It is my hope that the thesis I completed for my M.A. English degree is attuned to the so-called “real world.” Concomitantly, I hope that those who want to read it will find that is accessible; I want people to be able to find it, and I don’t want people to have to be used to reading academic articles to comprehend it. So, here it is:
Critics and fans have praised the heroes of The Last Jedi, but is the Chosen One at the center of a billion-dollar franchise seriously flawed?
Rey, the central protagonist in the new Star Wars trilogy, is, in some respects, the perfect hero for the current moment. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing strapping young men named Chris take this role, while also finding delight in the combative exploits of men on the other side of 50 (Keanu Reeves, Liam Neeson, Tom Cruise) or getting surprisingly close (Mark Wahlberg, Matt Damon). To see the biggest movie of 2017 headlined by a young woman is not just refreshing, but important. In America’s present moment, the old ways of pale males are revealing their toxicity on a daily basis, and so the counter-narrative provided in 2017 by Rey, Wonder Woman, and even Lady Bird is important.
Rey is tireless in her efforts to do good and help others, and she is more than capable of doing so with her abilities as a pilot, a sword-fighter, a user of the Force, and just about everything else she has tried over the course of two films. She appears to have saved both the Resistance (the Rebellion incarnate) and the Jedi Order. Without ever asking for any of it, she is now poised to be the one to clash with the de facto supervillain, Kylo Ren (Darth Vader-lite), and crumple the tyrannical First Order (the Empire incarnate). She’s a Chosen One with incredible abilities and an indomitable spirit. She’s the nobody-turned-messiah at the heart of an epic extension of one of cinema’s most vaunted mythologies.
The problem is that she is merely that.
We don’t know anything about Rey, other than she comes from nothing, given away by her nobody parents for some booze. Two films in, and we have no idea what makes this person tick, other than an innate sense of goodness, an attribute which has hardly been tested, and thus hardly proven. We don’t know what kind of love or attachment she feels for any other character – on or off screen – and we don’t know what she wants to get out of life. She comes from nothing, and that’s the problem; we have no expectations for her identity or the rules which govern her life.
She’s not even a Jedi. Not really, unless all you need to do to be a Jedi is use the Force and wield a lightsaber, but – clearly – being a Jedi is much more than that, and Rey has not gone through any of it. If she’s a Jedi, it’s only because that’s just how Star Wars outside of Rogue One works; a Jedi with a blue or green sword fights a bad guy with a red sword. Voila! A billion dollars at the box office.
The purity and sheer power of her status as Chosen One does not develop through an actual character – instead, Rey is reduced to a convenient plot device. She’s the infallibly good, exceedingly talented heroine who saves the day and fights the bad guy while toppling the fascist empire, unveiling new skills just when the hyperdrive fails. At best she’s a generic Young Adult fiction protagonist and at worst she is a gimmick to sell action figures to parents who want a positive role model for their daughters.Of course, if this is all as plain as I think it is, the film would not have garnered such acclaim from critics and viewers alike. Out of context, perhaps Rey does stand up to critical assessment and I am being too harsh on account of my serious dislike of The Last Jedi. But Rey is not without context. She is hardly the only young Chosen One to be a part of wildly popular modern mythologies, and she should be judged in relation to those other characters. These juxtapositions make it that much more clear how unconvincing and uninspiring this character really is.
Within the Star Wars filmography, Rey has two predecessors: her “mentor,” Luke Skywalker, and his father, Anakin Skywalker. Anakin, like Rey, was chosen by the Force to have unmatched powers. It was prophesied that this boy born into slavery on an insignificant planet outside of the Republic would bring balance to the Force. But Anakin’s tumultuous road to the Dark Side is not based on a series of convenient plot points. Rather, they are fundamentally connected to who he is. He is a young man pained by his inability to save his mother and aflame with passion for the woman he loves and wants desperately to keep safe. He is a wunderkind Jedi who struggles with the Order’s rules against attachment and the Council’s hesitancy to promote him. He sees father figures in the evil Palpatine, who heaps praise on him, and in his mentor, Obi-Wan, who is loathe to grant a simple “atta boy.” It even turns out Annie exhibits enough traits to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.
