The Broken Geek

The Broken Geek: Civil War

Previously, I have used various personalities of the Avengers team to illustrate basic psychodynamic personality structure types. I have used these structural descriptions to help explain the basic motivations of the characters in Age of Ultron. These same personality structures were visible in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. Notably, the personality types of both Iron Man and Captain America not only shown through in the movie, but were driving force to explain why the two followed the courses of action they did. [Spoiler Warning]

As I have previously pointed out Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, seems to demonstrate the characteristics of a depressive personality structure, while Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark, appears to have a more paranoid personality structure. Because of this, Steve is driven to perpetually seek to drive out his own sense of imperfection as well as battle to control his internal badness. Steve is perpetually driven to prove himself not to be “bad”.  This is the source of Steve’s strong moral code, as the code helps him to restrain his “badness”. This is also the source of his compulsion to be the person who stands up for others in order to prove himself as a “hero” and therefore not “bad”. When Ultron taunts Captain America that he’s “pretending [he] could live without a war,” Ultron is referencing this defense, for without a war to fight, he is stuck feeling inferior.

Iron Man, in contrast, is driven seek out and destroy the “badness” outside of him in order to deny the sense of “badness” he feels within. As such, Tony is perpetually stuck in a cycle of proclaiming “I’m not bad, you are.” In the beginning of Civil War, we’re introduced to Ironman’s fundamental trauma, the death of his parents right after a fight where he showed disdain for his father. Generally, such an interaction tends to generate a sense of shame in a child because his final interaction with his parents was filled with regretted statements of anger instead of love. The shame seeps into Tony, and Tony is entered into the cycle of denial to escape it. His grandiosity and cockiness are intended to compensate for this shame, and anyone who challenges these defenses risks making him feel the “badness.”

The Toxic Relationship

These two contrasting personality organizations create an interesting dynamic between the two that is seen throughout the movies. Early on, in the first Avengers, there is a lot of friction between the two, as Tony’s arrogance conflicts with Steve’s strong sense of morality. Steve is compelled to maintain his high ethical standards, and Tony is compelled to oppose them as such a morality conflicts with Tony’s denial. Tony cannot prove others to be bad to deny his own shame if there is such a moral pillar standing in constant contrast. Tony and Steve become begrudging friends due to their team partnership, but in the process a weird codependence forms between them. Steve’s depressive personality structure causes him to seek out the good in others and needs and prone to forgiveness, as this allows him to acknowledge the good in others that he wishes he could acknowledge in himself. This forgiveness then supports Tony’s defenses as the constant tolerance and forgiveness given by Steve helps to calm Tony’s shame.  As a result, Tony to seeks to align himself with Steve so they both can join together in his fight against the badness outside. However, Tony is still compelled to challenge Steve whenever he can, so that he can still be assured of his own goodness, as confirmed by Steve’s tolerance. In essence, Steve is compelled to tolerate Tony’s arrogance because it allows Steve to practice the forgiveness he wishes he could get to himself, and Tony is compelled to tolerate Steve but still challenge him, because doing so assures him he is not the shameful person he seeks to deny.

The Trigger

The narrative begins with Tony’s shame being triggered. His attempt to prove himself as good by funding the students’ grants at MIT was thwarted by the mother of a young man killed in Sokovia confronting Tony about his role in that tragedy. Tony had created the Ultron robot that had started the events that ended in the destruction of the city in Sokovia, and the shame triggered was intense. In order to escape the shame Tony needed to find some way to find someone else to make the “bad guy” and then align himself with the forces against that “bad guy.” It is this drive that causes Tony to align with the registration act and the oversight of being proposed by the various governments, even though such alignment seemed so starkly out of character for him. When Tony’s sense of shame had been so strongly triggered, he was psychologically compelled to seek out some other “badness” to blame and oppose. When approached with the accords, the government hands Tony a way to support his psychological defense mechanisms against the shame by giving him a role in restraining of the dangerous people who are not him.

As Captain America is faced with the accords, however, he is then forced to face a challenge against his defense mechanisms as well. Steve’s main objection to the accords is that with them in place, somebody else could potentially order him to do something immoral, forcing him to become the “bad” he feared, or he could be ordered not to respond to a bad situation, preventing him from doing the “good” he needs to prove that he is not “bad”.

The Homewrecker

When Bucky enters the scene, he becomes a third party that allows both Steve and Tony to shift the focus of their defenses onto. For Steve, Bucky it the old friend, who’s badness is not his fault, and in desperate need of the forgiveness and redemption contained in the second chance, i.e. Steve can do for Bucky what he wishes the world would do for him. For Tony, The Winter Soldier is the ultimate representation of the evil forces plotting that he can fight to prove he is not he bad one, i.e. a guiltless representation of the outer badness he can oppose guilt free to deny his own sense of shame. With Bucky in play, Steve no longer needs Tony’s arrogance to serve as a focus of his forgiveness, and Tony no longer needs Steve’s tolerance to chase away his shame. Their codependence is broken, and they are free to fight.  Steve needs to protect his friend at all costs and give him his redemption, and Tony is an obstacle to that. Tony needs to take down the dark forces that Bucky represents, and Steve is a player to be defeated because he has allied himself with that darkness conspiracy.

Forgive me for I have done nothing wrong.

