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The Stories We Tell Say Something About What We Value


It was puzzling how my relatively stern Oma could listen to absurdly costumed polka music. It was usually a small band with an accordion or electric piano awkwardly perched in front of a Bavarian chateau or a herd of brown cows. The singers and musicians were always happy and smiling a touch too wide.

It was a little "Stepford Wives" with dirndls and lederhosen.

I'd heard the variety shows referenced as "Heile Welt" music, a "perfect world" where you might be sad your darling is out hunting a deer, but he'll be back to serenade you before the day is out. You might as well go milk a cow and be happy about the sun that was out. My Oma, who enjoyed singing but was shy, would hum along and sing out some phrases while she crocheted. I'd groan and ask her how she could tolerate the music. She told me that she just found it nice to watch in a terse but bemused way that offered little other exploration of why.

As I've been bingeing the shows I enjoy, I realized a dark element in the shows and movies in my streaming lineup. One is about English mobsters. Another was the prequel to a "Game of Thrones," with political machinations and dragons. There was a movie about a self-mutilating Irishman trying to make a point before he couldn't. But, going back to my teenage roots, I inhaled a story about a world after zombies, a well-loved fairy tale that my generation has grown up with; many of us have been anticipating that world is right around the corner.

Except as I've gotten older, the shows have gone darker — in both themes and lighting — and it's harder to invest in the stories. The first episode of "The Last of Us," where the viewer is thrown into the day as the world collapses after a fungal outbreak that mimics the undead, hit somehow too close to home. I took a break halfway through, texting a friend to say that I needed to, as the kids say, go outside and touch grass. It was heavy. I knew the video game it was based on and the outcome of the characters; it was just watching them walk into their fate. It felt a bit like March 2020.

Maybe I'm getting old. I realized that with the first "John Wick" movie. Keanu Reeves was taking assassins down left and right in his kitchen, and I thought: All those assassins had mothers. There would be so many grieving mothers.

I had to pause during that movie, too, and I understood my grandmother more. My Oma, who lost her father during World War II and didn't want to talk about her childhood, maybe hoped to end up in not a perfect world but a better one than she had experienced, and she wanted to see that world through the shows she watched.

Maybe I'm tired of the dystopia we keep integrating into our entertainment. The stories we tell are a way to reinforce stereotypes, process our trauma and debate our mores. But they could also provide a chance to dream up a utopia that demands that we fuse our hopes into action.

I don't need a perfect world; I'd be happy with a strange solarpunk Chobani commercial that made the rounds online. Online, people stripped the branding from the commercial and left the calm, animated background. It showed a future where we merged technology with organic life: a robot helping to play catch with the kids while a woman seeded some rain clouds over her vegetable garden. A cow sat under the shade of a solar panel, and a drone hovered over to bring juice to a full table of people of all shades breaking bread together.

Cassie McClure is a writer, millennial, and unapologetic fan of the Oxford comma. She can be contacted at cassie@mcclurepublications.com.