Disabled Characters Who Rock

I’m sure this won’t be news to you; we need better disabled characters. Portrayals of people with disabilities tend to misinform, sensationalize, stereotype and outright villainize them. There are thousands of articles out there on harmful disability tropes and more still to be said.

But you know what I’d rather do than write another one of those articles? Talk about some disabled characters I love. I think that, when talking about disability representation, or any other kind of representation, it is easy to get bogged down in the difficulty. I don’t just mean the labor of research or the ethical questions about which stories are yours to tell; I also mean the emotional consequences of submerging yourself in pain. It is not creatively energizing. It puts you into that “everything sucks” mentality, and going straight from that to writing can turn into the toxic editors “everything I write sucks” mentality. This is especially damaging when it comes to diverse characters, because, on the way to writing awesome representation, you will probably write some shitty representation. Not because you’re a bad person, but because all your writing is shitty when it’s on it’s way to being awesome. Representation isn’t different, it’s just extra emotionally charged.

I also think writers need “dos” as well as “do nots.” While it’s good to be aware of problematic tropes, I think that when you actually sit down to write it’s better to have an idea of good representation to focus on. You don’t hit a bullseye by focusing on the people in the crowd who you are hoping not to shoot. You know the bystanders exist, but you keep your eyes on the target.

Besides, this has been a rough year for all of us, and it’s nice to spend a little time dwelling on happy thoughts.  Continue reading

Mental Health and Creativity

I’m not sure how to categorize this post. It’s certainly not a review, and its not exactly writing advice either. I suppose, in a way, its my own personal PSA.

Starry Night

I just read yet another book where the author went on a rant about what would happen if we had medicated Van Gogh. Psychiatric drugs are turning us all into zombies and the negative feelings in life fuel our art and many great geniuses would have been diagnosed with mental health problems today. Therefore meds are bad! Sigh.

I do think we often rush to medicate when other options might be better, and there are people out there with good, educated opinions on this issue. But when your example of someone who should not have been medicated is a man who mutilated himself and took his life at 37, my bullshit alarm starts clanging. These arguments make me angry for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that they, at one point, prevented me from even exploring the option of medication. I have an anxiety disorder, and as it turned out, a low dose of an SSRI was extremely effective in treating it. Medication isn’t the answer for everyone, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I want to talk a bit about our ideas about the relationship between mental health and creativity.

The idea that creativity and mental illness are linked is an old one, but studying it is problematic. Search the internet for mental illness and creativity studies, and you’ll find a tenuous statistical connection that raises more questions than it answers. People who spout the Van Gogh argument tend to assume that when mental illness comes along with creativity, the former is essential to the latter. This is only one explanation. Here are some others;

  1. Artists tend to live unstable, stressful lives. This means that those who are predisposed to mental health problems are more likely to develop them.
  2. People who happen to be both mentally ill and creative often turn to art as a kind of self-therapy. If they hadn’t been mentally ill, they still would have been creative, but would have channeled their abilities into other arenas.
  3. Mental illness and creativity share a genetic cause, a bit like those genes that cause both blue eyes and deafness. Just because a person wears a hearing aid, that doesn’t mean their eye color will change.

It’s funny how those who wail the loss of a hypothetically medicated Van Gogh never mention Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne, Morisot or Degas. All of them, like Van Gogh, produced moving Impressionist art that is beloved today. They used the good and the bad in their lives to inspire them. See Morisot’s portrait of her husband on holiday…

 

eugene-manet-on-the-isle-of-wight

… and Monet’s portrait of his dying wife.

Monet's Wife

For most of them, there is no historical evidence that they suffered any kind of mental illness. Others, like Cezanne or Degas, did have some moodiness and isolationism that might have been signs of a disorder, but then again, maybe they were just shy eccentrics. It’s almost as though great creativity appears across a spectrum of functioning, rather than being dependent on extreme mental anguish.

