Unexamined Metanarratives, or The Problem with Privilege

I’ve talked about the concept of metanarratives at length before in the general context of postmodernism and specifically when applied to superheroes and Star Wars. Today I want to highlight what I believe the positive impact of deconstructing metanarratives are through a metanarrative commonly employed in modern fiction. While postmodernism deconstructs metanarratives because it believes they are a power play – an attempt to control the thinking of others by forcing their minds into preconceived patterns – I believe most metanarratives arise out of a person’s general philosophy and, while fiction can reinforce these philosophical preconceptions, it can also be used as a way to measure these preconceptions and see what about them makes sense and what doesn’t.

Metanarratives are rarely – possibly never – without some foundation in reality. The mostly happy homes of Home Improvement or The Cosby Show do exist, for example, but the constraints of their fictional setting prevent them from being explored in depth, so a number of clichés and tropes built up around these fictional families until The Simpsons came along to deconstruct them. While The Simpsons is no longer particularly relevant to sitcom formulas; for years it was ascendant and its deconstruction of the prevailing metanarrative did open up new avenues of storytelling to explore. That didn’t invalidate the old metanarratives, even if many people acted like it did.

There are a lot of metanarratives in modern fiction that could use this treatment, like the “trade in your birth family for one you build yourself” metanarrative (conveniently ignoring that if you can’t make your birth family work the odds you can build a function one are pretty small) or the “sell guns to both sides and reap huge rewards” metanarrative (a good way to get shot and, as near as I can tell, never something that’s happened historically). And perhaps this will become a recurring spot as other post ideas have, there’s certainly fodder for it. But for now, I want to look at Privilege.

The concept of “Privilege” I want to talk about is not what we normally think of as a privilege. It’s not permission to use the computers at the school you attend – unlike a member of the general public who does not have that privilege – or the privilege of using motor vehicles on government owned roads – which is basically what your driver’s license grants you. In much of modern fiction there is the notion of unearned benefits conferred to you by circumstance, particularly circumstances that favor one group over another. And that notion is encapsulated in the term “privilege”.

Let’s start our deconstruction of this notion by mentioning that the ideas behind Privilege are not new. When circumstances convey benefits no one earned there have been a host of terms for it. “Luck” is one, suggesting that sometimes the world just seems to like you more than others. “Blessing” is another, conveying the way people or, among the religious and/or superstitious, supernatural forces will give something of value to another as an expression of affection or to cement some kind of personal bond. “Bias” is a third, denoting the preference of one group over another.

And here we come to the first major construct of Privilege that must be taken apart and examined. The very use of the term marries blessing and bias. Not all blessings imply a bias. For example, my sisters and I were blessed with a homeschooling education. My parents blessed me with a social study curriculum that emphasized understanding philosophy and ideas in ways that profoundly shaped the way I think and who I am today. But they didn’t choose to bless my sisters with the same curriculum. In many ways their social studies were easier or more engaging, but they did not develop the same perspectives. And, looking back on it from a distance of some years, I can see that the curriculum I studied did not suit their personalities and interests as it suited mine. Yes, my parents exercised their good judgement in making these choices, but good judgement is not the same as bias. Nor do I feel the different educational blessings my parents shared with their children were inferior or superior to each other. They were simply chosen to best fit those receiving them. The Privilege metanarrative leaves no room for this kind of nuance.

But perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “This is a bad example. The Privilege metanarrative applies to groups, rather than individuals. Of course an education as highly tailored to individuals as homeschooling would rule Privilege out.”

If you were thinking that, then you’re correct. The second construct the Privilege metanarrative brings to the table is group based evaluation. In the Privilege metanarrative my parents’ decisions must be understood through group identity. Thus, the choice to give me an education full of philosophy must have been a result of my male privilege, as the job of men is to run the world and make sure all the other people are unprivileged (the term for this is oppressed in the view of the typical postmodernist). The fact that my parents might have looked at each of their three children’s interests and temperament individually is not relevant to the metanarrative any more than Chicago style political dramas are relevant to a Home Improvement style sitcom metanarrative.

