If you don’t already know Dr. Seuss’s iconic tale, How the Grinch stole Christmas, then you’ve got some work to do on which version to watch (we’re partial to the Jim Carrey version) – but definitely go check it out! An angry and misunderstood Grinch has childhood memories of pain and shame which fuel his hatred of the holiday and he steals Christmas from the people of Whoville. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work, as his cold-hearted ideas to ruin Christmas for the people of Whoville are flipped upside down by the kind heart of a little girl named Cindy Lou Who. Cindy Lou reminds the Whos in Whoville – and the Grinch – that the spirit of Christmas comes from within your heart and not from material goods.
Even though you probably know this story, we never discuss WHY the Grinch decided to steal Christmas! As a bunch of shrinks whose life work involves processing and analyzing, we figured we’d take some time during this year’s “holidaze” to dig into the Grinch’s issues with an eye toward his masculinity.
Looking back on the Grinch’s childhood experiences, we can see that the Grinch had a traumatic childhood filled with experiences in which he got served up a dose of shame in the form of rigid traditional masculinity (something like, “toxic boyhood”). Although the term, toxic masculinity has unfortunately taken off in popular media, it’s not actually a psychological construct in the scholarly literature. The closest term – which isn’t media-friendly or sexy – is “repressive traditional masculinity ideology,” which reflects a repressive and a narrow description of manhood defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. While shaming men and boys for emotional availability and vulnerability. Boys may hear several phrases growing up such as “man up,” “men don’t cry,” etcetera. Although these phrases may seem petty, statements like these can have a negative impact as it allows for discrimination by shaping the way masculinity is perceived. In the movie, Mayor Augustus Maywho (the mayor of Whoville) tells the Grinch “you don’t have a chance with her [Martha May Whovier]” and “you’re 8 and you have a beard.” The Grinch shaves his face in order to look his best to impress Martha when all the kids are to exchange gifts at school, however he is ridiculed and faced with laughter from other kids. The Grinch is rejected by the Whos, runs away and escapes to the peak of Mount Crumpit, and is described as having a heart that is two sizes too small (i.e., he doesn’t feel much). So many men and boys turn to isolation and withdrawal as a way to deal with anxiety, fear, and rejection, so the Grinch’s response is actually pretty realistic “boy code” behavior. This film brings out an important point about learning and accepting that every guy or boy is different and that they should be involved in things that interest them rather than forcing them to do something they are not.
While ridiculed for being different and wounded in his social interactions with the Whos in Whoville, the Grinch as a youngster is emotionally scarred at Christmas time, which led to his adult isolation, his disdain for Whoville and the Christmas season. The Grinch is physically and socially isolated (well, except for his dog Max). He feels no sense of connection to the citizens of Whoville as he watches them surround themselves with materials that make them happy (i.e., ornaments, gifts, food). This is when the Grinch decides to inject some strife into the Whoville festivities.
This scene is important as it showcases the feelings of depression and isolation that can make people feel lonely and disinterested during the holiday season. On top of this, this scene displayed how the Grinch is acting out of his wounded experience. He is stewing in his feelings of hurt, anger, and bitterness, and will not allow himself to feel anything good. He decides that he deserves some retribution because the people of Whoville don’t serve to be loved and happy either. The Grinch was motivated to act on his pain, and feels justified in ruining Christmas in Whoville. And because we know that anger and any of it’s derivative feelings (frustration, irritation, mad, etc.) are considered to be trailing secondary emotions, it can be difficult to see the more painful and vulnerable primary emotions like sadness, rejection, helplessness, isolation, and fear that are actually driving his behavior more fully!
As we all know, the most memorable and interesting part of the story is what happens next!
The Grinch has an epiphany (e.g., he realizes that he, like the Whos, can choose love over hate) about why the Whos are so happy despite him stealing Christmas, and his heart swells to three times its normal size. He realizes that the Whos chose to stay in touch with their values and what was important to them; celebrating Christmas. The Grinch feels again, realizes what he has done, and restores the holiday.
This story serves as a reminder that during this holiday season, it is not about the presents and getting stuff, but caring about one another and the loving family and friends you are with. And if you happen to have a “Grinch” among your loved ones during this holiday season, remember that her/his shows of anger or frustration are very likely to mask deeper, more difficult feelings of pain that are much harder to experience and to show!
– Dr. Dan Singley