The Problem with Archetypes

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; Angel 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?” 

12 thoughts on “The Problem with Archetypes

  1. It’s eas­i­er to kill when the target’s per­son­hood is stripped away, I think. I al­so think this is part of why zom­bie movies are so pop­u­lar but that’s a whole oth­er tan­gent that prob­a­bly won’t make sense in a com­ment box.

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