We know enough about Anakin and his station in life to make his struggle with Chosen One status meaningful. And it makes his fourth quarter conversion make sense, too.
Some may argue that Rey is a successful echo of Luke, but being found by a droid mechanic wandering a desert planet and joining a force of rebels is fairly flimsy criteria. The original film does not pretend Luke is a Jedi just because he is given a lightsaber and can use the Force. Instead, he’s a bored teenager who wants to go fight the Empire. And, when given the chance, he takes it. In Empire Strikes Back, he only starts to become a Jedi when he trains with Yoda on Dagobah, and he only leaves his role as rebel hero to clash with the Dark Side when he finds out his friends are in danger. By Return of the Jedi, he’s pretty much over the rebel hero thing in favor of facing Vader, but this time it’s personal – the cosmic clash in the saga’s conclusion is, as many have noted, a family drama.
While it seemed like Rey was going to have a family connection to the story, this turns out to not be so. Instead, she’s intruding on the family drama which formed the basis for the first six films.
Some writers, like Chris Ryan at the Ringer, have articulated how Star Wars is now based in its own mythology, referential unto itself. But a new character cannot be fully realized through mere reminiscence and nostalgia; Rey has to stand on her own.
Rey falls short of our other famous science-fiction and fantasy Chosen Ones, too. Consider Harry Potter, as clear-cut a Chosen One as we have, with fairly overt parallels to Jesus Christ. Like Rey, Harry grows up without parents, but, unlike Rey, this continues to be the dominating fact of his life which plays out in some painfully human ways. While Harry, Hermione, and Ron don’t quite have a conventional career at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry’s journey as the ultimate hero is still fundamentally related to his station as a student at the school. It’s true that, like Rey, Harry has a tendency to figure out new powers just in time to save the day, but much of this is due to what I find to be the most compelling part of the story – his evil nemesis, Voldemort, is literally a part of him. Harry is good and is a living testament to the power of love, but he still must make the decisions to not be like Voldemort.
Luke asks Rey “Why are you here,” and we still don’t know. Harry’s inevitable clash with the dark lord is not an arbitrary plot point; it grows out of the defining traits of his identity.
Such is the case with Frodo Baggins as well – his quest to save the day as the ringbearer is significant because he has no desire to be a Chosen One. There is nothing special about him that makes him able to bear the burden of the ring other than his disinterest in its power, a disinterest born of his identity as a Hobbit, but a role he is willing to play as a Tookish Hobbit who grew up listening to his Uncle Bilbo’s stories of adventure. He regrets the ring coming to him, and laments “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” to which Gandalf replies, “so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” His actions are further shaped by his friendship with Samwise and his willingness to have pity on Sméagol.
Frodo’s humble beginnings continue to matter throughout his quest and help us to understand the magnitude of what he goes through.
To include Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen might be unfair, given that few characters could stand up to the central figures of A Song of Ice and Fire, but I’ll include them for the sake of making perfectly clear how little we know about Rey. Jon and Dany are, despite George R.R. Martin’s tendency to subvert recognizable tropes, seemingly destined to save the day. But Martin, a fan of misinterpreted prophecies, leaves us to question how exactly these two heroes might fulfill the role of the Prince/Princess Who Was Promised. Even so, their identities outside of epic hero status fundamentally inform how they carry themselves and how we understand them. Jon, a bastard, uncertain of who he is or where he belongs, a talented, courageous, empathetic hero who has no desire to hold power. A resurrected savior with no regard for his own safety. Self-exiled to the end of the world but brought back into the Great Game. And Dany, an exiled young girl, one of the last of her legendary house, sold to a foreign warlord, determined to outwit and outwill all opponents and climb her way to power but keen to care for the commoner. Every moment of triumph earned only after a hard lesson.
We know these people, and we see the ways in which their identities inform the way they grapple with the remarkable positions life has put them in as King in the North and Mother of Dragons.