Now, I should say, there have been people who have tried medication and then gone off it, because the side effects were awful, or because the meds didn’t help, or because they felt they could manage it better with therapy alone. Some people who use the Van Gogh argument just mean we shouldn’t force medications on people who don’t find them a net positive. I do agree with that point. Unfortunately, it is just as often used as fear mongering by people who don’t really know anything about either psychiatry or what its like to be mentally ill.

The stigma around mental illness made my parents inclined to ignore it, and the image of the tortured artist was a convenient way for them to explain away the warning signs in young me. I wasn’t really miserable. I was just “moody, like all the great writers were.” Growing up with this as the way to understand myself made me feel guilty even considering that I might have a medical problem. When I considered getting help, my brain filled with some Orwellian nightmare of personality erasure. Even when I broke away from them, these images fed my anxiety disorder and added one more boulder to the massive wall of issues stopping me from seeking help.

For years, I managed my anxiety by educating myself on calming techniques, recognizing my own personal triggers and picking my battles. At some points in my life, that worked fairly well. I would face my fears in order to maintain friendships or keep my job, and then I would go home, cry and crash, not because anything had gone wrong but because I was exhausted from fighting through my fear every time I was around people. Other times, I had to miss out on things I really wanted to do, because I did the math, and I knew I didn’t have enough spoons to both see my friends and face the crowds of strangers at the grocery store. I thought I was doing pretty well. The tears and shaking became almost invisible to me, because they were so normal. Then, I moved in with my boyfriend, and those breakdowns weren’t private anymore. He was loving and supportive, but simply having another pair of eyes on me made me realize how unusual my mental state was.

Then, last fall, my long estranged older brother started reaching out to me. I had to take advantage of this, because I loved and missed him, and our visit went very well. Unfortunately, the trip was so hard that the anxiety crash didn’t take an afternoon of crying. It took weeks, and I couldn’t limit my outbursts to home. I started having breakdowns at work, over nothing. My boss took a moment to talk to me privately about what was going on, and shared her story about how she had gotten on medication. Obviously that story was private, but it debunked a lot of my worries and got me to set up an appointment with a general practitioner (I had tried to get an appointment with a therapist, but invariably my first few calls would go to people who weren’t accepting new patients, and of course one of my major anxiety triggers was making phone calls).

Now I’m on meds. I still feel fear, sadness, and all the other normal negative emotions that we all need to function. What changed is that after I feel them, I calm down normally, without exhaustion, tears and shaking over something that I know, rationally, was no big deal. It hasn’t harmed my creativity. If anything, I have more time and energy to write. Once again, I need to say that everyone reacts a little differently, and what worked for me might not work for someone else. My point is not “go on medication, you will definitely be fine.” Instead, my point is twofold.

To those of you who struggle with mental health problems but have been spooked by those who say you’ll lose your ability to feel, let me tell you, they don’t know what they are talking about. Psychiatric medication might not be the best option for you, but then again it might improve your life more than you ever thought was possible. And here’s the great thing; if you try a medication and you hate how it affects you, you can stop taking it. Do talk to your doctor first, because sometimes you need to wean yourself off gradually, but any decent doctor won’t make you stay on something that is hurting your quality of life. If they aren’t willing to listen to you, change doctors. There are plenty of good ones out there. Your brain is a wonderful, powerful instrument, and your life is a precious thing. Take good care of them both.

To those of you who spew the cliche about Van Gogh, I understand that you probably didn’t mean anything by it. You probably hadn’t thought of this perspective. I hope I’ve given you something to think about. I leave you with this. Perhaps Van Gogh would not have responded well to medication, but given how much pain he was in, he should have been given the choice, and that choice should be respected by us all. If that would have resulted in a world without Starry Night, I dare say we’d have consolation enough from Monet’s Sunrise.

Impression, Sunrise

Why We Need Scary Stories

I love Halloween. I love seeing the world covered in skulls, vampires, bats and zombies. I love the excuse to watch scary movie after scary movie. I love the way that, once out of the year, the world is joining me in contemplation of the grotesque and horrifying.

