Thursday, February 16, 2012

"Grimm" Episode "Organ Grinders" Sparks Controversy

NOTE: This post was updated on 2-18-12 for clarity and correctness on some important facts after I received a reader letter. (Thank you!) I have changed the text to red to highlight my edits and additions.

You ready for a controversial post? I have one for you. 

I only ask that you read it carefully before reacting. One of the problems I see is that communication can get very muddled on sensitive subjects and offense is taken where none was intended.

Warning: if you haven't seen the episode Organ Grinder yet, here there be spoilers!

I thought Organ Grinders was one of the best episodes yet for NBC's Grimm and it did catch a lot of attention around the web. While most of the reviews of the episode where good-to-excellent, there was one reviewer who got extremely concerned about the approach to the Hansel and Gretel story.

The "Andrew Breitbart Presents Big Hollywood" blog tends to post the controversial side of a story and, while I don't agree with sensationalist reporting, they do a good job of generating discussion in the comments. At writing, the comments for his "Organ Grinder" post currently number 105. The title of the post is:

NBC’s ‘Grimm’ Recycles Vile Antisemitic Stereotypes

That got your attention, didn't it?

Do I agree with this review? I don't, BUT it does bring up some very interesting points - both about the need for thorough research/sensitivity when writing for the public and also about the public's OWN sensitivity/bias when it comes to subjects like racism.

What I mean by the second comment is that when people are sensitive to being discriminated against IN GENERAL (for example: Blacks in reference to slavery, Jews in reference to the Holocaust), depending on how sensitive the individual is, they can make connections of racism and discrimination where none where intended. Frankly, no matter what you say or how pure your intentions, it's easy to put your foot in your mouth. What happens as a result is that people instead tend to choose the middle of the road with the aim of offending no one, but it also means they don't say much of any meaning either. Not offending everyone is virtually impossible.
(The above paragraph is a perfect example of this. I feel like I have to explain and re-explain where I'm coming from in order to be clear that I don't intend to offend. Although we all/many of us, speak "English" we're all saying different things though we use the same words. SO we end up with humungous posts, or long conversations hastily clarifying and back-pedaling, hoping to be heard and not misunderstood.)

Back to the article.

This is how it starts:
NBC’s Friday night series “Grimm” is a fantasy show, but for reasons I cannot fathom the program’s writers chose to mine that most heinous relic of Mittel-Europa: the story of the seemingly good and kind Jew who is really a demonic creature underneath for last week’s episode “Organ Grinders.” 
...This is the gist of the blood libel: the belief that Jews kidnap children to drain them of their blood. It didn’t die with the Nazis. It is still in currency today. You have only to turn on Syrian or Egyptian television to see. But American TV?
I feel the need to put up my hand in a stop sign here and remind people of one important thing: Hansel and Gretel is ALREADY a gory, bloody, horror-like fairy tale with child abuse and a cannibal witch. The version we're most familiar with is one of many similar horrific European tales, only this one was recorded (and revised and "nice-ified" multiple times) by the Grimm brothers* (please see note at end of post to see why this is important), who were German academics, hence the use of Germanic words by the NBC Grimm writers. It's all about eating bits of people and traps for children, not to mention child abuse by multiple characters! (And that doesn't begin to tap all that's wrong in this story).

I'll pause a minute while you go read the post HERE before I continue discussing the objections. It's well presented (it even has some pictures) and makes a good argument, but in this age (and considering the writers) I don't see it holding a lot of water. If, however, this variation were written fifty years ago or more, he might actually have a very valid point, which is another reason it's a point worth making. 50 years is not that long ago. Go on and read. I'll wait... :)

... You're back? Great. Let's get a little gritty, shall we?

