Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Are Movies Falsely Inflating Children’s Self-Esteem?

Luke Epplin’s recent piece “You Can Do Anything” in The Atlantic accused computer-animated children’s movies like Kung Fu Panda, Ratatouille, Wreck-It Ralph, Monsters University, and the newer Turbo and Planes of “infecting” children with “the belief that their greatness comes from within,” of encouraging youngsters to follow personal dreams to the detriment of society. It doesn’t seem to occur to Epplin that the pursuit of personal dreams benefits society.

He points, for example, to the story of Turbo in which a common garden snail “toils in a tomato patch during the day and dreams of racing glory at night.” His brother, a safety supervisor in the snail colony, puts a damper on such fantasies: “The sooner you accept the miserableness of your existence, the happier you'll be. Dreamers eventually have to wake up.”

Turbo predictably proves the pessimists wrong, like the main character in Planes, a crop-duster “who yearns to break free from his workaday existence and compete in the famed Wings Around the Globe race.” He is determined “to achieve his far-fetched goal, arguing that ‘I’m just trying to prove maybe, just maybe, I can do more than I was built for.’” And of course, he does.

Epplin links the message of such movies to the “cult of self-esteem” in our narcissistic era in which we are encouraged to “follow our bliss,” as mythologist Joseph Campbell once famously urged. The “restless protagonists of these films… sneer at the mundane, repetitive work performed by their unimaginative peers.” They never have to wake up to reality; “[i]nstead, it's the naysaying authority figures who need to be enlightened about the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community… Their attitudes are all part of an ethos that privileges self-fulfillment over the communal good.”

As an alternative, Epplin looks to Charles Schulz’s classic Peanuts comic strip, which “ridiculed the notion that individuals are likely to succeed merely because they believe in themselves.” Failure is everyday reality for Schulz’s Charlie Brown, and Epplin applauds this more “realistic” perspective, the lessons of which “are more enduring than those from movies where characters fulfill their impossible dreams.” Epplin wants animated films to “reintroduce the twin notions of failure and humility” so that young audiences aren’t given “the false impression that the road to self-actualization isn't arduous and littered with speed bumps.”

Fair enough. He has an undeniable point that “these films discount the hard work that enables individuals to reach the top of their professions.” He’s right that it’s not enough for the protagonists simply to “out-believe their opponents.” Behind every overnight success, as every realist knows, lie years and years of persistent striving. Hard work and incremental progress are the unglamorous reality behind making dreams come true – and even then there is no guarantee of success.

But “disruptive to the larger community”? “Putting self-fulfillment over the communal good”? What a curiously repressive perspective. Yes, by all means let children know that into each life some failures and disappointments must fall, to paraphrase Wordsworth. But to insist that young people should squelch their dreams and ambitions, however improbable, for the sake of “the communal good,” wrongly elevates the collective over the individual.

You know what elevates the “larger community”? The improbable dreams of people who defied conventional, earthbound groupthink and who nudged us toward enlightenment and civilization. You know who contributes most to “the communal good”? Individual dreamers like Steve Jobs, whose achievements have elevated us more than the entire sum total of any collective-minded society.

I have two very young daughters whose future paths, at this point, know no limitations except those imposed on them by a society that is increasingly emphasizing the collective over the individual. While I will certainly teach them that dreams are built brick by brick, I refuse to inculcate in them a suppressive fatalism or to tell them to abandon self-fulfillment because it threatens those who claim the right to determine for others what constitutes “the communal good.”

As Turbo’s brother says, “Dreamers eventually have to wake up.” Yes, but sometimes they enable us all to wake up to a better world.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 8/30/13)