Personal Essay: Tim Burton and the Cult of the White Freaks

When I was 12 or 13, I went through an intense punk phase, complete with electric blue highlights, ripped jeans, inscribing Green Day lyrics on the walls of my room, and a vocabulary of extremely colourful expletives. I was a devoted rebel without a cause. I was suffering from a severe identity crisis.

I’ve always been a weird person. I’ve always liked the strange and eccentric characters. I took to writing emo poetry and creating morbid art, because I couldn’t speak, because for the most part of my childhood and my teenage years, I didn’t have the right words, the right face, the right personality, to fucking speak. I’m 20 now, and I still make morbid stuff, and things have changed, but only a bit. I close my eyes and I’m back there in that dark room with no light, a child with sewn lips, trying to articulate a trauma that knows no language.

Somewhere in that demented darkness, I discovered, among other things, the films of Tim Burton. I fell in love with him and just some months back, I think, he betrayed me. This is why I almost didn’t write this article.

Let me tell you why I fell for him in the first place.

My skin’s brown as a dried walnut, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it’s going to stay that way, even if in my fantasies I’m white as Mia Wasikowaska’s Alice exploring a Gothic wonderland and having tea with a Mad Hatter wearing too much of white face paint. And, for as long as I could remember, that was a problem to everyone else.

Why wasn’t my skin tone as fair as my parents, all my relatives would whine at every wedding and social gathering that my shy and introverted self was forced to attend. In holiday pictures, people teased me by asking if I was adopted. My classmates and I would play a game where the person with the lightest skin tone would win. During the annual school play, I was supposed to be grateful because I was getting to wear an expensive and exquisitely beautiful gown, pretending to be a spoilt stepsister and not the beautiful and oh-so-white Cinderella. Hey, at least I got the limelight for a bit. And yeah, it’s so okay, that even the colour pencils I use to make my art, label the peachy-pink tone as ‘skin’ and my brown flesh as well, just brown. Brown as tree bark, I suppose.

For a long time, I kept telling myself that my shyness, my social anxiety, my crippling depression wasn’t because of all the bullying I had to endure at school, wasn’t because I was darker than everyone else around me, that it was just a manufacturing defect. Isn’t it normal for people to make fun of those who st-st-stammer? Isn’t it abnormal to st-st-stammer when you’re talking about the things you love and the things you fear?

So, I did the only thing I could. I stopped talking. I wrote instead, but even that frightened me.

Tim Burton was the best friend I never had. Because his films with all their Gothic visuals and macabre aesthetics, were about people supposedly like me.

Beetlejuice wasn’t my first Tim Burton film but it is significant in two respects. One, it was Burton’s breakthrough film that landed him the offer to direct the blockbuster Batman films and kick-start the superhero industry. Two, it introduced to the world what is now regarded as the popular stereotype of the Goth girl: the charming Lydia Deetz.

For my depressed 14 year old self who was tired of making up imaginary friends to play with and slitting wrists, the black-clad, eye-liner-wearing psychic and photography enthusiast became both my role model and my mirror image. She was introverted (yay), creative, super duper depressed and could talk to ghosts. She was me!

Of course there was something strikingly wrong with this image and I tried to ignore it by smearing a shit load of face powder on my brown brown face: she was white.

Years later, Tim Burton’s trademark vision gave way to the pastiche dark fantasy comedy Dark Shadows, which although failed commercially, greatly pleased me aesthetically. Johnny Depp was playing a delicious vampire, fashion icon Helena Bonham Carter was a psychologist, a sassy teenage girl was later revealed to be a werewolf, the whole family was as dysfunctional as mine and the soundtrack included both the Carpenters and Alice Cooper. What else could a lonely POC girl, steadily losing her mind in a world of Gothic films that reflected back her own emptiness and strangeness, ask for?

And even now, despite everything that has happened to me, Edward Scissorhands still remains as one of my favourite films, and although I pride myself as the type of person who doesn’t cry while watching a movie, my eyes were watery by the time Edward and Kim had parted ways and Edward remained in that dark castle, lonely as he ever was, making snow with his scissor hands. I was simultaneously Edward, this misfit-monster abandoned by God and his parent, and Kim, the suburban girl, slowly tasting what it is to love a stranger whose heart is so familiar and to dance for the first time in snow. And I thought, as I watched the pain in Edward’s eyes that it was Burton and not Edward, who was pleading to the audience to look beyond appearances and voicing for the first time, his childhood issues of alienation and misrepresentation.

Soon after watching the film, my diary entries (I kept several journals because I didn’t have ‘real life’ friends to talk to) began to be addressed to a mysterious man named Edward while the Johnny Depp fan art I made bore the note ‘the only Edward I ever loved’ much to the annoyance of my Twlight-obsessed classmates. The movie wasn’t perfect, but then again, most beautiful things never are. And I’d long outgrown my fangirly love for Depp, long before those allegations about abusing Amber Heard began.

But the love story with Tim Burton doesn’t end here. In 2010, when Alice having slain the Jabberwocky is preparing to leave, the Hatter softly requests her to stay. Alice promises to come back but the Hatter is unconvinced, saying she won’t remember him. Alice was not ready to comprehend the implications of that exchange, but I did and it terrified me to death.

Tim Burton’s movies were the wonderland I would run away to, to escape my harsh reality, to forget this world that wouldn’t treat me as one of them, because I wasn’t fair enough, because fuck it, I wasn’t normal enough. I was trapped in the world of the Mad Hatter, a dream concocted by Alice, a world that is fragile and ephemeral, a world that disappears the moment Alice wakes up and forgets her dream.

