Like most millennials, I watched the entire catalog of Disney movies while growing up. I was well-versed in all things Disney, memorizing each song and earmarking useless bits of trivia for some indeterminate moment in life when knowing where to find all of the hidden Mickeys would be helpful.
One key difference between the Disney movies of my youth and the movies being produced for my children is this: the villains today are far more complex and human than those of my childhood.
In my childhood, we had demonic characters like Jafar and Ursula. These characters were pure evil incarnate, armed with other-worldly power and the singular goal of defeating the hero of the tale.
Today, though, Disney villains aren’t so much villains as they are flawed and wounded creatures, acting out of a place of hurt much like those who hurt others in our real world. These stories carry more nuance and heart, resolving the conflict for not only the hero, but the villain who’s simply the fallen hero of another story.
The binary “good and evil” paradigm I adopted in my youth has pervaded so many aspects of my life. Binary thinking is not always about good and evil, it might be attractive or ugly, smart or stupid, lovable or unlovable.
Dividing myself and the world around me neatly into categories is clean, simple and easy to latch onto. It allows me to find those most like me and group up, dividing our tribe (“the good guys”) from those who don’t align with us (obviously, “the bad guys”). When you’re a part of a tribe, you feel a sense of security and belonging, and your only concern is being questioned as whether you belong in that group.
In school, I looked around the cafeteria and measured myself up to determine which tribe I belonged to. It was quickly apparent that I wasn’t cool enough, pretty enough or wealthy enough to be a part of the “popular” group; my wardrobe wasn’t fashionable enough, my hair wasn’t straight or blonde enough, and my makeup wasn’t pretty enough.
The problem with a binary worldview is that, when you see what you aren’t, it leaves only one possibility for what you are. If I wasn’t popular, I was unpopular. If I wasn’t cool, I was uncool. When you’re on the bad side with a binary worldview, it seeds a deep longing to do anything possible to move to the good side, and a resentment for anything holding you back.
Worse yet, seeing things in binary through your formative years can shape some core self beliefs about who we are, allowing those polarizing assumptions to become self-fulfilling narratives.
If you’re not on the homecoming court and your crush doesn’t like you back, the takeaway from that with a binary worldview may be that you’re unattractive, that you’re destined to a life of loneliness. If you carry that false belief into adulthood, it can carry a myriad of relational problems. Perhaps you bring a hole to your relationship that your partner will struggle to fill, or you let your partner take advantage of you because you remain certain that you don’t deserve better.
Looking at things through a binary lens means that we see others who look, feel or think differently than us and demonize them, even if we have abundant grace for those in our own tribe because that helps us to feel more secure. If we’re all clear on who’s for us and who’s against us, it all is just much easier.
In truth, we’re all on a dynamic spectrum, each unique, created with an incredible amount of nuance. We are indefinable.
If you’re not in the popular crowd, that doesn’t mean you’re not surrounded by a circle of friends or that you never will be. If you’re not winning awards for your beauty, that doesn’t mean you’re unattractive or unlovable. When you’re not good, that doesn’t mean that you’re bad.
The ends of the spectrum are just that: the extremes. We’re all playing, we’re all in.
Self awareness is knowing where we fall, and contentment is embracing the beauty of our uniqueness. When we do that, nothing can shake our confidence, and we’re able to open our hearts and hands to others, fully embracing every ounce of their one-of-a-kind beauty and goodness.