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Magic Feather Syndrome and the “Cult of Self Esteem”

Noah Millman joined [1] a lively HuffPost Live panel this week to discuss Luke Epplin’s critique [2] of the ubiquitous “magic feather” theme in children’s movies, which emphasizes “the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community”:

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. …

In addition to disparaging routine labor, these films discount the hard work that enables individuals to reach the top of their professions. Turbo and Dusty don’t need to hone their craft for years in minor-league circuits like their racing peers presumably did. It’s enough for them simply to show up with no experience at the world’s most competitive races, dig deep within themselves, and out-believe their opponents. They are, in many ways, the perfect role models for a generation weaned on instant gratification.

Millman elaborates [3] on the “Bring It On” point here:

Last year, we took our son to see the Broadway show about cheerleaders, Bring It On [4], based (very loosely) on the movie of the same name [5]. He had a great time – a better time than I expected, frankly – and he had some incisive things to say about the plot afterwards. Incisive and media-savvy.

Specifically, he asked whether the original movie was owned by Disney. No, I said; it was distributed by Universal. I knew it, he said; if it had been a Disney movie, the black team would have won in the end. This wasn’t really an observation about political correctness with regard to race. It was an observation about political correctness with regard to plot dynamics.

The plot (of the musical) involves a white cheerleader, Campbell, who should be the head of the squad at her all-blonde suburban high school, being unexpectedly transferred to a “diverse” urban school where there is no cheerleading squad. But they do have a really impressive dance crew. And so, after establishing that she’s tough enough, talented enough and game enough to win the respect of the crew, she sets about turning them into a cheerleading squad by any means necessary (including lying about the possibility of winning a college scholarship). Eventually the truth comes out, and Campbell has to face what kind of person she has become in pursuit of her dream. She apologizes to her crew-cum-squad mates, and, after a rather easy reconciliation, they go on to compete for the national cheerleading title.

In the competition, instead of playing by the rules and trying their hardest to win, they “do their own thing” – they focus on their art and on the effect they are trying to achieve, and don’t fret about whether they stay inside the lines or stay within the allotted time or perform the expected moves in the expected sequence. And as a consequence – they lose. They don’t even place.

That’s what my son noticed, and what he thought was an “un-Disney” moment: the decision to make the moral not “if we are all true to each other, then we can do anything, even win nationals” but “if we are all true to each other, then we won’t really care about winning nationals.”

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#1 Comment By spite On August 18, 2013 @ 4:22 pm

“if we are all true to each other, then we can do anything, even win nationals”, most of these inspiration movies never seem capable of showing an obvious concept – that the other teams could also be true to each other.

#2 Comment By cameyer On August 18, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

What? I’m all for trashing ‘self-esteem’ programs divorced from kids actually achieving something. Those programs are condescending and ineffective. But this is a post by the TAC staff? Isn’t that supposed to mean it’s something serious? The post comes off annoyingly ‘cute’.

#3 Comment By Johann On August 18, 2013 @ 10:59 pm

Darn you! Just when I was starting to feel good about myself. I had just convinced myself that I could become the first NFL player in his 60s. But now you’ve crushed my self esteem and confidence. No telling how many other lives you’ve ruined with your pessimistic poison.

#4 Comment By jamie On August 19, 2013 @ 3:18 am

Turbo and Dusty don’t need to hone their craft for years in minor-league circuits like their racing peers presumably did. It’s enough for them simply to show up with no experience at the world’s most competitive races, dig deep within themselves, and out-believe their opponents. They are, in many ways, the perfect role models for a generation weaned on instant gratification.

Or for a generation weaned on moronic, small-d democratic, anti-elitist woo, who’ve had dinned into them the idea that expertise and knowledge are unnecessary when one can just “go with their gut,” possibly combined with being a “real American.”

Most of these inspiration movies never seem capable of showing an obvious concept – that the other teams could also be true to each other.

Please, those Cobra Kai were thugs. Spiritual corruption goes hand in hand with losing, at least in American films.

Darn you! Just when I was starting to feel good about myself.

We could just tell all our kids they’re crap and will never amount to anything. Maybe they’ll all turn out like David Sedaris.

#5 Comment By Mont D. Law On August 21, 2013 @ 9:41 pm

I’m sorry but the plucky misfit/underdog that defeats a superior foe with a combination of instinct, luck and grit is a trope as old as movies. And not just kid’s movies. I guess eventually everyone turns into Paul Lynde and Dick Van Dyke in “Bye Bye Birdie”.