top of page

Melanie Martinez's K-12 (2019): Frighteningly Motivational Visual Album

K-12 follows Melanie Martinez’s character Cry Baby as she navigates her way through the hellish landscape of school. Gabe discusses Martinez's lyrics that explore themes of bodily acceptance, the pressures of society, and how to learn to love yourself. When schools suck, but education is essential - Kat discusses our hidden capitalist agenda within our education systems.

Ways to Help:


Media from this week's episode:

K-12 (2019) Director: Melanie Martinez & Alissa Torvinen

Summary by IMDB: A brave-hearted girl and her charming best friend make a bewitching pair as they embark on a mission to take down the oppressive schooling system of K-12.


Melanie Martinez's K-12: Bodily Acceptance, Pressures on Girls and How to Learn to Love Yourself

by Gabe Castro

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

Visual albums have popped up all over. Remembering Beyonce’s Lemonade which told the story of her coping with a cheating spouse, going through the stages of grief. Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer tells an afro-futurist tale that criticizes present-day America and inspires a culture shift. Still, none seem to weave the visual with the music quite as well as Melanie Martinez has with K-12. Featuring songs titled Nurse’s Office, Teacher’s Pet, Recess, Detention, and Wheels on the Bus, Martinez’s film is fully realized and all-encompassing in its themes and goals. I set out to cover how horrifying music could be but stumbled upon Martinez’s film and fell in love. The film is not subtle in the least, the lyrics don’t shy away from relentless commentary and critique, and the songs are catchy as hell.

K-12 follows Melanie Martinez’s character Cry Baby, the namesake of her previous album. Cry Baby navigates her way through the hellish landscape of school - Kat will dive into why school is truly terrifying and oppressive. Martinez released the album all at once, premiering with the film - as opposed to releasing singles to garner interest. She begins the film with Cry Baby waking and getting ready for school. She has an internal monologue that immediately sets the tone - she is over gender roles and the pressures society puts on girls to look/behave a certain way. She remarks about the gap in her front teeth and ponders the name of Lillith (Adam’s first wife/mother of demons/feminine monster - see our She Never Died episode for more on her!). Aesthetically, the film plays into Martinez’s personal brand of pastel goth, lolita inspired. Pink, blue, lace, and floral surround us and play into every aspect of the film even the Versailles-Esque school she ends up in. This gives us a bit of a bourgeoisie feel which is appropriate considering the toxicity explored in the film.

We start with Cry Baby on the bus, getting a glimpse into the Seuss-like environment and fellow students. Girls wear pink dresses and boys wear blue - some are completely blue beings. She kicks off with Wheels on the Bus while her fellow students do coordinated hand-dances along to the tune. We get the first hint that Cry Baby and her friend, Angelita are not as plain as they seem - they sport black eyes and curse one boy who was bullying Cry Baby. Over the course of the film, more girls are revealed to be other, witch-like, and full of power waiting to be awakened.

The songs all feature some school-like themes but expand further by covering heavy and emotional topics. Martinez explores themes of bodily acceptance, the pressures of society, and how to learn to love yourself. In Show & Tell she covers a common issue for young people/students of being constantly surveilled and critiqued. Lyrics like “Show and tell. I’m on display for all your fuckers, you see.” or “Buy and sell. Like I’m a product of society. Art don’t sell unless you fucked every authority.” A common theme is loving your imperfect body, lyrics reference this throughout including in Show and Tell, “Why is it so hard to see/If I cut myself I would bleed/I’m just like you, you’re like me/Imperfect and human we are”.

During this part of the film, Cry Baby has been turned into a marionette, performing for her fellow students and controlled by the teacher. They laugh and gawk at her as she sadly performs begging them to see that she’s as real as them. I think this is also her attempt to explain the pressures of idol culture. “There are strangers takin' pictures of me when I ask, "No more" Martinez was on the voice at just 17 years old and has been in the public eye since that vulnerable age. It’s no wonder she feels like her whole life is on display and she’s being forced to perform as expected. This song reminds me a lot of Perfect Blue and how Mima felt she was losing who she was to the person she was on stage. (For more on Perfect Blue, catch our episode!).

