There are some things in media which only reveal themselves after you are able to articulate them.
For me, one of the big ones was queer-coded villains. It was like having a veil dropped from my eyes, seeing the way that difference of identity was being codified as cruel and evil, the way that outsider status was subtly equated over and over again with being Bad, in one way or another.
It’s interesting because, on an individual basis, it’s not an inherently bad thing. You certainly don’t want to end up with the opposite, only having queer people show up as perfect, shining beacons of goodness in everything. But the consistency of it is what creates an effect. If one villain on a cartoon is gay, it doesn’t matter all that much, but when they all are it sets a certain expectation in your mind.
I had another one of these little revelations a couple of years ago. There are so many stories in which the central conflict surrounds a single position of power, and who happens to hold it. A Good King or a Bad King. Trying to keep the Bad King from taking power, trying to restore the Good King to power, but never questioning the rules that govern that position in itself.
This is, of course, a basic lesson that arises commonly for a couple of reasons. It is very common to hate the person in charge of your community, whatever scale that may take. The president, the governor, the mayor, the forum moderator. Anyone making decisions is going to anger people, no matter how fair they may be, so there is always an urge to replace them. But, at the same time: change is scary. You don’t want to change too much, just enough to make things more comfortable for yourself.
In the same way that queer coded villains teaches us to hate the other on moral grounds, this subtly conditions you to trust in institutions. The foundations are sound, they are simply being misused, by some Bad King. The only cure for a Bad King is a Good King. The levers of power themselves are not the problem.
Now, I’m not comin’ out here to say that there’s some shadowy cabal in the entertainment industry trying to influence the way the general populace thinks. Reinforcing the status quo is such a common feature of media that it’s barely worth noting, really. “Things should stay basically the same” is a pretty common and safe position or take.
But it seems noteworthy to me because… the specific types of power involved, no matter what they are, are never questioned. America was founded on defiance of a king, and it was decided very early on that it would have no titles of nobility, which every other European nation had at that time. But still you can have all these stories where despotic kings are lauded for their virtue. The idea that monarchy is bad is embedded deep within our culture, but the actual reasons behind that are basically ignored. That part is just taken as a truism, we don’t like kings… but in stories it’s okay. Admiring a king, from afar, is perfectly fine as long as you don’t let them rule you, personally.
This is all to say that… when a work is presenting a dire situation under tyrannical rule, see if they want to replace the tyrant or get rid of the idea of tyrants. Usually, it’s the former.
Hm, probably a lot of this goes back to Plato’s Republic, which was very skeptical of democracy, to say the least. Plato describes the way that government cycle between each other, from oligarchy to democracy to tyranny and back, over and over again. They are all unstable in their own ways. The only want to keep a government going with any sort of continuity for hundreds of years is to either engineer a perfect ruling class (Plato’s solution) or combine elements of all of them (what Rome stumbled into).
A republic, like the US, combines various features of different types of governments into something that is more stable because it complicates the dynamics so much. There is room for a class of career politicians, who dedicate their whole lives to playing the political game. There is also room for some level of accountability to the general public. There is a place for a decisive executive who can make tough decisions in a crisis, but also limits and oversight of that power.
The problem is that this very stability causes it to get stuck in time. This balance can never be adjusted, because it is Old, and Old things are hard to shake. When traditions become embedded in the consciousness of a nation, it becomes a form of religion. Radical change is heresy. It is creaky and unable to deal with new problems as they crop up.
Think of it: the United States is using a form of government that was never designed to be applied on this scale, or in this type of society. It was only used in the city of Rome itself, not even across the whole empire. The ways that communication technology has changed even in the last fifty years has vastly shifted every part of our society… except the form of our government.
This old bias towards stability above all else, the respect for tradition, and the belief that a single bad actor can be responsible for a vast array of ills, that is what is behind the Good King and the Bad King.
There is a tendency to think that we are beyond history. That the story of humanity was going on for a long time, but it ended and now we can look back and figure things out. Anything new won’t really change anything, because we’ve solved all the solvable problems.
This kind of thinking gained a lot of prominence in the ’90s, when I was growing up. With the end of the Cold War, there was a notion that the last great struggle was over, and now we could all relax and enjoy the benefits of modern society without worrying about anything. We could indulge in wildly violent media now. Any new changes would just be minor tinkering with a formula that had finally worked, in the end.
The last great enemy had been defeated. History is the story of great struggles, and this one was done, so surely it was all over now, right?
This is, of course, hilariously naive in retrospect. However, it seems like some ghost of this sentiment has stuck around nonetheless. It’s a subtle thing, just an idea that we’re just fixing minor problems, that all the big questions have been answered. It leads to a kind of complacency that is difficult to shake, a sort of rock-solid belief in the status quo, in compromise and consensus. That things will just work themselves out, and aren’t worth getting riled up over.
This way of thinking contributes to the proliferation of the Good King and Bad King paradigm. If history is over, and we’re just figuring out the small details, then the person in charge can be one of them. In a way, the Cold War at least kept the possibility of a massive societal change being a possible good thing open, because it could always be overthrowing a whole Bad form of government, not just a single leader. From the vantage point of the end of history, though, it can only be a single bad apple. Vast change is in the past, a curiosity for us here at the end to pick at and analyze but not engage in.
As with queer coded villains, the basic premise of a Good King replacing a Bad King is not without merit. On an individual basis, it could be used for all sorts of different things. Showing the importance of good leadership and compassion, demonstrating the havoc that bad actors can cause, and so on.
It is only the prevalence of it that causes concern, to me. When you are working in one direction, with a bold intention, it’s easy to ignore the subtle messages you send. It’s impossible to consider them all, really. You can only get out there and do your thing, and see where it lands, at the end of the day.
Creating a story that is perfect is impossible. Nothing is going to please everyone, or be completely free of potentially problematic elements. It is not possible to exist in a culture and not be influenced by it in myriad ways that are hard to detect. Your task is to pay attention to them. Think about what you write, what you absorb, your basic assumptions of the way the world works.