A Binary Broken—Does the Stark Dichotomy between Hero and Villain Hold Up under Empathetic Story Scrutiny?
A lonely young girl neglected and abused, longing for love and hungry for the recognition she is due as she follows in the footsteps of the only parent who has not betrayed her.
A man desperate to defend his people from inequity, discrimination and chronic violence, fighting body, mind and soul against long-standing systems of oppression and cruelty.
A tiger who wishes to defend his friends and family from what he thinks will be a dangerous, potentially even catastrophic situation, and is met with only hatred and dismissal of his concerns.
If these were the first sentences on three different book covers, would you read the stories they advertised, and if so, what kinds of people do you think these characters would turn out to be by the tale's end? Would you be expecting them to act in accordance with certain values? Do you want to see them achieve their goals; claim the recognition, love, status, acceptance, safety and acknowledgement they seek? These stories have in fact already been written, but as you may have picked up on from the title of this post, each sentence above corresponds to a popular villain from literature or television, each having done heinous, violent and discriminatory things in the name of their respective causes.
The concept of villainy and heroism exists in a binary, there are those who do bad and those who do good. But is life always that simple? A few weeks ago, Move for America’s 2023 cohort gathered for one of the first of what will be many biweekly meetings designed to pick up where the orientation left off. Splitting into pairs, we were asked to each think of a villain who would view themself as the hero of their own story, or at least someone to whom the traditional lines of black and white do not apply, in an exercise designed to strengthen bridge building techniques and encourage thought from multiple perspectives. Join us on a journey through the lives and times of three iconic villains, and through the poignant pain, panic, and purpose that led them to take the actions they are remembered for.
The girl questing for familial acknowledgement is princess Azula of Avatar: The Last Airbender fame. Called monstrous by the mother that by and large neglected her throughout her life, she turned to her father in a search for some sign of care, emulating his war-like ways in a bid for both power and paternal pride. Nothing less than utter perfection would do, and so she honed herself constantly, striving to be better and eventually gaining his approval. Becoming the greatest child soldier the fire nation had yet known, she adopted ruthless practices with the goal of general subjugation both for her own and other nations, which earned her many fake friends due to her status, but few willing to stick by her in true companionship. In particular, she wished to destroy the Avatar, the only one, it was said, who could bring harmony to the land. Though she ultimately failed in this quest, she left swaths of fear and destruction in her wake, which cast her as a villain in the annuls of history. But the same person who wished to rule over millions with a tyrant’s fist is also a victim of abuse, traumatized by war and acting within parameters of cruelty because she was literally taught nothing else. When faced with this dual-reality, the pair of Fellows who told her story suggested that she should be held responsible for her actions, but that she should also be treated with compassion and that healing should be advocated for.
X-Men’s Magneto, the man fighting for a better future for his people, was a mutant who had been subjected to cruel experiments at the hands of humans. While many mutants wished to work with humanity and show them that there was nothing to fear from those with special powers, Magneto was suspicious and doubtful that anyone would listen, and when violence was continuously propagated upon innocents he took matters into his own hands, deciding that a humanity-focused genocide was the only way forward. While this is never an acceptable course of action, this was not an unpredicted turn of events. Magneto’s anger was not quiet, and nor was his fear of what might be inflicted on his peers. Fellows took the opportunity afforded by his story to reflect on the nature of anger, and how society often shuts it down because it can appear threatening and doesn’t fit very well into the polite status quo. What might have happened, we wondered, if someone had made a space to hold and honor that anger, if he had been given other channels through which to express it? Moreover, we realized that his anger was justified and coming from a place of care. People who deeply mattered to him, even only because of the commonality of being a mutant, were being killed and tormented. He wanted to prevent it and thought of a way to make it happen, of making a world for him and those like him where they could finally achieve true safety.
Last but not least, Shere Khan was the tiger notable in the Jungle Book for wishing to kill Mowgli the human boy, adopted by most of the jungle as one of their own. As the leader of all the animals within his leafy domain, the tiger would have committed murder if given the chance, but there was a history that most of his companions and subjects did not acknowledge—he was the only one in the jungle who had survived human poachers. He had seen animals tortured and massacred for material gain and forests cut down for their wood, and he did not wish these things upon his land or his people. Further, Mowgli does in fact cause his home harm, unintentionally starting a fire that frightens many and destroys several trees, even if it is also true that he helps to put out the blaze. Is a king not meant to protect his people, we Fellows wondered when contemplating this story? And does a difference of opinion make someone wrong? Could there have been a version of the story where these things were talked through, where no one needed to be threatened? We will never know the answer.
With these contexts in mind, let us return now to the question of the hour: Is life simple enough, are we simple enough, to be classified only as heroes or villains? Are we, perhaps, able to be both things at once? The answers we came to were as complex as histories and souls: people need to be held accountable for their actions, particularly when they are harmful, intentionally or otherwise. However, acknowledgement of the ways in which they themselves have been harmed, the experiences that they carry and the emotions that drive them forward also have weight. Further, we wonder how the course of events might change when everyone is heard and respected equally, and space is held for emotions that are traditionally more difficult to express. Actions may be right or wrong, but hearts and minds do not--cannot exist in a binary state.
Life, love, longing--these are messy states of being, states that are impossible to categorize in black-and-white without propagating further harm by pairing individuals down to fit in boxes that are physically incapable of holding the whole of a person. Still, the boxes are tempting. It is infinitely easier to blame, easier to hate and separate, but if we did that less often, if we left room for perception and passion and past, would we have fewer villains? Perhaps not. Some might argue that cruelty is unavoidable, and in the grand scheme of things, they might be right. Humanity, after all, is vast, impossible to be contained by one set of ideas, even ever-evolving ones like those fostered in this Fellowship. But in the end, it's not about all of humanity, or even about defending villains. It's about remembering that people often feel their narratives are just, and trying to look at those narratives through a lens that allows for comprehension and respect, even when it would be easy to write someone off as being awful. This is how we build the foundations for bridges in our own lives. This is how we begin to understand a world built upon myriads of opposing thoughts and move with both integrity and intent toward goals that make the world better for everyone, while also holding tightly to the nuance that allows us to know that acts of cruelty must still have consequences. This is how Move for America Fellows learn, one session at a time, how to build common ground and craft real, living stories where all are heard and no one is cast in a dark roll based on opinion alone.
If you would like to carry something from this exercise with you, I would urge you to think of your own favorite villains, their origins, their hopes and dreams. Were they molded by society? Did they create themselves? What kindling lit their fires and contributed to their black blazes of glory? And what kinds of stories have been told about them? Does that make you think of anything happening in either personal life or politics today? We'd love to hear your thoughts! Leave a comment or mention us on social media with the hashtag #BrokenBinary.