Tag Archives: Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared

Overanalyze ALL The Things: Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared – Creativity

(Note: since I have reason to suspect that the final episode will be coming out tomorrow, and since I’d like to at least address all of the episodes, these will be more like bullet points than full essays.  Management reserves the right to rewrite or expand them later, even though they’re probably wrong.)

What’s your favorite idea?
Mine is being creative.

And so the lessons begin.  Through music and visuals, the Sketchbook attempts to teach The Red Guy, The Yellow Guy, and The Green Duck Guy about creativity.

Red and Yellow show a dramatic and excited reaction, leaning toward the Sketchbook. Yellow’s mouth is agape, and he looks wholly amazed.  But Green does not even move.  He is completely unsurprised – either because similar things have happened before, or because the very same thing has happened before.  As stated in the previous essay, the characters behave as actors waiting for their cues.  Perhaps Duck Guy is weary of this role, after many takes.

This question and its response come on like a koan.  The notion of having a “favorite idea” is bizarre.  Treating “being creative” as an idea unto itself is stranger still.  Creativity is not being treated as a process or method, but as an entity in its own right.

How do you get the idea?
I just try to think creatively.

Creativity is treated as both cause and effect here: Sketchbook got the idea for being creative by thinking creatively.  This doesn’t impart knowledge to the unfamiliar. You need to accept the wisdom of the answer and be capable of applying it already in order to gain and apply the wisdom in the first place.

The rhyme scheme is also simplistic.  “Idea” is rhymed with “idea.”  “Creative” is rhymed with “creatively.”  Tautologies are the antithesis of creativity.

Now, when you look at this orange,
Tell me, please, what do you see?

It’s just a boring old orange!
Maybe to you, but not to me.

A bold move, ending a line with “orange,” one of the English language’s most famously-rhymeless words.  Almost any other fruit could have worked – like “apple,” or even “pear.”

Why, then, an orange?  Given the nature of the puppets as puppets, the attempts at inculcation, and the hints of authoritarianism, it evokes A Clockwork Orange.

Strangely enough, when you stare into this fruit basket, the fruit basket stares into you.

DHMIS Fruit Basket.png

Something blue is at the back of the basket.  It has a googly eye and either a feather or a tuft of hair.  This seems to be yet another entity that has a face, yet is not treated as a character.

The orange is, however.

I see a silly face (Wow!)
Walking around and smiling at me

I don’t see what you mean!
‘Cause you’re not thinking creatively!

The Yellow Guy, who comes across as somewhat naive, childlike, and unintelligent, is at least playing along, expressing enthusiasm at the Sketchbook’s creativity.

Red is somewhat more ambivalent, and his character comes across as apathetic.  He reacted to the Sketchbook’s appearance, but not as dramatically.

Green is more pragmatic and more fussy.  He’s trying to learn, in that he’s questioning the Sketchbook and attempting to get her to explain herself in a way that might make more sense to him.  However, his failure to learn this way of thinking is being treated as the reason he failed to learn this way of thinking in the first place. His inability to see the world the same way as someone else is being called “uncreative,” and he’s being told he should change how he thinks. This is conformity dressed as creativity.

The attempted rhyme scheme reverses here.  The first two lines of each couplet don’t even come near a rhyme, but me / creatively succeeds.

So take a look at my hair (Cool!)
I use my hair to express myself.

That sounds really boring.
I use my hair to express myself.

While Green is trying to engage with the Sketchbook and to demand , Red seems to be more random.  He played along in the beginning, mugging a reaction, and his voice can be heard saying “Cool,” though Green’s cannot. However, Red also resists the Sketchbook, saying her attempt at expression is boring.

When confronted with the idea that her attempts at wild and colorful self-expression are, in fact, boring, the Sketchbook’s only response is to repeat her assertion that she’s expressing herself. It as if she cannot conceive how her personal self-expression could be seen as boring to anybody else, and therefore Red must not have heard her the first time, or must not have understood her – his response couldn’t possibly be his own genuine self-expression.

