Kylie and I are currently watching a show, which shall remain nameless, and it has fallen prey to the most annoying thing about the stories we tell in popular culture (in my humble opinion).
The hero in this show is the “leader” of a little gang. I put the word in quotes because he is not really leading. He is just in charge. What is systemically wrong about the way we portray leaders is this: the guy who will do anything for his own cause – manipulate, hurt, betray – is the guy who is in charge. We are supposed to really sympathize with the pain in his past even as he ignores the past pain of others. Here is the thing: other characters have pains and they matter too.
Other people have pain and it is just as important as our own. We like our heroes to be this way because it feeds this terrible inclination within us that our pain and our agenda is most justified. We want to be a leader so we can be in charge – so the story becomes about our pain and the concerns of minor characters remain minor.
I am not one of those people who watch things and rant about how people in real life would act differently. It isn’t real life and I get that. It is a story. But what strikes me is that what we say in our stories, especially if they are consistent themes of messages, plays at our subconscious (maybe comes from it as well). It informs the way we think in real life. My annoyance with our storytelling is not that it is an inaccurate reflection of “real life” but that it is an inaccurate reflection of truth, which affects our “real life” perceptions, attitudes, and actions.
Enough of the ranting I swore I don’t do. The point I want to make is that our art reflects our reality. And our art reinforces our reality. The real message we get in stories is that to be a hero, it is justifiable to break the rules and use others. After all, what always happens at the end of these stories? Everyone wins. Everyone gets their way. It just works out.
When characters have diverging agendas, we call it interesting and fun and justifiable. In real life, diverging visions tear people apart. It is not just going to work out. If you are acting or “leading” like many of the main characters in our stories, you will destroy your relationships, find yourself lost and alone, and never achieve what you are after.
But hey, stories are just stories, right?
Look at our political climate. No matter how you vote, you make a lot of excuses for some questionable behavior on behalf of the side you support. Even reading that sentence, you are likely thinking Whoah, whatever you mean is nothing compared to what they are doing.
If you follow a sports team, you vilify the behavior of your rivals and defend that of the players on your team. Even if the behavior is pretty much the same.
If you tell a little white lie to one of your friends, you consider it justified. Maybe not right, but you are dealing with so much! When a friend lies to you, you consider it indefensible and immoral. How dare they?!
So, the side we represent matters more than the truth. The role we are cast in – and all of us believe ourselves to be “the good guy” – matters more than the true heart behind our perspective and our actions. And that is a dangerous place to be.
I don’t care much if our stories change. It is annoying, but so be it. What terrifies me is the impact this is having on our society, our relationships, and the very idea of what a leader is and what he/she should do. This needs to change. For the sake of all of us. And if it does, our stories will change as well.