The complex identities and circumstances of these heroes shape their journeys. It helps us understand how they relate to important places (Hogwarts, the Shire, Winterfell, Dragonstone), people (their friends, their mentors, their rulers), and even items (Godric’s sword, the ring, dragon eggs). The remarkable things they do are made more meaningful because they become real, believable people doing them.
This is not so with Rey. To repeat: we don’t know anything about her.
Some people, including my heroes Mallory Rubin and Jason Concepcion, have noted Rey’s merit as another example of one of the best-loved tropes of fantasy: anyone can be the hero. But Rey’s status as a nobody from nowhere does not necessarily place her in this category. Because she is truly a nobody from nowhere who happens to have great powers and nothing more, Rey actually becomes quite the opposite; Rey forwards the notion that only people with mysteriously-granted and prodigious talents can be the Chosen One.
Because Rey is nobody, nobody has been Rey.
Other heroes work because we’ve been those people.
Some of us have been like Anakin, the talented youngster facing a weight of expectation. We’ve faced the fear of loss and the pains of attachment.
We can relate to Luke, the bored teen wanting something more. We’ve had our future plans derailed by family conflicts. We’ve been asked to make seemingly impossible choices.
Surely we’ve all felt like Frodo, facing a situation we wish we could have avoided, or taking on a task that seems beyond us, but still making the choices to do what we think is right. We’ve been that little person in a big world.
So many can relate to Jon, the gloomy outcast desperate to find their place in the world, or Dany, the empathetic and ambitious person determined to find success but wary of the pitfalls that can come with it.
Even some of us have been Harry, born with exceedingly rare gifts and the destiny that surely comes with it while also trying to navigate growing up and finding love and friendship. And more of us can understand the complex battle within ourselves between good and bad and the choices this presents us with.
I, personally, see myself in these characters, especially Jon and Frodo. This means that I can see myself doing great things.
But no one can see themselves in Rey. No one can make the connection between her ascent to Chosen One and their own potential to achieve greatness.
I hope by this point I have at least convinced you that Rey is not a believable, interesting, or compelling hero, especially within her Chosen One context. But it is also important to consider what this means beyond the aesthetics of good writing. This, of course, matters, but I assume people of my ilk are more likely to care about writing in film more than most moviegoers (and I don’t mean that to necessarily esteem my viewership). What are the consequences of Rey beyond “bad” writing?
Perhaps first and foremost is a distorted sense of what it means to be a hero at all. The antiseptic, perfect hero which Rey represents suggests that heroism is something that happens to people who discover latent gifts and would only ever use those gifts to do the right thing. This describes zero real human beings. Conversely, we have gotten much better at constructing villains who feel real, prizing the complex baddie over the irredeemably or cartoonishly evil figures.
If our choices for protagonists bifurcate into pure heroes like Rey and anti-heroes like Walter White, we will be left without characters who exhibit goodness and virtue while also being real people. Should characters like Rey continue to be the heroes of blockbusters, the only real people we will be left rooting for will be morally ambiguous anti-heroes. I love – love – a good antihero, but thousands of years of literature suggest that we have a fundamental need for more virtuous heroes as well.
As it stands, our contemporary blockbuster heroes are more complex and realistic than Rey, and perhaps her time in the spotlight will be a blip. But, given the success of The Last Jedi and the praise of the character, it appears that more bland archetypes may be on the way unless we examine these characters more critically and demand more from the writers of our new mythologies. We need our heroes. We want to feel like heroes.
It’s just important that they feel like us.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
1 Subversive as Daisy Ridley might be, there’s still a decided whiteness among these blockbuster stars. All the more reason that Black Panther is such an important upcoming work.
2 A separate discussion, but it’s worth noting that Daisy Ridley is a “real” woman, as opposed to the sort of unrealistically sexy characters which sometimes take this role.
3 I would also say that Neo from The Matrix is a pretty fair comparison for Rey.
4 Rey’s training with Luke is not nearly as developed or thoughtful. The scene in which she goes into the dark place is a total hack, relying on its relation to Luke’s confrontation with his Vader-self rather than actually doing anything to explore her character.
