When Art Makes Us Less Empathetic

Real life is usually more complicated than the traditional hero vs. villain narrative. (Photo: Suzanne Helmigh)

I’ve been reflecting recently on the binaries we so often see in art—the clearly defined hero vs the clearly defined villain—and how that narrative can engender a similar us vs. them mentality in our politics. (“It promotes ideological purity,” my brother replied when I raised this issue with him, framing, to his credit, what I was trying to get at much more astutely.) I realized this notion of ideological purity could be a worthwhile concept to unpack in an article, particularly in regard to our most popular, accessible franchises.

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Many of today’s biggest entertainment properties, across books, film, TV and beyond, feature what I’m going to call the “hero vs. villain” narrative. Examples can include anything from action movies to fantasy novels to video games, and this type of conflict operates on a few central premises:

  1. In a situation of conflict, in which characters want things they don’t have, there are fundamentally two opposing sides.
  2. The side that most closely matches the beliefs of the audience is good, the side that differs is bad.
  3. Only one side can get what they want, and to do so they must defeat the other side in some way.

These stories can, of course, contain depth and complexity and any number of smaller plotlines and interpersonal conflicts. But they are most broadly stories of “good” characters opposing the “bad” characters. And if you want to make sure the audience really enjoys the story, you’ll make it clear which side they should be rooting for and allow that side to get what they want in the end. This a familiar premise we’re all familiar with, and as I’ve written before, we’re so used to this story structure we don’t even expect heroes to fail, since they almost never do.

We need more popular stories about negotiation and compromise.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this story structure, and it is healthy for societies to use art to reinforce their core values and leave their audiences feeling validated. But it does become a problem when we overlook the fact that it’s not the only way to tell a story—it’s just one of the most accessible. There any number of different ways you could tell a story about people who want different things. What about a story with three (or more) separate groups who all have unique, mutually exclusive desires? After struggling between the three of them, they eventually decide to compromise, and despite being somewhat disappointed with the outcome, they are each ultimately glad to be slightly better off than they were. (Or you could imagine any number of other conflicting character combinations and complex resolution strategies that don’t simply favor one side.) Plenty of stories like this exist, of course, but they tend not to have potential as grand franchises, because there’s not a lot of drama in compromise. There’s not a visceral thrill in watching a few people courteously negotiate their finer points of difference. And there’s less validation in watching our preferred side lose or—what could be seen as the ultimately surrender—realize they were wrong about something and change their mind.

Comparison between Donald Trump and Voldemort are entertaining, but more thoughtful conversations would’ve delegitimized him more effectively. (Photo: Decider, via Twitter)

Unfortunately, however, that’s how real life works—we get messy stories of compromise and incremental progress rather than clean narratives of hero vs. villain. But these hero/villain narratives are such a part of our cultural vernacular that they easily become our default analogies. Consider, most obviously, our reactions to Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency. Trump has been compared to a whole range of villains from popular culture, from Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, classic Nintendo games, etc. It’s a fun exercise or thought experiment, if you just want to be satirical and take it with a grain of salt, but the prevalence and strained intellectual grasping of these comparisons suggest that a lot of people are buying into this narrative. And this is harmful, because Trump is not a movie villain. This isn’t The Hunger Games, and Donald Trump is not Emperor Palpatine or Voldemort. Fortunately, this mindset has gotten some backlash (examples include these pieces from DailyKos or Esquire), and while I don’t want to be too hard on fans who are using their favorite books and films for encouragement during a difficult time, to frame complex and very serious political conversations around them is a potentially childish impulse that I think we should avoid. And it’s not a criticism of the works themselves, which have achieved wide popularity for good reason. It’s because these works are just not telling the same story we’re living right now.

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Donald Trump is not maintaining his power through magic, stormtroopers or pure dictatorial control. There are real dictators in the world, and Trump isn’t one of them. That doesn’t mean he isn’t trying to horde control and secrecy in horrifying ways, but that his power comes from a variety of complicated ideological forces.

Trump is part of a vast web of ideas–not simple moral binaries.

There is, of course, the overt racism, xenophobia and misogyny among many of the people who voted for him. But some of his supporters are instead motivated by other factors like economic uncertainty, mistrust in establishment politics or the bizarre rabbit hole of fake news. (That being said, these people are still guilty of perpetuating his racism and other prejudices, as our writer Courtney Harge recently put so well.) Donald Trump isn’t just one singular entity that has to be taken down—he’s part of vast web of ideas and perspectives that can’t simply be addressed through moral binaries.
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Trump and his associates may be villainous, if in a manner quite different from a movie villain, but most of the people who voted for Trump aren’t “evil,” even if they contributed to something collectively abominable (as some are starting to realize). And if you try to use moral binaries, and see everyone as either for you or against you, where does it end? Are the bad guys anyone who doesn’t share your exact beliefs? Anyone who doesn’t agree with every one of your stated goals? Does that include people of your own political party or movement or -ism? Are more pragmatic goals the enemy of more ambitious solutions (or the other way around)? We’ve seen these battles of ideological purity, and they don’t serve anyone’s greater good.

A scene from Lynn Nottage’s Sweat (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Right now, art should be inspiring empathy and communication, but when we think that we can understand real conflicts through the lens of intentionally straightforward, commercially-minded movie narratives (which, I should add, tend to favor violence or force and seldom model nuanced conflict resolution) it actually makes us less sophisticated thinkers. As has been proven again and again, telling someone how wrong they are or that they’re the bad guy only causes them to cling tighter to what they currently believe. And in real life, unlike in these narratives, our opponents may actually have some solid points or insights that we ourselves haven’t seen, even if we don’t agree with their ultimate conclusions. To assume otherwise is pompous, not heroic. (That being said, avoiding binaries does not mean that everyone is always right or that all opinions are valid. There are some unequivocally toxic attitudes in our politics right now that we must take a hard stance against.)

This week, playwright Lynn Nottage won her second Pulitzer Prize, for her play Sweat. The play explores the racial and economic conflicts among a group of factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania, and before writing the play Nottage conducted extensive interviews with the real residents of the city. Many did not share her beliefs or her background, but out of this experience she wrote what is now being lauded as one of the most empathetic and insightful plays on blue-collar life in recent memory. This is the kind of work we need to be using when we use art as a model for our politics. Our culture’s popular hero vs. villain narratives can still be politically enriching in very valid ways—they remind us to be brave, to value justice, to believe in ourselves, and to recognize that even the most ordinary people can be capable of grand things. And there is real evil—from hate crimes to terrorism or any number of other atrocities—alive in our news every day, and I certainly don’t think people should cede ground to individuals who mean them real harm, physical or otherwise. But we can’t let our most successful action and adventure stories tempt us into ideological purity, and we can’t use them to turn complicated networks of diverse perspectives into convenient boogeymen. It’s fun to ridicule Trump, but when it comes to modeling the real work of educating and understanding each other, there’s better art for the job.