Why Make a Kid Who Keeps Lying Responsible for Watching Out for Wolves?
So here’s a question that’s harder than you might expect: whose porridge does Goldilocks eat?
The answer is, of course, baby Bear’s. His porridge is all eaten, his chair is broken, his bed has Goldilocks still in it. Because his, in each case, is “just right.”
Most people get this far, but the next part is where our memories let us down: how does Goldilocks conclude that baby Bear’s porridge is “just right”?
First she tries Daddy Bear’s porridge which is “too hot”. Then she tries Mummy Bear’s which is “too cold”. Finally, she gets to Baby Bear’s which is “just right.” That sounds right, doesn’t it? But hang on. The mother’s porridge is colder than the baby’s porridge? And the chairs: dad’s is too big, mum’s is… too small? The mother has a smaller chair than her baby? Perhaps the whole tale is about a patriarchal system that results in the mother’s needs being put behind those of an actual baby. Her porridge left to the end: the cold dregs from the bottom of the pan. Her chair made from gnarled off-cuts of wood.
Some tell me the adjectives are wrong. It is not the size of the chairs Goldilocks is testing, but the softness. Not the temperature of the porridge, but the sweetness. This hardly helps though. The mother still inexplicably has sweeter and softer tastes than the baby. Even the most fervent chauvinist would accept that a baby would probably sit in a softer chair than a fully-grown bear. We know the rhythm of the story, but can’t reassemble it in a way that quite works.
Others suggest we have misremembered the pattern. That it goes: dad’s porridge is too hot, mum’s porridge is less hot (but still too hot), the baby’s, finally, is just right. This makes a bit more sense (if you’re happy to accept that dads like very hot food), but is not what we remember from the story. We talk of the “Goldilocks principle”, which Wikipedia describes as the concept of “just the right amount […] neither too hot nor too cold”. There is a whole list of Goldilocks situations: economics, marketing, software development, statistics, all of which feature something being “just the right amount”. For my part, I wonder if there is ever a situation where we want something to be too much. To be too something is inherently excessive. We want all Goldilocks situations all the time.
Beyond misremembering the details, I can’t help thinking we have taken the wrong message from this tale about a girl breaking into a house, vandalising it and running off. Most people’s abiding memories are her process of identifying what is “just right”. We remember the story as little more than a metaphor for the way we might buy a TV, choosing between the expensive 8K one, the cheap one that doesn’t have a very good remote and the one that is “just right”; neither too wide nor too low-definition. The fact that she broke into the house has become an aside and pointing out that she should get an ASBO is the stuff of stand up comics. As far as Goldilocks is about anything, it seems to be about consumerism. How apt that nature is always the victim. In fiction, as in real life, the bears habitat is destroyed because some human wanted something to be “just right”.
The reason we struggle to remember Goldilocks in a way that makes sense is because the story evolved over years and contains remnants of previous drafts. In the original, the three bears were a group of friends living together in a sort of carnivorous flat-share. When the bears’ relationship changed, the logic of whose porridge should be eaten didn’t quite map onto the nuclear family. In earlier versions Goldilocks was the villain and the tale was as a warning about respecting the possessions of others. (There are other readings. Alan C. Elms offers a Freudian analysis of the Three Bears, criticising an earlier writer for ignoring “anal issues, not only in ‘The Three Bears’ but in his analyses of other fair tales”. Academic writing contains some real gems.)
Goldilocks is not the only story we misunderstand. If you ask most people about The Hare and the Tortoise, they will mention the phrase “slow and steady wins the race”. Yet the story shouldn’t lead us to that conclusion. The tortoise doesn’t do something right; the hare does something wrong. If we take anything from the story it should be to avoid being like the hare. No matter how slow and steady the tortoise, he wouldn’t beat someone who was actually racing. Usain Bolt doesn’t win the 100m by hoping all the other runners have a nap just before the finish line.
These examples might seem trivial, more humorous footnotes than anything, but I can’t help noticing how often we take the wrong message from stories. The first version of Monopoly was about the dangers of capitalism. Now it lets us bask in excessive greed. Time and time again, thoughtful tales end up as a simplistic messages. We learn the wrong lessons from history, the news, our own lives, even religion. A story in the Old Testament tells how Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son because God told him to. In one reading, the story celebrates Abraham’s faith in God. But other readings suggest the opposite: look how far people are prepared to go when they blindly follow orders.
Even with fairy tales we have remembered correctly, I sometimes feel we’ve taken the wrong message. In the Boy Who Cried Wolf, the town’s people ignore the boy and so their sheep are eaten. The blame is on the boy: because he lied, no one believed him when the wolf really came. But the impact is on the whole town. They didn’t respond to his warning and now none of them have any food.
Who in that town decided to make a known liar responsible for safeguarding their food supply? And why didn’t they replace him after his first false alarm. To misquote Taylor Swift: liars gonna lie. If you’re going to make a corrupt person responsible for your survival and don’t take action to remove them once their corruption becomes known, you’re going to be at the mercy of their whims. It is not the boy we should be learning from, but the passive townspeople who sleepwalked to their own demise.
But perhaps we think a message about not removing dangerous people from positions of responsibility is not relevant in the 21st century. How much easier to sit with a trite moral (“don’t lie”) than to think about the realities of complex, knotty situations in which we are dependent on each other; tied up in one systemic trap.
I spot this in the narratives of our blockbuster films too, which have at their heart a single lie: that villains can be isolated and removed cleanly. Thanos wasn’t crucial to pension investments. Darth Vader didn’t create middle class jobs. Voldemort wasn’t propping up the the broomstick industry. The message from these stories, if there even is one, doesn’t map onto our lives. The simplistic world where you can blame one person, defeat them, and everything becomes fine is not the world we live in.
An article in The Guardian claims that the Pentagon has funding arrangements with Marvel to perpetuate narratives that support the military. They spin us a yarn that we can destroy simplistic villains with overwhelming force, and therefore shouldn’t begrudge the billions of tax dollars going to the military.
Implied in this article is a straightforward villain behind the scenes manipulating our stories; a sort of real life J. Jonah Jameson, tricking us into internalising misleading moralistic messages. I’m sure the funding story is true, but is it true enough? We’ve been misunderstanding stories for as long as there have been stories. And I wonder if the truth is less that we are being brainwashed and more that we have a tendency to believe the truths that are most comfortable and that challenge us the least. We take ideas that we find not too cynical, nor too complex. Like the girl who breaks into the three bears’ house, I can’t help wondering whether rather than sitting with uncomfortable truths behind stories, we end up taking our own personal Goldilocks moral from each story we hear.