Samuel Goldwyn, one of the founders of MGM Studios, allegedly once said: ‘If you want to send a message, use Western Union.’ Goldwyn, if he actually said that, must never have watched a Christmas or children’s film. Clement Moore’s classic A visit from St Nicholas, which begins with the line ‘t’was the Night Before Christmas,’ has always seemed to me a rather benign, warm-hearted poem reflecting on the sentiments and icons we have always attached to Christmas. I was surprised to hear that this was actually something of a radical view in 1823, representing the values of the upper and middle class of New York City who wanted to change Christmas from an evening of rowdy drinking (much like today’s New Year’s Eve) to a calmer, indoors, family-focused event. Gerry Bowler, author of Santa Claus – A Biography, notes that that Saint Nick’s short pipe was indicative of a working class man, compared to the long-stemmed pipes of the upper and middle class, which I think might suggest that the real target of this propaganda was the lower classes. Bowler was speaking on a CBC show discussing a revision of the poem in which Saint Nick’s smoking was excised. He described other attempts to co-opt Moore’s poem in the support of other values including vegetarianism, but that most of these failed while Moore’s poem prevails, still characterizing our ideals about the holiday. (For an article and interviews on this subject visit the CBC).

Bertolt Brecht, one of the great theorists of modern theater, argued that stories transmit norms and normalize values through a process by which the spectator first identifies with the character and then, through this emotional identification, experiences the character’s circumstances as a representation of reality. Brecht believed that by these means, popular narratives are actually tools of oppression that impose the value system of the powerful on unwitting spectators, who accept the value system as a given indeed a familiar, obvious and incontrovertible reality. Certainly Brecht’s views can be applied to Moore’s poem. Indeed, a hundred years later, with the ideological mold set, the coercive imposition of values is made crystal clear in brazen verse resounding with the themes of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish:

You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

He’s making a list,
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!

Santa Claus is Coming to Town
J. Fred Coots & Henry Gillespie

I worried that the installation of a particular value system around Christmas some 200 years ago had created a rigid frame from which we could not escape. Perhaps just as famous as Moore’s poem is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published twenty years later in 1842. Dickens, of course, was a staunch critic of the dark side of the industrial revolution and condemned its value system through his protagonist, Scrooge. In Moore’s poem, Saint Nicholas, the mysterious night visitor, ‘spoke not a word, but went straight to his work, and fill’d all the stockings’ with gifts. His core characteristic is that he is the epitome of altruism, good will and benevolence. Scrooge, of course, is a mortal rather than a mythic character whose core characteristics are the exact opposite of St Nick’s. Scrooge is selfish, uncaring to the point of misanthropy, and interested only in the profits of his business. He has forsaken humanity, even though humanity has not completely forsaken him, just yet. Scrooge is redeemed through a transformation at the hands of the ghost of his dead partner, Marley, and the visiting spirits of Christmases past, present and future. At the end of the story Scrooge is giddily intoxicated by his own charity and the tale’s final words are Tiny Tim’s contented and happy ‘God bless us, everyone!’ Compare that to Oliver Twist’s ‘Please sir, can I have some more?’ and we see the critical values Dickens aimed to convey in his oeuvre – that the industrial revolution has horrific social side effects and each one of us is responsible for bettering the lots of our fellow men, women and children.

Dickens’ story doesn’t contradict Moore’s, as the critical sentiments and values are quite similar. What differs between the two works is the antecedent to the proposed values of Christmas. For Moore and his American contemporaries, the new values signaled a shift to a calmer, family-centered holiday from a rowdy party (re-interpreting and neutralizing the threat of ‘out on the lawn there arose such a clatter’). For Dickens, the value system of the capitalist industrial era itself was what needed to be reformed. Much like Popper’s theory of scientific thinking, Moore’s poem and Dickens’ story signal a paradigm shift around Christmas that later stories reiterate, with variations gaining ascendency and surviving if they remain true to certain themes and values.

Murray Smith, in his book Engaging characters: Fiction, emotion and the cinema, develops Brecht’s ideas to argue that we accept the reality presented in film because of a fit, albeit sometimes loosely, to our ideological schemas. Changes in value systems are accepted because core features of the story still fit with the primary values of these schemas. Whereas the Brecht’s idea of a deliberate manipulation of the audience might explain stories that support and affirm radical changes in value systems, Smith’s ideas provide a good explanation of why certain variants survive.