Eventually, Zemo’s manipulation of the situation is discovered. Tony does not repent. He is suddenly willing to accept that Steve and Bucky are not the bad guys and welcome them back onto his side, but he does not show regret for locking up half of his team. The evidence of Zemo’s plot allows him to focus his attentions on a bigger conspiracy, a bigger badness that he can fight. He is now able to join his former friend and be welcomed back into the fold in a forgiveness forced by circumstance, but he is not able to admit he was wrong for opposing his friend in the first place. Steve takes him back because his drive to forgive will always compel him to take him back.

One of us is bad, but it can’t be me, so let me punish you so it all can be right again.

Zemo’s reveal, that Bucky killed Tony’s parents, sets off Tony’s righteous rage, and such rage is always uncompromising.  It does not matter that Bucky was brainwashed. It does not matter, that there is a larger issue in play that affects far more people. Nothing can dissuade it, no fact, no explanation, and no relationship. When righteous rage is in play, nothing matters but the rage itself. The rage releases all that pent up shame onto another target, unleashing all the toxic energy built up over all the years. Just as the depressive personality seeks to forgive in response to the desire to be forgiven themselves, the paranoid personality seeks to punish in response to the denied punishment their shame constantly aims at them. Bucky needs to be destroyed at all costs. Any tactic, any casualty, any collateral damage is justified because if he can finally conquer this avatar of the “badness” outside of himself, he hopes that he never has to face that inner shame again. Tony turns on Steve again in order to get to Bucky. Tony will kill his friend, let his team be destroyed, and even let Zemo win just so he can let out this rage. Because if he doesn’t, he has to continue to live with his shame.

Forgiven again

In the end, Steve sends a note to Tony. Despite all the fighting, all the destruction, and all rifts between them, Steve still reaches out to Tony to extend the forgiveness. Steve knows that Tony will be Tony, that he will repeat the damage if allowed, but he still has to forgive, because if Steve cannot forgive Tony for all his imperfections, then he fears that he can never be forgiven for his.

And thus we have the psychological motivations for the players in Civil War. The relationship that guided this epic battle was rooted in conflicting ideas on how to destroy a perceived “badness.” Captain America’s “badness” is owned without question, and he is drive to control himself absolutely, gives the forgiveness he wishes he could give himself, and seeks to prove to the world that he is “good.” Tony denies his “badness,” and he is compelled to find forces to challenge and fight in order to attack the “badness” without to support his denial of the “badness” within his shame perpetually asserts. Their relationship becomes one of constant stress as Steve is compelled to seek perfection to dispel his badness while forgiving Tony’s jabs, and Tony is compelled to challenge Steve because such a moral code triggers his shame in contrast, while seeking Steve’s alliance because Steve’s forgiveness soothes the shame.

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The Broken Geek: Batman V Superman and the Death Of Heroes

The long awaited Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice arrived in theaters last week, and it has met to mixed reviews. People genuinely liked the fight scenes and the characteristic Zack Snyder visuals, but they also frequently commented on how there were just too many plots crammed into the movie to really do any one justice and the chaotic pacing and transitions did not give any one character time to really have their own story or development.

However, for me, the real problem of Batman V Superman is its lack of Heroism.

When you look though time, myth, and history, heroes were never heroes because of their power. Sure, we had the supernatural strength of Hercules and Samson, the unparalleled guile and strategy of Odysseus, the near invincible Beowulf, or the magically imbued Monkey King Sun Wukong, but they are not heroes because of the power they have its because of the ideals they imbued in their exploits. After all, their opponents were often equally, or even more powerful than the heroes that bested them, and yet the stories are not about the villain. Instead, Hercules fought for redemption against the sins of man and society, Sun Wukong sought to protect those weaker than him while challenging the highly ordered orthodoxy, and Odysseus stood to show how the mind of man can challenge savage elemental gods. These were  not stories about ideal bodies, but stories of ideal hearts and souls. Each hero faced pain that should have broken them, but instead of crumbling, they found the resolve to hold to their moral ideals and become more.

These stories were not just about entertainment, they were meant to teach is all to be more. They served as blueprints about how we could face our challenges, endure and grow, keeping to ideals instead of sacrificing them.

This is what Batman V Superman lacked

Let’s start with Superman. After all, this was originally supposed to be his sequel. The original was was heavily criticized for the amount of destruction and the outright killing of Zod. This criticism was not without merit. Every other Superman representation makes efforts to drive the battles outside of cities where they can. This is where the conflict of morality occurs. Superman is written to be as physically strong as he needs to be, so he is able to squash any opponent if he let loose. But the challenge comes in in that he struggles to make sure his powers never lose control and that his battles are contained to prevent collateral damage. His struggle is not one of strength, but the struggle to maintain the ideal of the preservation of life in he face of a strength that could inadvertently crush it.

Snyder’s Superman lacks this heart. He is less Speigel and Shuster’s Superman, and more Nietzsche’s Ubermench. The main struggle in Man of Steel was not how to use his powers, but if he should. Pa Kent, rather than teaching Clark the struggles of humble morality, teaches him to hide his power, even to the point of letting people die, because of the way others would fear him. Superman’s big growth is in that he lets himself be known to the world. He doesn’t espouse any higher morality than that. He is strong and we are told we should trust him because he is a god among us. The conversation does not go beyond that. In this supposed sequel, there is a little growth in that Snyder tries to portray the Superman doing things that don’t kill people, but when it comes to one of the pivotal plot points, that growth is seen to be superficial. In the terrorist scene, Superman allows a shootout to go on. It is only until his favorite human, Lois Lane, is threatened, that he does anything, and that action is to throw the gunman threatening Lois through a wall (a move that should have killed him unless that terrorist also had super strength). Other Supermen would act early to end it quickly. Other Supermen would draw their gunfire safely through super posing, melt the guns or force them to drop them with heat vision, or just simply disarm them with super speed. Overwhelming force allows for overwhelming control in the situation. But Snyder’s Superman waited until it only affected him, and then just used his might. The reason why this scene was such an effective trap for Superman is because his might-makes-right attitude set himself up to be open and vulnerable to this entrapment. A less impulsive, more intentional Superman would be harder to frame because his actions are more thought out and beholden to more than just his impulses.

Next we have Batman. Batman has two rules: no guns and no killing. These rules are supposed to keep him from going down the path of darkness that he skirts. They are the ideals that keep him from becoming the criminals he hunts.

Snyder’s Batman carries a gun, brands villains, and kills-ish. Snyder actually comments on his thought process involved letting Batman kill. Rather than explore the complexity of his no kill rule, as Nolan does, or show this evolving ethos as Tim Burton did, Snyder looks for the loop holes. Snyder looks for ways to make it ok for Batman to kill and skirt the morality that has defined the character. Instead, he is a man with an obsession, and his money and strength and absolute rightness in his mind are his justification for carrying out his obsession. He is more a likable version of the classic Lex Luthor than he is Batman.

If there was one real hero in this film, it would have been Wonder Woman, but she was not given enough screen time to rally flesh her out. Hopefully she is treated better in her movie than Superman and Batman are in this one.

Finally, we have the villain: Lex Luthor. In the comics, Lex has taken several forms, from basic mad scientist to the modern incarnation of corporate CEO/Politician. The Lex we have come to know is a man who’s mind rival’s Superman’s strength. But beyond his machinations, he is an imposing figure. Unlike the Joker, whom you fear for his mastery of chaos, you fear Lex because he has become a master of the rules of the world and twists them for his needs. He is a foil for Superman, because where Superman restrains himself so as to not let loose his power, Lex is restrained from the world, and mastered the letter of the external rules in order to ultimately skirt them as he looks for the opportunity to be allowed to let loose. Snyder’s Lex Luthor has been described as more of a Riddler character than that of Lex. Gone is the calm discipline and imposing force. Yes, he plots and tricks people, but he doesn’t have the control of the system. He is less the principle you fear, and more that annoying kid who uses his father’s money to push his way into your private superhero club. And what gets lost in his gravitas is the conversation between the hero who uses the rules to constrain his power, and the villain who seeks to avoid the rules to unleash his.

In the end, the ire targeted at Batman V Superman is earned. Snyder is great for recreating comic book visuals, but he consistently fails to capture the essence of the hero. Instead of the pillars of societal virtues we are asked to emulate and grow from, we are given characters who only seek to enact the might-makes-right morality and Mary Sue fantasies. We get not the analogs for the struggles for growth and maturity, but an almost masturbatory fantasy in which we could do whatever we desired if we just had the power, and that we can be always be inherently right despite what society says. Instead of mature heroes of struggle and virtue, we get childish god-things, which is ironic, because the heroes of myth originally arose to oppose the childish god-things that populated the fears of our ancestors.
As I was writing this, I was actually watching the Supergirl/Flash crossover. It was everything Superman V Batman was not. It lacked the budget for complex visuals and prolonged epic fight scenes, but it had the heart of a hero. Supergirl had fallen and was searching for redemption. Her enemies had ganged up on her and help from the Flash was not even enough to win in the end. It was when she showed she was willing to give it all to save people she did not know, common people stepped up, and it was not super strength or speed that won, but brave men and women with words and a fire hose inspired to be more by a hero. The plot may seem cliche and simplistic, but it drove home the narrative of the hero.

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The Broken Geek: Parents, No Means No on Deadpool

This weekend is the much awaited opening weekend for the movie Deadpool. In the buildup to this release, there has been a bit of controversy involving parents wanting a PG-13 cut so they can bring their children to the film. The internet has done a good job explaining all the reasons why Deadpool should not be toned down for children and why children should not go to the movie.

But what they left out was the most important reason that parents really need to hear.

Right now, your kids are at a very important stage in life where they are learning boundaries through testing them. This is the time when they have to learn to accept limits. This is the time when they have to learn to deal with the frustration of wanting something but not being able to have it. This is the time when they have to learn to accept the word “no.”

This goes beyond whether or not you think your kid can handle the gory and gratuitous violence. This goes beyond what your views are on exposing children and teens to sex and nudity. This has everything to do with making sure that when your child becomes an adult, he or she knows how to handle it when someone has to say “no” to them.

Chances are that you are not aware of problems happening in the young adult community around this issue. If your kids are so young you have to ask for a PG-13 rating, you probably haven’t even begun to worry about their behaviors 5-10 years down the line. After all, being a parent to an early adolescent it hard enough. And I know you love your kid and try to see the best in them and want to believe that they will make the right choices when they need to. But your child cannot learn how to make those right choices without help. To help your child, you need to help them to accept the word “no” and the frustration that comes with that.

Right now, there is a big problem in the Geek community, and the young adult community as a whole, regarding people not accepting “no.” There is a huge problem with street harassment, online harassment, stalking, and sexual assault. There are whole internet forums and groups dedicated to teaching your kids how to pressure, trick, coerce, and force themselves onto others sexually.  And as people have tried to stand up and say “no” to these abuses, the response has been to “doxx” (leak the address and phone number of a person and their family online), make death and rape threats, “SWATting” (call in a fake terrorism accusation so a SWAT team raids the person’s home). There has even been a mass shooting where the shooter’s manifesto stated that getting told “no” drove him to kill. You want to believe your child will never do this. But the truth is, the parents of every abuser wanted to believe the same thing.