The bodily expectations and pressures persisted in songs that truly got to me - the visuals were such perfect representations of the songs. In the song, Strawberry Shortcake, Cry Baby critiques her own small body while undressing in the locker room, expressing the need to police your own body (a constant problem for girls in schools regarding dress codes). “Feeling unsure of my naked body/Stand by watch it taking shape/Wondering why I don’t look like Barbie/They say boys like girls with a tiny waist.”

Furthermore, she addresses the problem with asking girls to watch what they wear instead of teaching boys to respect them. “Got sent home early because my skirt was too short.” Featuring Cry Baby in a large cake dress, she cries as boys zombie-like shamble forward and begin devouring her cake. She is terrified and clearly violated, she sings, “That’s my bad, that’s my bad. No one taught them not to grab. Now the boys want a taste of the strawberry shortcake.” and even calling it out plainly, “Instead of making me feel bad for the body I got

Just teach him to keep it in his pants and tell him to stop.”

There’s magic in the world of K-12 and Cry Baby finds more girls like her - magical demon-eyed defiers of the norm. In one scene, they discover that one of the “plastics” might be like them and is being smothered by her own friends, struggling beneath the shadows and expectations of her supposed friends. Cry Baby finds her in the bathroom as she is being forced to vomit up her small lunch of oranges. Here, Martinez takes time to discuss struggles with eating disorders like bulimia. This one hit me the most and is the one time we step outside of the school for the video and travel elsewhere. Lyrics like “Your body is imperfectly perfect.” and “I wish I could give you my eyes because I know yours aren’t working.” are potent and saddening as Cry Baby urges her new friend to accept herself. But this is from a place of understanding, not critique.

Where’s the horror? You may be asking. Throughout the film, there is violence, death, disembodiment, and even strangulation. It's not overly gory or frightening when placed upon the background of the pastel goth world Martinez built but it’s still unsettling. I can’t say enough how delightful and emotional this film was. I don’t know what I was expecting but I was more than pleasantly surprised by the film and the songs. It's expertly woven and learning that Melanie Martinez directed it is even more impressive. The characters are interesting and charming, the songs are bops, and the film is nice to look at. (One of my favorite songs/videos was Detention which still has the criticism but is also rather fun). I won’t spoil the ending but instead, encourage you to watch the film on Youtube and tell us your thoughts!


What Are Mermaids?: When Men Want to F*ck Fish

by Kat Kushin

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

This section is titled “When schools suck, but education is essential”. Education has been an essential piece to freedom throughout history. Reading, writing, and language have provided a means to revolution, connection, and progressive change. Those subjects have opened doors into science, mathematics, history, and things we have yet to imagine. Educating yourself as a human among humans is a liberating thing, and arguably builds empathy and understanding. However, schools, specifically K-12 institutions as we have them today within the US, do not seek to educate their populations. Their intended purpose was and is to train a workforce into subservience, suppression, and sacrifice.

In case you didn’t know, the public school system as it is today was developed both as a means to provide childcare to working parents as well as a way to train humans to exist inside a place for 8 hours a day. Schools are used as a means to train the workforce to become used to never seeing their families and sitting for extensive periods of time, as well as instilling a love of, or rather necessity for, capitalism. The reason so many kids struggle with the schooling process, in sitting still and focusing for long, uninterrupted hours is that we weren’t designed to exist in that way. We do not have the capacity to suppress our needs and emotions to the extent that is required within our capitalistic framework. The real fear behind the “robots will replace us” narrative stems from the fact we know we are not capable of operating at the efficiency of robots, that we as humans in comparison to robots have little to offer up to exploitative systems that don’t care about our humanity. We make the only sacrifice we have at our disposal, which is our time, our bodies, and our futures. All as a means to remain relevant to exploitative business owners who have made it a necessity to sacrifice these things for money, and who have made money an essential means of survival. Robots taking our jobs is only a horrific concept when our jobs are a necessity for survival. If the necessity for money was eliminated, robots could provide us with a means to live freely and authentically to the human experience.

