The recent death of the famous entertainer has saddened me. Of course, I would never diminish the severity or shamefulness of indiscretions with children, but while such acts are reprehensible, we can only speculate about whether those accusations against the superstar were true. What I lament is the untimely death of a very talented man, and what bothers me most is the emotional deprivation he suffered in his youth, which obviously haunted him all his life. The extreme changes in his physical appearance over time were surely manifestations of his efforts to become someone other than the hurt child he was. I dislike the fact that so many judged him on his appearance.
The other morning, while musing over my coffee about the recent death of the pop star, the diminutive fairy tale protagonist Rumpelstiltskin popped into my head. He and Jackson had something in common. Both were condemned unfairly, I think, for their appearance, which many would call ugly or weird. I have never considered categorically rooting for the underdog to be that worthy, but I believe we should strive to avoid being influenced by extraneous matters, especially appearance, in forming and holding opinions about people. Admittedly, it is a lifelong struggle.
At a dinner with my husband and several business associates some years ago, the subject of Michael Jackson and the charge of pedophilia came up. “I hope they lock that moron up for good,” one man said. “Why?” I asked, surprised by his vehemence. “What makes you sure he’s guilty?” “Because he’s weird looking,” he said. “Now he looks like his sister.” My habit of amateur psychology formed an equation in my mind: “He thinks Jackson is trying to look like a woman, ergo, he thinks Jackson is a sexual deviate, ergo, he is convinced that Jackson is guilty of molesting children.”
Unfortunately, children’s literature abounds with prejudice based on appearance. Characters in nursery rhymes and old fairy tales are invariably defined for young readers or listeners by such words as “ugly,” “handsome,” and “beautiful.” From Snow White to Cinderella’s stepsisters, the personality traits of the characters are directly equated with their appearances: beauty with goodness and ugliness with evil.
Take poor Rumpelstiltskin. Having read the tale recently to my grandchildren, I know it very well. He is portrayed as ugly and, therefore, evil. But in fact he made what seems a legitimate deal with the queen that, if he spun the straw into gold, he could have her baby. (It might have been a better moral lesson if he’d helped out of the goodness of his heart, but he didn’t.) Yet, he did keep his part of the bargain, while it was the queen who reneged on things. She used the ugly elf to get out of a jam.
Or take poor Judd Fry, the hired man in the musical, “Oklahoma.” He obviously had some hang-ups but it has always bothered me that the audience should so easily have accepted Laurie’s insensitive toying with his feelings to manipulate the handsome Curly, mainly, I am convinced, because Judd was not an attractive man.
It’s impossible to escape prejudicial thinking. We all do it. Indeed, forming “pre-judgments” based on experience is the normal way we learn. If we are bitten by a dog as a child, we make a prejudgment that all dogs are dangerous until we have the experience to realize that many dogs are quite nice. If we burn our hand on a stove, we assume that touching stoves can be risky. As we mature, we learn – or we should – to withhold initial judgments, especially of people, until we can determine their character and personality, regardless of the impression given by their outward appearance.
That’s what saddens me about Michael Jackson. Am I aiming too high? A friend used to tease me about my sensitivity. “Your head is in the clouds,” she’d say. Maybe it’s true, but you get a pretty nice view of the world from up here.