A couple months ago, I discovered the subreddit Life of Norman. This is a storytelling subreddit, where different writers create posts which explore the life of a man called Norman — a regular man who lives an ordinary life. In fact, the subreddit describes Norman as a “remarkably unimportant individual”. Each story is a different aspect of normal life for Norman: “Norman Writes a Hate Note” was about when Norman grew furious at seeing a car taking up two parking spots; “Norman Buys Some Coke” details Norman’s trip to the grocery store and his choices of different forms of Coca-Cola; and “Norman Has a Headache” is exactly what you would expect.
So, what do simple narratives about an “unimportant individual” teach us about mythology?
Throughout my time with myths and studying myths, I have considered mythology to be narratives, or things similar to narratives, that individuals or a community uses to understand themselves or their world. Typically, the word “myth”, when not used to designate an untruth, calls to mind extravagant stories of extraordinary people.
But to define a myth by what it contains (extravagant adventures, superhuman beings, etc.) is to have a substantialist definition. I prefer, however, to view myth as something more functional. A narrative is far more than the elements it contains — a narrative is also doing something every time it is read, discussed or performed. Narratives affect people — they engage with the world around them. And with that view, myths do not necessarily have to hold extraordinary narratives to have an impact on the people who read them. Myths can also be simple, and these Myths of Simplicity can tell us a lot about what we find comfort in.
Today, we’re going to explore three different types of simple myths, and explain what it is that these myths tell us about ourselves and our world. To illustrate these, I’m choosing an example for each category which falls into the remit of a capitalistic worldview, but each type of simple myth approaches the concept in different ways.
The Myth of the Idealised Life
One type of simple myth is the presentation of the idealised life. This type of narrative may not be the best for telling around the fire, but is perfect for calming video games. In fact, the perfect example of this is Animal Crossing.
The newest instalment of Animal Crossing, New Horizons, launched in March just as much of the world was falling into lockdowns in their attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19. The result was an unprecedented rise in sales of Animal Crossing games, not because it was the only game on the market, but because of the calm relaxing nature of the game to help relieve the anxiety of the global pandemic.
Animal Crossing allows for an escape to an idealised life, where the problem of money is present but not damaging, and achievements and successes are not dependent on skill or expertise. A 5-star island, the highest ranking you can achieve in the game, is not dependent on the island being necessarily aesthetically pleasing, but only in having certain numbers of items, flowers or trees on the island. The aesthetics themselves are entirely up to the player.
The capitalist worldview still underlies Animal Crossing. In fact, the entire game is spent in a debt entirely forced upon the player by the banker racoon Tom Nook. But the debt never feels entirely crushing. There’s no interest built up over time, as there is outside the game, and the player can pay off the debt whenever they want (and if they want). The money earned in the game is also quite easy to find — it’s earned through catching bugs and fish. It also sometimes grows on trees (ah, if only I could find a real-life money tree).
Animal Crossing: New Horizons depicts for the player the idealised capitalist society. Everyone around you are cute animals who love you and give gifts freely, money is easily found, but people still endeavour to earn more money and increase their housing, clothing items, and decorations. It’s a nice escape from the real crushing debt, failing housing crises and, and global pandemics we have grown to know from our late capitalist reality.
The Myth of the Hard-Working Life
Striving to work hard is the narrative often repeated in capitalist countries: anyone can succeed if they simply work hard enough. If you’re struggling, it’s because you need to work harder, not because of the failing system around you. The “pulling yourself from your bootstraps” myth is a common one in this category.
The conception of the “American Dream” is also in this category: the story of the individual (often the white, heterosexual, cis-male) who fought from poverty to billionaire status. They succeeded not due to the inherent privilege of the systems, but because they worked hard.
Unsurprisingly, there are also video games, books, memoirs and many other elements of popular culture that fit this category of the Simple Myth. Because of the western obsession with this narrative — intensely so in the United States — popular culture is full of the wonderful narrative of how a work ethic can build a happy life.
Stardew Valley is perhaps the best example of this in contemporary video games, and an interesting one to look at due to its skewed way of using capitalism to beat capitalism. Stardew Valley is the story of a person who has become unhappy in their life working for a large, soulless corporation, and leaves everything behind to inherit an overgrown and run-down farm. Through hard work and perseverance, the player can transform the farm into a working, profit-making farm that can, in turn, save the small town its in from the evil corporation the player initially escaped from. Even though the true ending of the game is the defeat of Joja Corp, the player does so by same “hard work gets you everywhere” mentality that caused a corporation like Joja to arise in the first place.
Simple Myths of the Everyday
The simple myths that capture the every-day lived experience is captured in the Life of Norman. Like the Hard Work Myths, these typically do follow the lives of the cis-male, white heterosexual, because anything outside this purview is no longer considered the “typical” experience. These narratives glorify the lived experience of the typical day in capitalist society. The simplistic nature of the rise early, go to work, and go home to sleep mentality is a calming one due to the ritualistically routine nature. The surprises are the small ones like a slight headache, and the decisions are as basic as which type of Coke to buy at the shop. These narratives demonstrate to us that everything is fine, that the every day experience lived in the privileged corners of the middle-class are something to celebrate, and not something to feel soulfully crushed by.
Each of these types of the simple myths solidify the capitalist worldview they originate in through a variety of forms. The Myths of Simplicity re-establish the foundational culture — it glorifies the every-day lived experience of the world they come from. Simple myths are powerful because of their simplicity. They force us to focus on the experiences most basic to us in our society or culture, and to home in on the experience most shared. In societies like the United States or in Britain, these experiences are typically the middle-class, white experience. These myths help to demonstrate how engrained some institutions and systems are (such as capitalism) as well as which narratives proliferate to explain what it means to be a person in this time (white, male, financially well-off).
Myths of Simplicity can be fun to play, but they are also incredibly interesting to step back and really see what it is that is being celebrated, and which narratives are being silenced for the good of the simple, comfortable experience.