There’s a reason we like coming-of-age stories. Something inside of us just loves watching the process of a character growing up before our eyes. Even more than our culture’s obsession with youth, I think this is the reason why the protagonists of so many films these days are teenagers. I must admit that I’m a sucker for these films as well. Some of my all-time favorite movies (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, even Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) fall into this category.
Another popular coming-of-age story: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. This one’s a little bit different because the main character is middle-aged, but the movie makes very clear from its first few moments that he has a lot of growing up to do. Walter has great ambitions and a vivid imagination, but he’s so afraid of the world around him that he avoids any sort of risk at all, to the point that it significantly inhibits his ability to live his life. I disliked the movie upon first watching it because I found the character of Walter to be so emotionally stunted that I just couldn’t relate to him.
But the more I paid attention to character development in both movies and TV shows, the more I noticed that almost every story’s protagonist is portrayed as significantly stunted in one way or another. Even characters who seem well-rounded and likeable at first turn out to be incredibly immature in a single area or trait, as if that part of their psyche suddenly stopped developing one day during childhood while the rest continued to grow normally. It’s easy to miss because we’ve grown so accustomed to it, but all you have to do is consider your favorite movie or TV show. How does the main character grow throughout the story? How far behind is he or she in those areas at the beginning of the story? If my experience with on-screen storytelling is any indication, the character probably starts well behind what would be considered normal for someone of his or her age.
But one has to wonder how realistic these portrayals really are. After all, we root for these characters because we relate to them. Nobody’s perfect, and we each have areas of our personalities and approaches to the world that we need to work on. It might even be accurate to say that we are each stunted in certain ways by negative experiences we endure growing up.
But do you know anyone who’s really as afraid of tasking risks as Walter Mitty, who at the beginning of the story is too scared to even fill out an online dating profile for fear of being rejected? Onscreen, it may seem endearing and even relatable, but in real life, someone with that level of fear would probably be considered mentally ill. In order to make Walter’s traits clear, the creators of the film have used exaggeration in his portrayal.
This exaggeration stems from a basic rule of storytelling: Show, don’t tell. If the narrator of the film simply told us that Walter was afraid of the world around him, we may not understand the depths of his struggle, and we certainly wouldn’t be as interested in his story. This exaggeration very clearly states what his problem is, making it all the more clear and satisfying as we watch him overcome these issues throughout the film.
Exaggeration is a necessary part of storytelling, but it’s a double-edged sword. Storytellers can rely on the tool too much and become lazy. Instead of showing us the story of a flawed person becoming extraordinary, they show us the story of an abnormally stunted person becoming normal, hoping that we’ll be impressed despite the low bar that they have set for their character. It’s not their fault, really. It’s become an accepted part of telling stories these days. But I think that this kind of storytelling can become dangerous when viewers are exposed to it over and over uncritically.
And this becomes even more of an issue with television shows. I’ve recently been binge-watching the Ryan Murphy dramedy Glee, which ran on Fox a few years back. The show centers on a high school show choir and the so-called educators who influence them. I can’t really call them “teachers” because it often feels like the adults on the show are less mature than the students, using the kids to fulfill their own lost dreams and to manipulate one another, often to the detriment of the students’ educations. They’re actually quite abhorrent people.
Until the season finale, of course, when everyone learns their lesson and emerges from their struggles having become a better person for them. This is typical of the storytelling style I’ve outlined above. But the problem with TV shows (and, to a lesser degree, with movie sequels) is that if a story resonates with a lot of people, the storytellers are expected to use the same characters to tell a similarly compelling story again. This means that the same characters the audience has watched grow over the past season must now start over in a new area of growth (or potentially fall back into the same old, bad habits from when the audience first meets them) and start the process all over again.
This cycle of going from stuntedness to growth back to stuntedness over and over might have the effect of further normalizing immaturity and selfishness beyond even the storytelling trope of exaggeration, and this could be a huge problem. We are affected, informed, and even formed by the media we consume. We aspire to be like our favorite TV and movie characters, and if we spend years watching them act in ways that are completely unacceptable and abnormal, we may eventually accept this sort of stuntedness as a normal aspect of life, which leads us dangerously close to simply accepting any stuntedness, immaturity, or selfishness we may recognize in ourselves.
Maybe I’m being overly dramatic. Maybe I’m thinking way too much about this, and it really isn’t as much of an issue as I fear. But as a massive consumer of media myself, I know that I’ve personally felt the effects of this phenomenon, and I don’t need any extra forces in my life pushing me towards complacency. Ultimately, the stories we tell and the stories we listen to form the people that we become, and I want to seek out stories that enrich my life and encourage me to be all that I can be, or at least learn to cut through the misused exaggeration and interpret stories in that way. I’d encourage you to do the same if you, like me, are concerned about the way that storytelling’s power is being used in media today.