There could also be some mockery of those who’d wear “wild” hairstyles to express themselves in the first place – given that hair grows out and can be dyed, making it a safe and risk-free way to creatively express oneself.  Perhaps the argument is that real creative self-expression entails more risk – and doesn’t need to be explained or asserted.

Perhaps Red is saying that her hair is cool, and it would be cooler if it was there for its own sake: her insistence that it’s “expressive” gives it meaning and purpose, and therefore makes it dull.  Ars gratia artis, after all.

She never risks letting others draw on her, or drawing on herself – she doesn’t seem to express herself by her own hand, or to facilitate creativity in anyone else.  Rather, she just acts as a presentation, flipping from already-existing illustration to illustration.


Now, when you stare at the clouds in the sky,
Don’t you find it exciting?
No.

It’s not looking at clouds that’s engaging – it’s the search for patterns. (Even then, it’s not “exciting,” it’s generally more relaxing.)   Still, is pareidolia a creative act?  It doesn’t analyze or recreate or compare – it just involves looking at an amorphous or ambiguous shape and recognizing the shape of something familiar.  Being able to see more things might denote higher creativity or adaptability.  So might an ability to see things in both the positive and the negative space. But I would argue that there’s nothing creative about seeing a shape in a cloud or a face in a rock formation on Mars. The mind simply recognizes a pattern in things as they are, comparing them to other things-as-they are, whereas creativity involves an ability to imagine things as being other than they are.


Come on, take another look! (Oh wait!)
I can see a hat, I can see a cat, 
I can see a man with a baseball bat.
I can see a dog, I can see a frog,
I can see a ladder leaning on a log!


Curiously, “creativity” appears to involve each person seeing the same thing at the same time.  Genuine creativity would arguably result in a wider diversity of perceptions.  Still, the Sketchbook asserts that they’re on the right track.


Think you’re getting the hang of it now!
Using your minds to have a good time.
I might paint a picture of a clown!
Whoa there, friend; you might need to slow down.

The Duck Guy still looks dubious and unimpressed, even as the Skechbook says they’re doing well.

The direct connection between the mind and time is somewhat odd.  In the phrase “have a good time,” time is being used in a much more abstract sense. But the picture illustrates both very literally – the mind is a brain, and time is a clock.  This is a very reductionist approach for someone who supposedly advocates creativity.

It also foreshadows the second episode, which focuses on time – and which begins to address the idea of time as a human invention, not an actual entity.

And so is pausing the entire song to dump black paint all over Yellow’s painting of a clown.

Why should he slow down?  Even if he’s comprehending creativity (or the Sketchbook’s concept of it) more quickly than The Duck Guy, there’s no sense in destroying his progress or holding him back – unless, of course, even the Sketchbook realizes that she’s not advocating real creativity, and is just encouraging a sort of versatile positivity within arbitrary authoritarian constraints.

What sort of creative exercise does the Sketchbook support instead?

Here’s another good tip (Yeah?)
Of how to be a creative whiz kid:
Go and collect some leaves and sticks
And arrange them into your favorite color.

Again, this is koan-like insensibility.  It does make much more sense to have a favorite color than a favorite idea – but arranging “leaves and sticks” into a color can’t exactly be done.

And so they arrange the leaves and sticks into the words for colors – the signifiers instead of the signified.


Blue!
Red!
Green!
Green is not a creative color.

The Red Guy picks the color blue. The Green Guy picks the color red. Yellow picks Green, and is scolded, his work covered with a large black X.

Yellow was not asked to arrange them into a creative color, just into his favorite color.  He’s punished for taking the Sketchbook at her word instead of paying attention to the subtext – that his favorites should now be in line with her ideals.

No reason is given for why green is not a creative color.  Perhaps it’s because leaves and sticks are already greenery, so using greenery to spell “green” requires too little imagination or seeing-things-as-they-aren’t.