I have some issues with anxiety. Even when nothing is wrong, my brain likes to pump my head full of scary juices. In fact, it’s worst when nothing is wrong. An actual crisis, for me, is like a vacation. All the unnecessary panic feels like rehearsal, and I can finally put all the adrenaline and hyper-awareness to good use. Perhaps that’s why, so often, my thoughts turn towards disturbing topics or terrifying stories. The emotions are going to be there anyway. It’s nice to give them some appropriate subject matter, to keep them company.

Even for people who aren’t like me, I think there’s benefit to scary stories. That isn’t to say that everyone needs to go watch 28 Days Later or read Lovecraft if that’s not their thing. I’m not trying to police anyone’s genre preferences, or cajole anyone to try horror if they are uncomfortable with it. The benefit I’m talking about is broader, more social.

Here are a few premises for you.

Premise one; the world is in many ways a terrifying place. We all face innumerable challenges, unforeseen tragedies, losses of control and, eventually, death. And that’s just everyday life for the privileged. Once you accept that, you have to take into account certain other facts, like that Kim Jong-un exists.

Premise two; we don’t like thinking about awful things like that. Looking at these issues makes us uncomfortable.

Premise three; we can’t deal with any problem without taking an honest look at it. Attempting to handle a situation without real understanding of it often results in making it worse.

Premise four; stories have the power to teach us about situations by making us live them vicariously. They can be like flight simulations for real life, sometimes in straightforward and obvious ways, other times in subtle and symbolic ways. How a story handles uncomfortable subject matter can teach me how to handle similar feelings in my life.

Conclusion; stories that scare have the power to teach all of us to deal with unpleasant ideas that are still an essential part of life.

Once again, I don’t mean that all of you have to go watch a movie you swore you would never watch because the idea was too scary or icky for you. For one thing, I think these lessons and ideas can be introduced through stories, and then trickle through a whole society by cultural osmosis. I’m not a big fan of romance stories. I’m still familiar with many romantic tropes and their corresponding ideas about love, the good and the bad.

For another, just because scary stories deal with those essential ideas, that doesn’t mean every one handles them well. I am bothered by how many horror films, particularly the gory ones, handle their subject matter by making the victims very flat and eroticizing the violence. I don’t object to eroticism, and I don’t object to gore, and I don’t… well, no, I do object to making the victims flat on the grounds it’s poor writing, especially when they are supposed to be protagonists. But what bothers me most about that combination is that it does position the reader to deal with violence by identifying with the villain. I’m all for understanding, sympathizing with or even empathizing with a villain. Identification with the villain, on the other hand, is uncomfortably close to identification with the oppressor. Humans, uncomfortable witnessing someone suffer, sometimes shut off their ability to sympathize with the ones suffering and instead fixing on the one causing the suffering, who seems interesting and powerful in comparison. In the short term this feels better; in the long run it is the reason former victims are sometimes future abusers. All of which was a long of saying that although I think scary stories can teach us how to deal with fear, not all of them are great teachers.

I do, however, think that every genre, from romance to sci-fi to literary fiction, has examples of stories that handle their subject matter poorly. There is still plenty of fiction in the horror genre that handles awful subject matter in a way that is insightful and artistic, and for the rest of this month I’ll be writing about some of my personal favorites.

Hope you enjoy, and thanks, as always, for reading. Happy Halloween!

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Where’s God When I’m S-s-scared?

(note: I’m now a vaguely spiritual neopagan witchy-type. Otherwise, I stand by pretty much everything here)

If you didn’t grow up Christian, odds are you’ve never heard of Veggie Tales. If you did, there’s still a distinct possibility that you haven’t. If you not only grew up Christian, but grew up during the nineties with parents who were wary of turning on the television, for fear  that the rampant secularism would drag you to hell, odds are that not only have you heard of Veggie Tales, but you watched them long past when you should have outgrown them. Like with the Disney animated canon and Winnie-the-Pooh, you pretended to be over them for a millisecond in middle school, and then came to your senses. Your parents watched them with you, not because they had to, but because they were genuinely entertained. You dressed up like them for Halloween the All Saint’s Eve celebration with lots of candy but none of the Satanism that those trick-or-treating kids were unwittingly engaging in. If those of you not immersed in this culture think I’m exaggerating, bear in mind that my older sister’s friends, who were in their mid to late teens, thought someone was the coolest shit ever if they owned this shirt.

