Stop me if you’ve heard these lyrics before:
When you wish upon a star,
Makes no difference who you are,
Anything your heart desires,
Will come to you.
Jiminy Cricket’s famous song When You Wish upon a Star became the anthem for an entire generation (or two or three) of kids. Themes like "Believe in yourself," "Never give up," and "Anything is possible" are pretty appealing to kids, and ever since Pinocchio, children have been brought up on films featuring a steady diet of self-esteem. This diet, according to some, has wrought some serious problems. Authors like Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, argue that a constant stream of encouragement in movies has created a generation of narcissists.
In the wake of Miley Cyrus’s sexually-charged VMA performance, this idea has gained momentum among Christian parents. And over at The Atlantic, Luke Epplin's article, "You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids' Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?" makes observations like:
"The restless protagonists of [films like Turbo and Planes] never have to wake up to the reality that crop-dusters simply can't fly faster than sleek racing aircraft. Instead, it's the naysaying authority figures who need to be enlightened about the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community."
But as a true Wishing Star optimist, I cannot quite bring myself to agree with authors like Twenge when she complains that younger generations "simply take it for granted that we should all feel good about ourselves, we are all special, and we all deserve to follow our dreams." Don't get me wrong, it's true many current kids' movies bend reality to favor the protagonist and overly ding authority figures, but if the alternative is teaching children that the key to humility is accepting how boring, ugly, and utterly inconsequential they are (cf. the above Atlantic article's suggestion we look to Charlie Brown as a role model), I think I’d rather err on the side of narcissism.
Are today's (and yesterday’s) "self-esteem" animated movies really so damaging?
What I've come to conclude from watching most animated movies of the last several decades is that the lessons of encouragement they dole out aren't so much bad as they are broad. A child could interpret them in any number of different ways, but in order to get the true message behind the movie, they would likely need someone's guidance. Someone like… a parent, perhaps? To help families better understand the morals behind many animated movies, and to restore the image of one of my favorite brands, here are three invaluable, non-narcissistic lessons every parent can teach their kid while watching a classic Disney movie.
Don’t Follow Your Dreams, Work for Them
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men. – Colossians 3:23
Dreams take work. Whether you’re pursuing a career or building a relationship, you won't see any results without a good deal of perseverance. Contrast the way the heroes of Planes and Turbo simply "show up" at the starting line of major races against the example of Ariel from The Little Mermaid. Typically, Ariel is criticized by some in the church for being a bad role model to young girls, and while it’s true she can be her own teenaged drama-queen at times, people often overlook the qualities that set her apart from other young adults. Specifically, she doesn't just set out on a whim, she's actually been working to gain knowledge of the surface world for years.
Ariel explores, she's independent, she collects trinkets from the surface and tries to understand how they fit into human society. True, most of the information she gleaned from the seagull was incorrect, but that doesn't change the fact that she was actively working toward her goals. Even her misguided bargain with the Sea Witch was admirable on one level, because she understood that all dreams require some degree of sacrifice to come true. When compared to teens who refuse to even get a part-time job to pay for gas, you've got to admit this mermaid has grit.
Be Happy, but Be Responsible
For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. – Ephesians 2:10
Sadly, "Be Happy" has become something of a sinful statement among Christians. I think it’s because we've come to associate the meaning of "Be Happy" with "Do Whatever You Want Regardless of Rules or Consequences." Let's be clear, our happiness is within God's will (just look at Ecclesiastes 3:13, Psalms 37:4, Proverbs 17:22), but He also wants us to be responsible with our lives. To illustrate this principle, let's turn to The Lion King. You may recall from the movie's plotline that while Simba's father was murdered by his jealous brother Scar, Simba spent many years believing the death was his own fault.
To escape his guilt, as well as his responsibilities as king, Simba runs away to live the Hakuna Matata lifestyle. After years of a 'happy' and carefree existence, his past finally catches up with him. This forces Simba to make a choice all young people must one day make: face up to your mistakes and start taking responsibility for your actions, or continue to run from your problems. In the end, Simba realizes that the fate of his people is more important than his own personal happiness (or what he imagines is happiness). The Lion King is a perfect film to teach children about responsibility and a better, happier future (and if that fails, there’s always hyenas).
Know Who You Are, Then Be Who You Are
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. – Psalm 139:13
Perhaps the most common message in any children’s movie is "Be Yourself." The question of Identity. Like the other themes on this list, "Be Yourself" is not necessarily a bad thing to tell kids. God made us all unique, and we should be proud of the differences that make us who we are. The problem is that children are still in the process of discovering who they are, so encouraging them to "Be Yourself" can be a bit premature. Additionally, some well-meaning Christian parents end up restricting their child's freedom to discover and grow out of fear he or she will build an identity based on something other than faith in Christ.
A good movie for this subject is Disney's Aladdin. In the beginning of the movie, Aladdin believes he's not good enough for the girl he loves, so he creates – with the Genie's help – the persona of Prince Ali. In this new identity he starts lying, breaking promises, and turning on friends all just to be "who he is." By the film's end, however, Aladdin decides it's better to live an honest life rather than one based on wishes. Aladdin is a good way to teach kids about discovering their identities, and could also help parents begin dialogues about what it really means to be a Christian.
We used the metaphor of a diet earlier in this essay. And like any actual way of eating, an imbalanced and unchecked intake of modern movie motifs can cause a type of over-encouraged, under-prepared-for-harsh-realities obesity. And all animated films are not created equal (Turbo is hardly Beauty and the Beast and Planes doesn't fly as high as Up). But before we throw the genie out with the bottle, if you will, let's remember the positive possibilities beyond the self-esteem and dreams-come-true surface simplicities of animated fare. Biblically supported messages of responsible maturity are there for the discussing if you’re willing to look for them.
Publication date: September 10, 2013
Ryan Duncan is Crosswalk.com's Entertainment Editor. Crosswalk.com Managing Editor Shawn McEvoy contributed to this article.