However, again, the Sketchbook thinks creativity is nothing but seeing whatever everybody else sees. Whatever complaint she has about green, the fact that it’s not truly creative enough is unlikely to be one of them.

Perhaps there is something else that is wrong or threatening about the color green.

Blue and red, both primary colors, were fine – but green is a secondary color, made by combining yellow and blue. It is, itself, created, a sum of disparate parts, and it is therefore an objectively creative color.  It looks all the more as if the Sketchbook is only interested in asserting authority – legitimate displays of creativity are blacked out, X’d out, or otherwise maligned.


There’s one more thing that you need to know
Before you let your creativity flow:
Listen to your heart, listen to the rain,
Listen to the voices in your brain.


This would be three more things. The depiction of a heart shows a more anatomically-correct heart, aorta and all – another very literal depiction.

“Listen to the rain” seems more abstract, but it’s not an encouragement to listen for patterns, melodies, voices, or anything else in the rain besides the literal sound of raindrops hitting surfaces.

On “Listen to the voices in your brain,” the Sketchbook shows a simplified image of the lobes of the human brain.

DHMIS Brain.png

An image of grey matter would have sufficed, but the lobes have been created – and color-coded.

The forebrain is blue – Red’s favorite color.  This is the part of brain that controls decision making, reasoning, planning, problem solving, and ethical choices.  It may be worth noting that damage to the frontal lobe can result in a lack of emotional affect – a failure for emotional states to be reflected in facial expression or tone of voice.  This evokes Red’s muted, neutral reactions.

But the lobe in green is the temporal lobe.  It’s the lobe that processes sensory input, recognizes language, and forms long-term memories.  If green is a forbidden color, and the temporal lobe is green, then the Sketchbook is cautioning against accurately processing the evidence of the senses, against comprehending language, and against remembering events of the past – all of which could be used to refute or disbelieve authority.

Come on, guys, let’s get creative!

The fridge shows “Get Creative” in colorful fridge magnets – and then the image snaps from live live action to rather-dated CGI, as might be seen in an extremely low-budget children’s cartoon.  The letters fly off the fridge and toward the camera.

A montage of live-action creativity begins – the characters using traditional childrens’ craft materials like glitter and googly eyes, popsicle sticks and potato stamps to create random-seeming amalgams of matter.

The camera returns to the live-action shot of the three characters sitting at the table.  The image flickers between this and a crude CGI representation of the characters and the kitchen.

DHMIS CGI Before.png

The camera pans around the table, and the kitchen falls apart – the walls slip aside, and the cuckoo clock swirls through the air.  Soon we see what has been behind the “fourth wall.”  The characters are being filmed, and are aware of this: there are cameras, a boom mic, a clapboard, and a director’s chair – all manned by creatures that appear to be nothing but giant eyeballs on yellow birdlike legs. The background is the pale blue-green with confetti, as in the title card.

But as the scenery is changing and previously-unrevealed entities are being shown, the characters are changing as well.  When the camera returns to its initial position, Yellow and Green are significantly different:

DHMIS CGI After.png

Both are taller and broader.  They appear to be adults.  This could be seen to represent the same characters, only older – or it could represent their parents.

The image becomes pixelated, then returns to a live-action view.  The puppets are no longer the same, and no longer appear to be puppets at all, but rather people in full costume.

DHMIS Live Action After.png

Another craft montage begins.  A raw human heart sits on a yellow background. Shredded confetti is haphazardly stuck to an ill-painted round disc.  Red – or the elder Red – covers the heart in gold glitter.

The three stand in the kitchen again.  The table is gone, and the letters of “Get Creative,” presumably having flown off of the fridge, now hover in the background. The calendar still shows June 19th. Yellow dances erratically while Red and Green look on.

The view looks out the window, where dark storm clouds roll in and a thunderstorm begins.

