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The Illusion of Control March 24, 2024

About 10 years ago, a skit became popular on YouTube. In the scene, a woman with a nail sticking out of her forehead complains about the pain to her partner. The man tells her to remove the nail, and she gets upset that he's not listening. She just wants to express how much it hurts; it's "not about the nail!" The man resigns himself to saying, "That sounds really hard," and she's appeased.

I've always disliked this skit. "Haha, look how illogical women are! They're too dumb to see the obvious solutions to their problems and just wanna talk about feelings." A selection of the comments from men on YouTube today:

If there's a man out there who doesn't instantly relate to this, then he has never had a wife, a girlfriend, or a female friend.

This video changed my marriage. My wife will let me fix things now...occasionally.

Yeeep. I'm sending this to my sister. And my mother.

I laughed at this video and my wife got mad and said "A man must have made this." I think we might be fighting now but I can never be sure anymore. Funny video, at least I think so.

To me, this video is a good representation not of people who go to their partners for solace (how silly of them!), but of the hubris of men who believe they know The Solution to everything and can fix other people's lives.

Most things can't be "fixed."

In real life, people don't have nails sticking out of their heads that everyone can see. They're dealing with complex situations that don't have easy fixes. No, telling off her toxic boss won't instantly transform the culture of her workplace. She already submitted a report to HR, and they refused to do anything. And she can't "just quit" while there are bills to pay.

If she's complaining about other situations that seem "simple" to you, there are probably factors you don't understand that are deeply ingrained in her psyche, which no therapist can poof away with a magic wand. There are also definitely factors in your own psyche behind the belief that every problem is a nail, and you're an omnipotent hero with the perfect imaginary hammer.

I recently completed a class on mindfulness offered by a hospice care center to help people dealing with grief of all kinds. In one of the later sessions, the instructor said, "People can get attached to their suffering. They prolong it on purpose."

"Why would anyone do that?" a student asked. "It doesn't make any sense."

"Yes, why would someone do that?" the instructor said. When no one answered, she repeated, "Why? Why would someone want to prolong their suffering?"

I said, "The illusion of control."

Powerlessness is hard to accept.

I once read an insightful comment from a woman who experienced a miscarriage, and who was still devastated and crying daily many months later. She wrote, "I feel like I'm clinging to my grief, because as long as I stay sad, it hasn't happened yet."

The "stages" of grief are a lie, but they're an accurate list of the things people do to avoid accepting that they're powerless to control an upsetting situation: denial, anger, bargaining, depression. They'll work themselves up over the should'ves, would'ves, and could'ves. "We should've seen a doctor sooner"—as if they can reload their lives from a save file and take a different path. "Maybe if we hadn't fought, she wouldn't have had a stroke"—as if anyone on Earth can thwart death forever. Maybe if...maybe if...maybe if I just obsess over this long and hard enough, I can undo it all and life will be perfect.

People also say horrible things to others to maintain the illusion for themselves. They tell women who have lost babies, "Well, take better care of yourself next time." Or, "Do you think it's because we went out for drinks before you knew you were pregnant?" Or "Maybe because you were so stressed out that it could happen, you kind of, you know, made it happen."

I've read many scary news articles about the experiences of pregnant women since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. One especially troubling article from NPR was, "Losing a pregnancy could land you in jail in post-Roe America." States are using fetal harm laws to prosecute women for negligence and manslaughter after they've experienced miscarriages. When something tragic like that happens, someone must be to blame, right?

As a matter of fact, no. An expert witness in the article says, "Twenty percent of pregnancies in the U.S. end in a loss...[and] over 90% of these losses are caused by genetic abnormalities, which are often undiagnosed."

Often DNA just breaks. Tiny hearts just stop beating. No one made choices that caused it, and no one could have prevented it. It doesn't matter how well these women took care of their health. They didn't "make it happen" by partying too much, or stressing out too much, or any of the other things screenwriters put in TV shows to illustrate that a female character deserves a miscarriage.

Finally, we arrive at the reason I'm writing about this on a blog primarily dedicated to literary criticism:

Western fiction creates and vehemently defends the illusion we can control our fates.

