Thursday, April 7, 2011

Distress in the media - "Strength in Friends" and "Bitter loner" tropes.

Greetings, New Mad Nation!

This is my 16th post. That means we're starting my 16th week. Man, I can hardly believe it sometimes; we've definitely come a long way. Are you telling all your friends? Because this train isn't going to stop, but progress might get tedious without some fresh injections from the community. I need ideas, stories, anything to rant about, towards, or in support of. I can come up with my own if I dig enough, but I want to make sure the Citizens have a voice. Want to write a guest blog? Go for it! Email it to me at and we'll see about getting it posted. Otherwise, the comment box below is your friend and mine.

All that said, it's time to dive in to my topic for this week, which is distress in the media. A few weeks ago I suggested that I might make a rant about the tropes of "strength in friends" and "bitter loner," and now I've decided to go ahead and do just that.

I'd like to start with something that I actually support, for a change, and talk to you about Little Miss Sunshine. Say what you want about this movie from any other angle, but it has a unique and refreshing approach to distress and dysfunction. The uncle, Steve, starts off having just been released from a hospital after trying to kill himself. This fact is handled rather without delicacy by his family, and thus with tremendous realism. It isn't over-dramatized, and he is given the chance to have his own narrative about it. Whether you agree 100% with everything he says or not, he is not portrayed at any time as a completely broken man who needs to be "shown the light" - in fact, he actually acts as one of the strongest voices of reason in the entire cast of characters. The man who was hospitalized is frequently saner than anyone else in the family. And that's exactly what I'm talking about when I say that the labels of "mental illness" don't necessarily have anything to do with your mental health!

Little Miss Sunshine really stands out amongst movies about mental health, in my experience and opinion, perhaps rivaled only in stark humor and insight by Harold and Maude, although I would absolutely love to have other titles added to this list. It honestly handles the fact that turbulent emotions are sometimes the only appropriate ones; it shows that "bitter loners" can still be functional human beings and that, while relying on family can be powerful, it can also suck. The whole affair ends with everyone but the family themselves being completely scandalized, chalking up a victory for "dysfunction" in a glorious subversion of the standard approach, where either the dysfunction would disappear, or it would somehow cease to be "dysfunctional" because everyone would approve of them. They are weird as fuck but once they accept that, they are successful. It's awesome.

Most movies that deal with distress are not like this.

Take the classic scene in Return of the Jedi, where Luke and the Emperor enjoy a brief philosophical battle with such perfect lines as Luke's observation, "Your overconfidence is your weakness," with the scathing rejoinder, "Your faith in your friends is yours." This pretty much sets up, from a long time ago (1983 - "and a galaxy far, far away"), the dichotomy between Goodness/Friendship and Evil/Solitude in Western film. It is hugely popular in Blockbuster releases and other media designed for mass consumption. Take the confrontation between Harry Potter and Voldemort towards the end of The Order of the Phoenix. It's basically the same damn conversation! Harry comes to understand that Voldemort's weakness is that he has no friends and therefor no one he can really trust. Everyone wants to stab him in the back because he is evil incarnate and therefor not to be trusted himself. Evil has no self-coherence in the overaching narrative; that kind of cooperation is reserved solely for "the good guys."

The lesson that being good wins you friends and being evil gets you stabbed like the Ides of March is a good one, I think, but A.) Totally inaccurate and B.) easily read backwards. Never mind the moral lard we're injecting people with about the nature of good and evil, let's take a look at the implications about friendship and solitude created by this paradigm. While it doesn't logically follow that, if evil implies backstabbing, then backstabbing implies evil, that won't stop people from subconsciously creating that association. Likewise, the association is made between having friends and being good.

I don't like this. Often times people are stabbed in the back precisely /because/ they are good people, and they are surrounded by imbeciles, non-believers, or downright villains. True, this is often the premise for a one-man hero adventure film - take Hot Fuzz for example, although since this is also a parody it rather proves my point for me - but he is always rectified in the end and everyone is on his side; it turns out the whole thing was just a misunderstanding, more often than not, and once the truth comes to light, everyone is his friend again. This strikes me as patently unrealistic.