5 Why, yes – Jesus is also a more developed character. Easy answer is that his status as a Galilean Jew is super important. Complex answer is that the entire Bible is about him. So, yeah.
6 We learn more about Jon in one conversation with Tyrion than we do about Rey in two films: “Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”
7 It’s convenient that this shows up when Harry needs it, but that’s at least explained by Harry’s membership in Gryffindor House. Why does Anakin’s lightsaber call out to Rey? Because it was convenient for the plot ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
8 Fun fact: I am an INFJ, and so is Jon.
And do you trust your king?
Kings hold such a grip on our imagination and our history books that we have stopped wondering why they’re so important.
I’m not in the business of telling people what they already know, but forgive this reminder: kings are everywhere. Our movies, our books, our card games, our expressions, our artwork – no position in human history is so famous, so recognizable, so revered as that of king. And because of this saturation of kings, ranging from Babar to Elvis, we don’t stop to ask ourselves why we care so much about kings, and what our idea of kings reveals to us about ourselves.
Despite the astounding number of bad kings in world history, and even considering the number of times a king has been the bad guy in works of fiction, the human imagination remains enraptured by the good and noble king.
The groundwork for these concepts of kingliness might be laid out by examining the glorious amalgamation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and Peter Jackson’s screen adaptations of these works. These stories contain a number of kings, of which I believe Aragorn, Thorin, and Theoden to be the most important.
One of the biggest storylines in The Lord of the Rings that gets set aside when people oversimplify the story to “short guys who smoke and eat a lot go on a walk to chuck a ring into a volcano” is Aragorn’s journey to claim his right as the king of Gondor. This oversight is a little silly, considering the fact one of the books is entitled The Return of the King. But, nonetheless, the importance of Aragorn becoming a king, resuming a bloodline long bereft of lordship, extends beyond his importance of being a hero who takes care of his friends. Hunting orcs with Legolas and Gimli is one thing, but taking his place in a great line of kings is on another level entirely. At first, Aragorn’s place in the story might appear as simple as a good guy with a swift sword, but a more careful reading and viewing makes it pretty clear that it really matters that he is the heir to the throne. That’s part of what makes Boromir’s oath to him so powerful, it’s why the men in the mountain follow him to Minas Tirith, and it’s why his march to the Black Gate and his pre-battle speech are so meaningful.
It’s a similar story for Thorin, King Under the Mountain. Jackson subtly wove Aragorn’s lordship into the first trilogy, but in the Hobbit films he pulled no punches in emphasizing the potential monarchy of Thorin, heir to the throne of an exiled people. In An Unexpected Journey, when Balin recounts the Battle of Azanulbizar, and ends by saying of Thorin, “There is one I could follow. There is one I could call king,” it matters that Balin endorses Thorin to be a king, specifically. Like Aragorn, this is not about being a general, or a captain, or just a really cool guy. Generals and captains have their own legacy and lore, but it isn’t the same as saying king. As a result, Balin’s line is one of the movie’s first nods at what will become perhaps the defining moment of that trilogy – Thorin’s charge out of the mountain in The Battle of the Five Armies. Look, if Thorin leading his company out of the mountain, Dain yelling “To the king! To the king!” and Gandalf telling Bilbo “They are rallying to the king,” doesn’t evoke some sort of emotion in you, I’m sorry to hear that you’re missing out. It’s moments like that that make me believe in the Stendhal Syndrome. And, again, it matters that Thorin is a king – not just a really cool guy. It’s why a charge led by 13 dwarves turns the tide of a battle – it’s a charge led by the king. And, if you think that scene is a pandering Hollywood/Peter Jackson-big-screen-fanboy moment, think again. Just what do you think Tolkien had in mind when he wrote:
Suddenly there was a great shout, and from the Gate came a trumpet call. They had forgotten Thorin! Part of the wall, moved by levers, fell outward with a crash into the pool. Out leapt the King under the Mountain, and his companions followed him. Hood and cloak were gone; they were in shining armour, and red light leapt from their eyes. In the gloom the great dwarf gleamed like gold in a dying fire. Rocks were buried down from on high by the goblins above; but they held on, leapt down to the falls’ foot, and rushed forward to battle. Wolf and rider fell or fled before them. Thorin wielded his axe with mighty strokes, and nothing seemed to harm him.
