Let’s use a simple story outline as a thought experiment:
The setting is a small southern town circa 1984. It’s the kind of town that calls a pair of traffic lights the city limits, and the tallest structure is the steeple on the baptist church. Three surnames dominate the phone book: Seemingly everyone is related by blood, marriage, or community, which in this case translates to “church family.”
This is Levis, Camaro, and mullet country. High school football dominates the Friday calendar, and Saturdays are dedicated to college ball. Reagan can do no wrong, Skynyrd was right when they said a southern man don’t need Neil Young around anyhow, and any beer is good as long as it’s Bud.
One morning a new kid lands in one of the senior class’s homerooms. “Lands” is the proper verb here, as he may as well be an alien. The ’80s have hit this kid with a vengeance: the earrings, eyeliner and asymmetrical haircut of the post-punk generation match his old man overcoat and Capezios, the soft-soled dance shoes that look like slippers next to his classmates’ bulky sneakers.
Most kids don’t notice the stranger, or if they do they don’t care. They have their own lives to live, after all. There’s homework to do, jobs to work, and sweaters to either get into or keep curious hands out of. Nor do most of the faculty and administration care about the new wave kid in their old wave community.
In fact, a few teens love the new kid. He’s different and, in their words, “artistic,” a sort of proxy for the big world they hope to see after their June graduation. Eighteen years in a town with three surnames is an eternity, after all. Any new blood is welcome.
And then there’s the students and teachers who make it their business to hate this kid. They’re self-appointed white blood cells, eager to expel this strange virus before it spreads. The new kid is a faggot, a Yankee, an outsider, a pussy, thinks he’s better than us, needs his ass kicked, should go back to wherever he came from. The taunts from this crowd come daily, a relentless barrage of scorn and intimidation.
Coach Parker, the school’s psychology teacher, gets in on the action. He pulls the new kid’s friends aside as they navigate the busy halls between classes. “What are you doing hanging out with that craphead?” he asks. “You got a good future ahead of you. He ain’t going to amount to anything.”
The kid is most vulnerable during the morning walk from the parking lot to the school’s entrance. He’s like a jack rabbit in an empty field out there–nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. The mullets park their Levis on the long snouts of their Camaros and shout at him, challenge him to fight, dare him to step out of line. “Don’t you look pretty,” a kid named Alex shouts. “Why don’t you come over here and give me a kiss?” The other coyotes in Alex’s pack howl with laughter. The kid may be vulnerable crossing the parking lot alone, but they enjoy the safety of numbers.
A voice barks behind him. He flinches reflexively, waiting for the blow. “Hey Alex, you mess with him and you mess with me. What do you have to say now? That’s what I thought, you fat pussy.” The kid turns to see Eric, a casual friend, standing behind him. “You okay? Fuck those guys. Don’t worry about them,” Eric says.
That’s the scenario, now here is the thought experiment: Who is the hero of this story?
It’s not the new kid. He’s just the faceless catalyst through which the other characters’ personalities are revealed. He remains nameless, no more than a complication introduced into an otherwise harmonious environment.
Nor is it the large percentage of people in that small town who either like or are indifferent to the new kid. They aren’t villains, either: They simply don’t factor into this story.
Some might find the psychology teacher’s actions sort of heroic; after all, he’s risking his professional integrity in order to rescue impressionable teens from the evil clutches of the dangerous new kid. I’m guessing that most readers conclude that Coach Parker is an asshole, though.
How about Alex and his howling coyotes? Are they the good guys, saving their Rockwellian town from certain doom? I suppose a couple of people may reach that conclusion, but the consensus is likely that they’re bullies.
To my eye the hero is Eric, the kid who jumps in for no other reason than it was the right thing to do. It’s not just me: That’s the conclusion that any competent reader would reach, and for good reason. We share a long tradition of identifying as the hero the character who is fighting what he or she believes is injustice. I’ve yet to meet a Karate Kid fan who roots for the Cobra Kai, for example, nor do I know anyone who thinks those awful Deltas should leave poor Dean Wormer alone.
We instinctively know who the good guys are in art and pop culture, but in reality many of us align contrary to that instinct. Every day we see the Erics who stand up for the vilified others vilified themselves. This contradiction isn’t as confusing as it seems. Stories are safe. We risk nothing siding with Eric in our imaginations, but backing him up in a high school parking lot means risking an ass whipping.
In reality it’s safer to remain a pack animal, to lean against the Camaro with the rest of the boys and laugh while some poor kid’s self-esteem is systematically dismantled. The need for safety is so great that we justify our behavior: He brought it on himself; We’re just messing around; If he doesn’t like it he should go somewhere else; This is our town. Safety first. Make America great again.
Of course life is exponentially more complex than stories. Reality is rife with ambiguities, both moral and otherwise. Characters’ motives and interior monologues are revealed to us in stories, while that luxury is not afforded to us in our real lives. But what stories offer is a way to transmit ethical truths in a manner in which they will be accepted. Most viewers agree that the small town sheriff brought about his own folly by pushing John Rambo too far, for example, or that an authoritarian witch shouldn’t oppress the blameless innocents of Munchkinland.
From the time we start consuming culture as toddlers we’re taught that heroes are the ones who stand up to the powerful on behalf of the powerless. We cheer for Hansel and Gretel, not the witch. Luke and the Rebels are the good guys, not Darth and the Empire. There’s a reason we know JK Rowling’s most famous creation as “the Harry Potter series” rather than “the Voldemort series.” Even the citizens of Rome root for Jesus rather than the Romans.
We know what’s right. We’ve known for at least 2,000 years what’s right. Nobody expects you to get off the fender and actually do something. That’s for the Erics of the world, and those guys are one in a million. But you are required to lean on your cultural fluency when interpreting current events. All of those lessons you’ve learned through thousands of books, stories, and movies were meant to sharpen your ability to spot the good guys.
Life isn’t a story, but with the tiniest bit of introspection we can identify who is fighting the good fight and who isn’t. As the next four years unfold in an increasingly startling series of events, take a little time to consider whether you’re pulling for Jerusalem or the Romans; for Rocky or Drago; for Robin Hood or the Sheriff of Nottingham.
And for God’s sake don’t hang out with me, unless you want a visit from Coach Parker. It’s his mission in life to save you from crapheads like me.