'The Nightmare Before Christmas' Is Actually A Great Way To Explain Cultural Appropriation
As Tim Burton's weirdly whimsical Disney movie The Nightmare Before Christmas celebrates its 28th anniversary today, it's a great time to take a look back at the spooky stop-motion film and the lessons it teaches - lessons about the importance of love and friendship, about being yourself, and about...cultural appropriation?
Yes, while it was likely not Burton's intention to create a basic do's and don'ts guide for enjoying a culture that is not your own, he actually did a great job with it, especially considering he didn't use any actual races. Trying to parse out what does and does not constitute inappropriate adoption of another culture - or even what constitutes another culture - has led to a lot of arguments, especially in the past decade or so. Was it wrong for Justin Bieber to start sporting dreadlocks? Is it wrong for Urban Outfitters to sell dreamcatchers? Are white comedy rappers making a mockery of historically black music?
Trying to explain the concept of cultural appropriation to someone using real life situations is confusing, because they're so dependent on context - and no matter what, being born into pretty much any culture means you come into the argument pre-downloaded with context the other person does not have.The Nightmare Before Christmas, however, provides great examples, while removing the charge that comes with using more specific, more real situations.
At the outset of the movie, we see the citizens of Halloween Town parading into their home, celebrating a successful visit to the mortal realm. This opening sequence introduces the most important characters in the story, as well as the town itself: It's a spooky, gothic looking place, populated by monsters whose favorite activities include scaring, tricking, disgusting, and generally making scenes - all Halloween things, and all reliant on the base emotion of surprise.
This is the basis of their whole culture. They value the shocking, scary, and dark, so that is what they think the pinnacle of quality is. Their cries of "Wasn't it terrifying?" and "Our most horrible yet!" would certainly be considered bad things in any other culture, but here in Halloween Town, they're goals to strive for.
If you look at the town while immersed in their perspective, it's more or less achieved perfection - something their King, Jack Skellington, seems immensely bored of by the end of the parade. He blows off compliments on its splendor, saying, "just like last year...and the year before that...and the year before that." It's clear that the high-achieving King wants more - so he goes for a long walk in the forest to think, and ends up in Christmas Town.
While it's evident that Jack didn't go to Christmas Town with any intent whatsoever, he can't help but immediately compare its culture to Halloween Town's - it's so strikingly different. He notes, "there's color everywhere...everybody seems so happy."
Jack is overwhelmed by the culture of love, warmth, and family that exists in Christmas Town - something he is, it's worth noting, lacking in his single, very public life - and immediately knows it's something he needs. However, instead of going back home to Halloween Town and trying to find that feeling in something there, he tries to take a shortcut, and just port Christmas directly into Halloween Town.
However, as the King returns back home to talk about vacation in a foreign land (with souvenirs he must have stolen, as he did not speak to anyone while he was there), he runs into a problem: Nobody knows what the heck he's talking about. He tries to give him his best approximation of the experience, but the citizens don't quite get it. How can you imagine something you've never seen?
Since they haven't actually been to Christmas Town to experience the culture for themselves, all the citizens of Halloween Town can do is try to guess how it might look based on the only experience they have. So when Jack tries to explain that a present is a surprise in a box, they think it means some kind of jump scare trick; when he says you hang a large sock on the wall, they think that comes with a severed foot included. They can't imagine a world in which people would want a PLEASANT surprise; it's not because they're mean, it's just because, in their experience, that's what people want.
Jack understands, at the very least, that the citizens aren't quite getting it in the Town Hall meeting, and is reasonably disappointed. Instead of simply letting it be, however, he leans into their confusion, saying "I may as well give them what they want," before showing that even he did not fully understand what he saw in Christmas Town.
Jack then describes Santa as "a fearsome king with a deep mighty voice," with a suspenseful tone, creating imagery of a large, scary man who sets out under cover of moonlight, riding through the sky like a vulture. He also fully believes this "Sandy Claws" would have claws - because why wouldn't he?
Jack himself is clearly confusing his own culture with Christmas Town's, and in a deeply revealing way: As he describes his own counterpart to his people, it becomes clear what kind of King he believes he needs to be. There are societal pressures in place to make him feel he must always act scary - despite the fact that he himself is clearly a kind, whimsical, friendly guy. To escape these pressures, he wants to dive into Christmas culture, to see what makes it tick so that he can adopt it and become the jolly ruler he wants to be: gleefully delivering holiday tricks and treats (instead of menacingly).
"He has become, essentially, a colonizer of Christmas."
With this goal in mind, a discouraged-but-not-defeated Jack retreats to his home to try and crack that code, performing scientific experiments on the toys and knicknacks he brought back. He believes that, much like with their own simple holiday pranks, that the secret to many of the Christmas surprises are physical ones. If there were some secret to the magical, warm feeling you get when opening a Christmas present, then, shouldn't it work the same way as the scared, surprised feeling you get when you open a candy wrapper and a spider crawls out?