Bob the Tomato, one of the protagonists. And we all thought it was the coolest shirt ever.
That would be Bob the Tomato, for the uninitiated.

The power of nostalgia is strong indeed. When I turned the first episode on, I was trying really hard to look out for ideas I could analyze, but honestly most of my brain was just going, “It’s that song! I remember that song! I know all the words still! Squeeee!”

Now, I should note that not everyone who was a fan of this series was a radically conservative Christian. It was just particularly popular among that crowd because, well, it was a huge fish in a dinky-ass pond. Censorship happy Christians tend to find themselves with a small catalog of morality tales available to show their kids, and most of them really suck. Veggie Tales didn’t suck. The stories were actually good and the jokes were actually funny. Ergo, it was huge, so huge that Family Christian Bookstores could have called themselves “Veggie Tales and Also Some Angel Figurines on That Table Over There.”

The show usually starts with Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber introducing the moral, and then the vegetables all enact one or two stories illustrating it. Veggie Tales has a recurring ensemble cast, and it can get a little confusing because those characters can appear in stories playing either themselves, or be themselves playing a character. To make that a little less confusing, they do generally fill the same sorts of roles. Bob the Tomato is the most adult of the recurring characters, and usually plays the role of everyman and/or voice of reason. Larry the Cucumber has a silly and childlike personality, but while he has probably the most versatile repertoire he always retains a bit of goofiness (he also happens to be my favorite). I’ll explain the others as they are introduced. There is also traditionally a Silly Song With Larry, which is exactly what it says on the tin and has no point whatsoever, except to be fantastic.

After the story, Bob and Larry go to Qwerty, the computer, for a Bible verse to cap off the episode. The moral intro – story – Bible verse closing format was pretty standard in the sorts of stories I grew up with, and typically the only part I liked was the story in the middle. The intro and Bible verse was just preachy and annoying, and this is coming from someone who likes moral philosophizing. Veggie Tales was the exception, because while they used the format they also didn’t take themselves too seriously. There was a running gag that, at the end, whenever Bob announced it was time for the Bible verse, the “What We Have Learned” song would start playing. The song was annoying, but it was as annoying to Bob as it was to all of us and he would fruitlessly try to stop it. Hijinks ensued, and then they got to the verse.

The first episode opens with Bob and Larry standing on the kitchen counter talking about a letter they got from a kid viewer. Even though it’s their first episode and they don’t have any viewers yet. You know, when I was first watching these, I had daydreams of someday writing my own letters and having them inspire an episode, but now I’m suspecting that might not have been how it worked at all. Anyway, the letter writing totally-not-a-show-writer kid has been getting scared, like kids do, and so Bob and Larry introduce a pair of stories teaching the lesson that you shouldn’t be scared because God is looking out for you.

The first story centers around Jr. Asparagus. Jr. Asparagus is the audience surrogate, and his personality is a bit inconsistent. He is alternately naughty and a goody-two shoes, not based on any sort of internal logic but just based on whether the story currently requires him to be one or the other. He’s my least favorite character, which is unfortunate because when Bob and Larry aren’t the protagonists, usually Jr. is. In this story, he watches “Frankencelery” before bed and can’t sleep because he’s seeing monsters in his toy chest and his closet and so on. Then, to prove to him that the world really isn’t full of horrors, two adult strangers suddenly appear in his bedroom.

Yeah, that one came across  a little differently on rewatch.

"Hi, I'm Bob. I'm a tomato, and I'm here to introduce an unintentionally creepy element into the narrative."
“Hi, I’m Bob. I’m a tomato, and I’m here to introduce an unintentionally creepy element into the narrative.”

