I finally got around to watching Coco. If you’ve watched it and you love it, do us all a favour and skip this blog; I don’t want to be the person going around groaning that People Are Having Fun Wrong. And, for the record, this isn’t a blog about Why Coco Is Bad; I honestly don’t understand that kind of thing, because taste is subjective. But the movie failed to click with me, and I think the reason why is relevant to other people and situations, hence this blog.
One of the reasons it took me so long to get around to watching Coco is that my friends issued many warnings about it. I’m a notorious marshmallow; when it comes to watching anything that affects me emotionally, I fall apart so comprehensively that a movie can become a very draining endeavour, requiring much emotional aftercare. As the subject matter in Coco is basically the story of my life, my friends’ concern made a lot of sense.
Coco is the story of Miguel, a kid who loves music in a family which, for relatively valid reasons, is basically music phobic. At the ripe age of 12, he is put in the position of having to choose not only between his passion and his family, but literally between his passion and his life: his family’s opposition to the playing and listening of music is so severe that he has to choose between life and music. There are other issues at play that are not only important to the story, but personally relevant to me: the toxic matriarchies that can develop as a result of paternal failures (check), how the children of neglect and abuse normalise and perpetrate that neglect and abuse (check), the cruelty of bureaucracy (check), how doggos can be magical even when they look anything but (CHECK). The main subject of the story, however, is Miguel’s predicament.
I realised that something was going wrong for me very early in the movie. I met Miguel, discovered his plight, and my only emotional reaction was mild vexation that he could have gotten that good on the guitar at that young an age, particularly as he was presumably self-taught and played an instrument made out of scraps. I didn’t relate to him, not even a tiny bit, and that didn’t change all the way through the movie. The only character for whom I felt anything was Héctor, who desperately wants to go home and can’t. Just thinking about him brings on my allergies. Miguel does nothing for me.
That fact worried me a lot, because Miguel’s life was mine, growing up. My belonging to my family was conditional on my performance, and could be withdrawn at any point if I failed to meet standards. Not only nobody gave a fuck about whether the life I was forced to live was ensuring my emotional well-being, but I was repeatedly put in physical danger because my caregivers prioritised keeping up appearances over ensuring my safety. Essentially, I had little or no value for them beyond that of an accessory: I was something to put on show to demonstrate what a good family we were. If I failed to perform that function, I would be punished or discarded.
When I felt nothing towards Miguel and his plight, I worried that I’d burnt out a circuit. Yes, your family’s love is conditional. Yes, they don’t care about your happiness. Yes, they will shower affection on you when you’re meeting a set of criteria, and reject you when you don’t. Yes, they’d rather have you dead than fail to meet their standards. What’s the big deal? That’s what life is. Thinking that I’d lost the ability to feel that pain really worried me, because I don’t actually want to be permanently broken. Then I remembered the objections some friends raised about Harry Potter, and I worked out what was actually going on.
Harry Potter bothered some of my friends because they found him unrealistic. They could relate to being deprived of parental care at an early age, and to receiving grossly inadequate care from their assigned caregivers; plenty of people who’ve gone through the care system can. What left them cold was how normal Harry was despite of that. He didn’t show any of the behavioural and emotional problems that children in care so often suffer from. He was a normal kid who just happened to have a grossly abnormal background; for people in the know, that didn’t tally.
Miguel doesn’t resonate with me because he is a normal kid with an abnormal problem – as is, the issue of his family’s conditional love has been superimposed on the personality of an otherwise normal child. In my experience, that’s not how it works. Some problems change you, for a while if not for good. They run all the way through you, like the writing in a stick of rock. They’re not something you only deal with when you’re in that one specific situation: they become a part of you, and they leave hurts and scars that can affect all aspects of your life.
I can’t relate to Miguel because I don’t understand him; in fact, I understand him even less than I do those people who’ve never lived that life. The problem isn’t that I’m so broken that I can’t feel his pain, but that his pain sits on the outside of him, like a coat that he can put on and off. Everything I know about life says that that’s not how it works.
To the best of my knowledge, I’m the only person I know to have had that reaction to Coco, and that kind of scares me. It makes me feel isolated, because the people who think that Miguel makes sense as a person can’t possibly understand me, and I don’t think I have the words to bridge that gap. It also makes me worried for the kids who grow up like that – and there’s a ton of them. I worry that this kind of misrepresentation will create unreasonable expectations for them, that it will cause people to think that they understand them while they’re actually totally missing the point. It’s a common issue: people often superimpose other people’s problems on themselves while failing to internalise them, and come up with solutions that would be perfectly brilliant, if only they didn’t hinge on a person not actually having that problem.
Popular media isn’t about bringing on a better understanding of the human condition, though; it’s about selling a product to as many people as possible. Harry Potter would probably not have sold half as well had the protagonist being unpleasant. Nobody wants to read ‘Harry Potter And The Uncontrollable Rages, ‘Harry Potter And The Disciplinary Trial For Petty Theft’, or ‘Harry Potter And The Avoidance Of Reality Through The Abuse Of Substances’. And it’s not just that HP was specifically aimed at children, and some subjects are deemed not-kid-friendly (even though those same kids may routinely brush against those issues in real life, and not discussing them actually deprives them of the tools to navigate them… but never mind). A character has to be somewhat relatable, and thoroughly fucked-up people tend to fail in that respect. If they ever take the limelight, it tends to be as Terrible Warnings, like Bruce Robertson in ‘Filth’. They’re not there for us to identify with them; they’re a spectacle for us to goggle at.
I’m glad Harry Potter and Coco didn’t do that. I’m just sad and scared that they didn’t do more about revealing the inner struggles of people living certain lives. Yeah, I’m sounding really corny. Whatever.
Shortly after watching Coco, I watched Next Gen. I found it entirely by accident, went into it with no expectations whatsoever, and I think I managed not to cry all the way through the opening credits, but I’m not sure. I thought it was gonna suck (having ‘Rebel Girl’ play during the establishment of the protagonist’s backstory reeeeeeeally cheesed me off); instead, it hit me like a ton of bricks. The protagonist isn’t wearing a problem: she has a problem to the point that she is a problem. Her emotional states and behaviours are consistent with her damage. I could totally relate to her reactions and decisions, even the ones which are objectively fucked up, because they make sense to me: they’re how I would have behaved at that point in my life. To a certain extent, they’re how I still behave, or would behave if I didn’t slap the brakes on, because that little girl is still inside me. Miguel, basically untouched by his own experiences, is an alien to me.