I recently spent a Friday evening babysitting two 7-year-old girls. While their parents enjoyed a night out on the town, we settled down on a corner of the plush toy-room carpet to play a bit, before showers and bed. I was granted the distinct honor of handling the girls’ newest doll. Complete with silver-highlights, platform combat boots, metallic lipstick, and a sheer mesh tee, she was a far-cry from the more traditionally styled American Girl dolls I played with in my youth. As opposed to “Molly” or “Josephine”, her name was “Frankie Stein”.
The girls were keen to show off their entire collection of Monster High dolls. I met all of Frankie Stein’s little friends, “Draculaura”, “Clawdeen Wolf”, “Ghoulia Yelps” and “Freak Du Chic”. They featured skyscraper shoes with casual outfits, monochromatic makeup, and multi-colored hair.
Although the Monster High American fashion doll franchise hit shelves in 2010, many of the styles that were characteristic of the dolls even then are suddenly trending today in the world of high fashion. Fashion icons like the Jenner and Hadid sisters have inspired their fan bases by wearing athletic clothes with high-heels, metallic dark lip looks, and, of course, millennial pink hair. As I sat there playing dolls in a world of make-believe horror with the girls, I wondered if these gorgeous, grotesque dolls had somehow predicted cultural patterns before those of us less inclined to do so had tuned in? Did they somehow reflect subtle shifts in thinking that perhaps existed even a full six years ago?
Of course, as soon as the house was quiet for the night, my inner nerd seized on the grotesque themes these dolls brought to children’s toys. The use of the grotesque is not new to the world of readers and writers of English literature. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, staples of most middle or high school English programs, are marked by the use of mysterious and macabre themes. Renowned 20th century American short story writer Flannery O’Connor highlighted her own use of the grotesque in short stories that were otherwise placed in safe, convention settings that readers would find familiar. In her piece “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” she described writers as “fundamentally seekers and describers of the real” and so, she used subtle elements of horror in her works to reveal the underlying darkness she saw in the world.
The world we live in today is much different than the world of Edgar Allan Poe and Flannery O’Connor. We don’t need to read about startling figures with ugly motives to know that people can be evil and the world can be scary. The very fact that I remember instinctively putting my keychain (that contained a small can of pepper spray) on the couch next to me as the house grew dark that night speaks to the ugly possibilities we’re taught from a young age to expect behind every familiar scene. Dolls that feature such a grotesque nature may seem problematic to some, but we can hardly deny that they are entirely unrealistic.
I recently read a poem entitled “Weapons Discharge Report” by Dan Albergotti in The Best American Poetry 2017. In it, Albergotti describes Officer Darren Wilson pulling his gun on eighteen-year-old Michael Brown and murmuring “…it looks like a demon…” before opening fire. The piece is, perhaps, political by nature – but more importantly it is grotesque by nature. It details the death of a young man. No matter the politics, how could it not be grotesque?
As I read Ablergotti’s poem, I wondered if there is a place for the grotesque in the literature we read today? How is this piece really any different than a news report? How can it avoid blending in with the new horrors we read about every day? Instead of stirring readers up, might it not serve to desensitize us further?
Robert Frost believed, much like Flannery O’Connor, that the role of writers was to pen works that end in a “clarification of life” – that bring readers a dose of reality. He wrote in “The Figure a Poem Makes” that this end is “not necessarily a great clarification” however, but a “momentary stay against confusion”. In this distinction lies the chief justification for the continual use of the grotesque in literature and culture today. The grotesque elements of modern literature, or children’s toys even, may not need to shatter any illusions that the world is a safe place, but they may serve to make us pause. A poem, no matter how rich its language, will never be as vivid as a video of the same event the television may depict. But, it has value yet. And its value extends much further than just being able to shock people by mere ‘use’ of the grotesque.
I believe that literature is able to create a space that takes real life experiences to a realm that news reports and television cannot touch. A poem can be manipulated in a way that films cannot, in way that contributes to their validity rather than discounts it. The unsettling vivid imagery that a piece contains may reflect the images we live with every day, but the stillness – the momentary pause – suddenly impedes us from thinking of an image as just another one. It is suddenly memorable, stark. We suddenly realize how badly we want to live without it.
If even for a moment.