First, a video:

This post is about feeling bad about yourself. It’s also about The Chronicles of Narnia, but I’ll get to that part later.

For a nation that is stereotyped far and wide as being selfish and irresponsible on a global scale, Americans have quite a knack for personal self-loathing. If you listed all of the things that we feel guilty about, you’d have the self-help section in an average suburban Barnes & Noble. (When I worked for a used bookstore, we never had enough shelf space for self-help. It was always overflowing into the sociology section, diet books and relationship manuals jostling for space with “Nickel and Dimed” and “Gang Leader for a Day.”)

American feel guilty about our waistlines, of course, and our sex lives, and our failed resolutions to exercise. We feel bad about not volunteering, and not reading, and Starving Children in Africa. We feel bad about not living life to the fullest. We have so many kinds of guilt that there are names for some of them, like white guilt, or Catholicism.

Guilt, well-regulated and linked to decisive action, is not a bad emotion. Guilt stings our stomachs and our brains, reminding us that these organs are collaborators in our relentless human tendency to do not very good things from time to time. It makes our errors personal and visceral, and encourages us to not do them again.

But guilt is also socially constructed. At these words, Intro Philosophy is rearing its misshapen head, so all matters of moral relativism aside, I’ll leave it at this – if guilt is to be just or useful, its magnitude should probably have a direct relationship with (a) the extent to which the guilt-inducing thing was our fault, and (b) how bad the guilt-inducing thing actually was.

With this principle in mind, it becomes clear that many of the things people feel bad about are TOTALLY BOGUS. The obvious example is guilt about our appearance. If a given person happens to have a gram of excess fat on their body, or a bellybutton that is several millimeters larger or smaller than the American norm, they are expected to feel deeply ashamed of themselves. It’s commonly accepted that failing to spend every waking moment combating physical irregularities in our bodies reveals nothing less than a total lack of moral fiber.

I am no stranger to this, because I was a teenage girl. I feel guilt over all sorts of absurd things to do with my body. A popular favorite is my teeth. I have okay but not spectacular oral hygiene, due to a history of braces (you try flossing a mouth full of metal) and also not having dental insurance (my degree was in English). So for every small thing that is wrong with my teeth, I feel morally responsible.

The thing is, my teeth are actually pretty okay. And even if I had Death Fangs, they’re TEETH. I should feel conscientious about them, but why the hell should I feel guilty? Are teeth honestly a Moral Issue of our age? Is guilt really the only way, or the best way, to encourage personal dental responsibility?

The American obsession with guilt is one with a long and proud history. Christian theology can be held at least partly to blame. Christian guilt was invented when Ancient Greek guilt collided headlong with Jewish guilt, resulting in an Uber-guilt of unprecedented proportions. Christianity brought feeling lousy about oneself to a new level, inventing such concepts as original sin and the hair shirt.

That said, Christian doctrine shouldn’t get all the credit for guilt’s popularity. The cultural context of Christianity was, and is, just as important in shaping Western ideas about guilt and sin. Sins are like fall fashions – every season there’s a new black. In addition to traditional sins like murdering people or causing suffering to orphans, each season brings a new crop of hot new sins straight off the runway, each one shaped by the political and social climate. That is why, according to contemporary evangelical Christian thought, most of the really terrible sins have to do with genitals. Murder and orphan exploitation are still pretty bad, but consenting acts between unmarried or same-sex genitals? Judging by the amount of press they get, they’re quite possibly worse. This is, of course, batshit insane if you sit down to think about it. Many early Christian thinkers would agree, but they have the dual disadvantage of being dead and read in translation.

Another problem with mainstream formulations of Christian thought is that, by these narrow standards, your average person is not all that sinful. Many people are quiet, well-behaved types who are doing nothing out of the ordinary with their genitals at all. Nevertheless, it’s important that these people also be labeled as Extreme Sinners, or that whole crucifixion business will start to seem like an overreaction. Therefore we have to invent new sins. Shopping at box retail becomes a sin. Driving five miles above the speed limit becomes a sin. Before long, forgetting to get the oil changed will be a sermon topic in mainline churches everywhere.