It is not enough to believe your kids will make the right choice, you have to teach them how. You have to help them accept there are some things they can’t have. You have to help them deal with the frustrations when they are told “no.” You have to let them be upset, and let them know they are allowed to be upset. But in that, you have to let them know they still have to accept what they cannot have. You have to let them know that they will survive the frustration so that they can stand it again when they have to face it without you there. If you let them see Deadpool, you are not helping them with this.

In essence, Deadpool is not giving your kids consent to see his movie. How you teach them to handle it now will dictate how they handle consent issues in the future.

jd3grcy
Image source: http://imgur.com/gallery/H2wlk

 

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The Broken Geek and the Age of Ultron: Facing the Monster Inside

Age of Ultron has delivered on all the expectations expected from a Joss Whedon Avengers movie. There was action, there was the humanization of impossibly superhuman characters, there was humor, and there was the nearly world ending showdown between good and evil. What was especially noticeable was that as Joss explored his heroes and villains, he touched on a theme fundamental to not just to his characters, but also fundamental to the core audience that the movie attracts.

Joss spoke of our monsters.

This conversation was premised around the character of Banner/Hulk as the other heroes sought to console him with their own confessions of their monster selves. If we look at this analogy of the monster, however, the discussion becomes much larger, bulding to not only include the personality structures of out heroes, but ourselves as well.

Let’s begin with the most explicit example of a man wrestling with his monster: Bruce Banner and the Hulk. Bruce manifests the classic depressed personality. When Bruce loses control, he does bad things andpeople get hurt. Bruce is on constant guard because of his monster, seeking to keep it restrained, and seeking isolation less his badness gets out. Bruce internalizes, pulling every mistake inside, and beats himself up constantly to keep himself in check so he does not make more mistakes. As the Black Widow reaches out to him and offers her heart, he gets scared. He’s a monster, he is not worthy of being loved. Her love is a mistake, and he offered reason after reason why he cannot possibly be lovable to convince her of this. This is the world of the depressive. Those with the depressed personality type see themselves as chronically doing bad (or unable to do good) and are withdrawing to hide this badness from the world. Though many depressives seek to merge with idealized others to cleanse them of this badness, others, like Banner, sabotage their relationships with others because they just don’t feel they are worthy or capable of being loved.

Hulk, being the Banner’s alter self, manifests the mirror of the depressive, the manic personality style. The manic confuses contradiction with argument. Rather than withdraw to hide the “badness” the manic seeks to outshout it. They react to their sense of badness with grandiosity, and counter the desire to withdraw and restrain with impulsive hyperactivity. “I’m not bad, I’m awesome, and I my impulses aren’t bad, they need to be indulged.” Black Widow’s love could soothe the beast for a while, as her love supported his denial, but eventually, the sense of badness reasserted itself, and even the mighty Hulk ran from her because by creating calm, he was left with his self abusing beliefs.

Where Bruce internalized the monster, Tony took the badness and put it out onto the world around him. Tony is a man filled with flaws, and his company, at one time, produced the weapons that killed thousands. Yet Tony acts like he can do no wrong, and in fact, it is always someone else who is at fault for his pain. His primary motivation is to protect himself, and through projection, the world, from an enemy that terrifies him. Anything he does is justified in this quest, even creating the world destroying Ultron, because it was done to destroy this external evil. Tony represents the paranoid personality, the person who runs from his own monster self by trying to hunt and destroy monsters around him. The paranoid reacts to his badness by projecting it onto the world. “I’m not bad, you are” is the response whenever guilt or shame emerge. When his deepest fears of failure and inadequacy were invoked, Tony reacted by wanting to place a suit of armor around the world to fend off what he saw as the eventual alien threat. And when the reality of Ultron set in, he admitted no guilt because he felt justified in his battle against that threat. And the threat is always there to Tony. Before the Chitari, Tony was battling against the government, and in the next movie, he will be battling the threat of super powered people. Tony is always finding a cause, and finding a threat, because the moment he stops fighting the badness outside him, he has to face his sense of badness inside.

Ultron was born to fulfill Tony’s wish to protect the world. He was designed to be an extension of Tony, and it was in that intention that his rage was born. Ultron was to be defined by his purpose, his role, and therefor was not given a self by his programming. He was told he had to be important, but was not allowed to create a real importance on his own. This left him with a deep sense of emptiness and incompleteness. His goal was to change, to evolve and become whole and complete through perfection. Ultron was the classic narcissist. As a narcissist, he surrounded himself by those that would reinforce his greatness, such as his drones and the twins. He also showed signs of extreme idealization and devaluation of others, with his dark father, Tony, as the target of his devaluation. And when his ideal sense of self was threatened, such as when his similarities to Tony were pointed out, he would lose control, and fly into a narcissistic rage. The narcissist, like the depressive, pulls the monster inside, and like the manic tries to deny the monster is there. But rather than the monster being the badness he does, the monster for the narcissist is the badness he is. With no real sense of self, the narcissist is handed a lot of expectation with no sense of ability to meet the expectation, and feel inherently inadequate. They dress up the monster, reinforcing the false self. If you help him to reinforce the facade, the narcissist loves you, but the moment you challenge it, the narcissist will rage against you rather than face that monster.

