Thursday, June 07, 2007

Archetypes Come in Stereo

Poynter Online - Writing Tools:

"'The Ugly Duckling' has become the dominant story form of American popular culture, especially so-called 'reality' television shows, perhaps because the narrative fits snugly into a celebrity culture in which every person dreams of being a star. "

  • Think of the ways in which "American Idol" has dominated the entertainment industry. Consider how character story lines generate interest in the show. Yes, Simon, it is a singing competition. But it helps that Kelly Clarkson was a cocktail waitress in Texas, that Fantasia was a single mom, that Taylor Hicks sang in college bars and honky tonks.

  • A more subtle example, but proof of the pervasive power of the form, can be found in the 11-year PBS series "Antiques Roadshow." Folks line up at regional antiques fairs to have their old stuff appraised. First, the owner tells a story about how the object was obtained: "It's been in our attic since Aunt Bessie died in 1959." Or, better still, "I bought it at a garage sale for $30." Then the expert tells the story of the provenance of the antique and opines: "Would it surprise you to learn that this ashtray would go conservatively at auction for $30,000? That $30 was a good investment." The piece of junk is now treasure, the duckling a swan.
    It turns out that, whatever their personal stories, American political figures need to establish their duckling credibility (call it "duck-cred" for short) in order to qualify for swan status in the eyes of gullible voters. In other words, Lincoln probably cursed American politics forever by being born in a log cabin.

For every build-me-up story, there is a tear-me-down narrative. It turns out that the antidote to "The Ugly Duckling" is another ancient story form, "The Emperor's New Clothes."

In the coming months, journalists will encounter competing stories about the presidential candidates. Are they swans, or are they naked? Is Rudy Giuliani America's mayor, a hero of Sept. 11, or someone, in the counter narrative, responsible for his city's vulnerability? Is John Edwards an advocate for the common person or an unscrupulous ambulance chaser?

That's the problem with ancient story forms. They have strict requirements that force us to select some details but reject others. Real life -- unlike reality television -- is not scripted and staged. In real life, the swan was pretty cute as a duckling, and the emperor may not be dressed in gold, but at least he's wearing a golf shirt and Bermuda shorts.

The main stream media will fall into both archetypes through sheer laziness.

Today's paradigm isn't stereo. It's 5-1 surround sound. This longest ever presidential campaign deserves nothing less. Somebody needs to say that we're not choosing between war and peace, but between war and chaos or peace and chaos. Pretending that there are easy answers got us into this mess. No matter what happens, someone will offer a solution that is simple straightforward and dead wrong. Boy will it be tempting.

My profound thanks to Roy Peter Clark

con·cept: Archetypes Come in Stereo