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March 06, 2004

Fantasy and Reality


I recently made a safari into the dark recesses of the female teenage (pre-teen?) mind, and it got me thinking about the relationship between fantasy and reality in art.

The occasion of this mental safari was a decision to take my 13-year-old daughter to the movies, and to let her pick the film we would see. My daughter chose “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen,” a Disney vehicle originally developed for Hillary Duff (apparently an iconic presence for the pre-teen female demographic) but which had ended up starring Lindsay Lohan when Disney and Ms. Duff parted ways.

The upshot was a truly unique viewing experience, sort of like watching a foreign film in a language you don’t understand, and without subtitles. Actually, it was even more disorienting than that, because it seemed as if I could understand the dialogue and yet I still found myself asking (mentally) “What? Huh? Why is this happening? What is supposed to be going on here? Why did she say that? I think I’m missing the point here. Is there a point here?”

As best I could make out, the film was an attempt to touch on a series of primal fantasies of very young girl-women. Our heroine, Ms. Lohan, moves from arty Manhattan to blahsville suburban New Jersey, where, despite knowing no one and having no social status, she blithely refuses to knuckle under to the bullying of her high-school’s queen-bitch. She knows that she is destined for Something Better Than Suburban Boredom. As this ‘something’ apparently includes stardom on the Great White Way, she easily upstages the gorgeous queen-bitch in tryouts for the lead in the school play. Our heroine’s artistic-sexual fantasies are focused on the lead singer of a famous rock-group, and she naturally gets to attend a fabulous party in Manhattan held at the singer’s SoHo loft (on the occasion of his world-famous group’s breakup) as well as to rescue said singer from his drunken ways. When the now-reformed singer shows up at the cast party of our heroine’s school play, her rival, the queen-bitch, is so shaken that she actually falls into a fountain and is forced to take our heroine’s helping hand to stand up, which seems to suggest she's been converted by the superior moral force of our heroine and will now ‘repent her evil ways.’ And along the way, naturally, Ms. Lohan manages to catch the eye of a cute boy who delivers her very first kiss (a moment that provoked a chorus of horrified yet fascinated “ewwwww’s” from the preteen female audience.)

For me, this was like being trapped for an hour-and-a-half inside a masturbatory fantasy of someone whose erotic tastes I share not in the least. It was made more difficult by a number of incoherent elements in the movie, not the least of which was casting Ms. Lohan, a rather womanly 17-year-old, in the role of a very young, never-even-been-kissed girl. Perhaps the high point of my incredulity came during the climatic rock-star party. Ms. Lohan, squeezed into a very tight, ultra-short minidress and stiletto heels, worshipfully confronts the (insanely anachronistic 1970s-style) drunken rock star and attempts to discuss the poetic meaning of his song lyrics with him--and he doesn’t even attempt to assault her virtue! Oh yeah, I thought, that’s really how that conversation would go!

Would This Girl Get Hit On By a Drunken Musician?

But as I was leaving the theater, and starting to smugly dismiss this as merely a piece of commercial wish-fulfillment, I suddenly had a disabling thought: is it really fair to dismiss any movie—or any work of art--for being nothing but an unrealistic fantasy? What is it supposed to be--a realistic fantasy? To the extent that one’s emotions are involved, don’t elements of fantasy, of projection and of sympathy invade the act of watching even a surveillance camera tape?

Granted, I suppose it is possible to dismiss a film or a work of art for the sin of being somebody else’s fantasy—presumably, somebody who is a lot less cool, mature and worldly than you—but this judgment seems to me to include a great dollop of hypocrisy, not to speak of arrogance. I suppose it would be possible to dismiss a work of art as an incompetent presentation of somebody else’s fantasy, but if it’s not your fantasy, how would you know how well it was executed? So I guess that leaves us with one final case--the offending work of art is an incompetent presentation of your fantasy—which is, oddly, never the way people present such a critique. No, such critiques—usually delivered by people with very strong superegos—tend to focus on the insufficiently reality of the artwork.