The music grows more and more frenzied – violins sawing, occasional discordant notes played over them.

All three characters now dance wildly.  Red rolls the heart from the glitter, exposing the unglamoured flesh.  He shakes and gyrates, rolling the heart in the glitter, blood smearing the pale yellow surface.

The original puppet Yellow is seen again, convulsing somewhat, while the Sketchbook looks on in apparent approval.

The three larger, adult characters sit at the table again, excitedly cutting into a cake bearing pale blue frosting and the words “Get Creative.”  Red and Yellow clap as Green removes a slice.  The cake is full of offal.

Red and Yellow, two of the three primary colors, are represented in these characters.  So is Green.  Perhaps Blue is in the cake.

The three hug and spin as the music reaches a peak of screeching frenzy.   Green’s potato stamps spell “DEATH” and the H trails off into a smear as his limp hand slides down the frame. Fallen offal is pulled into the mousehole by an unseen agent.  The small version of Yellow convulses again, even more wildly, and the Elder Green scoops more offal into the cake.  The DEATH potato stamps are seen surrounded by skull stamps and smears and by the potatoes themselves, and Green’s hand casts them away as cymbals crash and faint screams echo.

Through this cacophonous phantasmagoria, creativity is shown to be far from the tame and rulebound ideal expressed before.  It is unhinged, it follows no pattern, it is heedless of time.  It confronts mortality.  The raw matter of the world, of plants, of animals, even the very hearts of animals and the innards that work within them, is distorted and changed.  Potatoes are used as stamps, hearts are covered with glitter, organs are made into cakes.  Food, life, art, and death are all intertwined.  It is unclear what the dancing is meant to celebrate – life and art, or death itself.

Perhaps this is a view of the past – of the characters’ parents, on June 19th of 1955, another Father’s Day, performing some sort of creative / destructive rite, a summoning or appeasement of horror, which the main characters now have to live with.

The screams die away, and we see the Sketchbook and Green again, Green in his original form.  The original view is shown once more – Red looking at the Sketchbook, Yellow looking distraught, but not making eye contact with the camera, the Green Duck Guy looking vaguely toward the book. Nothing has changed in the kitchen.  Time does not seem to have passed, to go by the clock.

Yellow looks around, as if confused, though the other characters show minimal reaction to the events. The upbeat music strikes up again.

Now let’s all agree to never be creative again.

With a discordant honk of a woodwind, the Sketchbook falls backward, its cover closing over it once more, and the screen goes black.

Next Entry: Frenzied Nigh-Random Bullet-Point Observations About Other Things In The Rest Of The Series.

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Overanalyze ALL The Things: Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared – The Establishing Shots

Silently Setting And Subverting Expectations

After the title card of DHMIS, there is a series of seven establishing shots, all silent save for a faint background hum. Some are close-ups, and some pan along walls of the room, until the seventh shot, which shows the full room – and is the first appearance of the three main characters. Despite the lack of dialog, narration, or music, these shots establish the physical setting of the episode, establish the mood, foreshadow themes and later events, and establish the viewer’s expectations – but, already, they also subvert those expectations.

DHMIS Air Mail

The first image is not of any establishing shot, nor any character, but of a felt air mail envelope, complete with red and blue edging and a plane-shaped stamp symbol – one that does not appear to have been cancelled.  This indicates that the letter is waiting to be sent – and it’s being sent by air mail.  Moreso than a typical letter, air mail is emblematic of communication across great distances – often, places hard to reach by land. It implies that there’s a tremendous gulf between one end of the conversation and the other, and that the sender is possibly quite isolated.

Not all communication is cut off, however: next comes a shot of a newspaper called The Right Wing.

