As spring quarter rapidly approaches, I have increasingly been seeing all my friends getting into Ph.D. programs, law school, and Fortune 500 companies, and time and time again, I have asked myself why I’m not doing the same. Did something go wrong in the course of my college career? Am I just mediocre? Watching Little Miss Sunshine made me realize that I had been asking the wrong questions; that the key to fulfillment wasn’t learning from my friends, who were becoming adults, but learning from a child.
As put by Roger Ebert, “Little Miss Sunshine shows us a world in which there’s a form, a brochure, a procedure, a job title, a diet, a step-by-step program, a career path, a prize, a retirement community, to quantify, sort, categorize, and process every human emotion or desire.”
A world where Rousseau’s quote, “Man is born free but everywhere is in chains,” is incredibly applicable, with each person bound by impossible standards that dictate how they should look or behave in order to achieve this nebulous thing we call “success”.
However, instead of showing that there is a formulaic path to success, the movie proves that while we may be in chains, we have an incredible amount agency to rid ourselves of them. When we do this, some people may become upset and disappointed, but the people who really matter, friends and family, will actually wholeheartedly support us. In the movie we see that we have the unique opportunity in this life to define our own standards of success, if only we have a sufficient amount of courage to do so.
It might sound simple when put that way, but from the day we are born, we are conditioned by our parents, our peers, the media, and people around us to believe that certain societally endorsed achievements are the only ones that indicate success. It’s hard to realize that ultimately, these standards only hold as much weight as we choose to give them, we can define success by and for ourselves.
Olive, Little Miss Sunshine’s pudgy and adorable young protagonist, perfectly illustrates this transformation. On one hand, the movie starts off with a close-up of her bright blue eyes watching a beauty pageant on TV, closely examining the women competing for the prestigious Miss America title. There are multiple times in the movie where we see this eight year old girl in front of her mirror, scrutinizing her stomach and stubby legs, likely wondering if they could ever be beautiful enough. In the end, her childlike innocence allows her to disregard the absurd criteria set by the pageant and create a moment of beauty not only for her own enjoyment, but for her dysfunctional family as well.
In the book that Dwayne, Olive’s older teenage brother, reads throughout the movie, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche depicts three metamorphoses of spirits. First is the camel, an animal that has always been laden with burdens. This is the burden of what we ought to do. Second is the lion. The lion has the capacity to realize that perhaps the dictates of society don’t have to be followed, that there are no absolute rules, and that he can carve for himself a space where he is free. He stops thinking in terms of “I ought to” but rather “I will.” Finally: the child.
Innocence is the child, and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea.
In other words, the child is the one who, oblivious of or simply disregarding all previously created standards, has the ability to create, be spontaneous, and say yes to him or herself. Think of when we invented rules for our own games as children. For instance, my friends and I created the Fake Crystal Club in second grade, when we collected pretty rocks from the field during recess, despite the third-graders telling us it wasn’t allowed. I’m not saying that we should all just do whatever we want with no regard to how our actions affect others. I’m not saying I excuse people who kill or do terrible things because they’ve created their own perverted version of morality. What I’m saying is that there comes a time when it’s necessary to see past the dichotomies of good and bad and right and wrong and skinny and fat and success and failure and winners and losers. Ideals can change, but this will only happen when we utilize the immense power that we have in changing them.
Success isn’t a matter of how many things I can put on my résumé, but in how many accomplishments I can take true pride in, the richness of certain moments I’ve cherished in my life, moments that probably will never get me a Fulbright scholarship, but that have made me happy in a way that constitutes success in my eyes.
At the end of Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes, “My children are nigh, my children.” May that indeed be true.
Janey Lee is a fourth- year in the College majoring in political science.