I’ve never known what to make of this criticism, exactly. I mean, if reality is what one is after, why consume art at all? It seems to me that deliberately suspending reality, oiling away its frustrating, friction-filled bits, is one of the great pleasures of art, perhaps its central pleasure. (I will grant that it is often gratifying, somehow, if this contravention of reality is kept highly specific and concrete, while permitting the normal laws of reality to run undisturbed through the rest of the work. But focusing too closely on this secondary pleasure—what one might call the journalistic aspect of a work of art—is to overlook the real joy that the crucial, central violation of reality gives us.)

I remember Mario Puzo, of all people, arguing somewhere that the highest function of art is to educate, to ‘teach you how to live.’ (I believe he claimed to have discovered something fundamental about life by reading The Brothers Karamazov. Maybe he got his obsession with gambling from Dostoevsky.)

I guess, in fairness to Mario, that on some very rarified level one may actually learn something from a work of art. But I think that the only way this can occur is when the artwork reflects your own fantasies back to you so clearly that you get a little distance on them. I’m not sure exactly where reality fits into that equation at all.

Where do you come down on the notion of reality and fantasy in the movies, or elsewhere in the artworld?



posted by Friedrich at March 6, 2004


I just wandered upon your site today. I like it very much. Just a quick comment on your post. It seems to me that in relation to a teen movie, it might be more appropriate to look at it, instead of reality v. fantasy, as a matter of mature art v. immature art. No question, that for its target audience, this movie probably had a psychological/emotional reality (I think you said yourself you didn't really speak the language of the movie) that doesn't translate to an educated adult. That doesn't mean it didn't work with the tartet audience. And it doesn't mean it should work with you. Maybe what it should mean is that it is not to be taken seriously by someone above the emotional age of 16, say.
I just think you are close to suggesting that people who want or ask for reality in art are asking for an exact replica of physical reality. I don't think that is true at all. My guess is they are asking for a version of reality, fantastic or not, that is psychologically/emotionally true.

Posted by: dog1 on March 6, 2004 3:34 AM

The function of art is to educate... yeah, that's an old one. Dr. Johnson certainly believed it. So did the Greeks, I think. Never warmed up to it myself. Too self-serving. Observation 1: people who think art educates tend to believe they're more educated than everyone else. Observation 2: people (well okay, women) who believe in art-as-self-improvement watch Oprah.

Posted by: average joe on March 6, 2004 5:16 AM

What he said.


Your daughter is an adolescent. She hit adolescence at nine and has been an adolescent ever since then. That said, she does remain very much a child. She doesn't see the world as you do. It's a more limited world, a smaller world. It's also a more black and white world. The finer shades of gray we can spot are beyond her abilities.

She's starting to understand her sexual feelings. Before it was pretty much a matter of instinct. At nine you were the object of desire. At eleven she had turned her attentions to the other adult males in her life. Now she is beginning to catch on to what she feels, and how society views them. She is, in short, maturing.

Not that you can trust her entirely, but she can be trusted in some things. Just don't ask too much of her, and be there for her when she fails to live up to her expectations.

BTW, a 13 year old's self image never accords with reality.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on March 6, 2004 5:17 AM

In high school there is always a "queen bitch," real or imagined. Usually it is just a girl who is pretty, successful, confident and popular. She is wrapped up in herself and her own little circle but no more so than any other high school girl. It's every high school girl's fantasy to be one of the pretty, popular girls or, failing that, to "get even" with the most popular girl. (I was not one of the popular girls and I can tell you that "getting even" comes when you go to your 20 year high school reunion and find that the most beautiful and popular girl in high school is working at an extremely ordinary job and looks ten years older than you.)

From what you describe, the movie sounds like a fairly typical teenage girl's fantasy. I'm not sure if I would have been interested in something like this when I was 13 or not. I think, even then, I would have found it rather lame. Not that I wouldn't have enjoyed a good getting even fantasy but this one just sounds so... I don't know... lame.

Posted by: Lynn S on March 6, 2004 10:19 AM

What Lynn said. Especially the part about going to your 20 yr high school reunion and seeing the cheerleader babes you remember are now dumpy, divorced and have baggy boobs and thunder thighs. How's that for revenge.

What Alan Kellogg said, and how he understands the psyche of a 13 yo female so well is a mystery to me. This is the age where they start to think about boys and yet if you say a simple English word like, oh, "testicle," "penis" or "erection" you will send them off into gales of nervous, blushing laughter.

