I’m so pleased to announce this guest post today, you guys!
As promised, friend of the blog Dame Holly (also known around the interwebs as Lee Tennant), who has a seriously impressive affinity with metaphors, is back to share her thoughts and insights on the very quirky, very different The School Nurse Files. I LOVED reading her thoughts on this show; I now literally feel like I have brand new eyes with which to appreciate Show’s unique appeal. I hope you guys enjoy her post as much as I do!
PS: You might also like her previous guest post, where she shares insights on 2018’s Greasy Melo. You can check it out here.
The School Nurse Files and the tension between conformity and diversity
By Lee Tennant (aka Dame Holly)
My heart in the sky
There are some shows that get you on every level: emotionally, intellectually, viscerally. While you’re watching, you’re so completely immersed that when you finish you simply turn around and press play again. The images play out in your mind over and over again. You write more stories in your head. And yes, you press play yet again hoping to recapture that feeling.
School Nurse Files was one of those shows for me.
Thankfully, Kfangurl has done such a wonderful job of reviewing the School Nurse Files that it has freed me to concentrate on why I personally loved this show. And that’s what this review is. Not a review at all but a love letter. An insight into what School Nurse Files meant to me and why it’s in contention to be my favourite drama for 2020.
Maybe not the best drama. But my favourite drama.
Like A Piece of Your Mind at the beginning of the year, School Nurse Files is surreal, deeply metaphorical, sometimes confusing. And short by several episodes. Nonetheless the show spoke to me. Powerfully. And that is what this piece will focus on. For a fantastic deconstruction of the show, see Kfangurl’s comprehensive overview here.
It’s better to be weird than ordinary
If School Nurse Files could be summed up in one sentence, it would be with this quote that the male lead, Hong In-pyo delivers right as we head into the finale’s explosive denouement. “It’s better to be weird than ordinary.”
As long as you’re not hurting anybody then being weird is a positive thing. Being normal is all very well and good. But allowing yourself to be different is better.
The School Nurse Files embraces its own philosophy from scene one. The show is unconventional and original and flat out weird. In fact, it’s a celebration of weird where everyone is encouraged to let their freak flag fly. With a disabled male lead as a love interest, a non-gendered character, a lesbian relationship and a female lead who aggressively does not fit in, The School Nurse Files celebrates non-conformity and giving yourself permission to step outside of the box.
And one thing the show does is walk its own talk. The show’s fun, surreal and bizarre beginning was like a message in the sky that they’re going to do their own thing and make their own show and they don’t care if we’re confused or bemused or can’t keep up. That’s our problem, not theirs. And then in the back half, show brings it all together in a truly glorious finale that says, “Hey, this is me. Love me or not, this is who I am. I won’t change because I’m wonderful just the way I am.”
And ultimately, that’s what The School Nurse Files is all about. Celebrating you being you, even if it’s a bit different. You’re wonderful just the way you are.
Jellies as human emotion
From the time she was young, our eponymous school nurse, Ahn Eun-young, has seen ‘Jellies’. From the first scene, the world as we see it through Eun-young’s eyes is littered with them. They cover the hallways of the school she works in, stretch between people who’ve made a connection, and come down from the ceilings to threaten her. They bounce and squish and float through the air around her. They are her constant companion and a constant reminder that she is different. More than that, even, they are her responsibility. Because while Eun-young is not the only person who can see Jellies, she’s someone who feels a sense of obligation to the people around her. She’s driven to fight them. Not because she has to but because helping people is her natural instinct.
Eun-young fights the Jellies armed with a toy gun and a rainbow toy sword. She is in a position of authority at the school: a medical professional, an adult. And yet the show’s enduring image is of her armed with glowing toys attacking things that most people can’t see. It adds only to the sense not only of our protagonist’s weirdness but of the show’s surreality.
The show’s opening sequence ends when the child Eun-young starts running and merges into that of an adult Eun-young still running. The message is clear. Eun-young can’t stop and neither can we. The School Nurse Files unfolds at a break-neck speed barely stopping to let either ourselves or the characters rest. It is a frenetic show that refuses to stop to let anyone breathe and you will either love or hate that about it.
