Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mirror, Mask

There’s a phenomenon I’ve been fascinated with ever since I first had it elucidated for me in Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”. McCloud calls it “the masking effect”.

Basically, cartoons can achieve a kind of universality that isn’t directly available to any other medium, through their sheer simplicity. We’re visual creatures, and to us the world outside is a rich, textured environment, and the people we deal with every day are distinguished via the details that we slowly become familiar with. Other people are something we observe, and take on an elaborate shape in our minds. But, McCloud says, most of us aren’t nearly as familiar with our own face, because we only see it comparatively rarely. To us, on the other side of the mask, our face exists more as a concept, or a series of non-visual sensations. We imagine the basic placement of eyes, mouth, nose, but we don’t connect it in a concrete way with how we look at any given moment. We don’t picture our freckles or pores or the spot we missed shaving, whereas to anyone encountering us these are prominent features. Everyone else is part of the physical architecture, but we exist to ourselves in an almost Platonic, semi-abstract state.

In other words, a simple, undetailed cartoon rendering of a face is a reasonably close approximation of how we see ourselves, and for this reason, McCloud argues, we’re far more likely to project ourselves onto it. The more details you add, the more potential there becomes for the image to break with how you see yourselves, and the more layers of potential detachment you’ve now added to the character. A smiley face could be literally anyone, of any race, age, gender. A detailed drawing of, say, Wonder Woman is a specific person, one with whom you’re likely to have certain differences.

Obviously that doesn’t mean you can’t relate to, or like, a detailed character; it’s just that that, unless you’re a statuesque Amazon brunette, that lavishly rendered Wonder Woman is someone else. The smiley face is YOU.

Of course books take you even more deeply into the character’s heads, but in the kind of story in which we can actually SEE our protagonist, only cartooning really allows for this “pure” a level of projection. But of course this whole principle exists along a continuum: a character played by an actor, for instance, presents us with a specific person, who, by definition, isn’t “us”. However, if the actor is a white male, it’s statistically more likely (in North America) that we’ll be able to project ourselves onto that character than if the actor is a black woman, for instance.

Yes, this is a ludicrous oversimplification that completely discounts the ability of humans to feel empathy for someone different. This is actually part of what I want to talk about. But for now, as relates to the “masking” effect, the idea is that the more universal the character, the more heightened the ability one has to project yourself onto them. Once you cast an actor to play your character, you’re limiting the ability of some of your audience to literally see themselves in their shoes in this way, but you can still trend towards the most “universal” type of look, be it in terms of race, gender (you’ve instantly got to discount 50% of the population there, no matter which way you go!), age, height, weight, etc. etc. etc.

And yeah, I think you may be getting an inkling of why this is a problem.

This goes beyond visuals; the same principle holds true of basic narrative, too. Consider this guy:

We’ve all heard more than we ever needed to about the “Hero’s Journey” and the “Monomyth” and all of Joseph Campbell’s theories in relation to Star Wars—which has, of course, become the template for much of pop culture. Well, what is “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” but a narrative application of the masking effect? Luke Skywalker’s a bland character—that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. He’s supposed to be a stand-in for the viewer, an empty vessel you can pour yourself into for a purer experience in narrative immersion.

Han Solo? There’s a character. He’s a specific person. Because of that, he works on a different level of narrative immersion—the kind that was more common before Star Wars came along. Because of course we want to be Han Solo. Why wouldn’t you? He’s awesome! He’s a badass smuggler who quips and flies a cool spaceship and gets the girl. Luke may have the awesome laser sword, but I’m guessing more little boys pretended to be Han.

So that blows my “masking” theory to shreds, right?

Not really. It’s just that Han represents a different philosophy of storytelling than Luke does. And here’s where we start getting to the root of an issue I have with modern pop culture wizards (because you knew I was going there eventually, right?)

Movies, in the olden days, strove more for Han-style characters. It’s not that there weren’t bland leads—Lord, were there ever!—but for the most part I don’t think they were trying for that. The idea was generally to produce textured characters who felt like real, which is to say, specific people. I do think there was some understanding of the masking effect, though it may have been rooted more in cultural concerns—of course the hero is going to be a square-jawed white guy—or marketing ones (as with the sudden shift to teenage heroes in the postwar years as they became a lucrative market). The idea of appealing to as broad a part of the population as possible isn’t some revelation, and “viewer insert” characters.

But there was something else at work: movies knew they set the trends for culture, and that people would look up to them to a certain extent. The people who made movies knew that if they could make X look cool, people would flock to X. Humphrey Bogart wasn’t an everyman. Marilyn Monroe wasn’t an everywoman. They were who they were, and people tried to be like them. Not vice versa. The movies, and thus pop culture, were dominated by the Han Solos.

This is one of many things Star Wars changed when everyone decided it was going to be the new bedrock for genre storytelling. The use of the masking effect was one of George Lucas’s triumphs, and it’s probably the single greatest reason that Star Wars was glommed onto as a formula—it (supposedly) provides a quick, easy way to make sure your audience of desirably young and cash-flush nerds can instantly relate to and love your story. Make your lead a bland everyman, and the viewer will fill in the blank themselves—with themselves. This is why, for instance, Harry Potter is such a blank slate, while his friends and teachers and enemies are so much more vivid characters. It’s why so many movies about other cultures are seen through the eyes of a white American, a la “Dances With Wolves”. And it’s why Hollywood is stocked full of blandly pretty leading men and women.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve gone from implicitly praising the masking effect to condemning it. In truth, the masking effect can be employed in far more sophisticated and complex ways. It’s shorthand, a nifty technique that can be laudable in the right hands. There’s nothing wrong with using a viewer insertion character to ease us into a strange world, for instance. But like so many useful artistic techniques, Hollywood has tried to reduce it to a formula, a crutch, or just an excuse to deliver vapid, bland characters. Perhaps more destructively, it’s led to a pop culture where so many protagonists are white heterosexual males in their late teens-early 30s without a distinctive job or any particularly strong beliefs, cultural background, or engagement in the world.

Because the problem is that we still crave Han Solos. Sure, we like being fooled into projecting ourselves into the role of a hero. But we can only be met halfway on this. On some level, when we read or watch stories, we’re looking for role models and aspirational figures. We need someone to admire. The masking effect essentially turns protagonists into mirrors—and thus, we’re constantly being told that we’re the heroes, if just for one day. (Not a coincidence that there are quote marks around that title!) As flattering as that may be, at the end of the day it becomes hollow, a deification of emptiness. If you keep portraying heroes who aren’t fully realized, who stumble through the world without viewpoints or ideas, who are only there to have things happen to them—then that’s the kind of figure people will start emulating.

But then, maybe that’s for the best. Those are exactly the kind of people who are easiest to sell movie tickets to. And everything else.

(I’ll have more to say on this subject after the holidays. Can you stand the suspense?!?)

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