Society

An Argument for the Legitimacy of Fictional Characters as Role Models

Many of us have been there. We’ve circled up for the question game, and the question has been asked: who is your hero? And around they go, the echoed presidents and athletes and artists and freedom fighters. And then they get to you and everyone is staring and you answer, “Batman.”

Youre-kiddingThey laugh like you’re kidding.

You and I both know that Batman is not, strictly speaking, real. For many of the uninitiated to the world of fandoms and comics, the very notion that a fictional character could serve as a role model for anything is ridiculous.

The argument goes something like this:

Me: It’s not a joke. Batman is really my hero.

Person: But he’s not real! You can’t ask him questions, you can’t go to him when you don’t know what to do. You need someone to look up to that you can talk to.

I’d like to direct your attention to the above gif to give you an idea of my reaction. I have seen this argument many times in the dangerous world of real-life. It’s the argument for human interaction, the forefront of ‘everything that is wrong with this generation’. There is no real interaction: it’s all screens and keyboards and everything about it is terrible. But there is one crucial thing that everyone miraculously forgets: those athletes and activists, those presidents and authors:

How many conversations have you had with them?

We go around the circle: Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Oprah, Parental Unit, Hilary Clinton, Audrey Hepburn – no one bats an eye. They smile, they nod, they ooh and they ahh as they learn the sparkling traits of your human functionality and the importance of the things you value. At the mention of someone that is ‘not real’, they laugh, they mark you as ‘the funny one’ or ask you to ‘please take the question seriously’. And when they realize you are, in fact, serious, well:

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Clearly, the true reason for this trend is not that ‘you can’t really talk to them’ – though many seem to adopt this rationale. The reason for this trend is that many people do not understand the impact a fictional character can have on an individual and, subsequently, do not realize the lasting impact a fictional character can have on the world as a whole. Within these ideas are many more issues, prominently, the troublesome perception of our society that in order to be important, it has to have been important on a national or global scale. And, of course, the value we place on the idea of ‘realness’ – an idea that is, in itself, quite abstract.

tumblr_inline_mvcy8pIKda1qze50nSo, what is real?

According the the dictionary:

actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed.

According to philosophy:

It’s more complicated than that.

It is generally considered that fictions are inherently ‘not real’. However, the idea that something ‘not real’ can have an affect on something that is ‘real’ has become increasingly apparent in popular media, appearing in such works as The Hunger Games, Divergent, Supernatural, and Inception.

Consider for a moment a nightmare: While you are there, you can feel it. And even though it may be inconsistent with reality, with everything you know, you accept it as reality because it feels real. When you wake up, you feel scared. And this is as a direct result of the nightmare you experienced. It is something that is not technically real that felt real and created a real affect on you.

This in, in a nutshell, why we love fiction. Although it is not real in a universal sense, it is experienced as real on an individual sense. Which begs the question:

 

Why is the universal real more important than the individual real?

This all comes back to universal effects vs. individual effects – in order to be important, it must be important on a national or global scale. In order to have an impact on the world, you have to be famous, you have to do something big. This is no new phenomenon – we’ve had revered royalty, figureheads, nobles, philosophers – all rock stars of their time. We have have people releasing sex tapes and murdering people all in the name of getting noticed.

Fame does not serve any clear social or psychological need, so we really have no idea why we’re obsessed with it. But, for whatever reason, we are.

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This strange obsession with fame is a big part of what drives the preference of the universal real over the individual real. With that in mind: when I say Batman is my hero, many people, knowing nothing about him, think I’m kidding because they do not experience Batman as a fact of reality, as having an effect on the course of real life history. It does not occur to them that I might have that experience, as their only individual experience is the one that they have experienced. And we all know that reality to one person can be vastly different than the reality of another person.

tumblr_mevn1yCwzN1r74e8xThe actual point I’m getting at is this: we need to realize that the difference in experience leads to difference in perception, and difference in perception leads to difference in experience. I can’t ever talk to Batman, he can’t answer my questions or console me when I am upset – but neither can Nelson Mandela. And I may not have somebody to talk to, but I may have my own world. The place I go to figure things out, to find wisdom, and find help. The feelings I get from that are very real, and definitely effect me in my day to day life. To treat that as invalid in not okay, because it says that my experience is less important than someone else’s.

