Heartless gremlin, or victim of racist bullying? We investigate the origins of the much-maligned festive icon
After the union and train operators failed to reach an agreement, the RMT has announced a fresh rail strike due to take place on Christmas Eve. RMT members are facing a major real-terms pay cut, the offer they rejected was insulting, and their decision to take action is a righteous one. But still, in the ensuing media firestorm, general secretary Mick Lynch has been met with a sobering allegation: that he resembles the Grinch who stole Christmas.
The Grinch comparison doesn’t work for a number of reasons: the Grinch works alone; he is motivated only by spite and resentment, and he’s not trying to make the world better for anyone – not even himself. Crucially, he steals presents not so that he might enjoy them, but so that no one else can. This is diametrically opposed to the spirit of the labour movement. While the RMT is defending the interests of its own members, we would all reap the benefits of a better-staffed, better-resourced and more fairly remunerated transport system. Not only that, but the RMT’s struggle has and will continue to inspire workers in different industries. The Grinch analogy breaks down even further when you consider the wider context: at a time of soaring living costs, it’s absurd to suggest that anyone other than the wealthy elites are responsible for depriving families of presents or food.
But just while we’re on the subject… is the Grinch even such a terrible thing to be compared to? We don’t need to lionise him as a hero – like anyone, he deserves to be held accountable for his actions. But maybe, instead of condemning the Grinch as a monster, we should seek to understand his rage and alienation. Above all, our task is to ameliorate the social conditions which led to him stealing Christmas in the first place.
THE GRINCH WAS A VICTIM OF RACIST BULLYING
It’s subtle, and perhaps not a theme that the casual viewer is likely to pick up on, but the Grinch is portrayed as something of an outsider. Everyone else in WhoVille is white and essentially human. The Grinch is… a cat? I’m not sure. Regardless of his species, he is markedly different in appearance from the majority population.
We’re told that Whoville is this magical, wonderful, special place – but that couldn’t be further from the Grinch’s experience. From early childhood, he is ostracised, rejected and bullied. While the pompous Mayor MayWho is the film’s true antagonist, this framing perpetuates the ‘one bad apple’ fallacy: the Mayor, while personally repellent in his own way, is simply a functionary of an unjust system. In reality, the whole barrel is rotten to the core. It is a regime of Who supremacy, stretching from WhoVille to Mount Crumpit.
In one of the film’s more harrowing scenes, the young Grinch attempts to win the affection of his classmate Martha May, by shaving off his beard. When he accidentally cuts himself and arrives at school covered in makeshift plasters, everyone laughs at him. Try as he might to conform to WhoVille’s oppressive beauty standards, he is met only with mockery and scorn. Even his teacher - a grown adult and professional educator - stifles a giggle! Whom among us, faced with such humiliation, wouldn’t retreat to Mount Crumpit to see out our days in vengeful exile?
The Grinch learns his lesson by the end of the story. But do the people of Whoville? They forgive the Grinch, from a vantage point of lofty superiority, but do they apologise? I can’t remember, as it’s been 15 years since I’ve seen it.
THE GRINCH IS CODED AS NEURODIVERGENT
In the original Dr Seuss story, the Grinch is a marginalised figure. In an effort to explain his loathing for Christmas, Seuss writes: “It could be the fact that his shoes are too tight. It could be his head isn’t screwed on just right. But I think the reason most likely of all, may have been that his heart was two sizes too small.”
So straight off the bat, we know three things. He is unable to afford appropriate footwear, despite living on an ice-capped mountain. He lives with either mental illness or neurodivergence (you know who else is commonly described as having their “head not screwed on just right”? Yep, that’s right – people with ADHD like me.) Finally, we learn that he has a serious cardiovascular problem: a heart “two sizes too small” is likely to lead to palpitations, fainting, and chronic fatigue, among other severe symptoms. With all this to deal with, it’s no surprise that he’s kind of bad vibes.
The primary motive for the Grinch’s plan is even more sympathetic: he has sensory issues which make the cacophonous sounds of Christmas unbearable:
“All the Who girls and boys
would wake bright and early. They'd rush for their toys!
And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the noise! Noise! noise!
That’s one thing he hated! The NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!"
What does this tell us? That the Grinch finds loud noises distressing, and that not a single person in WhoVille cared enough to consider keeping it down.
THE GRINCH IS A MODEL FOR DIRECT ACTION
As we have established, the Grinch had a legitimate grievance against the people of WhoVille, who should have been more accommodating of his needs. Are we seriously supposed to believe that he never once attempted a more reasonable course of action? That one year he just randomly snapped and jumped straight to stealing Christmas?
No. What’s more likely is that the Grinch spent years engaging in peaceful protest, writing calmy-worded letters of complaint to the local council. I believe that tried his best to effect change using the mechanisms of liberal democracy, but that his desperate appeals were ignored. Because he has a heart condition. Because he has ADHD. Because he’s a weird sort of gremlin type creature.
What the Grinch seems to have realised, at some point along the way, is that there is no point in appealing to the conscience of the people of WhoVille – for they have none. Deprived of all other avenues, he was driven to take radical direct action. Violence begets violence. We can quibble about his methods from the safety of our armchairs. We can say that he went too far or chose the wrong targets. But what we cannot do is dispute the fundamental righteousness of his cause.
But all of that said, we should be wary of the impulse – however powerful it may be – to adopt the Grinch as an icon of the left. The politics of grievance that he embodies will never be the pathway to liberation, and the cruelty with which he treats his dog is unforgivable. No, the Grinch is not our saviour.
Instead, the message of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is that the real meaning of the season lies in people coming together for a common cause. That is what we need to carry with us. Looked at that way, the RMT strike is the most Christmassy thing of all.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article claimed that Martha May is the Grinch's teacher, when she is in fact his classmate. Dazed Media apologies for any offence or confusion caused.