“To me! To me! Elves and Men! To me! O my kinsfolk!” he cried, and his voice shook like a horn in the valley. Down, heedless of order, rushed all the dwarves of Dain to his help. Down too came many of the Lake-men, for Bard could not restrain them; and out upon the other side came many of the spearmen of the elves. Once again the goblins were stricken in the valley; and they were piled in heaps till Dale was dark and hideous with their corpses.
That scene is not the unfaithful work of Jackson (though there are plenty such scenes). And it works precisely because Thorin has completed his journey to take up a long-lost throne.
To draw one more example from Tolkien, King Theoden may actually be the most impressive of all. When we first meet Theoden, he is a weak and failing old man, but he is a king nonetheless. But even after being freed from the curse on his mind, his aging mind and body must grapple with tough decisions that will directly affect the fate of his people. And it’s a bleak situation, but Theoden’s people trust him –
“Who am I, Gamling?”
“You are our king, sire.”
“And do you trust your king?”
“Your men, my lord, will follow you to whatever end.”
And in the events that follow in Theoden’s story, he validates this trust in moments that call for unparalleled valor, first leading them for wrath and ruin at Helm’s Deep and then playing the central role in my personal favorite moment of the third movie – the charge of the Rohirrim at the Battle of Pelennor Fields. Again, these moments are not all total figments of Jackson’s imagination – read the books. And I think it’s because Theoden is such a heroic king that his character has been one that has kept a special place in my love of Tolkien’s works. It matters that an aging man, with everything stacked against him, and a bunch of people counting on him, steps up when it matters and leads his people with courage in a way that only a born king could. It’s why Eomer says “To the king!” when they charge into the valley at Helm’s Deep, not “Charge!” and it’s why I end my articles with “Forth now, and fear no darkness!”
But this extends well beyond the world of Tolkien. Other creative minds have utilized the power of a king bravely leading his men into battle, inspiring them to do more than they ever thought possible. We are not far removed from St. Crispin’s Day, on which Henry V rallies his men with one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches (“We few, we happy few…”), coming in the same play as “Once more into the breach.” It matters that the freaking King of England is saying those things to his men, rather than some other military leader. Even in a movie like 300, you can’t tell me it doesn’t matter at least a little that Leonidas is the King of Sparta, not just another badass. It’s one of the (many) reasons that Themistokles is not nearly as compelling in Rise of an Empire as Leonidas is in the first movie.
But there’s even enough aura around the idea of a king that the king might not even have to demonstrate this martial skill in order to inspire.
For example, the character of King Baldwin IV in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, portrayed by Edward Norton, strikes a particularly kingly figure in a surprising fashion. It’s implied that Baldwin has had great victories before, but by the time of the film’s events, he is a masked leper that might seem more suited to the chess board than to the battlefield. But yet his character still commands respect, and there’s a very clear sense in that movie of how important his role as king is. So much so that it’s pretty freaking boss when he gives the order to assemble the army and he leads the men out to meet Saladin. So much so that Baldwin’s character has a few YouTube tributes – pretty remarkable considering he’s a fairly minor character in a movie widely regarded as a bust.
And, as Henry, Leonidas, and Baldwin show, these notions don’t just come from the minds of fanciful writers. History continues to tell the story of great kings and their heroic deeds.
So, to recap before we take this to the next level:
- Kings are ubiquitous in our imagination and have a very potent effect on our mind and emotions
- The inspiring traits of a good king are particular to kings; kings are inspiring in different ways than captains, generals, etc.
