Grooming in The Nutcracker
Before I start, let me say: grooming is not in all versions of The Nutcracker.
Personally, I love The Nutcracker.
I wanted to show it to my kid, so I went on Amazon Prime and found Nutcracker: The Motion Picture. My concern was whether the fight scene between The Nutcracker and the mice would be too scary. It didn’t even occur to me that grooming would be an issue.
Almost immediately in Nutcracker: The Motion Picture, Drosselmeyer’s actions were suspect.
In this post, we'll look at:
Basic Grooming Behaviors
Before we dive into grooming in The Nutcracker, it’s worth reviewing basic grooming behaviors:
Targeting the Child: The offender will pay special attention to or give preference to a child. (D2L)
Trust Development and Keeping Secrets: [Perpetrators] attempt to gain trust of a [child] through gifts, attention, sharing “secrets” and other means to make them feel that they have a caring relationship and to train them to keep the relationship secret. (RAINN)
Filling a Need: Perpetrators utilize tactics such as gift giving, flattery, gifting money, and meeting other basic needs. (D2L)
Isolating the Child: The perpetrator uses isolation tactics to reinforce their relationship with the child by creating situations in which they are alone together (babysitting, one-on-one coaching, “special” trips). (D2L)
Desensitization to touch and discussion of sexual topics: [The perpetrator] will often start to touch [the child] in ways that appear harmless, such as hugging, wrestling and tickling, and later escalate to increasingly more sexual contact, such as massages or showering together. [The perpetrator] may also show the [child] pornography or discuss sexual topics with them, to introduce the idea of sexual contact. (RAINN)
Maintaining Control: In order to maintain control, perpetrators use emotional manipulation; they make the child believe they are the only person who can meet their emotional and material needs. The child may feel that the loss of the relationship, or the consequences of exposing it, will be more damaging and humiliating than continuing the unhealthy relationship." (D2L)
Grooming in Nutcracker: The Motion Picture
Each of the grooming behaviors above shows up in Nutcracker: The Motion Picture to some extent except for Maintaining Control. I've included approximate time stamps in the captions for the YouTube version.
Targeting the Child
Drosselmeyer gives special attention to Clara and spends as much time as possible with her.
Trust Development and Keeping Secrets
Drosselmeyer is already in a position of trust as Clara’s godfather.
Filling a Need
Drosselmeyer gives Clara gifts far grander than he gives the other children. (In this version, he does not gift Clara the Nutcracker. He gives her a palace with clockwork dancers inside.)
Isolating the Child
Drosselmeyer is alone with Clara after giving her the gift (where he gets very close and touches her). He later appears unhappy to be interrupted by dancers.
Desensitization to Touch
Drosselmeyer continually touches Clara despite her obvious discomfort.
Other red flag behaviors
Hot and Cold
Drosselmeyer pretends he doesn’t have a gift for Clara at first, then gives her the biggest gift. Assuming this hot and cold behavior is regular, it is called “intermittent reinforcement.” Intermittent reinforcement is often used in abusive relationships to keep the abused tied to their abuser.
Drosselmeyer appears jealous that Clara prefers the nutcracker to his gifts.
Drosselmeyer acts offended when Clara pulls away. According to Safe Kids Thrive, this is a form of psychological grooming: “If the child shows signs of pulling away, the offender shows signs of feeling rejected and unhappy, and the child feels guilt and confusion.”
Lack of parental support
At one point, Clara’s mother whispers in her ear to tell her to dance with Drosselmeyer. When Clara expresses her distaste, her mother indicates she should do it anyways.
What should you do if you watch a version of The Nutcracker that includes grooming?
When we watched Nutcracker: The Motion Picture, my gut reaction was to turn it off.
However, depending on your child’s age, this version of The Nutcracker can be an incredible teaching tool to demonstrate red-flag behaviors and the challenges around responding to them. For it to be used as a teaching tool, you need to have a conversation with your kid, especially after the performance.
It’s worth repeating that grooming isn’t in all versions of The Nutcracker. It’s possible to have a doting Godfather who pays special attention to his Goddaughter without it being grooming.
But if you do end up seeing a version of The Nutcracker that includes grooming behaviors like those listed above, here are a few thoughts:
If you’re watching at home:
If you start to see red-flag behaviors, you can pause the video and narrate why what is going on is not ok.