Anyway, the strangers are Bob and Larry, who have been magically teleported into his room to explain that everything is okay, because God is looking out for us, and also to introduce Jr. to the actor who plays Frankencelery (that should be Frankencelery’s monster, or Adam to his friends, but I didn’t write the script). The actor reassures Jr. that he’s actually quite nice and nobody got hurt for real in the movie, and they all teach him a song to cheer him up next time he gets scared. Afterwards, Jr’s Dad comes in to talk to him about the movie and give the kind of talk responsible parents have with their kids who have just been scared by a monster movie, only to find that the episode has done his parenting for him. This is fairly typical of their relationship.

The second story is Daniel in the Lion’s Den, starring Larry as Daniel. Later Veggie Tales will play around with the Bible stories they tell, but this one tells it straightforwardly. King Darius, played by Archibald Asparagus (the default veggie for snooty, supercilious roles) has a dream that none of his wise men can explain. Daniel shows up and explains it with the help of God, gaining the king’s favor and leaving the wise men wondering why they didn’t just pull something Freudian out of their asses.

These guys are known as the Three Unnamed But Invariably Evil Scallions.
These guys are known as the Three Unnamed But Invariably Evil Scallions.

The wise men then enact Biblical Evil Wise Men Plan A; get the king to declare himself God and promise to punish anyone who worships anyone else, knowing that the Biblical Protagonist will never betray his principles! They have, however, forgotten to read to the part where this always ends in the Biblical Protagonist being punished but miraculously saved, and the king then takes it out on said Biblical Evil Wise Men. So Daniel gets thrown into the lion’s den, but an angel keeps all the actual lions away, so that doesn’t go according to plan at all. All the while it is repeated that Daniel reminded himself not to be afraid because he knew God was with him, thus tying it into the overall theme.

This is a tricky moral for me to talk about because, on the one hand, I don’t agree with it, but on the other hand, I don’t think it’s necessarily harmful, just that it assumes a premise that I currently reject; “God exists.” Now, some atheists do have issues with this kind of thing because Christians are using them to indoctrinate their kids in the idea that God exists before they have a chance to make up their own minds. On the other hand, many Christians would say the same thing about atheists, that they’re indoctrinating their kids with God’s nonexistence and probably dooming them to hell. The reality is that everybody teaches their kids based on what they believe, and probably all of us will end up teaching our kids some things that are not entirely correct. You can’t just take what you believe and say that nobody can teach their own kids anything outside of that, and that cuts both ways. However, I do think it’s unethical to insist on your kids only being exposed to one set of beliefs. People often say, “I don’t want my children to be confused by X,” to which I respond, “why the hell not?” We learn to think by being confused, by encountering contradictions and alternatives and not being sure what the truth is. It’s no different from becoming strong by exercising until we are tired, or growing as people by going through difficult circumstances. And sure, sometimes people look at two ideas and choose the one that isn’t true, but would you really rather they never had the choice?

So what does all that have to do with Veggie Tales? On the one hand, nothing. This show is not itself indoctrination, it’s just showing a Christian point of view. On the other hand, it was often used as indoctrination, in that many parents chose to use it as a way to placate their children’s desire for television while avoiding exposing them to anything that struck them as remotely un-Christian, and the sorts of people who follow that mentality tend to have a very broad definition of un-Christian (in my own family, The Hunchback of Notre Dame counted, because of Esmeralda’s neckline, and also Mulan for… reasons?) But I do think it’s important to make the distinction between what a thing is, and how it can be used. The show could, for the most part, fit just as easily into the home of Christians who saw absolutely nothing wrong with Harry Potter.

Ultimately, I don’t think I’m going to have as many negative comments on this one, because most of these stories are just basic common sense child appropriate morals that happen to have a Bible verse at the end. I promise I’ll still take out my angry atheist hammer if I think it’s warranted, and there are a couple episodes where it will be, but for the most part this show holds up even post-conversion.

