While rewatching the 2009 MGM remake of “Fame” recently (I know, why do I do this to myself, etc), I found myself watching a trope that I feel like I’ve seen a thousand times before, but had yet to be articulated. Malik (Collins Pennie) is sitting in a room while all of his peers face him. He has just finished detailing the death of his sister, when his teacher jumps in and asks him to expand not on the facts of her passing, but on his feelings surrounding the event. “But I wanna know how you felt, and I think you need to know how you felt,” Mr. Dowd tells him, on the spot, in front of 20 other students. Malik blows up and leaves, but not before his superior informs him that “theater is not a place for cowards.” And just like that, the formula has become clear: learning how you feel and expressing that feeling is is the opposite of cowardice, it is bravery.
This specific type of character development is found in other films too: in “Raise Your Voice” (2004), Terri is unable to process the death of her brother until she shakes off her overpowering father and starts pursuing vocal training. In “Brigsby Bear” (2017), James uses film to learn not only the truth about his upbringing, but to come to terms with it as well. Hell, basically the entire premise of the “High School Musical” franchise is Troy learning to be okay with having feelings, while simultaneously exploring his newfound talent in theater. Time and time again, the idea that it is imperative for creatives to listen to their hearts crops up, even sometimes allowing those around them to be enlightened by whatever final performance takes place, usually with lots of lens flares.
Morality themes are often times found in films targeted at children, and I think the examples I listed above are emblematic of that. However, learning to embrace emotion is nearly always presented in the context of a creative field: sing a song, perform a dance, produce an album, deliver a monologue, direct a film, hit the drums REALLY hard. I can’t think of any other genre, kid-centered or not, where the acceptance of one’s internal state is not just tolerated, but required. Did anyone in “Remember the Titans,” “Hoosiers,” or “Rudy” tell a kid that they need to go home and practice until they don’t just know how to do something, but why, and to verbalize that for the people around them? Has anyone in the entire MCU had a publicly therapeutic moment, where their emotions were considered a true necessity for success? I’m talking more than a knowing glance or an offscreen change of heart. These are common moments in theater kid movies, and at best subtleties everywhere else. And that’s kind of worrying to me.
It makes logical sense that if your job is to create things out of thin air, you probably need to keep tabs on your brain. Emotions provide the juice for that motor; they allow your brain the energy to travel off in some strange direction, where hopefully you can make some new connections and get the job done. But most of us will never have to be creative in our day-to-day lives. Sure, we could get fancy with some problem solving skills, maybe buy an adult coloring book or two, but there isn’t much actually encouraging us to keep in touch with our current mental state. Too often, most of us view emotions as things to be handled at best or squashed at worst. Happiness is great, yes, but it can be quickly replaced with much more difficult responses like hurt or frustration or regret. And for those of us who were never taught the value of those things, they morph from quiet internal alerts to being issues in and of themselves. In essence, it becomes too easy to forget to actually feel your feelings.
Despite the gung-ho attitude provided by these films, creatives aren’t immune to this either. When your feelings guide your work, suddenly it can feel like currency. Once relying on creative energy for your livelihood, feelings are wasted if not utilized, but difficult to utilize under so much pressure. And when the tank runs out and the motivation isn’t there, it can be tough to jump start that engine again. There are reasons why so many people experience writer’s block, why so many creators recommend if you’re gonna start a new venture to just start it, don’t wait for any particular spark of motivation. Because you have to learn to grind it out, even if you aren’t feeling it, and you may as well get used to it now. Plus, burnout is almost inevitable; making yourself vulnerable over and over is exhausting, tapping into your psyche all the time can very easily sap you of the energy you need to make that effort worth it, to turn it into a product. There’s a cycle in that mess of emotions, with lots of loops that turn in and around and behind each other, and creatives don’t always come out the other side loving that experience.
I find myself, as usual, in between these two poles. I am not creative as a profession, but I do have responsibilities that require creative energy. I co-run a website where I have to put out weekly content with varying levels of monotony involved, I write and podcast a few times a month for a different website, and I consume and analyze a lot of media in order to prepare myself for those roles. I’ve also been in therapy for a little over a year: long enough to know how much I intellectualize my emotions, but not long enough to have re-learned a healthy way of handling them. So when I heard Mr. Dowd later in the movie tell Malik that harnessing his feelings will not only make him a better person, but a better actor, part of me was ecstatic. “Finally,” I thought to myself, “a character who will learn to prioritize what he feels, who will actually process it.” But the longer I sat with it, the more I realized how untrue that is. Because Malik didn’t learn to forgive himself or become closer with his mother. No, in the next scene, he went onstage and bared his soul in front of the crowd, and they all cheered, and his arc ended. His struggle became his brand, and his own personal cycle began.
Unfortunately folks, if you are keeping score at home, you’ll find that my conclusion here is a bit of a downer. It seems to me that other genres don’t encourage this attitude for precisely the reasons that artists are: in those worlds, it’s not deemed necessary to accomplish a goal, and in the creative world, it is. To these films, it’s not about growing as a person, it’s about growing as a character, and those two things are not synonymous, and that’s a real shame.
To those too young to know this yet: learning to accept who you are, to understand what makes you tick, it doesn’t just affect how good you are at your job, or your love life, or how many friends you have. It affects every single aspect of your existence, it allows you to grow exponentially. It’s perhaps the most important thing you could ever do, if only because it is the first step you must take. And to those who already understand that: make sure you pass the knowledge along to someone who needs it. Knowledge only finds value when it is shared, and is probably the simplest way to create the highest impact.
Five years ago, I would have benefited greatly from knowing what I have learned about myself and how my brain works. Five years from now, self-reflection and embracing my emotions will allow me to feel more at home in my mind and body than i currently do. Whether I’m a damn creative or not.