If adults are complaining that their lives are not fairy tales, we should all be very frightened.
When I first reviewed Aaron Anderson’s piece, 5 Ways Disney Films Are Bad For Married Men, I was certainly struck by it, but not for obvious reasons. Long before reading it, I had known that works of popular culture misrepresent human experience, and I had also believed very strongly that using them to base expectations is silly and dangerous. The real reason this particular article struck me was because its author is a marriage counselor. That’s a guy who makes a living advising people. He’s quite obviously noticed that adults—grown men and women—are coming to him to complain that life is not a fairy tale.
This should scare the living shit out of all of us. It has far-reaching implications. If we’re complaining that our marriages are very different from Disney movies—the ones in question date back to the middle of the last century but retell stories that are much older—we might also feel unfulfilled by our friends, as they are very obviously different from the ones in Friends. Our parents are not the Bradys. We must certainly be unfulfilled at work. I have never gone on a business trip to meet a young Scarlett Johansson, dressed in a pink wig, singing how she’s going to use her arms, legs, style, sidestep, fingers and, her…her…her imagination.
Why are so many of us using Disney as a manual? Why do these films, which most of us see in childhood, imprint themselves into our minds as sets of expectations? We deal rather easily with the truth behind Santa. But we have trouble kicking Cinderella to the same file in our mythology folder.
I have a theory. It has two parts. Both parts have to do with the way we educate ourselves.
To start, no one teaches us how to watch film. It’s just assumed there’s no reason to do it. Knowing how to watch film is obvious: you just get your popcorn and relax. That assumption is deeply flawed because film has a language that is not intuitive.
The novel was at the heart of 19th century culture, and the people who consumed novels learned some basic things about how they worked. This is not an oversimplification: if you knew how to read, you had gone to school, and if you had gone to school, you had read (or at least heard of) some section your culture’s literary canon, and you belonged to society that read. You learned what metaphors were, why irony was important, etc. A story was not simply a series of events, a beginning, middle and end. You might have still ended up with a superficial take on a book: Crime and Punishment is boring. How come there’s only one action scene? But that’s because you were a lost cause.
In the 20th century up until now, film—and its cousin, television—have been cultural centerpieces, the primary modes by which we communicate most of our narratives, and yet the vast majority of us do not get any instruction in how to consume them. If we do take an Intro to Film, it’ll be in college; even then, it’s an elective, taken by students shocked to find out they’re in a course not vaguely different from a history or literature class.
I teach an Intro to Film each semester at a community college. I never fail to note the looks on students when we discuss lighting. They have never thought to notice it, forget about asking what shadows can communicate.
I’ll take just one scene from Casablanca that I present each semester. I won’t get into the plot, but Humphrey Bogart (Rick) and Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa) are ex-lovers whose paths cross in Morocco. She comes to his office one night to face him about something, and when she opens the door, bright light falls from behind her, casting her shadow into the room where Rick is waiting.
I tell my students: “I don’t know about you, but I’ve had ex-lovers show up to my place late at night. When I opened the door, there was never any bright light behind them.” (But that does not mean they weren’t glowing to the man who saw them.)
Film is an illusion, often a dramatic one. It tricks us to believe we’re seeing something real, feeling something real because it looks kinda real. When we take it apart, we realize it does not look real at all. If we contextualize film historically and develop the conceptual vocabulary to understand how it functions, it no longer resembles a document. Film is an expression of someone’s feelings, ideas and imagination.
When we’ve learned none of this, our chances of having superficial experiences with film are much higher. If my students are a measuring stick, their most common experience with film—as they attest themselves in course evaluations—is superficial. They have no idea what a director does. They just ignore the feather at the beginning of Forrest Gump, the origami unicorn at the end of Blade Runner, framed by the cast shadow of Decker’s leg and foot. Those things don’t matter—those are boring parts. In a “good film” everything works out in the end, as it should. That’s what’s important.
But does either film have a political point of view? An historical argument? Commentary about the inevitability of our demise? What the hell are you talking about?
This problem is complicated further when we realize that, for many of us, popular film and television make up the only narratives we consume. We’re limited in our capacity to engage them, and then we have no alternative to them.