DHMIS Right Wing

It’s not a glossy magazine, it doesn’t have a charming human interest headline about a celebrity or a local event. Rather, its headline speaks of stocks, and the picture shows a coin featuring a crowned duck.  This has connotations of business, investment, rigor – in short, adulthood. A child is unlikely to read about or have interest in finance; even if one did, they wouldn’t be earning their own money, most likely, and couldn’t engage with the information.  This implies that there is at least one adult involved in whatever we’re about to see.

More symbolically, the newspaper may imply certain things about the socioeconomic system the characters are in – probably right-of-center, given the title; probably led by a single powerful figure, given the crown; possibly favoring corporations over individuals, given the focus on finance, and therefore conceivably fascist.

However, the implication may not be political as much as it is psychological.  In light of later context, the use of “The Right Wing” and the monarchy-implying coin may instead evoke right-wing authoritarianism.

To lazily quote Wikipedia, if just because its citation link is broken, “Right-wing authoritarians are people who have a high degree of willingness to submit to authorities they perceive as established and legitimate, who adhere to societal conventions and norms, and who are hostile and punitive in their attitudes towards people who don’t adhere to them. They value uniformity and are in favour of using group authority, including coercion, to achieve it.”

As will be seen, each episode of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared features at least one authority figure who, presenting itself as legitimate, tries to inculcate at least one main character with the societal and cultural norms or scientific “facts” it presents. This authority is, at the very least, hostile toward resistance, despite that the information it presents is often spurious and may not even represent diegetic truth.

DHMIS Shelf with Prism

 

Though the newspaper establishes the presence or influence of at least one adult, the next shot pans along the well-lit kitchen shelf, where we see a red-and-blue ball cap with a yellow brim.  With its bright primary colors, the hat looks like one that a stereotypical storybook child might wear. Though the soft felt objects already bore connotations of harmless childhood entertainment, the presence of the cap reinforces the notion.  The camera moves then moves along past a plain-looking white-and-blue canister.

And then we see the first face: a red prism-shaped object with a tuft of hair at its apex, its front face sporting two googly eyes and a flat mouth.  Yet the camera keeps panning, putting no focus on this object.  Just when the viewer has seen enough felt items to expect puppetry, just when the viewer has prepared to suspend disbelief and accept that inanimate objects will be treated as characters, we see a felt object – one with eyes, a mouth, and even what seems like hair – but it appears to be no character at all.

What is it doing there? What is it meant to be?  In the context of the world being established, it’s hard to say.  But the object was created, placed there, filmed, and not edited out: its inclusion is a conscious choice.  What purpose does it serve, then?

It’s essentially an expectation subverter: a false alarm that compels the viewer to acknowledge what they expected and why they expected it, acknowledge how they could tell they weren’t getting what they expected, and address what it the difference is between fulfilling the expectation and failing to fulfill the expectation.  In this case, the sight of the faced and motionless prism compels the viewer to acknowledge that they expected puppetry because of all the other soft felt objects and the presence of googly eyes, hair, and a smile. It compels the viewer to acknowledge that they don’t recognize the object as a character because it’s not being focused on and because it’s not being moved.  It compels the viewer to acknowledge that this is what puppetry is: an unseen agent moving and manipulating an inanimate object in order to construct a narrative.  And it calls on the viewer to keep that in mind in the later shots, when the main character puppets are introduced.

The prism isn’t just there to kick down the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, though. If the faced and motionless prism were shown after the three main characters were introduced, after the viewer had put into practice their suspension of disbelief in order to accept that these face-having inanimate objects would be treated as characters, then it would seem to have little purpose but to disrupt the viewer’s suspension of belief.  The viewer would keep expecting it to move – any shot now, any time now; after all, every other faced thing was expected to move, and did move, and is still moving. Instead, by showing a faced and motionless prism four shots before the characters are seen, it creates a brief hiccup in the still-growing suspension of disbelief.  The dissonance begins and ends before suspension of disbelief becomes necessary to engage with the work.  This lets the prism work as a symbol – a symbol of what it means to be a puppet. A reminder that it is not a puppet, but the characters to come are.  And why are they puppets?  Because they are being manipulated by unseen agents – not just literally, but metaphorically.  Somebody is controlling them, somebody is influencing what they do, somebody is putting them where they are.