Ferris Bueller and the Nature of Goodness

*spoilers abound throughout*

During a recent bout of sickness, my boyfriend and I watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, because it is a wonderful, happy movie that makes life seem less awful even when you have to periodically pause it to rush to the bathroom. While I was watching it, two things struck me. First, it is a wonderful happy movie that makes life seem less awful even when, well, I guess I covered that already. Second, Ferris Bueller does almost nothing I approve of, and yet I can’t help liking him and rooting for him. He rejects education for entirely juvenile reasons. He lies to every authority figure, bullies his best friend into going out, takes another person’s car out for a joyride and cons his way into taking someone else’s dinner reservation (both of which are on the borderline of stealing), all without showing a hint of guilt. Now, there are many stories out there with an amoral, rule-breaking protagonist, but often I root for these protagonists while cringing. I don’t want them to be doing what they are doing, but I still care about them and hope that somehow things work out for them. They are often tragic protagonists who are punished in the end for their wrongdoing, and though I didn’t want to see them suffer I also wouldn’t have been satisfied by any other ending. Ferris, however, is someone who I root for unreservedly, and when, at the end, everything works out for him, I am completely satisfied. It is the one movie that can make me forget all my normal values while I watch it.

Or is it?

The antiheroic characters I described above earn my sympathy through two methods. First, they tend to be charming, cool and often funny, so they are likable. Second, they tend to oppose characters who are unlikable, sometimes even characters who are more morally corrupt than they are. Both of those do apply to Ferris (he is funny and charming, and his main antagonist, Principal Rooney, is so rude and unapologetically overbearing, it’s impossible to root for him) but there is another layer to Ferris’ success as a character. While in an academic sense everything he does is wrong, while you are watching him do things the way he does, it’s hard to disapprove of them.

For one thing, his misbehaving is incredibly harmless. He never seeks to do harm, only to enjoy himself. I’m trying to think of bad things that could have happened offscreen as a result of his actions, and I can only think of one; the maitre d’ who was duped into giving Ferris someone else’s reservation probably got chewed out by his manager. That’s all, and odds are if he’s a decent maitre d’ who doesn’t normally make this kind of mistake, and if the manager is willing to listen to the full explanation, it’s doubtful he suffered any long term consequences. Ferris never steals from somebody who isn’t capable of easily replacing what was taken, he never lies with the intent to cause somebody else physical or emotional pain, and in general he never shows ill will towards anybody, even Mr. Rooney.

In fact, the humiliations Mr. Rooney experiences are entirely unrelated to anything Ferris does. In another movie a Ferris-like scalawag might set sadistic traps for him, but that’s not Ferris’ way. Ferris is content to get out of school, and leave Mr. Rooney in peace. It is Mr. Rooney’s own actions that hurt and humiliate him. He is rude to a lesbian who he mistakes for Ferris, and gets soda spat in his face. He trespasses on the Bueller’s property, and their dog chases him down. He trespasses again, frightens Ferris’ sister and gets the police called on him. I’ve heard some people argue that Mr. Rooney is actually just doing his job, and we just root against him because he is unsympathetic, I think that is a hard position to support. While it is true that Mr. Rooney has a responsibility to maintain his school’s attendance rate, do you think any court or review board would say that responsibility justified abandoning his school for an entire day to chase down a single absent student? Or intruding on someone else’s property? Dropping a flowerpot on their dog? Even though his anger at Ferris is somewhat reasonable, his actions are not.

So there is one reason why Ferris is easy to identify with. He never harms anyone directly, nor does he intend to hurt anyone. That doesn’t necessarily make him a good person. If he cares only about his own pleasure, without any intent to hurt others, that makes him an amorally blithe spirit. To really be considered a good person, he has to care about others in addition to caring about himself. Does he meet this criteria?

I think he does. He brings two people along with him on his day off; his best friend Cameron, and his girlfriend Sloane. At first, when Cameron is sick in bed and conflicted about going, this seems selfish. Ferris claims that Cameron’s illness is all in his head, that he is chronically depressed and anxious and what he really needs is to get out of his head and have some fun. For many characters, this would be just another sort of manipulation, or justifications made for the speaker’s  own convenience, but this movie backs this up. Once Cameron gets out of his house, he really does stop showing any signs of sickness. His facial expressions and mannerisms are very consistent with being anxious, and his parents are described as being both strict and neglectful (speaking as someone who was in the same position for a while, I related to Cameron quite a lot). After Ferris has gotten Cameron out of the house, he continues to have asides to the camera about Cameron’s mental state. Ferris only drops his carefree attitude when he talks about Cameron, because he is genuinely afraid that Cameron will never loosen up and find his confidence. At one point Sloane suggests that Ferris planned this whole trip for Cameron’s benefit, and we aren’t given any reason to think she’s wrong.

