Christmas & Ideology

As the hegemonic message of our contemporary season of the year demands, now is the time when we are supposed to reflect upon the meaning of relations, love, and what is important in life. I have an account to share in this regard, and by doing it, I do not intend to echo the standard anti-consumerist rhetoric of the discourse of Christmas, but rather to spin the table around yet another turn. I will argue that this anti-materialist notion of love where we all just come together in front of the fireplace and enjoy each others’ company is basically carrying the exact opposite message to what is generally presumed.

How do I mean this? Well, think for example about the rather recent – in terms of the history of Christmas tales – narrative of the Grinch. The story originates from 1957, when a children’s book titled “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” was published by Theodor Seuss Geisel or, as he is more generally known, ‘Dr. Seuss’. This story then reappeared in cinematical form in Ron Howard’s film from 2000 with the same title. I am certain that everyone has seen it on one or two occasions.

Now, what is the message of this movie at the apparent narrative level? The structure of the story revolves around a little lovely girl with a big heart, and an outcast monster called the Grinch. Since he was born with the skin colour of green, and subsequently was victim to harassment as a child, he adopted the lifestyle of ‘the public enemy number one’. Moved out of the city and established his lonely habitat at the top of a cliff, to which he year after year returned, motivated by hatred from his childhood experience to destroy Christmas. The lovely little girl, not having been fully socialized into the prejudices of the adult villagers, wishes to re-integrate the Grinch into society and make him realize that he has a ‘big heart’ underneath his misanthropic turf.

This seems to be the message of Love, in the Christmasian sense of the word. But I actually think that the message, at the deeper ideological structure of narrative, is the radical opposite. For what is it that the Grinch really tries to destroy? He does not simply want to hurt people by inflicting terror or violence upon them. As is evident, all he ever does is to try to destroy the ‘holy cow’ of this, at the surface of appearance, honest and harmonious village, which just tries to stay alone from the violent intervention by this monstrous adversary embodied within the Grinch. Put simply, he wishes to destroy the village’s private property. And here enters the interesting features of ideology, as understood by the psychoanalytical philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Žižek argues quite convincingly that ideology at the conscious level of the self always functions as the inverted outside of the ideological structure at work at the unconscious level. This is an idea already present in Karl Marx’s classic Das Kapital: ”They do not know it, but they are doing it.”

For example, as argued by Žižek, this ideological structure can be convincingly identified in the “The Sound of Music”. At the simplest narrative level, The Sound of Music depicts the struggle of honest Austrians trying to resist a Nazi takeover. At a deeper level, however, it is evident that these Austrians do not really subscribe to the character of this purity. They are rather, in Žižek’s terms, “provincial”, “small-is-beautiful”, “fascists”, while the Nazi’s take upon the appearance of the anti-Semitic formula of the “cosmopolitan”, “decadent”, “Jew”. Most of them are not even soldiers; they are corpulent, hedonistic bureaucrats constantly preoccupied with smoking and all kinds of decadence. Therefore, the ideological image of the adversary, with this structure borne in mind; is rather like a mirror. Subsequently, I argue that the ideological structure of How the Grinch Stole Christmas is exactly the same as that of The Sound of Music.

Viewed through these spectacles, is it not obvious that the underlying ideological formula of the Grinch is the worst kind of intolerance, or even of racism. In psychoanalytic terms, what the little girl tries to accomplish is not for the Grinch to realize that he has a ‘big heart’, but rather for him to enter back into the symbolic order at work in the harmonious village. Stated plainly, she wishes him to respect the notion of private property.

The Grinch on the other hand, has a rather revolutionary project. He refuses to embrace the idea that the villagers are actually racist, and hate him because he is green. He is far more clairvoyant than this, as he adopts a materialist paradigm, and instead, subsequently tries to restructure the order of the symbolic by making visible the imaginary structure of their notion of love. In other words, by destroying their property, he simply wishes for the villagers to wake up from their fascist obsession with perfect aesthetic harmony, and make them realize that the object of their desire: [things], is not the equivalent to the reason why they desire them: to find [love]. The Grinch tries to establish a society where the value of people is not asserted by the value of their things. However, as is central to the structure of ideology, even he does not really know what he is doing, yet.

Now what happens in the end of the film? A catastrophe, I would say. The Grinch, having stolen all of the villagers’ Christmas presents, packed them on top of a sled, aims to accomplish his project; to throw all of them out from the top of a cliff and demonstrate his hatred. Just as he is in the process, his misanthropic heart starts to beat and he falls to the ground, starting to realize that his hateful project is not hateful at all. Realizing that presents are just presents, the Grinch becomes aware of his unconscious revolutionary project. He does not hate the villagers, he hates the system.

Exactly at this moment, the lovely little girl enters as a divine intervention. The Grinch discovers in horror that she is actually sitting on top of the sled, as it moves closer to the edge. As such, he does not really change his mind about the project that he just realized he was performing. An emergency-logic sets in and he simply has to put aside his ideological battle to save the girl.

And that’s it. By saving the girl, he also saves the presents. An alternative Hegelian synthesis is established in which the anti-thesis of Christmas, the Grinch, accepts his subordinate position in the village in exchange for them tolerating him for being green. The utopia of Christmas is re-established!

Text: Dennis Halvordsson

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