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What Is Fiction For?
At Curiouser, we often talk about how the primary use of fiction is related to ego development and maintenance, but that concept can seem abstract and distant from the every day pleasures of reading a book or watching a tv show.
In 1970 Sesame Street created a song for Kermit the Frog called "Bein' Green" (written by Joe Raposo). The song illustrates the "process of fiction" using one simple, relatable, demonstration. Through it the song instructs children how to use the power of symbols, associations, and fiction to define themselves and re-define their own ego-view. It also provides us with a great example of why we do fictional analysis at Curiouser.
First have a listen to the full song as first performed by none other than Kermit the Frog below. We will provide a line by line breakdown after to try to explain how the song works into the bigger picture of fiction, ego development, and analysis as we study it.
(Lyrics in GREEN below)
"Greetings, Kermit the Frog here
And today I'd like to tell you a little bit about the color green"
NOTE: There are several versions of this song. These two lines are not included in the video version above.
Kermit may think that he's here to tell us about the color green, but it will be shown that this is not the case. He's here to talk about how he feels about himself, by using the color green. That might sound like splitting hairs but it makes all the difference. What follows will not be an objective lesson on the color green like so many other Sesame Street lessons. This song is almost the very definition of subjectivity.
As we will see, Kermit has associated his feelings about himself with the color green. To talk about "green" in this song is to talk about Kermit's feelings about himself and his place in the world, NOT the actual color green. This projection of parts of our inner world onto symbolic elements is crucial to the work fiction accomplishes and explains so much of people's strong reactions not only to fiction, but to almost anything they have associated with themselves. We personalize the world. Green in this song could almost be another word for "Kermit".
"Do you know what's green
Well I am for one thing
You see frogs are green, and I'm a frog
And that means that I'm green, you see"
Not surprisingly the first thing Kermit wants people to know about "green" is that he is green. Kermit gives us a little syllogism which, though not quite complete, serves its purpose of letting the children know that he is physically green and he can't change that any more than he can change being a frog. (It also has the added benefit of introducing children to formal logical arguments.)
Now the song moves on to the real issue. Kermit doesn't like "being green". Here's why.
"It's not that easy being green
Having to spend each day the color of the leaves
When I think it could be nicer being red, or yellow, or gold
Or something much more colorful like that
It's not that easy being green
It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things
And people tend to pass you over
'Cause you're not standing out
Like flashy sparkles in the water
Or stars in the sky"
In the "logical" stanza before this Kermit was talking about the actual physical color green, but as soon as he starts these stanzas he has begun to speak of green as a symbol for his feelings. You can catch the shift in the first line "It's not that easy being green". That could easily translate to "It's not that easy being me." Physically of course it is easy being green; especially if you are a frog. In fact "standing out like flashy sparkles" is a good way for a real frog to become a predator's lunch. What's not easy is thinking of yourself as ordinary and plain. What's not easy is when other people make you feel badly about yourself.
Again, Kermit's wonderings about his skin color have nothing to do with the actual reasons why a frog's skin is the way it is. It is all completely symbolic and internal. This is what makes it fictional. Fiction is reflective and internal, not directed outward toward what we think of as "reality". This is really one of the key concepts in understanding fiction in general. This song is not a documentary (non-fiction) about the camouflage tactics of amphibious animals. This is a story (fiction) about feeling ordinary and plain and defined by others. This concept is also applicable to all the elements of the song. Mountains are also about how Kermit feels. Oceans are also about how Kermit feels, etc.
According to the song poor Kermit came to the conclusion that "it could be nicer being red, or yellow, or gold or something much more colorful like that" because of the way other people were treating him (and other green things). They "tend to pass you over 'cause you're not standing out like flashy sparkles in the water or stars in the sky". People pass him over and treat him as ordinary and plain and because of that treatment, he has internalized the idea that he is also plain and common. He is the color of "so many other ordinary things". By using the word "other" he obviously includes himself among those ordinary things. But that's not really how he wants to think of himself. Obviously Kermit's personality isn't a bit plain, but because people treat him that way, and because they do it based on his skin color, he associates his skin color with a quality inside himself of plainness (which is not really there).
In some of the televised versions of the song during this section he walks slowly, head down among all the other green things and we can imagine him thinking of himself as unimportant, plain, and ordinary. Just a common frog of little value in a big important world.
Kermit is really in trouble now. People treat him as plain and ordinary because of the color of his skin. He can't change the color of his skin and he can't really change how other people treat him either. So is he doomed to think of himself as ordinary and plain for the rest of his life?
Of course not. Even though we are greatly influenced by the physical world and how others treat us, it is not the only way we have to change ourselves. Kermit understands that our inner reality does not run by the same rules as the world outside. Kermit is teaching children that they have the power to create their own egos and their own definitions of who they are regardless even of the physical realities that surround them. He's teaching them how to use the world's defining magic for their own purposes.
So how does he do this?
Since the world has forged such a strong connection for Kermit between how he feels about himself and the color of his skin, all Kermit has to do to change how he feels about himself, is change how he feels about the color of his skin (green) and his feelings about himself will follow. He has to re-define his associations to the color green and thereby himself.
He needs a story to combat "their" story. He needs to feel about himself differently than others feel about him.
He starts out gently at first.
"But green's the color of spring
And green can be cool and friendly-like
And green can be big like an ocean
Or important like a mountain
Or tall like a tree!"
NOTE: There are several versions of this part of the song but it is interesting to note that it makes little difference what symbols are used here. Sometimes the lyrics are "big like a mountain" or "important like a river", etc.