Use your judgment for whether you want to stop the video entirely or if you would like to continue watching and narrating and then have a conversation afterward with your kid.
If you’re watching in a theater:
Obviously, you can’t narrate what’s happening in a theater. But you can leave if you’d like and then return after intermission. Personally, I’d stay and make sure to have a conversation during intermission and when the performance is complete.
Post-performance conversation starters:
First, be careful that your conversation doesn’t center on what Clara should have done differently. Remember, it is adults’ responsibility to keep children safe. Yes, there are some things Clara could have done, and it’s worth reviewing those to ensure your kid knows they can say no to these situations. But it’s equally important to talk about why Clara may have been too uncomfortable or uncertain to say no, and that, regardless of her actions, none of this is her fault.
I’ve included possible responses below, which are not necessarily complete. Don’t expect your kid to hit on all aspects of these responses. Instead, use these possible responses to guide your kid’s understanding of the situation.
How do you think Clara felt about Drosselmeyer?
Possible response: She seemed confused about him: both happy to see him and uncomfortable around him.
Why do you think she felt this way?
Possible response: Her feelings were mixed because she liked the special attention and beautiful gifts, but she felt uncomfortable because he was too interested in her, got too close to her, and touched her.
Why was the way Drosselmeyer was touching Clara inappropriate?
Possible response: Even though he was only touching her shoulder, he would continue to touch her despite her evident discomfort, would repeatedly touch her, and fixated on her exclusively. Contrast this to a family member who gives all the kids a hug and a kiss (with their consent). While this is a more intimate touch, the family member treats all the children similarly. They only touch the kids with their consent, and the type of touch is within the social norms of the family.
Which body safety rules did Drosselmeyer break?
Possible response: Drosselmeyer continued to touch Clara even after Clara's body language made it clear that she didn't want to be touched.
Which body safety rules did Clara's mother break?
Possible response: Clara's mother didn't enforce Clara's bodily autonomy and made Clara dance with Drosselmeyer when she didn't want to.
How would you change Drosselmeyer's behavior so he would behave like a safe adult?
Possible response: He would not give Clara more significant gifts than other children, be alone with her, or touch her. He would spend his time with other adults instead of only with Clara.
What should Clara's mother have done?
Possible response: She should have listened to Clara when she indicated that she didn't want to dance with Drosselmeyer. She and Clara's father should also have been aware of where Clara was and avoided unsafe one-on-one situations. If they saw Drosselmeyer touching Clara, they should have intervened and told him to stop.
What should the other adults in the room have done?
Possible response: If they saw Drosselmeyer touching Clara, they should have intervened and told him to stop. If they saw Drosselmeyer alone with Clara, they should have interrupted and asked Drosselmeyer to join the other adults. If they suspected red-flag behaviors, they should have alerted Clara's parents.
Why do you think Clara's mother and the other adults didn't do these things?
Possible response: They either didn't know these behaviors were inappropriate or were afraid of acting rudely.
What are some things Clara might have done?
Remember: you don't want to say that Clara should have done these things. Instead, you want to show your kid that if they could respond differently than Clara, you would support them.
Possible response: She could have told Drosselmeyer, "No." She could have left Drosselmeyer and told her parents or other trusted adult that he was making her uncomfortable. She could have refused to dance with Drosselmeyer.
Why do you think she didn't do these things?
Possible response: She didn't feel she would have the support of her parents or the other adults in the room. She worried she'd be considered "rude" or a "bad" child.
This is a helpful reflection point for parents. Our kids need to know that we'll support them and believe them for them to confidently enforce their boundaries and tell us what's going on.
Is it her fault that she didn't do these things? Why not?
Possible response: No. What an adult does is never a child's fault. It is not a child's responsibility to stop someone else's behavior.
How would I respond if you were in that situation versus Clara's parents?
Possible response: You would tell Drosselmeyer to stop touching me. You wouldn't let Drosselmeyer be alone with me. You would listen when I said I didn't want to dance with him. You wouldn't invite him to future parties.
This is an excellent opportunity to show your kid that you would listen to them, enforce their body boundaries, and believe them if anything happens.
If you want to read more about grooming behaviors in the original nutcracker book, Nutcracker and Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffman, check out this article.
As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions!