And, this is an important scene in animation, cinema history, and art. It really does capture the magic and wonder of a faiytale, and it works beautiful. It’s a damn good piece of animation, and I think it actually justifies the rest of the film’s existence. It’s that powerful.

dress

Cinderella-Blue-Dress

So, I don’t think this is a great film, but I also don’t think it’s an offensive film. I don’t think the movie encourages bad behaviors in children or portrays women or men in a bad light. I think it suffers from bad storytelling, but in the end I’d call this an innocuous bore with a few moments of brilliance. And, the message of hope remains timely and true. So, for all my dislike of the movie, I am actually happy it exists. Sometimes, we need a movie that says life gets better, and which gives us that sense of awe at seeing a beautiful moment in animation. Maybe that’s enough.

Cinderella - getting the slipper

Advertisements

Defending Disney: Snow White

download

I’m going to talk about Disney.

The Mouse.

Okay, so, what might be so very literati about a mega-corporation like Disney and its instantly recognizable brand? These days, there’s such a surplus of Disney merchandise, most all of which seems pretty tacky, that the literati sect tend to simply bemoan its existence as some mind-killing injection from hell. (Literati sects are melodramatic like that.)

The thing is, pop-culture analysis is a big part of cultural studies, which encapsulate the literati, and, for a less pretentious reason to write about Disney, I grew up a Disney kid. I had the Aladdin and Little Mermaid toys and bed sheets, and Belle’s yellow ball dress, and Lion King footie pajamas, and, if pressed, I’m sure I remember most Disney songs from my favorite movies. And, seeing as this year critics have hailed the return of the Mouse with the acclaimed and astonishing success of Frozen, I think it’s a good time to address something that I feel the world needs to remember. Disney (wait for it… wait for it…) isn’t bad.

Yeah, I know, shocking. Those kiddie cartoons we all grew up with? They didn’t hail the impending apocalypse. They didn’t start The Hunger Games or summon the deadites, and they didn’t side with Lord Voldemort.

I’m being melodramatic. But, to be serious, have you noticed that Disney has become the biggest punching bag for all the (first world) ails? The right thinks it has secret, hidden messages, encourages disobedience in children,and depicts men poorly.

The left thinks it has secret, hidden messages, encourages conformity, and depicts women poorly.

The problem is, Disney is just too big. It’s enormous, owns so much, and affects so much of our media and our cultural formation that people just want to pick it a part. It’s an easy target. It’s like hitting the broad side of a barn. The problems people have with Disney are the problems people have with their parents or the neighborhoods they grew up in, things they are critique harshly because they are familiar.

Now, of course, we should be good media critics, and obviously Disney should not be an exception. They have their fair share of legitimately “problematic” material. And, of course, we should be careful about what material we decide to view or show to children. If you think you’d rather show your kids Spirited Away rather than Little Mermaid, that’s completely understandable. However, showing a child Little Mermaid does not stop that child from appreciating Spirited Away, or any other film for that matter. Susan Sontag argued that while she would choose classical music over The Doors if she had to, it was silly to make her choose. If you decide that you just want to watch something else, good on you, but don’t set up a false dichotomy between the literati and “ye olde rubes who love Disney”.

Because, when you look past the corporatism, the greed, the cash-ins and sequels and crap, Disney has legitimate artistry behind its films and a strong influence on popular culture. And, apparently this influence terrifies a lot of people, so this is my subject: defending Disney, a company that is so successful it really doesn’t need my defense. The defense is really more of myself, for liking Disney. And, for my purposes, I’m sticking with Disney’s Princess movies plus The Lion King and Pocahontas, since those garner the majority of the controversy.

Starting off, Snow White.

Controversy on the left: Snow White is a submissive housekeeper who shows girls that all they can do is clean for men and wait for a man. Also, dead mother, evil older woman, no other female characters.

Controversy on the right: Snow White is generally not too controversial on the right, other than questions about magic and whether or not the story is too scary. However, there is no father, which has become the biggest target subject lately.