Ultimately we weren’t meant to exist in the way that our schools require. As a result, instead of providing the tools for success and happiness, schools act as an indoctrination and training ground for capitalism and ultimately since it’s America, white supremacist, and patriarchal values. Taking into consideration the ways in which schools are funded within this country, provides a clear indication of our commodification and how little our “education” is valued. As well as highlights which people are given more value within our society than others according to our government. While Public schools educate more than 91% of the US population, they only receive 8.4% of the federal budget. This disparity increases further state by state, in how funds are allocated between rural and urban districts.

According to an article from the Medium titled, The Unspoken Secret of Capitalism Destroying Education, by Edward DeBarros, “if 8.4% of the budget is accumulated nationwide for education, urban schools which hold the majority of this country’s underprivileged and exploited students, are receiving the crumbs from this already stripped federal budget.”

They go on to explain the difference in urban district funding compared to their suburban counterparts. That federally, urban districts receive an average of $2,100 less per pupil than suburban students, and $4,000 less than rural remote school students. This number gets more targeted when comparing predominantly nonwhite districts with predominantly white districts with a country-wide average of about $1,321 less per student in nonwhite districts.

If looking at a system state by state, in speaking about Pennsylvania, the state that the Ghouls reside in, there’s extensive disinvestment that exists throughout the state that targets Black and Latino populations. Specifically pulling from an inquire article Pennsylvania schools need an additional $4.6 billion to close education gaps, new analysis finds by Maddie Hanna and Cynthia Fernandez that out of 428 districts that educate 86% of public-school students in the state, lacked adequate funding in 2018-19 with a shortfall of $4.6 BILLION. The disparities are exacerbated further than the national averages, with the poorest 20% of school districts having $7,866 less per student than the wealthiest 20% of districts. This is caused by the ways in which local taxes are used to supplement federal funding for schools. In areas that have been heavily disinvested, like Philadelphia for example, the local taxes cannot make up for the shortfall. In fact, tax laws within Philadelphia make it beneficial for companies to come into the city without contributing to the local taxes for up to four years, leaving little support for the students that watch their neighborhoods be gentrified without funding increases to the public schools.

Table: JOHN DUCHNESKIE / Staff Artist Source: Public Interest Law Center; Education Law Center

Whether it’s from a lack of updated curriculum, supplies, or outdated books, there is a huge disparity of resources available between schools. As someone who worked in Philadelphia public schools for over five years, I witnessed firsthand the teacher-funded classrooms, with little to no federal or state support. Students who were traumatized by poverty, food deserts, gun violence, and all the other results of city-wide government disinvestment. This trauma was felt by the schools as well, where I saw countless without full-time nurses, horrendously outdated technology, libraries with history books from the 1930s, and no librarians. Schools without working bathrooms, libraries, or playgrounds. Schools without healthy food for their students, and strict laws that prevent hungry kids from eating more than one meal. I also saw countless schools desperately trying to compensate for all that was missing, and trying to create a safe space for their students, but unfortunately, that was few and far between. This lack of resources had extensive domino effects that impacted staff and students alike.

During my time I witnessed all kinds of teachers. Teachers who cared so much about their students that they were staying past the hours they were being paid, funding their classroom supplies, and acting as a foundational pillar of support for their students. Who was working to try to change the system from within and becoming devastated by the reality that it’s doing as it was intended to do (which is to actively harm)? I witnessed Teachers who were so burnt out from carrying this pressure that they stopped being kind to their students, and themselves. I also witnessed plenty of teachers and administrators who had no business being either and unfortunately only added to the problem. Just like any system that is rotten, there will always be a few good apples within it, that through existing in the same barrel will slowly rot as well. When asking why the barrel exists, and where the rot comes from, we get a clearer understanding of what is actually happening on a grand scale.

