In Defense of Sentimentality

In Defense of Sentimentality

by Jen Burke Anderson
illustration by Emily Oinen

I was walking to my local pub one night when my foot fell on a stray Sunday newspaper magazine page lying on the ground. It was the baby that stopped me. The image of a baby frozen in an unsettlingly lifelike pose: upper lip curled unpleasantly, eyes worried, body bent in squirming discomfort, about to burst into deafening tears. Not the sweet, romantic baby moment you’d naturally choose for a doll or painted portrait, but baby realism almost bordering on the clinical. A still memory of awkwardly trying to hold your infant niece or godchild for the first time.

JOSH, said the headline, The Perfect Little Boy You’ve Always Wanted.

We’ve all seen these ads, right? The collectible dolls. Always sappy, sometimes creepy and mawkish, sometimes an easy self-parody (the one of a charming blonde toddler digging into his first McDonald’s French fries was a particular favorite of Adbusters). Who the hell buys these things? we ask ourselves, sometimes tearing the ads out to post smugly on our refrigerators alongside cheesy postcards of ’50s matrons and other self-validating kitsch.

Who the hell buys these things? Staring at the ad on the ground I felt something rising up within me that I don’t believe I’ve felt for a long time. I felt horror. Looking at it was like touching a silicone sex toy: so fleshy-feeling, almost insultingly intimate to the fingertips, yet so obviously, killingly not the genuine human article.

I Am Not a Target Market

Josh. They’d even given him a regular-guy name instead of Sweetums or Little Dumplin’. Glancing over the text describing the lifelike heft and feel of the doll, I felt myself barreling helplessly towards one of those Big Realizations that can ruin a perfectly good night of carousing: Oxygen Comes From Trees and We Are Cutting Them Down. I Am Going to Die Someday. There Is a Hidden World of Pain and Loneliness Around Me That I Rarely See or Think About.

The headlining words Always Wanted begged to be followed by …and Never Had. Who the hell buys these things? Women who have repeatedly tried to have children and can’t. Old ladies whose real children haven’t called them in five years. People who are not very bright, perhaps, but can empathize like the dickens. The phony child in the ad is calculatedly helpless, desperate for affection and love. All you need do is buy it. Easy.

But never mind who the hell buys these things. Who the hell makes them? I have never been fond of dolls but I understand their purpose—for children. This was a baby doll for adults, sold to adults in a general audience magazine. Why this particular supply, why this particular demand? Were the doll manufacturers purely ruthless, or just twisted social workers, providing society’s forgotten with some sort of fleeting and profitable happiness?

Car headlights banked up the hill, suddenly surfacing in the intersection where I stood. I looked up sharply as though I had been caught pissing in the gutter or trying the handle of a parked car, then turned my face away and resumed walking, certain the motorist could tell I had been mourning the state of humanity in the company of a discarded baby doll ad.

With the car safely gone, I went back and picked the ad up off the ground, crumpled it and chucked it in the nearest recycling bin. Otherwise I’d see it again on my way home with a slight alcohol buzz and would almost certainly weep in the street.

Continuing towards Geary St., I tried to put the ad out of my mind, snapping out of it and feeling ridiculous. Why so sentimental, kiddo? What does it have to do with you? What gives you the childlike belief that that image on the ground, the one you so callously crumpled, has a sort of life of its own, has been invested with concrete human hopes and fears, however foolish and misguided?

But wait!

And here I stopped cold in my shoes. Why had that car freaked me out? They hadn’t caught me at a particularly personal moment, just a…

…just a what?

I hadn’t only been embarrassed, but ashamed as well. Guilty, somehow, of being weak, stupid. A sucker who really should have known better.

I was being sentimental. And we know that’s not allowed.

Kicking Against the Kittens

What’s the highest possible compliment a critic can pay a film or book these days? Unflinching. Unsentimental. I know what the critic means: This work does not shy away from the truth, from the absurd, ambiguous, all-consuming mental and emotional shitstorm that is human existence. There’s no wish fulfillment, no self-indulgence, no cloying attempts to be liked. Tod Solondz and Harmony Korine make the kind of films critics love to call unsentimental: Every character without exception is an asshole, pervert, opportunist or grotesquery. But in a world where indie culture has seconds to live before getting vacuumed up by the Pop Machine, its complexity aborted and spat out to the masses, anti-sentimentality is hardly contained in the rarified world of art films. I’m certainly not the first to comment on the oppressive cynicism of the times, but lately it seems that a snarky loathing of any human gentleness is the dominant meme of the age.

What’s most perplexing about this unsentimentality, though, is its spirit of defiance. A digital pop-up ad I got on the East Bay Express’ website showed a row of sweet little kittens’ faces that suddenly began dripping and gushing with blood. It was for a video game called something like “Samurai Kitten Hackers.” While I understood the game and the ad were supposed to either offend or get a mean laugh out of me, I was unsure what kind of oppressively tenderhearted, kitten-worshipping culture the game creators were railing against. Did they live with their grandmothers? Kitten-themed calendars and birthday cards abound in supermarkets, but they are hardly the stuff of today’s culture-makers. If you desire an environment free of kitten imagery, it’s relatively easy to pull off. And yet this mass-marketed game, like much of institutionalized counterculture, seemed to imagine itself a lone voice in the wilderness raised against some all-consuming tide of treacle.

Additionally, where is the barrage of sentimental films against which Kormine and Solondz are supposedly revolting? Is a movie like Maid in Manhattan sentimental, or just plain bad? Other words can be used: hackneyed, clichéd, manipulative, derivative. Why is sentiment always the baddie?

Maybe it’s what we all know but won’t talk about: Our emotions have been manipulated so long and so cleverly and so pervasively by people wanting us to buy things, support harmful policies, or just abandon our common sense altogether that we’ve become suspicious of our own natural emotional makeup. Feelings of tenderness, vulnerability, sympathy, collective pride, the desire to contribute towards some greater good—they’ve all become suspect. If you talk unguardedly about these things, you feel you’ve got to stick some smartass punch line at the end to break it all up, to offer proof positive that you’d never be so stupid as to succumb to the full gamut of basic human feelings that we all come equipped with. Because that would automatically make you someone else’s sucker, right?

At this point, sane, grounded sentimentalists are like liberal Muslims: The machine has made no place for them. Where would they fit into the Big Story? If you are given easily to tears, you are not empathetic or imaginative or (didn’t this word used to be a compliment?) sensitive; you’re just kind of an idiot. How do we get out of this mess? Who’s going to be the first to run out in the middle of the street with their pants down and proclaim that they can’t bring themselves to throw away Teddy? That the tiny chimes of a music box reduce them to rubble? That certain songs on the new Flaming Lips album make them sob like fallen toddlers? Somebody must, because it matters. It’s important. Nobody wants their emotions to make them vulnerable to propaganda, but denying your softer feelings altogether lets The Man win. Sensitivity is good. Feeling pain and sweetness and love is good. It’s not phony. Bad films are phony.

I am a Sentimentalist. I sob, I pity, I feel other people’s pain, and my own pain takes on operatic, canyon-like depths and hues.

I say these things not defiantly nor pleadingly, but as a cold statement of fact. I do not need prescription drugs. I, like you, am a real person. You, like me, think puppies and kittens are adorable, and in that sense we share possibly the last taboo of the jaded modern world.

Good night, Baby Josh, wherever you are.

Jen Burke Anderson is 37 years old and owns three stuffed-animal kitties given to her by people she loves dearly.

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