Which is to say, they can be made to blend but one aspect will bend to the other – either the corrupt politicians must be shown as fools by the sitcom crew or the sitcom cast will become unwitting tools of the corrupt politicians, either my parents must have been driven by unconscious bias towards the favored male gender or their decisions being what they are is just a result of my being in some way stereotypical. There’s nothing wrong with this blending on the surface, by the way, but culturally predominate metanarratives tend to win out in the blending and right now the Privilege metanarrative saturates our culture. The tendency to let it win out will be strong, but a good writer must still carefully evaluate whether that metanarrative blend is what’s best for your story.

Metanarratives that operate without question quickly run out of control. Humans tend to push ideas as far as they can, usually running right of the edge of a cliff in the process. The history of the Privilege metanarrative is an interesting expression of this. The basic pieces of the modern take on the metanarrative were put in place during the Civil Rights era, when Privilege was rampant in culture and law. Recognizing it was a very important step in human progress and resulted in good things for the nation as a whole and many ethnic minorities in particular. This fact is a big part of why the idea of Privilege is so widespread in culture today. However, the idea of Privilege has far outgrown its starting context.

We frequently hear of “white privilege” in culture today. In summation this is the idea that generations of cultural expansion, tight knit families, careful investments, inheritance, emphasis on education and ethnic loyalty have catapulted white people to the forefront of the world and given them a stranglehold on the wealth and power of the modern world. In turn we see the Privilege metanarrative used to justify any number of actions to disrupt this supposed deathgrip. This has been true in pulp and pop entertainment for a while and has crept into daily discourse as well.

Again, this metanarrative is not new. The clearest example in history is how, for over a thousand years, the inherited wealth, excellent education, ethnic loyalty and powerful family ties of Jews was used as an excuse to persecute them.

This is the final aspect of the Privilege metanarrative that must be deconstructed. Like all flawed, human concepts, metanarratives can drive great evil as easily as great good. The current Privilege metanarrative casts Privilege as an evil and those that oppose it as a force for good, a direct extension in its origins in the Civil Rights movement. While this can be true, and again has been true in recent memory, it is not always the case – again, in recent memory. By the same token, Privilege is viewed almost as a universal, underpinning every situation, when sometimes a blessing is without bias, or luck is just luck. There’s no reason to say my education was a privilege over that of my sisters, as we all turned out equally well and, some might say, they are doing somewhat better than I am.

I’ve been very hard on postmodernism in the past and I stand by my belief that its approach to metanarratives is silly and leads only to confusion. But I hope I’ve shown today that the process of deconstructing a metanarrative and looking at its component parts and how it’s played out across history can give us a deeper understanding of a metanarrative, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and how it might be used in innovative ways. At the least it lets us put aside popular metanarratives for a metanarrative with less cachet at the moment but better suited to your needs.

Metanarratives are just one of many tools in the writers arsenal. Use them wisely and you get good stories. Sometimes that means breaking them down and seeing what each part has done, is doing, and could do.

Now. The throughline of this blog has been nonfiction for far too long. Come back next week and we’ll kick off a new dose of fiction with a spicy double posting followed by an exciting (hopefully) new sci-fi tale from yours truly!


Star Wars and the Metanarrative

You can’t really discuss metanarratives these days without talking about George Lucas. Over the last two weeks I’ve talked about how ignoring the importance of a metanarrative can cripple a franchise over time and how putting a solid metanarrative (or better yet, two or three) at the center of a franchise can result in a fresh, invigorating take on a seemingly worn out genre. But metanarratives are not all sweetness a light. It’s possible to become too invested in them and Star Wars is the perfect example. Most people see this, to a certain extent, when discussing things like “ring theory”, the idea that certain scenes and plot points occur at similar times in the classic and prequel trilogies, and in the recent revival The Force Awakens. I would propose that, even from the original trilogy, the franchise shows signs of being mired down by Lucas’ obsession with the Hero’s Journey.

Now it has been, and continues to be, my premise that metanarratives in and of themselves are not bad. But, just as The Simpsons threw out the prevailing metanarrative and missed how it set up one of its own, Star Wars introduced a metanarrative and never did anything beyond the bare basics with it.

