This Is Your Brain On Melodrama
In the mid 1940’s, Walt Disney produced a number of cartoons, at the request of the United States government. These shorts, given titles like “Der Fuehrer’s Face” and “Commando Duck,” portrayed Germans and Japanese as amoral, corrupt, and uncivilized caricatures. Copies of these propaganda films can be found floating around the internet, but due to their reductive and simplistic portrayal of nuanced and now-familiar subjects, they don’t read the way they used to. It’s a combination of cynicism, embarrassment, and an assumed superiority that leads us to laugh at these images of the three industrious pigs taking on a Nazi wolf—superiority to the dopey inhabitants of America 1945 who swallowed that ridiculously two-dimensional waffle without thinking twice; who blindly supported the endeavors of their government based on a few minutes of carefully scripted media. We snort, we close the tab, we open Facebook, and we all but declare war on a man whose name we just learned in a country we couldn’t point to on a map.
Joseph Kony and Uganda, respectively, in case you’ve been internetting under a rock.
On the continuum between our primate ancestors, from Dryopithecus up to the modern Homo Sapiens, there are fewer steps between us and the sentimental Cleavers of WWII America than we’d like to think. Although plenty of red flags have been raised in the wake of Invisible Children Inc.’s viral KONY 2012 campaign regarding the organization’s motivations, legitimacy, use of funds, etc., this isn’t my concern. One thing of which I’m certain is that they are not “bad guys,” although investigations into their tax documents and the recent and very public Harvey-Dent-like fall of their Harvey-Dent-looking spokesman, Jason Russell, have paved the way for that assumption. I hold this belief with certainty, because there are no such things as “bad guys,” despite what the insultingly reductive KONY 2012 video squatted down and told us, wiping our eyes clean of the tears they’d milked out of them.
No, the subject of this self-proclaimed experiment wasn’t Invisible Children. We—you, the public—were the subjects. As such, the titanic significance of the phenomenon isn’t that a charity exists that seems in many ways to be a white-guilt summer camp, or that funds that could be spent on direct aid are instead diverted to the impotent practice of faux-documentary—because that’s just it, it isn’t impotent after all, is it? No, if we are to learn something from this, it’s our own reactions that we must examine. Because as dishonest, reductive, and cheap as the campaign is (was?), it worked. Before the dissent, fueled by both contrarianism and reasonable doubt, began to spread to the dashboards of the Konyvangelists, inviting them to reconsider their hasty commitment (however tiny), there was a moment during which the video spread, unchecked and unchallenged. And make no mistake; they made enough in both dollars and converts during those few hours to justify the whole stunt.
So why did it work? How did KONY 2012 manage to transform an internet populated by apathetic Millenials into an armada of social activists? That’s an easy answer, actually: it didn’t. What it did was turn them into an armada of billboards. Indeed, there’s a call to action within the video, charging American youth to plaster the world with fliers on the night of April 20th in the name of unity and defiance. Those who were motivated to donate to the campaign did so, and those who couldn’t be bothered could get their fix by tweeting about and sharing the video—a duty that Russell assured them was just as important. In creating a brand with KONY 2012, complete with a color scheme, clothing line, and predefined hash tags, Invisible Children Inc. enabled and encouraged people to adopt it as a part of their identity. A week before the video went viral, the first ever Facebook Marketing Conference took place, wherein executives spoke with eerie candor about the art of manipulating consumers. “We found that fans are twice as valuable as the general population based on purchase behavior,” said Mike Hoefflinger, Facebook director of global business marketing. “These aren’t just customers, these are the best customers.”
Perhaps more baffling, especially to educators and documentary producers, is the question of how KONY 2012 got umptillions among a notoriously impatient generation to watch 30-minute informational video. Another easy answer: they didn’t. KONY 2012 is not a documentary; it’s a melodrama.
Melodrama carves a shortcut to our hearts, bypassing our brains, and it’s what convinced millions of viewers that they were convinced by KONY 2012. From the Greek melos (music) and drān (to do, act, or perform), the word has historically referred to plays accompanied by a musical score. The music is meant to frame the action and either complement or supplement our understanding of what’s going on. The power of music to elicit a visceral, emotional response cannot be overstated. Every one of us has had a simple walk to the subway transformed into a purposeful opening-credits sequence for the day by a pair of earbuds, or a breakup magnified into the universe’s greatest and only tragedy courtesy of Adele. Years of semiotic education, of Looney Toons and Fantasia especially, have imbued us with a sort of synesthesia and music with unquestionable emotional significance. The scoring and soundtrack of the KONY video, along with the employment of other tropes, modern and ancient, override our natural skepticism.