I’ve heard some people suggest that Ferris is a sociopath, and it’s true that he is manipulative and shows a callous disregard for the rules, but neither of those are the defining traits of sociopathy. What separates sociopaths from non-sociopaths is that sociopaths completely lack empathy. In fact, people who have many traits of sociopathy, but whose sense of empathy is normal, are known for being extreme altruists; the kinds of people who run into burning buildings or dart into traffic to save small children. Ferris is not a sociopath. He does two things a sociopath would never do. First, when Cameron falls into the pool, seemingly catatonic, Ferris dives in to save him. The look on his face when Cameron falls is of shock and terror, and it’s not for the benefit of any audience. Nobody else is there, except Sloane, who is behind him and couldn’t see his face anyway. Second, when Cameron, at the end of the film, destroys his father’s car, Ferris offers to take the blame. He begs for it. He says this is too much heat for Cameron to take. His feelings for Cameron are both selfless and genuine.

One of Ferris’ most morally questionable acts in the beginning of the film is stealing Cameron’s father’s red Ferrari. I say it’s the most morally questionable because, while Ferris doesn’t intend for it to be damaged, it easily could have been, and because, while Cameron’s family is probably financially capable of replacing it, it has strong emotional value to Cameron’s father.  The car is kept shut up in a garage, never driven, never used, just polished and admired and doted on. Many kids would complain jokingly about their parent’s loving some trinket more than them, but when Cameron says his father loves the Ferrari more than his own son, nobody treats it as an exaggeration. It is this transgression of Ferris’ that worries Cameron the most.

In the end, the car is returned to the garage unharmed, but Ferris’ plan to take off the miles they have driven turns out to be based on a complete lack of understanding of how cars actually work. Cameron goes catatonic for a while, and Ferris’ blithe demeanor is shaken for the first time. He is truly anxious for his friend. Then, Cameron comes out with it, and suddenly trashes his father’s car. He has lived his whole life in terror of his father, and now, facing the imminent threat of his father’s wrath, he decides the fear is not worth it. He wants to face his father, accept whatever consequences there are. This is how you get rid of fear; you stare the thing you fear in the face, and you accept it. From this point on, Cameron does seem more confident. Initially, he was a rule follower, not because he had an internal moral compass telling him to do so, but because he feared authority and devalued himself. Ferris takes him on an adventure to show him that authority is not all powerful, and that Cameron is worthy of the good times that the rules would so often deprive him of, and in the end, this pays off, though not quite the way Ferris had expected.
This movie, while portraying actions that I would never ordinarily condone, does in fact have a moral core that I completely agree with. Ferris breaks the rules because he knows that the rules aren’t always good. In this film, everyone who follows the rules does so for completely the wrong reason. They are either like Mr. Rooney, insisting on the rules because they feel the rules should benefit them personally, or like Cameron, following the rules because they are afraid of the consequences. Their morality does not come from a place of compassion, empathy, or desire to make the world a better place. Instead, it is Ferris’ mischief that actually comes from concern for others, and that makes the lives of those around him better.

Rules don’t exist to make people good. Rules can’t make people good. Rules give us a sense of how the world work, they give us a framework to live in, but it’s up to us to live in that framework in a way that is empathetic and giving. As long as the rules are consistent with that kind of inner goodness, it is good to follow them, but when that’s not always the case. Sometimes the rules are made by people who don’t really have our best interests at heart, like Cameron’s parents, or maybe the rules become just an excuse for people who aren’t acting in a way that’s really good, like Mr. Rooney. For those times, we need characters like Ferris to remind us that sometimes the best thing to do is take a day off.