Given the rest of the context: some authoritarian adult is manipulating the characters we’re soon to see – manipulating them, possibly through coercion, possibly through force, into accepting that adult and their indoctrination.

 

DHMIS Calendar and Knives

The next shot is of a recurring sight in all videos: a wall calendar reading June 19.  The camera pans down – slowly revealing a wall-mounted knife holder, all the blades pointing up at the calendar.  This creates an association between that date and danger. The sense of danger is reinforced as the camera pans down further to a stove.  On the stove, there is a pot.  And in the pot, there is an egg.

DHMIS Knives and Egg.png

Nothing needed to be on the stove in order to establish that it was a stove.  It wasn’t necessary for there to be a pot.  Even if there were a pot, it wasn’t necessary for there to be anything in it. Even if there were anything in it, it wasn’t necessary for it to be an egg.  It could’ve been beans or spaghetti or virtually any food. It takes work to make these props, and it’s reasonable to believe that anything that’s present and focused-on – especially during establishing shots – is meant to be important.  What is placed, and where it’s placed, matters. In fact, a real egg wouldn’t float that high in water, and anyone who was actually about to boil an egg or two would have it in the pan, immersed in water.  It wouldn’t be visible from this angle.  But it seems that the creators went out of their way to handwave physics, just so an egg could be seen.

A clear connection is drawn between June 19th, knives, and a stove with an egg on it.  Why?

Let’s take these in reverse order, just for dramatic effect.

Eggs are offspring.  Even though the eggs we eat are unfertilized, an egg is still symbolic of youth – of a new generation.  In this case, the young egg is in a cookpot.  The heating element is in black felt, not red, so the burner’s supposedly not on – but there’s still a looming threat.  This egg, this offspring, is going to be cooked. This kitchen is a threatening place to the young.

Above the egg is an array of knives, reinforcing the idea of violence.

And above the knives, the calendar showing the date of June 19th.

What’s the significance of that date?  This video, itself, does not hold any direct clues. But beyond this calendar itself, and the other identical calendars present in every episode, there are still other allusions to June 19, 6/19, or some other form of the date throughout all the episodes (as will be described in later entries,) so it certainly isn’t arbitrary. But this video was released in 2011, and June 19th had no particular significance in that year.

To skip ahead to the second video for a moment, though, a character says “The past is far behind us” while pointing to a framed photograph bearing a placard that reads”19-06-55.” This gives us one other year to look at in order to determine the date’s significance.

In 1955, June 19th was Father’s Day.

Father’s Day is on June 19th this year, as well.

This establishing shot establishes a connection between Father’s Day and danger to children.  It implies that some father figure – perhaps the adult in this household – poses a threat to his offspring.

DHMIS Red Radio

Next, the camera pans right to left once more, showing a red radio on a windowsill. Again, this has a connotation of communication, but it’s communication that only works one way – it can be received by the people in the house, but not transmitted. The tuner is off to the left, implying a low-frequency station – one that could be broadcasting from farther away.

DHMIS Cactus and Radio

On the other end of the windowsill sits a small potted cactus – and a rather anthropomorphic one, at that.  Here, again, there’s a blurring of the lines between “face-bearing inanimate object that could be a character” and “face-bearing inanimate object that’s just an object.”  But, taking the liberty of assuming it’s meant to be an actual cactus, not some novelty cactus sculpture, it may imply that somebody here does not have a green thumb: they’re not trying to tend something as finicky as an African violet or as commonplace as a Boston fern; they’re tending something that’s even more hardy – and harder to kill.

In short: the adult of this house may not be a particularly good caretaker.

DHMIS Get Creative

Next, we see what appears to be an assortment of things on a desktop: one edge of the earlier air mail letter, a fairly large skeleton key, a red and angular object off to the left – and a sticky note scrawled with “Get creative.”

