Normalizing the Desired in our Movies
Something I call the Critique Solution Fallacy is the assumption that pointing out issues and attributing blame changes an issue for the better. Movies are good at this. They are akin to literature in that they portray thematic messages and put us in worlds we aren’t used to. However, with the increasing prominence of movies, few of these films containing any sort of social commentary go further than merely defining the issues we face as a species. This is a major loss of potential for a medium that is both introspective and popular not only in the United States but throughout the world. Considering the globalization of cinema through online distribution platforms, there is no better time to exploit the full potential of movies for spreading awareness and for providing solutions.
Think, for example, the critiques against protesting — just to give a sort of real-world metaphor. It is sometimes assumed that the purpose of protesting is to instigate change, however, it is an act better used to spread awareness. Because of such a misunderstanding, it is used incorrectly and unjustly criticized. Protesters sometimes expect their sole efforts to instigate desired changes, when in reality, it often takes a combination of protesting, boycotting, divestment and legislative influence to really see results. People often criticize protesting as well and refrain from participating because of the false expectation put upon it as a means for making change on it’s own.
Let’s be clear, I am not criticizing movies that are dedicated to spreading awareness of an issue, I am criticizing the false expectation and the half-measure. In this situation, the solutions we refrain from mentioning can become even more problematic than the issues themselves. In other words, movies that focus exclusively on the issue with no alternatives often make audiences concerned but with nothing to do about it. Thus, audiences finish watching movies and are left hopeless and scared.
Documentaries about global warming are a perfect example. They remind people that the world is changing quick, and “we have to do something about this,” but rarely do they provide incentives and solutions that make a valuable difference. While I should say that global warming is a systemic issue and often difficult for the individual to grasp, it does not exclude these films from the naughty list. There are sustainable companies everywhere that do better collectively with the support of individuals than someone can do on their own. An Inconvenient Truth by Davis Guggenheim with Al Gore actually advertises itself as “by far the most terrifying film you will ever see.” You could understand where they’re coming from — that people need to feel sufficiently afraid in order to do something, but they also need to know what to do.
To transition towards narrative examples, I often reference 1984 by George Orwell as it depicts a negative prophecy for the political future of the world, but as I argue, it does a better job at inspiring fear in people than inspiring a desire for change. Isn’t it easier to work towards what we want than to bring attention to the endless amount of what we don’t want? We know what paths are life-affirming, which paths are sustainable and they are very conceivable. It’s like somebody asking you what you want to be when you grow up and responding with, “well I don’t want to be a doctor, I don’t want to be a lawyer, I definitely don’t want to be an accountant…” Such a response is never ending.
Scientifically speaking, psychologists have long argued that punishment is less effective than reinforcement in producing a desired behavior because punishment doesn’t indicate the desired behavior, it only criticizes the undesirable behavior. As such, a child under such circumstances ends up learning through trial and error, hoping to one day figure out what their parents actually expect of them. This adequately applies to films; that we must focus on our desired circumstances.
Science-fiction films are usually terrible at this because it is a genre almost entirely defined by a representation or prediction of our future. Nowadays, the genre is too widely applied, often generalizing dystopian and post-apocalyptic movies within the same category. Movies like The Hunger Games, Elysium, Oblivion, Snowpiercer, Divergent, and Maze Runner are based in future dystopian worlds or the lack of any world at all, presuming a future of continued destruction, totalitarianism, war and/or environmental catastrophe. All of these are listed as science-fiction films. Movies like Interstellar get a lot closer as they are predicated on ideas of curiosity, love, exploration and a destiny of interplanetary human existence. While Interstellar has a significantly lighter depiction of our future, it falls short in it’s reasoning — that “we aren’t meant to save the world, we’re meant to leave it.”
So to follow my own advice, I am going to provide a few examples of movies that do this well and the underlying tactic to counteract such negativity. Recently I was able to summarize my solution to such problems. It came to me after hearing critiques about the depiction of minorities in films. Films that are diverse end up depicting minorities in situations that over-emphasize their stereotypical role as minorities. Stories with a black or Africa-American leads are often stories of growing up in poverty, facing racism, falling into gang-violence or all of the above. Similar situations occur for movies with LGBTQ leads or female leads. Therefore, the most progressive films are the ones written for roles that counteract such stereotypes by taking place in normalized circumstances. In other words, a movie with female lead doesn’t have to be about feminism; a movie with a homosexual lead doesn’t have to be about sexuality; a film with a black or African-American lead doesn’t have to be about race and so forth. Movies that follow these guidelines are the ones that don’t stick out to you as socially progressive and therefore, you get used to the idea. An article by Kara Brown captures this problem nicely, stating that “ It’s obvious at this point that Hollywood has a problem with only paying attention to non-white people when they’re playing a stereotype.”
Mad Max: Fury Road is a great example to the contrary. It is arguably considered the most bad ass movie of 2015 and while I should comment on it’s negative depiction of the future, the point is that is consists of feminist themes and a female lead. That’s right, Max is NOT considered the main character of the film. The concept surrounds top lieutenant, Furiosa, who revolts against the warlord leader of her post-apocalyptic community by freeing a group of women who were exploited and highly oppressed as “baby-makers.” It’s actually more on-the-nose than it could have been, but in my experience, I was too blown away by the action and fast-paced plot to think too deeply about it. It was by no means distracting to follow a female lead saving a group of women from an evil male dictator. That’s the key, that it becomes a norm for minorities to be represented in media and to be represented accurately. In Fury Road, stereotypes of women being weak or highly dependent upon men are counteracted in multiple occasions. In fact, Max becomes more dependent upon Furiosa for his survival than the other way around. In addition, such a tactic of “normalization” can trick those who are opposed to seeing certain films into realizing that they can still enjoy a movie even with a lead who doesn’t reflect their demographic. As has been said, if women can stand to watch male-led films (disproportionately so) than men can stand to watch female-led films.
The same concept of normalization applies to science-fiction films; that we must address our desired future. First I must say that science-fiction films over-emphasize the environmental circumstances in which their characters live in. Worst of all is when films feel the need to describe what has happened to the world before we’re even introduced to the characters (usually seen in post-apocalyptic films). Secondly, the emphasis on the environmental circumstances is almost always negative. It is as though science fiction writing exploits negative environmental circumstances as a way to raise the stakes for a character’s story arc. This is well justified by the Hero’s Journey and allows writers to get away with telling stories that are not even remotely character-based.
The movie Her by Spike Jonze is a great example of a drama that takes place in a futuristic Los Angeles. The setting isn’t random though, it is necessary to justify the advanced A.I. operating system that the main character falls in love with. That being said, the film isn’t about artificial intelligence or what the future is like, the film is about love and loneliness. If we regain the emphasis on the human experience in science fiction films and refrain from negative depictions of our future, we will subconsciously remember that we are not, in fact, doomed. And by adopting that mindset, we will contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy of a positive future instead of a dystopian or apocalyptic one.
I am talking both to filmmakers and viewers because the industry is a two-way street, it is supply and demand. We must recognize, be it rather subconscious, that even with good intentions there are unintended consequences. Again, it is not to dissuade, discourage or criticize films that bring awareness to social or environmental issues, it is to encourage all of us, filmmakers and viewers alike, to follow through. Put the critique solution fallacy in your head as half-measure and remember the tactic of normalizing what you wish to see in the world. Gandhi said it first.