by Elsa Scott
Photo courtesy of Yiwen Wong
Even before officially learning about it in school, children absorb storytelling techniques from the fairy tales told to them by their parents at bedtime, or from cartoons watched on a Saturday morning. Children learn to root for the good guy, fear the villain, and expect a happy ending. Classic tales, such as the prince rescuing the princess from the tower, or the lone wolf hero striking out on an epic journey to save the world, have been ingrained in our collective database of stories that society knows and loves to see.
When Kate Middleton married Prince William, it was a rags-to-riches, fairy tale love story, and the whole world tuned in. When the truth about the Catholic priests in Boston came out, the world rooted for the good guys to take down the corruption within a powerful organization. Society loves a good story, and those that fill familiar frameworks are easily comprehensible on a massive scale, letting every individual feel as though they are caught up in it as well. The average Jane Doe may not know Kate Middleton, but she’s been told the story of Cinderella and imagined herself as the princess rescued by her prince charming so many times that she almost feels a bond to Kate’s story. Not to mention, she expects a happy ending, because that’s how fairy tales always end.
We know that life is not like the fairy tales, myths, or legends we were told. When we hit high school, we read classic Greek tragedies and learn that stories don’t always end happily. We read stories about race relations in America, the immigrant experience, and we learn that life is full of challenges that can’t always be fixed.
We’re told that life is not like the movies, but they can provide valuable lessons to apply to our real lives and interpersonal relationships.
Reading the Iliad taught us about the trope of the tragic hero. The tragic hero is a protagonist who must take the weight of the world upon his shoulders and is destined for suffering; all other characters are supporting cast used to move the plot forward.
Characters don’t need to face the wrath of the gods and be exiled from their homeland for twelve long years to be deemed a tragic hero. Boromir from The Lord of the Rings is destined to fall to the pull of the ring of power. Jack Dawson from Titanic is fated to die, despite a life of scheming and dreaming of something more than he had. Out of the fantasties contained within books and movies, the trope of the tragic hero pops up in our day to day life. We all know somebody who dreams too big, who believes the universe revolves around their individual quest — one that inevitably will cause them suffering, but it’s the price they think they must pay in order for their efforts to mean anything at all.
These people are hard friends to have, but even worse romantic partners. In trying to take on the weight of the world, they don’t have room to take on anybody else’s emotional needs, making them unsympathetic and unsupportive partners. The real-life tragic hero sees others as props used to flesh out their own story. They also view themselves as wholly responsible for all the misfortunes that may befall them and those they care about. They will burn themselves out trying to fix everything, or crumple under the pressure they bring upon themselves as they suffer needlessly for an end that will never justify the means. When we meet tragic heroes, we can use our familiarity with their stories to avoid getting sucked down into their inevitable spiral of melodrama. When we know the storm is coming, we can prepare an evaluation plan in advance.
Another trope that was coined by film critic Nathan Rabin after observing Kristen Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown (2005) is the manic pixie dream girl. The trope is characterized as a desirable female, mysterious and just out of reach. She exists for the male lead to pursue, ultimately teaching him lessons about life, love, and true happiness. The manic pixie dream girl is given the responsibility to break down the male lead, show him his shortcomings, and then be there waiting for him to rise above them. She is the prize he attains after undergoing the much-needed personal growth.
This trope dangerously teaches men to view women as objects designed to further them along their own path. When men view women as manic pixie dream girls, they don’t see them for the inevitably flawed human beings they are, but rather as an ideal caricature of perfection. By identifying when a boy is interested in a girl solely for the hope of gaining some sort of insight or enlightenment into their own psyche, girls can avoid those boys and not undergo the inevitable fallout of failing unrealistic expectations.
Recognizing narratives in real life, and identifying tropes as they manifest can help when navigating through situations or relationships.