The Necessity of “Other”-ing in Narrative Storytelling
A week ago, I woke up to this Facebook post from an old acquaintance.
Hate Hilary all you want. Feel the Bern ‘til it hurts. But don’t forget the White Walkers out there… the very white walkers.
This acquaintance is a successful Hollywood screenwriter who writes for HBO. He is a professional storyteller, and that’s exactly what he’s doing here. He is developing his characters. He is telling you “these are the good guys, and these are the bad guys,” and using a clever analogy to help you identify who is who.
All narratives have characters and all characters must be characterized. There are the ones on “our” side, in this case Hillary, Bernie, and the human residents of Westeros, and there are those on the “other” side, White Walkers and Trump supporters. There is also a third group: expendable non-entities that can we can lose without caring, like any of the thousands of random Nights’ Watchmen that die forgotten and Jill Stein.
Most stories never explore the humanity of the latter two groups, not because the writers are assholes, but because the narrative wouldn’t make any sense if they did. Storytellers rely on the dark siders and the expendables. To tell good stories, we must otherize.
A brief history of the verb “other” or “to otherize.” The German philosopher Hegel first defined it in the late 18th Century as a necessary element of the Master-Slave relationship. The Other is alien to the Self, and individuals in the Other community are viewed as less than full humans by those in the Self community. In order to maintain a Master-Slave relationship, the Masters must other-ize the Slaves.
The concept became popular in the 20th Century when Simone de Beauvoir applied it to the relationship between the sexes. De Beauvoir argued that men have been otherizing women since the beginning of time. It was necessary in order for men to promulgate the historical narrative that characterizes them as the heroes.
Today, the term is used by groups that see themselves as disenfranchised to describe the way that they are stereotyped by the majority. Black lives don’t matter in the eyes of the majority, because blacks are over-simplified and/or seen as alien. Transgendered people are not really 100% people, or else they’d be allowed to use whichever bathroom they please.
Possibly one of worst memes of all time.
If de Beauvoir were alive today, I’d love to ask her whether she believes that other-ing is sometimes necessary. When it comes to stories, it would seem that othering isn’t only helpful, but essential. Without over-simplified protagonists (Selfs), over-simplified antagonists (Others), and over-simplified stand-ins (also Others) stories wouldn’t make any sense. And stories, like it or not, are the most impactful way that we receive information about the world.
Others are necessary to create the stakes that make narratives exciting. If we considered each and every orc as a living, feeling being with it’s own problems, it would be impossible to get swept away by Lord of the Rings. If we explored the motivations of every Storm Trooper, Star Wars would be about as digestible as the films we see projected on the walls of art galleries.
Let us consider Barb as an example. Poor, poor Barb.
Barb is a character—a trope, really—on Netflix’s latest nostalgia-party, Stranger Things, in which a group of young nerd tropes faces off against some government tropes and monster tropes in an alternate dimension trope. Despite its unoriginality, the show is fantastic—visual storytelling at its most moving, lovable, and addictive. Netflix has boiled the longform narrative down to a science. Stranger Things is a dictionary example of “binge-worthy.”
Barb is your standard party-pooping best friend, you know, the one who’s job it is to tell the geeky ingénue to put her glasses back on and re-tie her ponytail. One of her lines, delivered at the bottom of the stairs up to her best friend who’s about to sleep with the popular guy, is literally, “stop trying to act like you’re someone you’re not.”
Barb-tropes usually shake out in one of two ways; they have been right the whole time—the popular boy really is an asshole—or they finally come around their bestie’s crowning as one of the populars (sometimes Barb-tropes even get to come along!). These characters do not usually end up as rotting, other dimensional corpses as our heroes ride off into the sunset. In this one sense, however, Stranger Things is different. Particularly unique is that Stranger Things does not sacrifice Barb as a low level protagonist, like a Ned Stark, as sacrifice would require emotional consequences, and nobody, neither the audience nor the characters, cares when Barb dies.
Sure, you might be saying “I liked Barb!” and there’s nothing wrong with that. I liked Barb too. Still, in the zone of the story, Barb is never given real personhood and thus the viewer never develops and real connection to her. She is never on our team. Instead, Stranger Things turns Barb into an expendable.