Controversy for everyone: It dumbs down the original.

First of all, I’d like to say that this is one of my favorite Disney films, not for the story or Snow White’s amazingly weird voice, but for the animation. The technical loops the company went through to develop this look, which had never been tried before, is astounding. It’s inspired by artists like Arthur Rackham, who illustrated the Fairy Books.

rackham

The look is dark, Germanic, brooding, Gothic even, with haunting shadows and lush detail.

snow-white

The anatomy of the human characters, which had never been tried before in this way, is technologically brilliant, even if they had difficulties with male characters. For example, ever wonder why the prince is hardly in the movie? Well, he was supposed to be. They literally didn’t know how to draw him so that he would move realistically. Also, the story structure is interesting. Did you ever wonder where the staple of musicals plus cute animal sidekicks came from? They came from vaudevillian musical productions of the time. The Disney standard is the direct heir of old-timey musicals, which is why they tend to translate back to the stage pretty well.

As an animation geek, it’s impossible for me not to like this movie and also consider it a work of art which children probably should experience as a great introduction to the form and way to get kids excited about film as art as well as illustrations. You could use it as a lead-in to looking at art and reading fairytales. This and Fantasia are the two Disney films I most consider to be art and worthy of artistic discussion, even just from a technical level, an art history perspective, so just for educational purposes I’d suggest it.

Furthermore, Snow White is just charming. So much work and love went into it that it shocks me when people don’t appreciate the technical wonderment of the product or who cannot get enchanted by the setting and world. For shame, cynics! For shame!

sc-snowwhite&prince

The artistic merit alone should be enough for people to overlook what really amount to be moderate controversies in order to experience a landmark film history production. However, since controversy exists, I’ll address it. First of all, I do not think that Snow White says that all women are good for is cleaning. Snow White is a princess, supposed to inherit queenship, but her evil stepmother makes her a servant in the house. So, these are her skills, and when she finds the seven dwarves, she puts them to work. She’s resourceful. She’s not a swooning damsel. When she escapes the queen’s plot to have her murdered and… mutilated (more on that later) she initially breaks down but quickly puts herself together. She’s an optimist, resourceful and active. She uses kindness to win friends (the forest animals) and is even clever enough to decide that she’s more likely to get a place to stay if she makes herself useful. She puts her skills to use. Okay, I’m reading a bit more plot into the story than there is, but it is true. The story doesn’t explore much character development, being limited by technical difficulties and using an archetypal storytelling method, but Snow White really is this sort of character. If we were to give character types to the Disney princesses (Belle = smart, Ariel = Feisty, et cetera) Snow White would be the optimist. She’s like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, making the most of difficult situations, winning friends by being friendly and diplomatic, and keeping her chin up throughout the story.

SnowWhite2

As for the villainous queen, yes, Disney doesn’t have a lot of older female figures who aren’t evil. That is true. But, this isn’t Disney. The original fairytale has an evil queen. That’s just the story. I don’t think little kids are going to discriminate against older women because of it, either.

And, yes, the mother is dead and the father is dead. This is a subject that really surprises me with how controversial it is. First of all, again, many fairytales have orphans as the main characters. This isn’t an invention of Disney. And, why not? The stories feature unlikely heroes, the vulnerable. The stories deal with anxieties that children have, of having to face danger and hardship without parents. But, instead of showing the heroes fall apart, the characters show that goodness and bravery may triumph despite this hardship. And, yes, sometimes I think that the acknowledgement of the anxieties sometimes affirms them, which can be seen in the ineffectual parent types in the Disney films of the ‘90s. However, if you remember your original fairytales, in some stories Snow White’s own mother is the evil queen, and in Cinderella her father is alive and ineffectual for the entire story. And let’s not forget stories like Hansel and Gretel. The fear of ineffectual parents isn’t new or discovered by Disney. Maybe they shouldn’t affirm this concern. That’s a discussion we can have. But, they hardly decided to create ineffectual parent figures out of thin air. The fairytales already have them, or just straight up evil parents.

