The magic feather syndrome
Note: I’m on vacation until next Tuesday, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run, starting with a series on writing and parenting. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 6, 2014.
Recently, my baby daughter learned how to clap. It’s her latest trick, and she’s very pleased by it, so the two of us have taken to applauding together on the slightest of pretexts: if she finishes her breakfast, if she stands by herself for a few seconds, if she knows the correct answer to “Where’s your nose?” And for a girl who just passed her first birthday, these are achievements to be celebrated. All the same, at the back of my mind, there’s also the lurking fear that I’m raising yet another narcissistic kid. You know the type. It’s the middle-class child whose psychological health has been a topic of increasing concern in recent years: she’s endlessly coddled by her parents, told how special she is, and assured that she’s exceptionally talented. At school, she racks up gold stars; at her athletic events, everyone gets a trophy; and by age thirty, she’s in therapy, having never been informed of the uncomfortable truth that not every human being is equally gifted and hard work alone is no guarantee of success. As Jean Twenge, one of the authors of The Narcissism Epidemic, has said: “[Being raised this way] gives them an inflated view of their specialness compared to other human beings. Instead of feeling good about themselves, they feel better than everyone else.”
If there’s one place where this message is repeatedly, even cloyingly underlined, it’s in contemporary children’s entertainment. A while back, Luke Epplin of The Atlantic decried the easy inspirational morals of movies like Turbo and Planes, which both suffer from what he calls the “magic feather syndrome.” He writes:
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. Almost uniformly, the protagonists’ primary liability, such as Dumbo’s giant ears, eventually turns into their greatest strength.
But first the characters must relinquish the crutch of the magic feather—or, more generally, surmount their biggest fears—and believe that their greatness comes from within.
Epplin goes on to note that these movies equate following one’s dreams with pursuing unusual, exceptional destinies at the expense of everyday work, including the kind that goes hand in hand with any meaningful accomplishment. These characters are enabled solely by believing in themselves, which, as adults know, is all very well and good, but not nearly enough in itself. (It’s the preschool equivalent of the convention of The Chosen One, often encountered in movies made ostensibly for adults, in which the lead character is fated for greatness from birth.)
But there’s another point that needs to be made about the movies that Epplin discusses: both Turbo and Planes are, by consensus, fairly mediocre films, and this would be the case regardless of the messages they were trying to convey. And there’s a strong and surprisingly sophisticated argument that children do, in fact, need to be given idealized images of their own strengths and potential, at least at a certain age. Bruno Bettelheim’s classic The Uses of Enchantment forcefully advocates for the role that fairy tales play in a child’s early psychological development, and while some of his Freudian terminology has dated, the central thesis remains sound. We often forget how vulnerable young children really are: they’re relatively weak and helpless, without agency in their own lives, surrounded by adults who can transform in an instant from benevolent giants to fearsome ogres. Fairy tales, with their preternaturally resourceful protagonists and happy endings, don’t paint a realistic picture of life, but if they did, they wouldn’t be nearly as effective. In order for a child to trust his own mind and body, leave the comfort zone of his own family, and venture into the larger world, he needs stories that dramatize these rites of passage in an unambiguously positive way, with good rewarded, evil punished, and the hero living happily ever after.
True, the world doesn’t always work this way, but that’s something that children naturally come to understand on their own, not through a premature introduction to hard truths that adults think they need to hear. And it doesn’t mean that every story that takes such an approach is equally worthwhile. Bettelheim wasn’t especially impressed by The Little Engine That Could, which he felt gave children a superficially positive message without addressing their deeper anxieties, and I suspect that he’d feel the same way about Turbo or Planes. But I’d also like to think that he’d look favorably on a movie like Spirited Away, the best children’s film made in my lifetime, in which the heroine quietly and believably transforms the fantastic world around her for the better. In the best films of a director like Miyazaki, the message isn’t stated baldly in the dialogue, as we see even in Pixar’s weaker movies, but baked directly into the story itself. That’s also true of the best fairy tales: Jack climbs the beanstalk, steals the enchanted harp, and slays the ogre, and he never stops to remember the importance of believing in himself—he’s too busy getting things done. As with most things in art, the message only works if it’s properly delivered. And while I think it’s fine, even necessary, to tell children that they can be anything they want, it’s equally important to remind them not to settle for anything less than good storytelling.