It’s All Good?

I’m in season 3 of The Clone Wars. The arc of a series of episodes spurred me to write this post on the depiction of goodness. I wish I could sound as calmly lyrical as Bottleworder, Andra Watkins, or Lavender Moon Girl always does. But I can’t. Not when I feel like screaming.

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I can’t avoid spoilers, so if you don’t want to know anything about this arc, you might skip to the part where it’s safe to read (bold capitalized text below). If you want more information, click here.

In the episode that begins the arc, Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Anakin’s padawan, Ashoka Tano (see hero pose below; I often stand like this with my friends) are brought to a planet (Mortis) where they meet the beings known as the Ones: the Father, the Daughter, and the Son. For more on them, click here.

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Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ashoka

Take a look at the picture of the Son and Daughter below. Guess which one is the embodiment of the light side of the force and which represents the dark side. (I would have liked to see a role switch.)

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When the Daughter and the Son fight each other for arc-related reasons, guess which one is easily defeated. I’ll give you this one: the Daughter—the good side. Why? Because she is “good” and thereby constrained by the limits of goodness. The bad side, however, has no real limit.

We learn about a weapon that can defeat the Son—a dagger that reminds me of the sword Samurai Jack wields in the titular series—the only defense in the fight against Aku, the shape-shifting evil spirit. However, as the episode of The Clone Wars goes on to show, this valuable weapon is easily stolen by the bad side, thus once again proving that bad barely has to break a sweat to triumph over good.

The notion of the light (or goodness) being limited in comparison with the dark side gets my hackles up, especially since good is personified as a woman in a flowing gown who acts like a doormat. Based on her outfit, was the expectation that she would stand around and look pretty? Does that somehow show the power of goodness? Grrrr. Since when has good become this limited? Why is it limited?

IT’S SAFE TO READ NOW. BUT I’M STILL RANTING. I’ve seen this limited-good aspect played out in other series and books where the good guys seem about as engaging as a bowl of milk, while the bad guys are like ice cream sundaes—enticing, interesting, layered, and much more powerful than the good guys. While I can understand the need to place some limits on good for the sake of conflict (i.e., in the Lord of the Rings), I don’t understand the efficacy of the limits in this Clone Wars arc.

That’s why I’m thankful for shows like Avatar and characters like Katara and Toph.

Katara

Katara

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Toph

They are the face of good in the series, along with Aang the Avatar. None of these characters is perfect. They make mistakes, some quite boneheaded. Even when defeated, they come back fighting. And neither wears a trailing gown, which would be a hazard in a serious fight.

I have to stop here to explain that I grew up in a rough neighborhood. When I was in middle school, there was never a question of whether you’d get in a fight, but when you would. So I had my share, though I didn’t instigate them.

In a fight, the first things to come off were earrings and anything your opponent could yank or twist. That’s why I can never suspend my disbelief when a character is shown in battle wearing a prom dress with trailing sleeves. But I digress.

I’m also grateful for movies like The Avengers

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and characters like Natasha Romanoff/the Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson. Sure, she has a checkered past. But she’s got layers. She’s a complex character who stands with the other heroes in The Avengers based on the choices she’s made. And I think you can guess which scene in the movie is one of my favorites. If you can’t, please comment and I’ll tell you.

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Script writer/director Joss Whedon didn’t have to lower the stakes to make the heroes look effective. He kept raising the stakes because they were. So, I’m grateful for that and for . . .

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. . . beautifully, nuanced characters like these. They’re imperfect—prone to argue with each other. But they get the job done. Sure they were afraid. When Syndrome came knocking, these heroes answered the call. This is what GOOD looks like. And note the lack of capes and trailing sleeves. The movie provides an effective argument against both.

Want another image of good? If you get a chance, take a look at the photos at the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Service (iWomen). Go here for those. It takes guts and determination to be an emergency professional. It also takes a strong desire to help others. That’s the nature of goodness. Strong. Sacrificing. Real. And no prom dresses in sight.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go calm down somewhere.

Images from marvel.wikia.com, imdl.com, heatdown.com, deviantart.com, fanpop.com, captainrover220.blogspot.com, coverdude.com.

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20 thoughts on “It’s All Good?

  1. I agree-people fall for archetype portrayals.
    I was thinking of the character of Lisbeth Salander in the Millenium trilogy (Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, etc) Although perhaps not an archetypal ‘good’ figure, she is undoubtedly battling against injustice meted out to her by ‘bad’ guys. She is definitely a complex character.

    One other thing-this post brought to mind the westerns I used to watch with my Dad as a kid (he was a great John Wayne fan) where the goodies wore white hats and the baddies wore black hats. Always helped for identification purposes in the middle of a melee.

    • I’m glad you brought up the western, Andy. I didn’t think about the genre as I typed this post (or even about other recent movies like Brave), but yeah, I recall the hat as the identifier. What I like about some westerns is the fact that the hero is reluctant and hopelessly outnumbered.

      I don’t mind archetypes. After all, I’m pretty wedded to the hero’s journey. But got my goat is the portrayal of goodness as weak and hand wringing.

