I am a white man who’s been raised on violence.
That’s not the takeaway I’d expected when I arrived for my first visit to the Humanist HUB last Sunday. Not in the least.
The afternoon’s speaker, Colin Stokes, was slated to talk about movies in pop culture. Bright shafts of sun lit the heads of almost a hundred people waiting for the talk to start. There was a rendition of “Superman’s Song” by Crash Test Dummies and a recitation of Shel Silversteen’s poem “Masks.” Then after a gregarious introduction by Greg Epstein, the Humanist HUB’s Executive Director, Colin rose to the front of the cream-colored room and began to speak.
As humanists, he pointed out, we don’t just accept our myths as God-given, we have the immense freedom to choose which texts we hold as sacred—by which texts we live our lives. But with that freedom comes a responsibility to scrutinize our texts and challenge the basis of the lessons they teach us.
Myth-making didn’t stop with the Romans, it’s a living genre, so to speak, tied to a multi-billion-dollar movie industry. “Maybe your pantheon is Ariel and Simba,” Colin said. “Maybe you know Harry Potter’s genealogy better than King Arthur’s.” The point is: the nature of myth has changed. No one goes to the local amphitheater to hear the bard sing the war deeds of our forefathers. We go to the movie theater and watch Dunkirk. Children don’t often learn from folktales anymore—they learn from Lilo & Stitch. Not Aesop, but Disney.
Colin took aim at one kind of narrative that lies at the heart of many of the movies he—and many Americans—hold dear: the hero’s journey. It’s the backbone of many a Hollywood blockbuster, depicting a hero’s call to adventure, his journey from the known into the unknown, shifting the balance of a broken world to one of good and justice. Think of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Lord of The Rings, Batman, Superman, and most all the superhero movies that have been coming out in recent years.
But the heroes in popular movies, Colin says, have often been white, the journeys have often been violent, and the prizes have often been women.
In the old Star Wars movies, a total of two women speak over the course of six hours of film. Of the IMDb 100 best movies of all time, only a handful of them have people of color in lead roles. According to a recent study of movie scripts found highly gendered verbiage throughout: men are far more likely to “kill” while women “squeal.” Men “laugh,” women “giggle.”
Things have been getting better, Colin pointed out. A third of movies in the past year have had female protagonists. About a third had minorities in star roles. After building its success on films, predominantly starring male characters, Pixar has started dabbling with female protagonists like Merida in Brave and Joy in Inside Out. Films like Get Out and Hidden Figures have been giving more limelight to people of color, and Moonlight may have been the only Academy Award winning film without a single white actor.
But the problem goes deeper than what movies we watch or what books we read. Colin points out that our national narrative of our country is laced with the same kinds of mythology as our movies.
On a trip to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Colin got a thrill from the way the United States was portrayed: a heroic experiment that, by the genius of its founding documents, was able to defy the odds and emerge a long-standing beacon of liberty and justice in the world.
It was only when he sat down with his fellow museum-goers—all of whom were either minorities or queer—that he was told how much history had been left out, how many unmentioned heroes had to work against the social order behind the United States Constitution in order to achieve the egalitarianism it seemed to innately promise.
“It was as if the Empire [in Star Wars] were to put up a museum to congratulate themselves on the achievements of the Rebel Alliance,” Colin said.
Calling America’s founding stories “myths” isn’t calling them false per se, but they are untrue. They are untrue to the full complexity of the way history unfolds. As the founding fathers signed their names under the words “all men are created equal,” many of them had slaves waiting on them at home. Later, many Americans would give their lives to keep slavery alive.
Colin calls for new myths, featuring an array of heroes on non-militant journeys. Already, there are examples that these kinds of films are every bit as enthralling, and profitable. Zootopia features an ableist cityscape and violence-denying female protagonist. Wonder Woman’s heroine and female director, Patty Jenkins, raked-in record profits for DC Comics. LEGO Batman, says Colin, was his vote for the year’s best portrayal of male conversion away from toxic masculinity.
Growing up, my heroes were often armed, white men. A swordsman. A bounty hunter. A gunslinger. A military pilot. They were in the comic books I read, the video games I played, the animation and movies I watched. It has left a lasting affinity for violent power both in me and many of the men I know.
I know that guns cause more damage than they prevent. But when I was handed a pistol in rural Vermont, I took it and unloaded the clip at a target in the woods. After that I tried the rifle—and liked it.
As we were walking along the Hudson River in Manhattan recently, one of the most good-natured guys I know told me he’s often wondered what it would be like to take a person’s life.
I have to accept it. I and my friends are white men who’ve been raised on violence. That will not change. Of course, it’s not that white men were my heroes just because they were violent, white, and male. They were also honorable, they were loyal, they protected the weak, they bore their losses with dignity and didn’t hold grudges, they could laugh at the world as well as at themselves.
While the question of equal opportunity for races and genders are obvious in my mind, there are many other questions that are still unanswered about the place of power and violence in the world.
Can violence be justified? Does force of arms cause more peace than harm? Is there really “a time for everything under the sun?” “A time to kill and a time to heal?” “A time for war and a time for peace?” Or is that just another old myth written in an old book?