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From the Fairytales We Love: Lessons We Need To Unlearn

My childhood is half the reality of being a kid growing up in Central Florida, and half the imaginary world of pretending to be a princess, mermaid, spy or concert musician. Like many kids, my mind was a playground of creative ideas and stories, popular fairytales in books I read and movies I watched that shaped my view of the world.

And while these stories taught me important lessons about courage, creativity and kindness, they also imprinted myths about life into my head – lessons I find myself continuing to challenge and unlearn to this day.

If you’re like me and grew up on the milk and honey of stories, I dare you to also challenge the messages spun into many of the classic fairytales. Don’t get me wrong, I will always love the stories I grew up with, but it’s important for us to look at the reality of these stories. One day, we will be the writers and tellers of tomorrow’s stories, and we have the chance to improve the stories we were told – to teach the next generation the lessons we learned the hard way.

Myth: You aren’t the hero of your own story; you need someone to save you first.

Reality: You are the one who has to take the first step toward victory. 

Fairytales teach us that with the swish of a wand or the entrance of a dashing prince, all of our problems evaporate into dust. Cinderella needs her fairy godmother; Sleeping Beauty needs a prince to kiss her; the Little Mermaid needs Ursula; Aladdin needs an enthusiastic genie to make his grandiose dreams come true.

But the truth is that we can’t wait for someone to save us. Depending on others to improve our lives leaves us reliant upon the people around us for our well-being and success. This lack of belief in ourselves has been termed by psychologists as learned helplessness, where we stop trying to solve our problems or evade bad situations because we believe we are powerless to change our lives.

While there’s no question that reaching out to others and building a support network is important for our healing and growth, we often can’t wait around and sing, “Someday my prince will come,” when we have the power to effect change – right here, right now. One story that combats the “please save me” complex of many fairytales is Dumbo. You may think you need someone else to save you – someone to be the magic feather that makes you fly – but the truth is that you have everything you need to lift off the ground.

Myth: Life is full of “good guys and bad guys,” but ultimately, good triumphs and evil is squelched.

Reality: Good and evil live inside each of us, and we never stop fighting for goodness to win out over hate and fear.

Growing up, the movies I watched put people into two groups: good and bad. There were the good people, the protagonists or their sidekicks, and there were the bad people, Machiavellian characters bent on destroying dreams and creating chaos and mayhem. Hearing these stories all the time led me to categorize real people in the same way. Subconsciously, I grouped my family, friends, and most people I knew into the “good” people category. When I learned that someone else had done something “bad,” they became a “bad” person in my mind.

But, as I got older, I realized that no one is good or bad. Everyone is a crazy mix of the two, and we are continually evolving and changing. There is no static-state “good” or “bad” individual, and as easy as it is to categorize people as princes or princesses, nefarious villains, fairy godmothers or cute little animal friends, the truth is that we have the potential to be all of these tropes in different situations and times in our lives. We want to be the protagonist, of course, but we also have to learn the humility to realize our own mistakes when we play the antagonist or villain, either in our own story or in someone else’s.

One of my favorite movies that challenges the “good or bad” character dichotomy is Disney’s Hercules. Megara’s complex character defies traditional classification; on the one hand, she’s the heroine of the story, but she also works for the villain and initially betrays Hercules to Hades. But throughout the story, she learns that love is worth the risk, and she takes the chance on loving and protecting someone else in the way that she desires to be loved and protected. I love her character development as she grows from being self-protective to self-sacrificing, and that she’s far more complex than a sweet, perfectly-innocent princess.

Myth: Problems are solved in a short period of time.

Reality: We may face struggles in a lifelong battle.

It’s the classic story arc, right? You need an introduction, a conflict, a climax and a resolution. And you need the resolution to be satisfying – we want that feel-good, happily-ever-after ending.

But the reality is that our problems, especially internal struggles, can last for months, years or even our whole lives. Some favorite fairytales that miss the mark and tell a highly unrealistic ending are Frozen and Sleeping Beauty. In Frozen, Elsa lives in complete isolation for most of her childhood, carrying an enormous burden of shame and fear for being who she is. Yet by the end of the movie, she realizes that love is the answer to fear, and all her internal struggles – embodied by the raging winter storm – dissipate into an idyllic, sunny spring.

Sleeping Beauty also dismisses the internal struggles of the character. Aurora grows up believing she is an orphan with no family, raised instead by three fairies. She finds out at age 16 that she has two very-alive parents and that the only humanlike people in her life have lied to her about who she is. The film never addresses the kind of trauma, betrayal and crisis that a person would experience when learning this!

Just like physical wounds, emotional wounds take time to heal. Love, connection and support are undeniably important when healing, but they aren’t the quick-fix that fairytales depict them as.

woman wearing white floral top reading bible
Photo by Benigno Hoyuela from Unsplash

Whether they convince us that problems are quickly resolved, that people are wonderful or terrible, or that we need a hero to be happy, fairytales teach us some lies in early life that we later learn aren’t true. And of course, not all fairy tales are the same. Some teach more fallacies than others, but I think that all stories should be subject to careful analysis. These are the prototypes of life that we tell the young, and when we understand the shortcomings of these stories, we have the opportunity to write new stories – better ones, where the protagonist is the hero of their own story and makes mistakes as flesh-and-blood people do. And while fantasy isn’t supposed to replicate reality, it should still capture life’s essence by telling the story of real people – people with struggles, but also the power and courage to overcome their circumstances. I think we owe it to future audiences to create characters that are the role models we wish we had growing up.

Seva is a 3rd-year UCF honors student majoring in Communication Sciences and Disorders and minoring in Psychology, Aging Studies, and linguistics. She is passionate about working with people with aphasia and apraxia (acquired communication disorders that are common after stroke) and hopes to work as a speech-language pathologist someday. She has a wide of range of interests, from serving as the president of UCF Aphasia Family, playing and teaching the piano, exploring all local coffee shops, enjoying creative writing and poetry, and obsessing over keeping her Google calendar organized and aesthetically appealing.
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