I want to take a brief pause from the usual topics I discuss on this blog to talk a little about pedagogy. I recently ran across an article by Luke Epplin in The Atlantic: “You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids’ Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?“:
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. 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.
This sounds like a fine theme for upbeat children’s movies, but a steady diet of these films leads, perhaps, to the assumption that life really works this way, and that furthermore all narratives should be structured this way. I have noticed this effect in my students.
I have dubbed it the “Mulan effect.” Mulan, for those who don’t know, is a 1998 Disney movie about a young woman in ancient China who dresses as a man to take her aged father’s place in a military conscription. She goes on to achieve great military exploits and is therefore forgiven when her deception is revealed, and she even receives the personal accolades of the emperor. In the process she challenges patriarchy and breaks down gender stereotypes. The strength to do all this was always within her, of course, it just took the aid of a magical (and comedic) sidekick mascot character to help her believe in herself.
Of course, as the article points out, many movies are structured this way. However, most of those films at least depict characters breaking through social barriers and legal strictures through sheer determination and self-confidence in modern America, which usually sympathetic towards an underdog and idealizes equality, individualism and achieving success through individual effort. I’m picking on Mulan in particular because it places this narrative in despotic, fiercely patriarchal ancient China, where it is especially unlikely. Of course, by the time students reach college they understand somewhat that this is a highly idealized view of history, and that reality was not usually so pleasant. But they still seem to believe that there is always some way out, always some way for the individual who is especially determined to break through an oppressive society and achieve their dreams: after all, every narrative they’ve ever seen has told them so.
This comes home to me when I teach, in Modern Japanese Literature, an excerpt of Mori Ōgai’s classic novel Gan (Wild Goose, 1911-13). The protagonist… is supposedly some medical student who is not particularly interesting. The real main character is Otama, an unfortunate young woman. She and her father are poor, and she is his only living relative. Because of a cruel deception she is unable to secure a good marriage, so the only way for her to support her ailing father is to become the mistress of a local moneylender. This is one of the rare early works of modern Japanese literature that gives a woman interiority and depicts her plight. But rather than empathize with the tragedy of her situation and pick up on the small ways she develops an emotional independence in the middle of a terrible situation, students say, “Why didn’t she just get a job? Or just do something. She’s dumb.”
The idea that the weight of state and society and poverty is so oppressive that it can’t just be shrugged off, that spunk and determination can’t break through social and legal strictures, that there is no “something” to be done, is just alien to them. They understand, intellectually, that legal and social restrictions in late 19th/early 20th century Japan meant that it was very difficult for women to find employment outside of the home, much less employment that paid enough to support a household. But they still believe that if she had really wanted to, Otama could have mustered up her determination, worked hard, broken down barriers and found a way out of her situation. To students, she is not a tragic figure trapped by the oppressions of poverty and society, but an idiot who has chosen the lazy solution. Conversely, precisely because she didn’t break out of her situation, she therefore must be lazy.
It should be obvious that this is a very unprogressive (in the basic sense of the word) attitude. If any individual who really wants to can achieve the freedom to realize their dreams no matter how oppressive the society, there is no need for society to change. Accordingly, those suffering in an oppressive society don’t deserve sympathy, because if they wanted to change their lives hard enough, they would find a way to do so. They may be unhappy, sure, but they are too lazy to do anything about it.
Of course, this is all conjecture on my part, based on impressions from a small sample of students. I have no idea if children’s movies are really the main culprit in engendering this attitude, or if it really is widespread. This is simply a theory I wanted to put out there, and possibly direct students to the next time I have them read Gan.