I think of these movies and others of their ilk like "The Princess Diaries," "Freaky Friday" and "The Parent Trap" as catharsis rather than education--very Greek, it seems to me. The kids drawn to these movies arent trying to learn, they are trying to express, or at least are looking for a story that expresses what they feel. It's wish fulfillment. It takes a mature mind to learn from art. That's why they teach the lighter comedies of Shakespeare in high school. "Romeo and Juliet" is on it's simplest level is a teenage fantasy. "Lear" and "McBeth" have themes young folks dont understand because they havent lived enough. Those plays are warnings about what will happen if....

Posted by: Deb on March 6, 2004 11:25 AM

What I was thinking as I read this (very funny, by the way) post, is that early teen highschool fantasies for girls don't seem to have changed much at all since my own (of course---very, very recent :)) early adolescence. In fact, surprisingly little, given the amount of change in young adults M Blowhard keeps noticing.

Look, getting the cute boy AND the lead in the play over the queen bitch AND getting to go to Rod-Stewart-the-Eagles-Kurt-Cobain-50-Cent-Take-Your-Pick's loft and therefore, basically, getting EVERYTHING (including the Queen Bitch to knuckle under) is a very understandable feeling-confused-about-her-place-in-the-world-and-knowing-she-somehow-isn't-the-Queen-Bitch teenage girl fantasy. Turn it around: teenage boy gets Kim Basinger and the head cheerleader and a contract to make movies for Warner's at age 16. Does that sound more familiar? Or more realistic? Geez---look at any beer commercial today. The most ordinary-looking-nothing guys get the equivalent of Cindy Crawford. Realistic fantasy? Nope. Fantasy, nonetheless? Yep.

What I'm most surprised by is, given all I hear about how sexual mores have totally changed and how sophisticated youngin's are these days, that there would have been the grossed-out ewwww at The Kiss. That sounds just like a decades-ago reaction. How funny!!

I must say, I think it's very nice that you take your daughter to the movies of her choice. My dad wouldn't have EVER done that when I was 13.

Posted by: annette on March 6, 2004 11:55 AM

JRR Tolkien actually wrote a very insightful essay on the "use" of fantasy called "On Fairy Stories." He actually didn't think there was anything wrong with 'escapism' per se--it all depends on what you'r escaping from. (He drew an analogy between a prisoner thinking of home, rather than prison guards and prison walls all the time.) Plus being taken out of our reality for a period of time helps us to see our ordinary, Primary World more clearly and freshly than before.

Interestingly enough, he wrote the essay before he wrote the Lord of the Rings, which basically put those principles into practice. And sure enough, it was poo-poohed by literary critics who felt it was "escapist" and "juvenile." Tom Shippey makes a good case that they were really sneering because LotR didn't conform to the standards of literary modernism more than anything else.

Posted by: Mike on March 6, 2004 11:56 AM


Having been a 13 year old, I know something of the species. With the addition of increased aggressive feelings thanks to testosterone. It's not that 13 year olds know more, it's that they are now able to understand more. But, not as much as they think.

Plus, my friend, Todd has a 14 year old daughter. I got to watch her 13 year old self as she went through the trails and travails of the age.

BTW, she was devastated to learn, at the age of 11, that taking Mr. Alan to bed would hurt him real bad. Telling her she could get hurt, nothing. Telling her Mr. Alan would get hurt, utter devastation. We place such burdens on our young, especially when they don't have the ability to fully understand.

Adolescence has always been a hard time, regardless of species. An extended adolescence, as among humans, makes it even harder.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on March 6, 2004 10:46 PM

(Just thought of this)


Expanding on what Deb said... If you do manage to get a 13 year old girl to listen as you, oh so seriously, explain such concepts as 'erection' or 'testicle', and treat her as a real person. There is a strong possibility she will try to seduce you. Instinct again. With the addition of enough brain power to be (insufficiently) subtle about it. Boys are the same way.

Teenagers, chimpanzees without the social skills.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on March 6, 2004 10:50 PM

A few halfbaked thoughts/reponses/whatevers?