Frank Capra’s endearing Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart, is an interesting variation of the Christmas tale of redemption. At the beginning of the film, Stewart’s character, George Bailey, is contemplating suicide. In an odd take on the classic Dickens’ tale, Jimmy Stewart’s financially compassionate and philanthropic character, George Bailey, faces the collapse of his savings and loans company due to the unscrupulous behavior of his avaricious nemesis. When George comes to the belief that the world would be better off without him an angel, Clarence (played by Henry Travers), guides him through an alternative reality of the town as it would have been had he never lived. Naturally, all the lives he touched, personally and through his savings and loans operation, are worse off without him. George recants and the town rallies behind him and his bank, saving them both through small acts of monetary kindness. Every good turn he gave in the past returns to George on Christmas day. Interestingly, money is at the core of this film but the values around it have shifted from Dickens’ Christmas Carol. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge trades one set of values (money, success in business) off against another (family, friends, love, companionship and community). George Bailey has led his life according to principles of philanthropy, if not charity, and indeed his family has made a business out of it in the savings and loan bank founded by his equally philanthropic father. A variation on the Christmas theme, indeed on A Christmas Carol itself, is used to send the message that capitalism is good. This is an odd contrast, and seems an odd value to propose. The townspeople’s opinion of George and the bank is probably not a reflection of how people thought about banks at a time so near the depression. But It’s a Wonderful Life was released in 1946, at the end of the Second World War, when presumably people were ready for some optimism and good will. And the film does not send the message that banks are good, because George does have a nemesis, rather that people are good or bad. While the explicit message is of the value of good acts (because they engender reciprocity) the subtext is that capitalism cannot in itself be held to be good or bad.

I could see how values were transmitted through these films, but two or three problems stood out for me. First, it seemed that in these interpretive models there was always a separation between the audience and the story tellers who, even if benevolent, knew better and saw the world more clearly than the audience, and were deliberately manipulating the audience to achieve a goal. However, whereas I could see intent in the explicit messages in these stories, conscious and deliberate construction was not always apparent at the level of the subtext message. Sometimes, certainly, the author could be aware of the subtext message, but an explicit awareness may not be required to craft a good story. Certain values may be reproduced in stories in the same blind, unquestioning manner in which they may be consumed. Second, the model of value transmission seems to think of the audience as floating along with the tides of change, passively absorbing and adopting the values that slip in through the channels of identification with the character and value structure. There wasn’t any mechanism by which the spectator becomes engaged in the story or, more critically, the value transmission process.

I recently watched ParaNorman (2012), a stop-motion animation film about a young boy who can see ghosts and, as the hero, gets a dead witch to lift her curse and in so doing he saves his town and liberates the witch’s zombie persecutors-in-life/victims-in-death. I was struck by how the witch’s seething vengeance was dissolved by a pithy moral lesson about turning the other cheek, demonstrating, I suppose, that even the long, long and wrongfully dead can experience a character transformation. I wondered how popular culture had become the vehicle for such a dull and preachy message. And I wondered if children viewing this really identified with the message. I could see them identifying with the hero and the underlying normative values in the subtext (more about which later). But recalling my own youth, I think they would have recognized the separation between the story and the deliberate message.

It would be easy to say that these lessons are embedded in our entertainment to appease concerned and high strung parents who worry about the socializing drift of film and popular culture. But there is actually quite a long history of bait-and-switch in the form of entertaining stories with moral take-homes. Aesop’s fables come to mind of course but more recent folklore and oral traditions also exploit an entertaining narrative to communicate a moral. The original 1812 text of the Grimm Brother’s Rapunzel, before their stories were sanitized for Victorian audiences, contained a strong and fairly practical warning about sexual naïveté.

He [the Prince] remembered the words that he would have to speak, and the next day, as soon as it was dark, he went to the tower and called upward:

Rapunzel, Rapunzel!
Let down your hair!

 She let her hair fall. He tied himself to it and was pulled up. At first Rapunzel was frightened, but soon she came to like the young king so well that she arranged for him to come every day and be pulled up. Thus they lived in joy and pleasure for a long time. The fairy did not discover what was happening until one day Rapunzel said to her, “Frau Gothel, tell me why it is that my clothes are all too tight. They no longer fit me.” “You godless child,” said the fairy. “What am I hearing from you?” She immediately saw how she had been deceived and was terribly angry …  She sent Rapunzel into a wilderness where she suffered greatly and where, after a time, she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl.