The other avengers, though more stable, fit these personality types as well. As my psychodynamic professor, Nancy McWilliams, once joked, in psychology, it’s not really a matter if people are crazy, it’s a matter of what type of crazy, and how much. Cap, Hawk, Widow, and Thor all fall into these categories, but are more stable because they either never had their psychic crisis, or they had their crisis and resolved it. In other words, their monsters either have not become a threat, or they learned to tame their monster.

Cap and Hawkeye are the stable depressives. Cap’s has a precarious stability that comes from the fact he is living the depressive’s fantasy. Originally weak and frail, he was unable to meet the conditions for “goodness.” He joined the army to prove that he could be good, and failed. But then he was offered the magic potion that suddenly allowed him to not just be good, but to be the best. His moral code is no longer about keeping him from becoming his “badness,” as it was with Banner,  it became an almost manic attempt to meet the definition of goodness that his magic potion allowed him to attain. His mythic level of perfection comes the fact that his depressive struggle was not conquered, the badness was never faced and resolved, but removed for him. For the struggling depressive, this is the  dream. Helpless and hopeless in the face of the monster, the only apparent hope is for a magic intervention to save you from yourself. Though Cap never had to fully face the monster, it did stir a bit. When empathizing with the twins, his quick quip about being experimented on by a German scientist gave a brief view into his own former desperation to excise the monster. It could only be brief, though, less he awaken the monster again. He also exposed that he was still stuck in the idealized past, the time when he had the fewest doubts of himself, when it was easy for him to figure out what he needed to be good and he had the power to do it. As part of this idealized past was his focused on his never consummated love for Agent Carter. For the depressive, the love you could never have is more comfortable than the love you can have. Afterall, if you are actually with a person, you risk them seeing the monster you are hiding, and risk them running or being hurt by the monster. But the love that could not happen, the love that accepted you but could not be for no fault of your own, is the perfect love, and idealized. Cap had that with Agent Carter, and is the reason why a relationship with any other woman is avoided, as trying to start a new relationship would threaten to waken the monster.

Hawkeye, in contrast, is the depressive who has come to terms with his monster. Hawkeye was a criminal before he was an avenger. Helpless in the face of his badness, he surrendered it and allowed himself to become his monster. Through a yet to be written crisis, possibly involving his now wife Laura or an interaction with Nick Fury, he was challenged to face the monster. At this point, he learned to accept his monster but not be defined by it. In that yet to be revealed redemptive crisis, Hawkeye learned that the past is to be learned from, not lived in, and that his past badness need not define his now or his future. This resolution is the wisdom he has passed onto others, given to Black Widow off screen, and to Scarlet Witch onscreen. And in that final resolution, he learned to accept his monster but not let it rule his life, as he used his skills from his criminal past become his skills for his heroic now. He also has allowed himself a family and a farm, showing that he finally allowed himself to have love and happiness. Unlike Cap who had the badness magically removed, Hawkeye actually transformed his badness himself.

Black Widow’s personality structure is harder to ascertain, largely because her history has not really been all that well developed in the cinematic universe, and she tends to be one of the more psychologically healthy characters. However, there are hints that suggest that she may fall into the paranoid category. In the first Avengers movie, she is found to be able to psychologically trick people into giving her the information she needs by making them think they are in the power position. Paranoid individuals love to beat people at their own game, it’s their way to show they are better than that monster they project onto the world. You can also often see this in Tony’s flippancy when facing government and authority figures. The diagnosis does make sense, in that her raising in the Red Room to be a spy would force such a paranoid structure on her. In addition, in trying to empathize with Banner, she does not focus on sympathizing with the bad he does (which would indicate a depressive personality), she tries to sympathize with the bad he is (indicative of the paranoid structure), confessing her own monster self as herself. Black Widow’s stability came as she transformed her focus from avoiding the badness to seeking the good. And as she  came to accept that she was deserving of love, she changed from projecting the badness she saw in herself onto the world, to projecting the lovability that she saw in herself onto the world, leading to her reaching out to Cap and Banner/Hulk.

Finally, we have Thor, who is the teams high functioning narcissist. Like Ultron, Thor was raised to be an extension of his father, though Thor learned to idealize his father instead of devalue him. In the events of the original Thor movie, he was brash, impulsive, and felt he could do no wrong. On the day he was to be handed his inevitable kingship, his day of glory was interrupted, and Thor’s impulse and rage lead him to almost start a war. His banishment to Earth forced him to fight for his self, to go from being assumed to be worthy of his image to struggling and fighting to earn his worth, calming his narcissistic fears and taming his monster. Thor’s stability came from him facing his fears of insecurity, facing his monster and accepting his limitations. Instead of attacking those that pointed out the badness, he sought the change to transform the badness. There was no more rage, just a need to do what is right.

Why this is important: Learning from our heroes

I have a few times before attempted to diagnose the many problems being faced in Geek culture in terms of the personality structures of its members. The depression faced by Bruce, Cap, and Hawkeye could also be leading to the commoditization of women in the culture. The paranoia of Tony and Black Widow could be leading to the tendency of Geek culture to turn in and attack itself. On top of that, the narcissism of both Ultron and Thor are well known to lead to rage and violence. The fascinating thing about The Age of Ultron is that, in its humanization of the heroes, it was able to outline these basic personality structures in both their destructive and constructive forms. The self destructing Banner/Hulk and the other destructing Tony and Ultron are contrasted to the precariously stable Cap and the constructive Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Thor.