Sticky notes like these are generally used as reminders for quotidian tasks – tasks more like “get eggs” or “get milk” than “get creative.” There’s something strangely contrary about the idea of reminding oneself to be creative, as if it’s something you might otherwise forget to do.  It could be argued that creativity is a skill more than a trait – that it can be practiced and fostered as much as anything else. This idea that some people fixedly are or aren’t creative is just another manifestation of an entity theory of intelligence, as incorrect as the belief that some people are or aren’t “math people.”   While the next entry will analyze this episode’s approach to creativity in much more depth – suffice it to say that its approach to teaching creativity has a variety of contradictions – this establishing shot is a summation of the core concept: that creativity is or should be less about self-expression and more about fulfilling external expectations.

The note appears to sit on the same small table as the air mail letter, and is shown to be somewhere between it and some unknown red object to the far left.  The only other object seen in full is a single key.  While this could be a metaphor meant to be linked to the “Get Creative” note itself, implying that creativity is a key to success or a key to opening new doors, it may not be meant to relate quite so directly to that message.  Instead, it might bear a more literal interpretation: something or someone is, or will be, locked up.  As the key is not a modern car key or door key, but rather a more old-fashioned lever-lock key, there’s a suggestion of age.  Perhaps it’s a house key and the house is old.  But perhaps the key is simply metaphorical in a different way: something or someone is locked up in an outmoded system of beliefs.

At last, the camera moves to the final establishing shot: the one that also establishes the characters.

DHMIS Characters

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This gives us an overview of the entire scene: a somewhat poky kitchen.  Considering things in counterclockwise order, starting in the bottom right, we see again the small endtable with the sticky notes, letter, and key.  The red object is revealed to be a red telephone, reinforcing the subtle association of red with communication that was earlier established with the radio.

Above it, the wall shelf.  The orange prism is still present, and is shown to be next to something that might be a cookbook displaying an image of a fried egg and some bacon.  This second depiction of eggs being cooked recapitulates the threat to offspring that was earlier established by the egg in the pot.

More of the top of the refrigerator can be seen, and it’s a somewhat strange assortment of items: a scale; an iron; some sort of yellow, red, and blue ball; a percolator; what may be a blue toaster with toast; a blue canister of some sort in the back; a small potted plant in the front.

But each might be interpreted in some way: the scale might be seen to imply measurement and analysis, a weighing of things so that they might be portioned out accurately.  It could hint that the people and things in this room are being evaluated somehow.

The iron smooths out wrinkles, when used properly.  However, when used improperly, it can iron-in a wrinkle and make it worse, or could even burn the material. This could reinforce the idea of an authority that is attempting to suppress deviations and create a smooth path, but that may be causing worse problems.

The colorful ball may be a pet toy, or a child’s toy, held up and out of reach – another indication of a power dynamic where an authority has control over an inferior.

The percolator is a tool for making coffee, a drink that is generally distasteful to children and preferred by adults, again implying the presence of an older authority.

The toaster, like an iron, applies heat – but an excess of heat could cause burns.

Whatever the blue canister may hold, it’s rather hard to get to, and it’s odd that it wouldn’t be placed on the shelf instead – perhaps where the hat inexplicably stands. Is it a sugar bowl being kept away from a child, perhaps?

Finally, the potted plant sits in front of everything on top of the fridge, rather than being placed in the sun or on the endtable or on the kitchen table.  Is the plant dangerous to children or animals, perhaps – or is it a temptation with which they can’t be trusted?

Moving along, we see the calendar and knives again, and also see a small rack of dishes from which also hangs some cutlery.  Five dishes are on the rack, though there are seven slots.  Seven is, literally, an odd number for a set of dishes. Perhaps this could indicate that there were once seven people in this house, one dish for each person – but that two people are now gone.