Lastly, the scare factor. For some reason, people constantly point out how Snow White is dumbed down, despite some concerns that it is too scary. First of all, unless you desperately wanted to have the real-mother-evil-queen version or more emphasis on the whole cannibalism plot (that’s what the queen wants the heart for), then the story isn’t too dumbed down. It’s still very scary.

Snow_White_094

The queen wanting the huntsman to cut the heart from Snow White is pretty disturbing, and that just leads to a very scary scene of the princess running through the archetypal “dark woods”.

images

 

Then there’s the whole spell-casting scene with the evil queen, which is still trippy and twisted, and the finale is also very dark and rather violent. You know those vultures are going to eat the queen. I mean, that’s what happened. Happy Disney. Happy.

Even the kiss from the prince is sort of strange, with the castle appearing as a golden, glowing, mystic light palace in the sky. As a child, I firmly believed she had actually died and went to heaven. That’s not completely out-there. The prince’s character was cut so much due to technical errors that he seems more like a heavenly messenger than a romantic interest.

download (1)

Also, if you have any doubts that Snow White is scary –you know, beyond childhood suppressed nightmare memories—it inspired a classic horror film from master of gore Dario Argento: Suspiria. So, dumbed down and too cute? I don’t think so.

suspiria_dragon10

However, for those who find it too scary, Don Bluth, director of The Land Before Time, had a theory that kids can really handle a lot of scary and sad as long as the ending is happy. It really does depend on the kid, and parents should use their own judgment. But, kids will experience sad and scary in their lives, and seeing heroes get through the sadness and the fear is a good thing. It helps kids know that they, too, can be positive and pick themselves up, even after horrible situations. And, that kind of optimism is why I love Snow White.

download (2)

Beautiful, Unusual Children’s Books 7

The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery – Graeme Base (writer and illustrator)

First, a short description:

Horace, a young elephant, wishes to throw an extravagant party in honor of his eleventh birthday. Planning, preparations, and the party itself go well and most enjoyably until… 

…but I won’t spoil it for you.

Now, for the content:

This is a treasure trove of a book. Just look at the artwork!

The Eleventh Hour

Does anyone else get the feeling of being in a cathedral or a palace? I’ve never seen such a lush, exquisite illustration in my life. Look at all the minute and precise details – from the opulence of Horace’ home to the proportions and features of each animal. I want this picture to be framed and hung in my house. I’d rightly call it the most elegant thing that I own.

The story itself, specifically how it’s told, has captivated me for years. The narrative rhymes throughout, but it’s more complex sort of rhyme than, say, “Horace was an elephant. / He lived inside a great big tent.” That is a made-up example. The actual language of the book is much, much richer. Here are the first two verses:

When Horace was turned Eleven he decided there should be / Some kind of celebration. “For my friends,” he said, “and me.” / For though I’ve been the age of eight and nine and six and seven, / This is the very first time that I’ve ever been Eleven!”

With that he set to work and wrote the name of every Guest, / And then eleven sorts of food that Elephants like best. / He wrote the invitations next (and sent them off that day), / And finally eleven Games for everyone to play.  

I can’t help but be enchanted. The words are elegant, but none of them are overly formal. None of them are so rare, or so outmoded, that a reader might not recognize them. I would not be at all surprised if the language of the story proved to be “immortal”.

Before purchasing this book, one thing should be known – the mystery is not solved within the story. Instead, an encrypted answer key is provided in the back. This answer key is also accompanied by a booklet that explains how to spot clues to the solution within the illustrations. So, do not be frustrated by the seeming lack of closure. That’s one of the best qualities of this book – that it provides an invitation to each reader to participate in the story, to become the detective that will solve this “curious mystery”.

Age level: I don’t think one can be specified. Give this book, or suggest it, to any child who is an independent reader.

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/2-9780810932654-11
——————————————————————————————————–

– Circuit B

The Dangerous Imagination

And now for something completely different.

