Saturday, August 11, 2012

Dear Everyone

For reference.

Dear Everyone,

Pondering the utter foolishness of the marketing for This Is 40, I thought to myself, "Yes, yes, if there is anyone with enough insight and genius to touch on life in such a way as to draw out those strains of the universal human experience, it's certainly Judd Apatow."

But what is the universal human experience?

To experience some sort of midlife crisis, to struggle against maturity, to refuse to grow up, to live with childlike wonder and innocence even into adulthood, to rebel against aging?  No.  Those things happen, and they may even be common, but they're not universal.  There are many people who mature early in life, who don't have the luxury of gazing at the world with irreverence or innocence.  There are many people who hit the milestones of aging without any sort of trepidation or rebellion at all.

To love someone and be loved, in the romantic sense?  No.  Not everyone falls in love.  Not everyone is loved.

To know a mother's love?  No.  Not everyone's mother is loving.  Not every child is wanted or loved.  Some people know their mother only distantly or through negative experiences.  Some people grow up with no mother at all.

To struggle and rise above challenges?  I don't know, some people have it pretty easy.  Some people have it incredibly hard.  Not everyone struggles.  Some people do nothing but struggle and never really win.  We'd have to do a lot of talking about what it means to "triumph" for me to believe in this one.

To wonder about what it all means, what the purpose of life is, what's the nature of God, and so on?  No.  I think that a lot of people go on about their business without ever taking the time to ponder those things.

I could go on, but I'm starting to see a pattern.  The "universal human experiences" I'm familiar with all make interesting novels and inspiring movies, but they're just stories we like to tell ourselves.  They're just narratives.  They may be popular enough to strike a chord with a lot of people, but they're not universal.

It's nice, isn't it, to think that we'll all find romantic love, that we can all overcome challenges, that everyone has a loving mother?  What pleasant little stories we tell ourselves.

But they're not true.  In fact, they may be harmful.  Consider the "loving mother" one.  If the narrative tells us that everyone has a loving mother, then every mother must be loving.  If your mother doesn't love you, is something wrong with you?  Is the fault yours?  Should you have been different from birth?  If you become pregnant and don't immediately, instinctively fall in love with the potential developing inside you, is something wrong with you?  Are you unnatural?  Broken?  What if you don't want to be pregnant?  What if you aren't sure about having a kid?  What if you have a baby and then don't adore it beyond reason?  What if you don't instinctively recognize your baby in a group of infants, or don't instinctively know when something's wrong with your child, or don't instinctively know everything about breastfeeding?  Motherhood is natural!  It's instinctive!  Everyone has a loving mother; what's wrong with you for not providing your child with one?

The narratives discourage people from seeking help.  If I can't overcome every challenge in life through my own determined ingenuity, I'm failing.  If I'm an uncertain mother, I'm unnatural.  Something's wrong with me; the fault is mine.

The narratives also discourage us from offering help.  People with disabilities shouldn't need accommodations, right?  They can overcome any obstacle through their own courage and uniqueness!  Don't you watch movies and Very Special Episodes?  Struggling families don't need help, not really.  A mother's love will fix everything!  Anyone who can't rear three children and keep a clean house and hold down two jobs and earn a degree in her spare time must not really love her kids, I guess.

We don't all get to have a midlife crisis.  Some of us die too soon.  Some of us grow up too early.  Some of us don't have the luxury of acting out immaturely.  If the story in This Is 40 truly is everyone's story, that must be one hell of an inclusive, diverse movie.  Also very long.

To look at your own life, or one kind of life, and assume that everyone else has the same experiences suggests that you lead a very insulated life.  I don't live in a world where everyone around me lives the same way that I do.  We don't have the same experiences or laugh at the same jokes or see the world from the same perspective.  There are people I struggle to identify with at all.

If you think that you can use Pete and Debbie from Knocked Up to tell the universal human experience over the length of a major motion picture, you probably think that "everyone" is just like them/you, which suggests that you move in a very small circle, have a limited imagination, lack empathy, and suffer from a major case of unexamined privilege.  Whereas I'm beginning to think that we should stop pushing the notion of a universal human experience at all, and begin telling a wide variety of people's stories so that we can stop assuming that everyone is just like us and start solving the problems of real human beings instead of cardboard narrative people.

But most of us know that not everyone is just like us, don't we?  The moment you realize that you don't fit tidily into the narrative, the moment you realize that you don't see anyone like you anywhere on TV, the moment you finish one last book without coming across a character reflecting your lived experience, you understand.

Here's to broadening the narrative, to expanding the screen, to including everyone's story.  Thank you to all of you who've shared your experiences and told your tales.  Every time you speak, the people around you learn more about this diverse human experience.  I hope that Judd Apatow learns more, too.  His movies can only be better for it.

With love,
Frank Lee

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