The Star Wars interpretation of the hero’s journey is pretty standard: introduce menace, introduce main character, have main character leave home to do something simple, get caught up with mentor figure in the midst of some kind of trouble, learn of the Force to varying degrees, face struggle and ultimately triumph.

There were slight variations on this theme, some of which are truly excellent. The death of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru in A New Hope are suitably emotional and impactful as an inciting incident. We knew enough about both characters to feel their mutual affection for Luke and their death was as senseless and tragic as you’d expect at the hands of an evil empire. The Degobah Cave sequence in Empire Strikes Back shows the fears Luke has about himself in a memorable fashion, making it one of only two worthwhile Degobah sequences. (The other is the introduction of Yoda.) The chase through Coruscant in Attack of the Clones is pretty fun and introduces a kind of buddy cop dynamic to the Obi-Wan/Anakin relationship that could have been the heart of a better movie. The Order 66 sequence in Revenge of the Sith is a horrific twist on the main character’s moment of triumph and, contrary to what many think, Anakin murdering the younglings is the perfect capstone on his descent into evil. Introducing Han Solo and, later, Luke Skywalker as the mentor figures of The Force Awakens is leveraging the franchise mythos for all it’s worth.

The core problem with Star Wars is that the story never really changes. It’s more like playing a game of mad libs. In the very broad sense plot elements could be substituted for one another at random and smoothed into a coherent narrative with little trouble. Imagine if the plot to Star Wars 3 1/4th was that Luke Skywalker hopped a ship to Jaku with Yoda after the Clone Army raided Hoth and blew up his bar. Yoda convinced him to join the Rebel Alliance and help BB-8 hijack the Millennium Falcon and smuggle it to Coruscant where they could use the plans onboard to ambush and destroy the new Super Star Destroyer. On the way Luke rescue Qui-Gon Jin, ace pilot, and his starfighter squadron from a prison camp and scrapes together ships for them to fly and the agree to help him in his ambush. Qui-Gon’s second in command, Lieutenant Amidala, is a former Jedi padawan and teaches Luke the basics of the Force, which enable Luke to fly the Falcon through the Star Destroyer’s defenses and ensure its demise.

Just like that, you have a Star Wars story. It meets all the requirements. It has some potential for fun and action. And it’s almost beat for beat what all the other Star Wars stories have been.

Like I said when talking about The Simpsons – there’s nothing wrong with a serviceable metanarrative. But when it’s the only one at work that leaves a lot of room for other kinds of stories, other metanarratives, to move in and set up shop as your metanarrative gets old, stale and self referential. It happened with The Simpsons. Will it happen to Star Wars?

Well, that’s a harder question to answer. Rogue One has already kind of broken the mold, telling a different kind of story with very different beats but sticking to the mythos and style of Star Wars (for the most part). Unfortunately, for numerous reason all of which we may never know, Rogue One was not very good as a story. At the same time it as such a radical departure from most of what Star Wars had offered until that point many longtime fans of the franchise still loved it. There’s a lot of room for Star Wars to expand on its current core metanarrative, as Rogue One showed. But if the “core” films continue to beat the same drum then the moderately positive reception The Force Awakens received is likely to die out quickly and leave the franchise much where it was after Revenge of the Sith: under a bit of a cloud as hard core fans dream of the days when it was fresh and exciting. Regardless of which way it goes, the lesson is the same: Pay attention to what you’re doing and be sure to switch it up from time to time.

My Hero Academia and Building Metanarratives

Last week we talked a bit about metanarratives the way not being aware of them can lead to a death spiral in a particularly long running work of fiction over time. The same can happen in a broader genre if no one is paying attention to metanarratives. Something of the sort has happened amongst superheroes in the last few years, both in comics and in movies. If you’re interested in tracing the spiral in comics, at least in a very generalized, scattershot kind of way, I recommend the excellent YouTuber Diversity and Comics. In movies the metanarrative is pretty simple, usually revolving around some kind of rebirthing arc.

The hero starts out either normal or somehow denied his heroic aspect by outside pressures, undergoes a transformation that cuts him off from his old life and grants him great power, finds some way to use said power for the greater good and eventually discovers that some part of his old life is now cut off from him by his power or the circumstances it forces on him. These story arcs are typically introspective, the hero’s transformation frequently being as much an epiphany about him or herself, and lead to deeper, richer characters. The problem is, by examining the same portion of the hero’s story over and over again, the industry is running out of possible permutations of variables to use and the arc doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for the kind of conflict superheroes do best – the kind where they clash with supervillains.

