Noah Brand explains how our culture tell us that the rich powerful people are the ones who really matter, and we could be among them if we were good enough… but we’re not.
This post was previously published at No Seriously What About Teh Menz.
The damage of the “success object” imagery around men is pervasive and complex, so bear with me. It’s going to look like I’m just talking about fiction for the first while.
There’s a jillion movies about Robin Hood out there, and some of them are decent, but there’s only one that I don’t consider bullshit. That one is Robin And Marian, the 1976 version written by the legendary James Goldman (and directed by the legendary Richard Lester, but the auteur theory can kiss my ass). It’s got a stunning cast and a great story, but that’s not why it’s the only non-bullshit Robin Hood movie. This is why:
Every other Robin Hood movie goes with the bullshit “Sir Robin of Locksley” retcon, wherein Robin is a nobleman who becomes an outlaw guerrilla to fight the system. I don’t know exactly where this lie crept in, but it’s clearly not part of the original story. Robin Hood is known for being expert with a longbow and a quarterstaff, both commoner’s weapons. His primary crime is poaching, which was a working-class crime well into the 20th century. There’s even a member of the Merry Men, Will Scarlet, whose gimmick is that he’s a nobleman who turned his back on his class to fight the system. Why do you need Will Scarlet if that’s already Robin Hood’s gimmick? In fact, most Robin-of-Locksley movies minimize or eliminate Will, because narrative redundancy sucks. Looking at the actual structure of the old stories, there is no way to read Robin Hood as other than an anti-feudalist character, but Robin And Marian is the only movie where he acts like it.
So whence cometh the “Robin of Locksley” variant? Well, the fact is, people seem to like telling stories about rich nobility. That was true back in the old days, with endless stories about knights and princesses, and it’s still true today. Flip through your TV dial; there sure do seem to be a disproportionate number of shows about rich people, don’t there? Even when the characters officially work for a living, they certainly seem to have awfully nice apartments and designer clothes and so on. I mean, I like Aaron Sorkin as much as the next fella, but let’s not lie; we still have the landed classes and we’re still telling stories about them. So if you have a popular story like Robin Hood that doesn’t fit that model, you just tweak it so it does.
Now, there is a totally valid objection to that characterization, and that’s that an awful lot of old folktales are about peasants and disinherited sons. The unlucky third son, the simple fool whose good heart wins through in the end, all those guys. And that’s true, but those stories are still about reinforcing feudalism.
Think about it: all those stories are about how the simple-but-honest hero exhibits proper serf values of charity, piety, duty, and respect to those of higher station. (Whether you personally approve of any of those values or not, they remain serf values.) At the end of the story, the hero gets to marry the princess or get more gold than he could ever spend. The interpretation is fairly clear: if you’re a very, very good peasant, we’ll let you join the upper class. Maybe.
Naturally, we’re still telling that story.
It helps, of course, that America has been moving toward a corporate-based form of feudalism for quite some time, with a tiny moneyed class holding almost all the property, and the rest of us valued only for our ability to work the property for its owners. In the ideal finished version of this system, everyone who’s not part of the corporate overclass is free to either serve or starve. We’re not quite there yet, but work continues. And part of that work is getting people to buy into the feudal system in the hope that we might be allowed to join the upper class if we’re very, very good peasants.
On the simplest level, there’s the Horatio Alger bullshit, the explicit statement that if you’re an exemplary poor person, you will be given all the money you could ever want. When it’s that baldfaced and ridiculous, it’s easy to laugh off, but the same narrative pervades a lot of our cultural brainspace. A lot of the stories we tell today about our landed gentry, the wealthy elite doctors and lawyers and consultants who people our televised dramas, emphasize how they were once exemplary peasants. They fought their way up from hardscrabble roots, they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, they’re self-made men. In other words, they shared their lunch with a fucking elf and got magic trinkets that allowed them to marry the princess. Same story.
Now, I don’t deny that there are values being advocated by these stories that aren’t that bad. I have nothing morally against hard work and cleverness and bravery, nor against sharing your lunch with mysterious old men you meet in the forest. I think that if more people were brave and clever and generous, that would be a net gain for humanity. Then, too, as an American, I have a deeply enculturated weakness for stories about a hero who makes himself a hero, rather than having heroism granted to him like a present from a higher authority. Not to say that non-Americans can’t believe in that, but I do think that an intrinsic component of American mythology is the idea that it doesn’t matter who your family is or how you were born or whether you’re Destined or Chosen or whatever, you can become a hero on your own terms through grit and determination and maybe a few other factors.
The problem is that, like so much else with constructed societal roles, there’s some genuinely good stuff (hard work, generosity, virtue) mixed up with some incredibly damaging stuff (success is the result of virtue, therefore lack of success is the result of vice). We come to define the world in terms of “winners” and “losers” and we come to think of ourselves as “failures” if we’re not rich and powerful. The virtuous-peasant model betrays us. We’re as virtuous as we know how to be, and we’re still peasants but now it’s somehow our own fault. Our stories and our culture tell us again and again that the rich powerful people are the ones who really matter, and that we could be among them if we were good enough, but we’re not.
This is one of the deep sources of the success myth that wrecks so many men, that tells us we’re unworthy and stupid and weak because we’re not rich or powerful enough. We don’t seem to be able to separate our stories, from which we draw so many of our notions of How Things Ought To Be, from a bunch of essentially feudal notions about heroic princes and lucky simpletons, and honestly, shitty Robin Hood movies are the least of the bad fallout from that.