As Kermit explores further his confidence increases until he takes the association into the almost opposite definitions of ordinariness. "And green can be big like an ocean, or important like a mountain, or tall like a tree"
It is important to note that Kermit is associating the symbol of himself (green) with other symbols such as mountains and trees that connect to his inner world and feelings. But really what he is saying is clear. He/(green) is big/(like a ocean), important/(like a mountain), and tall/(like a tree). So even in this simple song there are many layers of associations, and yet we are so adapted to accomplish these difficult symbolic manipulations it seems almost effortless. In a diagram it might look something like this. The lines represent strong associations.
So why doesn't Kermit just associate being green with being important directly? Why does he have to be important like a mountain? For that matter why doesn't he just directly associate himself (Kermit) with being important instead of associating himself to his skin color and then associating his skin color to things he thinks of as important, like a mountain.
It seems like a bit of a mystery, but if you try it for yourself, you can feel the reason why. Try to imagine "importance" or even harder, being and feeling important, without an image or plot to help. (Of course this assumes that you do not already feel important.) Then imagine a massive mountain rising up over everything else, with towns, people, and even frogs on its back and you can certainly FEEL a concept like importance. And of course, if you can feel important, you can act that way.
It is crucial to note also that words like "big" and "tall" are also symbolic of something else. It is understood that these things translate into emotions and thoughts about himself that are more than the physical properties they describe. When Kermit feels he is green, like a big ocean, he does not think he is physically big, but something else. Something even more difficult to translate but somehow easier to understand. He feels inside what he associates with the word big metaphorically. The end of the chain of signifiers leads to something that literally has no words, but is a feeling or sense. One that changes his perspective and his own operating assumptions. Here, at the level of the unconscious is where the process of fiction meets its true purpose; changing us.
This is an incredibly powerful tool. To feel you are something is to be able to act as if you are something. If we feel brave, we can act bravely. If we feel compassion, we can act compassionately. If Kermit can look at his green skin and be reminded to feel big and tall and important instead of ordinary and plain, how will that change his quality of life? How will this affect his ability to stand up to an angry Miss Piggy or Gonzo the Great in the future? This idea is so basic and relatable to all children at some point in their lives. This simple example says... "You can change how you feel about yourself. Here's how."
Photo Credit: Richard Harbaugh ©A.M.P.A.S.
"When green is all there is to be
It could make you wonder why
But why wonder why wonder
I am green, and it'll do fine
It's beautiful, and I think it's what I want to be"
The song does a beautiful job of underscoring that even though Kermit has been triumphant, it doesn't feel perfect. Those other associations are still there. He knows it will still be a battle. He knows that people may still treat him as common because he is green, but the important part of all of this is that he doesn't feel that way about himself any more. The last line could be slightly changed from "I think it's what I want to be" to "I think, and now it's what I want to be."
In many ways it might be healthier if Kermit could just refuse the negative definitions of others in the first place. In other words, even though others define him and the color green as ordinary, in a perfect world he could just refuse that definition. It is, however, extremely hard to ignore other people. It's the basis of advertising that what we hear repeated over and over again will affect how we think. What other people say about us and how they act towards us helps us to define who we think we are. It would take amazing self-confidence and awareness on the part of someone to deny the evidence of their own eyes that the color of their skin does indeed matter, or isn't related to "them" somehow. Instead it is much faster, easier, and potent to hack the association to create a new, positive, reinforcing, and personal outlook.
The other benefit of using these symbols is that we can use this new story to communicate to others. We can define for others what was once defined for us. Kermit isn't just convincing himself that green is a great color to be, now that he has this new story, he's potentially convincing everyone who hears his song. People may start to treat him differently if his story is "stronger" than theirs. In fact Kermit is doing a little advertising here. "Green! It's big like a mountain!"
The song is a beautiful way to gently teach children that they can define themselves however they like with the power of their imaginations. They can question the way they feel and the way others make them feel. They can align themselves with potent symbols like mountains and trees and rivers to make them feel important and strong and big even maybe when the world doesn't think of them that way. The stronger their imagination is, the more powerfully they can re-define themselves; even in the face of physical realities. Using imagination and fiction teaches them to be the authors of themselves.
The lessons in this song are very adaptable. They even work for this guy!
Eventually children grab hold of the symbolic tools and are able to deftly use them at will. Their stories get more and more complex as their egos evolve and the world around them becomes increasingly mediated. Soon the simple underlying mechanisms are lost under the surface but in some way all fiction still comes from the power of these strong symbolic associations.
Instead of trees and rivers the symbols change and represent looser, more ambiguous, and harder to define feelings. Zombies and fairies. Murders and kings. Housewives and children.
About Analysis In General
Now luckily "Bein' Green" is a song meant to instruct children so we don't have to do too much guessing about what the symbols in this story of Kermit the Frog mean. Kermit himself tells us what they mean to him and is aware of his associations. "He" is green. Oceans are "big", mountains mean "important", trees mean "tall".
Fiction in general is not as much about what is literally presented as what it means to us. Or more accurately what we use it to do for us. Although the majority of fiction is not as upfront as "Bein' Green" about the nature of its symbols and the uses they might be put to, most fiction operates in a similar fashion. And that means that to really understand what is going on in fiction, we have to be able to see to what uses people are using the symbols of the story.
- Is the song "Bein' Green" really about the actual color green? Not really.
- Is The Walking Dead really about the problem of re-animated corpses?
- Is the Nancy Drew series really about amateur criminology?
- Is The Hunger Games really about how adults make teens hunt each other on an island?
At Curiouser what analysis means is tracking those symbols back to what they mean internally and to discover what process they are there to help us perform.
Join us for Part II soon. Why Analyze Fiction?