My Hero Academia does do the occasional introspective arc where the hero, Deku, contemplates himself, his abilities and how to better use them. It’s standard issue stuff in the “shonen” or adolescent boy’s comic books. But there are two other kinds of narratives the series does that build on major shonen metanarratives by fusing them with similar metanarratives in the superhero genre. These are the “paragon” metanarrative and the “antithesis” metanarrative.

Paragons are people who embody certain traits particularly well, the term is typically used in reference to good or noble traits although one could also be a paragon of ruthlessness or cruelty. In superhero comics the most notable paragons are Captain America and Superman, people who’s strong moral fiber and dedication to noble ideas challenge those around them to likewise dedicate themselves to higher callings. Paragons in superhero tales are almost always moral paragons, leading by example and encouraging responsible and courageous living in everyone they meet. Many stories from the long history of comics’ top two paragons embody this metanarrative but the greatest of these is found in All-Star Superman #10, when Superman, slowly dying from a fatal poisoning, pauses in his mad rush to banish as much evil in the world as possible to talk a suicidal girl away from the edge of a building. It’s an unforgettable moment in a great story overall.

In shonen, paragons embody a much broader set of traits, usually perseverance, dedication, passion for a skill or calling, general lust for life, loyalty to friends and family, or some mix of those traits. Oga Tatsumi, protagonist of Beelzebub, is a perfect example of this kind of paragon. He’s a delinquent who gets into fights but he has grit, values people he calls allies and has no respect for illegitimate authority but plenty of respect for people who try to stand on their own two feet. People who know Oga gain self-reliance, self-respect and confidence from his example, even though he himself is rarely a very good person.

The protagonist of My Hero Academia, Izuku Midoriya, codename Deku, is a paragon for heroes. He’s not very special in the world he lives in, beyond the fact that not having a superpower basically counts as being handicapped. What he does have is a heroic instinct. When he sees someone in trouble he responds without thinking, moving to help them in whatever way he can. The first time the audience sees this is in the first chapter of the story, Izuku Midoriya: Origin. The way Deku’s behavior influences his peers is highlighted in two other chapters, suitably named Katsuki Bakugo: Origin and Shouto Todoroki: Origin.

In both cases the characters in question are influenced by Deku’s impulse to help them. Bakugo’s story is told in flashback as a young Bakugo falls from a bridge and Deku rushes to help him. This seemingly simple happenstance leaves his arrogance and confidence are shaken when a totally normal kid takes actions more reminiscent of their mutual idol, All Might, than anything Katsuki has done. Unsurprisingly this early event left Bakugo with a strong sense of rivalry towards Deku and a surprisingly pure-hearted sense of a hero’s duty. Even if it is a duty Bakugo is terribly unsuited for, emotionally speaking.

For Todoroki, Deku’s help takes the form of helping his schoolmate make peace with the abusive legacy of his family by fully embracing his superpowers. As the son of an established and horrifically ambitious “hero” called Endeavor, Todoroki has set himself the goal of being a top pro without ever using the powers he inherited from his dad, only those from his mom. With Deku’s help Todoroki makes peace with his origins and becomes a better, more balanced person. Both of these events make those influence by Deku better suited to be pro heroes – in fact, it may be the event that makes them true heroes, hence it being called their origin. Bakugo’s story meets the superhero comic definition of paragon to a T, Todoroki’s, as it takes place during a school sparing competition, hits all the highlights of shonen paragons.

By the same token the “antithesis” metanarrative is part and parcel of both superhero books and shonen manga.  The clearest example in comics is probably Captain America and Red Skull, both supersoldiers for their sides but with totally different ideals and methods that draw them into constant conflict to emphasize the differences.

In manga and anime you need look no further than Vash the Stampede and Legato Bluesummers to see completely opposite ideologies playing out in direct contrast.

