We Need New Narratives

Posted by on May 10, 2017 in Essays, Journal Entries | No Comments

I wrote this back in February of 2017, so anything that seems dated, is.

“I can’t wait till it’s over.” That was a common phrase I read and heard all throughout 2016. With the passing of each beloved, once controversial cultural icon we would memorialize them and bemoan our lot in the same breath. We prayed the shitstorm taking place would soon be downgraded to a tropical shit depression, and there was this mentality of just trying to weather the storm. Hunker down until it’s past us, then we can get on with the rest of our lives. We witnessed the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, the (potential) beginning of the end of the EU, a refugee crisis of heartbreaking magnitude, the election of a game show host to the highest American political
office, and all the other tiny wounds and diminishments that seemed to be 2016s overarching theme.

There is value in maintaining a stiff upper lip in the face of tragedy. There’s something very British about it all. Keep calm and carry on. But that phrase has been used and misused and misappropriated so much that it no longer has any meaning. We now take it to maintain an irrational hope that things will just get better if we just keep doing what we’re doing. We maintain this fantasy that we’ll be bit by a radioactive spider, or some magical person will transform our lives, or any of the other worn out narratives that we’ve seen and read so often that we know by heart. They’re now emotional muscle memory. In that way “I can’t wait till it’s over” is a very hopeful statement. It implies that it will be over, and that the only action required of you is to wait.

I’m afraid I have some bad news. The cavalry is not coming. We lost some major, and still relevant cultural icons, and the stories of geopolitical unrest and blind populism were like the soft spot on the floor of that one corner of your living room. We pulled up the carpet and found that the floor was rotting and the foundation was sinking. The underlying systems of society are broken and we cannot ignore them. “I can’t wait till this roof stops leaking” isn’t something people say because it’s absurd on its face. We need to have the same attitude about our current state of political, cultural and artistic affairs.

People like Bowie, Prince, George Michael were men who confronted the idea of masculinity and turned it on its head. They weren’t feminine, though occasionally they used the signifiers of femininity quite liberally. Prince was never seen without eye liner, and the way these men dressed and behaved was expressive in a way that the traditional archetype of masculinity tries to suppress. The bastardised masculinity of the modern age always advances, values action over thought, is more concerned about feeling right than being right, and is only on display as a show of strength.

The ersatz femininity of the age—the other side to this counterfeit coin— puts woman on a pedestal as a prize for the modern male archetype. She is the damsel in distress, always in need of saving, and is there only to be consumed, tamed by the skill and power of the man, and first and foremost, she is there as an object. Her ultimate destiny is that of a grateful servant. The servitude bestowed on the man is a reward for his power and skill, his reason and aggressiveness. Think about the phrase “lock it down” for a moment (and all that implies) and then reel in disgust.

The western male has no need of feelings or vulnerability, nothing sensual. The way the modern man dresses, the cars he drives, the aggressive nature of his affection—”I’m huggin’ ya, but I’m hittin’ ya”—is a constant challenge to all. To the victor go the spoils.
All the signifiers of this flimsy male archetype are warnings to stay away.

But the more encompassing masculinity of these now departed artists bespeaks an acceptance of faults and a willingness to experiment with a deeper and more complicated energy—they weren’t afraid to color with more than eight crayons. They provided an example for those who felt like the pre-existing narrative was insufficient, and the fact that these men were working artists, breaking new ground with confidence, and achieving success in the eyes of the marketplace, made others—who were hiding a box of 64 in their closet—more confident to color with them. And in a culture that uses sexuality as a cudgel to keep people in line, they used it as a way of displaying different aspects of humanity.

On the female side, people like Carrie Fisher, through humour, constantly called bullshit on the narrative that she was “supposed to follow.” She was a princess who ended up a general. But more than that she was an author, an artist, and a real human being struggling with very real pain. She refused to be the product that hollywood makes women into, and because of that (and the fact that she was over 40) you didn’t often see her face or hear her name much in the last 20 years. Unless you’re something the system can sell, it has little use for you.

Just when we began to place these necessary but infrequently invoked parts of ourselves on the same plane as ‘traditional values’—ruling for marriage equality, gender role appropriation in the marketplace and mainstream entertainment, embracing the full range of the sexual spectrum, acknowledgement of the power of vulnerability, and a kind of live-and-let-live mentality (mostly because we don’t want others bothering us about what we want to do. But hey, it’s something,) community being defined as a virtue—along comes the death throes of the old masculine personality with its protectionism, racism, and xenophobia. Every action it takes is motivated in fear, including masking that fear as strength and power. The identity is under attack and is using all his dirty little tricks to stick around for just a bit longer.

