Pop culture today is obsessed with the battle between good and evil.
January 27, 2018 10:55 AM   Subscribe

The good guy/bad guy myth - Catherine Nichols
Virtually all our mass-culture narratives based on folklore have the same structure: good guys battle bad guys for the moral future of society. These tropes are all over our movies and comic books, in Narnia and at Hogwarts, and yet they don’t exist in any folktales, myths or ancient epics. [...] The ostensibly moral face-off between good and evil is a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism – and, ultimately, it gives voice to a political vision not an ethical one.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth (70 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
 
To quote Steve Arlo, assistant to Daryl Zero, the greatest private investigator in the world: "There aren't any GOOD guys. You realize that, don't you? I mean: there aren't EVIL guys, and INNOCENT guys. It's just - it's just... It's just a bunch of guys."
posted by snwod at 11:07 AM on January 27, 2018 [29 favorites]


This was good. I’ve been thinking a lot about a narrative trope common in Japanese manga/anime and Korean manwha narratives, where:
1. Good protagonists encounters a ‘bad’ enemy.
2. They fight/disagree/encounter conflict.
3. Good protagonists eventually prevail in some way - wins, or loses but learns a lesson, etc.
4. Enemy is actually revealed to have fundamentally good values, but difficult circumstances that make their actions completely understandable and comprehensible. (“I’m sorry, I had distant parents, my actions are really ways I try to get close to people”)
5. Said person actually joins the protagonist as a friend, who forgives and accepts them.
6. Step 1.

This is a model of conflict where “sides” and values don’t coincide, where action and intention is understood to be different, where there are rarely evil people, just difficult circumstances and environments that understandably force people to act in difficult ways.

This narrative of conflict is less about placing blame on individuals but understanding ways in which we’re shaped by our circumstances. There’s forgiveness and the hope of future friendship. And the persistent message is that we’re stronger together as a group that cares about each other, facing off an individual that nevertheless deserves compassion.


This is, I think, distinct from the motley crew Good Guys trope mentioned in the article that exists in opposition to the Bad Guys.

I can rarely think of a contemporary US/western movie / popular narrative that aligns to this narrative. I wish there were more, and I think it’s important to talk about this, because pop cinema is contemporary self-mythologizing, and I hope that the stories we tell ourselves about group formation are healthy ones.
posted by suedehead at 11:14 AM on January 27, 2018 [37 favorites]


If you look at the historical texts for ancient myth cycles that survived enough to be written down in some way, this is quite true. In fact, the usual struggle between good and evil was within the character in the story. Gilgamesh, Cuchulain, Rostam and other ancient cycle characters did both good things and bad things in the course of a story. Quite often, while they were the heroes, their bad deeds usually meant the death of someone close to them.

I do think the superhero movies are worse about this than the comics upon which they are based.

To add to suedehead's point above about manga and anime, I would suggest a terrific example of "finding common ground with an enemy" is interwoven throughout the various Gundam series, which are some of the most prevalent anime in Asia, I'm given to understand. The very first Gundam series had the Earth Federation fighting against humans who lived in space. In the very next series, the Earth Federation has become fascist and some of the protagonists of the first series join the "spacenoids" to seek justice.
posted by Slothrop at 11:20 AM on January 27, 2018 [6 favorites]


this is a fascinating article! also chilling the longer I ruminate on it. all modern western storytelling is a kind of politics in this framework, when the explicitly political nationalist storytelling has become the norm, and it's important to find ways to subvert or push back against that particularly in the current overheated nationalist/fascist world state we live in.

interesting to imagine "lower" arts/media taking on this challenge. star wars comes up in the article a few times -- I feel like the most recent film does a lot of interesting feints in this direction, challenging its own established notions of "good" and "evil" as binary states. the context of this article and this kind of thinking puts the fandom-backlash in a particularly ugly light.
posted by Kybard at 11:20 AM on January 27, 2018 [9 favorites]


I can rarely think of a contemporary US/western movie / popular narrative that aligns to this narrative.

TvTropes warning, etc.
Heel Face Turn
Anti-Villain
Noble Demon
Sixth Ranger

Otherwise, I'd think that the conflict in Christianity (and Zoroastrism, and the like) between God and the Devil would give us a mythical pattern for the good guys-bad guys thing.
posted by sukeban at 11:21 AM on January 27, 2018 [11 favorites]


(Oh, and the trope you're describing is Defeat Means Friendship)
posted by sukeban at 11:26 AM on January 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


I have been discussing this problem for years (here, here, here, here, among others).

I have said for years, patriarchal is very manipulative, justifying self-serving behaviour by creating binary lines -- Us as good and Them as bad. This is nothing new.

It is the reason I write matriarchal stories where these problems are addressed in the structure of the stories -- where we put differing life requirements into proper context.

This does not just happen in pop culture, but in journalism as well, and it is something I write about extensively as well.

We have a single model of storytelling. That's it. For people like me who have been outlining these problems for years, this article is old news, and we need to get away from that perpetual surprise that pop culture is a one trick wonder.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 11:27 AM on January 27, 2018 [11 favorites]


> What’s more, the moral physics of these stories about superheroes fighting the good fight, or battling to save the world, does not commend genuine empowerment. The one thing the good guys teach us is that people on the other team aren’t like us. In fact, they’re so bad, and the stakes are so high, that we have to forgive every transgression by our own team in order to win.

I was kind of thinking about this when I watched Logan the other night, a film which I had been told was a more ambiguous, mature superhero movie which grappled with the issue of violence, its consequences and the way it ravages both those who have it visited upon them and those who mete it out. Well, I suppose in parts it sort of tried to be that movie, but in the end it was just another flick where the hero has to kill his way through a bunch of anonymous henchmen, a mini-boss and an evil scientist to Save The Day.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:33 AM on January 27, 2018 [9 favorites]


Great article; I think about this a lot (even as I enjoy Marvel films...)

Did anyone else think it ended abruptly?
posted by eustacescrubb at 11:41 AM on January 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


Interesting article, but I think if you ask the three little pigs whether their story is about “good vs. evil,” they wouldn’t shrug and say “it’s just about who gets dinner.”

