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Do you remember the film BEING THERE with Peter Sellers, a simple-minded gardener whose only contact with life comes through platitudes he has heard? He is mistaken for being wise, but he is essentially clueless.
When I was a girl—maybe in junior high (which translates to “middle school”), I wrote the sentence “Stuffed so full of fairytales, the world is an illusion.” I was referring to my sisters and me as we spent years sitting in front of fairytale books or the television, absorbing stories of princesses and romantic oddball comedies as though they were instruction manuals. One sister took THE PRINCESS BRIDE as a model of what a love relationship should look like. How did that turn out for her in real life? Not well.
Our parents had an idea that if they sheltered their all-girl family from everything ugly, we would become pure and sweet and stay that way. What happened was we were left incredibly naïve. For example, what happens in romantic comedies when the female lead keeps putting the male lead down or even ignores him altogether? He follows after her, hopelessly obsessed with changing her mind. What happens in real life? He leaves.
The heroes in the old stories and films were always handsome, brave, and true. I spent years scorning the boys in my class because they didn’t match up to the characters actors like Cary Grant created on screen. I searched in vain for guys who looked remotely similar to the animated princes who rode in to save Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. The boys in my class belched and acted silly.
In those days, the heroines were hopelessly guileless. They had no hope of surviving without a hero to ride to the rescue. Even as a child, I couldn’t figure out why the leading ladies could sing so well but couldn’t think critically at all. Newer animated films, of course, feature much stronger females. However, when I recently asked a five-year-old if the girls in her games of pretend always had to be married, she told me, “Of course!” Nearly every story pairs off the leads. The little girls understand the message.
What’s wrong with a fairytale view of life? Optimism is good, unless it means ignoring reality—pretending not to see bullying or poverty or injustice. Ignoring reality results in letting other people make the hard decisions. It results in allowing injustices and cruelties to go on and on. Young women who grow up believing someone has to take care of them are vulnerable and often unhappy. Women who grow up believing women must be young and seductive to be valuable end up depressed and depressing. In fairytales, magic and gold solve the problems. In real life, people must solve their own problems. As much as I love fantasy and romance, we should never drink so deeply of the brew that the world becomes an illusion.