Mary and Max: A (Self) Love Story

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WARNING: This post contains spoilers.

I knew almost nothing about Mary and Max before I watched it a couple nights ago.  I was aware of its existence after seeing it on some “100 Greatest Animated Films of All-Time” list, but I knew nothing of its plot, characters, or director.  That is out-of-the-ordinary with me, considering that I have always existed in a world where Disney is ubiquitous and every other major animation studio in the world markets themselves similarly through relying on their audience’s familiarity with their aesthetics and past work.  Little did I know that this crude looking, monochromatic film would be the emotional tour de force that it is.  It’s a cliche for a positive critique to say “I laughed!  I cried!”, but that’s precisely what I did.  I can’t think of another movie what ran the gamut of Don Hertzfeldt-levels of wry hilarity and Grave of the Fireflies-levels of utter despair.  Maybe I’m being a little hyperbolic, but most animated films don’t capture my emotions the same way that Mary and Max did.  There is one theme in particular in this film that resonated with me.

The major recurring theme throughout Mary and Max is mental health.  Mary Daisy Dinkle’s mental health issues are brought about through neglect from her parents and lack of friends throughout her childhood (thanks to a birthmark on her forehead).  These issues would later manifest in her own depression and alcoholism when she grows up.  Max Jerry Horowitz suffers from Asperger syndrome and morbid obesity.  These issues prevented Max from forming close relationships with others throughout his life and the painful memories of his past sometimes trigger major anxiety attacks.  Both of them want nothing more in this world than a close friendship, which they find with each other through their improbable correspondence through letters.  Both characters’ struggles with their issues threatens to sever their budding friendship throughout their correspondence.  In one scene, the movie quite literally tells Max and Mary what they have to do in our to resolve their issues.

love yourself first

I heard this saying and variations of it a lot (especially “nobody can love you until you love yourself”) from friends, blogs, and advice columns as I was in the depths of my own depression and anxiety.  I suppose sayings like this are intended to empower the person they are being said to, but they did no such thing for me personally.  All sayings like this ever did was make me feel worse about not loving myself.  It just made me worry that I not living up to some established standard that would warrant anybody else caring about me.  This just made me feel like that much more of a failure that didn’t deserve anybody’s love or affection instead of empowering me.  Even now, I don’t ask if those that are close to me love me even though I wish they would reaffirm it in words (otherwise, it’s not always obvious to the anxiety-riddled mind).  I don’t do so because it feels manipulative and I don’t want to make it more apparent to them that I have my own issues with loving myself.  After all, if someone truly loves him/herself, why would they need any external validation?  Rrrrrrrggghh, thinking about it either makes me shake with anger or very sad, depending on the day.

Don’t take me for denying the importance of self-love.  Self-love is very important for anyone to have, and Mary and Max does a compelling job in demonstrating why with Mary’s story.  The birthmark she has on her head (which made her the butt of her peer’s scorn) is the physical manifestation of Mary’s issues with self-love.  As an adult, she attempts to “fix” herself instead of accepting herself.  She surgically removes the birthmark and enhances the rest of her body.  These enhancements don’t bring her what she really desires.  In addition, her own misguided assumptions about how to find acceptance make her attempt to “fix” Max by using his letters as research for a book she published about curing Asperger syndrome.  This greatly offends Max and he severs ties with her.  She ultimately spirals into a major depression and comes very close to killing herself.

But why did Max get so offended?  Well, when he told Mary that he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, he said he takes pride in being an “aspie”.  He doesn’t think that is a part of him that needs to be fixed, so he took offense when Mary tried to “fix” it for him.  It takes a very big person to be so at peace with an aspect of their personality that has always made other people and many normal routines in life so hopelessly alienating.  I’ll easily admit that I have nowhere near that much peace with my own mental disorders.  Is Max not doing one of the most self-loving things a person can do?  Despite his issues with anxiety and obesity, the overall acceptance with himself still goes a long way.  And did other people start loving him?  Well…no.  He had Mary, but everybody else in his city never thought anything more of him as “fat” or “some retard”.  And no, I don’t think Max’s dying with his life goals ultimately fulfilled justifies his previous decades of neglect and abuse at the hands of others.  It seems to me Max’s issues in life say less about him and more about everybody else.

And this is ultimately my biggest problem with phrases like “love yourself first”, “nobody can love you until you love yourself”, and their derivatives.  I have always had a feeling that these type of phrases tacitly justify the apathy and lovelessness of others.  It tacitly justifies the stigma around mental illness.  It’s almost a roundabout saying “you’re not my problem”.  No, that person suffering with mental illness is your problem.  That person is all of our problem.  We all live and participate in a society that convinces us to hate ourselves and each other in order to manipulate us (whether into buying some product, supporting something that goes against our best interests, etc.), so I see mental illness and self-loathing as more of a failing of society than a failing of the individual suffering.

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I think Neon Genesis Evangelion and its protagonist Shinji Ikari represent a perfect microcosm of this.  Much like Mary and Max, Neon Genesis Evangelion (well, the original 26 episodes anyway) is all about Shinji’s (and other characters) psychological struggles.  Also like Mary and Max, the series does a thorough job in presenting how childhood traumas and neglect resulted in the depressive issues Shinji currently struggles with and ultimately comes to the same conclusion that movie does in its last two episodes, except even more dramatic.  Evangelion literally uses a doomsday scenario in order to tell its protagonist that he must love himself before anyone else can love him.  Even after that happened, most fans of Evangelion still hate Shinji.  He’s often referred to as whiny, or a crybaby, or a “little bitch” by many fans that resented the fact that Shinji had the audacity to react to the situations he finds himself in in a plausible way that any young, passive boy with past traumas and self-esteem issues would (hell, probably better than most people would) instead of morphing into the big, exciting, headstrong power fantasy they had in their heads.  These complaints about Shinji always drove me crazy.  I mean, talk about missing the point of the entire show.  Depression and self-loathing are not romantic or beautiful concepts to behold, it’s extremely painful for the suffer and those around him/her.  Recovery from depression and self-loathing don’t neatly follow a straight-line trajectory or the 3-act structure of a Hollywood movie.  Many people, like Shinji or Mary or Max, have upbringings where they don’t recognize what love is because they weren’t shown any by the most important people in their lives during their formative years.  Phrases like “love yourself first” and its derivatives allow for people to maintain their misinformed and apathetic views about how mental illness forms and how to recover from it.

The other prevailing sentiments behind such phrases like this are surprisingly cynicism and misanthropy.  Look at the world of Mary and Max; everything is so monochromatic and bleak.  The character designs are so ugly and unwelcoming.  And in the world of Evangelion, all of the characters are so disjointed from each other emotionally and it makes them all more miserable.  This bleak, misanthropic outlook is what makes both the film and show’s arguments to “love yourself first” so credible.  Do we, as a collective, honestly believe this is the way our world is?  Don’t we, as a collective, want a better world than this?  A world like this is only going to lead to more and more people becoming depressed or self-loathing and unlike the movies or television, many of them will take their own lives before they “love themselves first”.  Do we really see those that are unable to resolve their issues as sacrificial lambs so that the rest of us can make ourselves feel better about their choice to take their life?  Is this the best we can do?  Is this the best we can hope to achieve?

If so, pass me the bottle of embalming fluid cooking sherry.

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Mary and Max: A (Self) Love Story

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