  2. Love this. I’ve often wondered why ‘good’ characters are portrayed as weak. Is it because the writers have never struggle or overcome anything in their own lives and don’t understand what a fight life is? Or just some other limitation of western/christian culture that promotes a watery vanilla concept of good?
    My son’s into Manga and we discuss this theme often. (He’s Aspergers, so talks repeatedly to me about it!) He likes the eastern philosophy embedded. Naruto had to struggle against the demon inside him. Western characters tend to be already perfectly formed.
    I can’t watch the Lord of The Rings. Golem is the only character with any conflict (you can’t call Frodo’s whinging about his burden much more than that. Even when he fights Sam at the climax, he’s just lost his mind).
    My understanding is that even ‘bad guys’ can be good, (thugs, like me, for instance) and more often than not ‘good guys’ go bad. We all embody the potential for both, so let’s start showing this in our stories.
    As far as interesting characters go… Han Solo v Luke Skywalker. Han Solo all day long. I wanted to slap Luke through most of that film. That image of ‘good’ makes it something unattainable for most people. You have to be special. Just not true.
    Give me just Seven Magnificent misfits and I’ll defeat a whole army.
    In this world, we need bad-ass good people! or as Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it –
    “Good-nature is plentiful, but we want justice with a heart of steel, to fight down the proud.”

  3. Great post! It amazes me how easily our culture assumes morals impose limitations, like they’re some kind of handicap to power. And there’s never any dialogue about it, it’s never a question of plot or character. Just a universal assumption that we’re all supposed to along with, like the question has been settled a long time ago and isn’t worth addressing.

    • Thanks. Yeah, I wish there were more room for characters to wrestle with issues. I realize the time limit on television shows. In 22 minutes, so much has to be covered. But if you look at old TV shows on cable, so much more was covered in 22 minutes than sometimes is the case nowadays.

      At least in a novel a character can struggle with whether or not to do the right thing, or even what the right thing might be.

  4. I think part of it comes from the idea that “good” characters are limited by the fact that they can’t do bad things, while a “bad” character can do whatever he or she pleases. A good character might be limited by the fact that she won’t kill in cold blood, while her enemy can kill a thousand people and use the bodies to build a ramp over a wall if that’s what it takes to storm the city. We see good as limited because there are things a good person won’t do (or if he does, he’ll feel guilt over it). A good guy might have many paths to choose from, clever paths and dangerous paths and inspiring ones, but there are paths that are closed to him. A bad guy doesn’t have that limitation.

    I’m not saying I agree with this portrayal of good guys at all, I’m just stating where I think the idea comes from. The problem for me comes when a “good” character is expected to be completely good. A character who is too “good” to hurt someone else, even in self-defence, is going to get taken out pretty quickly, even if he wins a moral victory of some sort. Someone who isn’t allowed by the writer to lie, cheat, deceive, kill, hurt, steal, judge, be selfish, etc. IS going to be at a disadvantage. Good guys need to have space to move, to do questionable things and then to wrestle with the consequences. A good guy who wins the battle and is then left to ponder whether the end justifies the means is, to me, far more interesting than a bad guy who does what he wants and doesn’t care. Good guys should have doubts, make mistakes, struggle with whether it’s OK to do things, be torn between family and the greater good, whatever. I think when good is portrayed as weak, it’s because these things aren’t allowed. Maybe that’s why the anti-hero is so popular, why many people like Batman better than boy-scout Superman, and why everyone I know likes Han better than Luke. They’re all good guys, but the ones who have more depth (and yes, more “bad” in them) are so much more interesting.

    It shouldn’t be a question of “all good” vs “all bad,” though it is an interesting challenge to show the power of good as its own entity, rather than just the absence of evil. Hmm…

    Well, there’s my two cents. More like ten, really. Sorry for rambling… I’m partial to anti-heroes, reluctant good guys, and heroes who struggle with being good. 😉

    • Kate, thank you for these thoughts. This is exactly the kind of discussion I’d hoped for, but was too tired at the end to encourage through a direct question. And I agree. As you said: “Good guys need to have space to move, to do questionable things and then to wrestle with the consequences.” In other words, to be well rounded, rather than “all good” as you mentioned.

      I also like the reluctant hero. And yes, I’m partial to Han Solo and Batman. But I also love Obi-Wan. But I don’t like the limits placed on him simply for the sake of plot. Some limits don’t make sense to me. If you can command the force, no one should be able to walk up to you and knock your light saber out of your hand. Just my two cents.

      • I would agree or disagree, but then I would have to admit how little I know about specific plot points in Star Wars, and every blogger I know would disown me. So I will agree that yes, your statement makes sense. Good guys should be free to use whatever power they have, and limiting characters for the sake of plot is lazy. Now, if a good character’s power is limited by some internal struggle, guilt over that power, a promise made or broken… now that’s good stuff. 🙂

      • Yes. You must finish. Or in keeping with my hissing at Andy, “You musssssst finisssssssssh.” You’ve got some great stories going. 🙂

  5. For some reason, I hadn’t seen this post, but when I saw the one about the Moment Award, I knew something must have gone down on El Space! This post is a great example of what I’ve come to love about your blog — big thoughts, pop culture references and personal honesty. I’m definitely one who takes issue with the idea of limited goodness, but I specifically resonate with your argument about the portrayal of good as weak, particularly with female characters. Thank you for including Katara and Toph in your argument. Look at their stances, their costumes — they are pure power and intense strength. I’d want them in my court!

    • Hi, Laura. I’ll probably answer the call of that award some other time. I wanted to do it justice and not rush through anything.

      Thanks for your thoughts. I probably won’t continue watching The Clone Wars after this season. Avatar spoiled me. I appreciated Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s discussions on why they wanted strong female characters. I think with The Clone Wars, the belief is that strong female characters have been provided through Ashoka and others (Padme; Asajj Ventress; the Nightsisters). *Shrugs* A matter of conjecture.

  6. Pingback: Trained to Use the Light | El Space–The Blog of L. Marie

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