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Nemo and Victimhood
What Finding Nemo taught us about compassion and victim mentality
Twenty years ago, in the age of pre-woke Disney, an incredible film was released called Finding Nemo, which remains one of my favorite animated movies to this day. In the film, the titular character, Nemo, a clown fish with a gimpy fin, is taken from the ocean (and from his father) by a scuba diver and placed in a fish tank in an Australian dentist office. The remainder of the movie details the wild adventure his father goes on in a desperate attempt to make it to Sydney, track down his son, and bring him safely back home.
The entire film is memorable, but there is an important scene after Nemo is placed in the fish tank where he panics about the reality of having been taken away from his father, having been dropped into a strange, terrifying environment, and being faced with the prospect of being given to Darla, the Dentist’s 8-year-old niece, who is known to violently shake fish until they go belly up. During this panic episode, Nemo accidentally gets himself stuck in the tank’s filter tube. The other fish in the tank rush to try to save Nemo as he frantically cries for help (and, heartbreakingly, calling for his “Daddy”) but then a voice rings out from the shadows of the tank saying, “Nobody touch him!” The leader of the tank, a Moorish Idol fish named Gil, then calmly swims out into view and repeats the line, “Nobody touch him.” The other fish watch in silence as Gil examines Nemo’s situation and then tells Nemo to swim out of the tube on his own. Nemo insists that he can’t because he has a bad fin. Gil responds, “It never stopped me” and reveals that he also has a bad fin. He then gives Nemo advice and encouragement on how to get out of the tube and in a dramatic climax, Nemo finally manages to escape, surprised at his own ability.
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This simple but impactful scene can teach us quite a lot about the concepts of compassion, empathy, and victimhood. Our society seems to have a profound lack of understanding of what these words actually mean and how to apply them to a given situation. From a progressive viewpoint, particularly, allowing Nemo to struggle, fight, and escape the tube on his own would be viewed as cruel and heartless and ableist and probably racist somehow. After all, Nemo is a true victim. He was truly victimized. He was taken, against his will, from his home and from his family, thrown into some strange environment, faced with the threat of being handed over to a murderous tyrant, and on top of all of that, he has found himself trapped in a tube where there is seemingly no obvious escape. What kind of monster would refuse to help this poor kid with a gimpy fin? What kind of heartless person would make him fight his way out on his own? How dare you suggest that this poor, victimized fish solve his own problems!? What kind of bigot are you!?
When Nemo announced that he had a bad fin and therefore, could not possibly swim out on his own, Gil had an important choice. He could have encouraged Nemo to embrace victim mentality, to embrace an external locus of control, and to internalize a sense of helplessness. He could have talked about unfairness and told Nemo to blame his circumstances on others, to see injustice in the fact that he, alone, was stuck in the tube and no one else. He could have led Nemo to be angry, resentful, and vengeful for the things that happened to him. He could have demanded fish tank equity and forced the other fish to maim themselves to make everyone more equal. None of this, of course, would have actually helped Nemo get out of the filter tube. Thankfully, Gil recognized what Nemo actually needed and he does none of that. Instead he simply says, “You got yourself in there, you can get yourself out.”
To some, that may seem harsh. But this is a classic example of the forgotten art of tough love. Tough love is not coddling. It does not allow excuses. It tells the truth and it demands strength and excellence. Always. Tough love is what Nemo needed to recognize that he had the ability to overcome these obstacles and push through adversity. It taught him that he was strong and capable and brave and that he had the power to shape his own destiny. It taught him that you can’t always control what happens to you, but you can control how to respond to it. Most importantly, it taught him that even though terrible things happened to him, he was not a helpless victim. He was only helpless if he allowed himself to be helpless. He was only as powerless as he allowed himself to be.
Because Gil allowed Nemo to discover his own strength and ability, to reject the idea that he can’t do something because of his fin or because of his circumstances or whatever it may be, Nemo was able to help rescue his friend, Dory, and a group of other fish who were trapped in a fishing net toward the end of the film. Because Nemo recognized his own strength and capabilities and because he had an internal locus of control, he had the courage to overcome the obstacles in his path and the confidence that he could do it. Had Gil encouraged Nemo to embrace victim mentality and a sense of learned helplessness, Nemo likely would not have been able to accomplish anything. It is unlikely he ever would have escaped the fish tank or Darla, let alone been able to save his friend. His victimhood would have quite literally destroyed him.
These are the things we should be teaching our children. Even in the face of true hardship, it is not compassionate to teach children to harbor a victim mentality, a sense of learned helplessness, or an attitude of resentment and grievance. It is not empathetic to make excuses for failures by seeking to blame and punish others in attempts to make outcomes more “equitable.” It is not kindness to encourage an external locus of control instead of teaching children that their own attitudes, choices, and behaviors determine their outcomes. It is not loving to demand anything less than excellence or to refuse to instill children with the confidence and fortitude they need to face down adversity and overcome obstacles. You are destroying them by allowing them to see themselves as victims. And if that’s true for real adversity, how much more so when its contrived?
True compassion rejects victimhood. True compassion builds victors.
And as it turns out, in Finding Nemo, Gil was, by far, the most compassionate fish in that tank.