Tropes: No Place Like Home

[Content Note: Abuse]

Leaving Narnia. Returning to Kansas. I don't know what else to call it, and there's probably a more formalized name for this trope, but a quick search didn't net me anything. But broadly-speaking, I'm becoming more than a little disenchanted with fantasy stories where the protagonist (usually a small child) sorts shit out in a troubled fantasy world, gains friends and prestige and (optionally) love interests, and then in the final pages of the narrative either gets shoved back into the Real World without their consent (a la Narnia) or chooses to go back for no more compelling reason* than because the authors felt like that was The Right Thing To Do.

* In the specific case I'm thinking of, which I won't share because spoilers, so instead I'm invoking Oz and Narnia because those are fairly common knowledge.

To be super-clear, I don't have a problem with protagonists choosing how to live their lives and making their own happy endings. There's nothing wrong with choosing to go back to the Real World because of parents or friends or preference or because otherwise you'll never eat another ice cream sandwich again. That's fine. But I do have a problem with the fact that I'm starting to feel like this trope is frequently invoked because the authors felt like it would be actively Wrong for any protagonist to decide that zie likes the fantasy world better than their original "home", and I disagree with that assertion. There's nothing intrinsically or morally "Right" about accepting the world you were born into as fundamentally better for you than anywhere else: it's a valid choice, but not the only valid choice.

And I additionally can't help but feel that this underlying assumption -- that taking an opportunity to leave forever a place that may not be healthy or safe for you, rather than trying to stick with it and work it out because it builds character or whatever -- is deeply problematic when it runs in parallel with various different types of marginalizations. Sometimes abuse victims seriously just need to get out; sometimes people dealing with homophobic and/or transphobic cultures and families choose to leave for their own safety. Sometimes a magic world is just objectively better for a person with a disability, or anyone else in search of a magical fix** to a life-affecting issue.

** I can't help but note after typing these words that the very phrase "magical fix" sounds synonymous with 'lazy' and/or 'morally degenerate' to a lot of people in our culture. How fucked up is that?

Yet if we're constantly being presented with this cultural narrative that pleasant places are great for vacations and character building but that, ultimately, there's No Place Like Home and -- more fundamentally -- it's actually morally wrong to permanently leave home forever, even if that choice to leave is motivated by self-care, then there are a lot of harmful messages accompanying that cultural trend.

I get why a lot of authors take this route: on the surface, it's optimistic. Characters Johnny and Jenny have Learned Valuable Lessons and will now use their knowledge and determination to make the world a Better Place for themselves and others. On a meta-level, the author knows that the reader can't realistically aspire to live in Oz or Narnia, but zie can aspire to take those lessons and improve their lives, just as Johnny and Jenny chose to do, when leaving their fantasy world and going back home! I understand the appeal of this trope to authors, as a neat, tidy ending tinted with rosy optimism and can-do spirit.

But still ... I'd like to see just a few more people stay in Oz and Narnia, and I'd like to see that condoned as a morally neutral choice, no better or worse than coming home to England and Kansas. And I'd love to see at least a few authors highlight why that is, and how some people in our culture are marginalized more deeply than others. Because privileged readers like Kim and Kenny kinda need to hear that there's more to life than making their lives easier -- there are also people out there suffering even more than they are, people who can't make their lives easier just by employing hard work and determination. And marginalized readers like Sarah and Shawn could probably stand to hear that when their lives are too hard and too painful for them to bear, it doesn't mean they are to blame for not being smart enough or trying hard enough.

And I think that's another reason why I find this ending trope depressing: sometimes the authorial choice that seems "optimistic" is really quite depressing if you poke too hard at it. If there's really is "no place like home", then a lot of us are in a bad place with no way out. Just saying.


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