Thursday, November 29, 2012

Embracing Difference: Lessons from "How to Train Your Dragon"

I recently watched the movie "How to Train Your Dragon" for the first time (I know, it's not exactly a new movie!). It has all the necessary ingredients of an animated classic: endearing characters, cute animals (ok, dragons), adults who just don't understand, allusions to a literary classic (The Little Prince)...and a deeper lesson.

The lesson of "How to Train Your Dragon" is about difference (one of social work's favorite themes). The main character, Hiccup (yes, that's his name!), is considered "different" than the rest of the Vikings (his people). Specifically, he is considered too weak and scrawny to fight dragons, and fighting dragons is the primary "career track" for the Vikings. As a result, his father (the chief) tells him he needs to be less...him.

The Vikings don't just stereotype Hiccup; they have a real prejudice against dragons. Specifically, while they recognize that there are many breeds of dragon, they consider them all "extremely dangerous - kill on sight."

However, like most prejudices, it blinds the Vikings to the dragons' true nature. The dragons are afraid of the Vikings (who wouldn't be, what with all the attempts to kill on sight!), and terrorized by a giant monster of a dragon living nearby, but generally docile, intelligent, and quite friendly once they know you're not trying to kill them.

It takes someone different (Hiccup) to recognize that the dragons are just as misunderstood as he is. And it take the dragons coming to the rescue during a crisis for the Vikings to recognize that Hiccup is (1) right about the dragons, and (2) valuable  just the way he is. In the process, both Hiccup and his dragon (named Toothless) lose part of a limb, but it is clear neither is any less whole for being "differently able." It's an added nice touch that, as Vikings and dragons unite at the end, the differences between breeds of dragon match each uniquely well to the builds and personalities of specific Vikings.

It is heartwarming. But the message is also an important one, closely linked to the values of the social work profession: There are differences we can see, and differences we cannot see, and all forms of difference enrich rather than endanger our communal lives, as long as we can look past our own prejudices.

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