I grew up playing with blonde Barbie Dolls. I have a vivid childhood memory of shopping with my mother around Christmas time. Despite how I searched, I was unable to find a doll that looked like me. I stood with my mother in the middle of Wal-Mart and whined, “Why do none of the dolls have black hair?”
“This one has brown hair,” my mother said. “She almost looks like you.”
“Not really,” I answered.
That was the Christmas I asked for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures instead.
The Need for Diversity in Media
I have a complicated relationship with my ethnicity, but even as a small child I knew that I did not see myself reflected by the movies, books, and television shows that I enjoyed. Children are smarter than we realize. They notice such things.
That is why I’m so happy that the creators of the new How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2018) have made an effort to include a more diverse cast of characters.
Whoville is a land of make believe that exists in a world entirely different from our own. There is no reason that all the Whos need to be white.
To me, the characters are welcome additions. During the sweeping shots of Whoville, the observant viewer will note Whos with a variety of skin tones scattered throughout the town. In the end of the film, the mother of Cindy Lou Who has friends, both white and black, over for a Christmas dinner.
One of my favorite performances was by Pharrell Williams, who was pitch perfect as the narrator. There are racially diverse Whos added to the secondary cast as well. I was pleased to see that Cindy Lou now has a whole cast of friends, one of whom appeared to have skin the same color of my own. The Grinch also has a best friend who is black (played by Kenan Thompson).
For a time, I was worried that Thompson’s character would fall into the trope of “the black best friend.” However, after watching the entire film, it seems to me that Thompson’s character seems almost as well developed as any other character in this movie. He offers the Grinch friendship when nobody else does and is good humored enough to put up with the Grinch’s grouchy attitude throughout the entire year. In the end, when the Grinch finally has a change of heart and gives Thompson a hug, Thompson’s smile shows relief that his friendship has at least been reciprocated.
Single Motherhood in Whoville
The new Whoville is also more diverse in the depiction of the family structure. Cindy Lou Who’s mother is now a single mother who works the night shift. It was a genuine surprise for me to see this depicted on the screen in a mainstream children’s film. I was raised by a hardworking mother who worked third shift, just like the new Cindy Lou in this film.
I can honestly say that this is one of the best portrayals of single motherhood that I have seen on the screen. She is not a caricature of single motherhood as I feared she might be when they first introduced her.
“Oh no,” I thought to myself, “This lady is going to be stressed out, overworked, and married to her job. Then, she’s going to have a redeeming character arc where she learns to spend more time with her family during the holidays and not work so much.”
Instead, Cindy Lou’s mother is a female character that I could not help but respect and admire. She is understandably stressed, but she does not take it out on her children. During the scene in which she prepares the children breakfast, her aptitude for balancing the many demands of life is portrayed in way that is humorous but also heartfelt.
Cindy Lou’s mother is the best depiction of single motherhood that I have ever seen on film, especially in a children’s movie.
Furthermore, the absence of Cindy Lou’s father is not easily explained away by a tragic and untimely death. There is a very good chance that Cindy Lou, like so many people in our society (myself included), has two parents who are divorced or separated.
The movies I watched as a child always included a nuclear family, or perhaps a set of kindly grandparents. I can only imagine how much I would have appreciated such a depiction of single motherhood when I was a child.
An Allegory for Inclusiveness
Young viewers will also be taught a valuable lesson about showing kindness to people who are different. The creators have given the Grinch a more well developed back story, which, although not nuanced, is incredibly effective. I could not help but draw parallels between the Grinch’s time in the orphanage and the challenge that many children face when they are in need of adoption.
In my line of work as a pastor, I have spoken with families who have told me, “We would consider adopting, but we want a child who looks like us.” I have also been told, “I do not want to adopt a child with special needs.”
I know that adoption is a deeply personal issue and all prospective parents must make the right choice for themselves and their families. However, my heartaches for all the children who grow up in the system without a family of their own.
I know the empathetic hearts of young children will also ache when they see the a young green Grinch alone in the orphanage on Christmas. I could not help but ask myself, “Would the Grinch have been abandoned by the Whos of Whoville if he had looked like them?”
It is important to support movies in cinemas, especially if want quality movies to continue to produced. Movies as an artform in general are under threat due to people’s tendency to prefer streaming from the comfort of their own homes. That’s why, this Holiday Season (if your budget allows!), I encourage you to grab a friend (or your kids) and to see How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
P.S. What do you think? Can you recommend any more diverse films with positive depictions of nontraditional family structures? Let me know in the comments below!