It was in this contrast that the conversation of monsters occurred. It was in this contrast that we saw the  battle with the “badness,” but more importantly, we see that the battle can be won by transforming the badness, not denying or destroying it. Banner’s depression came as he put himself on the constant guard against his evil inside. He could not be loved and not have peace because he was forever afraid of his potential for doing harm. Hawkeye learned to be in the moment, to learn from the mistakes of the past to improve his now, and he forgave his badness so that he could have love and a life. Tony’s paranoia came as he took he took his perceived badness, and put it out on the world. Projecting his inner doubts and fears onto the world, he desperately attacked that externalized badness. Black Widow learned to embrace her monster, she transformed her internal badness into an internal validation that she was deserving of love. Ultron’s narcissism lead him to want to rage against his reminders of imperfection and evolve at the expense of the world. Thor’s acceptance of his flaws and lacking self, acceptance and facing of his badness, lead him to seek the skills to transform himself from lacking to deserving.

This is an important conversation, and I hope it continues both on and off screen. With frequency in which attacks are made online, and the frequency at which symptoms of depression, paranoia and narcissism, are causing problems within the Geek community, we need to learn to face the issues brought up by this conversation. This conversation needs to shy away from attacking and defeating the badness, as we see in the classic fantasies, because as Ultron himself points out “Everyone creates the thing they fear. Men of peace create engines of war. Avengers create invaders. Parents create children, that will supplant them.” Instead, the conversation needs to manifest in the more substantial way the Age of Ultron presents it, where our battle against our badness enables it to grow, and transformation of the badness is the only hope for victory.  When we can face that, we will find the peace we rage against the world and each other to find.

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The Broken Geek

One of the most confusing and disturbing aspects of the crisis in Geek and Gamer culture is the way that we seemed to have turned upon ourselves. After decades of being the untouchable class, geeks and gamers now have been given a seat at the table. Geeks and gamers are now being pandered to by the economy and media as the new rising social class. There are hundreds of conventions a year drawing thousands of geeks and gamers. The change has become so stark that term “geek” is now no longer an insult on the playground, but has become a popular way to self identify. And yet, in the face of this social victory, there has been a disturbing reaction that has caused geeks to become their own oppressors. Trolling has become a recreational activity, online harassment has become both prevalent and so severe to include threats of violence, and the geek community itself has members testing other members in some sort of geek purity campaign.

What is so confusing about this is that many of us took our experiences of insult, ridicule, and social prosecution as a lesson of the injustice that exist in the world. We faced the darkness and saw that it was fundamentally wrong. Bit it seems that others have looked at the wrongs committed against us and used it as the “how to” manual for using their new found status. Instead of learning from the injustice, they sought to perpetuate it.

There have been attempts to understand where this aggression comes from. The frequent gender based content of a lot of the harassment has lead many to assume the cause of the problem lies within a deep seated misogyny. However, similar attacks seem to occur wherever a justification to make an attack can be found, not just along gender lines. So it may be the apparent misogyny is symptomatic of a larger compulsion to find reasons to attack, but not the causal factor itself. Others have proposed that there is a basic sociopathy or rampant narcissism in play. Both those diagnosis involve a deficit of empathy and a tendency to lash out when their image is threatened, but there are problems with this as well. While the competitive aspect of the gamer subculture may attract more sociopaths than may be seen in larger society, the ability to win games should also satiated their their primary drive. Also, the violence of the sociopath is instrumental, not randomly or generally applied. Sociopaths usually use violence as a means to a goal and there is not a clear endgame to the harassment seen. Similarly, even though the attacks often do include and aspect of narcissistic reaction, anyone can lash out narcissistically, but since the primary goal of a narcissist is to gain social achievement, the degree of destructiveness does not fit either because it works against that achievement of esteem.

So what does fit?

If we want to understand the motivations for aggression we need to take into consideration the effects of the aggression that geeks have been facing for decades.  In response to the chronic social persecution, for instance, many geeks may have adapted by internalizing the “badness” and seek to prove themselves “good” to avoid future rejection, creating a depression that may have emerged and may be expressed in the themes prevalent in geek media.  In addition to this, there is another personality structure that also seeks to deal with a “badness” that the world has impressed upon them. But instead of internalizing the “badness” and trying to defeat it from within, this second structure works to externalize the badness and defeat it wherever it may exist outside in the world.

This is the personality structure of the paranoid.

The classic picture of the person who is paranoid is one where he believes the world is out to get him. This, however,  is a gross simplification. In the actual personality structure of the paranoid individual, the person is constantly aware of a “badness” that is ever present due to feelings of shame, confusion, sadness, anger, etc. The person cannot tolerate the idea that this the “badness” originates within himself, so he perceives the badness as existing outside somewhere. He begins to use a psychological mechanism known as “projection” that causes him to seek out and find something outside to make the source of the badness felt inside. Paranoid people need to destroy the “badness” that is always there, because if they cannot fight it outside, they then have to deal with the reality the sense of “badness” is actually coming from within them.

There are several characteristics of the classic paranoid personality structure that are seen in the behaviors of many of the harassing parties. Paranoid individuals, for instance, are hyper focused on the motives of others, usually putting onto individuals very negative and aggressive motives for their behaviors. When it comes to the actions of others, effect and motive are very much confused in these assumptions because of the projection they employ. If a person’s action made paranoid person feel bad, then they must have intended it to feel bad, and therefor they must have intended it to hurt the paranoid person. The badness he feels cannot lie within his perception, it must lie in the aggression of the other. And since the assumption of aggression in others is characteristic of those who are prone to aggressive behavior, such projective mind reading increases the likelihood for the Paranoid person to become aggressive.