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me...!

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me…!

I don’t think we often discuss imagination critically. In fact, most discussion of imagination falls into one of the following categories:

1.) “Hey, kids!I’m a popular TV character! Use your imagination and SOAR –on my show, at weekdays at 10!”

2.) “It’s great that the kids have such imaginations.”

3.) “Woa. That fantasy novel had duck-bear-werecats! Such imagination!”

4.) “Little Bobby spent 72 hours on the internet without eating, drinking, or peeing. I fear his imagination is dead. As well as his frontal lobe.”

Generally, imagination is seen as this nebulous thing, like refracted light, something we all just think is pretty and can’t quite define or grasp. It’s like love in a cheesy movie. We don’t really know what it is or what it does, but it’s really, really awesome and good people want it and have it, and baaaad people just don’t get it. Imagination is what the quirky underdog character in the movie has. The big, meany bully characters don’t have it because they don’t get underdog’s amazing ability to be whimsical and quirky. And it’s really awesome that underdog is so whimsical and quirky and imaginative and why can’t we all be like that?

The trouble with wanting and idolizing something that we don’t really define or explain is that you can’t really preserve the good that is there when you don’t know what it is or how to preserve it. It’s like true love. The reason people are starting to get a little tired of Disney’s insta-love, as parodied in Enchanted, isn’t just because we’re a bunch of progressive cynics or evil feminists who hate romance. The trouble is that we have had romances and they aren’t instant, just-add-water love between two perfectly good-looking people who just so happen to be royalty. I don’t have a problem with stories that teach kids that true love is a beautiful, great thing and can save the day. That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with stories that teach kids that imagination is cool and better than beating the crap out of people. That’s excellent. But, we already have our Snow Whites and Cinderellas and Sleeping Beauties, and we already have our Disney’s Bridge to Terabithia and countless TV specials about imagination. We don’t need any more. Those simple lessons are there, and the good ones (like classic Disney) will be timeless. But, people need more than Moulin Rouge-style love is awesome in order to understand love, and people need more than a PBS kids special about how awesome imagination is to understand imagination. When Disney parodies itself in Enchanted, it’s not spitting on Snow White or its other darlings. But, it is recognizing that we as a society do know that love is more complicated than singing a song and going straight to the wedding. This is less of a gender issues/liberation discussion and more of cultural growth. We learned our original Disney lessons, and some of them were valuable and cultural icons. But, after learning that we move on. That’s what learning is. And, in terms of imagination, I don’t see this happening very often.

The first and most obvious problem, in my opinion, is that we don’t really explain what imagination just –only that it’s awesome and good people have it and bad people don’t. It you don’t have it, then maybe a wide-eyed child will teach you, or a manic pixie dream girl, or an unlikely hero underdog who just sees the world so beautifully and…

Oscar! Oscar! Give them all Oscars!

Actually, imagination is more than having a streak of purple hair, or closing your eyes and picturing a really cool special effects sequence for the next heartwarming blockbuster, or just being a tortured poet from a Stephen King novel. The idea of the sensitive, quirky, nutty aesthete has been popularized by the media to create this weird, whimsical image of the imaginative. It’s the big kids learning to let go and be like the little kids again. It’s Robbin Williams’ Patch Adams portrayal. It’s the outsider who dares to be different! That’s ART!

And, unfortunately, that is not art. In fact, for every wacky, quirky artist, from G.K. Chesterton sitting for hours in front of cobwebs, to Hunter S. Thompson’s constant performance of Dr. Gonzo, to Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven and her birdcage hat, there are some pretty serious, even stuffy artists and writers who created masterful works without ever getting so much as a lip ring and an anti-establishment T-shirt.

So, why am I bringing up these cliches about artists and imaginative types? Well, I’m bringing them up because often times these are what we think of when we’re given a subject. We think of cliches, types, common images, even if they’re misconceptions or just outright lies, or partial truths formed by a cultural bias. And all of these cliches, biases, misconceptions, and images that form what we think about are all a part of the imagination.