Also, her concluding statement “stories of good guys and bad guys actively make a virtue of letting the home team in a conflict get away with any expedient atrocity,” flies in the face of almost all western mass culture, where the good guys are good guys because of lines they won’t cross. (Which makes their struggle harder, which makes them more heroic.) There are exceptions that prove the rule, like 24, which was shocking at the time for having a hero that would torture the villains in order to prevail. Similarly, in beloved stories like Breaking Bad and the Sopranos, we use the word “anti-hero” to show that the protagonist who engages in expedient atrocity is known to not be “good.”
posted by ejs at 11:43 AM on January 27, 2018 [18 favorites]


Neither the Greeks nor the Trojans stand for some set of human strengths or frailties.

This is wrong. While the central conflict is not directly a clash over values or good vs. evil, Homer precisely portrays the Greeks and the Trojans as having different value systems. From Hector's farewell to his wife and child in book 6, Hector says a prayer for his child:
He stretched his arms towards his child, but the boy cried and nestled in his nurse’s bosom, scared at the sight of his father’s armour, and at the horse-hair plume that nodded fiercely from his helmet. His father and mother laughed to see him, but Hector took the helmet from his head and laid it all gleaming upon the ground. Then he took his darling child, kissed him, and dandled him in his arms, praying over him the while to Jove and to all the gods. “Jove,” he cried, “grant that this my child may be even as myself, chief among the Trojans; let him be not less excellent in strength, and let him rule Ilius with his might. Then may one say of him as he comes from battle, ‘The son is far better than the father.’ May he bring back the blood-stained spoils of him whom he has laid low, and let his mother’s heart be glad.'”
Whereas Agamemnon tells his troops this, basically mocking the younger generation's fighting compared to the greater bravery of their ancestors:
"Let no man," he said, "relying on his strength or horsemanship, get before the others and engage singly with the Trojans, nor yet let him lag behind or you will weaken your attack; but let each when he meets an enemy's chariot throw his spear from his own; this be much the best; this is how the men of old took towns and strongholds; in this wise were they minded."
Nestor in another speech contrasts the Greeks' present situations with a more glorious past of the past era of his youth:
"Of a truth," said he, "the Achaean land is
fallen upon evil times. The old knight Peleus, counsellor and orator
among the Myrmidons, loved when I was in his house to question me
concerning the race and lineage of all the Argives. How would it not
grieve him could he hear of them as now quailing before Hector?
And it is Achilles who in mythology has made the positive choice to be a glorified legend rather than have children who are better than himself.

Several times Homer draws a distinction between the culture of the Greeks and the culture of the Trojans. And again, Nichols gets this contrast wrong:
Not only do people in ancient stories not switch sides in fights but Achilles, say, would never win because his army was composed of the rejects from the Trojans’. In old stories, great warriors aren’t scrappy recruits, there for the moral education: they’re experts.
Now, her statement is true in a literal sense that this doesn't happen, but you could easily draw a contrast between Trojan sophistication and civilization, if not outright decadence, vs. the Greek's more pastoral -- even "scruffy" -- origins.

It's true that the central conflict is not "good vs. evil", but there are certainly elements of contrasting values.
posted by deanc at 11:44 AM on January 27, 2018 [21 favorites]


* to give proper credit where credit is due, I'll point everyone to The War That Killed Achilles which outlined some of these ideas.
posted by deanc at 11:48 AM on January 27, 2018 [8 favorites]


Forgive me, but I'm going to reference My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

One of the recurring themes throughout this series has been redemption. To quote Fluttershy: "You aren't a bad dragon. You've just made some bad choices." Not just Princess Luna, but characters you would have thought beyond redemption, like Discord, Sunset Shimmer and Starlight Glimmer, are ultimately able to join the larger pony community in a positive way without sacrificing their true selves.

Growing up with cartoon Nazis and COBRA as model villains, it's a treat to enjoy a show that allows the hope of reconciliation without violence.

(Although not always. Tirek will never be forgiven, not after what he did!)
posted by SPrintF at 11:55 AM on January 27, 2018 [7 favorites]


Also, her concluding statement “stories of good guys and bad guys actively make a virtue of letting the home team in a conflict get away with any expedient atrocity,” flies in the face of almost all western mass culture, where the good guys are good guys because of lines they won’t cross. (Which makes their struggle harder, which makes them more heroic.)

Comic books were even forced, via the Comics Code, to make this an explicit requirement of their stories and characters.
posted by deanc at 11:58 AM on January 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


I always used to wonder why the cowboy hero, in a life or death fight on the edge of the cliff, didn't pop the villain in the nuts, that is, fight dirty. Now I know.
posted by njohnson23 at 12:11 PM on January 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


This is something that pervades our culture, from sexual violence (it's bad and abusive men should be shunned, but the Tom Haverford character was funny) to football (great athletes, but concussions). We just don't seem to be able to deal with the idea of something being both good and bad at the same time.

Interestingly, the lack of pure good and pure bad is one of the things I find most appealing about Christianity. All of us are sinners, and no matter how hard we try, we're going to continue to sin.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:15 PM on January 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


This was good. I’ve been thinking a lot about a narrative trope common in Japanese manga/anime and Korean manwha narratives,

This goes at least as far back as Space Battleship Yamato/Star Blazers, where the enemy bombards the Earth with radioactive weapons of mass destruction but eventually joins forces with Earth against the new threat of season 2. I don't know if this is the origin of the trope, but I think what's being talked about here is Japan's relationship with the United States after World War 2.
posted by rodlymight at 12:17 PM on January 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


This is something that The Good Place addresses quite directly. I think it might even be the central theme of the story.

Interestingly, the lack of pure good and pure bad is one of the things I find most appealing about Christianity. All of us are sinners, and no matter how hard we try, we're going to continue to sin.

Uh... some Christianity, I guess, but the idea of Manichean good and evil is baked into the heart of almost all Christian belief about The Universe.
posted by codacorolla at 12:17 PM on January 27, 2018 [5 favorites]


The bible is full of righteous people (or God) smiting evil ones.

Monotheism is basically a big white/black story as far as good and evil are concerned.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:20 PM on January 27, 2018 [9 favorites]


That’s fascinating. As a German family raising kids in the US, Grimm’s fairytales are an important part of our cultural tradition. I like to point out the less well known ones and the kinks and edges in the well known ones where there’s more complexity and not ‘good vs evil’. We enjoy retelling the stories from the perspective of the Bad Guy, which results in interesting conversations. We also talk about how different the Disney versions are from the original folk tales.

I think kids do not only need alternatives - they need to know how to actively handle these patriarchal, violent, racist traditions of storytelling so they can deconstruct them. Same with the Bible, btw.
posted by The Toad at 12:25 PM on January 27, 2018 [12 favorites]


The bible is full of righteous people (or God) smiting evil ones.