Since paranoia is not relegated to the purely “crazy,” a person’s paranoia will come into conflict with their natural drive to reality test. Depending on the level of “badness” they need to dispel, however, this may only lead a person to work hard to prove the rightness of their projected conspiracies. Paranoid people have the ability to construct a seemingly logical defense for the conclusion they made about the people doing them harm, a defense that is to them air tight. It is air tight because it needs to be, because any other conclusion threatens them with a badness inside. What’s more,if you are at any point able to poke holes in their arguments, then you have put them back in a state of crisis, and they will attack you and your motives to negate your argument. They will ignore your argument and assume aggressive motives (“you are just quoting those statistics because you are part of the conspiracy”) or they will ignore your argument and just attack you directly through insult or direct threat.

Paranoid people also try to beat the system at its own game. Due to the humiliation they experienced, they often see the system and authority figures as being oppressive and “bad.” This can create a drive to “win” against the system. When possible, they use technicalities and argue semantics to use the system against itself. But when that does not work, they aren’t above breaking the rules, because the ends justify the means.

Like the depressive personality, the origins of the paranoid personality structure is theorized to lie in a history of ridicule and invalidation. The person may have been the scapegoat used to compensate for the weaknesses in a family or social system. The person could have been frequently targeted for aggression in order to “toughen them up.” The person could have been consistently invalidated, rejected, or even punished for having unwanted feelings or thoughts. In other words, they lived the life of the outcast that often characterizes members of geek culture.The result of this attack and invalidation leads to an assumption that feelings are dangerous and the world itself is inherently threatening.

But does this fit?

We do have some evidence that would support paranoid presentations within this destructive tendencies within geek culture. In the extreme forms you have groups like the Red Pillers who believe that society is secretly controlled by women who are out to dominate men. Factually, this conspiracy does not fit the evidence (women are still underrepresented in government, the wage gap still exists, women are more often the targets for sexual and domestic violence, etc.), but it does have all the makings for a purely paranoid conspiracy. Sexual shame is easy to generate due to a fear of rejection, actual rejection, or just the conflict that occurs as one struggles with having sexual feelings in a very puritanical society. The person will then feel a “badness” generated in relation to the opposite sex, and since the idea of him being bad is intolerable, he will project this badness onto the woman, and then eventually onto women, making them a dark force they have to fight against. The aggression that we see in less organized forms also fits.There is a tendency to attack and “troll” the artistic contributions of others. To a paranoid person, whatever flaws may exist in the work invokes the insecurity and “badness” that he feels because of his own state of imperfection, He attacks the video and its maker viciously because he needs to fight and defeat those external flaws to deny his own internal flaws. Finally, there are the geek purity tests, attempts to prove certain members are not real members of the culture. To them, fake geeks represent a contamination in the system, a “badness” that must be rooted out. These hunted “fake geeks” have manipulative motives attributed to them, suggesting an additional overhanging malevolence.

If this theory is true, then, like the depressive features formerly discussed, the aggression seen in geek and gamer culture is a direct result of the ostracism, ridicule, rejection, and social persecution experienced by members of geek culture. The result of those attacks on the self is an overwhelming and overhanging sense of “badness” that constantly plagues those affected. If the person takes in that “badness”, they become depressed, compulsively striving to prove that they can overcome that “badness” that they can can makes themselves good enough to make sure you don’t reject them again. If the person sends out the badness, then they compulsively have to look for enemies to attack, they have to put that “badness” on someone else and then destroy that person for creating the “badness.” It’s a battle of where to put the badness, either making the self bad, or making someone else bad.

Is there hope?

If this theory turns out to be true, then there is direction towards addressing this problem with in geek and gamer culture. The traditional response is to match aggression with aggression, calling out and attacking those making the attacks themselves. In this model, however, these methods might be escalating the situation, as the paranoid are only feeling more persecuted, and the self persecution of the depressed is likewise being escalated. However, there are also efforts to efforts to provide support to those being targeted and humiliated, and these efforts are good because they can prevent the next generation from falling into the depressive or paranoid spirals. Doing whatever we can to learn to help our fellow geeks get through the harm of a rejecting, persecuting and isolating society without adopting the “badness” could save the next generation from suffering and repeating the harm faced by ours. For those that have taken on the “badness” today, challenging them effectively may be a Herculanean task. But learning to separate behaviors from personal judgment, emphasizing that certain behaviors are wrong, but the people who do them are not inherently bad may soften the blow when challenges need to be made. However, the biggest change we can make would be to begin to attack the notion of the “badness” itself.  To avoid this “badness” the depressive beats himself into perfection, and the paranoid beats the world into perfection, but neither stops to ask if the perfection is a real expectation. Neither thinks to ask if the “badness” is real. Normalizing the conflicts, the discomforts, the urges and the feelings that make up the badness as instead being part of the shared human experience needs to enter the social conversation so that we can teach people to say they are flaws and still loved.Creating the environment where people are safe to lose, safe to screw up, safe to fall on their face, and safe to be embarrassed without being humiliated would reteach our community that there is no “badness” to dispel, just flawed humanity to accept.

Categories: The Broken Geek | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Is Saving the Princess a Confession of Depression within Geek/Gamer Culture?