Jane Shattuc, author of several important works on Pop Culture and Media Theory, explains that modern melodrama “takes a conflict and refines it to a simple triad: Victim, Victimizer, and Hero.” This, of course, serves to homogenize the experience for everyone. In real life, we each witness the same events and conflicts from a different angle and our brains use that input to generate a conclusion. It wouldn’t do for television writers to present things so three-dimensionally, though. What if we began to sympathize with Wile E. Coyote? What if they showed us the scenes where he hobbles back to his cave, empty handed, to tell his starving children that in this arid wasteland, he has failed once again in the hunt? Some of us would still vilify him, but some of us would turn against the Roadrunner who alternately taunts and mangles him. And then we’d stop enjoying the cartoon, and then we’d stop watching the cartoon. So they use semiotic cues, like a chorus of cellos in a minor key, to tell us that he’s the bad guy, and they only show us fractions of that fictional reality that support one predefined conclusion.
News outlets, of course, employ this technique as well. People on either side of a given conflict will unquestionably have different and equally legitimate takes on it, but national news creates a master narrative, often with a clear villain or scapegoat, to stabilize and manage the opinions of the public.
In an interview with CNN, Russell admitted, “Because of the zeitgeist of the culture and the world, we need an enemy. We need to know who the worst is,” which is a diplomatic, if inarticulate, way of saying an incredibly condescending thing. And it’s obvious that the KONY 2012 video utilizes this structure, outlining a clear triad. The Victim: African Children™. The Victimizer, conveniently pointed out by Wile E. Coyotesuqe musical cues (and in a thinly disguised simplification addressed to Jason Russell’s son Gavin but actually to the dumbest of us): Joseph Kony. And—here’s the genius bit—the Hero: you. Well, the hero is Jason Russell, but he needs your help, Player 1! It’s a gameification of the melodramatic triad—you can quantify your likes and shares and “track your impact in real time” using their website. It’s brilliant. It’s not even devious—not any more than any other marketing strategy, anyway. It’s just tailored to our preference for interactivity, and it’s dangerously effective.
What really kept Millenials engaged, though, was the barrage of Gen-Y-specific aesthetics and triggers. Invisible Children Inc. really knows their demographic. Most notable among these triggers were quotes from Shepard Fairey, pounding dubstep, inspiring technovangelism, and long tracking shots of our most sacred terrain—the Facebook feed. Remember, this twenty-nine minute video came from over 3,000 hours of footage taken over nine years. That means that they had to select less than .02 of a percent of the footage they took. Don’t for one moment doubt that every half-second of that video was meticulously chosen to achieve a desired effect. If a spatter of blood is shown, they meant to put it there—they decided consciously to put it there. By the same token, every second devoted to youth raising their fists in the air (which, incidentally, is a fine chunk of the twenty-nine minutes) is included at the exclusion of informational footage. And this is no accident.
In a New York Times piece on sex education, sex educator Al Vernacchio talks to his students about recognizing their “crumble lines,” which are “comments that play to your vulnerability and may make you act against your values.” For example, Vernacchio, who says he struggles with body-image issues, admits a weakness for people who compliment his appearance: “You say you think I’m pretty. I’ll do anything for you.”
Our generation, Generation Y, the Millenials, the Digital Natives—we absolutely yearn to feel significant. It’s our major crumble line. We watch footage from the sixties that shows the youth unified by common ideals, a common narrative, Vietnam and Woodstock and the Beatles, and lust for that sort of community and that sort of importance. We are thirsty for causes, desperate for a role in history. The reason we collectively orgasmed when we saw Across the Universe is that it depicted a generation with a sense of purpose. And then we see footage of riots in the Middle East, of the Egyptians—some no older than we are—participating in a revolution. We think, What they’re doing is important. What are we doing? That restlessness and longing for purpose — Millennial Ennui — makes us fetishize the idea of a revolution or a movement or a revolt.
KONY 2012 went right for that Achilles heel. It told us we had power and significance. It told us, perhaps rightly so, that we are living in an incredibly important time. It spat out phrases like “the world we are living in has new rules” and “governments are trying to keep up” and “older generations are concerned,” and we remembered with goose bumps the image of Matilda and her class chasing the draconian Trunchbull out of the school. Young people have power. Even if subconsciously, we thought about Harry Potter blowing up his pompous Aunt Marge. While appeals to the restlessness of youth are nothing novel, appeals to a yearning for generational identity affect us uniquely, because our penchant for retro-gazing and nostalgia, Instagram filters and 90’s Nickelodeon respectively, has left us without one of our own. When they told us “if we succeed, we change the course of human history,” it affected us in a way that no other generation could understand. That is exactly what we wanted to hear.
“And here’s how we’re going to do it.”
The ensuing montage of driving bass-music and young people wheat-pasting KONY 2012 posters under bridges, sometimes in the dead of night, thrills us for the same reason Fight Club thrills us and videos by internet activist group Anonymous thrill us (and in many cases why the Occupy movement thrills us): the subversive and seductive aesthetic of graffiti and street-art culture, of culture-jamming and adbusting—of breaking the rules.