The window shows a green and featureless landscape to the horizon, and a blue sky with small white clouds.  They aren’t in a desert, on a mountain, or in some other clearly isolated place; it seems to be nothing more than a suburban lawn.

Below, we see the three main characters: on the left, a tall red creature with a moplike head, large eyeballs on the top of its head, and no visible mouth; on the right, a shorter green bird, possibly a duck, wearing a brown twill jacket; in the center, looking directly at the camera, a yellow person wearing denim overalls and a somewhat concerned expression. Mugs that coordinate with the blue striped canister (and with the light above) are near each person; a red teapot is near the middle of the table, near what appears to be a basket of fruit.  The newspaper is on the lower right corner of the table; what appears to be a book is diametrically opposite it on the upper left corner.

On the left wall, previously unseen, there hangs an image of a sailboat, and to the left of it hangs a cuckoo clock.  By the baseboards below, there is a mousehole; near it is a food dish and a water dish, most likely for a pet.

The picture shows a sailboat on dark and wavy seas.  There are subtle things wrong with this ship, however. The hull appears symmetrical, from this angle, making it hard to tell bow from stern.  There is no rudder. Since much art in Western culture tends to depict movement from left to right, that might be the initial assumption – that the bow is on the right, the mainsail is therefore red, and the jib is yellow. But this may not be the case: it’s the yellow sail that seems to be attached to the boom, and it sits higher up than the red sail – where the mainsail would be, at least per the most simplified diagrams. Therefore, while it may seem to be true that the red is the mainsail, the driving force of the ship, while the yellow is simply an additional airfoil, the reverse may be the case.  This may be true of the red and yellow characters, as well: The Red Guy may at first appear to be the driving force behind the action, the character who propels progress, while The Yellow Guy is his dramatic foil  – one who also drives progress and plot, but who provides a stark contrast.  However, it may in fact be Yellow who progresses the story along, while Red is his foil.

Of all the possible wall clocks to create for this scene, they chose to create a cuckoo clock.  Given the ornateness and complexity of real cuckoo clocks, it seems unlikely that the creators would choose to spend the additional effort necessary to make one out of (apparent) felt if a more ordinary clock would do the trick.  Therefore, the question changes from “What is the significance of a clock on the wall?” to “What is the significance of, specifically, a cuckoo clock on the wall?”  What features distinguish one from the other? The cuckoo.  At a certain time, a door automatically opens, and the small mechanical bird is shown – or is extended somehow – and sings.  Until that time, it’s trapped inside the house-shaped timepiece.  The cuckoo clock therefore reinforces an idea of this house as a place of isolation and control, a place of specific schedules, a place where action, free movement, and singing do not happen freely, but happen only at their appointed times.

The presence of the mouse hole below implies that this house is being eaten from within.  Natural creatures that cannot be reasoned with are, by their nature, seeking warmth and shelter and food, and are destroying the unnatural structure in the process.  The homeowning adult, apparently, has responded to this threat by getting a pet – presumably a cat.  Its food bowls sit near the mousehole, as if to make it associate the area with a food source.  A literal game of cat and mouse is being played within this home.

Finally, to return to the characters: the shot lingers on them for a somewhat awkward span of time.  We don’t catch them in the middle of breakfast, or a conversation.  They simply sit and look straight ahead.  The Red Guy seems to shift uncomfortably.  They appear to be doing nothing but waiting for something else to begin.  Their expressions are neutral at best – The Duck Guy looks weary, and Yellow seems confused and possibly distraught.  This is an unnatural sort of waiting.  They’re not looking out the window, idly reading the newspaper, sipping tea, or even resting their heads on the table.  It is more like they’re awaiting their cue, or expecting somebody else to initiate the action.

And somebody else does: the sketchbook on the table flips itself open, revealing a face – and, as music begins, the book begins to sing.

Next Entry: Get Creative

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Overanalyze ALL The Things: Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared – The Title

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

 

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