* On fantasy and realism. I guess I'm a boring in-betweener. If a work doesn't have some quality of fantasy in it -- or at least of the imagination being budged free a bit -- then forget about me being interested. On the other hand, I've had no interest in "fantasy" per se since a few months in my teen years when I was a "LOTR" fan. There's a whole genre of lit -- Allan and others can tell us much about it, I'm sure -- that's called "fantasy," that has many, many subgenres. And I blank out on that stuff as quickly as I do on sci-fi. I wonder if it's something about the fantasy setting that switches my brain off -- for some reason, I just can't see the point in paying much attention when a setting doesn't bear at least some relationship to recognizable life. A few exceptions allowed for, of course.

* How'd your daughter like the movie? I find it fun to learn about people's reactions, especially to works that' are their thing. It's a blast reading the Amazon reader reviews of romance novels, for instance, because the lady fans know exactly what they enjoyed and didn't enjoy, and what the book was delivering and where it fell down. Same with horror. (Meanwhile, the "lit" crowd is forever doing its best to appreciate or denounce attempts at "greatness." Sigh, huh? Who cares?) It's fun to rant and rhapsodize about my kinds of things, but it's not like it does me much good. When I listen to a kid tell me why she likes Eminem, though, I learn.

* As far as learning from art and entertainment ... I wonder if there's another way of thinking about learning in this case. I mean, you can learn a bit about Paris and cinephilia in '68 if you watch "The Dreamers," sure, though you could get better info elsewhere. But that's just info. IMHO, one thing traditional art and entertainment can do is give your imagination and your emotions a workout, and thereby prepare you (a bit) for what you're likely to encounter in life. You cry, you laugh, you see time pass, you semi-sorta experience some things, and maybe you settle into experiencing life a little more than you might otherwise. It's one of my worries about the new kinds of art and culture things: they don't reach inside and give your emotions a workout. Instead, they just give your nervous system a rattling. So the emotions (what used to be thought of as depth and character) remain in an undeveloped state. ... I dunno, is that too far afield from "learning"?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 7, 2004 12:52 AM

Ah yes, the old "sentimental education."

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on March 7, 2004 3:55 AM

You just nailed on the head why I can't stand 'literary fiction': what's the point, there is no suspension of disbelief, it's all re-hashing the real world.

Posted by: David Mercer on March 7, 2004 4:06 AM

Would a drunken musician hit on this girl?

Drunken musicians will hit on large dogs and coat racks. All she'd have to do is say, "Hi." and they'd be married.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on March 7, 2004 6:23 AM

I agree with the notion that there is nothing wrong with unrealistic fantasy. There is a problem, which may be the case with this film, when the authors of it rely too heavily on presuming the audience shares the fantasy.

A film presenting a wish-fulfillment fantasy about teenaged girls should be able, with dramatic competence, make a middle-aged man or anyone else relate to the fantasy and experience the fun of the wish-fulfillment.

Perhaps a good pop analogy would be the film "Bend it like Beckham." I sighed when the movie began, worried that it was going to rely upon me giving a crap about soccer, which I do not. Nor am I Indian. Nor am I from the UK. But, through completely predictable and satisfying conventions, the film was able to transform the fantasy into something I could relate to.

Posted by: Jonas Cord on March 7, 2004 11:18 PM

Fredrich, here's some comments on your essay I think you'll find interesting.

BTW, "hurting wrong fun" is most often used regarding entertainment that you know to be awful on some many levels, but you enjoy it anyway. Awful in this case including activities, themes, and memes that are just wrong on the social, biological, scientific, you name it, it's bad for humanity level. (Say, a movie where you cheer the werewolves as they shred school kids because it's done with skill and artistry you're ready to award the lycanthropes both ears and the tail. That's hurting wrong fun.)

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on March 8, 2004 1:28 AM

Example of Hurting Wrong Fun

Tripping the Rift

Sci Fi channel show. Computer animation. It is wrong on so many levels...

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on March 8, 2004 2:43 AM

Thanks to everyone for their comments.

