So, it’s the last day of February and I’ve compelled myself to do four blog posts this month. Not counting my diary entries, I’ve done three. This means that this post–my fourth–is pretty much going online as a first draft! Wish yourselves luck, and then read on!
As a rule I try to avoid getting political on this blog (I’ve got Twitter and Facebook for all of that nonsense). However, there’s a persistent narrative emerging from the Trump election, and from Brexit, that’s really been chafing my gonads and I want to write something about it. The narrative is this: Trump won the election because liberals didn’t engage with Trump voters enough. Now, I’m not going to deny that the left has its own social engagement problems from time to time, but this is classic deferral. It’s part of a long-term strategy, on the part of the right, to discredit and dismiss its opponents.
Now, I don’t want really want to get into a socio-political commentary here, so what I’m going to do is reframe this argument in literal narrative terms. I’m going to apply it to some very well known films and, hopefully, expose the fact that blaming the other side makes for a weak as piss narrative, and no one should be falling for it.
While I would love to present myself as impartial for the sake of this experiment, let’s make one thing clear: Trump is the bad guy here (if you don’t think he’s the bad guy, then you’re probably a bad guy yourself. If you’re still puzzled, think about how many movies you’ve seen where an ignorant, emotionally immature, rich, white man is the hero.) So, in basic storytelling terms, the scenario is that the good guys (liberals) are to blame for a protagonist (voters) choosing the bad side (Trump) over the good (literally anyone else).
Revenge Of The Sith
Revenge Of The Sith presents a pretty weak rationale for Anakin Skywalker turning to the dark side, but imagine if we completely ignored Senator Palpatine’s careful grooming and manipulation. We keep the idea that Anakin believes the Dark Side of the force has something to offer him over the Light Side, but his main driver here is that the Jedi Council didn’t talk to him enough. That’s it. He’s a bit hurt because the Jedi Council were off fighting a war, and next minute he’s slaughtering Jedi children.
The funny thing is that this isn’t so far from what the film does present us with, and it’s weak. It’s hard enough to grasp Anakin’s motivation for succumbing to the Dark Side, but if we were to present Palpatine as someone who had no complicity in Anakin’s fall whatsoever we’d be left with almost no reason to watch the film.
The Shining presents a troubled man, with an addictive personality, who is lured into psychosis by the malevolent spirits occupying a remote hotel. But, wait, let’s roll back a bit there and pretend there are no ghosts in the Overlook Hotel, no supernatural evil, no creepy barmen whispering in Jack’s ear.
Imagine a story now where a writer goes on a winter retreat with his wife and son. They leave him alone to write. He decides he’s had enough of them not talking to him and grabs his axe. Now remember: Jack is an ordinary guy with legitimate concerns who’s been let down by his family. It’s not his fault at all that he wants to chop them into tiny pieces. It’s their fault.
Would you have bought that book? Would the film adaptation be a contender for one of the best horror movies ever made?
Thelma and Louise
Thelma and Louise is an interesting narrative as it’s far more morally ambiguous than the other two examples. Thelma and Louise are essentially good people who commit murder (albeit against someone who well deserves it). The pendulum swing here is an attempted rape, and it propels the two main characters down a road that has fewer and fewer exits.
How about this. Thelma and Louise are at a bar. They hit on a guy, but he doesn’t want to talk to them, so they shoot him. Wait. Are we still meant to root for these two? Let’s take it further and suggest Thelma and Louise go on a criminal rampage purely because their partners back home neglected them. They’re definitely not our heroines any more.
Wrapping it up
As a thesis, this definitely needs some work. I’m sure there are examples out there where a character has turned to ‘evil’ purely through the neglect of the ‘good’ side. However, the ‘liberals are to blame’ hypothesis comes loaded with two key bits of baggage. First: voting for Trump is a bad thing (because you don’t get blamed for an outcome unless it’s a negative outcome). Second: while the Trump campaign is, at best, presented as a minority shareholder in this blame, the voter themselves is apportioned absolutely no share of the blame. Again, they are people with legitimate concerns who were slighted by liberals.
Now, look again at those three examples and let me know if you can tell a story where the main characters make the choices they do, with zero influence from the ‘bad’ side (Palpatine; the Overlook; attempted rapists), and still remain good and sympathetic. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t.