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Middle-aged Pollyanna seeks new image

Why does being happy make everyone mad?

In this newsletter, I find lessons in a beleaguered children’s book, summer concerts, The Bear, the revival of “Fast Car,” the Wham! documentary and parents who are raising trans kids.

"The finger of blame has turned upon itself / And I'm more than willing to offer myself / Do you want my presence or need my help? / Who knows where that might lead”

– Neil Finn

What is a Pollyanna? Why this label has haunted me and my career

A photo of me at age 6 in 1975, wearing a coincidentally Pollyanna-esque outfit (left), and actress Hayley Mills at age 14 in the 1960 film Pollyanna.

Perception is everything.

What people think of you shouldn’t determine your self-worth, but how they perceive you can impact your relationships, career and confidence. Once people perceive something or someone a certain way, it’s nearly impossible to change their minds. We’re always being reminded of the importance of first impressions, both in physical appearance and in attitude/personality. In the age of post-pandemic virtual work and social media, perception is even trickier. On Zoom, your voice must be confident, your diction just right. You must convey respect and optimism without looking or sounding chipper. During a recent meeting with a well-known New York publication, an editor countered one of my story suggestions with a familiar criticism. “We don’t want to be a Pollyanna,” he said, dismissively. I wasn’t surprised, but this hit different than the other times I’d been called the name. It felt like ageist mansplaining. Pollyanna was a 1913 children’s book adapted for the screen in 1920 starring Mary Pickford as a relentlessly optimistic orphan whose outlook changed the attitudes of an entire town. Many of us grew up watching actress Hayley Mills in the 1960 Disney version, which The New York Times called a “picture postcard” against which only “an unregenerate cynic with a dislike of kids, good or bad, Technicolor, and a gentle legend spun in a standard and obvious style would rail.” In 1973, the BBC remade the film into a miniseries to wide critical acclaim. My lifelong friends can imagine me pulling a Pollyanna move—such as showing up at a neighbor’s house, barging in and stringing up chandelier crystals in the windows to make rainbows. I got the nickname “April May June” in college because I was so besotted with springtime, I’d pester my friends until they agreed to skip studying so we could roll down grassy hills, picnic by the lake or order pizza and make rainy-day mixtapes. I could charm my way into any situation—and in most cases I had the skills to back up the hubris. But being perceived as a Pollyanna is something I’ve worked my whole adult life and career to avoid. I’m not boo-hooing: I’ve had many opportunities others have not. I’m extremely grateful. Still, when it comes to breaking free of my Pollyanna image after decades of trying to change perceptions, change the system and change myself, nothing is budging. Pollyannaism seems to go in and out of fashion based on the temperature of the nation’s happiness. In 2013, The Atlantic proclaimed, How We All Became Pollyannas (and Why We Should Be Glad About It) and in 2021 the same publication switched gears to praise “tragic optimism” as the opposite of “toxic positivity” generated by the Pollyannas of the world. During the pandemic, shows like Emily in Paris and Ted Lasso flipped the script again, bringing much needed positivity to darkness. By the time Lasso’s Season 3 finale rolled around in 2023, the haters couldn’t take it anymore. Is Ted Lasso a Pollyanna? Are Pollyannas resented for happiness?

Being labeled a Pollyanna can be the equivalent of being called naive, incapable, dumb, out of touch, flaky and weak. This is especially true in the South, where centuries of women were expected to play the meek and mild girl who hides her troubles behind a cheerful facade.

Women with Pollyanna personalities are the antithesis of strong business leaders; Unless she is a fictional character, isn’t it impossible for a woman to be authoritative or “badass” while fueled by joy?

Blond hair is closely associated with the Pollyanna stereotype. Blonde women are deemed to have intrinsic social power derived from centuries of society touting blond hair as genetically superior due to institutional racism.

The current day Pollyanna personality type is rooted in and perpetuated by privilege — anyone with true physical hardships doesn’t have the luxury of being perpetually pert and perky.

The clock is ticking and I’m forever the little girl in the yellow dress. Can I embrace her while also being the wife, mother, sister, daughter, aunt, niece, friend and professional woman I am on paper? What are your thoughts? Click here to let me know.


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