Memetic Narratives of War and Paranoia

The amount of entertainment media is immense these days, even limiting it to big biz media in the United States: Hollywood, cable, television, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. I try to be discerning in what I watch, but I also have a curiosity to sample what is being produced. Viewing entertainment media offers a glimpse into the national psyche. It’s the moral imagination that Edmund Burke could never have imagined, the mental furniture of media-saturated late modernity.

I look for the narratives and tropes that are popular or for whatever reason are being pushed by media companies. As others have noted, the Cold War had re-entered or been re-introduced into the cultural imagination. It began with the 9/11 terrorist attack because our actions during the Cold War era were coming back to haunt us. In the fight against the Soviets, it was the U.S. that trained, armed, and allied with Osama bin Laden and in the process helped create al-Quaida. It was the U.S. that purposely destroyed so many secular democratic governments in order to replace them with theocracies, dictatorships, and fascist states. And it was the U.S. that, as allies with the Iraqis, gave Saddam Hussein chemical weapons (i.e., weapons of mass destruction) that he used against his own people while we watched and did nothing.

The sins of the father fell upon the sons. It was Generation X that fought in Iraq during Desert Storm and once again in the Iraq War. These GenXers and their non-military generational peers were bottle fed on Cold War media and ideology. It was maybe natural that, as this generation began careers in entertainment media, they (along with the older generations) inserted the Cold War mentality back into the mainstream. Once again, we started seeing Russians portrayed as enemies in movies and shows.

Recent political events during and following the 2016 presidential campaign brought back many of the dark fantasies of the Cold War. And the fear about media meddling struck a chord that resonated with the early Cold War. Russia has returned to the world stage as a major political power. And the U.S. corporate media have given the Russian elite all the attention and coverage they were seeking. Putin’s purpose was unlikely to elect any particular candidate and more simply to regain the respect of being treated as a real threat. As nothing else could, the fear-mongering of U.S. media boosts Putin’s ego and his popularity among Russians. They were back in their Cold War role.

I hadn’t given this much thought recently. But it all came back to my attention while watching a relatively new show, TNT’s Legends. It originally aired a few years ago and the rights to show it were purchased by Hulu. I mention it not because it is great entertainment, rather because it is an expression of the cultural moment. It’s likely Hulu wouldn’t have had any interest in it, if not for recent political events and investigations involving Russia. After watching a few episodes, it immediately felt familiar. I realized that, although outwardly about the Iraq War and the War on Terror, the basic story came from my youth. It’s a revamped Vietnam War show. There is the traumatized war experience that the protagonist can’t remember and some kind of secret government operation or experiment that involved combat soldiers. The protagonist has been brainwashed somehow and he is trying to remember who he was and what happened.

Legends has hints of Cold War movies like the Manchurian Candidate, although more heavily leans on the tropes of Vietnam War movies, specifically Rambo and Jacob’s Ladder. The latter movie, Jacob’s Ladder, came a bit later in 1990 when the Cold War mood was declining but still much in the air. All of these movies weren’t limited to the imagination of screenwriters and producers. They express the paranoid mindset that had taken hold back then. Also, the U.S. government really was doing some crazy shit, from brainwashing experiments to drug experiments. Jacob’s Ladder was a fictionalized account of an actual government experiment, although the source material of Rambo was a popular conspiracy theory that had no basis in reality.

Whether inspired by truth or paranoia, such narratives spoke and in new forms continue to speak to the public imagination. What do such narratives mean? And why do they keep coming back? The have become part of a deep-seated American mythos that continually gets introduced to new generations.

The Legends show was based on a novel by Robert Littell (two of his other works were earlier made into a movie and series). He grew up during the World War II period, was in the Navy during the early Cold War, worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent during the Vietnam War, and began his fiction writing in the last years of the Vietnam War with his second novel being about that war. He is one of the authors who helped popularize the American spy novel, one of the main expressions of Cold War paranoia where truth and conspiracy were mingled. Although an old guy at this point, he is still writing and was last published in 2016 (a professional writing career that has lasted a half century).

The novel that was the source of the Legends was written in 2005, at the height of ramping up public opinion for the War on Terror. It was a time of the return of the paranoid mind with the likes of Alex Jones gaining mainstream attention. Interestingly, the developers of the show were three older GenXers: Howard Gordon, Jeffrey Nachmanoff, and Mark Bomback. And all of them were born during the Vietnam War. These producers have been involved in other shows that embody the mindset of paranoia and the war state, such as Gordon having co-developed and written scripts for Showtime’s Homeland while Nachmanoff was a director for that show. Gordon had done earlier work for years as a supervising producer and scriptwriter for The X-Files, the original show that made conspiracy theory fully mainstream.

If these narratives, these collective fantasies didn’t have such staying power, it would be a lot harder for them to be constantly used as propaganda tools. The Bush administration was able to use them to great effect in drumming up support. And that persistent paranoia has taken on new life and new uses during this Trump era. It’s because the public and politicians are constantly being fed this kind of entertainment that we get this world we find ourselves in. They are powerful narratives, capturing the moral imagination through visions of power and greatness, paranoia and terror. We get trapped in the stories we tell. There is no way to rationally respond to them. They are mind viruses that get passed on from generation to generation.

