The recent shooting at a Parkland high school has reinvigorated conversations surrounding art and its relationship to the perils of society. After news broke of Nikolas Cruz killing 17 in Florida, leaders were quick to point the finger towards entertainment as a possible cause. “A lot of bad things are happening to young kids and young minds, and their minds are being formed,” President Donald Trump said during a meeting on February 22. “…The fact is that you are having movies come out that are so violent, with the killing and everything else, [so] maybe that’s [a] thing we’re going to have to discuss.”
What Trump and other similarly minded politicians fail to acknowledge in their comments is the power of uncomfortable media to develop enlightened, introspective members of society. When done respectfully, exploration of violence and difficult subject matter can do more than just entertain; it gives valuable insight into the minds of the society’s most despicable. To succeed, however, the art needs to be be approached in a specific way.
The average film, novel, or story-driven composition follows a simple structure, with the protagonist serving as an agent for the viewer. In spite of their flaws, the hero maintains an underlying morality, whether they ultimately face triumph or tragedy because of it. For a viewer, this sort of idealistic character is easy to identify with. Their flaws and aspirations are relatable. They face difficult moral dilemmas and choose the right options. Examples of these types of character are most commonly found in family-friendly or mainstream works. They are the superheroes, the soldiers, and the warriors: Batman, James Bond, Spartacus. They are comfortable. But they are not meaningful.
The villain, although capable of redeemable qualities, is an opposing force. More ambitious works attempt to explain their motivations, describing the origins of the behavior, but usually through flashbacks or childhood trauma. However, this very distant explanation often has little bearing on the individual’s present behavior or ideology.
What is missing from these types of works is challenging introspection. For, when the brave filmmaker, lyricsmith, or author creates a work in which the viewer becomes intimate with a character that holds completely different moral standards, they are forced to acknowledge the humanity of society’s demons. Common societal issues—bigotry, abuse, narcissism—are best explored by examining the issues from the perspective of their creators. Placing an antagonist in the protagonist role, or so close to the protagonist as to constitute the same thing, but without the moral justification, or creating a protagonist with overwhelming flaws and no retribution, are useful methods. By exploring the despicable, the despicable becomes better understood.
If executed badly, these commentaries can stray into glorification. It is a fine line to walk, and one that relies on exposing the vulnerability of the monster, not just the challenge they propose to the hero. For a storyteller trying to create a gripping plot, the revealing of weakness can undermine the terror the villain instills, but with care a balance can be struck between the two. Bad examples, like Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, result in pitiful and cringeworthy characters that leave little impact. Good examples, like Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, craft villains that wrestle with their own weaknesses in delicate and revealing chronicles. With violence, a theme that Trump spoke on and a common element in both the real world and art, there is a need to show the consequences and brutality in equal portion to stylized gunmanship and action. All behavior shown needs annotation.
Nikolas Cruz’s motivations and influences are still hotly debated in wake of Parkland. But when art is pushed aside, an opportunity to put audiences in the shoes of the greatest boogeymen is squandered. Rather than treating society’s demons as if they were alien, their humanity should be openly explored and reflected upon.