Rebel Characters – Response
Recently, an excerpt from the article Outlaw Kings and Rebellion Chic came across my tumblr dashboard, and I thought I would pen a quick response. Two hours and 2000+ words later, I realised I had had quite a lot more to say on the subject than I realised. The response is posted on my tumblr blog, but I thought I would share it here as well:
This really doesn’t make sense to me.
No 1. We have the American Revolutionary War, which dragged out for a couple (6) years past the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, which pretty clearly lays out the goals of the revolutionaries. When we learn about them in history (despite other flaws that we can detail at another time) we root for the men and women who dedicated themselves to the cause, and the system they set in place still holds up fairly well hundreds of years later.
So that’s an example from history that contradicts that point, I think.
No. 2 Luke (Really Leia, since she was the princess and had political power) was fighting for a restoration (but reformed so they didn’t repeat the mistakes of the past) of the Old Republic. As we’ve seen from the prequel trilogy (“so this is how liberty dies”) this republic did not function in a communistic way, so it is a fallacy to even bring this up as an argument, because the greater context of the movies CLEARLY lays out what kind of government (both locally and galactically) the rebels were seeking to establish.
The author does go deeper into Star Wars in the article, arguing that “Rebellion in Star Wars, rather than a means to an end, is a camouflage that conceals a total void of ideology.” But even though the Old Republic that we saw was corrupt (and ultimately led to the rise of the Empire), it still functioned, had functioned for 25 thousand years. The Empire’s public domination (though the takeover started a few decades sooner) was a tiny blip (23 years specifically) in comparison. Of course the rebels wanted to get back to a government, a very clearly stated republic (searching the Star Wars wiki will give you more detail than you ever wanted about how it is practically run) that had governed decades, if not centuries (given the longevity of some Star Wars species) of their lives.
To sum up, unless you are stating specific policies (and, as mentioned, greater canon would actually give you these goals in detail) it’s no more a “void of ideology” to have Luke advocating for communism vs the return of the Old Republic.
(And all of that is without considering how the Empire was run.)
No 3. Daenerys Targaryen.
This article was written before the finale, where Dany was very clearly portrayed as a villain gone made with power. I strongly believe her ending in the books (whenever they are finished) will be much more tragic and nuanced. Still, her character arc DOES NOT paint her as a rebel. She (and her brother) always believed that they were the rightful rulers of Westeros, and therefore, were not rebelling by definition. They were simply reclaiming their stolen crown.
Now, had Jon Snow (SPOILERS FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO AREN’T CAUGHT UP) been raised with the knowledge of his true heritage—that before Robert Baratheon’s rebellion and takeover he was the true heir to the throne—and had then reclaimed that throne, and then Dany had challenged him, THAT would have constituted rebellion.
But without this knowledge, Dany’s actions (while not always morally justifiable) certainly make logical, narratively supported sense. And she CERTAINLY was violent in her dealings.
To address the “series of peasants’ councils” point, sure, why not? If that’s what Dany had stated clearly and explicitly that she was going to do, I could get behind that. That’s not the great point the author presumably thinks it is.
No 4. “smash the Ministry of Magic and overturn wizard supremacy”
From the Harry Potter Wiki: “[Hermione Granger] later found employment with the Ministry of Magic, furthering the cause for the better treatment of house-elves. Afterward, she was promoted to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, where she dedicated herself to eradicating old laws that were biased in favour of pure-bloods.”
To get a bit deeper, Harry was just trying to survive. He had a terrible home life, and school, the only place where he felt safe, was also inextricably linked to the man trying to kill him (and all his minions). But Hermione, all throughout the books (a medium which it doesn’t appear that the author paid much attention to) is EXTREMELY dedicated to fighting for justice. Is it a failing of the movies not to bring this to the forefront? Of course, but there are limitations to consider when adapting a story to screen, and unfortunately, things get left on the cutting room floor.
To address some further points in the article, the author states that “the heroic rebel is non-ideological and motivated by personal injury more than anything,” which must be countered.
Harry was rebellious, but not a rebel. In the context of the story, Voldemort was the rebel. Voldemort had very explicit ideology.
Luke joined the Rebellion, which had already been going on for some time. Leia, and the other generals, had a clear goal of restoring the Old Republic (and EVERYTHING that went along with that, messy or no).
Daenerys is not a rebel as set up by the story’s narrative. She hardly even rebels against situations that might harm her. Had her brother and husband not died, she would not have been the one leading the army to reclaim King’s Landing, but narratively that event still would have happened. Both siblings were motivated by duty, not personal injury, in their quest to reclaim their crown, and it’s usually not considered rebellious to recover something that was stolen from you.
I will allow that it is unclear what “break the wheel” meant on the tv show, but one unclear goal does not negate Dany’s very clearly stated wish to rule her kingdom as an all powerful queen.
“And if dispute over the political system is enough to justify force, then that implies violence against the modern Western state, even its violent overthrow, could be justifiable. This is understandably concerning for many writers, who tend to come from backgrounds closer to the Lannisters than the ‘smallfolk’.”