Extending past the obvious funding issues lies the original reason schools were created and why their structure is different for different populations within our country. Ultimately the K-12 school system is currently doing as it was designed to do, which is to make the rich richer, and the poor poorer. In an article titled “How Capitalism Undermines Progressive Education Reform” by Mike Stivers, he states “the real purpose of schools — “the hidden curriculum,” to prepare students for life in an autocratic workplace. Schools serving wealthy families are more likely to prompt students to think creatively and systematically and have them practice making prescriptions for what others should do. Schools that serve working-class students tend to emphasize compliance to predetermined rules, deference to authority figures, and strict disciplinary codes — previewing the lack of agency and democracy they will experience on the job.” To really highlight the final line of that quote - previewing the lack of agency and democracy they will experience on the job. When viewing the extensive disinvestment found in BIPOC communities by the US government, especially in schools, that line really hits. If school is a means to provide a preview of what to expect from our employers and our government, the ways in which we’ll be valued by those people and systems, our funding structure sends a very clear and fucked up message. These schools set the tone for what students can expect from these systems in place, and the government in charge as they get older and join the workforce, which is - nothing. While what is expected of these students is to sacrifice everything.

This gets even more complicated when looking at how schools set up students to sacrifice “everything”. Things like truancy court, that fine parents, and require them to attend court if students miss “too much” school, sets a precedent for work-life culture later. Requiring doctor's notes when we do not have universal healthcare, presents a paywall many families can’t afford. It also sets us up to understand we must have a physical illness in order to justify missing work, disregarding our mental health entirely. We are taught from an early age to prioritize attendance, with little regard for our physical, or mental wellbeing. We are fed this idea of “learning loss” when existence itself is a form of learning. We are trained to not want breaks, even though we need them. Considering the ways in which students are discouraged from interrupting “productive” time within schools, for even bathroom breaks, sets up future employers *cough* Amazon* to do the same. Schools set a precedent for young girls as well when it comes to how their bodies will be commodified. Much like the songs in this film, we see the ways in which girls are sent home for having their shoulders out, without correcting boys and also GROWN MEN for sexualizing them. We make it clear that their bodies, minds, and talents only have value when they give themselves away.

Those who see an essential value in our school system may misunderstand the difference between education and schools. There is extensive power in education, but our schools are designed to take away our power, at least those that serve our working-class population. The article mentioned above continues on to outline what the hidden curriculum results in. “Contrary to reformers’ claims that the school system was or could be “the great equalizer,” the history of public schools shows this was never their intended function. Their goal, in mid-nineteenth-century America, was to socialize workers into the emerging industrial capitalist economy. As George Boutwell, later Horace Mann’s successor as the secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, wrote: “The owners of the factories are more concerned than other classes and interests in the intelligence of their laborers. When the latter are well-educated and the former are disposed to deal justly, controversies and strikes can never occur.” Essentially if you keep the population stupid, and prideful in that ignorance, they can’t rally together to overthrow these systems of oppression. We see the representation of schools that serve working-class students highlighted in this film. Throughout there is an emphasis on compliance to predetermined rules, obeying authority figures that actually seek to harm their students, and strict disciplinary codes that stomp out individuality. All these things take mental health and wellbeing and throw them in the trash, in the interest of producing obedient workers. The result is an underpaid and overworked staff, dealing with traumatized populations that suffer from this disinvestment on a systemic level.

Instead of educating us, the curriculums are designed around this compliance. The structures and rules assigned to us, a preview of what we can expect as adults. The curriculum is nationalism, the American dream, and an obsession with intention and morality without the context of their result. Whether it’s pushing a love of capitalism, white supremacy, racism, patriarchal values, or creating a false necessity or invincibility of all those things, we are left with a population that lacks either the motivation or the time to learn differently. Instead, we are forced to work, and live to do so...die to do so. Kids are told to name their dream job when we should not dream of labor. A dream that is so nightmarish that it becomes ingrained into everything we do because our survival is at stake. So ingrained that we feel compelled to be productive even in our downtime, and that we only recognize our value through the lens of our oppressors. Left with this system that takes away everything we have to offer, including our love of learning, and transforms it into a forced ignorance that we can’t overcome when we are kept too busy with work to educate ourselves into freedom.


bottom of page