Powers like levitation and invisibility may make the crypto-sapiens of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children sound more like superheroes than bullying targets, but there is a dark side to being able to breathe underwater. Even with their super-human advantages, these “peculiars” from Ransom Rigg’s novel — and its Tim Burton film adaptation opening on September 30th — face an unearthly amount of prejudice and harassment.
Pop culture offers a mirror through which we subconsciously see ourselves. When characters who are otherwise unstoppable (e.g. The X-Men) face adversity, they give us someone to identify with. Supernatural perils suddenly become metaphors for our own experience. Look past the tentacles and shape-shifting and you might just be able to make out something eerily familiar in the spectres that stalk Miss Peregrine’s peculiars…
For anyone who has ever been on the wrong end of bullying, stories like Miss Peregrine are vital to pop culture because they reflect unnerving and sometimes terrifying realities. Preternatural powers or not, pop culture desperately needs more stories in the vein of Miss Peregrine. Here’s why…
Who are the peculiars?
It doesn’t take much to realize that someone who can spontaneously make a glowing ball of light appear (in this case, Emma) isn’t exactly like the rest of us. The same can be said for the invisible Millard, levitating Olive, and super-strong Bronwyn. Fiona can make plants grow just by waving her hands. Claire eats from the back of her head and Enoch can breathe life into clay figures. The headmistress, Miss Peregrine, is an ymbryne who can transfigure herself into a peregrine falcon.
Some of these “peculiarities” are more obvious than others. It is easy to spot Olive floating above the grass while Jacob Portman’s ability to see the monsters known as the Hollowgast or “hollows” isn’t immediately obvious. No matter their powers, the validation that comes from being around others of their kind is as vital to these characters as it is to anyone targeted for being different…
A reminder that “different” doesn’t have to equal “alone.”
Within a time loop that no non-peculiar can enter, they find safety in numbers. Think of the time loop as a Comic Con of sorts. For several days, many of us who have been everything from laughed at to relentlessly harassed for being geeks, nerds, gamers and otaku exist in a time-out-of-time where Starfleet uniforms and kitsune ears ride up and down the escalators. We realize we are not alone in this non-normative universe.
It doesn’t even need to take an entire convention — just one person or character — who someone prone to bullying can identify with. In a society fraught with prejudice and stereotypes, sometimes that individual is a character from between the pages of a novel or comic who is out of place amongst the “normals.”
Shining a light on bullying culture, one peculiar at a time.
While the qualities that make us stand out might not always be as obvious as the peculiars’, these differences can feel like Claire’s second set of teeth when bullies publicly call attention to them. In the world of Miss Peregrine, peculiars could once live amongst non-peculiars. It was “a world so afraid of otherness” that frightened them into retreating. Shape-shifting phantoms called wights hunt peculiars to feed the hollows, which are visible only as shadows to all but a few (such as Jacob).
These fictional hollows mirror the narcissistic and sociopathic personalities that feed off the satisfaction of tormenting their victims, whether in gym class or the corner office. We see holograms of monsters in our bullies even if they don’t actually have dagger teeth and tentacles writhing in their mouths. Most victims also take the harassment silently because they are terrified of retaliation. This is especially common in a workplace bullying situation—which further reinforces that bullying is not just a grade-school phenomenon.
Much like the peculiars, those bullied at work often tend to be among the strongest performers (even without superpowers). Fear of termination forces most victims into their own time loop of silence. Bullying claims are not taken seriously by most HR personnel, which often turn the fault on the victim and use techniques like gaslighting to convince the victim that the suffering she faces is a direct result of her own behavior.
Seeing a character who suffers the same may be just what bullying victims need to empower them to speak out in some way. Raising awareness about an otherwise taboo topic that is reflected in pop culture makes it safer to emerge from the shadows.
Hiding in plain sight: the peculiar way.
Peculiars withdraw like many bullying victims. Time loops infinitely repeat the same day, can only be entered by other peculiars, and are inaccessible to wights and hollows. It’s not so far from slipping into the janitor’s closet at school to avoid a beating from the captain of the football team or being paranoid about a toxic coworker haunting the hallways before going to the bathroom.
Miss Peregrine’s also touches on a more ironic defense: hiding in plain sight. When freak shows were still en vogue, the headmistress and her peculiar charges capitalized on their uncommon abilities by staging one of their own for curious circus-goers. It was the only way to survive as themselves. Unfortunately, even those who struggle to fit in don’t always succeed.