Well, sort of. “Evil” usually means “guy that God doesn’t like” and that itself can mean anything from “was raised to believe in some other god” (the people who lived in Israel before the Israelites killed them all) to “didn’t have the resources to burn exactly what God wanted to burn” (Cain) while “good” men included a serial philanderer and murderer (King David) and a guy who literally tortured and murdered people because they believed a theology slightly different from his (Paul).
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:29 PM on January 27, 2018 [13 favorites]


Though Paul could also be argued is an example of "heel-face turn" after he is convinced of the "good" side's values.
posted by RobotHero at 12:34 PM on January 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


Well, the Greeks did give us the notion of xenophobia and referred to non-Greeks specifically as "barbarians" and suitable only for slavery...
posted by jim in austin at 12:38 PM on January 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


Interesting read. But I think fairytales do revolve around good v. evil, they just don't do it in a Grand Epic way, but rather in a more narrow, domestic way. There's a reason why Evil Stepmother is a trope. Cinderella only makes it to the ball because she is so pure and good that her tears literally make a fancy dress fall from the tree over the grave of her dead mother. And the article itself is headed with a painting of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, which is just about the clearest depiction of sexual violence you'll get in a kid's story.
posted by basalganglia at 12:46 PM on January 27, 2018 [5 favorites]


In old folktales, no one...
Stories from an oral tradition never


I'm intrigued by the thesis, but the scholarship is pretty stunningly thin and shallow. The data set is completely cherrypicked and sets aside at least 90% of available folklore sources in order to make its case, depending far too much on Western narrative folklore from the modern period, and that mostly interpreted through nineteenth-century minds.

There is an interesting idea here that most likely relates to the colonial process and rise of nationalism, as she speculates, but it really demands a more sophisticated analysis. And, I mean, you can't leave out the Bible when you talk about this stuff.
posted by Miko at 12:48 PM on January 27, 2018 [31 favorites]


To quote Tobias Fünke: I don't want to blame it all on 9/11, but it certainly didn't help.
posted by clockzero at 12:51 PM on January 27, 2018 [7 favorites]


Arabian Nights stories, which have been translated into English a few times in the last 300 years, are a collection of stories that date back to the Islamic golden age, a thousand years ago. These stories were collected from all the cultures on the silk road, and there is very much a theme of good vs evil running throughout most of the recorded stories. While there is a redemptive arc for the king in the frame story, in many stories, someone who does evil things is usually punished, with the clear moral premise that their moral failure causes them to deserve the fate which is delivered.

Aesop fables have good and evil, and it is some of the oldest stories recorded in western culture. I find her ideas interesting, but I posit that she is not familiar with enough source material to back up her premise.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 12:59 PM on January 27, 2018 [20 favorites]


> This goes at least as far back as Space Battleship Yamato/Star Blazers

It's a frequent motif of Osamu Tezuka's manga since the late 1950s, in which the mysterious alien threat turns out to be doing the horrible (to us) things they're doing for the saker own need for survival, or because they're following objectionable orders under duress on behalf of yet another entity whose motivations could be misunderstandable. The characters who behave most like typical villains are not the big bads, but rather the minor characters -- people betraying their fellow humans out of cravenness or short-sighted motivations.
posted by ardgedee at 1:09 PM on January 27, 2018 [5 favorites]


It is noteworthy that the Manga “join forces with the enemy” trope as outlined in this thread more or less follows the diplomatic/military alignment of Japan since WWII. Japan fought the U.S. and it’s allies and then joined forces with them to oppose the common enemy of the U.S.S.R. and China. Likewise, Japanese monster stories like Godzilla seem to fictionalize the Hiroshima attack.
posted by chrchr at 1:31 PM on January 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


The bible is full of righteous people (or God) smiting evil ones.

Monotheism is basically a big white/black story as far as good and evil are concerned.


I hate to fall into the trap of discussing things in black and white terms while were are talking about how wonderful grey is, but this is awfully close to 100% wrong. Maaaaaaaaybe you could read a few of the stories in Judges that way, but the one big theme of the Bible is that no one is righteous.

Take, for example, the definitive, foundational Bible conflict--the exodus of the Israelite slaves from Egypt. You might want to read that as ragtag band of good guys defeats powerful bad guys, but the text absolutely won't allow that. I don't think there is a single reference to the goodness of the Israelites. God chose then because they were being oppressed and because he had made promises to the patriarchs. That's it. And the text refuses to present them as heroic. They grumble, complain, lose faith, rebel, cast idols...it's a nonstop parade of moral failings. Even Moses blows it bad enough that God won't let him in to the promised land. And when the twelve spies go check out Canaan to see what it's like, 10 of them come back and say "no way, we can't do this." Only two are faithful.

Moses hits this hard in Deuteronomy, lest anyone get confused about why God rescued them:
After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.
Once they take the land we get King Saul (terrible), David (murderer and adulterer) and on and on through a long list of super-flawed people. Does Israel grow super strong and righteously conquerer all the terrible folks around it? Nope. They continue to be basically terrible and unrighteous, split the kingdom in two, and then each half falls, one to the Assyrians, one to the Babylonians. The only human that the Bible considered really, truly, unironically righteous is Job, and that is not a story of unending triumph in the face of adversity.

Then we get a lot of prophets saying all the ways that God's people have been terrible and fallen short of expectations (and then often being killed or mistreated for their trouble) and then we get the New Testament which is basically "yep, no one is righteous, so I'd better send my Son down there to be righteous on your behalf." Then Jesus is crucified and about 11 of the 12 apostles also meet embarrassing, untimely deaths.

Saying that the Bible is full of righteous people smiting evil ones is about the most wrong summary of the Bible I've ever heard. That is just not the way that the story goes.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:34 PM on January 27, 2018 [65 favorites]


She has a point, in that modern storytellers are way too obsessed with Eeeeevil. Tolkien and Lucas are some of the worst models here. For Americans especially, there's also the example of WWII and the Cold War.

But, no good vs. evil in folklore? Consider the Torah, with God's people vs. the Egyptians and then the Canaanites. (The Israelites are depicted as fallible, but so are Tolkien's humans.) Or the Ramayana, with a hero who is literally a perfect god vs. an army of demons. Or the Orlando saga, with virtuous knights vs. terrible Saracens. (It's far more nuanced than Star Wars, but there's never a doubt that Charlemagne's is the Good Side.) The Athenians and Spartans viewed the conflict against Persia as pretty much good vs evil. The Romans sure couldn't find anything nice to say about Carthage.

