by Trisha Mahoney
I watch a lot of television. And a lot of superhero films. They are a wonderful escape from the reality of my daily grind of navigating difficult and nuanced socially conscious conversations. I love my job as a dramaturg, but those conversations are easier to have when it is black and white. Superman fighting some Nazis? Yeah, go get ‘em all.
This is reflective of our desire to reduce nuance from our interactions, specifically in terms of areas of dissent in perspective or opinion. It is tempting to declare our righteousness in opposition to the Big Bad Wolf, the clearly evil villain who only has motivation in the loosest sense of the word. Look at the princess-eating dragon that I have slain. Hear the story of when I saved the nation from thousands of car-sized spiders shooting lava from their pincers. When we make our opponents bigger, we make our imagined victories more meaningful.
I will concede that we are getting much more nuanced storylines in many occasions. In Civil War, it is almost impossible not to choose a side but that decision process is more like the never-failing Edward vs Jacob debate: a good combo of morals and personal preferences for the attractiveness of muscles vs sparkles.
Of course, it could, should, and has been argued that our favorite television programs and superhero movies are for pure distraction and entertainment purposes. But we also must recognize that our media has an, often unconscious, effect on the way that we interact with our world. Take, for instance, the effect that commercials portraying women have on the self-esteem of teenage girls. Women, especially when introduced to these images from youth, based their self-worth off of the ideals that commercials present for us. Something as small as advertisements that we flip through in a magazine have a strong, while unconscious effect, on our sense of being and whether or not we are beautiful. If we see that kind of negative effect on us from our commercials, the part of the show we most try to avoid, then how can we not expect for an effect on us to be seen within the integral struggles of our most beloved forms of media?
With that in mind, we have to recognize what our favorite television shows are saying to us or advertising about our world. My recent obsession, The Gifted, is a classic example of a simplified version of reality. It is the humans versus the people with supernatural abilities, and they will both stay on their side until death. The humans, as they desperately try to explain why they would like to exterminate all of the super-powered individuals in the world struggle to make an argument that is even coherent.
The audience has no choice but to side with the more like-able, more humorous, more empathetic, and more realistic super-powered humans. That is all fine and dandy, except real life doesn’t work that way. It never is that clear cut, with people espousing racist ideals clearly identifying themselves as racist and problematic. We are more commonly affected by our unconscious biases, so it is a minority of people who would openly admit to blatant racism. Our very own president is unable to come to terms with his racism, which seems fairly blatant, and yet he firmly believes in the righteousness of his opinion and its lack of racist intent.
I wish these problems were more blatant more often, it would be easier to identify then to parse through the balance of good vs evil within a person in our life. We are never shown media that asks us to do this.
Maybe this is a chicken vs the egg scenario. Whether our popular portrayals of villainous archetypes has influenced our reduction of the demons in our own lives or our inability to ascribe humanity to our supposed enemies created hundreds of years of the good vs evil, the result is that we are stuck in a loop of simplification of our debates for purely our personal benefit.
This mentality bleeds into the way that we conduct our debates in our daily life, an oversimplified othering of our enemies to prevent having to truly interact with them, and therefore, their beliefs.
Rarely do we see televised versions of ethical discussions. It is no wonder that we hide between snarky memes and pithy tweets. If we have no prevalent examples of how to have an ethical debate with someone who’s problematic views are just that: problematic, but not a Neo-Nazi.
This is not to dispute the fact that Neo-Nazis exist, current events in our country certainly confirm that, but we need to stop imagining them as our only adversaries. Instead, we need to start talking about how to have discussions of problematic language in our day-to-day lives with people who are our peers, friends, or family.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we turn every comedic sitcom and fairytale into a revolutionary piece of philosophy. But let us challenge ourselves as artists and audience members. How can we revel in ethical debates as artists and audience members? How can we revel in ethical debate at the same level of enjoyment as how much I enjoy watching people fall off ridiculously oversized bouncy castles? I believe we can do it. Reframe: I know we can do it, from the little girl who loved the retelling of the 3 little pigs from the Big Bad Wolf’s perspective. Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, a play riffing off of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun could be quoted as another. It is possible to have nuanced stories, stories that reach farther and start discussion as opposed to easing our own morality and just-ness.
Let’s revert our forms. I want to see the version of The Gifted that doesn’t have a blatant racism metaphor. Give the audience a real opportunity to choose a side, to practice those ethical discussion skills that we so desperately need in our everyday life nowadays. Make the “enemy” understandably appealing, so we are forced to discuss.