Saturday Supplemental: Soul Searching and Social Justice in Fiction

04 Oct

I originally wrote this post after entitled gun-wielding maniac Elliott Rodger went on a misogyny-fueled rampage, reinforced by this article, positing that privelige in geek culture – traditionally very male-dominated – allows violation and objectification of women to be normalized and even played for comedy.

It also creates the image of the singular protagonist – ourselves, for aren’t we all the heroes of our own stories – for whom certain things are expected to be achieved: primacy, victory, romance, the usual trappings.

I lost my nerve at the time, but it has regained some notability with Emma Watson’s stirring UN address, the leaking of racy celebrity photos by hackers and the attacks on women in gaming culture that have been making the headlines.

What struck me is that Elliott Rodger, the redditors who attack commentators like Anita Sarkeesian and other publicly outspoken women and others of their ilk have a narrative in common: they generally seem to see themselves as being on a mission of revenge against some enemy, the Lone Underdog Hero against the Big Bad whatever – politicians, authority, women, what have you. It needn’t even be a very specific thing. A sense of helplessness, or of not getting everything you expect is, for those priveliged by gender and race puts a gleam on the ‘wronged man out for payback’ narrative.

And here’s why that freaks me out: when I remarked in my review of 12 Years a Slave that it started me having revenge fantasies, I wasn’t kidding. Confronted in news and history with the horrific misdeeds humans inflict on one another, I often find the only catharsis is to indulge a daydream of confronting the evildoers in battle, or similar. I’ve ingested similar narratives to these guys.

I appreciate that this sounds like I’m playing the old moral-panic card that people are somehow driven to violence by the fiction of which they partake. Mental illness and cultures surrounding guns, masculinity and privelige are clearly the dominating factors. And violence in fiction is highly functional: it’s cathartic, a powerful metaphor, and, done artfully, both creates truly engaging stakes and is terribly exciting.

We in geek culture immerse ourselves in fiction wilfully, and when we climb out we should look around and see whether the stories are doing good service by the people to whom it speaks. Racial and gender diversity in popular fiction has made progress under critical gazes for many years. So I’m wondering likewise about the different shades of being a hero and heroic violence in fiction as a corollary of that.

I ask myself: what kinds of narratives do these people seem to reflect? For the nerdier streak, as the article above discusses, people like Sheldon of the Big Bang Theory or Eric from That 70’s Show spring to mind. But for the violence aspect, the archetype I tend to think of is what I call the Rambo – oddly since I’ve never watched a Rambo film in my life: isolated from others (as guys like this seem to be) but tough, violent and who always get the girl. This is the thing that the awkward, lonely nerd has oftentimes traditionally looked up to.

This is just about the oldest hero type out there. He comes in many shades (metaphorically, he’s almost always white): James Bond, Richard Sharpe, Scarface, Marcus Fenix, Master Chief, almost every superhero under the sun and lots of the characters played by people like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal and wow I am dating myself hideously over here…

And aspects of this basic entitled-to-being-the-hero archetype run right through fiction of all media. A single hero with tons of guns, or at best, a small squad of macho men with tons of guns, is the aspect these have in common. And there are certainly worthy tales to be told in this construct – the better class of war movie, for exmaple.

And yet, don’t these reflect an entitlement to violence? Some of them, especially the soldiers, have the justification of some bigger cause. But somehow I’ve seldom found that persuasive. The Rambo, the Lone Ranger, or whatever, have the conflict reduced to themselves, given a kind of ‘it’s personal’ element. The bad guy has attacked them, or killed their buddy, or kidnapped ‘their’ woman, let’s say. And the only solution is guns and/or fisticuffs. Their treatment gives them a personal right to do violence to others, that takes primacy over any bigger picture.

And it is partly for that reason that I tend to be indifferent to stories like this. Some dude getting his own back, and getting the girl because that’s what’s supposed to happen just isn’t very fulfilling to me. It can be fun – Bond or Batman or (arguably) Captain Kirk all fall within this trend, and I’ve been playing Arkham City for the past few weeks.

Obviously, a personal stake is important to a compelling story. But it strikes me that the kind of stories I’m drawn to have a very specific way of doing that.

Take Mass Effect for example: yes, Commander Shepard’s got the Universe on her shoulders, and yes, her story and character are the centre of your attention. But around her is an ensemble of diverse characters for whom she has responsibility, and who have responsibility for each other. This makes the abstraction of the safety of the galaxy at large into perspective, and Shepard’s genuine emotional connection – romantic and friendship, female and male – mean that the stakes are more important than her personal investment.

Another example: Flashpoint, the Canadian cop show. While superficially the all-boys’-club tons-of-guns setup, the sense of genuine family amongst the characters, and the priority to save people, not just ‘get the bad guy,’ gives it a sense of cause and common purpose. It’s right there in the team’s motto: Connect, Respect, Protect.

And for a third example, the Lord of the Rings. It’s a weaker example than the above because interpersonal relationships aren’t the core theme. All the same, all races of Middle Earth join forces, and at every turn, Aragorn and Frodo in particular make their decisions based on the betterment of those around them – not abandoning Merry and Pippin, sparing Gollum, or the comradeship between Legolas and Gimli.

Ensemble casts, I believe, lend a sense of substance to any abstract duty a la ‘save the world.’ A diverse ensemble – by class, lifestyle, gender or race, (or, if nothing else, metaphors thereof) gives a sense of a microcosm, and good characterization and interpersonal bonds make for protagonists who have to earn their authority from those around them, because they have a responsibility to protect, lead, back up and care about them, whatever they look like or wherever they come from. Yahtzee Croshaw hit near the mark with his article marking the distinction between ‘manly’ and ‘macho’ characters.

Captain Picard, Malcolm Reynolds, John Crichton, Commander Vimes, Avatar Aang or Buffy Summers fit this model quite handily. Leaders, yes, willing to do what it takes, but for the sake of other people, not themselves or some abstraction like their country. Able to show gentleness or grief for the people around them, and to whom members of the opposite sex are people, not trophies. And when violence takes place, is clearly in self-defense or with clear context against someone whose threat is to one’s comrades, and to the safety of people in general, or when no choice is available.

See, prone as I am to revenge fantasies, they look more like this: groups of allies taking a stand against cruelty, bigotry and injustice and knocking it out of the park.

I’m not suggesting that this is a fantasy to be indulged in irresponsibly. You still have to keep the line drawn between them and real life. And I’m not suggesting that the works of fiction are responsible. Nor am I saying that fiction alone shapes my worldview. My parents, who instilled in me (with admittedly incomplete success, no fault of theirs) a dislike of violence, a sense of responsibility and ethics had something to do with it. What I am positing is this: our culture, in a thousand ways, sculpts our insecurities, the things that anger us and the impulses that offer an outlet for that anger. And fiction echoes those things back, and reinforces and perpetuates them. But it can also distort them and send us back the inverse. Star Trek did that when it created a multi racial band of brothers and sisters in the age of Civil Rights. That’s what the Bechdel Test and the criticism of whitewash casting are meant to change.

I would never expect fiction to kowtow to special interests or prejudices. That’s one of things that angers me. But we, as critical audiences, could call on fiction to take a stand against selfishness and entitlement, and send more positive echoes back at us. If the hero is to slay the monster with his mighty sword, let it be for good and positive reasons, and the hero be a woman, or a person of colour, and have comrades, friends and family at their sides.

“‘Cause I’ve got people with me. People who help each other, who do for each other and ain’t always looking for the advantage.”

-Capt. Malcolm Reynolds, “Firefly”

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Posted by on October 4, 2014 in Saturday Supplemental


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