Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared (frequently abbreviated DHMIS) is a surrealist vision of children’s educational content. In each episode, didactic felt puppets employ catchy music and cheery animations to teach a lesson about a specific subject, creating surface similarities to media like Sesame Street or Schoolhouse Rock. In DHMIS, however, the lessons are disjointed and incorrect, the rules being taught are arbitrary, and things often take a turn for the grotesque and overwhelming. At its (glittery, raw) heart, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared evokes the dangers of submission to authority via parallels with the helpless horror of childhood.
I’d originally hoped to do a shot-by-shot analysis of at least the first episode – ideally the whole series. While there’s certainly enough to read in to every shot — isn’t there always? — that’s not going to be sustainable for the entire set of essays. Instead, this first entry will cover the title card and the silent establishing shots shown before the song begins.
Before there’s the first bit of action or dialogue, and even before the characters are first seen, these shots help set the viewer’s expectations – and already begin to subvert them.
In fact, in the title placard alone, there’s incongruity, ambiguity, and the establishment of the entire series’ atmosphere of cheerful malevolence.
The background is a placid and pastel blue-green color – not entirely blue, not entirely green – festooned with cheerful confetti drawn in reds, oranges, yellows, greens, and pinks. This is already a bit of a contrast between peacefulness and festiveness, but the real contrast is with the text: over this background, stark white sans-serif text proclaims DON’T HUG ME I’M SCARED.
The fact that the title is in the first person is already rather unconventional, as titles are often abstract – and often aren’t full sentences at all. The title is not “Don’t Hug The Scared,” or “Why You Shouldn’t Hug The Scared,” or”Don’t Hug Them, They’re Scared,” or “Hugging The Scared: A Recipe For Tragedy.” It’s personal.
Though I’m frankly not well-versed enough in linguistics to explain how this works, the use of the first person in a title isn’t just a summation of the overall theme of the series, as most titles are – it’s a speech act being made by the protagonist. Whether it’s “I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang” or “I Accuse My Parents,” “I Shot Andy Warhol” or “I Was A Teenage Werewolf,” we expect that “I” to be the subject of the story. But who is the protagonist saying this title statement to?
I’d argue that it isn’t actually the viewer: it’s more like a statement in a journal. It’s a statement that person is making about their identity or their actions or some other aspect of their life. It reads more like a line from the protagonist’s own private diary – something personal and reflective and confessional for them, so much so that reading it as an outsider seems pulpy, sensational, and even invasive.
But in the title “Don’t hug me I’m scared,” there’s an understood “you.” It’s not just a declarative statement, it’s an imperative. That “Don’t” is a command being levied at somebody. As a result, teading the title “Don’t hug me I’m scared” is less like reading a line from a character’s diary page, and more like overhearing a sentence of their conversation with somebody else.
Making this assumption, we can analyze this speech even further to attempt to figure out who the protagonist is speaking to, what they mean, and what significance it bears.
Semantically, “Don’t hug me I’m scared” means the protagonist is expressing fear and vulnerability, and it acts to refuse an offer of – or attempt at – a hug.
Pragmatically, though, “Don’t hug me I’m scared” is a fairly complex speech act. It cannot be uttered in a meaningful way without a significant amount of awareness, confidence, and assertiveness from the speaker.
The vulnerability is established by the sentence “I’m Scared” – something has happened to put the speaker in fear. On its own, “I’m scared” may be a declarative statement of fact. But, much as saying “I’m cold” may have an illocutionary force – may act as a request for someone to close an open window or turn up the heat – saying “I’m scared” may have an illocutionary force of requesting the hearer to help the speaker stop or escape the frightening stimulus.
The first half of the sentence “Don’t hug me I’m scared” may be far more telling.
First, we have to step away from linguistics and into non-verbal communication for a moment. A hug isn’t just any wrapping-of-arms-around-another-body. If you bump into someone on the train and your arms end up encircling them, that’s not really a hug. Rather, a hug is a physical act of affection. At the very least, it’s an act of rapport.
When a person being hugged is frightened, however, the dynamic is different. The hug is less an act of equitable rapport, appreciation, or affection, and more an act of comfort and support — therefore, it’s an act that establishes the hugger as a protective figure. The person being hugged is experiencing some form of emotional upset; the person hugging is less affected by that fear and may be trying to allay it. In short: the person being hugged is vulnerable, the person hugging is powerful.
