Why Can’t You Be More Like Your Brother?
A CultureMap®
by James Waller
Published on 5/4/15

Brotherly competition, sometimes abetted by parents or parental figures, goes all the way back to Genesis, when the most uncompromising father of all chose Abel’s lamb over brother Cain’s vegan offering. Sibling rivalry has never ceased, nor have sisters been spared its vicissitudes. And as Shakespeare knew, sometimes the less-appreciated sibling—Lear’s daughter Cordelia, say, versus her sisters, Goneril and Regan—is the worthier person. Herewith, some observations on similar cases, historical and fictional.

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The King’s Speech  (Tom Hooper (dir.) | film | 2010)
to  Claudius  (10 B.C.–54 A.D. | Roman emperor)

Prince Albert of York, called Bertie by his family, was not expected to be king. That entitlement belonged to his elder brother, Edward, Prince of Wales. Suave Edward cut an altogether more princely figure than the knock-kneed Bertie, who suffered chronic stomach ailments and—as The King’s Speech excruciatingly details—was afflicted with a stammer that made public speaking torturous. Nonetheless, the princes’ father, George V, considered Bertie the superior man. His wish that Bertie would become king was posthumously granted in December 1936, when the newly crowned Edward VIII abdicated the throne to marry the woman he loved: divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. Bertie took his brother’s place reluctantly, but as George VI he personified British resistance to Hitler during World War II—a role Nazi-sympathizing Edward could not have filled. It wasn’t history’s first instance of a disabled younger brother being elevated to the station his more regal older sibling was meant to occupy. The lame and sickly Claudius would never have become emperor of Rome had his warrior-hero brother, Germanicus, not died unexpectedly or had Germanicus’s son and heir, Caligula, not proved such a disaster. When the Praetorian Guard assassinated Caligula, they chose Claudius as his replacement.

Claudius  (10 B.C.–54 A.D. | Roman emperor)
to  John F. Kennedy  (1917–1963 | American president)

War heroes often become political leaders. Unless, of course, they have the misfortune to die prematurely. That was Roman general Germanicus’s unlucky destiny. His parents’ golden boy and the favorite of Emperor Augustus, Germanicus became the adoptive heir of Augustus’s successor, Tiberius. This young man who would be king, however, mysteriously expired while campaigning in Asia, and his much less suitable younger brother, Claudius—despised by his family for his multiple infirmities—eventually ascended to the throne. (The improbable story of Claudius’s rise is masterfully told in Robert Graves’s 1934 novel I, Claudius and the 1976 TV series based on it, starring Derek Jacobi.) Modern aristocratic families are not immune to such twists of fate. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. was groomed by his Boston powerbroker father to become the United States’ first Catholic president; that plan was dashed in 1944, when a bomber that Navy pilot Joe Jr. was flying exploded in midair. Joe Sr. then transferred his ambition to his less-suitable second son, John—who had, among other deficiencies, been dogged by health problems since his boyhood. With his father playing puppeteer, John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960.

Claudius  (10 B.C.–54 A.D. | Roman emperor)
to  Elphaba Thropp  (fictional character | Wicked)

Being physically different doesn’t always win children their family’s sympathy or care. As the young Claudius’s grandmother Livia says about the boy, in the BBC series I, Claudius, “He twitches, he stutters and he limps. He’s an embarrassment to everyone. Even his mother can’t stand him.” And parents sometimes play favorites even when no child is what you’d call flawless. Take the case of Elphaba Thropp and her half sister, Nessarose, in Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Elphaba has repulsive green skin, her appearance modeled on the Wicked Witch as portrayed by Margaret Hamilton in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. Her adoptive father, Frexspar, disses her and dotes on Nessarose, who has a perfect complexion but was born without arms. Over time, the half sisters’ rivalry waxes and wanes, but both become Wicked Witches (Elphaba of the West, Nessie of the East) and are dispatched by the inadvertent immigrant to Oz, Kansan Dorothy Gale. In this topsy-turvy take on L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is not quite the sweet, lovable tween Judy Garland played in the film classic.