When (peculiar) victims become perpetrators.
Remember being called a poser because you happened to be wearing the same jeans as the most popular kid in school? Or faking everything you could to convince HR you belonged to the company culture so you could avoid the pink slip? The book also reveals another disturbing reaction to bullying, which is the victim becoming the perpetrator.
Some rogue peculiars were so desperate to spite the society that rejected them that they took the potentially fatal risk of warping a time loop. Their failure to seize immortality came with a horrifying price: They turned themselves into the hollowgast—the same ghastly creatures that would go on to hunt and kill peculiars with a vengeance.
While nothing can excuse the horrors these renegades (or other victims-turned-bullies) have created, stories like Miss Peregrine explain them for a society that desperately needs to understand what can cause such behavior—and what to eliminate in order to prevent it.
Shedding light on the effects of prejudice.
When a local refers to Miss Peregrine’s flock as an “odd collection of people,” he speaks for the general opinion on peculiars outside the time loop. Since peculiarism can skip a generation (or several), it was often the case that parents of peculiars would assume that their actual child had been replaced with a monstrous changeling.
Peculiar children were often abused or abandoned as a result. Jacob himself is brushed off for even believing they exist (even before he finds out he is one), called a “bloody psycho,” and snapped at by his own father, who clings to the belief that his son’s supernatural friends are imaginary.
Prejudice against an individual or group that stands out as different from what society believes is the “norm” is a catalyst for bullying. When pop culture introduces characters such as the X-Men or the peculiars, both of whom belong to marginalized groups that deviate from societal norms, real-life fans see their own experiences in a work of fiction that isn’t too far from the truth.
Just about any quality that stands out in the waking world can relate metaphorically to something in the peculiar world. The fact that the peculiars have unique powers also helps drive home a grim reality: that even individuals who have the ability to throw fireballs at their enemies or crush them with one hand can still be targets regardless of their superpowers.
It helps all of us without sci-fi genetic enhancements realize that if a group of superhuman beings are still hunted by monsters, their plight is frighteningly close to ours.
Raising awareness about the trauma caused by bullying.
When you’ve been chased by phantoms and monsters (or bullies) your entire life, trust is not exactly second nature. This comes to light right away when Jacob first meets a few of the peculiars during one of their rare ventures outside the loop…
Emma threatens him with a knife when he stammers that he only wanted to talk to her and her terrified friends, who she warns not to tell him their names. They disappear back into the loop with Jacob as Emma’s hostage, and later confess they were almost certain that he was a bloodthirsty wight bent on murder.
It explains her howl of: “You’re not the only one who wants to kill me!” Believing Jacob’s innocence is nearly impossible for the other peculiars when being hunted is all they have known outside the time loop.
The same can be said for bullying victims whose trust in people disintegrates. Residual trauma keeps playing over and over in the victim’s memory as a reminder to keep his defenses up. Mistrust becomes an instant reflex. When someone who has been victimized and traumatized by bullies enters a new environment, just like the peculiars tiptoeing into the world outside the time loop, it is the former victim is not likely to trust or even believe anyone.
Not allowing anyone else to get close enough for friendship also means that no one will be allowed close enough for bullying. As Emma kept repeating, there was no reason for her to believe that Jacob wasn’t a wight after she had been stalked by wights so many times.
We will always need stories like Miss Peregrine.
Stories like Miss Peregrine assure bullying victims that they are not experiencing some sort of strange paranoia, and also give the non-bullied an understanding as to why someone new among them may be skittish. If pop culture can drive home the awareness that there is much more depth to chronic mistrust than shyness or snobbery, it can only lead to more understanding from the peers of those who have suffered from bullying.
An isolated person can only go so far when it comes to fighting the ills of bullying. The rising popularity of stories that center on characters who endure bullying create metaphors that relate to victims and de-stigmatize their suffering. The fandoms that grow around such stories in the pop culture sphere also prove that people are responding.
Whether these fans have been bullied themselves or know someone who has, the rise of stories like this support the emergence of the subject into the public spotlight. Provocative subjects like bullying can only be discussed when it is no longer shrouded in fear. Making this discussion public is instrumental in raising awareness—and through stories like Miss Peregrine, pop culture has that superpower.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children lands in theaters September 30th.