The lessons of any blockbuster movie or bestselling genre novel in the United States are simple and predictable:

  • If you're strong and clever enough, you can escape death.
  • If you're righteous and tenacious enough, you can eradicate evil from the world.
  • If you're feminine/masculine enough, you can make attractive people love you.

Everyone knows that "protags protag." Only bad writers create reactive characters. Protagonists must drive the story by making choices that have direct consequences. A series of events without causal links between them is just a bunch of stuff that happens, not a story.

The very structure of fiction in the English-speaking world depends on the illusion of control. In other parts of the world, this isn't always the case. Japanese movies made in the 20th century have ensembles of characters who have little to no agency in a big, cruel world. Examples include Kurosawa's movies like Rashomon (1950) and animated films like Grave of Fireflies (1988) and Akira (1988).

Warner Bros's attempted live remake of Akira has been stuck in "development hell" for more than 20 years. One of the many directors attached to it, Jaume Collet-Serra, was widely panned on social media for his comments about the changes he thought would be required to make the movie appealing to American audiences.

"I hope that I can bring strong characters. In the original source material, I don't think the main characters are the protagonists.... Nobody's interesting. Tetsuo's interesting because weird shit happens to him, and Kaneda is so two-dimensional. That's part of the Japanese culture, they never have strong characters." (IGN, 2014)

This interview demonstrates Hollywood's rigid outlook on how all movies are "supposed" to be. Protags must protag. The script must use a 3 or 5 act structure. Each act is marked by a "decision point" made by the heroes that moves them closer or farther away from their goal. If movies like Akira feature more realistic teenagers who don't have the power to proactively shape their own fates, they "don't have strong characters."

While it's tempting to blame Hollywood for everything, my personal experience reading countless Goodreads and Amazon reviews confirms that few people will tolerate low-agency main characters. A "relateable" protagonist is actually a highly idealized one, representing who audiences wish they were instead of who they are.

It would be futile to suggest we change those expectations. But I can ask that storytellers be more careful in what they decide to portray as controllable.

We cling to the illusion against all logic.

Our culture takes "personal responsibility" to an unhealthy extreme. When people experience a tragedy, it's common for them to say, "I don't know what I did to deserve this." They feel shame and responsibility, even when they couldn't possibly have affected the outcome. The shame doesn't come out of nowhere. Creators invent and perpetuate it through the way we tell stories, fiction or non-fiction.

Miscarriage is a big one. Membranes don't suddenly rupture because of emotional distress, alcohol or opioid consumption, mild physical exertion, or "karma." But when a miscarriage is portrayed in fiction, there's usually a dramatic cause that's psychologically easy for audiences to accept, even if it's medically impossible. It's much more tempting to believe a baby's death is someone's fault than it is to face the fact that tragedies can happen to anyone at any time.

Scarlet O'Hara famously lost her baby by flying into a rage, attempting to strike Rhett, and falling down the stairs in Gone with the Wind (1939). In a season finale of Gray's Anatomy (2010), the titular character has a miscarriage caused by the shock of seeing her husband get shot. In The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), sweet and innocent Mary successfully bears a son for the king after being careful to rest during her pregnancy, while the ferocious and power-hungry Anne experiences multiple miscarriages after doing scandalous things, like begging her brother to help her produce an heir. The delivery scene implies the baby's fate was set at its sinful conception.

In the midwife's bloody hands was a baby horridly malformed.... The midwife looked at Anne, her face very grave. "What did you do to get this on you?"

"I did nothing! Nothing!"

"This is not a child from a man. It is a child from a devil."

"Good values" have shadow sides.

The people who create books and movies don't set out to teach bad values. They set out to teach good ones, but don't recognize there's a "shadow side" to each one.

The shadow side is another concept introduced in that mindfulness class, representing the rejected parts of ourselves that cause dysfunction and suffering. For example, traditional American culture holds that good people abstain from sexual activity before marriage. The shadow side to the value of "sexual purity" is all kinds of dysfunction: repressed people believing they're "sluts" or "damaged goods" if they fail to live up to God's supposed standards, churches covering up for priests who assaulted children in their congregations, the media blaming young women in their teens and early 20s for "ruining" powerful men twice their age who chose to cheat on their wives (Bill Clinton, Kobe Bryant, Rupert Sanders...).

