Psychoanalysis is no way of life. We all hope that our patients will finish with us and forget us, and that they will find living itself to be the therapy that makes sense.
– D.W. Winnicott, “The Use of an Object and Relating Through Identifications.”
Ok, so remember that post I did about fairy tales and psychoanalysis a few days ago? Well, I’ve been thinking about the topic some more. A lot more, actually. And I want to revisit the last part of that post, in which I posit that there is a way for people to relate to fairy tales that is not destructive; this way involves relating to fairy tales in a Winnicottian sense. That is to say: fairy tales can be used by individuals as objects.
Yeah, I know. This sounds a little heady to me, too. Also because I’m not a psychoanalysis type of gal. But! I realized today that Joss Whedon’s TV show Dollhouse actually has an episode that would be perrrrrfect for analyzing this phenomenon! It’s called “Briar Rose.”
Ready? ‘Cause this is gonna get pretty fun.
Here’s a quick summary of “Briar Rose,” which aired last year as the show’s 11th episode. Echo (a programmable person called an “Active”) is sent on a “good deed” mission to help a disturbed child. The girl was abused by someone she trusted, and blames herself. Echo is programmed to be the girl’s “future self;” her false identity is as someone who went through the same experience, but has successfully dealt with her issues. The idea is to show the girl that such a future could be possible for her, too.
While visiting the girl, Echo reads “Briar Rose,” also known as “Sleeping Beauty.” The girl becomes very upset. She gets angry at Briar Rose – with whom she strongly identifies – for getting herself into a mess. The girl begins to cross out sections of the tale, saying that she’s “fixing it.”
This behavior (mostly) mirrors what I posted about earlier: you could say that the girl has inserted herself into the fairy tale in Briar Rose’s place, her life and the fairy tale are essentially one in her mind, and she is angry that her story does not have the tale’s happy ending, and takes this frustration out on both herself and the tale. Or you could say that the girl projects her own issues into the tale, making Sleeping Beauty a complicit victim, since that’s how she sees herself. Structurally, the two views function the same way: the girl feels that she doesn’t have control; her life is obeying some outside script. This is the Lacanian view of fairy tales: the self is frustrated that it is fragmented and seeks out views of wholeness.
Luckily, Echo has been trained in Winnicottian psychoanalysis. What luck! How about that?! Echo teaches the girl to use the fairy tale like an object, which then helps to set her free.
What do I mean by “using the fairy tale like an object?” Well, Winnicott says that we start out by relating to objects. As in: “I am the fairy tale! It is me!” But the goal is to be able to use an object. As in: “That is a fairy tale! Separate from me!” In order to get to this stage, Winnicott says that we have to destroy the object (as it existed for us previously), and that the object has to survive this destruction (by gaining a separate existence of its own).
A new feature thus arrives in the theory of object-relating. The subject says to the object: ‘I destroyed you,’ and the object is there to receive the communication. From now on, the subject says: ‘Hullo object!’ ‘I destroyed you.’ ‘I love you.’ ‘You have value of me because of my destruction of you.’ […] The subject can now use the object that has survived.
First of all: this view is very different from Lacan’s view of how the self operates; Winnicott posits that there exists a “core self,” which makes it easier for the self to take control over the image (or fairy tale, in this case), rather than allowing the imago (or Briar Rose, whatevs) to control it.
So how does this relate to fairy tales, and to “Dollhouse?” Well, in Dollhouse, Echo teaches the girl how she can separate herself from the fairy tale and use it like an object. Echo says that the girl should turn the fairy tale on its head and make it work for her. She tells the girl that while Briar Rose slept, she dreamt the Prince into being and essentially made her come and rescue him. Echo then points to the girl and says: “Prince.” Echo is telling the girl to stop fixating on the rigid fairy-tale form, and on her not measuring up to it/having issues with its portrayals, and turn those structures around and make them work for her. Essentially, the message is: “set yourself free.”
Here’s where my thoughts start taking off. To be clear, what follows is me using Winnicott as a jumping-off point, not Winnicott himself. I see a lot of issues with the place of fairy tales in our current world: too often people (in my experience, mostly girls [more on that later]) want so badly to slavishly imitate fairy-tale narratives that they take over their lives. I mean it; I remember one girl I knew summing up her entire life by saying “I want the fairy tale.” And so I worry about fairy tales: I worry that people project themselves into them too much, without being critical. I worry that some tales – or at least the images of some tales *cough*Disney*cough* – can exercise an almost awesome power over people. Seriously. And so when I think about using fairy tales as objects – something that puts the self in control – I am comforted. At least a little. Because if people can learn to make fairy tales work for them, can destroy them and then watch them survive, then maybe fairy tales will stop being so terribly problematic. And I’d like that, since I’m pretty much the biggest fairy tale (nerd) fan girl you’ll ever meet.
Of course, I’m not saying that giving everyone lessons in D.W. Winnicott will solve all fairy tale-related problems; there are, of course, other things that contribute to this as well. Like, you know, good parenting might also make it easier for us to raise a generation of children who aren’t obsessed with growing up to become princesses.
What’s really awesome is – said Dae, like the nerd she is – “Dollhouse” totally bears this out. At the end of the episode (while a voice-over of “Briar Rose” is fittingly provided), Echo is “rescued” from the Dollhouse by a rogue active named Alpha. The implication is that, though she was rescued, she is actually the one in control, since she “created” her “Prince” (as she calls Alpha) to fulfill her desires. And the season finale bears this out as well, since Echo rejects Alpha’s Svengali-like intentions for her and creates her own future.
You all should totally check out the show, which is now into its second season. You should check out Winnicott, too, who is well into being a psychoanalytic legend.