Maggie A's Meanderings

 
 

 

 

 Jan 17, 2016

Six Popular Tropes that Are Based on a Misconception


1. Napoleon Complex

If you meet a short man who's aggressive or trying to be the boss of everything, you may think Napoleon Complex and here's a guy who overcompensating for his shortness. Named for Napoleon Bonaparte, the emperor-general who tried to conquer Europe, Napoleon's become the icon of short men. Except, it turns out, Napoleon wasn't short. He was actually slightly taller than average. (He was 5'6"  when average was 5'5.")

However, it doesn't mean that the Napoleon Complex isn't real. The Napoleon Complex is real. But it's not about height. (Though short men can have it.) It's about self-image and insecurities. So it's not so much about being small on the outside, but feeling small on the inside. A study found that "men can suffer from ‘male discrepancy stress' where they feel they are falling short of traditional masculine gender norms. And it appears to make them more prone to violence than men who feel comfortable in their own skin." To which most women I know would say, "No duh" as we've long since figured that one out.


2. Lemmings Committing Mass Suicide

Just the word lemmings will make you think of brainlessly going over a cliff to certain death. But lemmings don't commit mass suicide. It's true they have a widely fluctuating local population where one year there can be a large number of lemmings and the next year there's a low number. But that's not due to suicide. The high population years happen in the years of abundance when their population can have explosive growth. When the abundance is gone, the lemmings disperse or may die from predation, disease or accident. But not from intentionally killing themselves. (There's nothing unique about this type of fluctuating population.)

So how did we get this image of lemmings killing themselves? Who's to blame for that? The answer might surprise you. It's Walt Disney. It's the 1958 Academy Award winning nature movie --- I hesitate to call it a documentary --- White Wilderness that popularized the myth about lemmings with this infamous sequence. For the movie, Disney filmmakers faked the mass suicide by buying lemmings from children and then throwing the lemmings off a cliff. (I'm guessing the Humane Society wasn't monitoring film production back then.)

But the idea of lemmings forming a group and going along to mass suicide is such an apt analogy for human behavior that we haven't given up using it. Though we could start saying "Like a pod of whales beaching" because at least that actually does happen.


3. The Ugly American

We all know what "The Ugly American" is. It's that loud-mouthed tourist, ignorant and blustering, arrogant about everything American and demeaning about everything that's not. (And stereotypically dressed in a pair of shorts and a loud shirt.)

Except the trope of the "Ugly American" is based on the 1958 bestselling novel, The Ugly American and the character who was "The Ugly American" was only ugly in appearance. In behavior, he was the opposite of everything we think of as "The Ugly American." He was the hero of the book, a millionaire engineer who in his retirement is invited by the US government to southeast Asia where he earns the respect of the local populace with his commonsense ideas and his willingness to get his hands dirty. The book with its "Ugly American" lead character was "often credited as an inspiration for the Peace Corps" and you can't get less "Ugly American" than that.



4. Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes in the form of the Guy Fawkes mask has become the symbol for anarchists/anti-tyranny thanks mostly to the comic book and movie V for Vendetta.

Yes, it's true that Guy Fawkes tried to blow up England's Parliament. No, it's not true that Guy Fawkes was an anarchist -- not in the sense of trying to end all government. Fawkes didn't try to blow up Parliament because he was anti-government. He tried to blow up Parliament because he was anti-that-government. He was a devout Catholic who wanted the current Protestant monarch replaced with a Roman Catholic monarch like England used to have in the good-old days. So the plan was to kill King James, kidnap his nine-year old daughter and put her on the throne as a Catholic queen. Someone who would kidnap a nine-year old child, force her to change her religion and then put her on a throne as a puppet clearly had no problems with tyranny..............he just wanted it to be his tyranny.


5. Chameleons and Camouflage

The image of chameleons is of a lizard who changes its color to disguise itself, to blend into its surroundings. Chameleons camouflage. We've appropriated this imagery to apply to human beings that have a personality that changes to fit into a variety of social situations or to people who are masters of disguise.

But the primary reason that chameleons change color isn't camouflage. Changing color is a visual signal --- something they want to be seen and noticed. (In that respect, David Bowie was a chameleon as he wanted to stand-out for his changes, not blend into the crowd.) As they're lizards, hence cold blooded, some chameleons also change color to thermoregulate. And, yes, they will also change color for camouflage.

But, overall, chameleons are more mood rings than ninjas.


6. Uncle Tom

Like with "The Ugly American," being called an "Uncle Tom" now carries the opposite meaning of the original character from Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous 1852 novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Today "Uncle Tom" is an insult: a feeble old black man, servile and shuffling who helps the masters oppress his people.

That couldn't be further from the original Uncle Tom. The Uncle Tom that Stowe wrote was a strong, middle-aged man of devout Christian beliefs. He's a man who tries to follow Christ's teachings on loving everyone, even enemies. He's so deeply Christian that analysts of the novel describe Uncle Tom as being a Christ figure right down to his death by martyrdom which ends up being the salvation of others. Far from helping his white master oppress slaves, Uncle Tom refuses to whip a fellow slave, encourages other slaves to escape and lets himself get beaten to death rather than tell where the escapees have gone.

Unfortunately what then happened to the Uncle Tom character was fanfic. (If you ever needed another reason to think fanfic is awful, this is it.) "Minstrel show retellings in particular, usually performed by white men in blackface, tended to be derisive and pro-slavery, transforming Uncle Tom from Christian martyr to a fool or an apologist for slavery" and, hence, we have the modern conception leading to the use of Uncle Tom as an insult.



lemming death being faked for movie


For other things that may not be what you think they are, read "4 Classic Novels that Are Way More Depressing than You Think They Are Based on the Movies - Part I" and "4 Classic Novels that Are Way More Depressing than You Think They Are Based on the Movies - Part II or "Self-Proclaimed Antichrist."

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