Hair and Hedonism, Trolls the Movie
By Andrea Zanin
Originally cave-dwelling cretins roaming the annals of Scandinavian folklore, trolls – dense in constitution as well as intellect, unchristian and dangerous – were ripped from their mythological home by Thomas Dam in 1959 and ejected into the Danish town of Gjøl. Too poor to afford a Christmas gift for his daughter Lila, Dam carved a wooden troll for her. It was a hit! Lila loved her strangely fiendish friend, her pals wanted one – so did the town; so did Europe…and America. By successfully screwing commercialism with his homemade toy, Dam also managed to create a pop culture legacy – oh irony! Such was the birth of good luck troll dolls (good luck indeed) which have since traversed the decades in and out of fad. The nineties, in particular, fell into fetish with their lumo hair and cutsie faces but as gen X grew up, trolls slowly sunk into an abyss of forgotten. And then…Trolls (2017) – the movie; all sparkly and happy and hairy, turning Dam’s dolls into a damn thang yet again.
And why not? The new millennium’s a strange, horrible place a lot of the time – with its wars, famine, failure to give Johnny Depp an Oscar (seriously?) and weirdo presidents; a world of perpetual hugging, singing, dancing and cupcake defecation is a welcome relief. Trolls, appropriated by a time in need of cheering, preach happiness – a happiness that lauds pleasure over pain. A happiness that encourages us to be bright eyed and bushy tailed in spite of it all:
Branch: You don’t know anything, Poppy, and I can’t wait to see the look on your face when you realize the world isn’t all cupcakes and rainbows, ‘cause it isn’t.
Poppy: Hey, I know it’s not all cupcakes and rainbows, but I’d rather go through life thinking that it mostly is instead of being like you. You don’t sing. You don’t dance. So gray all the time. What happened to you?
Smacks of Hedonism – right? Not just the pleasure-seeking self gratification spoken of in modern literature or everyday convo. No. A philosophical Hedonism; the kind advocated by Siduri in the Epic of Gilgamesh (penned soon after the invention of writing and typically cited as the first recorded source of Hedonistic philosophy), which advised: “Fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice… for this too is the lot of man”. Add some static hair plus a glop of glam glitter and you’ve got trolls. Shiny, happy trolls.
Hedonistic philosophy, in all its variants, holds that happiness is a matter of raw, subjective feeling. It focuses on the individual’s balance of pleasant over unpleasant experience. So, when Branch, all those years ago, stopped singing and literally turned gray because a Bergen ate his grandma, Poppy (pretty much) says ‘Suck it up, dude. Fill your belly, don some glitter, sing a little song, shake your hair and feel united…and forget about it’ – embrace your trollness, basically. Troll princess and orchestrator of joy, Poppy totally buys into ethical Hedonism, which is the idea that one has the right to do everything in one’s power to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible – in the name of ultimate happiness. Said to have been started by Aristippus of Cyrene, a student of Socrates, ethical Hedonism holds to the idea that pleasure is the highest good…because “everyone deserves happiness” (Trolls). Don’t they?
But does Poppy really help Bridget (scullery maid) Bergen find her happiness just because she deserves it? Hedonists live by a doctrine of extremes – pleasure or pain – and reduce everything thereto, so when presented with other things that might intrinsically add value to life (like perfecting, achieving or following the law), Hedonism will usually attempt to explain its apparent value in terms of pleasure. So, friendship, for example (the building and maintaining thereof), is not valuable in and of itself, so sayeth the Hedonist; rather, it is valuable to the extent that it brings pleasure. Furthermore, to answer why one might help a friend even when such action might be harmful (so…the likelihood and resulting fear of imminent consumption and possible death, in Poppy’s case); a Hedonist will argue that the prospect of future pleasure derived from receiving reciprocal favors from the friend in question, rather than the value of friendship itself, should motivate one to help in this way. Perhaps, the more extreme the ‘harm’ the more likely the potential for pleasure – who knows? Regardless, Poppy wins the day! She helps Bridget and Bridget returns the favor, enabling Poppy to claim back not only her friends but all of Trolldom; assuring all trolls the possibility of the reciprocating pleasure exuded by friendship:
Branch: Do you have to sing?