I’ll come back to this later, but for now, let me tell you the final lesson I learnt from watching Tim Burton’s movies: I learned to hope. In his delightful stop-motion animated feature Frankenweenie, Victor attempts to bring his dead pet dog Sparky back to life and he does so with disastrous consequences. Watching it and remembering all the pets I’d loved who died and would sell my soul to bring back, I was filled with a childlike sense of hope and the realization that I wasn’t alone for believing in and desperately hoping for impossible things, I wasn’t alone in being misunderstood and misrepresented. For once being the weird kid in class and scribbling poems and doodles on the sly, didn’t matter. Not having people to connect to, or appreciating me for the messed-up person I was, didn’t matter. I was okay. I didn’t have to be normal like everyone else, because there were people like Tim Burton who could totally get me. At least that’s what I felt when he said stuff like, ‘I think a lot of kids feel alone and slightly isolated and in their own world.’

And as much morbid a Tim Burton film may appear to a first time viewer (especially if it’s Corpse Bride), Burton’s characteristic brand of Gothic-ness wasn’t so much as a celebration of death, as it was a celebration of life. Working within the Hollywood system, Tim Burton has managed to retain his personality and also be, subversive. And that was so fucking inspiring to me.

Why then did this man, who dresses up in black, whose films have tried to teach me to fall in love with myself and to believe in magic, miracles and impossible things, suddenly, betray me?

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children should have been my perfect film. After all, it’s a film about kids who are eccentric and don’t fit in, has time travel and a love story thrown in the mix and a secret house where they can be themselves. It is exactly the stuff I relate to and enthusiastically devour.

But this is what Tim Burton did. When asked about the lack of diversity in his films, he said ‘Nowadays, people are talking about it more. But things either call for things, or they don’t. I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch and they started to get all politically correct, like, OK, let’s have an Asian child and a black — I used to get more offended by that than just — I grew up watching blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, that’s great. I didn’t go like, OK, there should be more white people in these movies.”

In that singular moment, my whole carefully-constructed illusion came crashing down, so efficiently, I didn’t even realize it. Okay, I told myself, I’m a POC and I’m not ‘called for’. All through my life I have been worshipping a man in whose imagination, I have no space, I do not exist. I’m the Mad Hatter in Alice’s world, alive for a short time, useful as a plot device and erased out of the narrative, the moment Alice returns to the real world.

Is this the kind of space WE occupy in the white imagination?

Okay, I tell myself. At least unlike Steven Moffat, he isn’t famous for saying a string of problematic things. Okay, perhaps it was someone else’s fault- maybe Ransom Riggs or a Disney executive didn’t want too much tampering with the too-white source material( Never mind what he did with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by adding a back story to Willy Wonka that I totally loved). Plus if he really suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, as his ex-partner Helena Bonham Carter claimed, we shouldn’t take his words to heart. Maybe he didn’t mean it. It’s just one blunder, I told myself. It doesn’t change anything.

But it did.

It changed everything. I couldn’t make any more excuses. Taking a look at his entire filmography-a career spanning over three decades- I realized that casting white, pale-as-death people is his artistic and directorial choice. It’s his fucking personal and creative choice. He just said that out loud. And it’s shoved into my face that this is a world running on white privilege and racism and hate crimes. That it’s the discrimination that POC face on a daily basis both from the whites and the communities who have internalized such values is the reason why I’m too afraid to even consider studying abroad in the UK or USA because Brexit and Trump administration yada yada, why I’m never ‘pretty enough’ to be considered to take part in college fashion shows built on patriarchal beauty conventions, why I still spend a part of my earnings on cosmetics that promise me ‘fair’ skin. My skin color isn’t an issue, most charming hypocrites will claim, it’s my shyness and weirdness and my lack of fucking ‘normal-ness’ that’s to blame.

I wish someone would just tell me that I was born okay, that I am okay, that I’m not some sort of manufacturing defect most people think I am.

In other words, Tim Burton’s niche audience wasn’t as inclusive as I made it out to be. It had outsiders and misfits yes, but only the white ones. Tim Burton’s fan club is a cult of white freaks, not Black freaks, not POC freaks, not any non-white freaks.

I can’t be a part of this fan club, because in their world, I don’t exist. I am not ‘called for.’

When Ash Davis responds to Burton’s comment, she writes this brilliant article and says, ‘I write fanfiction for the people Tim Burton says are not ‘called for’. My mind, likewise, is a movie theatre where I edit my favourite films and include myself in the lead. I change the endings, add more romance when I’m lonely, put on costumes so outrageous that my mum won’t even let me wear on Halloween, deliver the dialogues my mouth will never speak, and feel a sense of belonging that is every bit delightful and artificial and illusory. In the films I direct in my mind, I look like the typical Tim Burton heroine. I’m white, not brown.

This is what the white gaze has done to me.

When I fell in love with his films, I thought I was seeing myself reflected back in Jack Skellington, in Lydia Deetz, in Edward Scissorhands, in Ed Wood, in Willy Wonka, in the Mad Hatter, in young Victor, in the Corpse Bride, in Ichabod Crane, but I never saw myself. I only saw what I wished so desperately to be seen as.

Do I stop watching Tim Burton films after that racist comment? No.

A part of me still hopes he’ll apologize or better yet include people who actually look like me in his next film. A fangirl, can hope, right? After all his films did help me to get through some dark times, albeit in a twisted way and I can’t erase those tense growing-up years when his oddball characters were all I could hold onto. But at the end of the day, he belongs to the mold of white film directors who make white movies for a predominantly white audience and think diversity POC-narratives aren’t important at all.

But do Tim Burton films help me feel less lonely and less marginalized and less threatened by the big bad world out there? Not a bit.

This personal essay was previously published on Her Culture.


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