Let me say right now that, despite my skepticism on the validity of the anti-Semitism accusation, I'm really glad this post was written. Why? Because it educated me. I didn't grow up in America with the unique sensitivity and racist issues surrounding Jews and Blacks here (among many others). It's very easy to say the "wrong" thing. In my experience, though, tiptoeing around a subject doesn't help at all. It's better to say what you mean and clarify if you need to. The tough part there is that often people stop listening once they hear the dreaded "thing" and assume all kinds of bad from then on, instead of trying to keep communication open. But I digress.
The "Anonymous" writer of the Big Hollywood post takes great objection to the name Geier, used for the vulture-like creature in this episode. Unfortunately I have to admit I would probably have made this "mistake" myself as well. Imagine being in the writers' room, you're working on the episode which contains people using people-parts (especially children's) in a horrific way: what compatible scavenger-like creature might you associate removing organs with? A vulture would come to mind fairly quickly for me (since wolves are out and hyenas are more African in "flavor"). Since all the Grimm creatures have a Germanic name, we'd use the German word for vulture, which is, you guessed it, "geier". Maybe I have a gap in my education (but then if I do you can be sure there are millions like me). I do not associate this word with avarice, greed or anything to do with money-lending Jews.

And making a connection between blood and money? Isn't this what almost every procedural tends to point out? And this goes double for the criminal underworld. Generally, if you follow the money you find the bad guys. 

And cannibalism/capitalism? I think it worked perfectly in context. That scene with Sgt. Wu's comment was all about entrepreneurship gone to a bad extreme. I'm not saying capitalism is bad and I don't think the Grimm writers are either. It just IS. Put any power in the hands of an unscrupulous person and you have big-time bad.
If I sound like I'm defending the Grimm writers it's because I guess I am. Having researched many aspects of Hansel and Gretel for years now, most of the plot points and details (including those objected to) seem like a natural variation on the story. It's pretty horrific to start with. If you take away all those points we've talked about, all we really have left is the name Levine.

My point (and yes, I do have one) is that the whole point of storytelling is to say something. Taking a middle-of-the-road approach (eg by making sure every detail isn't going to offend someone, somewhere) takes the power out of a story. In Hansel and Gretel we have extremes of type: the parents are selfish, the witch is evil and there are piles of people-bones sitting in the corner. Does that make all parents selfish, all witches evil and all children destined to give in to temptation or, if they don't, starve? Obviously the answer is no. And - dare I say it - what if somewhere, sometime there was an evil, money-hungry Jew? (Did you faint with shock yet?) Is anyone brave enough to tell that story? Right now, in this era, I'm going to say no. It seems pretty clear in this political climate that any writer or executive to attempt such a story would effectively be committing career suicide. That's not anything I see any of the Grimm team ready to do. To be clear: I don't think Organ Grinders has anything to do with anti-Semitism at all. If you have a good story with a very bad person taking advantage of someone, no matter how you tell it, it's going to offend somebody. While that doesn't mean you might as well stomp away into your stories with no sensitivity at all, it does mean you should be prepared to talk about it when offense is taken (and it will be).

I'm in favor of stories with bite - stories with things to say, even if they touch a nerve of my own (and yes, I have a few..). Why? Because then I can do something about it. Maybe I can even change it. At worst I can start a dialogue and do my best to keep communication open. If we all stay in our boxes (or on our boxes) it doesn't help anyone.

So a sincere thank you, Anonymous, for a very interesting article, for adding to my education and for speaking your mind in a forum (of sorts) that allows people to talk about this (see the comments). As long as we keep telling our stories and listening to each other, we have a chance of changing things - perhaps everything - for the better.

ADDED 2-18-12: 
*The Brothers Grimm were born in Hessen - which, in relation to Germany and being German I suggest you look up some German history books because it's not quite the same. The Grimms are considered Hessian, not German, but they were German academics, linguists, cultural researchers and folklore collectors. One of the brothers also worked in German law and they both worked on the first German dictionary, so it's easy to see why we might accidentally call them "German". Why do we care? Because it's important to know that the tale of Hansel and Gretel doesn't just belong to Germany and isn't a once-told tale. Versions of it were widely known throughout Europe at the time, which further illustrates just how widespread these types of social problems were. What's scary is that this is still relevant today - more than most realize. You may be surprised to know that the USA now has THE HIGHEST RATE OF CHILD ABUSE IN THE WORLD. That's very scary.


  1. I totally agree! You can't get away from offending someone when it comes to creativity. And the Grimm stories were written so long ago, before any "political correct-ness" was abundant. Great post!

  2. @Kelly Thank you. Always a risk posting on something like this but felt I had to say something. Thanks for reading!

  3. Just for Fun ....

    How do you cook a Blutbad?

    In Weson(Ves-sin) Oil.


  4. Do you have a book about grimm? may be a Grimm ensiklopedia?