From this interesting article:
For all the chatter about the formulaic sameness of Hollywood movies, no genre in recent years has been more thematically rigid than the computer-animated children’s movie. These films have been infected with what might be called the magic-feather syndrome. As with the titular character in Walt Disney’s 1943 animated feature Dumbo, these movies revolve around anthropomorphized outcasts who must overcome the restrictions of their societies or even species to realize their impossible dreams.
It’s probably no coincidence that the supremacy of the magic-feather syndrome in children’s movies overlaps with the so-called “cult of self-esteem.” The restless protagonists of these films never have to wake up to the reality that crop-dusters simply can’t fly faster than sleek racing aircraft. Instead, 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. As Jean Twenge, the controversial cultural critic of America’s supposed narcissism epidemic, argues in her bestselling book Generation Me, younger generations “simply take it for granted that we should all feel good about ourselves, we are all special, and we all deserve to follow our dreams.”
First, I will diverge into the idea of “comparative success”. That is, success as defined by comparing oneself to others.
I get annoyed with the Disney channel and some of Nickelodeon’s teen-oriented shows, in which being a famous pop-singer and/or trendy-dressing dancer is something that is idolized. I know they may seem like harmless frivolous silly entertainment on the surface, but I think they actually actively harm our culture (like much of television, for that matter) by glorifying, subtly or unsubtly, performance art talent and popularity. That is, the more talented and popular you are, the more you are worth as a person, so it is a good and worthy thing to dream of that sort of success, to dream of being not just a pop singer or a fashion designer, but of becoming a famous one.
The most famous antithesis to this teen-idol market is a cartoon show targeted at a younger crowd, but shares a large number of older fans as well. It is Spongebob Squarepants, an ever-ready nerdy optimist who takes insane amounts of pride in flipping burgers, blowing bubbles, and catching jellyfish, remaining blissfully oblivious to the ways in which he could never gain fame in his own society by just doing what he loves. And while his burger-flipping pride is something we have an easier time laughing at than relating to, it is not presented as something to be ridiculed in and of itself, but celebrated. That’s not only what makes it funny, that’s what makes it inviting to audiences. That is, if a viewer can even slightly relate to a bit of Spongebob’s over-passionate nerdiness for something ridiculous, he is welcomed to it in good company, not made to feel a clownish outcast. (Compare this to the nerdiness presented in The Big Bang Theory, in which audiences are called to laugh at references to nerdy things, but these nerdy things are never celebrated in their own right; audiences still need their trendy dirty humor.) I daresay grown men who go into cartoon production for a living have a much different outlook on their art than producers looking to profit from teenagers idolizing each other’s voices and looks and fame.
It equally annoys me when contestants on talent competition shows like American Idol or The Voice claim that they want to win so that they can be an inspiration for others. Oh, how noble of you! Oh, wait. You want to encourage other people to desire fame and money? Oh, thanks, that’s great, just what the world needs!
Of course, it’s not just pop culture in which this sort of comparative definition of success reigns. It’s just perhaps the most visible and the most obviously vain in pop culture. But it thrives in businesses, academics, politics, the arts, etc. It’s all over the place. You don’t know how well you’re doing what you’re doing, or how you should feel about it, until you compare yourself with others.
Anyway, the reason I diverge into comparative success is because that’s the sort of success these animated film characters dream about. The “Follow your dreams!” message isn’t bad in and of itself, it’s just vague, and allows for a variety of narcissistic interpretations, dreaming of being somehow quantifiably better than others, as in winning a race, and not allowing for the mere following of the dream to bring any joy.
That’s what equally bothers me about the Charlie Brown example given in the article. (I’ve never seen the Charlie Brown film mentioned, so I speak here only based on what I read about it in the article.) The entire point of Charlie Brown wanting to succeed at something is just as narcissistic as the modern-day dreaming characters. His tragic results provide a nice contrast to the modern characters’ easy success, but why couldn’t he learn to do something just for the sake of itself? His tragedy wasn’t that his success rate was more realistic, but that he took no pride or gratification in what he was capable of to begin with. The entire point of “trying again” is not to force yourself with gritted teeth through the frustration of the trial so that you can one day achieve your goal. Trying again is (at least ideally) a natural consequence of your love for something. It should be FUN to try again. And when it is, failure is only a minor disappointment.
On a side note, I like how the article points out the trope of having some supporting character be nonsupporting of the hero’s desires. I can understand the dramatic need for the hero’s desires to be rebuked at the beginning of a story, but I wish writers would come up with more creative ways of having characters do it, instead of just, “Oh, I just hate dreamers! Your desires are arbitrarily wrong! I pointlessly have no faith in you!” I’d love to see a supporting character offer a real argument, perhaps pointing out the hero’s selfishness.