“Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards,” writes Jean-Paul Sartre in Existentialism Is a Humanism (1946).
This fundamental postulate of existential thought seems, initially, to have won a grand victory in the marketplace of ideas. After all, this most basic principle of all existential philosophy—that existence precedes essence, and that humans define the “meaning” in their life through their actions and choices—seems so thoroughly engrained in modern Western society that it sounds odd to even have to state it. The idea appears initially self-explanatory: of course, meaning in life is based on choices, and meaning is what you make of it. Who could argue against it?
In fact, a closer examination reveals that this principle is not as universal as it might appear. There are myriad voices, with seemingly growing strength, suggesting that, in fact, a person’s essence is defined for them before they are born, or by circumstances outside of their own decisions. Broadly, these can be identified as “essentialisms,” beliefs that some essential part of a person precedes their existence as a subject. These essentialist ideologies can hinge on a variety of factors: race or nationality, gender, sex, or sexuality, class or status. What they all have in common is an insistence that the meaning of one’s life is, to a significant extent, already shaped before that person makes any conscious choices or decisions, based on membership or exclusion from certain categories such as “female,” “Black,” or “gay.”
Without delving into the relative merits of these two ways of viewing the world, it is interesting to note that various essentialisms seem to undergird much of the Western narrative tradition. Besides gender essentialism, there is a strong emphasis in classical storytelling of “correcting” perceived status imbalances. Children of deposed or murdered kings recapturing their proper positions in society is a perennial storyline, stretching from Romulus and Remus to Hamlet to The Lion King. A more modern variation is the ubiquitous children’s story moral to “be true to yourself.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with that message, especially as applied to children, but it often treats the “self” as some identity one is born with and has little or no hand in producing. A related theme is doing one’s “duty,” again frequently under the assumption that such a duty is defined by circumstances outside one’s control. Whether it’s Spiderman, whose responsibility comes from apparently chance circumstances, not any choice on his part, or Moana, whose responsibility arises from her birth position as the chief’s daughter, these plotlines are compelling but they leave the marked impression that “duty” exists outside of oneself, and is defined exogenously. This is not by any means to argue that these aren’t good films or worth watching, but if you’re looking for narrative media that is more friendly to existentialism, it’s harder to find than you might expect. So, I’ve identified three popular films (one for each MPAA rating aimed at children) that introduce the chief ideals behind existentialist thought in an accessible way, to familiarize kids with the mindset that they, in fact, create the meaning in their own lives.
‘To Each Creature Its Own Destiny’
The entire premise of the film Babe (1993) is that how one is born doesn’t determine their meaning in life. The title character, a young pig on a sheep farm, learns that he has a talent for herding sheep. He has to overcome numerous obstacles, but most especially the top sheepdog on the farm, Rex, whose primary concern (besides herding sheep) is that every animal on the farm obey the rules—“To each creature its own destiny. Every animal in its proper place.” Rex’s own sense of purpose comes from his ancestry, from a long line of sheepdogs, and the idea of a pig taking over is abhorrent to him. Over the course of the film, however, he gradually comes to accept that Babe has potential as a sheep herding animal, and even helps the pig to win a national sheepdog competition. The pig himself goes from identifying himself only by his breed—when asked who he is, he replies “I’m a large white”—to confidently standing by the farmer’s side at the tournament. Thus, the film endorses an especially existentialist view in its whole plot—contrary to the essentialists, animals are not born with a specific destiny or proper place, but rather through their own efforts can make their destiny what they will. It is two supporting characters, however, that really drive home the message.
The first such character is Ferdinand, a duck who becomes one of Babe’s best friends. As a meat animal, Ferdinand’s future on the farm is not bright. Unlike the other animals, however, Ferdinand is profoundly disturbed by his apparent fate. He desperately seeks another job on the farm and takes to crowing like a rooster in the morning to justify his existence. He gives voice to a profound feeling experienced by humans contemplating their existence: “I know the life of a . . . duck isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but pig, I’m all I’ve got!” The terror he feels at his obvious insignificance, and the stubbornness with which he nonetheless clings to life, is a profound statement on the human condition. The way in which he continues trying to reinvent himself—ultimately transgressing all farm rules and venturing into the unknown rather than passively accepting the purpose assigned him by dint of his species—would make Sartre proud.
The opposite position is argued by Babe’s antagonist, Duchess the Cat. Jealous that Babe has taken her position in the house, she tries to destroy his morale before the sheepherding competition. Her claim is that every animal has a purpose—and as pigs have no obvious purpose, theirs is in fact “the most noble purpose of all”—to be eaten. She attempts to break down the pig’s spirit by reporting the supposed mockery of the other animal as well as his impending betrayal and death at the hands of the farmer he trusts so much. The primary villain of the tale is not someone who seeks to physically block the pig from his goal, but instead someone who questions his ability to choose his own fate, his worthiness to break outside what others see as his rightful purpose. This makes Babe’s ultimate triumph a triumph for human freedom to determine the meaning of their lives—a real existentialist victory.
From Instruction Follower to Master Builder
Much more overt in its presentation of questions regarding choice and identity, The Lego Movie (2014) also defies the typical narrative of a born hero discovering himself by achieving his destiny. Instead, the overall plot—the meta-story surrounding it, and the protagonist’s own evolution—all progress the same point, favoring freedom over externally defined perfection and dynamism over stasis.