Tropes in SciFi

Tropes in SciFi

Posted on Oct 7th, 2008 by Marmalade : Gaia Explorer Marmalade
I’m watching the movie Stargate Atlantis: Rising.  Its decent.  The special effects are good and its fairly imaginative.  The acting is adequate… not awesome though.  The plot holds my attention if somewhat predictable.  I love SciFi, but this show is mostly typical for the genre.  In general, I’d say the Stargate series is not as good as the Star Trek series.

The reason I’m writing about this movie is because it reminds me of the tropes site.  A show like Stargate is filled with tropes.  For instance, the characters are largely stereotypes.  I don’t mean to say that this show is worse than most shows.  Actually, its an enjoyable show, but the stereotypes do annoy me.  I don’t empathize with the Stargate characters to the extent that I empathize with the characters in Star Trek: Next Generation.

Genre shows are often filled with cliche’s and predictable plots, but there are some very good genre shows.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a show that uses tropes but manages to bring new life to them.  And then there are shows like Dead Like Me which step outside of the typical tropes of a genre.

What I was wondering about is why people enjoy tropes, and furthermore why people enjoy tropes used in unoriginal ways.  Creating original stories and characters is challenging, but that can’t explain the vast amount of copycat shows.  I suspect that most people enjoy shows because it gives them an escape from their normal lives.  Life is mostly unpredictable and so people turn to shows with a desire for the predictable.

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Nicole : wakingdreamer

27 minutes later

Nicole said

I liked the first Stargate movie, but it is probably worse than the series in terms of stereotypes, eh? I liked it because it was so unreal 🙂

Marmalade : Gaia Explorer

about 7 hours later

Marmalade said

I’m very forgiving of SF in general whether written story, tv show or movie.  I love anything that is imaginative.  Stargate is definitely imaginative.  The Stargate series mostly creates a believable world, but it does demand a bit of suspension of disbelief.

I was considering what makes shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer stand out.  For one, Joss Whedon is a master in creating excellent tv shows.  The dialogue in Buffy is always top-notch and the story is rarely predictable (even though it has plenty of predictable tropes).  Another extemely important element is that the actors are quite talented.. way beyond anything seen in Stargate.  Is it that the script of Buffy attracted good actors or is it that Whedon knows how to pick good actors?  Do stereotypical scripts attract stereotypical actors?

However, it must be said that apparently Stargate was more popular than Buffy.  The original Stargate show is the longest continually run SF show ever… so, they must be doing something right.

I’ve noticed that I have different standards for different types of entertainment.  I’m less accepting of stereotypes in written stories and I’m less accepting of stereotypes in ‘realistic’ tv shows and movies.  I’m more accepting of this in genres such as SF because genres are by definition based on well-known tropes.  I’m even more accepting of stereotypes in kids shows and movies. 

Its very interesting how kids don’t mind stereotypes at all.  Most kids’ shows if anything go out of their way to be predictable and simple.  Partly, kids don’t mind them because a kid has had less exposure to stereotypes and so they won’t even notice the stereotypes until after they’ve grown up.  But also kids just enjoy stereotypes.  Its how cultural knowledged is transmitted, how kids learn about the world they’ve been born into.  Kids learn through repetition.  An example of this is the Teletubbies.  The show repeats itself a second time.  Its boring enough to send an adult into a coma, but it was an extremely popular show for little kids.

Maybe adults like predictable stories because stories put them into a child-like mindset.  They spend the whole day pretending to be an adult, and when they get home they want to forget their adult selves.  A predictable story is comforting.  The recongnition of stereotypes allows us to relax with the sense that we know what to expect.

Nicole : wakingdreamer

about 17 hours later

Nicole said

that’s very interesting, Ben. I hadn’t noticed before that I too have totally different standards for different genres at different times. Sometimes I really like the housecoat and fuzzy slippers comfort of a predictable story and sometimes I just feel bored and annoyed. Usually though I am very indulgent toward science fiction and fantasy as long as it is skilfully done.

Of course, there are some classics in really bad movies that are fun to watch 🙂 good ol’ Ed Wood and Plan 9, for example. Why do we love really bad movies, is it the fascination that makes people slow down for car accidents?

Books On Tropes: Personality, Plots. and Cliches

Books On Tropes: Personality, Plots. and Cliches

Posted on Sep 19th, 2008 by Marmalade : Gaia Child Marmalade

Here is a nice page from the
TV Tropes Wiki.  I own several of the books mentioned here.  I’m particularly interested in theories about plot structure.

Books On Trope

In case you didn’t realize it: We here at TV Tropes are not the first to collect tropes and try to put them in some semblance of order. Of course, since few people would actually use the word trope to describe patterns in media, it may be difficult to find the various resources that exist. Therefore we now have this page. If you happen to run across a resource (a book, website, or other useful thing) that discusses a set of tropes, write up a summary page and stick the link on this index.