"how bizarre it would have seemed to the ancient storytellers had Darth Vader changed his mind about anger and hatred, and switched sides"... Oh come on. A major element of Orlando Furioso is the conversion of Ruggiero to the Christian side. The Song of Roland has Ganelon, a Christian knight, plotting with the Saracens. In the Ramayana, one of the rakshasas comes over to Rama's side.

She mentions the Mahabharata, but doesn't seem to realize that it is a good-vs-evil conflict, good Pauravas vs evil Kauravas. It's not completely binary (it is a family conflict), but it's also not subtle... the fathers of the Pauravas, and their charioteer, are literally gods.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms definitely takes sides: Liu Bei is the hero, Cao Cao is the villain. But it's fairly nuanced, more light-gray-vs-dark-gray than white-vs-black. (But then it's based on real history, which is messy. The actual Greek-vs-Persian war was pretty messy too.)
posted by zompist at 2:02 PM on January 27, 2018 [6 favorites]


On the east side of the Willamette Falls at about the site of Oregon City, there was a large fishing village. Its chief was a great man – but another skookum came out of the mountains to the east and killed the chief and his whole village, except for the chief's wife and their unborn son.

After the son's birth, the woman, wanting him to be strong, took him to all the streams and lakes with spirit powers, and bathed him in each one. This made him very strong, and he grew up very fast. When the boy returned to the village beside the Falls and entered his father's deserted lodge, he began to ask his mother about the articles he saw there. She said, "This is the spear with which your father used to catch the salmon; and this is the axe with which he used to kill his enemies or chop wood; and this is the bow with which he used to shoot arrows."

The boy took the axe and went out into the woods. Almost immediately he was met by the skookum. Driving his axe into a gnarly log so as to make a big crack in it, the boy said to the monster, "If you're so strong, hold this crack open for me while I take another cut." When the stupid skookum put his fingers in the crack, the boy pulled his axe, and the monster was caught fast. So the boy killed him easily.

Then the boy took his father's bow and shot an arrow into the sky. At the same time he called out, "As this arrow falls let those who died come to life," and so it happened. Just as the arrow fell back to earth, the old chief and all his people came up the river in their canoes. They landed at the rocks and began fishing as if nothing had happened. The boy was very happy and went down to meet his father, whom he had never seen before, but the old chief asked him, "Who are you? I am chief here!" and then hit him.

This made the boy very unhappy, and he climbed back up to the rocks above the Falls, and cried so much that his tears wore two big holes in the rock, which are there today. He finally decided that he could not help his people any more as a man, so he changed himself into a fish. But the noise of the river by the Falls bothered him, and he swam on up to the mouth of the Tualatin. But he couldn't rest there either, so he went on up the Willamette to the Molalla, and the Pudding River, and the Yamhill, still in search of quiet, until finally he reached the Santiam. Here he went to sleep in a quiet pool, and was discovered by Coyote, who turned him into a rock in the shape of a salmon.

This is why no salmon that climbs the Falls at Oregon City ever turns into these rivers to spawn, but keeps going upstream until it reaches the Santiam. Then when it sees the rock, it circles once in salute and goes on up the clear Santiam to spawn.

– "The Skookum and the Wonderful Boy", Coyote Was Going There: Indian Literature of the Oregon Country
posted by fraula at 2:12 PM on January 27, 2018 [17 favorites]


> Consider the Torah, with God's people vs. the Egyptians and then the Canaanites.

But that's not Good vs. Evil, it's God's people vs. whoever God told them to smite that day. Not even remotely the same thing. I don't think a single Israelite would have claimed the people of Amalek were evil ("men and women, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass"), they were just in the way. Was the firstborn child of every Egyptian evil? You're applying false categories.
posted by languagehat at 2:12 PM on January 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


I can rarely think of a contemporary US/western movie / popular narrative that aligns to this narrative. 

I'll add the Avatar: the Last Airbender series, where heroism involves trying to escape the narrative of becoming an avenging "hero" who kills.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:29 PM on January 27, 2018


So basically in the Bible god is good and literally everyone else is evil. Got it.
posted by Drumhellz at 2:29 PM on January 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


The ostensibly moral face-off between good and evil is a recent invention ...

That sound you hear is Joseph Campbell spinning in his grave.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:45 PM on January 27, 2018 [13 favorites]


zompist: She mentions the Mahabharata, but doesn't seem to realize that it is a good-vs-evil conflict, good Pauravas vs evil Kauravas. It's not completely binary (it is a family conflict), but it's also not subtle... the fathers of the Pauravas, and their charioteer, are literally gods.

Yes, they are gods/demi-gods, but more in the ancient Greek sense than in the all-wise and perfectly good sense. The Mahabharat is actually one of the more nuanced epics, in that the heroes are deeply flawed. One of the main plot points is that Yudhishthir (aka Dharma aka moral order) gambled away his kingdom and his wife Draupadi, leading to this. The other Pandavas are not much better; when Arjun's status as the greatest archer in the land is threatened by self-taught orphan Eklavya, he has his teacher Dronacharya tell Eklavya to cut off the boy's right thumb. The text does not present these as just actions.
posted by basalganglia at 2:58 PM on January 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


So basically in the Bible god is good and literally everyone else is evil human.

Ftfy

posted by some loser at 3:02 PM on January 27, 2018 [4 favorites]


The article mentions Disney movies, and sure - they are mostly good vs evil stories. But one of the reasons I adore Lilo and Stitch is because the movie has no villains at all. It certainly has many characters who are working at cross purposes to each other, but each character is genuinely trying to do the right thing as they see it. It is a wonderful story.
posted by Lokheed at 3:37 PM on January 27, 2018 [13 favorites]


But that's not Good vs. Evil, it's God's people vs. whoever God told them to smite that day.

I think this would take a book to respond to, and fortunately someone else has written it— Jack Miles's God: A Biography. In brief, this God character is highly problematic, but the text itself falls short of recognizing this. Today, it looks like he's pushing his people to genocide, and not infrequently turns violently on them instead. But there wasn't an alternative system of thought at the time to criticize God's morality.

My point is, it's very parochial to complain about good-vs-evil in pop culture without recognizing the influence of the Bible. The whole idea of God being on "Our Side" has been pretty pernicious both in history and literature.