More importantly, while Eun-young struggles with whether it would be better to be normal, the show never does. I can’t help thinking that a standard network drama would have insisted that she learn a Very Special Lesson about fitting in or softening her edges to find love. But The School Nurse Files never forces any of its characters to compromise on being themselves to find their happiness. If anything, the show says instead that the path to happiness is finding the courage to be yourself and embrace all the parts of you – even the parts that don’t mesh with social expectations. And the show celebrates this in every crazed, colourful scene. And despite every word that I’m about to write deconstructing the show’s imagery, that joyful celebration of weird is where the show hits emotionally. And no words can convey that adequately. You can only feel it.
Promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep
While Eun-young spends the show wielding a rainbow sword and a BB gun like a crazy person, what she’s really drawing on is her own emotional energy. And like most people who help others, she only has a certain reservoir of energy she can draw on at any one time. After that she needs to recharge. Helping people is exhausting and when you’re as empathetic as Eun-young is, the emotions of others are all around you. They saturate your world and you have no choice but to try to do something about them. And although there are people who see what others are going through and try instead to manipulate, exploit, control or ignore them, Eun-young is not one of them. She’s our hero for a reason.
It’s important here to recognise that the Jellies are not good or evil. They just are. It’s when our emotions get out of control or threaten to overwhelm us that things get dangerous. As a metaphor, the jellies work incredibly well for human emotion, whether you believe there is such a thing as emotional energy or not. Societies ultimately are just collections of people and how they feel, both collectively and individually, impacts everyone. But they especially affect those who sit outside what society has deemed normal or acceptable. And they especially affect us during adolescence when we’re trying to work out who we are.
The school that Eun-Young has ended up at (been herded towards?) has made a business out of forcing students through a cookie-cutter; insisting on a mould for social success that pens them in with strict parameters of acceptable behaviour and emotion. It’s no wonder that repression is building up below the surface and is about to explode.
Yes there’s a hell mouth something brewing in the basement. And a school nurse ready to help her charges fight their demons. But if she has to draw on her own internal reserves to do it then is it a marathon she can keep running?
Emotional resilience as a superpower
As the first few episodes unfold, Eun-young gains the support of Hong In-pyo, the grandson of the school’s founder. In-pyo has a disability following a motorcycle accident when he was younger but is also gifted with a powerful aura that acts as a supernatural shield. Eun-young is able to recharge by holding his hand, although it becomes quickly apparent that’s not her only reason for wanting to hold it.
In-pyo not only has enough strength to endure what the world throws at him, he has reservoirs of emotional energy to spare. And unlike Eun-young who struggles with her difference and longs to be ‘normal’, In-pyo is fine the way he is, even with a leg that doesn’t work. Would he choose to be able to walk as he did before? Of course. But it doesn’t get to him. He accepts it. Negative and harmful jellies literally cannot touch him. He is protected by the force of his own emotional resilience.
It is this resilience that allows him to simply accept the unseen world around him, to support Eun-young unconditionally, to put the welfare of his students before himself and to allow Eun-young to draw on the large reserves of emotional energy that she needs to keep fighting.
Or, as kfangurl astutely pointed out in her review: when you have someone on your side, who’s able to lend you their strength, like In-pyo lends Eun-young his strength, you will be able to stand firm in the face of the monster (of negative feelings), and destroy it, and come out victorious.
I can’t count the number of Korean dramas that portray a male lead’s disability as something that needs to be fixed. And yet show tells us that In-pyo is not just fine the way he is, his disability is part of what makes him him. And what he is is pretty wonderful.
In-pyo is not just a disabled male lead or even a disabled love interest. He’s a disabled superhero whose special power is emotional intelligence and support.
Henry, Mackenzie, Normality and Emotional Burnout
Make some money.
Buy nicer clothes.
Get a better car and a bigger house.
Stop being a dumbass.
Is a life of service stupid? Are you an idiot for pursuing it? What are you fighting for after all? Is helping others instead of yourself a thankless task that will lead only to personal burnout and poverty? In a society where status is judged by our material possessions, should Eun-young use her gifts to help others or to make something of herself?
Eun-young’s fellow teacher and Jelly whisperer, MacKenzie, represents the siren call of mercurial self-interest but also the lure of normality and the fixtures and fittings of it in your life. MacKenzie has decided to use his gifts solely for his own self-interest. But he is not just selfish, he’s a cynic. One who believes there’s little point in devoting himself to a never-ending battle against basic human nature. Instead he’s decided to be “smart” about it and monetise his gift, selling jellies to students who need them.