Personality Profiles

The most common trope collections are personality profiles. Many people have devised systems of sorting characters into a handful of pigeonholes (the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the Enneagram, etc.). Of course, they tend to think this works well for sorting people, whereas we’re going to take the more sensible view that it works well for sorting fictional characters who aren’t nearly as complex as your average real human. They’re useful systems for the writer as well as for the reader, so eventually we’ll get them up here.

Basic Plots

People have also tried to condense the wide and varied world of plots into a small and succinct list of possible plots. The most basic system says that all plots are about one of two things, love and death, but the list can go up to fifty or even more. Joseph Campbell tried to pin it all down to a single heroic version in The Hero’s Journey, and while that doesn’t cover every story, it works with a lot of them (and George Lucas decided to base Star Wars all around Campbell’s work). It’s when people start claiming that Schlindler’s List has the same plot as Alice In Wonderland that we start to wonder if their systems make any sense, but hey, maybe they had a flash of inspiration. At any rate, studying plot archetypes can help writers to straighten out the odd kinks that are throwing them for a loop, and maybe to introduce elements that strengthen the overall story and underscore its thematic meaning. As for the reader… well, it’s always fun to realize, halfway into the new blockbuster, that you’re really watching a postmodern sci-fi version of Beauty And The Beast.

Lists of Clichés

Dead Horse Tropes can be surprisingly stubborn beasts, refusing to leave the media well after they’ve been discredited, disbarred, and run out of the country for being So Last Century. The more that writers recognize the possible clichés that exist, the more they’re able to avert, subvert, and even invert the critters, allowing for the possibility that their viewers are not morons and just might enjoy watching something written with a little connection to reality. Then again, it’s just fun to review all the oddities that make up our collected media history (laser printers that still sound like a Dot Matrix?) and then play drinking games over recognizing when they show up in our favorite sitcoms.

Personality Profiles

Basic Plots

Lists of Clichés

Resources That Don’t Yet Have Their Own Pages

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Nicole : wakingdreamer

about 9 hours later

Nicole said

so much interesting stuff in here i could get lost in the rabbit holes all morning.

I especially appreciated Poe’s law, will put it in the God Pod

ok I linked it here to your blog

1Vector3 : "Relentless Wisdom"

about 10 hours later

1Vector3 said

Ah, now I get a better idea of what a trope is. The word itself, whence cometh it??

As I am an information-organizing-addict, this kind of summarizing/synthesizing thrills me to my core !!!!!!!

Besides which, it really is useful. That’s the bottom line for me, I don’t enjoy organizing just for the sheer joy of manipulating information into patterns.

She said.

🙂 OM Bastet

Marmalade : Gaia Child

about 18 hours later

Marmalade said

Nicole… found something interesting, did ya?  I really want to spend the time to thoroughly look through that site eventually.

OM – The people at that site apparently made up their own use of the word ‘trope’.  They just expanded off of the dictionary definition of a trope being a convention.

Yes, organizing info, ain’t it fun?  Its a well organized site.  Quite impressive!  I guess its useful… depending on your purpose in life.

Nicole : wakingdreamer

1 day later

Nicole said

oh I found so many interesting things! I linked Poe’s law to the God Pod just because that had come up several times in relation to Balder’s mock-fundamentalist thread, that people took it seriously, and it was great to see why it kept happening, and see the historical context, e.g. Modest Proposal and other satire taken seriously.

But I also really enjoyed reading about all the hero archetypes and the heroine ones. I watched What Dreams May Come last night – have you ever seen that or blogged about it? Lots of interesting things there about how we imagine heaven, being about meeting up with loved ones who have died, and God not really being around there either, and suicides still going to hell… and yet of course love still conquers all, and soulmates can find each other again and again 🙂



Posted on Sep 16th, 2008 by Marmalade : Gaia Child Marmalade
I decided to start this thread because of one site that I like a lot.  Its called TV Tropes Wiki.  Its so named because it originally started off just being about tv shows, but has since expanded to cover any type of media.  So, what is a trope?

Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means “stereotyped and trite.” In other words, dull and uninteresting.

It has a bunch of entries about wikis and Wikipedia.  And, of course, Wikipedia has an entry of the TV Tropes Wiki.

It has many categories of tropes.  For this pod, here are the film tropes, and here are the tv tropes.

A while ago, the site got hacked and was destroyed.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t backed up, but through the dedication of the contributors they re-created the whole site by copying from the cache function of search engines which sounds like a difficult process.  Its back up to normal again.  Its a popular site which is probably why it attracted a hacker.  They had a discussion forum, but the code of the forum was a risk for further hacking and so they got rid of it.

Here are the entries about forum tropes, and here are the entries about hacker tropes.

For OM, here are the tropes about violence, killing, murder, peace, and pacifism.  🙂

There are some  Wikipedia entries that are about or related to the subjects found on TV Tropes.  There is the Narratology Category, and there is the Film Theory Category.  Tropes also relate to Comparative Mythology and Folklore Motifs.

  This was originally posted as a thread on the Community Film Picks (zFilms) Group.


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