Also, in general, "such and such can't be a good-vs-evil story because the good characters are flawed" is a straw man. Pop culture heroes are flawed too. (Maybe not Superman? But that's why Superman is kind of boring.)
posted by zompist at 3:56 PM on January 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


I get that it is like a cool postmodern take on narratives to say that good vs. evil stories are a way for the colonialist overmind to program us for nationalist conflict, but it seems to me that a hero narrative without a moral element is just a story of the strongest, cleverest prevailing, and the audience will identify with the victor’s competence and their ability to overcome weaker foes. It seems like introducing a moral element to stories makes them more sophisticated, and not less. In a moralistic hero narrative, the audience is asked to identify with the goodness of the hero.

E.g., we’re told in Harry Potter that the hero’s essential characteristic is that he can’t be corrupted by desire for wealth, fame or power. A less moralized “no good guys” narrative might have Dumbledore using the unbeatable wand to defeat Voldemort in a wizard battle. The “Dumbledore wins” story is not as complex.
posted by chrchr at 4:35 PM on January 27, 2018 [7 favorites]


Take, for example, the definitive, foundational Bible conflict--the exodus of the Israelite slaves from Egypt. You might want to read that as ragtag band of good guys defeats powerful bad guys, but the text absolutely won't allow that. I don't think there is a single reference to the goodness of the Israelites.

But there is not a lot of doubt about the evil of the Egyptians. (And I think an argument that the Bible has generally been read as, e.g., not identifying the Amalekites as evil, but rather just some random people God really wanted the Israelites to slaughter indiscriminately for no good reason, is, uh, defensible as a modern analysis but probably not a good analysis for most of pre-modern thought. It may be hard for some people to understand the concept that people who worship false gods are evil. In fact, I'd say it speaks well of you if you have trouble grasping it intuitively. But it's there.)

And this carries down through Western literature. There is not really huge confusion about who is good and who is bad in Beowulf, for instance.

I have to be honest: this essay strikes me as just the epitome of the current Age of Glib, where everyone feels empowered to make sweeping claims on complex topics without even beginning to understand what they'd need to know in order to make those claims in a credible way. Our era is hardly unique when it comes to sweeping claims, of course, but oh boy do we have a lot more people confident they should be making them, and many more outlets in which to do so. There's almost no point in even responding to these things, except when they're at risk of being incorporated into some Thomas Friedman too-widely-read book or something. Am I in favor of black-and-white thinking? No. Do I think it's an invention of modern nationalism? Alas, also no.
posted by praemunire at 4:44 PM on January 27, 2018 [30 favorites]


stories of good guys and bad guys actively make a virtue of letting the home team in a conflict get away with any expedient atrocity.

This is the thrust of the piece, that modern stories of good vs bad have enabled nationalism and atrocity, like we never had those before and uh… well, see some of the quoted bible passages above. Or like how about Carthage? Or Rome vs places that slaves come from?

Recent developments aside, I’d argue that our society today is more just, or ethical, or moral, than pretty much any time in the past, maybe this new idea that heroes must be good people in our cultural myths has something to do with that?
posted by rodlymight at 4:53 PM on January 27, 2018 [8 favorites]


Honestly, I feel like the good guys getting a free pass is more of a recent thing. I get the impression that somewhere around the 80's, people got tired of the perfect good guy versus the villainous bad guys and started writing darker and more morally complex anti-hero types, but instead of breaking the good/evil myth to something more complex, it just ended up making it OK for the "good" guys to be immoral jerks.
posted by Zalzidrax at 5:07 PM on January 27, 2018 [8 favorites]


This seems like a bizarrely tone-deaf article to write today. For instance to write this:
Another peculiarity in the moral physics of good guys versus bad is that bad guys have no loyalty and routinely punish their own; whether it’s the Sheriff of Nottingham starving his own people or Darth Vader killing his subordinates, bad guys are cavalier with human life, and they rebuke their allies for petty transgressions. This has been true since the earliest modern bad guys, though it scarcely exists among older adversaries who might be hungry for human flesh, but don’t kill their own.
As if it's some weird fictional conceit rather than a straightforward description of the daily behavior of the President of the United States?

4. Enemy is actually revealed to have fundamentally good values, but difficult circumstances that make their actions completely understandable and comprehensible. (“I’m sorry, I had distant parents, my actions are really ways I try to get close to people”)
5. Said person actually joins the protagonist as a friend, who forgives and accepts them.


Hands up if you're willing to embrace Donald Trump as a friend and ally if he comes out with some sob story about how mean his dad was.
posted by straight at 5:14 PM on January 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


Personally I'm sick of all the heroes being orphans, and that goes as far back as Moses.
posted by adept256 at 5:14 PM on January 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


Well, sort of. “Evil” usually means “guy that God doesn’t like” and that itself can mean anything from “was raised to believe in some other god” (the people who lived in Israel before the Israelites killed them all) to “didn’t have the resources to burn exactly what God wanted to burn” (Cain) while “good” men included a serial philanderer and murderer (King David) and a guy who literally tortured and murdered people because they believed a theology slightly different from his (Paul).

This is exactly what I was trying to get at with my original statement. The people above all got sorted (warts and all) into categories of God Likes You And We Will Name Churches After You and God Doesn't Like You And Your Name Will Become A Synonym For Something Bad.

It's not like the Greeks where one god can be very happy with you and another one can be royally pissed off. Occasionally a monotheist character might get flipped "guy that God likes" to "guy that God doesn't like", but there's no expression for "God has really conflicted feelings about this guy."
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:43 PM on January 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


This article jumps from folklore to 19th-century adaptations of folklore to contemporary popular culture as if nothing happened in between. In fact, Western literature has repeatedly adapted folk and classical material to contemporary moral purposes, because classical and folk literature wasn't even well adapted to the moral purposes of its day. Plato and other Greek philosophers pointed out repeatedly that Homer was a catastrophically bad moral and religious guide for any civilized people.

Beowulf is a Christianized Germanic hero tale, and the monsters are certainly evil. The motley crew motif is already in place that early, for Beowulf himself is one of Hrothgar's people's traditional enemies and almost a monster himself, being so strong that weapons shatter in his hands, so that he kills monsters by fighting as they do.

In the Song of Roland, the Muslims are evil and the enemies of civilization. They are slaughtered en masse, and converted to Christianity at the point of the sword, and that is treated as unequivocally good. Roland is one of a motley crew, and proves a little too motley to survive.