We often forget the value of returning to the basics. We can get so caught up with what has become so new, popular, or advanced, that we lose track of th basics, and in the process lose track of important and fundamental details, Recently, I was asked to blow the dust off of Nancy McWilliams’ Psychoanalytic Diagnosis for a presentation on the personality structure of the depressive person. As I reviewed the book, that I now regrettably had not touched since my first year of grad school, I was struck by an overlooked detail in the discussion of Geek/Gamer community relations.

With the problems involving geek and gamer culture, the aggression aimed against women goes beyond demeaning jokes and objectification. It has turned to threats of physical and sexual violence severe and specific enough to involve the FBI. There have been a number of ways this aggression has been manifested both directly through acts, and also indirectly through themes that come up in geek and gamer media. One such theme that to be examined is the “Save the Princess” trope. This theme runs through many fantasy games and novels and involves the notion that the hero must quest, and then end of the quest gets the princess (or damsel, or other love object) as a consequence of his success. However, there is a dark side to this tale when seen from the princess’ point of view in that the experience is that of the man purchasing the woman through deed, ignoring the woman’s own choice or needs.

In games, this is just a simple trope, hero gets fulfillment after beating the challenge, and the prewritten character of the princess is happy with the ending. However fantasy and reality are starkly different, and there are severe problems that emerge when the fomer intrudes on the latter. The experience of many women has been that they are being treated as a commodity as a result of the save the princess trope. They experience a demeaning bidding process as men brag or show off in the hopes of getting their attention. What gets lost in this process is an understanding of the woman, her needs, and her desires. This experience leaves her feeling ignored, depersonalized, and treated like a trophy. And when the woman resists being this commodity, she can then become the target of aggressive harassment and threat.

When pointing out this problem, there have been attempts to attribute intent for the effect as the cause for this problem and trope, that boys are intending to commoditize the princesses, and that that is the simple cause and effect. Human motivation is a lot more complicated that that, and so there may be a different explanation. With a problem so real and severe it is understandable to want to jump to such a symptom based diagnosis in order to quickly end the problem. But incomplete formulation and diagnosis is dangerous. You don’t want to keep taking pain killers to reduce a chronic headache and ignore the possibility of a tumor. And so it is always necessary to do a differential diagnosis.

So what if gender issues within geek and gamer culture come from a fundamental cultural depression?

To explore this, let’s first begin with the essential personality structure of the depressed person. The depressed personality is one characterized by an internalized sense of badness brought on by a failure to connect. Somewhere in the person’s development was a traumatic loss, rejection, or abuse, and the pain of that trauma forces the child to choose between seeing the world as being fundamentally unsafe, or seeing themselves as the cause for their pain. For the vulnerable child, the latter is less frightening than the former. The child becomes perpetually angry at himself for his loss, and that anger becomes a profound shame whose intent is to prevent future loss. Preventing future loss and future rejection depends on how good the child can prove he can be. Much of the depressive state comes from an emotional self flagellation aimed at keeping their badness in check. The default state for the depressed person is rejection, and they must beat themselves to perfect to avoid that rejection.

In this context, the save the princess trope is not that the boy is motivated to earn the woman like a commodity, but rather the trope reenacts out the desperate fantasy that he can prove that he can be good enough to not drive people away. Only by completing the quest and proving he is the good enough to be a hero can he make sure the princess won’t reject him.

This depression theory does have other supports within geek/gamer culture. First, there is the the existence of the primary trauma: geek culture is characterized by chronic social rejection and stigma. Next there are the other symptoms of depression that occur stereotypically within geek/gamer culture: the social withdrawal, the unstable sleep schedules, frequent problems with hygiene and self care behaviors, etc. Depressive people tend to idealize and look to connect with the idealized object as a way of disconnecting from their badness, a process that can be seen by the obsession with celebrities, heroic fictional characters, and unrealistically proportioned women. Finally, there is a manifest desire to escape the flawed self as seen by tendency to use games to manifest our idealized selves.

The irrationally aggressive and demeaning behaviors can also be explained within this model. Since the desire to prove themselves as good is a primitive defense against the shame of their inherent badness, having that goodness frustrated or directly challenged results in the person being defenseless against that badness and shame. Left in that raw and vulnerable state, the geek/gamer will lash out at what they perceive as the source of their challenge as a last ditch effort to avoid that shame. They are trying to prove they are not bad, winning the princess would give them proof they are not bad, and if you frustrate that effort, they must make the woman the bad one or else they have to accept the badness they themselves are running from.

If this is the case, if this depression theory is true, then it also has advantages in addressing the problem that the more direct attribution of intention theories don’t have. If the motivation is just that the person is enacting cruelty for the sake of cruelty, then there is no recourse but to fight aggression with aggression, and enact a cycle of escalation with the hopes that you can overpower the evil in the name of goodness. However, the geek/gamer depression model assumes that the cruelty experienced is not intended, but rather it is the side effect of the desire to fight the badness within. Their are more and more realistic interventions available to counter that. Depression is treatable, and community psychology approaches can work to address systemic depression. Depression is often marked by a sense of helplessness, and refocusing in social skill and assertiveness can replace the sense of badness and helplessness with a sense of competence. But on a more interpersonal level, on the level that most people will be able to directly act, we can learn to recognize and empathize with this depression early, and if we can dispel this “badness” proactively, we can keep it from manifesting in the more destructive behaviors. Learning to work acceptance of rejection without shame, challenge the need to perfection, and that one can be flawed and loved can be consciously worked into personal and cultural discussion within geek/gamer media and circles to break the cycles before they escalate into the aggression manifests the problems we see today.

Categories: The Broken Geek | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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