Let’s fix it.

Fictional characters make great heroes. Although they aren’t technically real, they are representative of the values of a society or of a real person, and the situations they find themselves in are analogous to real life issues and experiences. We analyze these sorts of works because they say something about us and the world that we live in, and they can reveal things about ourselves that that we can’t know in the moment of the real life situation. If we look past what is big and remember our own individual heroes – our parents, teachers, friends – then we open ourselves up to a whole new idea. It’s not weird or even particularly different – it’s something. It something that someone has decided to hold on to. It’s something that, like any real like hero, can make us go like this:

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And this:

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And sometimes this:

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Because this is what these characters make us feel. This is the experience, the very real emotions of life we are forced to cycle through much quicker than is healthy because of the current state of our favorite character, our hero, and the best friend we’re sure we have. Because that’s what makes it real to us – that individual real. And it changes our world, and what we know, and how we experience life. We watch their lives and we we a make connection.

And this – this is very important.

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Dragon Age and the People of Color ‘Debate’

The internet (namely, tumblr and twitter) have been abuzz as of late with an oddly large number of people freaking out about the ethnicity of a recently announced character for the upcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition. Much of the fan art for the character has made him look ‘more white’ than he was intended. This, naturally, caused a sort of uproar wherein the majority of people were 100% confused, spurring such comments as:

Dude. Dorian’s got olive skin, which is the usual southern European/Mediterranean colour, and you can bet your arse that we all identify as white.

…how is Dorian NOT white. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for poc character and I got super excited when I saw vivienne because not only is she black, she HAS features common of african ethnicity and not just a white person colored black…but Dorian’s a pastry white ass guy.

While there is much there to address, if you’re unfamiliar with the Dragon Age franchise, this is the character in question:

dorian

When I first saw Dorian, I thought he was white. And this is not so much his actual appearance, but a deeper issue that this has been revealed in media: I thought Dorian was white because I expected him to be white. He has some color to his skin, he has features not commonly associated with Caucasians or white people (rather, features commonly associated with Indian or Middle Eastern heritage). In fact, he looks like  me. And I am very much not white. Despite all of this, I assumed that it was just the lighting, and that he was another white character. And a lot of other people did too.

This is a problem.

And I shouldn’t have to tell anyone that this is a problem for them to realize that this is, in fact, a really big problem. We live in a society where there are so many white leading men that, unless we get a character that is outwardly black or Eastern Asian, the assumption is that he is white.

Since the above comments were made, several of the writers and developers on the game have come out to address the issue. John Epler, cinematic developer for BioWare, had this to say:

When you take a character that -is – a PoC and you draw them as white, you’re sort of saying ‘don’t care about you unless you’re white’. And that’s a feeling that people will take into their real lives. ‘Unless your’e white, we don’t think you’re worthwhile’.

This speaks to a much deeper issue than let on. As previously stated, the artists that drew Dorian as white did not realize he was not meant to be white. His skin isn’t noticeably dark, therefore he has to be white. In my eyes, the problem is not that people drew Dorian white. The problem is that everyone is so sure that he is white that they’ve become outwardly opposed to any other idea.

The logic, as seen in the first anonymous comment above, is that Dorian has light skin, therefore he is white. And this speaks to an issue that has been hugely prevalent in culture throughout the last century: passing. I talk more about that idea here. Specifically in the poem Passing by Tori Derricotte:

Why presume “passing” is based on what I leave out and not what she fills in?

Too many people need to know, and too many people fill in. In the case of media, it is very important as there are not many not-white main characters. By filling in his race, too many people have made a crucial mistake. And this is something we should talk about, and this is something that we should work on.

We see race in terms of black and white, and that has never been okay.

That being said.

There is another fundamental misunderstanding that has made this conversation a hell of a lot harder to have. People keep talking about white washing, and Dorian being a Person of Color and all that. But what most have failed to talk about is what, exactly, Person of Color means. Where I come from, it means black.When we get letters that talk about ‘people of color’ from colleges and the like, many have the response ‘but I’m not black’ and others, like me, feel the term is dated and weird. In my region, the only people who call all minorities people of color are the white people of the north end. Everyone else associates the term with people who identify with the black cultural identify. This predominantly includes people with ethnic ties to Africa, Jamaica, and South America. So for someone like me, and I’m sure for many other people, to hear that Dorian is a PoC, their first response is ‘but doesn’t look black’. And ‘reasonably’ so, as there have always been differences in social structure and slang across different regions (again, assuming a cultural identity based on appearance is a tricky thing to do). But pulling this entire idea into the area of ‘PoC’, everyone has latched onto this idea of black, and thus the central issue – the fact that he is not white and the shocking issue that so many people ignored his actual appearance as so many people expected him to be white – has gone largely ignored.

