Promethea: I wanted to do a discussion article on the Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared series because I feel like those videos get sold short a lot. They’re scary and funny, to be certain, but they’re intelligent on a level beyond that, in a way that I think is artistically important. The overriding themes of the series concern gaslighting and authoritarianism in an almost Orwellian way (though obviously presented in a much different way than 1984). From the first video to the last, the “teacher” characters present warped, contradictory realities and silence independent thought (“Green is not a creative color”). I think the series uses comedy, horror, and surrealism in a very uniquely alloyed way, and I think that allows the videos to approach these ideas in a novel way. What do you think?
HappiestMan: Couldn’t agree with you more. It’s amazing how the series uses its childlike aesthetics and tone to highlight and contrast the authoritarian and dark themes it’s addressing. Its appearance as a sesame street like kids show isn’t just a cheap trick to shock and scare the viewers. It’s a facade that’s integral to the message and point of the show. While I agree with you that its themes deal with authoritarianism, I’d argue that the show has a even more specific message and idea it’s trying to get across, and that is the idea of outside businesses and brands forcing their own products onto kids for profit. The series takes this idea to its logical and nightmarish conclusion. Through at the same time, the series is open to multiple interpretation.
Promethea: I don’t quite agree with your interpretation, but I think you’re going in the right direction. One thing that’s important to remember is that the characters aren’t suffering at the hands of some faceless corporation—it’s explicitly the yellow guy’s dad who’s behind it all, which would suggest that the series is talking more about controlling and abusive family than anything. While the presentation as a kids’ show does suggest some sort of message about marketing, it’s the characters in the show who are suffering, not any kids who are watching it. I think the message here is general enough to apply to myriad situations, though, both the familial and the political. There’s a bit of a “bread and circuses” motif throughout, particularly noticeable in the second episode. The clock man distracts the puppets from asking questions by pointing out fun distractions (“An old man died.” “But look! A computer!”), which points in the direction of a political message. Still, I think the overriding quality here is gaslighting, which comes to a head in the fifth installment, with the food teachers who keep changing the definition of what’s healthy until the yellow guy isn’t allowed to eat anything but his own best friend. Gaslighting is a concept that applies to political and social situations, which is what I mean about the message being general.
HappiestMan: I can totally see that interpretation, and I think what you mentioned about the “bread and circuses” motif is very insightful. Throughout the entire series it very much seems like the show itself is fighting with the characters for their attention, and every time one of the three comes up with an independent thought or comes up with their own conclusion or ideas from the information presented by them, they get reprimanded and punished. A great example of this is also in episode 2, Time. When the characters, spurred on by the clock singing to them about time(probably the best song in the series), starts hypothesizing about the true nature of time, the clock abruptly cuts them off by beeping loudly, making one of the puppets’ ears bleed. This supports your theory that the show is about authoritarianism, as each of the teachers not only enforce their own method of teaching above all else, but actively try to quash and stop any attempts to look at these themes and ideas from another angle. And while I think we both agree about the series themes and the message, I think we both disagree as to what end this brainwashing and gaslighting is for. I personally think that Yellow Guy represent a creator that has sold their show to the highest bidder, letting any group with a bit of money dictate what they want the show to be about and what they want the show to teach. That’s why in the fifth installment the teachers’ food advice is so contradictory, because Yellow Guy is letting multiple groups and people sponsor this episode, leading to a message that outright contradicts itself.
Promethea: See, I think the themes you’re talking about are certainly there, specifically the corporate abuse, but I think locking the series into an interpretation that specific requires ignoring a lot of the evidence out there, and it does a disservice to the series’s complexity. Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is a lot more than a simple allegory, and it would be much less interesting if that was all there was. That being said, I like your analysis of the teachers’ methods. There’s a strong current of hypocrisy in what they do—”We want you to learn, but we don’t want you to think.” That speaks to a concern with oppressive education systems (which is a more common theme in British entertainment than American—look at Pink Floyd, for instance). Another undercurrent that I think is present in the series is LGBT oppression. While it’s never explicitly stated, the third episode and its discussion of “true love” as something “protected with a ring” with a “special one” (and none of the examples of a chosen pairing are anything other than straight) reeks of heteronormativity. The connection with religion, having Malcolm as the “King of Love”, only strengthens this association. It’s also worth noting that Yellow’s only meaningful relationships are with the other male main characters, and his father engineers the destruction of those relationships. Like I said, none of this is explicitly queer, but it’s prominent enough to be worth looking at.
HappiestMan: I’m really glad you bought episode 3 up, and I think you’re completely right there. If every episode of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is about how certain oppressive groups and people enforce different social and hierarchical structures, then episode 3 is about how these groups use the “sanctity of marriage” to reinforce hurtful and narrow views of sexuality, especially christian groups. Not to bring this up again, but I think this also plays into my theory about special interest groups putting their own messages and beliefs into children’s entertainment. I mean, how many children’s shows were there that we grew up with that we realized were basically Christian propaganda in retrospect? I can think of five off the top of my head. Though like you said, it does a disservice to the show to act like this is the only point of the series. Yellow Guy can just as likely represent a abusive father forces these narrow minded and hurtful beliefs on his children as he can be interpreted as a children’s television executive.
Promethea: We’ve mostly been discussing plot so far. What about the aesthetics of the series? There’s a juxtaposition of adorable and horrible in every video. The visual aspects of this are most notable, with every episode starting out with adorable puppets and cutesy animation and ending with gore and frightening imagery. This same pattern repeats itself sonically, though, with the catchy little songs in each episode eventually turning into cacophony and abrasive noise. This contrast seems to be pointing at a message about what we consider pure and wholesome, as if even the things we think of as most innocent can contain horror and evil and pain. I don’t know how this relates to the rest of what we’ve been talking about, but I feel like it’s an integral part of the discussion.
HappiestMan: I’m glad you bought that, because I think the aesthetics are what attracted a lot of people(myself included) to the series. Here you have this perfectly mundane looking video, the only thing that seems a bit off at first is the title “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared”, which definitely doesn’t seem suitable for this type of thing. So, not knowing anything else, you watch the video, trying to figure out if this is really meant for kids, or if it’s something else. And what’s really genius and brilliant about 1 is how long it takes for the other shoe to drop, and how slowly it escalates. For the first 30 seconds or so, the show is played completely straight, and seems to just be your average kids show. It’s this baseline of normalcy that the show establishes that makes the turn the video takes (with the last half of the video being a grotesque surreal puppet freak out) so shocking and well done. The horrible aspects of the show wouldn’t be half as effective if you didn’t have the adorable aspects to contrast and compare it with.