Le Morte d'Arthur is full of unequivocally evil knights, most notably Sir Breuce Sans Pite, who is a serial killer of women and who invariably gets away on a fast horse. Many lesser versions of Sir Breuce are dispatched by the Knights of the Round Table, who are of course also a motley crew of adulterers, murderers, and thugs trying to be agents of civilization. If I recall correctly, Gawaine is always unfailingly courteous and serviceable to women because early in his career he cuts one's head off in a fit of pique.

In Orlando Furioso, the Muslims are, though often chivalrous, again enemies of civilization, and one of them, Rodomont, is straight-up bad and a consummate bad-ass. He burns Paris. By himself. Christianity is defended by, among other thing, converted Muslims.

The Inferno is working with a Thomistic notion of evil is a failure of being, so its evil creatures, figures from mythology and folklore among them, are essentially static. They hide in Hell to avoid judgement and forgiveness, the worst going farthest from God's gaze and thus into greatest suffering. Good in this case is perhaps the most motley crew of all, being one Roman poet and one Florentine maiden.
posted by ckridge at 6:32 PM on January 27, 2018 [9 favorites]


She has a point, in that modern storytellers are way too obsessed with Eeeeevil. Tolkien and Lucas are some of the worst models here.

Interestingly though both writers locate evil not in the character’s ideologies but in the corrupting influence of power - for Tolkien it was possession of power via a destructive technology (the Ring) and for Lucas it was possession of power through expedient means (negative emotions that offer access to the Dark side) - and with both, possessing power quickly becomes possession by power. That’s a modern story because that’s a story that is a byproduct of democracy, where we expect our leaders to be accountable to the needs of the public, and to seek power as a means to serve the public. Seeking power for its own sake then becomes a marker of evil, a sign that you’ve been possessed by the tool you should have not taken up.
posted by eustacescrubb at 6:32 PM on January 27, 2018 [19 favorites]


There is not really huge confusion about who is good and who is bad in Beowulf, for instance.

TEAM GRENDEL'S MOM

But seriously, this is a weird essay. It's like she took the Freshman Humanities Seminar and only came for Homer and The Brother's Grimm and missed everything in between (save a page of incomplete notes on King Arthur).
posted by thivaia at 8:01 PM on January 27, 2018 [6 favorites]


Hands up if you're willing to embrace Donald Trump as a friend and ally if he comes out with some sob story about how mean his dad was.

I do think it's plausible that the reason he can say things like, "I'm the least racist person there is," is simply, yet perhaps profoundly, because he knows he's not as bad as his father was. I sometimes wonder if the man's any more complex than that.

Not that that's going to keep him out of hell
posted by philip-random at 9:02 PM on January 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


This is has been a very relevant topic for us because of our children.
I came to the conclusion that I did not want them to grow up seeing the world black/white (evil/good) for a very simple reason: once a person is labelled as bad, they stay bad no matter what they do. It is much more humane to judge actions instead of the person, and to leave the final judgment open. Which, incidentally, is what I think the Bible might be saying.

I cannot agree that European folk-tales do not incorporate the good/evil dichotomy, they do and what's more, they also contain a lot of open and cruel violence. Which is why I attempted to soften the tone by making the witch/wolf DO bad stuff, but not BE inherently bad.

Which is also why I mostly let the children watch Myiazaki's films which embody the 'nobody's truly evil or completely good' attitude. Disney's might be the worst offenders and my theory is that they were made mostly by religious people.

Of course, the current rash of superhero/comic book based movies does nothing to help in this respect and borders on the comical.

To argue with Pater Aletheias above, this good/bad dichotomy IS of course directly based on monotheistic religions for the reason that they contain the rather leaky premise that the god knows good and evil, is (supposedly) good, and gave us the faculty of free will (also another over-used trope in US-produced movies) to decide for ourselves (and punish us if we pick wrong).
posted by Laotic at 1:26 AM on January 28, 2018 [1 favorite]


TEAM GRENDEL'S MOM

Hey, look, I have Grendel's Mother on my psych-up-for-trial playlist, but I'm sure Darnielle himself would acknowledge it as a controversial reworking of the story.
posted by praemunire at 2:27 AM on January 28, 2018 [2 favorites]


I can rarely think of a contemporary US/western movie / popular narrative that aligns to this narrative.

Farscape.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:36 AM on January 28, 2018


It's not like the Greeks where one god can be very happy with you and another one can be royally pissed off. Occasionally a monotheist character might get flipped "guy that God likes" to "guy that God doesn't like", but there's no expression for "God has really conflicted feelings about this guy."

It might be the exception that proves the rule, but the story of Job has exactly that dynamic, with Satan given the green light to go after Job.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:35 AM on January 28, 2018


> But there is not a lot of doubt about the evil of the Egyptians. (And I think an argument that the Bible has generally been read as, e.g., not identifying the Amalekites as evil, but rather just some random people God really wanted the Israelites to slaughter indiscriminately for no good reason, is, uh, defensible as a modern analysis but probably not a good analysis for most of pre-modern thought. It may be hard for some people to understand the concept that people who worship false gods are evil. In fact, I'd say it speaks well of you if you have trouble grasping it intuitively. But it's there.)

That doesn't make sense. The problem the ancients saw with people who worshiped false gods was not that they were evil in the modern sense (which is the only sense in which we use the word), it was that they worshiped false gods. If they were willing to worship the right god, they were fine. Changing from "evil" to "good" is surely not as easy as saying "OK, your god seems pretty powerful, I'll worship him!" And making "evil" mean something anachronistic is a good recipe for misunderstanding the past (and therefore the present).
posted by languagehat at 6:44 AM on January 28, 2018


I don't think that's correct. The Psalms, for instance, are full of descriptions of evil in the "modern" sense: murder, lying, backstabbing betrayal, rich people bribing judges to get away with oppressing the poor and stealing from widows. And that evil is equated with the the "foolishness" of "running after false gods." As opposed to "wisdom" which comes from the fear of the Lord and observing his commandments, which leads to "righteousness" which is described in terms of honesty, loyalty, giving to the poor, defending the weak, refusing to accept bribes to subvert justice, etc.
posted by straight at 8:39 AM on January 28, 2018 [1 favorite]


People enjoy good-vs-evil tales because they're essentially escapist entertainment. Nobody watches a superhero movie because they want two hours of moral complexity. That's what we have Prestige Dramas for. And real life.

