The Problem with the "Chosen One"

I should start by saying that I loved "The Lego Movie." I laughed with almost inappropriate volume while watching it, nearly cried at the emotional climax (which I will not spoil here), came out of the theater singing the theme song "Everything Is Awesome," and spent dinner with my wife and kids recounting our favorite parts. Moment by moment, it was probably the most entertaining movie I've seen in years.

And yet, something about it did not sit quite right with me, something having to do with the prophesy and the "chosen one."

The theme of the "chosen one" feels so interwoven with the movies of my youth that it's almost hard to pin down its source. The original, for me, was probably Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars," chosen to become the first Jedi in a generation and to defeat the empire. But there was also Jen, the Gelfling chosen to fulfill the prophesy and repair the titular "Dark Crystal" in Jim Henson's masterpiece. I was introduced to T.H. White's version of the story by Disney's "The Sword and the Stone," about a bumbling young squire named Arthur, chosen to be the new king when he inadvertently pulls a sword out of a rock. You can follow the various permutations of this "chosen one" theme over at, but it should be obvious to anyone paying attention to popular culture that this theme keeps gaining traction, from "The Matrix" to "Harry Potter" to "Kung Fu Panda" to, most recently, "the Lego Movie."

It's obvious why the theme is so appealing. The hero begins most of these stories as utterly ordinary, or even less than ordinary: a farmer in a podunk town, a cook in a noodle restaurant, a office worker in a cubicle, a half-abused kid living under the stairs. And yet, by the end of the story, this utterly ordinary person will learn to wield extraordinary powers, will in fact be the only one who can save the world. Who among the utterly ordinary masses watching these movies doesn't want to dream that we too could become extraordinary?

It's also obvious why this story resonates so strongly in Western culture. It's essentially the story of Jesus, the apparent (but possibly illegitimate) son of a carpenter, born so poor that his mom gave birth in a pen for farm animals. But it turns out he too is the subject of a prophesy, chosen to become (in the words of John the Baptist) "the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world." Jesus Christ superhero.

But the Christian overtones of the "chosen one" trope are not what I find disturbing. What I do find disturbing is that so many of the most prominent "chosen ones" in modern popular culture (with only one major exception I can think of) are boys. Of course, it's an old criticism that too many of the heroes in popular culture are male. It's something Pixar and Disney have been working on lately, but sexism is endemic to Hollywood, etc. This is not news.

What is new, or at least new to me, is the realization that so many of these "chosen one" stories are about boys who go through a transformation from ordinary to extraordinary, from the least significant to the most significant person in the universe, all while accompanied by a sidekick who is already extraordinary to begin with. And what's the gender of that extraordinary sidekick? Why, she's a girl of course.

Take Luke Skywallker. While he's helping out his uncle on the farm, buying and fixing junky drones, what's his sister doing? She's a princess, already locked in battle with Darth Vader, already good with a gun, and even has an inkling the force. But is she the one picked to wield a lightsaber to face down her father? No. Instead, Obi Wan and Yoda take their chances on that awkward kid from the farm who knows nothing.

Then there's Harry Potter. While he's busy slacking on exams, playing sports, and sneaking off for snogging and butterbeer, what's Hermione Granger doing? Just becoming the best student in the history of Hogwarts, knowing the right answer to virtually every question, better at magic than anyone else her age. But is she the one who faces down the bad guy? Of course not. She wasn't "chosen".

The same goes for Neo in "The Matrix." The movie starts with a woman in a skin tight leather suit performing incredible feats of Kung Fu agility and power. She can leap between tall buildings. She actually knows what the Matrix is! Can Neo do any of this? Does he know any of this? No. He has to learn it. But he'll be better than that girl ever was. And he won't even break a sweat in his final fight. Because he's the chosen one.

The troubling aspect of this trope becomes especially clear in "Kung Fu Panda" and "The Lego Movie," partly because each movie pokes fun at the very idea of a chosen one. In "Kung Fu Panda," Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie) naturally expects to be picked as the Dragon Warrior because she's the best, hardest training Kung Fu student in Master Shifu's dojo. But instead, a clumsy, overweight, slacker Panda gets the job by accident. "The Lego Movie" enacts the exact same scenario, in which "Wyldstyle" (voiced by Elizabeth Banks) expects to become the chosen one because she's the best "Master Builder" training under her teacher Vitruvius, and she possesses ninja-level improvisatory Lego construction powers. Instead, the job goes to Emmet, the utterly ordinary construction worker, king of mediocrity and conformity.

Tigress and Wyldstyle aren't happy to learn the true identity of the chosen one. In fact, they're pissed, and rightfully so. They've been working their assess off to be exceptional, and these guys saunter in and take the top spot without nearly the same qualifications, experience or know how.

Sound familiar? What kind of message is this sending? Stories about chosen ones are really stories about who gets to be, and what it takes to be, exceptional. They're stories about privilege. And I don't just object to the gender imbalance. The problem isn't so much who gets to be chosen but the fact that we're so obsessed being chosen at all.

When our culture celebrates business leaders like Steve Jobs, Mark Zukerberg, and Jeff Bezos, or examines politicians like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, it rarely holds them up as exemplars of hard work. Instead, they're brilliant, innovative, visionary, charismatic. They possess (were "chosen" to receive) great gifts. But when women reach similar levels of achievement, they're usually praised (or ridiculed) for their dedication and pluck. Working hard has somehow become a feminine, and not-especially admirable, trait.

There is evidence that women are working harder than men in the United States. They've been out performing men in a number of categories, especially education, for years now. And yet they still struggle to reach top positions in business and government. These are the real world Hermiones and Wildstyles, standing in the shadows of their "chosen" male counterparts.

If we keep telling these stories about what it takes to be successful, stories that are also prophesies about who gets to be successful, who gets to be "chosen," those prophesies will be self-fulfilling. It's time we changed the story. I, for one, want my kids to grow up in a world where the Trinitys, Hermiones, Tigresses, and Wildstyles are the real heros, where the prophesy of some old guy in a white beard means nothing in the face of hardworking badassery.

UPDATE: Several people on Twitter have pointed out that The Lego Movie is ironically playing on this trope rather than reenforcing it.

I agree to an extent. The movie's treatment of Emmet as hero is certainly ironic, and reminicent of my favorite episode of the Simpsons, but the ultimate message still rings slightly false. That message (spoiler alert): Emmmet isn't any more "special" than anyone else. The prophesy isn't even real. Anyone can be the most amazing, interesting person in the universe as long as they believe in themselves.

The problem: this also means Emmet isn't any less special than anyone else, namely Wyldstyle. Which he clearly is. (Though I fear that makes me sound like Ayn Rand.)