Jack does not seem to understand that there are some things in life that logic just can't explain, though he gets closer to finding the answer by burying himself in classic carols and stories, because those are the elements of Christmas that hit closest at the themes of warmth, love, and togetherness that accompany the holiday.
He almost gets it; he has the realization that it might not be as complicated as he's making it - that it might simply be a feeling, "like music drifting in the air, invisible but everywhere."
It seems as though he's about to have a breakthrough when he manages to hit on the old Christmas adage, "Just because I cannot see it doesn't mean I can't believe it," and just for a moment, it looks like he might finally be on his way...
And then the music changes to a minor key as he swings very far in the other direction. He gets to, 'oh, it's just a feeling,' but makes no effort to understand what that feeling is; he simply assumes that by using the Christmas objects, he can create it - in his arrogance, likely wrought from being such a successful king all these years, he says:
You know, I think this Christmas thing
Is not as tricky as it seems
And why should they have all the fun?
It should belong to anyone.
Not anyone, in fact, but me!
Why, I could make a Christmas tree,
And there's no reason I can find
I couldn't handle Christmastime.
I bet I could improve it too!
And that's exactly what I'll do!
As the song ends with the image of Jack taking the Christmas lights off the tree and wrapping them around an electric chair before turning it on, popping the bulbs, you get the distinctive sense that Jack has fully lost the plot when it comes to getting across the meaning of Christmas. Jack becomes the distinctive villain of the story here. (Ever notice that Oogie Boogie's part is sort of tangential to the plot? He is, at best, a side villain.)
It's important to make it clear that despite being a villain, Jack has no ill intent - because that's frequently what's happening when cultural appropriation happens in real life, too. He has become, essentially, a colonizer of Christmas.
"It's a movie about what happens when you try to remove a culture's traditions from their original context and paste them onto your own."
Jack is really trying his best to make the holiday nice for everyone. In his planning meetings, he is organized and polite, and does his best to offer constructive criticisms when it comes to their more macabre ideas. He commands Oogie's Boys to apologize when they kidnap the Easter Bunny instead of Santa, and instructs them to see that Santa is comfortable - he just wants to offer the old man a day off. His efforts to be polite, however, don't excuse his actions. A comfortable kidnapping is still a kidnapping, and a day off against your will is either a suspension or...still kidnapping.
As you see Jack's Christmas finally start to come together, it's clear that the execution is all wrong. Everything is shaped like Christmas - the reindeer, the sleigh, the Sandy Claws outfit, the sack of gifts - but it still feels like Halloween. The reindeer are skeletons, the sleigh is a coffin, the hat was stolen, and the sack of gifts is full of shrunken heads and evil wreaths.
It makes sense, therefore, that Jack finally gets shot out of the sky at the end of the night. He doesn't expect this reaction at all - and why would he? He brought these people a similar Halloween show just two months ago, and everybody loved it.
Only as he lies among the smoldering remains of his sleigh does he realize his mistake. He's despondent over how blind he was, thinking he, the Pumpkin King, could simply take over - but he bounces back quickly when he remembers, "That's right - I AM the Pumpkin King!"
He then learns his lesson so quickly you almost miss it - you can take the Skeleton out of Halloween, but you can't take the Halloween out of the Skeleton. This endeavor with Christmas has shown him what the inalienable core of his culture really is - and now he can't wait to use that to get creative next year. (A skeleton reindeer and coffin sleigh is bleak for Christmas, but it'll be great for a haunted house.)
After Jack comes to the rescue and sets everything right, Santa delivers him and the citizens of Halloweentown a gift - and the way he does it is an excellent example of how two cultures can share their traditions without appropriating them.
As he flies overhead in his sleigh, he shouts "Happy Halloween!" and Jack yells back, "Merry Christmas!" - sort of like when one person says "Merry Christmas" and the other says "Happy Holidays." It's the same sentiment, but the personal meaning is a little different. Then he makes it snow, quickly blanketing Halloween Town and its citizens in sparkly white frost. And finally, there, with one of the simplest joys of Christmas laid out in front of them by somebody who knew what they were doing, they understand what Jack had been trying to explain. They 'get' the Christmas feeling.
The Nightmare Before Christmas isn't just a Halloween movie, or a Christmas movie - it's a movie about what happens when you try to remove a culture's traditions from their original context and paste them onto your own. You lose what makes them special when you do that, because you're losing the most important part - the people who made it a tradition.
Like it or not, the culture we are born into is a huge part of what shapes you as a person, and you, as a citizen, shape it right back. It's impossible to separate culture from people because culture IS people - and like it or not, the culture you're born into is a part of you that you can never fully erase. It will inform the way you do everything in ways you can't expect - so when it comes to celebrating another culture, it's better to just follow their lead. It's actually the best way to learn how they see the world.