From: D.L. Ashliman’s folklore site

Although the character of Rapunzel may provide a gateway to the experience of either version of her story, it seems that the more recent, sanitized version is a better fit to Brecht’s theory of value transmission, or more accurately value imposition, because it represents the efforts of a class of individuals who deliberately influence the story in order to manipulate the values of another class of individuals. In the earlier version, even though she calls her a ‘godless child,’ Frau Gothel’s reaction to Rapunzel’s pregnancy seems to be more exasperated disdain than a moral stance. Although she exiles her to the wilderness, the rationale for doing so is unclear. Perhaps Rapunzel’s pregnant state made it too shameful for her to remain in the community, or perhaps her punishment served a utilitarian purpose in communicating the cost and burden of unplanned parenthood, or perhaps caring for the child-mother and her offspring too was just the last straw. Nevertheless, in either form the story succeeds in sending a message that is intended to influence or affirm the audience’s values and preferences, with the more modern form arguably designed to proactively assert and install a value system. In contrast, in one of earliest forms of the Red Riding Hood folktale, called the False Grandmother, Red is not quite so innocent and not quite so vulnerable. She even partakes of Granny’s body and blood before climbing into bed with the wolf, actually a ‘bzou’ or werewolf, then tricking him into letting her step out to go to the toilet and thus escape.

 While she was eating, a little cat that was there said, “For shame! The slut is eating her grandmother’s flesh and drinking her grandmother’s blood.”

“Get undressed, my child,” said the wolf, and come to bed with me.”

“Where should I put my apron?”

“Throw it into the fire. You won’t need it anymore.” And for all her clothes, her bodice, her dress, her petticoat, and her shoes and stockings, she asked where she should put them, and the wolf replied, “Throw them into the fire, my child. You won’t need them anymore.”

When she had gone to bed the little girl said, “Oh, grandmother, how hairy you are!”

From: D.L. Ashliman’s folklore site

In David Kaplan’s short film of this version of Red Riding Hood, starring Christina Ricci (you can see it on youtube), Red is depicted as clearly and consciously in control of her circumstances. Although the wolf kills the grandmother and hides in the bed in her clothing, Red is the sexual aggressor, teasing the wolf and at last denying him. In the DVD extras there is a commentary about different versions of the Red Riding Hood story that emerged out of social communities that exploited the plot and premise to portray such an empowered and sexual Red. Although in terms of a value system the False Grandmother may be more subversive than cautionary or imposing, it still resonates with Brecht’s theory of the spectator in that the identification with Red serves the purpose of delivering a community’s normative and normalized reality of an empowered and sexualized Red.

The many versions of Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood and other popular tales fit Brecht’s and Smith’s idea that communities use stories to transmit values, capitalizing on the audience’s identification with the primary character and the principle features of the value system represented in the story. But their theories don’t say much about appetite – they may describe why an audience likes a story, but they not why they would want to hear it.

To get back to Norman, the weird kid outcast who talks to ghosts. Certainly much of that story, in particular how he talked the witch down off her vengeance, was deliberately constructed to send a message. However, what stood out even more in this film was that while his character did not go through much of a transformation, everyone else around him became more enlightened and more sympathetic toward him. The school bully becomes his friend and helper, his older sister stands up for him, and his parents become more supportive. Murray Smith argues that we identify with characters as agents, actors in a true sense. Norman, however, is a remarkably unreflective, immutable hero. The transformation that those around him go through is defined by their alignment with his reality and is not heavily qualified by soul-searching and guilt-ridden atonement. Where was the pedagogical lesson for the bullies? Or for that matter the spectators who identify with the hero? Norman is redeemed because he is right, or rather his subjective reality is the more accurate one, not because everyone around him recognizes he is a wronged, innocent and helpless victim and that they are his tormentors. If any of the characters in the film played the role of an innocent victim, it was the witch, in her earlier mortal form. The moral of Norman’s story: be true to your authentic self and eventually everyone will see your true value and love you. A contemporaneous animated feature, Brave, ends with the heroine, Princess Merida, advising:

 There are those who say fate is something beyond our command. That destiny is not our own, but I know better. Our fate lives within us, you only have to be brave enough to see it.