A hug also necessarily involves one person entering the other’s intimate personal space, a reaction zone generally reserved for close and trusted friends or family. The more frightened or vulnerable a person is, the more anxious, fearful, or otherwise upset they’d likely be at the prospect of being hugged by someone who is not so close — or not so trusted.
Assuming that the relationship dynamics and interpersonal boundaries are equitable between the speaker and the spoken-to, “Don’t hug me, I’m scared” sounds almost like a contradiction: a scared person should want to be hugged, because A) hugs are comforting gestures and B) hugs are only performed by someone close enough, trusted enough, to be permitted inside that intimate reaction zone in the first place. What scared person wouldn’t want a hug? What kind of person would try to hug someone if they had the slightest thought that the hug would not be welcome?
What kind of person, indeed.
Clearly, the relationship between speaker and spoken-to, attempted-hugger and prospective-hug-recipient, is not equitable: permission to enter that intimate reaction zone is being refused – and it’s specifically because the speaker is scared.
“Don’t hug me I’m scared” is grammatically incorrect, technically speaking. They’re two separate sentences: “Don’t hug me” and “I’m scared.” Conventionally, a semicolon is used when two sentences are so closely related to each other, often causally, that the writer wants to be sure the relation is evident. While the same title could have been grammatically rendered as “Don’t Hug Me; I’m Scared”, “Don’t Hug Me. I’m Scared.”, “Don’t Hug Me. I’m Scared!”, “Don’t Hug Me! I’m Scared.”, or “Don’t Hug Me! I’m Scared!”, all but the first would allow for the interpretation that the speaker’s fear and the speaker’s refusal of the hug are two separate statements with two separate causes. Instead, however, the choice was made not to render it as two separate sentences, and not to render it as one sentence with its parts separated by a semicolon, but as one single sentence. Arguably, this is not a grammar error but a stylistic and creative choice: the authors are trying to make it abundantly clear, from the very first image of the very first episode, that the expression of fear and the refusal of the hug are absolutely, breathlessly linked.
The speaker is scared of the person attempting the hug.
However, the sentence does more than express that fear. “Don’t hug me I’m scared” is an imperative sentence. The speaker isn’t saying “Could you not hug me, I’m scared,” or even “I’d rather you didn’t hug me.” It’s a command. It isn’t simply evocative of the unequal relationship between a powerful figure and a vulnerable figure, it’s a recognition by the speaker of that vulnerability, of that inequality — and, critically, it’s an attempt by the vulnerable person to shift the balance of power.
In order to meaningfully say “Don’t hug me, I’m scared,” the speaker has to:
◊ Be aware enough of their surroundings to perceive that they’re in danger
◊ Be aware enough of their own feelings to recognize vulnerability and fear
◊ Feel confident enough in the accuracy of their perception to risk making an assertion about that danger
◊ Feel assertive enough to admit that they’re scared and expect the listener to care
◊ Be aware enough of their feelings to recognize when they don’t want to be hugged
◊ Refuse to dismiss, ignore, or otherwise deny those feelings
◊ Feel confident enough in the validity of their feelings – or feel threatened enough by the hug-attempter – that they dare to refuse the hug
◊ Feel strong enough to face whatever negative consequences may result from this refusal
And, most crucially:
◊ Value their safety (or mere preferences) so much more than they value the attempted-hugger’s preferences that they’d issue a direct command and attempt to impose their will on the listener.
It sounds simple.
For victims of abuse, it’s not.
Through tactics like operant conditioning, authoritarian abusers can impel their victims to struggle to act upon – or even admit to themselves – their rights, their agency, their will, their preferences, their beliefs, or even their most fundamental feelings. It may even become difficult to assert objective facts about the world, for fear the abuser has a different belief: the abuser’s personal opinions are paramount, and disagreement is seen as defiance and disrespect.
That the statement “Don’t hug me, I’m scared” would be uttered by the protagonist (The Yellow Guy, hereinafter “Yellow”) at all – and that it would be the title of the entire series – foreshadows that the overall narrative arc will involve Yellow’s recognition that he’s been isolated, manipulated, gaslighted, and abused by his authoritarian father figure, Roy, under the pretense of education; his refusal to keep accepting this treatment or “education;” and his ultimate revocation of Roy’s status as a loved and trusted person who’s permitted to be close to him in any way.
Next Entry: Silently Setting And Subverting Expectations