Empathy for a Blank Slate

Written on Fri, Nov 7, 2014 by Kyle posted by kyle

In the first episode of Community disbarred lawyer Jeff Winger makes the claim what separates humans from other animals is the ability to empathize with a pencil before snapping it in half.
While the point he Jeff was making at the time might have been done in order to manipulate a group of strangers I’ve come to think he has a point. Over and over again in movies, comics and elsewhere I’m seeing characters that aren’t capable of displaying emotion or communicating well that are beloved by audiences. I was nearly 30 the first time I saw the Iron Giant movie. I firmly believe that any fan of story telling who didn’t shed a tear at the end is at least partially dead inside.
The most recent addition to the big screen of this troupe is Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. As a tree man who can only speak a handful words was considered the fan favorite of the movie. The immediate call for a toy based on the scene during the credits proved that everyone loves an adorable tree man with big eyes and a limited vocabulary.
The Undisputed Queen of this trick is the one and only Hello Kitty. This is a character who has had every conceivable outfit but with no discernible facial expression. So why are we drawn to such characters? Why do we empthaize with the characters who have the least ability to express their own emotion?
I like to think there are a few reasons. For characters like Groot and Wall-E I like to think the lack of verbal skills is made up for elsewhere. In both case we have characters who found other ways to express themselves physically through body language and expression. Groot’s eyes were based on the eyes from the directors dog with great effect. Giving the character a soulful look, especially in the eyes can have a serious impact on people. Something about someone who looks sad just triggers something and makes people connect.
For more blank slates like Hello Kitty I think it’s something simpler. I remember once hearing that the expression is blank so that Hello Kitty feels whatever you feel. I think there something simple and powerful there in the idea that a character is able to reflect whatever the person is feeling right then.
In either case I don’t think there anything wrong with characters who work this way. As long as we continue to tell stories for everyone no matter who wants to see or read them.

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