“I know all too well what happens to naive people like you. You end up fighting, you end up poor, and you end up dead. Nobody even knows what you’ve ended up fighting for. No no, even better. Nobody knows that you’re even dead at all.”
Throughout the third episode, the weight of Eun-young’s thankless responsibility is represented by the burden of Henry (Okay, so the show never calls him this). I dubbed him Henry while he was secretly and quietly present in all the sick room scenes. On the table, on a bed, peeking out from behind the wardrobe. And being lugged around the school on Eun-young’s back as she carried him from classroom to classroom alone.
By episode three, Eun-young’s responsibility for her students is a burden that is visibly weighing her down, just like Henry does. Eun-young’s fight against the Jellies draws on her emotional energy and by the time her childhood friend and confidante dies in episode 5, she has been almost completely drained. You could feel her exhaustion as the endless fight at the school coupled with grief at her friend’s death drains her to the point where she loses her ability to fight altogether. When Mackenzie said to her that she would “end up dead and nobody would even know that she was dead”, I think this is what he was referring to. Complete emotional burnout.
It’s not surprising then that MacKenzie’s own Jellies end up infecting her with a growing desire to be normal, to cast off her life as an outsider, and be a regular person with all the things regular people have.
Hye-Min and the Box of Conformity
Episode four of The School Nurse Files is where the show suddenly flips into overdrive. And the biggest part of that is the mite-eater Baek Hye-min. As a plague of supernatural bad luck mites descend on the school, Hye-min is called into being to fight them. Hye-min’s world is a set box of exactly 5.38km. They are seen standing at that line watching happy families whizz past with laughing children, unable to follow them out of the set parameters of their existence.
Eun-young identifies with Hye-min for good reasons. Hye-min only exists to serve, to rid the box they live in of the mites that are drawn to the school’s basement. They literally came into being to eat mites and die once they read the age of 20. From a Korean perspective, they have no life after highschool.
Hye-min’s life personifies service and selflessness. So when Hye-min expresses a desire to break free of the constraints in which they are forced to live, it is a sentiment that Eun-young identifies with deeply. But when they say they also cannot walk way from their responsibilities, it is something Eun-young also understands.
“What about the school?” Hye-min asked Eun-young and this is her question as well. What about the school.
Eun-young’s growing obsession with finding a way to help Hye-min to step outside of the role that they have been boxed into is about more than helping somebody. It is about trying to prove to herself that her job fighting Jellies is something that can eventually end. That this is a fight she can win. That there is a life, a normal life, after her battle is done. Something other than just another battle to fight. A life rather than just an existence.
And for Hye-min, it’s about finally having the freedom of self-determination: the ability to determine what they want from their life; to make their own decisions; to gain some autonomy. And in the end, Hye-min quite literally steps outside of their box as a person with a future of their own making, and takes the brave step of dating female classmate, Gadi. Hye-min has gained the ability to live the life they want, rather than just to exist in a box not of their own making.
Safe Happiness and the courage of being yourself
Throughout the show, Eun-young struggles with her sense of isolation and separateness; her outward image of being crazy and weird. To fight Jellies she uses her own emotional energy and finds her resources quickly depleted in a school where emotional repression is at its most severe. These themes – about conformity, happiness, fitting in with the herd and needing time to recharge your emotional energy – underpin the story as it unfolds and a highschool setting is thus a perfect place for it.
At the beginning of each school day the students recite a mantra and then laugh loudly, forcefully, and aggressively. And yes, this whole repeating sequence adds to the show’s continual ability to keep you off balance and position you in this moving surrealist painting. But it also demonstrates clearly and evocatively the school’s attitude to conformity. Even more than the ducks moving randomly through shot as they follow each other in a strict line.
You will be happy, says the school. You will be positive. Whether you want to or not. This is the very nature of adolescent repression; the refusal to let children have an outlet for the parts of themselves that adults find uncomfortable or difficult or ugly. The parts of ourselves we’re told we need to hide. That we’re allowed no outlet for. Our anger, our jealousy, our fears, our lusts, our anxieties, our ambitions and our unhappiness. The strict oppression of emotions that starts in institutions like schools and then continues into repressed and unhappy adults.