- Part of the reason for this is that king’s are “meant” to be kings – not just anyone can put on a crown and fulfill the role of monarch
- Courageously leading men into battle is perhaps a king’s finest hour
- But even just a strong presence can inspire
Now what I’m about to do will upset you if you’re one of those people who can look Dostoevsky in the face and say “Your overt use of Christianity to resolve Crime and Punishment undermines the rest of your genius.”
I think we were made to be this way. I think our admiration of the great and noble king tells us something about ourselves that points us to the message of the King of Kings.
From a literary and historical standpoint, the Bible is very concerned with kings, both good and bad. The lives of a number of kings are well-documented, including their heroism in war. The Bible’s authors write of how King ____ went out to face King _____, emphasizing the ruler’s place as commander in chief. When they became discontented with judges and prophets, the Israelites stopped trusting in God’s plan and demanded that the prophet Samuel anoint a king, a move that changed the course of Israel’s history.
Despite Israel’s disobedience, the authors of the Bible describe ways in which Yahweh guided kings to great victories, and gifted some of these men with the ability to inspire greatness in others. However, kings ultimately fell short – some had famous vices and sins, some were flat out bad men, and in the end Israel and Judah were conquered by foreign rulers. But, as Biblical prophecy and history shows us, ruler after ruler eventually meets their end. The Babylonian Empire gave way to the Persians, the Persians to the Greeks, the Greeks to the Romans, and so on and so forth.
Yet the Jewish people still expected the Messiah to come in the form of a great military monarch, one who would ride into Jerusalem on a mighty warhorse. Instead, they got a humble Jewish carpenter, who walked about Judea preaching a message of love and forgiveness. They got a savior who rode to the sight of his greatest victory on a donkey. Instead of a crown of gold and jewels, he wore a crown of thorns.
But he is no less a king. In fact, the Bible calls Jesus the King of Kings. For he, like the kings we so admire, fills a role that no one else could, he takes on the toughest of challenges and the heaviest of burdens, he conquers the most dangerous of enemies, he speaks words of inspiration and calls us to be courageous and have faith, in his name is power, great deeds are done in love for him, and, as a nice added bonus, he’s part of a long lost line of kings.
So what do I think we learn from Tolkien, Jackson, Scott, Snyder, Shakespeare, Branagh, Caesar, the chroniclers, the Gospel-writers, the Apostle, Lewis, Mallory, Charlemagne, and Jesus of Nazareth?
We long for a king. We are made for a king.
As much as we yearn to be free and to celebrate our individualism, I think there is an equally powerful force in the human spirit to be ruled. Not to be subjugated, or oppressed, or captivated, or ordered about by a tyrant – indeed, I think the bad king is one of our most potent fears – but to be led by someone that is greater than we could aspire to be. To be guided by one who assuredly leads the way. To serve someone worthy of honor and glory and praise.
We might go to the ends of the earth for an inspirational leader like Jeanne d’Arc or Richard Winters, but we would try to go even further for a leader born to wear the king’s crown.
But, just as the people of faith in Hebrews 11 were longing for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one,” we are longing for a better ruler (that is, a heavenly one). This impression upon our souls leaves us with a recognition of great earthly rulers, and these men instill in us a version of the inspiration received from Christ. And this innate love for great kings points to the love and to the king that can overcome anything.
It is when a person casts off their desire to be the master of their fate and the captain of their soul, when they recognize the futility of their efforts, when they deny their longing to rule over their own life, that they cast their eyes to heaven and see the one true king, the king of glory, and say,
“There is one I could follow. There is one I could call king.”
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
The ideas in this blog post may one day be used as the building block of an academic work (a professor’s suggestion, not mine). If for some reason you want to take some idea from here and run with it, please give credit where credit is due. That goes for all content on this blog, but perhaps especially this one. Thank you.
