The Common Good

The Accidental Moral Mirror of Monsters University

This week an online ad informed me that Monsters University has finished first at the box office for two weeks running. I’m convicted by the statistic; I saw it somewhere between Northfield, Minn., and the Twin Cities on the “Largest Movie Screen in Minnesota” last week while visiting my brother. But it struck me that the movie presents – probably quite by accident – an opportunity to talk about a deep moral reality. So what follows will only begin obliquely by talking about cute monsters. And it will contain (mostly minor) spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Monsters University, photo via Disney / Pixar
Monsters University, photo via Disney / Pixar

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Let me start by saying that a big part of what delighted me about the prequel was that they found a way to do a second one at all. I had my worries, because I wasn’t sure they could repeat what was best about the first movie.

What’s best about the original Monsters, Inc. movie? Watching these beasts deal with the same emotions and anxieties we have! It’s a delicious irony: the scary are terrified. The screams they elicit are a mere workplace reality to them; they mean no harm and are worried that they could be killed by the mere touch of a child. The movie puts a double-coda on it: a human child befriends them (doing on-screen the work that the movie does with us, the audience), and they discover through that relationship that laughter makes better monster energy than terror does. The film works its ironies perfectly.

BUT. There was always a sequel problem. What do you do, having wrapped everything up so tightly? Anything set later in a Monsters universe transformed by the epochal discovery that laughter powers their world better than fear ever did would miss the major irony: the scary monsters are terrified themselves.

The solution is perfect: we get a prequel (restoring us to the ironic world of scared scarers). And not just any prequel, but one where the central on-screen relationship (between Mike and Sully) is in flux and conflict – because it hasn’t been established yet!  And the writers double down on the irony: not only do we have scared scarers … but by setting them in college, we suddenly see scarers who are scared about whether they’ll ever become scarers! (And we get the added dramatic irony of knowing that at least some of them make it.)

Let me point out something brilliant in how this writing works. There’s a sort of emotional sleight-of-hand that occurs: ordinarily, we would be disturbed – and rightly so – by the Monsters, Inc. premise: a group who consistently terrifies children to fuel their own lifestyle. This isn’t something we accept.

Both Monsters movies work around that by putting our attention on the irony: the scarers are more scared – and the danger they face (or at least believe they do) is death by human-child-contamination … whereas we the audience know that the child isn’t actually in danger.

Nonetheless, (and here, dear reader, we begin the turn to the somber: those who will begin saying in disgust “It’s just a kids’ movie; why can’t you just enjoy it?” – you have been warned twice now!) we would never countenance, say, a sadist who enjoyed a child’s screams but never issued physical harm. There’s a problem of the means being ignored for the ends at stake.

The movies more or less ignore this – and they should! They’re concerned with other topics – at developmentally appropriate levels for children. It’s wholly proper that they focus our attention on the anxiety of the monsters (say, when Mike sneaks into the human world as a youth, without the professional scarer’s awareness: a child is about to experience a waking nightmare … but we’re more focused on whether/how Mike will get back to the door, whether the scarer will be caught, whether contamination will injure one of the monsters).

But this is a great place to identify something that happens in our own moral responses to complex situations in more serious ways. Because we can do this sort of self-fooling, sleight-of-hand ourselves: we shift the anxiety away onto the part we care most about, or are nearest to, or most affected by. And we shift it away from someone else who’s also paying the cost. All the time. And when we do it in our real common life, the stakes are higher.

Our abortion debates are an unfortunately strong example. Persons on one side try to call attention to the horrifying realities of some choices that are made. For instance: even parents who chose pregnancy may “elect” abortion if they discover that the child has genetic problems that will be lifelong. Persons on the other side seek to call attention to the terror an unplanned pregnancy can cause – pointing out the cost, the lack of social/financial/healthcare supports, the compounding problems of allowing doctors to lie to patients or of denying ob-gyn training around abortions to state medical schools, of defunding clinics that don’t perform elective abortions together with those that do.

The moral sleight-of-hand that is played is that party positions become codified – and then direct attention only to their own party’s anxieties. Never mind that the other side is raising matters of sober reality and intense need. There is life and death on each side, but the sleight-of-hand plays itself to dismiss the other’s portion: “No, you cannot acknowledge the seriousness of their concern; if you do, your own concerns might be abandoned!”  And so the sleight-of-hand hides the other part from us, returning our attention to the piece we feel more connected to.

And so we go, whether it’s abortion or gun rights or economic policies.

There are ways to resist, and one of them is naming the problem. As with all illusions that depend on it, you can beat this sleight by paying close attention, by naming the mechanism by which the trick works, by focusing on the circumstances around it.

Another is in recognizing that often many of us will have pieces of the truth, and that we have to leave our boundaries open and porous enough to hear those parts that we do not ourselves hold, if we are ever to engage the problems in their entirety.

I hear another way to resist the sleight-of-hand in the writing of retired Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, whose short Lenten reflection book, Christ on Trial has become something I’ve returned to over the past few months. Williams notes that Christians can never be rid of recognizing “the tragic element in public decisions” – of giving voice to what is being covered over as a means to an end that it was in tension with. And that Christians sometimes furthermore have “the unpopular task of saying that this particular cost is unacceptable.”

Now, we live in a pluralist society, and I’m sure there are many from other groups that would join in supporting that ethic.

But let’s remember that it’s easy to nod along with it in the abstract. The monsters didn’t stop using Scream to power their cities until the providential accident showed them that Laughter was a greater substitute, and unfortunately we’re similarly reluctant to dismantle oppressive or violent structures before we can see an alternative — meaning we often maintain a status quo because we would have to leave it to find the alternatives that could exist.

And while we’re remembering things, let’s recall that the authors of the monsters’ universe were human beings, gifted with creativity to imagine such a solution to their story by the Author of this universe, who knows all the solutions we have yet to find for our story.

Perhaps no writing team has yet given us a script for a world that isn’t plagued by fatal child gun accidents and crazed shooting massacres, so-called “elective” abortions and terrible medical realities for families and women finding themselves pregnant in circumstances planned or unplanned, economics that have their most severe costs for those least able to speak to the powerful.

But if our minds and imaginations can trot out irony and displace anxiety to plot out a children’s movie, we’re already working with the tools that can understand and dismantle the things in our own minds that keep us from seeking to build that world.

The Rev. Ben Varnum holds a Masters of Divinity from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, and serves as a priest in the Diocese of Kansas of the Episcopal Church.

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