This is a problem.

I do not believe that they should have has to make Dorian darker. However, I do wonder why they didn’t. I’m not sure if that’s also a problem, or if it’s just the reasonable exercising of his country of origin (Tevinter) and the fact that the only Tevinters we’ve seen so far in the series have been darker than Fereldens and Kirkwallers, but not as dark as commonly associated with East Indians. And there is also the thought that Western media tends to latch onto the darker people in the Middle East and generally ignores the diversity that exists within skin tone and appearance.

There really is a lot going on here.

What is your take on the issue? And what does PoC mean to you? Let me know in the comments below.

Society is a Fictional Monster

The other day, I was scrolling through iwastesomuchtime as I do, indeed, waste so much time, when I stumbled upon a picture. I had seen this picture several times before, but I typically ignored it and continued on with my day. This time, however, I was in a particularly thoughtful mood so I saved it to my computer and thought I would revisit it. This is the picture in question:

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Well, I guess it’s more of meme. Whatever. It’s not that it was really weird. I mean, people complain about this crap all the time. It’s that it really says a lot about what’s going on in society.

Way back when, people used to be scared by and comforted with the lie that all the monsters, all the bad guys in the world are easy to spot. They are as ugly and frightening on the outside as they are on the inside. This is the way people have thought since the dark ages and an idea repeated frequently in pop culture today (primarily in children’s movies). Form a young age, we are taught that the monsters are out there, but we are also taught that they don’t look like everyone else. And that’s a sort of comfort. Imagine how frightening it would be for a child to look out into the world and know that anybody they see, any random normal Joe on the street, could be the sort of villain they see in the movies.

It’s worth noting, of course, that the pictures in the first column are of bad guys and the pictures in the second column are of good guys. At some point, the monsters started becoming the heroes. Of course, they made the monsters pretty so we would be comfortable dealing with them, even romanticizing about them. But they still aren’t human. Humans have always had a tendency to look down on things that aren’t human, so why the sudden glamour? Or, if you will, wtf happened?

Here’s what happened.

We stopped being comforted by the monsters. As a society where the monsters are obvious and we don’t do a thing about them, where the media tells us every ugly thing going on in the world, we need to feel pretty. We need to believe that there aren’t as many monsters as we thought. That some of these so called monsters can actually become, well, human. In the pictures of the left column, we see clear, smiling faces. And in most of the given examples, the majority of the bad guys look just like the good guys. Two eyes, a nose, a mouth, oddly perfect skin. The works. but even though they look just like everyone else, even though their evil isn’t on display, our heroes still know who to fight. In a world where many people may be losing grasp of who to fight and who to trust, this is something that is very comforting.

Now, you may be shaking your head at this. I’ve read too far into it, haven’t I? You will not be convinced that there is any sense to my ramblings! You want the horror!

Well. Allow me to convince you.

Image this: You are standing on a crowded street. You have been informed that someone on the street is a monster. You have a gun. The monster appears. It is this ugly mangled thing. Your heart is pounding. People are screaming. You pull the trigger. The beast is dead. End of story. Restart. You are standing on a crowded street. You have been informed that someone on the street is a monster. You have a gun. Nothing changes. The monster is there. You feel it, but you can’t see it. It looks just like everyone else, You don’t know who to shoot. You can’t see the monster. Now you have a monster who looks like everyone else in the middle of a big city. Now we have a story.

Yes. My argument is flawed. Sue me.

The point I am trying to make is in the real world, monsters look like people. The creepy-looking guy isn’t always the killer and the princely figure isn’t always the hero. Whatever their original (usually fetish related) intent, movies and books these days are beginning to reflect that. And that is in no way a bad thing.

Let me know what you think in the comments below. Have a lovely day.

That is all.