One way narratives other is by painting a character or group of characters as evil without explaining why. The Dark Side in Star Wars is a textbook example. We never really understand why the Empire is bad, only that it is. This is, in part, the reason for the success of the series. It’s easy to digest. We all think of ourselves and our friends and families and communities as the good guys, and trying to imagine the personhood of the “other side” (“Republicans,” or “Obama” for examples, depending on where you are from) is difficult. We’d rather not think about it. Star Wars doesn’t make us.
White Walkers are a more subtle example of this sort of simplistic othering. Part of what made George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire such a compelling book series (and Game of Thrones such a compelling T.V. version) is that it is almost entirely agnostic as to the goodness or evilness of its respective sides. There are bad characters, like Jamie and Cersei Lannister, but their flaws can also be endearing, and some become almost lovable as the show continues. There are also bad families, like the Lannisters or the Boltons or the Freys, but each bad family has its sympathetic characters, like Tyrion, Roose, and all the Frey women.
Furthermore, good guy characters are often punished for their morality. Both Ned and Robb Stark are killed because they were too trusting, too honorable.
“Rhaegar fought valiantly, Rhaegar fought nobly, Rhaegar fought honorably. And Rhaegar died.” – (from Storm of Swords, Jorah Mormont speaking to Daenarys).
This is arguably the most famous line from the books, and it illustrates the show’s general attitude towards good and bad.
Compare this to Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, where any and all of the people on the dark side are bad, and any and all of the people on the light side are good (and good looking!). Game of Thrones, at first blush, appears like an example of how well we’ve digested Hegel’s and de Beauvoir’s concept, and how we try not to indulge in it ourselves.
Game of Thrones, however, is cheating. It still others just as bad as its predecessors, it just hides its others deep in the fabric of the narrative (despite literally referring to them as The Others, just as Lost did with its Others). Martin’s world is not actually morally ambiguous. All he’s done is shift the other far away and distant, making it just the glimmer of a threat instead of the chief antagonist. As my Facebook acquaintance put so well, none of the bickering amongst the main characters really matters because the White Walkers, that great, massive other, is looming just beyond the wall. Cersei might hate Sansa who might hate Littlefinger who might hate Tyrion, but at the end of the day they’re all on the same team against the real threat. Nobody likes the White Walkers. They’re not even, like, people.
The other type of othering is less brazen, but more nefarious. Some characters gotta go. When it’s one of ours, we understand that we’re supposed to feel great shock and pain, as we did when we lost Ned, Robb, and Catelyn Stark. However, some neutral characters exist specifically to get killed. To put it geopolitically, there’s ISIS, and then there’s Sudan. We other both equally; one out of hatred, and one of apathy. I would say the latter is uglier. The othering that Barb goes through in Stranger Things might be worse than treatment the White Walkers get in GoT. It’s better to be hated than ignored.
Barb is not a bad guy. She’s not really a good guy either. She whines and complains a lot. She’s annoying. She’s nags us for having fun. Despite becoming a fan favorite for her normcore style and her death stoking feminist ire (because she’s othered!), in the world of Stranger Things she is no more than a slightly irritating novelty.
Instead of learning, changing, or joining up with the characters that we think are cool, she is unceremoniously kidnapped and slaughtered by the creature-trope. The plot of Stranger Things revolves around a group of family and friends (our Self) searching and ultimately recovering a child from the same creature-trope. Do we ever zone-in on the pain of Barb’s family? No. Do the main characters ever dedicate any real time to finding Barb? Nope. In the final episode, when they enter the creature’s dimension to recover the lost protagonist, they stumble across Barb too. She looks dead, but they don’t even check to make sure. They sort of frown then they quickly resume their search for the character who really matters without even talking about Barb’s corpse lying right in front of them. We never see Barb or her family again. In fact, the female protagonist ends up cuddled up, warm and happy, with the popular boy Barb warned her against in the first place.
Is any of this shocking? No. Does it make the show nonsensical, or ridiculous, or bad? Not at all. The show is still great. And that’s because we do not care about Barb. She is not a person. She’s just an expendable loser, not part of our group. In a lot of ways, she is just as alien as the creature. She is the other.
The point is not that Barb isn’t important. Stranger Things needs Barb for all kinds of things: to illustrate the character change in the female protagonist, to establish that the creature is attracted to the smell of blood, and to add to the body count. Every story has a Barb, and to pretend her othering has anything to do with misogyny is naive. It is impossible to create a narrative without at least one other.