Like those two great heroes before him, Deku faces a villain who his exact opposite. Shiragaki Tomura, the nominal head of the League of Villains, is not an all-powerful villain that can dominate Deku at every step with brilliant plans. Instead he’s also a teenager, maybe a year or two older, and still very much learning the ropes just as Deku is. As Deku’s experience as a hero grows, so does Shiragaki’s understanding of how to manage his personnel and his available supply of minions. As Deku’s resolve and compassion grows, so does Shiragaki’s malice and antipathy towards society. By occasionally bringing these two together we seen exponential changes in each character take place and get great moments of heroism to boot.

These kinds of metanarratives are missing from most American comics franchises these days, typically set aside as juvenile or simplistic. But, to be perfectly frank, without these metanarratives Deku’s story would have gotten stale a long time ago and no fresh take on the genre – either superhero or shonen – would have come about.

As we discussed last week, metanarratives are not inherently bad. By consciously examining them and planning a story around them, as Kohei Horikoshi clearly did with My Hero Academia, you can build very clear and compelling plots to hang great characters and ideas on. Study stories like Horikoshi’s for ideas, yes, but study their structure as well. You might be able to bang out a great story or two if you plunge in without a thought towards metanarratives, but if you try to sustain those stories then they’ll quickly become Simpsons-esque narratives caught in their own ideas with nowhere to go. Like any good building, a story with a solid blueprint will last longer than one without.

Postmodernism, Metanarratives and The Simpsons

A while back, when I wrote about creativity, I made a passing mention to postmodernism, a philosophy that had, and still has, a huge impact on the cultural landscape of the last fifty years or so. I thought it might be a good idea, at some point, to put out a few words on what postmodernism is, how it’s shaped culture and what seems to be happening to it today. Since it is such a big part of our media today understanding exactly what it is and what it’s doing, and how we can take advantage of it to make our own stories better.

Let’s start with the basics. Postmodernism is a philosophy that specializes in breaking down and analyzing metanarratives. What is a metanarrative? In short, Joseph Campbell.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces is the magnum opus of a writer and mythologist named Joseph Campbell and in it he describes the narrative arc of the typical mythological hero and what that narrative arc means symbolically. This foundational narrative arc, the hero myth, is a basic metanarrative. I’m not planning on running through how the hero myth works in general, that’s outside the scope of our discussion (but more on it in a few weeks). What’s important is that this metanarrative embodies a certain idea, namely that going out of what’s familiar, struggling and overcoming, then returning to make your home a better place is an admirable way of life, something that people – and in it’s original codification, men in particular – should aspire to do.

The catch to postmodernism is that it doesn’t stop with breaking down metanarratives. Another component of postmodernism is that it interprets them as deliberately benefiting those that tell them at the expense of others and then tries to dismiss them using irony, satire or other methods that trivialize them. In the case of the hero myth postmodernism would likely characterize it as an attempt to prop up some kind of masculine hegemony by idealizing the man who goes out and overcomes obstacles as the heroes of society.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s it was common for heavily plot driven TV shows to introduce some kind of conspiracy theory that sought to spin cover stories for events and hide their true meaning from the public. The X-Files and Heroes both did this, for example, as did The Golden Compass in YA literature. These are classic postmodern devices. The people who set up these conspiracies hide the truth from the rest of the world so they can manipulate the public to their advantage.

While this idea that everyone is using you is one of the biggest appeals of postmodernism; stories where that’s the basic premise quickly boil down to a trite “be yourself” and end with the protagonist leaving whatever group he conformed with before and quickly conforming to whatever group he joins up with. Hardly the stuff of greatness. Instead, we must look someplace surprising for the greatest triumph of postmodern media.

We need to take a few minutes to discuss The Simpsons.

I’m not an expert on this show. I’ve watched maybe two full episodes and caught parts of others. Much of what I’m going to say is lacking in nuance. But I think I’ve got the core of the idea and it does seem to carry a lot of postmodernism in it.

The late 1980s and 1990s featured a lot of really wholesome sitcoms with a narrow focus on single families and the things that happened to them. The Cosby Show, Family Matters, Full House and Home Improvement were all examples of this basic mold: Reasonably well off family, educated and caring father present in the home, loving mother struggling to find a balance among all the things pulling her home in different directions, kids about average in school and dipping in and out of trouble as the plot demands. The metanarrative says that these families were the kinds of people you might know or even want to be like and ultimately, while it might not always be pleasant, it was more good than bad and you could make it work if you tried. The Simpsons… didn’t try.