There's an emotional payoff to seeing pure unadulterated good triumph over evil. You can feel good about it without any reservations or second thoughts. How often do you get that from real life?

And I don't think there's anything wrong with that, even though I personally don't enjoy superhero movies. I think the problem comes in when people start confusing real life for entertainment. And I guess that's where the political stuff comes in. Because if you can get people to think of life as an escapist fairytale, you can get them to do pretty much anything.
posted by panama joe at 8:45 AM on January 28, 2018 [2 favorites]


The Hebrew scriptures are constantly insisting that Israel's God should be worshipped because he is good , not just because he is powerful or because he is on their side. The prophets are constantly warning Israel that God won't be on their side if they do evil things like failing to take care of the poor.
posted by straight at 8:49 AM on January 28, 2018


The Hebrew scriptures are constantly insisting that Israel's God should be worshipped because he is good ,

or as I heard it put long ago ...

Want a good definition of human nature? Take the Ten Commandments and do the opposite. Murder, steal, lie, covet, disrespect your parents and so on. It may well have been just some wise man jotting down some common sense rules that would help keep the tribe from tearing each other apart, but in having them ascribed to God, they ascribe to that God goodness, or at least morality.
posted by philip-random at 10:12 AM on January 28, 2018


What straight said. Conduct and choice of god to worship are not independent in the Bible. Ba'al and Moloch are described as requiring child sacrifice. Asherah, some kind of sex rites or temple prostitution.

It's offensive in the eyes of the Biblical God to worship the wrong deity and it leads to evil actions. I would invite you to consider 1 Kings 16:29-18:40. Ahab is described as not just sinning and angering the Lord, but angering the Lord more than any prior king, by marrying a foreign princess and by worshipping Ba'al. The foreign princess has the prophets of Yahweh killed, but one, Elijah, survives in hiding. Chapter 18 features a cheerful description of how Elijah demonstrates his right to kill 850 of Ahab's court prophets because they can't summon fire from heaven to burn sacrifices, whereas he can. In the succeeding text, the foreign princess arranges for the murder of an innocent man so that the king may take his property, and the whole thing concludes in the delightful 2 Kings 9:30-37, where the foreign princess is thrown from a window by her own servants and the dogs eat her body in the street. There are few figures as uncomplicatedly wicked in the Old Testament as Jezebel, who combines tyrannical behavior with the worship of false gods.

And making "evil" mean something anachronistic is a good recipe for misunderstanding the past (and therefore the present).

Yeah, spent a long time in history grad school, I know. But it's a strange comment to be making as a critique of people citing specific texts against a 2500-word article that smears concepts all the way across human history.
posted by praemunire at 11:00 AM on January 28, 2018 [1 favorite]


I found this part of the conclusion particularly perplexing:
When we read, watch and tell stories of good guys warring against bad guys, we are essentially persuading ourselves that our opponents would not be fighting us, indeed they would not be on the other team at all, if they had any loyalty or valued human life. In short, we are rehearsing the idea that moral qualities belong to categories of people rather than individuals. It is the Grimms’ and von Herder’s vision taken to its logical nationalist conclusion that implies that ‘categories of people should be locked up’.

The author cites someone writing about concentration camps, but seems to know nothing about the pre-modern relationships of Jews and Christians in Europe. The spread of accusations of blood libel from the 12th century onwards posits Jews as having no value to (Christian) human life. Jewish ghettos were in existence by the 13th century; while freedom of movement was not as curtailed as being locked up, this is definitely a category of people whose living is restricted. Jews were in various places at various times required to wear distinctive clothing, to make sure that they were not mistaken for another category of person.

And medieval Jewish-Christian relations are just a particularly stark example. You could talk about prostitutes in some medieval towns, who were also required to wear distinctive clothing; you could talk about how Muslim-Christian relations were conceptualised in the high medieval period in areas without a Muslim population for another strong us-them moral categorisation (in places with a Muslim population, like Sicily and Outremer, things were more nuanced).

A question for Classical scholars: when I was studying the Iliad many moons ago, I was taught that the Trojans were 'baddies' because they had violated some fundamental rules of hospitality (do not kidnap your host's wife if they have given you dinner, basically) and would not back down from this. Hospitality was much more of an important thing, demonstrated at various points in the Iliad and Odyssey by good and bad hosts and guests, and the importance of gift giving. Therefore, this did mark a clear moral event horizon for the Greeks (Achaen Hellenes, or whatever). Is this still an interpretation that is current?
posted by Vortisaur at 11:18 AM on January 28, 2018 [2 favorites]


According to Christianity, everyone is a sinner, so dividing people up into "good" and "bad" _while they are still alive_ is a mistake. Redemption is always possible.

"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone" (may be a misquote)

Also, forgiveness of sins is _huge_ in Christianity. That's important if you hurt people accidentally, or through thoughtlessness, or through simply not understanding how much power an individual has to cause harm.

I think it's possible to say that the purest form of that religion has, historically, been a powerful force for peace. Unfortunately, that kind of power always attracts people who try to use it for their own dark ends.
posted by amtho at 12:44 PM on January 28, 2018


The trope I currently hate most is that the rules keep us from smiting the bad guys, and we *have* to discard them and go outside the rules in order to beat evil. We can go ahead and break the rules because we are ultimately good and they are ultimately bad.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:06 PM on January 28, 2018 [2 favorites]


I think it's really, really hard to read the Iliad and come away with the impression that we are talking about a struggle between black and white. I'm not aware that historically that was a widespread interpretation. Unquestionably Paris failed to live up to the expectations of a guest-friend in seducing Menelaos's wife, and, in that sense, the Trojan War can be said to have been precipitated by Trojan conduct. But, even putting aside the degree to which divine intervention influenced that incident, Hektor is represented as being motivated by a desire to protect his city and his family above all (though not without some of the usual concern for warlike greatness and honor). He bitterly resents Paris for having brought this war upon Troy. When I first read the Iliad as a kid from a highly religious background, I was boggled by the way that divine favor did not seem to correspond to good- or wrongdoing at all, and sympathetic the losing side actually was.
posted by praemunire at 5:03 PM on January 28, 2018 [5 favorites]


