I’m going to tackle some stereotypes present in modern fiction that I think are dangerous when used irresponsibly. Any entries part of this series will be labeled as “Dangerous Stereotypes.” You can read previous entries in this series, which discuss the Scientist, Bad Boy, and Alpha Male stereotypes.
Audio Edition Coming Soon!
We all love stories about underdogs. We like hearing tales of right and justice and the forces of good beating evil and injustice, no matter what the odds are against them. We like stories about lone wolves who find out the truth about “the system” and fight against it. We love our Rebel Alliances, our Neos, our Team Avatars. We enjoy following the stories of characters who are outgunned but still pull through with cunning, bravery, and a hefty dose of luck. We admire the vigilante characters like Batman, Zorro, and V who uncover the truth or see injustice run rampant and refuse to follow protocol in order to do what is right. We’ve all read those stories, seen those movies and TV shows, played as those video game characters. The fact that we can be outmatched and still come out on top is a heady, even addictive, feeling.
But real life usually doesn’t work out that way.
And sometimes… it shouldn’t.
I think that on some level, we do understand that these uneven battles and crazy-yet-still-somehow-successful plans aren’t real. That they belong solely to the realm of fiction. Most require too many coincidences to fall into place and more luck than one could reasonably hope for. I kind of liked how The Last Jedi drew attention to the fact that crazy plans don’t always work out. We think they do because it’s always presented with the right cards in play, but it’s part of the narrative structure. In practice, the Rebels probably would have been dead a thousand times over. They only won because of the way the writer structured the plot. Same with how the Doctor always wins or at least survives, despite not having or using any weapons.
Despite knowing on some level that these scenarios are fictional, the same fallacy of the inevitably victorious underdog is often applied to historical events. (I think this is partly because history is written by the victors who can put any spin that they please on the facts, especially if it makes them look good.) The American Revolutionary War is touted as one of the great strikes against tyranny, the ultimate story of victory for “the little guy,” but it succeeded only because the French stepped in to help us. (George Washington was an inspiring leader, but an under-equipped general.) If the British Empire could have focused its full attention on subduing the unruly colony rather than being distracted by the French, then things probably would have turned out very differently. Even during the Revolutionary War, only a third of the populace actually supported it; the rest were either loyal to Britain (the Tories) or neutral. The French Resistance during World War II did help slow down or irritate the German army and their contributions should not be overlooked. But much of its history has been romanticized in hindsight; the combined might of American, British, and French guns were what ultimately brought the war in Europe to an end.
It is said that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. And yet we usually only see rebels presented as freedom fighters because we’re seeing the story through their eyes. Because our culture values the individual over the group, it’s always the individual who is right. Sometimes the corporations or governments in fiction are truly repressive and need to be stopped. But how many people who aren’t not a direct part of the conflict end up suffering? Their livelihoods and homes get destroyed and then must labor under increased surveillance and repression in the name of safety. A prime example of this in fiction is AVALANCHE, the eco-terrorist group from the video game Final Fantasy VII. Their stated goal is to protect the Planet from being exploited and destroyed by the Shinra Energy Corporation. To do this, they conduct assassinations and blow up the mako reactors providing places like Midgard with power. The protagonist Cloud joins forces with some of the AVALANCHE members, namely Barrett and Tifa, who are portrayed as decent people trying to free the populace from Shinra. But the game never really explores the consequences of those explosions. How many people were left literally in the dark and for how long? How many patients died in hospitals because they didn’t have power? (Backup generators can only run so long and we don’t know if they had any alternative forms of fuel.) How many people got gravely ill because sanitation ground to a halt? No power means no pumps. While Shinra is definitely a shady organization and their methods ultimately even more destructive to the Planet, the methods of the supposed “good guys” aren’t much better. And of course there’s always the risk of those fighting oppression become the oppressors themselves. You don’t need to look farther than the blood-stained blade of the French Revolution’s guillotine to see how that turns out.
All of this is fine in fiction. The problem comes when it starts to color our perception of reality. Outright evil corporations and government conspiracies are not as common as fiction makes them out to be. The evil that does stem from such organizations is often from a mixture of greed, incompetence, sloth, and indifference. This should not be excused, but armed conflict is probably not the first or the best way to address those issues. For all its flaws (which should not be ignored) government on local, state, and federal level does help direct group effort towards communal projects and stability. I complain about taxes and government waste as much as the next person, but I also know that an individual would not be able to keep the roads paved or schools open or health services available or any of the other dozens of parts of the infrastructure that we take for granted. Armed resistance is touted as a good thing, and yet in reality, not only does it not work against the intended target, but it also destabilizes a lot of people who just want to get on with their lives.
This is not to say that there should never be rebellions. Sometimes it is necessary. But I worry about people jumping into the rebel mindset and applying narrative tropes to real life without thinking it through. It’s exciting to play as the underdog, but in a game we get infinite lives (or at least a restart button.) Books can be put down and even though they may resonate, they don’t actually cause physical harm. Same with movies and TV shows. And while I am skeptical of the claim of violent books, TV shows, movies, or video games increasing violent tendencies (at least on their own; it is always possible to be a contributing factor) those stories and ideas still seep into our consciousness and way of looking at the world. Everyone wants to be on the side of the righteous and often that righteous is portrayed as the underdog in an uneven fight.
Sometimes there is no need to fight. Or fighting will only make things worse. Or the fight is all in our heads because we want to feel special and important in the face of chaos and information overload. Regardless which one of these it may be, we must remember to keep the emotionally satisfying tales of good versus evil firmly ensconced in fiction and really consider the implications and consequences of a rebellion in our stories.