Saturday, October 3, 2009

Understanding the underdog

In storytelling, there are a few archetypes on how to construct a love story. There's the Romeo & Juliet - madly in love, but separated by circumstance. There's the Action Hero - brought together by life-threatening peril. Then there's the Cinderella story - overcoming social rejection to win the prince.

It's not difficult to deconstruct the appeal of these stories. From the Cinderella perspective, most people can relate to a time when they felt alone and downtrodden - less cool, less attractive, less capable. The audience finds themselves rooting for the underdog as he or she crawls up against adversity and bullying, overcoming their class to steal the heart of the one they love.

Take for instance, Rachel Berry, from FOX TV's Glee - obsessive and neurotic but sporting a warm heart hidden under that tragically unpopular exterior. No doubt she'll eventually win the affections of universally-fought-for football star Finn Hudson, who will cast off his beautiful cheer captain girlfriend once he succumbs to Rachel's inner charm.

In these stories, the popular or beautiful people (with the exception of the prized lover) are portrayed as unkind, unfaithful, and unlikeable. While the prince begins completely outside of Cinderella's social league, he recognizes her true beauty and stoops down to take her by the hand. It helps that once Cinderella takes off her dorky glasses, she's usually a real stunner.

This brings us to the flip-side. Turn over the Cinderella coin and you have the Knight in Shining Armour story. The knight recognizes the maiden in distress whom he wants to save from her life of pity and adversity, he swoops in and saves the day, and they all live happily ever after. It's a beautiful concept - a true display of altruism and machoism all at once.

But here's where it gets dicey. Why does the knight like Cinderella at all? It's because despite the fact that Cinderella is universally spurned and tragically uncool, she's secretly kind, loving, funny, interesting, and gorgeous to boot. She's secretly pined over the knight all her life, and if only she could achieve romance with this pinnacle of human creation, she would never have to look another direction ever again.

Prince Charming has located the needle in the haystack. Where every girl who shows up on the regular social radar is a vapid schemer, the knight has set his eyes on this beautiful, wonderful girl and nobody else likes her. All he need do is swoop in and save her, and she'll be eternally his. Then, and only then, will people recognize her true worth - will they see how amazing Cinderella was all along. But Prince Charming ought not worry about any of that, because he recognized Cinderella while she was still a pauper, and that's true love.

For Cinderella, it's a struggle against circumstance. For Prince Charming, it's love made easy. There's no jealousy. No love triangle. Just Cinderella, waiting for the prince to look her way.

That's the nature of the fantasy. Real life doesn't involve supermodels in disguise with upstanding personalities just waiting for love to happen. Real love isn't as easy as swooping in and becoming Cinderella's only friend.

Real life and real love involve wins and losses. You aren't always the knight; and the ones you like aren't going to be the rejects, but the awesome ones - awesomeness that will be plain for everyone to recognize. Reality is challenging, stressful, and so much more complicated than just trotting in on a white horse. In the end, that's what makes life so exciting. Chasing the fantasy - looking for a partner who's incredible in disguise, waiting for you to take off their glasses and discover them - means trying to take the easy way out. Pursuing the fairy tale blinds us from fighting for the truly amazing ones out of fear of the other hundred white knights on bended knee. Yet in doing so, we surrender ourselves to a painless invention not grounded in the real world... or worse, to the wrong princess.


Jerry said...

Ahh, in your second last post, you called me on the fact that I had not commented on your second glee post.

Unfortunately seeing a scantily clad Miley Cyrus on the post after this one wiped all memory of my worries of the fairytale moment when I will find my own Cinderella.

Well I am now here to re-iterate what I have already told you...Reality sucks...and knowing that the fairytale ending is probably beyond my grasp makes me want it while all you practical people "settle" and get married to Ms. Almost-but-not-quite-Cinderella, I will be sitting quietly waiting for my own fairytale moment to come true!

a_ndy said...

Ah, Jerry, I think you misunderstood the point I was trying to make. It's not that not-Cinderella is less incredible than Cinderella - she just requires more work and more balls.

sandlot said...

Maybe I just think of myself too much, but when I first read this post, I wondered if it was related to me in anyway. I guess it should be safe to ask now.