LET'S PUT THE SATURNALIA BACK IN CHRISTMAS; OR, VILLAINS - Complications Ensue
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Saturday, December 10, 2005

[NOT JUST POLITICS] Various Christian right wing groups have been trying to organize boycotts of stores that advertise "Holiday Sales" instead of "Christmas Sales," and are creating a ruckus over the White House having a "holiday tree." They feel oppressed because stores say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."

That's rich, because Christmas trees have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, and an awful lot to do with Germanic tribal tree-worship. Yule is the name of a pagan god. There's no evidence in the Bible, even indirectly, that Jesus was born around the Winter Solstice (the evidence is for some time in spring), but a lot of earlier Middle Eastern gods were born then, and the Romans celebrated Saturn (hence, Saturnalia, his orgiastic feast) around then. Fundamentalist Christians used to close their churches at Christmas to avoid celebrating a fundamentally pagan holiday. Anyway, Jesus's birth isn't the main event, is it? His resurrection is. Everyone's born. No one else came back on the third day.

What's behind this seems to be that some Christians in North America like to feel persecuted and oppressed. This, in spite of being the dominant religion. Christianity was born as a religion of the oppressed, and it has always worked best that way. Few right wing Christians want to feel that they're telling other people what to do. They would much rather feel that they are being prevented from living the way they want to. That's why you got all those rumors about how if Al Gore was elected President, the bible would be banned from bookstores, churches wouldn't be tax-free any more, and kids wouldn't be allowed to wear crosses in schools, and so on. The US won't be a secular society, they fear, it will become an atheistic society.

And we have always been at war with Eurasia.

(There's an interesting argument in Kai Erikson's Wayward Puritans that the Puritans had a witchcraft crisis because they needed an Other. They'd been persecuted in England, but now, in the New World, had no Other to define them; Indians didn't count. So they had to push some people out of the community in order to be able to define themselves by what they were not.)

On the other side, meanwhile, liberals are scared their kids will be forced to say Christian prayers at public school, and gays were scared during the AIDS crisis that they would be rounded up, and Democrats fear that the Republicans won't leave office even if they actually lose an election.

What's the screenwriting connection with all this?

Villains.

If reasonably intelligent people can have diametrically opposed views on issues like these, to the point of deep suspicion and paranoia, then surely you can give your villain a better self-explanation than "because I'm evil." A villain who has a convincing explanation for his deeds is so much scarier than a smirking cartoon villain, because he is that much more real. And the point of my little diatribe about the Christian right is that these guys are fundamentally good people who are nice to each other, who pray, who care about the poor and downtrodden. But they think liberals are out to destroy them, and feel they have to take action to save themselves. Meanwhile, liberals, who are also fundamentally good people who are nice to each other, who also pray, and care about the poor and downtrodden, feel that the Christian right is out to destroy them. And feel they have to seriously discuss taking action.

There's almost no side you can pick that you can't come up with a convincing argument for.

As Lisa points out, Aaron Sorkin did that really well in The West Wing. The show is unabashedly liberal. But the Republicans on the show give liberalism an unabashed pounding. I dare say the Republicans on The West Wing are just as far beyond real Republicans in their patriotism, integrity and intelligence as the Democrats on the show are above real Democrats.

That said, sure, the occasional cartoon villain is refreshing in a popcorn movie. But trying giving your villain such a convincing argument that the audience, for one brief moment at least, almost starts to take his side. That may work better.


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2 Comments:

Fantastic post, Alex, and I agree with every word. Not only do I agree but I have done exactly as you suggest with the various villains who will guest star on my show. They are not moustache twirling evildoers that no one can relate to, but flesh and blood people (not neccessarily human) who, tired of feeling oppressed and ignored, finally strike out in an attempt to assert their independence and defend their rights. Unfortunately, a few people have to die in the process...but it makes for damn good drama, eh?

By Blogger Kelly J. Compeau, at 9:29 AM  

I think you almost have to go even further.

There was a teacher I had in high school who taught politics and he did a very risky thing. When he taught fascism, he'd teach it for the first day like it was the greatest idea in the world.

He did that to point out just how seductive it was -- why some people would follow it. Then the next day he'd turn all that on its head and point out what the flaws in the ideology were.

The thing that to me always defines the hero, besides the obvious McKee-isms, like "the villain wants the same thing that the hero does" -- is that the hero truly believes they are right, or justified in doing what they are doing.

Ra's'aghul in Batman Begins, from his perspective, is doing the right thing.

And yeah. that's way, way, WAY scarier.

Never stack the deck against your villain. For your villain to really be a threat, you have to believe, against all storytelling convention to the contrary -- that they can win.

By Blogger DMc, at 10:17 AM  

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