Andrews, M., Chapman, B., & Purcell, S. (Directors). (2012). Brave. Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation.

 This is of course a rather vague prescription for action but the message is similar – persist, don’t adapt, and you will persevere. The transparent moral in Norman’s pleas with the witch is to bear abuse without responding, because fighting the bullies makes you a bully too. But his story still delivers on the promise that all those opposing and sometimes vicious persons will come around to you sweetly if you simply stay the course and remain true to the one reality – your own. This normative value of authenticity and individuality is startling.

I could see how the subtext of ParaNorman fit to the ideological schema of a Western, individualist, post-self esteem movement audience. I could see why an audience would identify with Norman and his story, and so like the story. But Brecht and Smith weren’t helping me understand why would an audience would want to see or hear Norman’s story. One possible explanation is the work of Mel Lerner, who developed the theory of a Belief in a Just World in which good people get good outcomes and bad people get bad outcomes. Lerner argues that just world beliefs develop out of learning the value of delayed gratification in childhood and serve a function by providing a positive illusion of control. Through this lens, ParaNorman and Brave do not appear to be so fresh, liberating and self-validating but rather an even better fit to the Brechtian model with the goal of imposing a value self-denial.

The acid test for this proposal is Charlie Brown, from the Peanuts comic strip developed by Charles M Schultz. Charlie Brown was a ‘lovable loser’ type who had ambivalent relationships with his friends and was both wracked by insecurity and frustratingly optimistic.


One of the running gags of the strip was that Lucy van Pelt, the neighborhood bully, would set up a football for Charlie Brown to kick, only to pull it away at the very last second and laugh at him. Charlie Brown’s friends don’t seem to have deep and enduring attachments but rather they merely form a community borne of physical proximity. They are all just there, small children with a constrained range of mobility and few social options. Not unlike the adult workplace. Although he was one of the most popular cartoon characters of my own youth, I was somewhat unnerved when a google search for Charlie Brown turned up lay and professional diagnoses of the character that practically exhaust the DSM – he is manic depressive, a borderline personality, neurotic … an altogether unlikely protagonist. Even though Charlie Brown may suffer psychologically, he is not ‘crazy’ because his views reflect reality. In the very first panel of the strip, published in 1950 (see image), Charlie Brown happily strolls by a duplicitous acquaintance who, once he is out of earshot, proclaims his hatred for the hapless Brown.  Perhaps the audience identifies with Charlie Brown’s character because all of us have at some time worried the way Charlie Brown worries, but his reality in the strip does not do much to resolve our own anxieties. Perhaps Charlie Brown may provide a downward social comparison in which the spectator identifies with Charlie Brown, denies his reality as his or her own, and says inwardly ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ Perhaps, but that seems a rather mean motive to return to the strip week after week, year after year.

Both Norman and Charlie Brown’s social worlds conform to their personal realities, in Norman’s case through the other character’s self-conscious transformation and in Charlie Brown’s case through what must be his own realization of the nature and attitudes of others and the world. The outstanding quality by which Charlie Brown reflects the values embedded in Norman and other more contemporary characters is his unflagging optimism. The value message in Charlie Brown is his optimism, his persistence despite relentless disconfirmation of his hopes.  That is a just world beliefs myth if ever there was one.

Samuel Goldwyn notwithstanding, popular culture has a complex nature of being deliberately prescriptive or even revolutionary while at the same time having the potential to be unreflective normatively because, after all, the spectator needs to identify with the character and the situation. Stories depend on a bedrock of values and norms that are simply ‘givens’, accepted without qualification, and upon which are built and elaborated the proposed values of the authors, whether they be individuals or communities. Still, there must be a mechanism by which the audience is engaged and their appetite for a story is aroused. Value systems represent ways of being marked by the inclusion and exclusion of certain behaviors, desires and ideas. Because this suggests an inherent tension, and tensions that are aroused when a value system conflicts or corresponds with the spectator’s own values and experiences, value systems cannot simply be absorbed and adapted through processes of identification. Something in the story needs to address the psychological tension created in the spectator by the prospect of identifying with a character and adopting a value system, even if only for the duration of the story. I think that these mechanisms provide a kind of third, unintended message, by putting into relief the tensions of the subtext and deliberate messages of a story.