Homer is stupid and uninvested in his family… until it looks like they might fall apart, then he puts in just enough effort to maintain the status quo. Marge keeps the family above water by being the voice of morality but said morality is never based on anything stronger than Marge herself. When she has breakdowns or is otherwise absent her regulating effect on the family vanishes. Bart rebels against authority but never learns or accomplishes anything by it. Lisa overachives but never finds satisfaction through it. The Simpsons family is the perfect rejection of the family sitcom metanarrative – watching The Simpsons is funny (arguably, I don’t find it laugh out loud funny and for me that’s the litmus test) but it’s not anything people really want to emulate. Or even have around them in real life. Rather than pushing postimodernism The Simpsons just is postmodern.

A lot of people loved The Simpsons in the early days of the show. Unfortunately almost everyone agrees that it has now “jumped the shark” or lost the spark that made it what it was. How this happened is interesting, as it’s a case study in why postmodernism doesn’t work as a way of life or creativity, even if what it does can be useful.

The Simpsons was a classic case of postmodernism. It deconstructed the prevailing metanarrative of happy, functional families in funny situations and gave us a new, fresh take on a dysfunctional but (debateably) funny family that was funny partly because of how it contradicted the prevailing metanarrative. After five or six years the entertainment landscape shifted and The Simpsons began to loose relevance. More shows were mimicking the way The Simpsons lampooned the old media landscape and the founding writers were beginning to run out of ideas to satirize the old sitcom formula with. Ultimately Family Guy would come along in 1999 and satirize The Simpsons by taking their format and stuffing it full off pop culture references and painfully drawn out gags that went nowhere to poke fun at the overly complicated and often absurdist gags The Simpsons relied on. The Simpsons had gone from deconstructing the metanarrative to being the metanarrative and new shows were deconstructing it in turn.

The Simpsons was breaking down before the first epsidoe of Family Guy. The inherent weaknesses of postmodernism came to full force in an episode of the eigth season called “The Principal and the Pauper”, in which the principle of the local elementary school, a well established character, had all his backstory thrown out the window when it was revealed the real principal had died in the Vietnam war and his identity was stolen by an army buddy. This is classic postmodernism – what you think is true is a façade manipulated by someone else for their own convenience and must be broken down so you can put your own façade in place. This not only happened with the Principal’s character but the show itself – by this point the original writing team was gone and new writers were asserting their own vision for the show with no regard to what others had done before.

Eventually Family Guy would eat The Simpsons alive, overtaking that show in the ratings and building a new formula that The Simpsons would mimick until the two shows inevitably crossed over because they had become indistinguishable from one another.

Postmodernism does something very useful for a writer. It teaches you how to break down the elements of a story and really understand what they are doing. But it also teaches you to view these story elements and their thematic import as inherently suspicious. Once idetified and broken down metanarratives must be replaced because they can only come to exist because those that created them were seeking to bend them to their own advantage. But a study of postmodern storytelling shows the fallacy in that thought – postmodernists build metanarratives of their own, as often as not without meaning to do so. This leads to a wild orgy of deconstruction and reconstruction that often winds up chasing its own tail until the stories become indistinguishable from one antoher and, very frequently, lacking nuance, depth or anything interesting at all, really.

We see this in the lifecycle of The Simpsons and how it intersected with other shows like Family Guy. We see it in the incredible slump of Marvel Comics as its books have leaned more and more on postmodern, deconstructionist characters and storytelling. We see it to a lesser extent in modern art and music, where rules of pleasing visuals and sounds are largely rebuilt over and over again instead of carefully passed on to the next generation.

The sitcoms of the 80s, while capable of great entertainment, were stuck in a rut and The Simpsons attempting to break out of that mold was a worthy goal. By the same token deconstructing metanarratives has a lot of value for the author and it can help you make stories fresh and relevant again. But when you do, consider that, once you know how that metanarrative works, it might be worth keeping in place so you can make it work like a well oiled machine rather than replacing it.