I’m Older than Everyone in Books and on TV and I Am Not Okay
I can cope with feeling less accomplished than my peers, but comparing myself to fictional characters still stings
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Lately, I can’t stop thinking about Danny Tanner turning 30. This is strange for a number of reasons. Danny Tanner, a fictional character played by Bob Saget on Full House, turned 30 on December 11, 1987, a little over two years before I was born. I haven’t watched the episode since the late ’90s when the sitcom seemed to be the one constant, dependable fact of life— while you were eating breakfast, doing your homework after school, walking up sick in the middle of the night. In short, everywhere you looked.
I only remember snippets of the episode titled “The Big Three-O.” The Tanner patriarch is unsettled by the milestone, his anxiety portrayed the way all ’90s sitcom characters were allowed to show existential dread: cartoonishly, as if they could see stressed-out animated birds circling their head. I vaguely remember a beloved car from his adolescence being destroyed and replaced, to mark a new chapter of his life. But despite the fuzziness of my memory, the knowledge that in less than a year I will be the same age as Danny Tanner is sharper and more terrifying to me than any real-world marker of my own mortality, including the accomplishments of actual 30-year-olds not created in a late ‘80s writers room. Yes, my fertility may be about to drop off a cliff. Yes, many of my former high school classmates have bought homes while I continue to consider how much I could save on rent if I could just convince a few friends a studio could be a three bedroom with enough of those room-divider legos. But knowing there will be a full ten episodes of Full House where the dad is younger than me? That’s not something I’m ready to face.
Using fictional characters’ ages as guideposts for my own life (or shortcomings) isn’t a new obsession of mine. I clearly remember thinking “I am so behind” when, at nine, I read that Matilda Wormwood had checked Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, and The Sound and the Fury off her literary bucket list by the time she was five. It didn’t matter that Matilda was described in the novel as a genius, with so much brain power it spilled over past the normal bounds of human ability until she was telekinetic. If a kid, even fictional, could tackle the classics before first grade, what kind of aspiring English teacher was I to be still reading Judy Blume in fourth? And much more importantly, if I was this far behind at nine, who might I be lagging behind at fifteen or 20?
A Wrinkle in Time’s Meg Murry let me relax, for a minute. At thirteen she hadn’t really figured out her academic or extracurricular niche, her clique, or how to do her hair. By the time I read A Wind in the Door, a novel that opens on a 23-year-old married, pregnant Meg, I thought the decade between seventh grade and one-year post-college was more than enough to figure my life out. When I revisited the series a few years ago, I still lacked any of the stability I was sure at thirteen, based on Meg’s trajectory, I should have found years ago. It felt like a rebuke.
Even when my life circumstances were nothing like the characters in question, it never stopped me from holding up my life to theirs. When Pride and Prejudice’s Charlotte Lucas tells her Lizzie that as an unmarried 27-year-old she’s terrified of her certain fate as a spinster, 28-year-old me felt a twin pit in my stomach. Charlotte had found a husband to save her from such a fate, but I had failed! The fact that living in 21st century America meant I could spend my whole life as an independent woman and was actually quite happy with that set-up didn’t matter. The mile marker had been set, and I was coming up on it at a painfully slow pace.
Social media should have made my anxiety around the achievements of my fictional contemporaries redundant. If I needed inspiration, or emotional masochism, in the form of other people’s lives to compare to my own, I don’t need to look to fiction; just scrolling through Instagram or Facebook provides more than enough engagements, promotions, and even brunches to measure against my own, from people I actually know (or at least knew for three months in the summer of ‘13). Looking through Facebook profiles it’s super easy to see if I have time, age wise, to acquire a similarly lit life, or if my lack of backyard and matching dishes should send me spiraling. But the ages of real life people and their corresponding milestones have never felt as pressure-inducing as the ones I read about or see on screen.
Maybe it’s because I see the characters’ struggles much more intimately than those of my online acquaintances. I read all their inner doubts, and still see their accomplishments. In a curated Facebook album, or even a self-deprecating feed, it can look like that guy I worked with at TJ Maxx jumped from perfect BBQ to prestigious new job to his honeymoon, no strife involved. I know what Matilda had to go through to get through that book list. It’s easy to rationalize the success of the airbrushed—look how easy it was for them. I can’t tell myself that particular lie after watching a literal montage of strife leading to a moment of triumph.
More than that, the looming shadow of these characters’ ages might be so dark because they’re so constant. Frozen in time, they highlight my own march towards death in a starker light than my naturally aging peers ever could. Danny Tanner was an inescapable adult presence throughout my childhood. And during those childhood years I learned, from characters like him, what you should have acquired by 30—a stable career, a house, a family. Maybe it’s easier to focus on the laundry list of things I could do to catch up than face the fact I crossed the line separating young adult from Adult years ago, with little fanfare.
There’s a viral text post that comes up on my Facebook feed every few months, that reminds me that Harrison Ford was still working as a carpenter in his early 30s, waiting for his big acting break, and that Vera Wang didn’t open her first boutique until she was 40. These bits of biography are meant to remind me that career changes, accomplishments, and even becoming who the world will see you as can happen later in life. But their late-bloomer life stories, though made almost mythic by their celebrity, are still too steeped in reality to comfort me. Instead, I’ve curated my own list, based on the fictional characters whose accomplishments always hit me so hard. Thor was over 1,000 years old before he got his life together. Scrooge became a beloved, charitable man only after he turned 60. Marilla Cuthbert was over 50 before she adopted Anne Shirley. Reading that list, I remember the fictional worlds I’ve immersed myself in do, on occasion, convince me I still have time.