Perhaps a more pressing issue is this question of friendship and goodness being associated, which by extension indicates that a lack of friends is a lack of goodness. The "bitter loner" trope emerges thus. We often see such a character redeemed by finally being able to accept the good graces of those around him and mesh with "the team." Even if he retains a certain "loner" feel, he still has "friends" now and that makes everyone more comfortable and clearly labels him as "good" once and for all. You see this a lot in video games, where you can never be quite sure of the new character's allegiance due to his aloofness, until he finally learns the meaning of friendship. (I'm looking at you, Amarant of Final Fantasy IX. [And Auron of FFX, Cloud of FFVII, Squal of FFVIII, Shadow of FFVI, etc. etc.) This can make for a compelling story line on occasion, but I feel the theme is repeated to the point of absurdity - rarely if ever does a loner character stay completely without friends, while still able to act in the name of "good." The one notable exception in this series that I can think of is Kain from FFIV, who actually IS used for evil, and even though people try to befriend him once he finally proves "good" again, he cannot accept their forgiveness and remains a loner basically forever - after he helps the good guys defeat evil, he abandons them. I LOVE this character. Not that I necessarily agree that you should run away from people trying to forgive you (I don't necessarily disagree either), but the moral ambiguity and the realness of it are just damn compelling.

Why, in almost every other case, does the loner end up with friends? Why do we have an obsession in our society with seeing this outcast "rectified" by joining up with the rest of the cast? I notice this more in the "mainstream" A-list films, of course; more independent work is often rife with exceptions to this, which I always appreciate. But the bulk of mass media will rarely have a character who is both unambiguously "good" and also a perpetual "loner." Is it because people are afraid of loneliness? Even when it is embodied in someone else, it seems.

Now it may seem that I have gone completely off topic here. Why, on a mental health blog, am I arguing about morality? Because what this kind of media message about goodness suggests is that loners are "not good." If they were, they would have friends. Mass media teaches us that "bitter loners" are either completely ambiguous about morality or, if good, must eventually develop friendship. Even The Batman in movies like The Dark Knight acts as an unequivocally "good" loner only through force of sheer necessity - he doesn't actually want to be estranged from the people of Gotham, and in his own dark way is indeed championed by them. Though "dark," he is still a friend of the people. Meanwhile, kids who sit alone in their room, refusing to hang out with those around them, often for completely legitimate reasons, are stigmatized for their decisions. Everyone knows, thanks to these kinds of messages, that if loners are not out fighting crime, they must be bad people, or at the very best of serious moral ambiguity. Why else would they avoid the rest of the "good" people out in the world?

This is all to say nothing, of course, about the countless onslaught of media messages that portray distressed teens and adults as whiney, mopey, "emo," and otherwise worthless, which do NOT help. True though it may be that some people deliberately cultivate this aesthetic, many others certainly do not, and they are much maligned by the seemingly deliberate conflation of these two sides on the part of the media.

I could spend another hour or two ranting about the fallacies in the "Strength in Friends" trope, especially in terms of how group-thought is often a consequence of this idea in real life, which leads almost exclusively to marginalization and oppression, particularly of those with mental or emotional turmoil, but I think you're starting to get the gist of my point by now. I'd love to see some additional suggestions and observations, or even some counters to any of my points - of all the Madness I've Madnessed so far, this is one of my most open and conversational. What are your takes on this issue? I'd love to know, I'm not 100% married to any of the ideas above; after all, I've never conducted any kind of thorough study on major blockbuster hits over the past thirty years (although now I almost want to!). That's why the discussion aspect is so important, I think.

Thanks as always for reading, fellow citizens. I look forward to next week, where I may expand on this discussion to cover the way that the News media handles similar issues of "loner"-ism - or anything else the Citizenry suggests.


1 comment:

  1. I wish I had more time with this, but here is what comes to mind immediately. Doesn't the media always portray the next-door serial killer, or the lone school shooting gunman as a "loner"? That's got to be bad, right? How is it that we people who do not ascribe to the "sheeple" mentality are somewhat viewed as deficient?
    Have you ever seen the movie "V"? The protagonist here is a definite loner, but is the real good guy; but as usual- though he does not form friendship in the conventional way, in the end many follow him and his ideals.
    I'll try to write more later! Peace.