The hero, Emmet, is an unremarkable but cheerful resident of a Lego world. A caricature of a satisfied, unreflective modern citizen, Emmet’s character is thrown into disarray by a case of mistaken identity. A vague prophecy and a convenient coincidence give Emmet the chance to recreate himself and assume the role of “the Special,” a messianic figure ready to save the world from enforced conformity (the world being Legos, this comes in the form of Krazy Glue). Importantly, however, it is revealed that the prophecy was entirely fabricated; neither Emmet nor anyone else was born “special.” Instead, through his own actions, Emmet transforms his identity to be able to fit the role he has chosen for himself. Following the Lego theme, great emphasis is placed on “instructions,” those who follow them and those who do not. Emmet’s transformation from a loyal instruction follower to a “Master Builder” capable of creating independently of instructions is among the most important in the film, placing the question of freedom from tradition and authority at the center of the narrative.
Emmet’s transformation comes in the context of a diabolical plot by the villain, Lord Business, to glue all the Lego figures into their “proper” positions. The universe of the film features a variety of Lego sets, through which the main characters can traverse. However, the goal of Lord Business is to freeze every Lego into place, in its proper set and following the proper instructions. Thus, fundamentally, the conflict in the film is between those who view the proper positions of people and the things they create as being predetermined (the position of Lord Business) and those who believe in preserving dynamism and self-expression. The Lego context is actually a rich backdrop for this debate. Sartre himself uses mundane objects (which, to a parent, Legos certainly are) to demonstrate what is true of non-humans: their essence precedes their existence. Using the example of a paperknife, he argues: “Let us say, then, of the paperknife that its essence—that is to say the sum of the formulae and the qualities which made its production and its definition possible—precedes its existence.” In the world we inhabit, the same is true, of course, of Legos—but in the world of the film, the topic is one of debate. Do Legos have an essence already, with each piece having a fixed purpose from the moment it is conceived and created? Or do the Lego people have the ability to craft their own destiny by their decisions? These questions drive the plot both in the Lego conflict between Emmet and Lord Business and in the framing narrative—a child playing with his father’s Legos. Ultimately, the child, who wants to keep the Legos unglued and to continue playing with them regardless of the initial intention of their creators, wins, and thus Emmet wins as well. Overall the message of the film is that, even for Lego people, existence precedes essence, and meaning in life is not based on instructions or circumstances, but decisions and actions.
‘It’s Not Who You Are Underneath. . . but What You Do That Defines You’
As previously alluded to, most superhero movies are emphatically essentialist. Superheroes are generally born into the position (Superman, Thor) or come into it accidentally (Spiderman, Hulk). One notable exception is Batman, and no incarnation of the hero illustrates this more directly than Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005). This origin story makes clear that Bruce Wayne becomes the Batman by a series of choices he makes, as part of a journey to regain meaning in his life. Ducard, the primary antagonist, notes as much in his initial meeting with Wayne, saying, “A man like you is here by choice . . . or because he is truly lost.” In that meeting, he explains that he can help Wayne find what he is looking for; when questioned as to what that is, he simply replies “purpose.” Batman’s origin story is, essentially, an existential crisis, with Wayne struggling to identify a purpose in his life to give it meaning.
Offered a purpose within Ducard’s organization, Bruce Wayne refuses. This refusal is a key turning point in the story and illustrates several existential principles. First, despite having been taken in, trained, and offered a meaning in life by Ducard, Wayne rejects it, insisting instead on creating his own meaning in life. The creation of one’s own meaning and purpose is a key element of living a life in line with the principles of existentialism. Beyond that, the moment of his rebellion against the organization comes when Wayne is asked to inflict capital punishment. To this point, Wayne has not fundamentally shown any loyalty to an ideology that would make this punishment unacceptable; instead, his insistence on never taking human life is endogenous, originating in his own moral code. There is no one to punish him for killing or to reward him for sparing lives. There is no indication Batman believes in a divine reward or punishment either. Batman’s famous “one rule” originates with himself, providing self-imposed meaning to his life.
The most explicit statement of existential philosophy, however, comes from Wayne’s frustrated love interest, Rachel Dawes. Trying to explain to her that there’s more to him than his playboy persona, Wayne argues: “Rachel, all that . . . that’s not me, inside I’m . . . different. I’m . . .”, but Rachel cuts him off: “It’s not who you are underneath . . . But what you do that defines you.” The statement, when compared to the popular wisdom generally expressed in such films, seems almost shocking to hear on screen. The individual does not have an essence separate from their actions, or if they do, it is irrelevant. Of course, the audience knows there is more to Wayne than his persona, but the audience also recognizes Rachel’s wisdom there. Wayne puts on a mask to “become” Batman, but in fact, in doing so he isn’t assuming a new identity, he is taking action to form his own. The dominant theme through the film is the way in which one’s actions and choices create their identity, making it a stellar presentation of existentialist thought in popular film.
First Conversations on Existentialism
None of these three films profiled mention existentialism by name, nor do they belabor the point. But all three have at their core the message that individuals, through their autonomous actions, define their own meaning and identity, and all three present this belief in opposition to forces that would define individuals by some external criteria. This makes them wonderful tools for starting conversations with children about meaning and identity and helping them build confidence in their own ability to define both.