The school motto is Laughing Will Bring Good Fortune but its philosophy embodies the cult’s concept of Safe Happiness. Be happy but do it within these parameters. Be an unchallenging level of acceptable happy at all times.
Any philosophy such as this leads inevitably to bullying. Not just because those who are comfortably within the group work to keep everyone else in line, but also because they need a sanctioned outlet for all those emotions they’ve repressed. Step outside of the box and get slapped down.
Hye-mi had the courage to step fiercely and courageously outside of their box. But in doing so they highlighted how society – not as a concept but as a group of people – try to keep everyone in their place. When they and Gadi announce that they are dating, they find themselves the target of terrible, vicious bullying characterised by awful cruel laughter. And not just from the children but from the adults as well.
We’re reminded again of the school motto being ‘laughing brings good fortune’ and realise that it has a dark side. Because that laughter can be cruel and vicious and judgmental and directed at you if you don’t fit within the parameters that have been laid down for you. Laughter binds a group together but it also excludes.
As a whale jelly floats free and serene above the school in the peaceful night sky, it contrasts with the destructive water monster of repression chained by the Apji Stone in the basement. The bottom-feeding emotion creatures swimming in the pool in that basement might feed on laughter. But that laughter doesn’t have to be due to happiness. It can be due to bullying and conformity instead.
Love me as I am: The Ending of The School Nurse Files
As we head into the denouement of The School Nurse Files, I’m reminded of how much of this show I still didn’t cover. Even in this tome of a review. There were so many little things scattered around the show, so many visual clues that the producers scattered around to help us through. The show is truly beautiful; the acting excellent, the editing and music almost perfect.
However, as much of a rollicking ride as The School Nurse Files was, it was rushed. Even those of us who loved the drama with a passion would preferred another two episodes. And yet what the show managed to do in the six it had was extraordinary. This was Eun-young’s show from beginning to end and unlike a lot of female leads she got a complete arc. She was not just our protagonist; she was our hero. And a flawed one who got an appropriate hero’s journey.
As I’ve already discussed, The School Nurse Files had strong themes about the siren call of conformity, fitting-in, being a part of the herd and whether you can have the courage to embrace the parts of yourself that make you different. Not just from people around you but from what society tells you you’re supposed to be.
When Eun-young burned out and found herself physically, mentally and emotionally unable to access her gift anymore, we watch her sink into normality like a hot bath and it’s a completely understandable response to the endless emotional onslaught. MacKenzie is ultimately right here (about the problem, not about the solution). The school is too much for her to handle by herself. But what Eun-young needs to learn is that even though she is unique, even though she is weird, even though she is aggressively different, this does not mean that she has to be alone. She does not need to be normal to have friends or love or acceptance. She can have those things as she is. But first she has to accept and love herself.
For me the final episode was about Eun-young dealing with her own feelings about being different, crazy and ‘weird’. When she ran around the school collecting the mites for Hye-min she was helping them to fulfil their responsibilities so they could go through with the surgery and embrace ordinary without guilt. The reason Eun-young went back to the school was to try to do the same thing for herself – deal with the pond once and for all so she could embrace ordinary without guilt.
But unlike Hye-min, Eun-young’s task is eternal. The emotional needs of others is eternal. Watching children grow up and helping them become adults is not a set defined task, it’s an ongoing process. I can’t say for sure what Eun-young saw when she looked into the pond and had her panic attack. But it says something profound that what came out of it was a giant heart.
All those repressed emotions, all her repressed emotions. The ones that led her to repress her own abilities, to clamp down on the parts of herself that were too different, too weird. All her love, all her own feelings, all the things she kept down to devote herself to endless service. All of it was released. To me, the giant heart gummy was her heart. What she let out was her own feelings, giving herself permission to be different, to be weird and accepting the responsibility of caring for people for the rest of her life.
And – with In-pyo there to grab her and give her his support in that moment – the realisation that she would not be doing it alone. So if I had to come up with a second meaning of The School Nurse Files it would be this – Put on your own oxygen mask first. Just because you live a life of service does not mean you have to give up all the things you want for yourself.
And most of all, love yourself for who you are and all that you are. If you do, someone will love all that you are too. After all, it’s better to be weird than ordinary.