Look, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t buy local and slow down a bit behind the wheel. But should these things be clothed in the language of morality? Is guilt the only emotion that can accompany the desire to become a better person? No – and in fact, excessive guilt over small errors distorts our sense of proportion, and at worst, assuages us into a false sense of complacency. (It’s okay if I shop at Walmart as long as I feel bad about it!)

Guilt is so closely associated with the desire for self-improvement that it’s even morphed into meta-guilt. Ladies and gentleman, you can now feel bad about feeling bad about yourself, all from the comfort of your own home. The example that pisses me off, and inspired this post, appears in the recent Hollywood adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s third book in the Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. (You’d forgotten I was going to talk about Narnia, hadn’t you?)

Full disclosure: I hated this movie. I liked the first Narnia movie, which got good reviews, and loved the second movie, which got mostly bad reviews, but Dawn Treader appalled me in a way that few films have matched. One that comes to mind is the classic 90s romantic comedy Chairman of the Board , starring Carrot Top. This is serious business, people.

In their feeble attempt to turn Lewis’s charming, mythologically-infused episodic sea yarn into a banal Hollywood action-adventure fit for hyperactive nine-year-olds with underdeveloped cerebral cortices, the creators of Dawn Treader took some artistic liberties with the plot. In one scene they attempted a feminist message, and it was awful. First let me summarize the original scene in the book, for those of you not up on your British children’s fantasy fiction. During an adventure, Our Heroine Lucy encounters a magician’s spellbook. Within she encounters all sorts of whimsical, wonderful, and seductive spells. One is a spell that will make her beautiful “beyond the lot of mortals.” Immediately Lucy has a vision of possessing good looks of the Helen of Troy variety, precipitating wars and making everyone forget entirely about her attractive older sister Susan. Lucy decides to cast the spell, only to have Narnia’s handy messianic moral compass, Aslan the lion, roar at her out of the book, making her think better of the idea.

Lucy turns the page, but feeling resentful, decides to cast the next spell she sees, one that will reveal what her friends really think of her. She does so, and gets to listen in on a good friend slagging her off to a classmate. Lucy is furious, but she soon encounters Aslan again, who tells her off for eavesdropping – her friend didn’t mean what she said, and was just trying to ingratiate herself to the classmate. But by prying, Lucy will never be able to forget what she’s heard, and has ruined the friendship. Lucy is properly ashamed of herself and Learns Her Lesson.

Anyone who’s read Lewis’s fabulous Screwtape Letters knows that he’s pretty darn good at cutting through the culture of manufactured sin and getting to the real thing. Lucy’s sins are fairly genuine here. They’re about power and ego, about coveting social influence and desiring to pass judgment on those who are no better or worse than ourselves. These are familiar, petty desires, and it’s probably okay to feel guilty about them, since they can be very hurtful to those around us.

Of course Hollywood makes sure to step clear of all that pesky nuance! They ditch the eavesdropping scene and have Lucy cast a spell that will make herself beautiful, simply because she feels plain. In the dreamlike scene that follows, she becomes her sister Susan – Lucy herself disappears. Aslan presently shows up and tells her off for what she’s done. How dare she wish herself away! She should be happy with herself as she is! Lucy is very, very penitent. There might have been crying, I don’t quite remember, I was too busy being offended.

Of course Lucy ought to like herself the way she is. This is a message that feminists have been trying to impress on young women everywhere – they don’t have to feel ashamed of themselves. This does not mean that they have to feel guilty about being self-critical, though! The language of sin, of wrongdoing and repentance, is wholly inappropriate here. If Lucy is to feel happy with herself, how does guilt about her insecurity help matters? Isn’t it possible for a young woman to learn something about herself in a mainstream narrative without shame being invoked? Not according to Hollywood.

Feeling bad about one’s appearance is bogus, but feeling bad about feeling bad? That, my friends, is bullshit. Lucy does not need to feel ashamed about her shame. Worse yet, when she blames herself for her own insecurities, then the people and institutions that have taught her to feel ashamed of how she looks and to fixate on the gap between what they say she is and what they should be – these people get away scot-free.

Take home message: It’s okay to feel insecure. It’s okay to feel imperfect, self-critical, conflicted. The emotions themselves may be dumb, but that doesn’t mean you should feel bad for feeling them.

If movie!Aslan tells you otherwise, suggest that he kindly go wander off into some other Hollywood movie. There are probably some genitals that need telling off.

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