Yes.

That illusive, so awesome, totally hip imagination is also responsible for people coming up with cliched group-think.

Imagination is exactly what it sounds like. It’s what we imagine, how we picture reality. It’s literally creating images of what reality is like. This can be a fantastic tool if you are Mozart and your image of reality comes in the form of some of the greatest music ever written, and you can just BE a fantastic tool if your imagination leads you to brand people with negative stereotypes. It’s a double-edged sword.

See that? “Double-edged sword” is a cliche, but it’s a part of the common lexicon and a subject we can all understand based on our ability to use imaginations. If we didn’t have imaginations, if we were entirely made of fact and unable to process metaphor, we’d be like Vulcans and very confused.

Imagination is usually meant to mean that child-like ability to look at the clouds and see fairy castles. In actuality, that image of imagination IS imagining. We imagine imagination to be a certain way, and when we do it is almost impossible to stop. It’s very hard to separate the valued, desire, awesome imagination that Anne of Greengables loved so much with the fact that a collective imagination also produced those annoying TV ads about what guys and gals are *supposed* to like.

Imagination is often how we see the world, particularly in terms of things we can’t actually see. That’s why it’s so useful. We cannot really grasp infinite, the age of the universe, complex emotions, people we never met, but we can imagine and that can be a great learning tool. We can take this imagining and create stories, art, film, music, dance, architecture, and it can inspire questions that will influence science, technology, even cooking. In that sense, it’s great.

Imagination also influences wonder, which is basically the only aspect of imagination that people imagine about imagination. This is the wide-eyed, childlike sense of awe that I was just mocking, but is actually pretty important. Awe can be healthy, can make people appreciate their lives, can make people feel good about the world, and can inspire great art which in turn inspires awe. Wonder is a good thing, and becoming jaded and cynical is an actual problem in society. I don’t want to downplay that.

But, just focusing on all the wonder does mean that we might forget what imagination can do. Remember, just trying to dispel the notion that imagination is something more than what we imagine it to be is itself kind of a task. But, imagination really can have a dark side, which itself is a cliche that we all understand and is mired in tons of ideological and social issues which form our imaginations.

One of the most obvious examples of the dangerous imagination crops up in art and media from the past quite frequently. This being the normative perspective, the perspective of a majority or ruling class which is then taken as the mainstream understanding of society and which influences the collective imagination. I am, of course, talking about racism. Think about the old-timey, embarrassingly racist images of people from other cultures: the evil, treacherous Jews of Hitlerian propaganda, who also show up in everything from The Sun Also Rises to Oliver Twist; the thick-lipped and slow-witted Stepin Fetchit caricature of Africans that we see in so many cartoons, and the lecherous counterpart who is always after “white women”, as seen in Birth of a Nation. The US used negative stereotypes of monstrous, yellow-skinned Japanese during World War II. European settlers of America used images of savages to depict the Native peoples. Today we have images of terrorist Middle Easterners, and every woman in a headscarf is either oppressed or suspect.

The imagination is something which can be formed, and it’s often formed by the master narrative, and us vs. them complexes. Most people aren’t going to look at a block of marble and imagine taking out everything except Michelangelo’s David. Unfortunately, most people use their imaginations to perpetuate preconceived notions and never question what those may mean. When you think a certain political movement is all rednecks or all yuppies, you’re imagining something, and it may not be true.

Furthermore, blindly trusting imagination allows people to form your imagination in whatever way they see fit. Can you just not imagine making changes to your lifestyle, even if you know products you use are made by slave labor and the food you eat is damning the planet? Then thank an advertiser! Advertisers make a living on molding your imagination. We didn’t always have surprise engagements with expensive rings, tons of Valentine’s gifts, Black Friday, or even the image of the suburban family in the house with the picket fence and the perfect, modern lifestyle. That’s advertising. Advertising is also why people get depressed when the Holidays aren’t as special as they thought they should be, or when visiting Paris is a major letdown. Advertising forms how you imagine success, sexiness, love, excitement, freedom, relaxation, family, food, holidays, education, and so on. And all just to sell deodorant, toothpaste, and genetically altered turkeys.