Elphaba Thropp  (fictional character | Wicked)
to  Harry Potter  (fictional character | Harry Potter novels and films)

Magic can certainly help a disfavored young person demonstrate his or her worth and escape from an oppressive status quo. In the 2003 megahit Broadway musical Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz, based on Gregory Maguire’s book, Elphaba Thropp suffers through rivalries with both her half sister, Nessarose, and her college frenemy Galinda (later Glinda, Good Witch of the North). But Elphaba proves her independence and, conveniently, gets herself out of a tight spot in the Emerald City by flying off on a broomstick, the occasion for the show’s signature song, “Defying Gravity.”

In the first book of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, young Harry likewise yearns to stop, as Elphaba’s song goes, “playing by the rules of someone else’s game,” specifically the unfair strictures enforced by his foster parents. They lavish attention on their pudgy, dimwitted son while cruelly abusing Harry. The revelation that the put-upon, 11-year-old Harry is actually a wizard saves him from that intolerable homelife, enabling him to attend the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry—where he hones his magical powers and, incidentally, also learns to ride a broomstick through the air.

Harry Potter  (fictional character | Harry Potter novels and films)
to  Cinderella  (European folkloric figure)

Sibling rivalry is trouble enough when you’re contending with your own brothers or sisters. But as fairy tales and other children’s literature repeatedly remind us, an orphan raised in somebody else’s house—competing with somebody else’s children—can have it much worse. After his mother and father are murdered, the infant Harry Potter is placed in the custody of his Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia—ignorant Muggles (ordinary humans) who resent Harry’s wizardly genome and who virtually enslave the boy, letting their own bully of a son, Dudley, run roughshod over him. Not that Harry doesn’t occasionally use his nascent powers to get a few licks in or ultimately achieve a glory that poor, benighted Dudley could never even imagine.

The premise on which author J.K. Rowling built her plot is age-old: Harry Potter’s tale reinvents the Cinderella story, which existed in multiple permutations in folklore long before Walt Disney’s 1950 film version. Like Harry, Disney’s Cinderella becomes the despised servant of her stepfamily. Like Harry, she’s tortured by the household’s other children, her nasty stepsisters Drizella and Anastasia. And just like Harry, she’s got the forces of good secretly looking out for her.

Cinderella  (European folkloric figure)
to  The King’s Speech  (Tom Hooper (dir.) | film | 2010)

If the shoe fits, one is obliged to wear it. That’s the lesson of The King’s Speech, which in essence is a Cinderella story with a speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) playing the part of fairy godmother. Outfitted in bespoke suits and living a royally privileged life, Prince Albert (Colin Firth) is hardly a bedraggled drudge, but neither is he kingly material, because he suffers from a debilitating stutter that makes him turn into a pumpkin anytime he must speak before an audience. To succeed as monarch after his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) abdicates, Bertie must prevail over his disability. With Logue’s unflagging assistance, he does, just in time for the radio broadcast in which he announces to his country and empire that Britain is at war with Nazi Germany. This tale of an ugly duckling (which, come to think of it, is another Cinderella story) who, though he doesn’t always keep calm, does carry on, won the hearts of moviegoers worldwide—and took four of the 12 Academy Awards for which it was nominated. Everybody indeed loves an underdog.

Cinderella  (European folkloric figure)
to  New York Mets  (American baseball team | est. 1962)

Of all the Major League Baseball teams New York City has fielded, including the Yankees as well as the long-departed Giants and Dodgers, the Mets are the youngest, coming into being with the National League expansion in 1962. For a long time they were also the runt of the city’s otherwise impressive litter. During their rookie year, the Mets racked up the losingest baseball record of the 20th century: 120 defeats to 40 wins. Then, in 1969—after seven seasons in which they never finished better than next to last in their division—the Mets not only won the National League pennant, they bested the Baltimore Orioles in a near-blowout World Series. (Baltimore won just one game.) The come-from-way-behind tale of the “Miracle Mets” is a classic Cinderella sports story. Of course, princesses are generally crowned for life, whereas sports teams must fight again for their title in subsequent seasons. The Mets have repeated that World Series miracle only once—in 1986, infamously overcoming the Boston Red Sox. They’ve come close a couple of times, most painfully in the 2000 “Subway Series” championship battle with their older brothers, the Yanks, who took the Series four games to one. Damn Yankees.