The Gods were split on Troy v. Greece, which has always struck me as a pretty solid measure of how there wasn't much of a moral divide between the the two sides. And if anything, post-Homer, the waters got even more muddied. I mean, think about why the war started, I mean, sure, Paris took Helen, but did Paris only take Helen because he gave Aphrodite the golden apple? And did he only give Aphrodite a golden apple because the goddesses appeared to him on a hillside and tell him to give one of them a golden apple? And did the goddesses only have a golden apple because Eris wanted to stir up some shit at Thetis' wedding? And was Paris destined the fuck the whole thing up from the get-go, hence his banishment to the mountainside? So is it the Gods? Is it destiny? Is it Paris being an entitled brat? And, like, no one ever was like, "Yo, Helen, what are your feelings here? What's your preferred outcome to this situation? Do you even care? Have you considered being like Helen, Out hooking up with Penthesilea's crew or maybe stealing a boat to go hang out with Circe or sailing over to warn poor Dido off any incoming Trojan assholes or maybe starting up a crafting group with Penelope over in Ithaca? Or are you okay with thousands of people dying in a nasty decade-long war because dudes are shallow and treat women like fancy prize garbage because at least you're not getting impregnated by a swan like your Mom and like I can't even with the feathers?
posted by thivaia at 5:45 PM on January 28, 2018 [2 favorites]


And, like, no one ever was like, "Yo, Helen, what are your feelings here?

Actually...

"‘δᾶερ ἐμεῖο κυνὸς κακομηχάνου ὀκρυοέσσης,
ὥς μ᾽ ὄφελ᾽ ἤματι τῷ ὅτε με πρῶτον τέκε μήτηρ
οἴχεσθαι προφέρουσα κακὴ ἀνέμοιο θύελλα
εἰς ὄρος ἢ εἰς κῦμα πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλάσσης,
ἔνθά με κῦμ᾽ ἀπόερσε πάρος τάδε ἔργα γενέσθαι.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ τάδε γ᾽ ὧδε θεοὶ κακὰ τεκμήραντο,
350ἀνδρὸς ἔπειτ᾽ ὤφελλον ἀμείνονος εἶναι ἄκοιτις,
ὃς ᾔδη νέμεσίν τε καὶ αἴσχεα πόλλ᾽ ἀνθρώπων.
τούτῳ δ᾽ οὔτ᾽ ἂρ νῦν φρένες ἔμπεδοι οὔτ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὀπίσσω
ἔσσονται: τὼ καί μιν ἐπαυρήσεσθαι ὀΐω.
ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε νῦν εἴσελθε καὶ ἕζεο τῷδ᾽ ἐπὶ δίφρῳ
δᾶερ, ἐπεί σε μάλιστα πόνος φρένας ἀμφιβέβηκεν
εἵνεκ᾽ ἐμεῖο κυνὸς καὶ Ἀλεξάνδρου ἕνεκ᾽ ἄτης,
οἷσιν ἐπὶ Ζεὺς θῆκε κακὸν μόρον, ὡς καὶ ὀπίσσω
ἀνθρώποισι πελώμεθ᾽ ἀοίδιμοι ἐσσομένοισι."

To use the cheap public domain translation: "...unto [Hektor] spake Helen with gentle words: 'O Brother of me that am a dog, a contriver of mischief and abhorred of all, would that on the day when first my mother gave me birth an evil storm-wind had borne me away to some mountain or to the wave of the loud-resounding sea, where the wave might have swept me away or ever these things came to pass. Howbeit, seeing the gods thus ordained these ills, would that I had been wife to a better man, that could feel the indignation of his fellows and their many revilings. But this man's understanding is not now stable, nor ever will be hereafter; thereof I deem that he will e'en reap the fruit. But come now, enter in, and sit thee upon this chair, my brother, since above all others has trouble encompassed thy heart because of shameless me, and the folly of Alexander; on whom Zeus hath brought an evil doom, that even in days to come we may be a song for men that are yet to be.'"

Helen simultaneously blames herself and treats herself as a plaything of the gods. Hektor is courteous to her in response; it's not clear how much he blames her. The story leaves both possibilities open.
posted by praemunire at 6:30 PM on January 28, 2018 [3 favorites]


I was also taught the Trojan War as a conflict over a violation of the hospitality code, though, while that may be a proper reading of the overall Trojan War legend, The Iliad itself doesn’t seem to emphasize that theme. The war may have started as a moral conflict, but war carries on under a logic of its own.
posted by chrchr at 6:46 PM on January 28, 2018


also what do people think being given to a man by Aphrodite with the assistance of Persuasion even means?? just because you have gods with personalities doesn't mean you don't also have metaphors. "Aphrodite forced me" means "I was literally kidnapped by some guy who thought I was a reward owed to him, and a god was involved" and it means "I ran away with him on purpose because I was so attracted to him and he was very convincing about it being a good idea." everybody within the many texts reads it both ways including Helen herself. you can't make Eros and Aphrodite and Peitho gods AND personify them AND not blame their victims. including Paris, who is a victim of Helen's beauty as she is a victim of Aphrodite's power, but he is also a tool who made his own bad choices and everyone knows it. it all goes together one way and another, you can't have it literally without also having it symbolically, that is what is awful about the Greek pantheon, that and misogyny. they are real persons, not just symbols, and they're mean, and they do what they want, but they are also symbols to the extent that everything they do to you is more or less your own fault even if you aren't sure how. let's nobody worship them.

regardless, I am one who believes that Ariadne hooking up with Dionysus after being abandoned by Theseus just means you feel better about your boyfriend turning out to be an asshole if there is a winery nearby. but that is the only Greek myth where you can just take a hard line on what is a metaphor and what one thing it means, because it gives you a happy ending and those are nice.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:30 PM on January 28, 2018 [3 favorites]


There's an emotional payoff to seeing pure unadulterated good triumph over evil. You can feel good about it without any reservations or second thoughts. How often do you get that from real life?

I don’t disagree, but then it’s worthwhile unpacking why that is. Are escapist narratives helping us cathartically feel resolved because conflicts in real life never resolve neatly? And if so, why does catharsis and empathy happen by having clear moral sides within a narrative ( we feel with who to ‘root for’ because we know ‘who’s wrong’)?

For example, there could be a narrative where catharsis and empathy happens through the sublime, or through beauty, nostalgia (“oh, remember those complicated but wonderful times?”), or happy melancholy. Or through a resolution in a narrative that happens outside the logic of good/bad morality - a comedy of errors, say, where everyone is understandably confused and blundering and nobody is quite to blame, teaching us that social drama and tension are emergent phenomena of society, without any need to apply morals onto things.
posted by suedehead at 7:24 AM on January 29, 2018 [1 favorite]


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