Having written this piece and having read all of the great comments, though, I would like to re-emphasize one point: that fiction depends on the presence of at least one jolt of fantasy. There has to be that element of 'what if'--even when, like Stendhal in "The Red and the Black" your story is inspired by a newspaper report. (In that case, even if the event is real for somebody else, it was still a 'what if' for Stendhal himself. The real model for Julien Sorel never wrote a book about the situation, and if he did, it wouldn't be "The Red and the Black.")

There is some logic here that needs to be more fully unpacked. I'm not sure I can do it right now, but there are at least two levels at work when one discusses 'realism' in stories:

Factor # 1: Whether or not the fantasy on offer is one that engages you, or possibly the degree to which it engages you, and

Factor # 2: Whether there are elements present--discontinuities, internal inconsistencies, inconsistencies with historical or situational facts, whatever--that 'throw off' your attempts to imaginatively enter into the story. Something to notice here is that extreme internal consistency is always sort of a plus factor for a work, allowing you to engage certain fantasies as entertaining mental systems while openly acknowledging their lack of consistency with, er, commonly understood external reality. Great Detective stories, a certain amount of 'witty' sci-fi a la the first "Terminator" movie, Sergio Leone movies, etc., etc. offer this refined type of pleasure.

I guess what has always irritated me about some critics (those I stigmatize as operating out of a very strong super-ego)is that they seem to use factor #2 above to stigmatize fantasies that really fail to move them on factor #1 grounds. This is dishonest. Sooner or later such critics will always display their dishonesty by endorsing a work of narrative which hits them hard on factor #1 grounds and fails blatantly on factor #2 grounds, showing that for everybody, factor #1 (when it works) is more primal and significant than factor #2.

I don't know if this exhausts the topic, but it needs to be noted.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 8, 2004 5:28 AM

The question of fantasy and reality seems to me to be quite different when asked about art for a thirteen-year-old and for an adult. It seems to me somehow meretricious to make a movie for adolescents which appeals solely to their fantasy desires without realism of some sort or at some level to ground them. That's the point of this review of the movie, as I understand it:

The adult consumer is, in theory, aware of the fantastic elements in the work at hand and of his buttons which are being pressed, while the child is easily manipulated and exploited.

On the other hand, I read Dr. Seuss to my 2-year-old, so it's possible that I'm a hypocrite and that I don't have enough respect for the ability of teenagers to differentiate fantasy and reality.

Posted by: Agricola on March 8, 2004 9:48 AM

'Tripping the Rift' is indeed so very funny and so very, very wrong!

"Adult themes" would be putting it very lightly for that cartoon, as adulterous anal sex with clowns in space is just the start of it.

But it's such a multi-leveled satire with constant biting social commentary, and funny as hell, so you end up loving it.

But yeah, 13 year olds have different needs in fiction!

They aren't at that age overly familiar with all of the formulaic devices of fiction, and hey, they need to learn the Standards somehow, but sometimes the crass commercial manipulation in movie and video programming for those demographics makes me ill. I care about that a lot more than any ability to engage older audiences that such works may have or lack.

Posted by: David Mercer on March 8, 2004 4:40 PM

Regarding "The Red and the Black" I don't recall any fantastic leaps in the novel. Nor do I recall leaps of fantasy in many nineteenth-century. Certainly they are fictitious but they aren't fantastic. All of them could plausibly describe events that actually took place. Suppose you find out (despite infinitesimal odds) that "The Portrait of a Lady" describes perfectly the story of some obscure American woman, whose history has recently been uncovered. Would that make it less satisfying for you?

Posted by: Chris Martin on March 15, 2004 6:27 PM

That should be

Nor do I recall leaps of fantasy in many nineteenth-century novels.

Posted by: Chris Martin on March 15, 2004 6:28 PM

Mr. Martin:

I refer you to my previous comment regarding "The Red and the Black":

even if the event is real for somebody else, it was still a 'what if' for Stendhal himself.

I believe Stendhal was originally attracted to the story because of accounts of how the Julian Sorel character denounced contemporary society at his trial. Stendhal certainly never gave into the temptation of making such a denunciation (in such a setting), but he certainly liked fantasizing about doing so. I repeat, an element of counterfactuality, of fantasy, of wish fulfillment lies at the heart of all fiction, and if you ignore it you kind of miss the point, IMHO.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 18, 2004 11:02 AM

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