Poppy: I always sing when I’m in a good mood.
Branch: Do you have to be in a good mood?
Poppy: Why wouldn’t I be? By this time tomorrow, I’ll be with all my friends. I wonder what they’re all doing right now.
High five, Poppy – slam dunk; Hedonism 101. But even the pros get it wrong. There is this one time in the movie that Poppy fails as a philosophical Hedonist: when Creek sells out the trolls to the Bergens in exchange for not being swallowed himself… that part. With all the trolls captured and soon-to-be eaten, Princess Poppy loses hope and she and all the other trolls turn gray. Pain overrides pleasure and Poppy fails, albeit briefly, in her pursuit of happiness. Luckily, Branch, in true fairytale fashion, comes to the rescue, He sings a l’il song and all is well in the end; just a momentary blip in Poppy’s radar of happy.
Hedonism is often included as a sub philosophy of utilitarianism, which promotes action in effort to maximize utility; arguing action as right as long as it promotes happiness. Hedonists equate pleasure with utility and believe that pleasure is the master of all humankind, and pleasure is the ultimate life goal – as advised by well-known Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Now, trolls might not be human, per se, but the troll way of living is easily conducive to an ethic that demands the right to pleasure as an elemental measure of well-being – all that sunshine and good soul (sung as only JT can sing). Even the Bergen are desperate to be happy; except they haven’t figured out exactly what ‘happy’ is and how one might get some, so they resort to chowing down on their perky pals living down the way. After all, no one wants to be bergin (or, ‘f*cked up’ – according to the Urban Dictionary…no really) their whole life. Although she’s almost eaten, Poppy’s only too happy to pass the Hedonism on; explaining to Bridget and King Gristle Jr. that the feeling they had on their date, a pleasure-inducing experience, was happiness. The Trolls then invite the Bergen to sing and dance with them, making them feel happy. It’s a revelation. Like Poppy says, “[Happiness] isn’t something you put inside, it’s already there. Sometimes you just need someone to help you find it”.
Except, if you didn’t know you were happy in the first place – if someone had to tell you what emotion you were feeling – does it count as happiness (in retrospect)? Woah! We’re going to have to make a quick back track to this whole feeling thing, which opens up a fabulous can of glittery worms. Hedonism explains happiness as a matter of ‘raw, subjective feeling’. Consider the feeling of happiness that Bridget and her beau had not enunciated as pleasure-induced euphoria…what happens if you’re just not inclined to feel happy (whatever that might be – oh no…no no no – another doubly huge can; double the worms, double the glitter)? Like, Bridget and King G Jr. didn’t even know they were happy! Is ‘it’ then happiness, at all? It was only when Poppy put a name to the feeling that suddenly, the Bergens’ mood changed, and they got all happy and stuff. Trolls thus seems to suggest that happiness is a function of choice rather than emotional state, which in turn undermines the notion of happiness as the raw, subjective feeling implied by Hedonism. Just tell ‘em they’re happy, tell ‘em life’s a pleasure, or, as Wittgenstein said after a life of negativism and misery; “Tell them it was wonderful!” It’s all that freakin’ dancing – it’s made a mongrel of a perfectly sound philosophical application. Oh well – “Let your hair swing and party with me/ No bad vibes, just love you’ll see”. Word.
Andrea Zanin is the author of pop-culture blog Rantchick.com. She lives in London, where she spends her time writing, ranting, being a journalist and lusting after glittery, pink troll hair. Andrea is a regular contributor to pop culture and philosophy books, with chapters in Sons of Anarchy and Philosophy, Hannibal Lecter, Jane Austen, Alien, Wonder Woman, X Files, and The Americans and Philosophy (still in process).
Dan Haybron, “Happiness,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/happiness/#HedVerEmoSta)
Dan Weijers, “Hedonism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://www.iep.utm.edu/hedonism/#SH5a)
Martin E. P. Seligman and Ed Royzman, “Authentic Happiness,” University of Pennsylvania (https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/newsletters/authentichappiness/happiness)
N.K. Sanders, “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” Assyrian International News Agency (http://www.aina.org/books/eog/eog.pdf)