Why is this a problem?
Take the tongue-in-cheek comment about the difference between commercial fiction and literary fiction. In both types of stories, someone is searching for something. In commercial fiction, they find it; however, in literary fiction, they don’t. If they do find something, as in a typical Jane Austen novel, it’s not what the character (or the reader) had originally sought. Even if the ending is “happy”, it’s for completely unexpected reasons.There is no resurrection of the dead, no transformation of demons to angels, no escape from your station in life, save to one that presents its own set of common human problems. These stories are the antidotes to the ones that end with young and beautiful people living happily ever after.
It is important for us to access narratives that tell us we’re going to be blown to bits. As Titus Pullo says in the second season of Rome, “All roads lead to the same destination, friend.” We need narratives, written by the wise or the insane, driven forward by fury or solace, that don’t simply remind us of our mortality but take things one step further: if our demise is inevitable, what do we do in the meantime? We cannot simply distract ourselves with fairy tales. At some point we’ll want to make out a will, secure a parcel at the cemetery.
Of course, fairy tales don’t distract us completely. They’re problematic if we worry about the kind of ending they present and their stock characters. But if we think about how they progress, and the conflicts at hand, the morality lessons, we might end up with a different take on them.
Forget about Prince Charming for a second and think, instead, about the relationship between Wicked Stepmother and Cinderella. The level of abuse is absolutely horrible but also completely universal, realistic to the point of fetish, as Disney films depict abusive relationships quite often. I believe any survivor of abuse, from any historical period or any culture, will feel it immediately. Stepmother teases Cinderella with hope, telling her she can go to the ball if she gets all her chores done, then loads her up with task upon task. When Cinderella defies the odds, aided by her friends, the mice and birds, Stepmother provokes the daughters to tear Cinderella’s clothing apart. It’s a frightening scene that represents extreme cruelty. Stepmother is so hell-bent on keeping Cinderella miserable, a servant, that she later trips the Duke’s footman, and the slipper shatters.
The claustrophobia in that house and the emptiness of any outside opportunity crushed me when I was a child. I wept when Cinderella went to the rock to exhale, “It’s no use,” and I identified very strongly with her desire to escape. I wanted Cinderella to run away, far away, by hook or crook or poison or dagger. Anyplace, even prison, was better than Stepmother’s house. To my elation, she did get away. As a boy, I didn’t care that she got married, or even that she found love. It wasn’t about where she ended up but what she left behind.
I certainly believe it’s unfair to construct a society in which marriage is someone’s only option in life. And it’s wrong, especially in our society, to teach young girls that they should depend on men to become whole adults or useful citizens, or that life holds out the possibility of a true Prince Charming. Cinderella, of course, needs much more than marriage or Prince Charming to escape hell: she needs a miracle, a fairy god mother, a bit of hocus pocus; after the ball, she needs the help of mice and birds and a lazy dog to bring Lucifer, the cat, to death. Then, of course, Cinderella depends on marriage to a noble, a problematic climax to us modern people.
To me, the problem isn’t that the film ends with a her marriage. Instead, it’s that we mistreat the document as a whole. Disney films are not meant to endow expectations. The story actually teaches any number of things, including an essential history lesson: this is how it was. For most of our human history, women (in fact, young girls) had no choice but to marry, and they did well to marry the richest guy they (or their parents) could find. We should remember that Stepmother also secured her property and station by marrying Cinderella’s dad, then tricking him, hiding her cruel nature until his death.
But contemporary women do not need to resort to marriage anymore. They have many more options. In the meantime, hundreds of stories have been written about women’s struggles and triumphs. We’ve developed technology to allow us to access these stories instantly, to enjoy them on little windows we pull from our pockets. You’d expect our social consciousness to have changed dramatically.
Yet adults are coming to therapists to complain that their life is not a fairy tale. I’m sorry, but I can’t see how any film is to blame. We’re failing ourselves miserably, and it might be time to read some Shakespeare, go see King Lear. Titus Andronicus. Even Romeo and Juliet.
Photo by Soumyadeep Paul