Politicians also use imagination. Does wanting to buck the tyranny of Political Correctness make you want to say racial slurs for no reason? Thank politicians for forming your imagination! There’s a reason why people refer to their favorite presidential candidate as president, even before the election. They’re making people imagine that this person already is president. There’s a reason why Republicans want to say “job creators” instead of “rich people”. There’s a reason why Obama has a special photographer. There’s a reason why news commentators cry, why Fox hires only sexy women and has them all wear short dresses, why political memes on facebook are even a thing at all. It all forms an image in your head about what reality is. Every time you look at a political meme, or post such a meme, you’re accepting a reality that someone else created for you. Your imagination is being formed by someone else’s agenda.

And, once your imagination is formed, it’s really, really hard to change it. If you can’t imagine something, most people refuse to talk about it or even accept that it might exist. You hear creationists regularly speak of being unable to imagine a very old earth, or a time without humans. Time is difficult to imagine. The same goes for math. When a mathematician makes a discovery with numbers, it’s hard for non-mathematicians to imagine how this even works. You get people refusing to accept scientific data because it’s unimaginable. But, it’s only unimaginable because our imaginations haven’t caught up with science. It’s not as if a scientific discovery happens and POOF, everyone’s imagination is suddenly updated, like Adobe Flash. No. If you don’t have the information, you can’t imagine it, and sometimes that information requires serious scientific study and research. Because of this, some people simply imagine that scientific study is just brainwashing, because they cannot imagine that being able to understand reality might be complicated. They cannot imagine that they do not know everything. Most people cannot imagine being wrong.

This isn’t to discredit imagination when it is good. Imagination is a tool, like any other. You can use it to create amazing works of art, or you can use it to perpetuate horrible ideas about the Jews. It is a tool, and you need to be its master, not the other way around. We act as if a good person surrenders to imagination, and that’s how beauty just happens. This is also an image, and we imagine it mostly because children’s shows told us to. Imagination is actually a tool, like a wrench, and we are the masters. It is a very powerful tool, but we have to make sure that we are using it correctly, and that we fuel our imagination with facts and not the other way around. Imagination should not fuel our facts, because imagination is a perspective, how we image information, and an image of an image cannot be reality. We’re getting into some Plato’s Cave stuff with that.

Furthermore, we limit imagination by not recognizing what it is. Imagination isn’t “I created a new fantasy character for the magic world of magic I just made up”. It can be, but that’s not the whole of it. Imagination is how we see the world. Imagination is what language we use to communicate information. It’s what boundaries we impose upon ourselves by refusing to imagine certain scenarios. It’s how we collect images and ideas and organize them. Arguably, a realistic novel by Steinbeck is more imaginative than the werecamel of the magic world of magic, because he had to work within boundaries and face the challenges of processing real-world information. This isn’t to say that fantasy can’t be imaginative. It does take skill to create a fantastic world, but that, too, is built on the perspectives of the author, which come from living.

It also affects how we form society. If we imagine a certain time of the past was perfect, just wonderful, and we forget both the evils of that era and the contemporary problems which have outgrown that era’s solutions, we are muddling our ability to see reality clearly. When we cannot empathize with someone, when we cannot imagine a change in government or economics, when we see changes as Hitler or Stalin, when we are afraid of our neighbors, these are flaws in the imagination –flaws probably planted by political sources and advertisers.

So, to venture into a fantasy world, you wouldn’t let your magic wand be tampered with by corporate executives from Buy N Large, Lord Voldemort, or the news anchor from the song “Dirty Laundry”, would you? No. That would change how your wand words, change the magic, maybe even hurt you. You have to guard your magic wand and learn proper spellcasting. The same goes for the imagination.
I mean, seriously, guys, did Harry Potter teach us nothing?