The irony in their co-opting Shepard Fairey’s tri-color aesthetic is stark; Fairey earned notoriety for his OBEY experiment, which questioned and criticized brand ubiquity, propaganda, and advertising. Of course, OBEY has itself been converted into a brand with the motto “Manufacturing Quality Dissent Since 1989,” which is possibly a comment on—but more likely an example of—the commoditization of rebellion. Fairey then gained fame for creating the iconic HOPE posters for the Obama campaign. The Obama campaign is another fine example of people doing a good thing (I’m glad Obama was elected) for the wrong reasons. Obama was made into a brand—the rockstar candidate, Presidential Swagger™, and like the pasty, sweaty Nixon pitted against Kennedy’s hair on a televised debate, old man McCain didn’t stand a chance. These are no criteria by which to choose a president.
But these images of young people wearing KONY 2012 bracelets and “covering the night” with these murals and posters don’t need to be genuinely subversive—they still make us feel important. Invisible Children Inc. knows where our buttons are. When the sunshiny dance sequence starts, I want to throw my money at them, even as I’m watching it now. But that’s the same want that I felt after I watched Jungle 2 Jungle as a kid and ran off and made loin cloths and blowguns with my brother, or when you see kids stage-fighting after watching Transformers. It’s the same want I feel after watching a Coca-Cola commercial that frames the drink at a rooftop party. I don’t want a Coke; I hate Coke. I want to be invited to rooftop parties. KONY 2012 uses aesthetics and associations to hijack your empathy. There is no logic to it, and this makes it dangerous. It’s a back door to your brain.
It’s okay to let Angry Boys make you cry, or to momentarily believe that Celie in The Color Purple is a real person and feel her pain and hate her abuser, because these works admit they are fictions and, more importantly, they don’t ask anything of you. They are here simply to make you feel. But the minute you feel something being asked of you, you must step back. You must. Even from The Lorax you must step back. Strip away the music and the melodrama and consider what you’re being fed before you swallow it. It’s your responsibility to be a critical viewer. It’s easy to recognize when something complex is being represented in a reduced form, and it’s often easy to recognize the agenda. This doesn’t mean you have to reject it, it means you have to question it in the context of the real world and make your decision there, rather than while you’re immersed in the universe of the media. Because as it stands, Russell’s belittling remarks and Invisible Children Inc.’s insulting assumptions about what will move our society are true, and that leaves us in a terrifyingly vulnerable place.
This particular organization isn’t evil. Their status as a 24-karat charity is dubious, but they’re not Bad Guys™, if we’re subscribing to those terms. They are, in all probability, Good Guys™ (or at least Well-Intentioned Guys™). And they reached us, the youth of America, because they could afford to make an evocative little movie. The formula for manipulating Generation Y, they realized, is one part reductive and leading explanation, one part rousing music, and a heavy dose of appeals to our yearning for historical and cultural significance and a generational identity.
What happens when the Bad Guys™ make a movie? When they realize the power that the hive-mind of the internet and the restless, guilty, empathetic, cause-hungry, change-hungry youth of America have?
Here’s a thought experiment: what if the US government wanted, for some reason, to establish a presence in Uganda. Let’s say they found a secret oil…thing. The details are unimportant. The public would be suspicious if the US government suddenly changed their stance on intervention and sent troops in, and they learned their lesson from the public’s disapproval of their involvement in Iraq. So they create a video that positions us, that same public, as victorious rebels. The US government makes a video condemning the US government for not being interested in the cause, they take advantage of our youthful contrarianism and rebelliousness, and they’ve molded us like putty. They tell us what our interest is, they tell us what to demand of them, and when we demand it and they comply, we feel as though we’ve exercised some sort of power. This is why media literacy is so inexpressibly vital.
Ultimately, the most important images KONY 2012 are the ones they chose to devote the most time to: those images of American youth punching the air and taking to the streets. Because they channel the rage we feel at our own perceived helplessness as a generation. These images empower us. And it is here that I struggle to find fault, because although the video convinces us we can change things, unleashes our magnificent potential as a generation only to try to put a saddle on us and steer us towards their particular cause (genuine or otherwise), the effects of that first step have remained even in the wake of Jason Russell’s flub and the disillusioning testimony of people who actually know things about Uganda. We are not only talking about Uganda, we are talking about talking-about. Almost as quickly as support flared up for the campaign, it has receded, due in part to our generation’s characteristic apathy. But I urge everyone to suspend their cynicism and embarrassment and remember, rather than try to forget or belittle, what happened when everyone believed in KONY 2012.
We were all told to throw our weight against a mountain and when we did, it shuddered. Yes, we allowed our heartstrings to be used as marionette strings, but with a healthy amount of skepticism and basic media literacy, this can be avoided. (There is, after all, a crucial distinction between a mob and a movement.) More than we should lament how readily we obeyed a complete stranger (important though that lesson is), we should remember how it felt when that mountain trembled, and understand that the ossified structures around us which control what we see and what we’re allowed to do, when we are certain of which direction to push, may do more than shake.
But don’t take my word for it.