You know the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, right? How a little girl with golden hair wanders through the woods and find a cabin and goes in? And sees three chairs and finds one too big, one too small, one just right, and then breaks the just-right one? And sees three bowls of porridge laid out, tries each, finds one too hot, one too cold, and one just right, and eats the whole bowl of the just-right one? And then finds three beds, one too hard, one too soft, and one just right, and falls asleep in the just-right one? And then the owners, who are three bears (!), come home (how far away could they have been, given that the porridge was sitting out and still hot) and survey the destruction (“Someone’s been sitting in my chair!” “Someone’s been eating my porridge!” “Someone’s been sleeping in my bed!”) and find her? And she runs away?

This is a very popular fairy tale, in English-speaking culture at least (and I think generally in Western Europe), and it has given rise to the idea of the “Goldilocks principle”: you want to find a solution that is between extremes, something that is just right. In astrobiology, a Goldilocks planet is one in the “habitable zone” around a star – neither too hot nor too cold, et cetera.

Well. Do you know what that fairy tale is called by bears? “The weird little pale hairless destructive invader.”

Seriously, I can’t have been the only kid who found the behaviour of Goldilocks weird and unsettling. You wander alone in the woods (um, really? look, I grew up next to a forest and I would not wander alone through it as a kid) and happen on a cottage you don’t know, and you just… go in… and you can see it’s inhabited but you don’t stop and say, “Huh, I really don’t belong here.” No, you just take everything as though it’s been put there for you. Break the chair. Eat all the porridge. Sleep in the bed.

Sleep. In a bed. In an inhabited house. Owned by strangers. Who can’t be far away.

And apparently because she’s just a little blonde white kid this is expected behaviour, as opposed to the opening of a horror movie.

I grew up in bear country. Close encounters with bears were known to end with blood spatters.

Now, yeah, I know, kids. They wander through a new place and discover a playground or a garden or a rhubarb patch and they’re sure no one has ever seen this before and look what I discovered! and so on. (Did I ever in my childhood “discover” a rhubarb patch and eat a portion of someone’s crop? No comment.) Kids are natural-born imperialist colonial settlers, treating the entire world that has been the work of so many hands as a thing that was put there just for them to exploit. They’re little narcissists who think only of what they have done and suffered (usually not much), not what others have done and suffered (often much more). But the idea is they’re supposed to grow out of this. Adults are supposed to guide them and help them to grow out of it. Help them to see things from the other side. “What if you came home and found a bear – or even another kid – sleeping in your bed, having eaten your food and broken your chair?”

And some kids, at least, from a very young age recoil at the thought of going into a stranger’s house and eating their food and sleeping in their bed. Even if the door is unlocked. For them a fairy tale like this may just reinforce the sense that the world is a weird, creepy, thoughtless, invasive place. With bears that have better manners than people.

But, now, “Goldilocks solution.” At least we have the fact that of each set of three, one was just right, right?

There will, of course, be the “No, Frankenstein’s monster” set who eagerly point out that it is really a middle-bear’s-chair-porridge-and-bed solution or something like that (perhaps, for short, the “bear middle”). Smile and nod and let them wander off, hopefully to discover the meaning of the word metonymy.

But they’re not altogether off base. You see, the idea of a Goldilocks solution is that it’s just right. But just right for whom? The papa bear’s chair was just right for him. The mama bear’s chair was just right for her. The baby bear’s chair was just right for – erm, can’t remember baby bear’s gender, so I’ll say them. The porridges likewise were of the appropriate temperatures for their respective future diners. (The fact that it was left sitting out and yet retained its temperature suggests to me that it was really congee, which, in my experience, never cools off at all.) And the beds too.: each one was just right… for its rightful occupant.

Why on earth should we care which one was “just right” for someone who had no right to sit in it, eat it, or sleep in it? Who had no ownership? No reason to be there at all? Make the title character some adult male who is definitely not blonde and see how the story plays to general audiences.

Aw, but this was a little fair-skinned blonde kid. Midas turned everything to gold and suffered; Golilocks brings the gold(en hair) and just takes what she wants (until she’s scared off). The Goldilocks solution looks good just like she looks good, right? The world is just there for her taking, right? Well, we’ve made that sort of assumption many times. But it’s time for us to grow up now.

So that’s the thing. To me, “Goldilocks solution” brings to mind “just right for someone who decided they just have the right to it, regardless of their stake in it.” And that taker just has the right “look” – to the “right” people. Nobody asked the bears about what they liked.

I’m not saying that that’s how it’s always used and intended. But I’m sure that’s how it sometimes is.

It’s not as though there’s no other way to put it. I like the term “minimax equation” from math – often a set of inputs will produce a curve that has one or more peaks rather than increasing/decreasing infinitely. There’s also “optimality,” from linguistics (and probably other fields). And when you talk about optimality, you usually have to ask (pretty soon) “Optimal for whom? And in what context?”

But we can do that with “Goldilocks” too. Every time we hear of a “Goldilocks solution,” we can picture it being a solution that is “just right” for someone who hasn’t even considered the possibility that they might not be the only user or recipient – and indeed might not even be the intended one. And we will be reminded that each of those options in the story was “just right” for its intended user.

Bears remembering, as they say.

2 responses to “Goldilocks

  1. Now bear with me …

    Getting Your Bearings (north of the equator)

    In order to know where you are,
    The best way’s to find the North Star.
    Two stars in Big Bear
    Are pointing to where
    Polaris in Small Bear shines far.

    Around the Pole star in his tail swings
    The 12 constellations in grand rings.
    This looking at bears
    (If anyone cares)
    Is why we say “getting our bearings”.

    composed by Izzy Cohen

  2. Worth looking into the history of the Goldilocks story…the one you know isn’t the original

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