At times, the consumption of literary, performing, and screen arts has been reduced to mere escapism; some believe that people read books, go to plays, and watch television shows and movies in order to distract themselves from real life in a world that is imaginary. Glib pessimism aside, this might be so. The working person turns on the movie channels to relax after a long day at work. The elementary boy gets lost in fantasy books to forget about bullies. The teenage girl binges on Pretty Little Liars to escape high school drama. It’s not so hard to see how people, for a variety of reasons, turn to various arts in order to transport them away from reality, particularly if that reality is difficult and often if the art is…. less strenuous on the mind.
However, to term this reality-shifting mechanism as escapism – certainly a reductive moniker – is to overlook what might be a more directed, revealing, and beautiful function of art in dealing with the ups and downs of life. In a sense, to call it escapism belittles the utility of art from something that enhances the mind and emotions into something that tranquilizes them.
Aristotle’s metaphor of catharsis in Greek drama reveals art to be aimed with intent at doing much more for the mind than providing an alternate reality. While scholars disagree on some of the finer aspects of Aristotle’s work, the main idea is that the emotions produced in a play could help purge the audience of their own emotions. The audience’s place in the performance would act as a release of emotion that could provide relief from certain emotions, such as fear. So, seeing something horrible happen to a character on stage, though upsetting, would ultimately act to, by the end of the play, cleanse the audience of their own fears and apprehensions as they felt the character’s fear and trauma but came away unscathed. Aristotle’s theories of catharsis support the idea that art’s work in the human mind is much more than a distraction.
I believe that an aspect of art – in literature but perhaps especially in visual, performed arts like the stage and screen – that makes it such a powerful drug in the human mind is what I will call emotional confirmation. This post is, more or less, an outline for an idea that requires much more expansion and research.
Emotional confirmation depends upon two basic principles of human emotions. They are that 1. humans are emotional creatures that must feel emotions inwardly and express them outwardly and 2. humans have an imperfect sense of what emotions feel like, what they look like, and when they should feel or express them.
The first part is simple enough, right? If you’re reading this then you’ve felt and expressed your own emotions and interpreted others’. In I, Robot, one of the things that Dr. Lanning gave Sonny was emotions, and while they are difficult for him to learn, it is his expression of emotions that make him significantly more human than the other robots. (By the way, that has to be one of the most underrated films of the last 15 years).
But, as Sonny finds, emotions are difficult. This is the second part of the two principles. First, how do you know what an emotion feels like? How do you know when you are scared or just nervous? Amused or elated? Infatuated or in love? Second, how do you interpret the emotions of others? Can you be sure that they are as happy as they seem? Are they depressed or just quiet by nature? What does it really look like when someone is angry, happy, or sad? But what really mystifies all of this is our social conditioning regarding emotions. In short, culture and society teaches us what emotions we should feel as well as how we should display them. (Men don’t cry, for example).
For an emotion to properly accomplish its purpose, it must be correctly recognized by the subject, correctly displayed by the subject, and properly received by the audience. If the emotion is unrecognized, misidentified, suppressed, blunted, ignored, or misunderstood along the way, then at least one human is going to be left in a state of confusion and/or frustration. This confusion and frustration is augmented by the first principle: if humans have an innate sense of emotions and a desire to express and understand them, any failures or ambiguities involved will be stressful and uncomfortable.
Art provides a remedy for this with emotional confirmation. In art, a subject can, with certainty, recognize a character’s emotions. More than this, they can identify with that character and feel that character’s emotions as their own, knowing that they are feeling the proper emotion as well as being in a setting where it is acceptable to feel that emotion.
The certainty of emotions in art rests on the premise that the audience can be sure of what they see. Plainly, this accomplishment is not just a side effect of good art, but a prerequisite. If an author cannot use words to describe emotions, they are probably not going to connect with the reader. Prestigious awards are given every year to actors/actresses that can most vividly portray emotion. Great writing and great acting leave little room for uncertainty. When Shakespeare writes King John as saying the following, there is little question what the king is feeling:
“France, I am burn’d up with inflaming wrath;
A rage whose heat hath this condition,
That nothing can allay, nothing but blood,
The blood, and dearest-valued blood, of France.” (3.1.349-52)
The written communication is almost too easy in this sense. It even works to some extent in bad writing: “He was mad.” The portrayal of emotion in acting is rather certain as well. The following scene, basically on its own merit, won Anne Hathaway an Oscar, mostly because of the sheer power of the emotion she conveys:
To make matters easier, performance can benefit from music, visual effects, and so forth. Side note: I left the above video playing as I continued to write, and when she sings “He took my childhood in his stride” my mouth literally dropped, the chills hit, and I teared up a little.