Sadly, fear is a pretty powerful motivation. But fear as primary motivator never leads to true progress. Fortunately we HAVE made progress, and, overall, continue to do so. The way we treat animals, the way we treat children, the scope of our ‘tribe,’ vastly declining murder rates, our values at they pertain to equality (at least theoretically), our thirst for knowledge and discovery—I consider all these things progress. Logic dictates that if we made this progress, then we must have had in in ourselves to do so. You cannot do something beyond your potential. If you do, then that means your potential wasn’t propperly measured in the first place. So, if fear is more potent on a per-unit basis, then we must posess love in greater amounts. Nothing else can explain this. (what about god you say? well, we invented him/her, too) We are a nasty and brutish species, but we are also creative, compassionate, empathetic, intelligent, and expressive.

What can we do in the face of this? I have a few suggestions. And by that I mean here are the things we have to do in order to succeed:
First and foremost we need better narratives. Stories are the vehicle by which we define our humanity, and they’re the first thing we look to when we think about how things are ‘supposed to be.’ These stories are everywhere. Ads tell you what a _fill in the blank_ looks like. Usually, being that thing involves using their product. Our institutions will tell you what success looks like and how one needs to act to get ahead. And movies are one of the strongest influencers of all. Just look to them to see how a man is supposed to behave, how a woman is supposed to behave, what one must do to succeed, how success is supposed to feel, how life is neat and clean, what a villain looks like, what normal american experience is, what values we hold dear, all the way down to the nature of reality. Not only are our current narratives limiting in scope, they’re also too neat and too sloppy. I love a good hero’s journey as much as the next human, but when most of what we see is done based on formula, we need to reject that formula (no one NEEDS to see a movie) and we also need to create our own new narratives.

The only reason why we utter the words “President Trump” is because the right people bought his narrative. He’s not a good businessman—he doesn’t’ pay his workers, he uses his money to take from others, back when he was an actual developer (instead of running a management company) he ran his properties into the ground—but he tells the story that he’s a good businessman. He creates a fog of success by fake firing people on a fake TV show, he tries to distort reality to suit his narrative, and he never drops character. He is all story and no substance.

The good news is we are the culture. Another pervasive lie is that there is a subset of people in society that are makers and the rest of us are consumers. The market declares creativity a commodity, and celebrity is the currency, but think of how much greater we could be if the expectation was that everyone had a right to tell their story, and that storytelling demands nuance, patience and vulnerability. We expect so little that when we see something that barely rises above the low bar we have set, we throw praise and money at it as if it were the savior we’ve all been waiting for.

The ones we miss told non traditional stories and called bullshit on the old narratives, and we are called on to do the same

Also, as in any good story we have to remember that everything is connected. Every time you pay money for anything you are, in part, condoning the system that created it. Did you know the owner of Coachella is a major donor to the Koch brothers? Sheldon Adelson, the biggest donor to the Trump campaign owns a chain of casinos, Peter Thiel started PayPal, Facebook played a major role in disseminating lies and it makes its money from selling your data to whomever will pay for it. For every movie you see that has a simplistic story with some white male actor made by a white male director, it’s several movies that cannot get made with truly compelling stories told by any number of unrepresented people. When you order movie tickets in advance to Batman V Superman, it’s a message that shit stories will do, just so long as you create enough hype. When you tune into celebrities playing board games on TV, it says clever satire doesn’t matter. When you watch reality TV, it creates demand that supplies someone like Donald Trump, who trades on that myth to become one of the most objectively dangerous leaders we’ve had at the helm in a long time.

So stop making compromises, even if it means skipping coachella this year, or paying ¢.50 more for a can of soup by not shopping at Wal-Mart, or not buying those Chris Brown tickets because Chris Brown, or maybe not buying that football jersey, or any number of creature comforts we wouldn’t miss if we did without them for 2 weeks. We have centuries of culture to draw upon, and endless ways we can recombine them. We’ve been uncomfortable for a long time, so why not be uncomfortable on our own terms.

Yes, 2016 is finally over but I guarantee you that we are in for a bigger shitstorm. The only way to deal with it is to take back our stories, see people for who they actually are, and every time you experience something that gives you an instant negative visceral reaction, explore that, because the only way to get rid of the boogey man is to turn on the light and actually look under the bed.