Can popular culture — like the Amazon series The Boys, help us understand the phenomena of mass shootings in America?
The media and public response to the weekend shooting attacks in Odessa, Texas in which five people were killed and 21 injured was the same as it always is for mass shootings now: One side blames the other and the entire conversation nose dives into a political debate that demands immediate solutions.
First, it is important to be clear: There is no immediate solution to this problem, but there are preventing violent extremism programs that understand that terrorizing behavior doesn’t rise in a vacuum. Those programs help curb extremists. But what about the rest of us?
Sometimes, the perspective that popular culture gives us — in this case, through the TV series The Boys — can give us the perspective we need for self- evaluation.
Two days before this latest mass shooting, I had a conversion with Jeffrey Imm, civil rights activist and founder of R.E.A.L., about heroes and vigilantes during times of increased political turmoil.
Our conversation stemmed from a recent article in The Economist on a popular new Amazon show, The Boys.
The Boys is about superheroes who the public idolizes but in reality are arrogant, corrupt, owned and marketed by a powerful corporation. The Boys are a group of vigilantes who work to keep the superheroes under control.
The Economist article looks at the myth of superheroes in the era of Trump, taking the dystopian hero narrative and pushing the idea that the shortcomings of the show’s anti-heroes are part of “lies, injustice, and the American way.”
It then somehow concludes that this is a Trump problem.
Talking about the article, Imm brought up important questions:
1. How is desperation glamorized in our culture?
2. How can we push beyond our culture’s increased violence and polarization?
Ironically, Imm’s own attempt to dialogue with the article’s author, Matt Steinglass, failed, signaling exactly the kind of issues we’re burdened by in our time. As Imm phrased it, “Every thing is seen through the prism of politics. People are forgetting there is a whole other world out there.”
Meaning, we need to step out of the realm of politics and step into the realm of human behavior.
Imm’s own childhood was marked by frequent violence and gang warfare. He had knives held to his throat. He saw his brother’s teeth get knocked out by a brick. In part, his childhood is what pushes Imm toward his non-violence ideology, along with his commitment to dialogue and understanding the root of human behavior.
What Does It Mean Today to Be a Hero?
The Boys is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it carries complex leading characters that are neither distinctly “good” nor “bad.” The main character, Homelander, is a sort of cliche hybrid between Captain American and Superman, whose pristine outer representation cracks a little more in each episode.
Homelander teeters toward breaking completely but not without also pulling the viewer into radical empathy toward him. In other words, he’s a total sociopath … but it’s also not his fault, exactly.
Yet, on the other hand, the show undermines what it means to be a hero and it glamorizes desperation.
Imm is focused on the evolution of vigilantes and heroes: What does it mean to be a hero? Especially, what does it mean to be a hero in today’s climate where the goal post for normative values is always changing?
Imm talks about the need for a society to have a single unifying language, which he believes is a shared law. Our men and women in blue are the closest thing we have to the role of heroism in service, he says, and we need to rebuild trust in our relationship with law enforcement.
Have our Heroes Been Replaced by Anti-Heroes?
In The Boys, the role of the heroes is subverted, with rogue vigilantes desperate for justice taking their place as the real heroes. That’s not so different from our own world where terrorists make it on the cover of The Rolling Stone magazine, Islamists invoke the language of resistance to justify their deviant agenda, the media feeds us a steady stream of messages telling us that there’s a struggle for survival and justice is denied, and where resistance is glamorized through magazines, films and art.
Given that, it’s hard to figure out what is really being fed to the public through a show like The Boys: Is it a narrative of empathy and nuance, or is it the glorification of vigilantism and the breakdown of trust in leaders?
But whether we’re talking about “heroic” vigilantes in television show or in real radicalized populations (and their extremist ideologies), three things stand out in the media’s narrative:
1. Being desperate for justice
2. The feeling of ineffective representation in democracy, and/or
3. Glamorizing desperation
That said, it’s a dangerous thing when the present-day reality around terror attacks and mass shootings respond to the crisis of the day with these same three points.
We witnessed this after the Texas shooting on August 31, 2019, as we have with all other recent mass shootings.
Yet, this narrative doesn’t come in a vacuum. It comes hand-in-hand with a larger American movement that seeks to undermine and undo the constitutional fabric of American democracy.
The New York Times’ recent “1619 Project” that looks to anchor the totality of American existence to slavery is the most recent prominent example, one which also leans on all three points above:
1. A call to justice mostly in the form of seeking reparations
2. Grievance against past representative struggles
3. Glamorizing desperation with crafted storytelling that supports the above points.
“We’re living in a world where history can readily be ‘re-written’ — when ‘books’ are some anachronistic relic, which has made the concept behind [dystopian novel] Fahrenheit 451 completely unnecessary,” Imm cautions.
The idea that anything can be rewritten — whether the present or the past — demonstrates that the secular world has no stability. And this lack of stability fuels reactionary behavior that looks to separate itself from the collective values of our society that speak to our shared identity — namely, our code of law and (previously accepted) values.
We survive this by working toward a shared, public reality, or we don’t survive this at all.
We cannot function as a civilization without looking through the prism of shared values rooted in a sophisticated understanding of human behavior.