The Problem with Archetypes

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Lately I’ve been reading all of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and, looking past the deliciously pulpy swords & sorcery genre-​ness of it all, many of the tales wrestle with the tensions between civilization and barbarism. Lately I’ve been thinking a bit regarding how media of all sorts (newspapers, television, online, video, video games, et al.) portray real people as archetypes in a tacit narrative. I recently finished a game called The Saboteur in which the player takes the part of an Irishman in Occupied France, killing Nazis. As you play the game, you end up killing a lot of Nazis. And, as I played, I began to realize that Nazis & Nazism have become the archetypal standard of evil in our culture. I see two problems with this kind of thing, one general, one specific.

The general issue is that archetypes are, by their very nature, resistant to nuance, immutable, and less than real. Archetypes are easily packaged and media creators of all types should consciously avoid packaging each story that comes along into an archetypal dichotomy: hero/​villain, good/​evil.

The specific issue, in the case of the game The Saboteur, is that, by treating Nazis as the archetype of evil, the true horrors of Nazism in the Third Reich can be simply ignored. Nazis become monsters instead of men. You don’t need to understand a monster. You don’t try to understand a monster. You don’t ask “Why a monster?” You just kill them.

Plenty of media narratives fit this bill. Yesterday, when, about a half mile down the road from me, 3 women were saved from a life of rape, abuse, and captivity, the archetypal narrative was immediately placed upon the scene. Charles Ramsey: Hero; Ariel Castro: Monster; Gina deJesus, Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight: Damsels in Distress. It’s all too easy. You can make a story out of anything by imposing archetypes and then adding flourishes, like, in the case just mentioned: fake satellite news reporting.

When it’s easy, you get lazy. People who are convicted of crimes are treated as monsters. Every person who works in public safety or in the military is automatically a hero. This kind of laziness does serious damage to peoples’ lives, gut-​level public opinion, and to critical thinking skills of the people who propagate it. I hope adding just one layer of complexity can make this point stand out a bit more.

Instead of saying that convicted criminals are evil, let’s just say they’re barbarians. So, people who are in, or have been in jail are barbarians, and people who aren’t and haven’t are civilized. There’s no good or evil here, just a level of social sophistication. In this context where is there space for good or evil? Well, who would the barbarians kill? Child molesters and rapists. Why? A barbarian would say “Because they’re evil. Monsters.” and leave it at that. But that’s still wrong. A society in which rooms full of children are murdered by a gunman, athletes and spectators are shredded by bombers, and a trio of brothers enslave young women for a decade is not a society that can afford to rely on lazy narrative archetypes. We have to be willing to exert ourselves enough to ask earnestly uncomfortable questions. Archetypes worked in pulp fiction fantasy stories in the 1930s, but this isn’t the Hyborian Age. Evil doesn’t look like a crazy frog beast. It looks like everyone. And, more importantly, so does Good.

A barbarian has no need for nuance: if it’s a monster, kill it. A civilized person must ask “Why a monster?”