Wow. So this part strays into real world politics (of which I already gave an example from history) but, to be brief, violent revolution is NOT preferred. There is a reason the French revolution dragged out for so long. If people could simply state what they wanted and the opposing party said “okay, sure” then conflict could be avoided. It is when the ruling party ignores or outright censures (by force or whatever else) the people who have stated their firm desires, when there isn’t even a system in place that allows for these demands to be met, that is when violence must be resorted to.
And in fiction, this can be done, and done WELL. To imply that this never happens is utterly disingenuous.
The author need only watch Babylon 5 to find an excellent example of a small group of rebels (note, they didn’t start that way) with a clearly defined goal (to maintain a neutral space where all races could meet) using violence to achieve that goal. Babylon 5 has many more such examples from varying groups within the series, so it is well worth watching for that and many other reasons.
The second part of the author’s statement “many writers, who tend to come from backgrounds closer to the Lannisters” is wrong on so many levels.
1. The Lannisters (despite eventually running out of money) were UNBELIEVABLY rich and powerful. To put this in more modern terms, you could think of them like the Trump or British Royal Family. To say that many writers are closer to them in terms of wealth, power, and influence (and I’m extrapolating here, as the author doesn’t actually define it that clearly) is very easy to disprove. A few *might* be, but many? Most writers ARE the small folk. Now if we’re talking about studio execs etc. that might be a different story, but most writers, even well established screenwriters, are closer to you and me than the two families mentioned above.
2. The author is implying that because—in their opinion—movie/tv screen writers somehow are unbelievably rich and powerful, that when they write revolutions, they do so from the perspective of rich and powerful folks who only want clean, sanitised revolutions. Problems with this idea are as follows: 1. Even taking wealthy screenwriters at face value, most didn’t start off that way. It wasn’t until Star Wars’ successful release that George Lucas became a household name. 2. Adaptions to screen often come from books, which are often written by regular folk just like you and me. Even if an author gets a million dollar book deal, that book was (likely) still written while they were poor and struggling, i.e. not influenced by a wealthy background (case in point, J.K. Rowling with book 1), and if any clear, ideological goals are lost from book to screen, that is not the fault of the original writers.
So to place blame on writers for creating “a popular culture in which rebellion is vague enough to be meaningless” is at best, a misunderstanding, and at worst, a lie.
What the greater extent of this article fails to recognise is that the hero is often operating in situations that already have moving parts and players, ready to step in and do the necessary work that the hero might not be able to (being one person and all). Going back to the Declaration of Independence—George Washington led the army, and did indeed become the first president, but many men affixed their names to that document, and many more actually formed the subsequently established government.
Furthermore, why IS it that the hero is often static until things affect them personally? Because a hero taking up arms and fighting for a cause they have no interest doesn’t make for a narratively compelling story. (On the flipside, we can excuse the protagonist doing a LOT of selfish and awful things for personal reasons—Deadpool, John Wick etc.) That doesn’t mean the hero doesn’t have a definite ideology, just that they are often not compelled to act upon it until it means something to them on a deeper level.
The author also points out that many terrible governments in fiction draw from real-world systems, which, while absolutely true, doesn’t necessarily mean that all these systems are cruel, oppressive, or so broken they must be overthrown, and that pushing back against this idea is wrong. Fiction often takes an existing idea and runs with it to its most extreme conclusion, good or bad. To break into real-world politics for a moment, arguing that because “the structural violence and supremacist ideology [Voldemort] represents [echoes] all the ways empire has warped the very roots of the British state” means that the current day British government is horrible, no good, is like saying, well look at Venezuela! Their government went badly wrong, so all systems of government that are like this one (socialism) must necessarily go badly wrong too.
Just because we often use fiction to imagine and explore the worst conceivable end result of a particular ruling ideology doesn’t mean that it is wrong at its core tenets. And so to say that rebellions are sanitised in fiction because we don’t want to look too closely at our own government is untrue. Often, fiction can be a wakeup call—I can’t count how many times I’ve heard “1984” thrown around by people of all political affiliations since 2016—a way to get us to look closer at, not away from, real world situations.
Literature, and pop culture by extension, is ABSOLUTELY capable of asking the hard questions about revolution/rebel characters. These are questions we DO want to ask, or else films like Cloud Atlas, or the Matrix, or the Hunger Games, or Rogue One, or Captain America: Winter Soldier, (and many more) wouldn’t exist.
Perhaps the author was distracted by the spectacle of the screen, and missed the underlying themes, but good stories don’t fill in every single gap. Good stories leave us wanting more, asking questions, and allow us to more fully explore the implications of what we see on screen, which the author appears not to have done here, instead taking the media mentioned in the article at face value and failing to look any deeper.
When is political violence appropriate, for whose benefit, and for what purposes? There’s often not a clear answer to these questions, particularly because what is justifiable to one person might be abhorrent to another, but what is clear is that fiction gets us thinking deeply about these things, and the author needs to stop disregarding the context of each piece of media highlighted in the article to try and prove some sort of real world political point.
In summation—context is king, and a “happy” ending doesn’t negate the underlying implications presented in pieces of media featuring rebel characters. If we are not asking ourselves hard questions when presented with the aforementioned genre, when the hard questions are very much present, then perhaps that is a personal failure—and not a fault of the film/tv show/literature—to understand what we are consuming.
Thanks for reading!