Grimdark, greyhounds, and the Paucity of Narratives

So, I was talking with Mac and his friend Dave the other day and I made a joke about how, two years ago, if you got any four children together, there was a 50 percent chance at any given moment that they’d break into “Let It Go!” Mac and Dave got that stillness and stared at me the way that they do when I’ve said something foreign to them.

“Yeah, it’s different with boys.” (They both have sons.)

Dave got a grin on his face and did that thing that guys do when they are faced with a Humorless Feminist Type. He made fun of me, downplaying his own sexism by exaggerating it. “Yeah, I think the boys just were, it was a fine movie, just a little boring. They couldn’t relate,” he smirked.

I sat there and made a face that they probably took as a grimace “you win, I’m a humorless feminist, ha ha” and the conversation went on without me while I spent a silent minute or two squashing down my rage.

Because I wanted to punch them. In the teeth. Until they bled. My internal narrative went something (though much less coherently and with much more swearing) like this: These men are raising boys that my daughter might, soon, date. And they think it’s funny that their sons can’t be bothered to give a shit about a narrative that happens to be female led. Not, you know, majority female in cast. No. Frozen has four speaking female character (two of whom are trivial) and nine male roles. But the girls got slightly more than half the dialog and you guys are making fun of the movie and are glad and a little smug that you are raising boys who can’t muster the energy to care about half the human race? And you are making fun of me about it? And also, have you fuckers ever read “How to Suppress Women’s Writing”? Because you seem to have some those techniques down fucking pat.

Since punching them is uncivilized and since screaming at them is useless on every single front, I did was all good girls do and swallowed it down and began to formulate a comeback for next time this comes up. It has to be balanced, of course, because too much snark or anger and they will reject it out of hand. Too much levity and they won’t take it seriously. I find a withering analogy is perfect, though sometimes too obscure for these guys.

After a few hours of thinking I came up with this:

“You know, I have a friend who owns a greyhound. Trembling little coddled thing. All greyhounds need special food, perfectly balanced to their exact needs. Greyhounds have like no gut to speak of, so it’s essentially pre-digested for them. Like, anything more than 5 percent fiber and they just can’t handle it. Won’t even eat it. They just reject it out of hand.” *

Delivered in the right tone of voice, I suspect they might have gotten it. But maybe not. It’s not my most subtle analogy comeback, but they aren’t subtle dudes. Straight white males in America are the greyhounds of the narrative world. They can’t consume any narrative that isn’t a straight white male’s narrative.

(#notallmen, of course. I know lots who read more widely.)

But it’s kind of hard not to consume mostly SWM narratives. Because, in my now-very-strained analogy, greyhound food is the only food that gets put on the shelves at Costco and Stop and Shop. You need to go to a specialty shop to find non-greyhound food, with more complicated flavors. Especially in movies, video games, or TV.

Not only that, but they take the same SWM story and they even prepare it in the same way, over and over and over again. Many narratives about SWM offer them one of a three flavors: A. A SMW is motivated by daddy issues. (You can substitute father figure/boss/chief/captain/king/thane.) or B. He is motivated by the loss of a (usually female) loved one, or C. He is brilliant at X but fails at basic human functions.

So not only are we limiting ourselves to just one ingredient, we’re only preparing it in a few ways.

I realized, thinking about it, that I’d stretched the analogy way too far for it to be useful in casual conversation and I wasn’t sure it was going to get through to Mac and Dave. Despite that, it stayed with me for a few days. In fact, I was thinking about it when a review of Batman V Superman came on the radio. Now, in a moment of random feminist anger after some stupid debacle (I can’t remember which one), I declared that I won’t give my money to DC until Wonder Woman has as many movies as Batman. Or at least Superman. So, frankly, I’m never seeing a DC movie again. And listening to the review I realized that this was definitely not my cuppa. Two SWM beating on each other in grimdark grayscale, larded with angst and anguish? Yeah, no. Thanks.

But Dave was so excited about this movie that he could just explode. He was excited, he explained, because this is the movie he’s wanted all his life. “It’s got Batman and Superman, and it’s liberally based on Batman from Frank Miller which is the best Batman, I love long, drawn-out superhero slugfests, and I love dark and grim. It’s PERFECT!”

As I listened to this review, which confirmed it was a movie I personally wouldn’t want to see but was just up Dave’s alley, I thought about my analogy again: SWM have been fed a steady diet of SWM narratives for decades. The same bland, predigested, simplistic pabulum every god-damned meal.

The thought popped into my head: I’d need a pile of hot sauce to choke that crap down, too.

And suddenly the preponderance of grittiness in popular narrative makes more sense to me. It’s the Sriracha of the narrative world.

Think about it. Hot sauce doesn’t really add nutritive value to your meal. It doesn’t add complexity or depth. It doesn’t add fiber or protein or carbs. Hell, it doesn’t require any effort on the part of the chef. It just adds overwhelming flavor by popping open a bottle. Grimdark narratives are almost always SWM stories. The violence and blood and bleak color palate just adds a strong flavor to the SWM narrative. It doesn’t provide any variety or complexity to the diet.

Suddenly, the preponderance of gritty and dark stories makes sense to me. These guys don’t even realize that they are getting fed the same old story over and over again. They think that’s all there is and they crave variety, even if they don’t know it, so they keep adding more sex, blood, death, and violence.

The obvious cure is to consume different narratives. And, happily, the narrative machines seem to have realized this, a little bit. They are adding variety, though slowly and very carefully. (You can’t change their diet too fast, otherwise you get intestinal distress.)

For example, you get stories like “Sleepy Hollow” and “Elementary” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and Guardians of the Galaxy where there’s a diverse cast… but of course the lead is still a straight white male.

You can gently ease them in with “Person of Interest,” which starts with two SWM and a woman of color and then you add in two women. Okay, they are white and pretty and flirting with each other. But a candy-coating of hot lesbian sex seems to the other way to get these guys to swallow anything.

Then we coax them into slightly more complex diets like Fury Road. Still a simplistic story delivered in a very familiar formula but there’s a woman at the lead. Still white, thin, pretty, and presumably straight, but … you know… a woman. And she’s missing an arm! Hell, if you put it on the pizza that is the Star Wars franchise, you can squeeze in a woman and a black man.

They will complain, of course. But they may eventually learn to enjoy it.

 

*I do, in fact, have a friend who owns a greyhound. He would like me to point out that, “While they do need a kibble that is higher in protein than other dogs, they aren’t that delicate. Well, most of them aren’t. Some have food sensitivities.”

 

 

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