I recently read an article on The Atlantic titled “You can do anything: must every kids’ movie reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?” and it got me thinking about exactly how often I see this happen in children’s movies these days, and even in a lot of movies not specifically geared towards kids. The article itself talks about how countless kids’ movies recently use the “magic-feather” trope, pretty much playing into the instant-gratification mentality a lot of children have this generation, and reinforcing what I think is a slightly troublesome trend of foregoing the learning process and hoping ones’ natural pluck will see them through any situation, nor matter how dire.
Now, growing up, I myself saw more than a few of these types of movies, and I do think that for a while I felt that if I believed in myself enough, I could conquer any obstacle. Sometimes that was true, and it was more about getting over my own fears and insecurities – believing in myself raised my own self-esteem, allowing me to climb that big tree or jump over that small creek in one lithe hop. It’s just like when I got into parkour. I love it because it’s equal parts runny-jumpy and building your own self-confidence. There’s also the discipline involved, knowing your limits and not getting ahead of yourself before you’re ready (mentally and physically).
However, there were also points where my “believe in myself” attitude certainly didn’t help, and I was in for a rude awakening; there’s no way that I could have ever stood a chance dribbling against my high school’s top soccer player, when I had only played soccer for one season in elementary school (and lost all will to care about my team’s success). It wouldn’t matter if it was in gym class or we were head-to-head in some grand tournament, where everything was on the line, including the orphanage’s mortgage! Our encounter lasted a mere second, and he was off with the ball towards our goal.
At that point in my life, I think I had learned a fair bit of humility, preventing me from crumpling to the hardwood floor like a sad-sack, wondering where it all went wrong. Instead, I just shrugged, thinking “Well, of course that happened,” in my head. I wasn’t much for gym class anyway.
Anyway, the main point that I really liked! The article talks about how movies are geared towards telling kids that they can succeed at everything if they give it their all and really believe in themselves, when there’s just no fucking way, unless they have an ungodly natural talent. Winning the big whatever often takes months or years of training, and especially discipline – which I think is something else kids these days are sorely lacking. Ugh…did I just say “kids these days?” I did, didn’t I? Ah man…
Sometimes, all that training and discipline is required just to come close to a level where one could competently compete, and still lose.
The bigger issue would be that the kids focus on just believing in themselves and trying to show the doubters what’s what, as if it’s all that matters. Then, they end up failing miserably because they lack all the basic elements necessary for competition, which inexorably leads to them feeling like utter failures, and rightfully so – they didn’t work for that achievement they didn’t get, they lost what they felt was owed to them for being the scrappy newcomer.
It’s why I really liked the Charlie Brown movie, because it was such a greater display of what children need to learn; self-esteem and definitely humility. Not that you’re going to lose at everything and you should just get used to it, but that your failures don’t make the world end, and you can certainly learn from them. In fact, you should learn from them. It’s like having to harshly tell kids “this is your place in the world, get used to it, and if you want it to be different, work for it.” I guess it only seems harsh if their unreceptive to what you have to say…
I think somewhere along the way, the wires got crossed between doing your best and being proud of that, and never giving up on goals. Those crossed wires resulted in “doing your best helps you achieve those goals,” even if you lack the elementary skills or knowledge to do so. As Parappa the Rapper said: “You gotta do what? You gotta believe!”
I love underdog movies as much as the next guy, but nothing makes me root for the opponents more than the underdog who tries to get by on pure moxie alone. Karate Kid is a great underdog story. The 1980s one, not the recent one that had nothing to do with karate. Anyway, the titular Karate Kid knew his place, and then trained like hell to compete. Sure, he had some moxie, but he backed it up with with skills learned by waxing cars, catching flies with chopsticks, and a training around picturesque sunsets. He’s the best around, after all, and the Karate Kid earned his win. With an illegal kick to the head, yeah, but it was an illegal kick to the head he trained himself to do.
We really need to get back to making movies that will teach kids that they should work hard for the things they want in life. Or maybe just letting them repeatedly watch the soul-crushed Charlie Brown go through life…