Messianism and meritocracy

Yesterday, The Girlfriend was watching the SyFy miniseries Alice. We had recently watched the Tim Burton adaptation of Alice in Wonderland as well, and I remarked that it seemed strange to me that the two most recent versions of the story had taken it weirdly “seriously” — in both, Wonderland is treated as a more or less coherent “sci-fi” world living under an oppressive ruler (the Red Queen), and only Alice can overthrow her. Interestingly, both also show some awareness of the previous version — in Tim Burton’s film, Alice is literally the same girl from the book, but she’s grown up and forgotten about her adventures; in the TV series, Alice is depicted as reading the original book — but even so, they trade in the surrealistic whimsy of the original for a plodding “hero’s quest.”

As we talked about why that might be, The Girlfriend remarked that in the original, Alice was mostly a passive observer, which doesn’t fit with most people’s expectations of a movie today — the point of view character has to be an active agent. And particularly in a fantasy or sci-fi film, that character has to be a messianic agent, the “only one” who can defeat the evil ruler.

Normally how this goes is that the hero is thrown into an unusual and unfamiliar situation. It’s not enough to explore a strange new world, however — the hero must have some unanticipated special role to play in this world. Though initially reluctant or even outright opposed to this role, the hero takes up the burden and kicks some serious ass, usually after a training montage in which they are able to master combat skills that most people take a lifetime to learn.

The examples of this basic messianic narrative are manifold — Neo of The Matrix, Harry Potter, the dumb guy in Avatar, etc. There’s an obvious kind of colonialist vibe here, most clearly in Avatar, but I don’t think that American neo-colonialism is a big enough part of public consciousness (indeed, most Americans would prefer for us to stop invading places so much) to account for the popularity of this basic narrative pattern.

Instead, I think this form of messianism fits with the sense in which the social hierarchy is getting both steeper and narrower, with fewer and fewer paths for advancement — but at the same time, the ideology of meritocracy remains firmly in place. The messiah who comes out of nowhere and outperforms people who’ve been training their whole life represents the only plausible route to advancement under contemporary conditions.

With this in mind, we can see that the basic pattern of this narrative repeats itself in other settings. Don Draper is arguably a “messiah” of advertising, whose effortless mastery allows him to do no apparent work most of the time. Of course, there’s a negative valence to him, insofar as he’s a conscious, scheming interloper who has cheated his way into a higher social setting. One could say that Mayor Carcetti of The Wire is another variation on the theme, seizing the opportunity to win an improbable victory as a white man in a black city and thereby save Baltimore — but he shows another dark side of the narrative, insofar as he comes to equate his own political success (becoming governor) with the city’s salvation.

An interesting recent exception to the pattern is Frodo of Lord of the Rings. He is not exceptionally gifted, nor does he have a training montage (or need one, as he doesn’t do any fighting of note) — he does wind up surprising himself with his courage, but he’s basically an average guy who “steps up” when circumstances demand. But of course, his story was written in a different era, and the contrast highlights how dominant the “meritocratic” messianic narrative has become now. If it was written today, Frodo would have some kind of genetic predisposition toward sneaking around and would stun everyone by out-sneaking people who’ve been sneaking for decades — or as The Girlfriend says, the ring would’ve been meant for him and only fit his finger…

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One Response to “Messianism and meritocracy”

  1. Matt Frost Says:

    I’ve had the same basic observation about racial hierarchy and “becoming white” in America. Meritocracy seems to be the myth that motivates entry into the asymptotically-approached standard — or, the social hierarchy is *always* getting both steeper and narrower. It works with respect to the “American Dream,” as well. It may be the logic of Capital — the intentional imposition of a steep, narrow standard upon a large mass in order to reap the benefits of conformity trickling upward.


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