Some common values and their shadow sides reinforced by popular fiction:

Smart and heroic people are survivors.

Shadow side: People die because they're reckless, immoral, and/or unlikeable.

Examples: the countless masked Storm Troopers who fall during laser shootouts in Star Wars while the main characters are inexplicably unscathed; any slasher film with the Final Girl trope; the universally despised murder victim of any cozy mystery who was unkind to one person too many.

Antagonists often die or get badly injured at random for "poetic justice." When heroes can't be shown committing violence, because that would be immoral, authors simply have villainous characters get trampled by a horse (Treasure Island, 1883), hit by a bus (Mean Girls, 2004), or tripped up by balloon strings and sent plummeting to certain death (Up, 2009). If only everyone were nice to each other, accidents would never happen.

People earn wealth and power through intelligence and hard work.

Shadow side: Poor people are stupid and lazy.

Examples: rags-to-riches movies like The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008); sports movies about poor kids from the sticks who triumph in the state championship over the rich kids from the capital; movies about struggling performers who make it big through raw talent and gumption, like La La Land (2016) and A Star is Born (2018).

In Back to the Future (1985), adorkable George McFly morphs into a bestselling SFF author with a fancy home, and macho bully Biff into a subservient mechanic, all supposedly because of one school dance in 1955. In the movie Troop Beverly Hills (1989), the antagonist Velda "is forced to take a job at Kmart after her actions have made her virtually unemployable, and a final scene shows her making a store-wide announcement about cookies" (Wikipedia). Working in low-paying fields is undoubtedly the most fitting fate for an annoying person who made bad choices in life.

People who prove their goodness will be loved.

Shadow side: People who lose their partners are vain, selfish, or otherwise imperfect and therefore deserve to be forever alone.

Examples: rom-coms like The Wedding Singer (1998) and Bubble Boy (2001) where the goofy main character proves he's a worthier suitor than his crush's vulgar fiance; Disney productions for children and teens like A Cinderella Story (2004) in which the school heartthrob publicly dumps the assertive queen bee for the girl-next-door heroine at the end.

In one scene of A Cinderella Story, the school "prince" quizzes the heroine Sam, "Would you rather have a rice cake or a Big Mac?" Sam replies, "A Big Mac!" This is supposed to demonstrate how different she is from his shallow calorie-counting girlfriend and "50% of the girls in our class." The bonus lesson for girls: we're supposed to be fun and down-to-earth and unconcerned about our looks, while also looking like Hilary Duff.

Hilary Duff promotional photo for A Cinderella Story
Just your average unpopular high school nerd

Shadows grow from unrealistic rewards and punishments.

As a society, we want to teach people to be kind, courageous, prudent, and peaceful. We give fictional heroes these desirable traits, and villains their opposites, and then we reward the heroes and punish the villains. This structure depends on the fictional universe being a fair and just place, because if it weren't, why bother to be a good person?

The real universe isn't fair or just, but people innately want to be good anyway. Our brains encourage pro-social behaviors. We feel great when we get along with others and accomplish common goals, and we feel awful when we're isolated or in conflict.

Rather than pushing the lie of meritocracy, it would be great if more fiction taught people how to cope with unfairness. Corporations let people go, and it's not because they didn't work hard enough. Children die, and it's not because their parents weren't careful or nurturing enough. Crushes don't reciprocate, or spouses leave, and it's not because you're not loveable enough.

But it would be a big improvement if books and movies just stopped using "karma" to reward or punish characters. The villains who conveniently slip and fall from great heights at the last moment, like in Vertigo (1958) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). The characters who endanger or lose a child because they were having sex out of wedlock, like in Mermaids (1990) and Casual Vacancy (2012). The powerful elder who swoops in to hand the win to the heroes and put the bullies in their places, like in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1997), High School Musical (2006), and Shakespeare in Love (1998)—although, to be fair, several of Shakespeare's plays also rely on deus ex machina, so this was probably on purpose.


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