Whereas in real life, emotions are tough to discern and interpret, in art the emotions are made plain. This alone would be enough to make art desirable; watching movies, seeing a picture or painting, and even reading a book that allows the viewer/reader to accurately perceive someone else’s emotions is, for lack of a better word, fun. It’s healthy. Humans spend all of their social time hazarding guesses and jumping to conclusions about someone else’s emotional state, as their mind works at a million miles per hour trying to interpret myriad signals. Having the chance to safely and correctly view emotions is part of what makes Emotional Confirmation so addictive. Not only that, but the viewer/reader does this subconsciously. They begin to feel sad or angry or happy naturally as they view the art.
However, there is another dimension to Emotional Confirmation that makes the experience so edifying, and it is related to Aristotle’s ideas of catharsis.
Art heals our emotions as it prompts and guides us to emotional clarity, bidding us to emote in a certain way and reaffirming our efforts to do so.
This all depends upon the great mystery of how humans come to identify with fictional characters. This identification is what makes us affected when something happens to a character, and it is what makes us keep reading to find out what happens next. Have you ever stopped for a moment when watching or reading something and asked: “None of this actually happened, so why do I care so much?” It’s because you’ve subconsciously put yourself in the story. That’s one of the first things anyone praises about an author – the ability to put the reader in the story. This is, in part, why we care.
This gives us an astounding amount of immediacy to art. We can find ourselves actually taking the place of one of the characters, or standing in very close to them. When a character gives a tearful farewell speech, we imagine they are giving it to us, not just the other characters on screen. When someone wrongs the main character, we get angry because we feel as though they did something wrong to us.
Identifying with characters allows us to cheer for bad guys. Some of the most popular characters in recent television history have been bad guys, or at least guys who do bad things (Walter White, Tony Soprano, Dexter, Stringer Bell). The reason we can want these bad men to succeed is because we’ve taken their side; we’ve come to identify with them and with their cause.
This means that, in many cases, when a character displays an emotion, and a viewer/reader accurately identifies it, the viewer reciprocates the emotion as if they were in the character’s shoes, or at least standing right besides them as a close friend.
Why is it so powerful when Samwise says to Frodo, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!” and then picks him up to walk the final distance to Mount Doom? It’s because we have put ourselves on the journey with Sam and Frodo (and Gollum). It’s as if Samwise is picking us up, not just Mr. Frodo. That’s part of why it’s so powerful. Also Howard Shore’s score.
The coup de grace: the art tells us its okay to feel that way.
Perhaps some social situations will still prevent some people from displaying some emotions while viewing art. This is probably why, and I know I can attest to this, the affects of art are usually augmented when viewed in solitude (that may be another paper).
But, generally speaking, art gives the viewer/reader a safe place to feel and express emotion. Not only that, but it encourages it. Art draws our emotions from us, and makes it so that we can do so easily and willingly.
And that experience, of clearly seeing and feeling an emotion, and being free to express it, is a powerful drug. And, according to Aristotle, upon realizing it is all fictional, our emotions are healthfully cleansed in catharsis.
Of course, all of this may be significantly more nuanced, detailed, researched, and supported. And, of course, there are exceptions in art that confuse or contradict my assertion. For instance, what of character’s like Hamlet, whose emotions are much more difficult to identify?
But for now, I stand by my outline of the concept of emotional confirmation. Entertainment in the form of movies, plays, television, books, and even music (though that’s another thing) is much more than a distraction. It is a place to settle the tumult of emotion that we live in every day, elucidating these troublesome variables and giving us a safe place where we are encouraged to be hit in the feels, as they say.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria