Whatever happened to the rebel?

Where do you find the rebel in a world where James Dean travels around on a postage stamp? Or when he’s a corporate CEO sporting a $4,800 leather jacket out for a ride on his Harley 1)see James Dean Transfigured: The Many Faces of Rebel Iconography by Claudia Springer? Or for that matter, the president of a major country, like Vlad “Bad Boy” Putin tearing around Moscow? Or those almighty iconoclasts in Silicon Valley sporting designer jeans and turtlenecks?

Where oh where does one look for the non-conformist when the very idea has been infinitely co-opted by those in power? Or even by brands, for that matter. Yes, don’t take it from me–a mere nobody–highly paid brand consultants will tell you that brands are indeed becoming more like people. Honest, just google that if you don’t believe me. Jungian archetypes have done more for modern advertising than Madison Avenue. It wasn’t enough for Disney to ravage our most beloved fairy tales years ago, our entire collective unconscious as handed down from the very dawn of time must (and has) become one with the empire.

Now go and google the search phrase “12 Master Archetypes” this very minute. You’ll see what I mean. All the brand strategists are selling the same pie, man. Did you know that Honda is the outlaw? So is Virgin. Forget the contradiction; just synthesize: virgin outlaw. You’ve heard of virgin queen? or virgin warrior? yeah, diggit.

So, if the rebel has become a harley-riding CEO or a car company, what then? What happens to the concept behind the word when it’s appropriated and applied to something that turns it into a paradox–or, more precisely, a lie? How to reconcile the disparity? Despite my attempt at humor, it’s a serious question. For this type of trickery has been repeated countless times for countless brands with respect to virtually all of the Jungian archetypes.

When the king takes for himself the mantle of outlaw, he’s effectively denying the rest of us the ability to articulate our opposition to his rule. The outlaw represents liberation. But when control and liberation are united, a void is created and something very crucial to their very identity is denied to those under the ruler’s control. Consequently, those who would challenge the king are stripped of legitimacy. At best, they can only be considered outsiders–assuming they’re to be acknowledged at all. The only legitimate opposition allowed under this type of structure is another, equally or more powerful, king.

Let’s put this in cinematic terms to illustrate the point: Once upon a time, there used to be a stranger who would ride into town from out of nowhere and, though he just wanted to make a nice life for himself and live peaceably among his peers, he’d often have to confront and, ultimately, overthrow, the ruthless powers in charge. Alan Ladd, Henry Fonda, and Jimmy Stewart all come to mind. But nowadays there are precious few instances of this in the pure form as expressed in movies like Shane. The true outsider nowadays is often depicted as some kind of loser instead of a potential hero.

Contrast this with today’s hero who’s almost always the insider. The Harvard educated or CIA-trained, for example. Gone are the days of Jim Rockford, the one-time con turned PI. Somehow the leading dude (or dudette) is almost always closely affiliated with the status-quo. Possibly–in extreme cases of Hollywood unorthodoxy–the hero might be one who had been dismissed from otherwise distinguished service by some stiff of a boss who had been nursing a long-standing envious grudge.

It’s also important to note the iconography of the gun or weapon. The gun is especially pervasive in American cinema. According to a Google search on 10/8/2015, of the 50 most mentioned movies in 2015, almost 40% featured someone wielding a gun or weapon in the advertising images. This doesn’t include those advertisements that didn’t contain  weapons outright but displayed violence in some form, such as in the form of explosions and fire.

The gun, as it’s portrayed in many movies today, is a symbol of potency. It doesn’t just bestow power it symbolizes it in much the same way as the scepter. Furthermore, like any weapon the gun cuts both ways. In the hands of the hero, it’s a symbol of good, while in the hands of his adversary, it expresses hatred and evil. In any event, like Merlin’s staff (or the genie in the bottle) the gun is a transformative instrument. It has the power to shape (or reshape) reality in accordance to the subject’s desires. No matter what the problem is–be it big or small–the gun or its equivalent–is the solution, and the one who wields it is what the action and story centers on. The gun, quite literally, is the center around which so much of Hollywood revolves. It is the light in day as well as the dark in night.

Little wonder, then, that out in the real world far from the City of Angels many Americans, including our children–to whom so much marketing and media is directed–should be so drawn to the icon of the gun. In an age of so much uncertainty, what simplicity and utter clarity the gun brings to the table. In an age when the little guy (especially the outsider) is powerless, without voice, and devoid even of his archetypes (thanks to the gluttony of the powerful), the gun is a kind of salvation. For it makes the powerless powerful and gives respect to the disrespected. But this condition is the heavy price of the gangster mentality: when the powerful deprive the weak of virtue, recourse must ultimately lead to force.

The gun’s power of attraction is perhaps why Hollywood has had such a love affair with Don Corleone and his many stand-ins for so many years. And what a faithful and dutiful mistress she’s been! Frank Lucas, Tony Soprano, good ole Nucky, and on and on. Just line ’em up. What distinguishes these men from two-bit street thugs is primarily the fact that they command an army of other gun waving thugs. Again, the ethic of the insider is paramount here. Like the headhunters of times past (or Napoleon), the more you kill, the more powerful you become.

Hollywood also loves a sharp dressed man, and Hollywood gangsters are often well attired and good looking. To Hollywood, there is often nothing more alluring than a gorgeous guy or gal, well dressed, brandishing a gun in one hand, and sipping a martini (shaken, not stirred) in the other. Unless, of of course, you’re a corporate CEO and about to hop onto your Harley for a cruise around town. And you know, Silicon Valley or no, he’s either packing heat or sometimes pretending to as he roars past those dolts in the Civic. Go, dude, go, you’ve got the power!

It’s totally schizophrenic when the news media protests with shock and dismay every time some kid decides he’s had enough shit and picks up a gun. Why, why, they ask, beating their breasts (as the ratings begin to soar). He must be crazy. Needs meds…or a girl. Poor, evil, sick schmuck.

Sure, maybe he’s alone and alienated, like the highly paid newscasters (i.e., insiders) like to scoff. Maybe even awkward (or is it just Asperger’s?) and a downright outcast. But look at his clothes, man! Only a turd would wear such a gettup. A dead giveaway he’s a loser and that he has no right to own a gun. Black trench coats, c’mon! Looks like he just came out of some 1970’s porno theater in Times Square. A true outsider, if there ever was one.

(You don’t like fresh talk like this, now do you? Sorry to offend. But it was necessary to get some points across quickly or this thing would have gone on for another 1500 words!)

If only those alienated outsiders had some other archetypes with which to identify, they might have known that it is ok to be lonely. Once long ago in a place far, far away, there were people who recognized that this was normal. That it is human to have faults or to be different. That not everyone can or should be beautiful and smart and perfect. That being human is not the same as being a picture on the cover of a magazine with photoshopped eyes. Then again when one is ignored, has no voice, and made to feel like they do not exist, it shouldn’t be too surprising that some of the more vulnerable will succumb to the allure of the magical rod that can change it all in an instant.

How ironic it is that, in this day of mass technology, when we’re steeped in images and much of our lives have been turned into cheap irony for late night laughs, that our leaders are so incredulous over a question the answer to which should be readily apparent. Perhaps if more of us were imbued with the knowledge that the myths and fairy tales of old made available, this would not be the case. We might still have a better framework that we (including our children) could employ to better interpret the world around us. Joseph Campbell recognized this problem decades ago and wrote about it at length.

This societal handicap is best illustrated by the inability of many to understand metaphor. How popular literal interpretations of the bible have become, to give just one example! and how quick politicians and the news media are to reduce thoughtful deliberation to sound bytes. The insider knows that in the world of media form wins out over substance every time. Yet isn’t the chaos in the Middle East a result of this type of black and white reductionist thinking? What childlike belief in easy answers we’ve developed! I can remember well the dark days after 9/11: “Smoke ’em out!” the radio and TV kept saying, over and over. “Kick down the doors and shoot ’em!” As if summoning old Ronnie boy himself, rising from the grave saddled on his great, white steed holding aloft the sword of righteousness.

What a Pandora’s Box this type of thinking opened up.

There are signs all around us. It is irony of almost boundless proportions to think that with so much information available so many of us fail to see them. Sometimes the most vulnerable, like the young or insane, are more subject to the consequences of our collective actions and are like a lightning rod for the external forces pervading society that many of us in more secure positions do not so readily feel. The closer one is to the inside–to the power elite–the less likely one will be critical of the status-quo (the very tit on which they so earnestly suckle).

What a pity that the king turned our myths and fairy tales to gold with his cold, dead touch. Perhaps some of these mass shooters would have had a better chance to understand things as they really are, if he had resisted the temptation and left them alone. But now that the shooter, alone and crazy, has turned the gun on the power structure and media, as was literally demonstrated a couple of weeks ago, in an on-air shooting of a reporter and cameraman, maybe there will be more inclination within the king’s inner circle to not reduce the world to the vapid, cynical plot line that it has become. As the future gradually unfolds, we will see whether clear thinking prevails over greed and the eternal quest for ratings and profits.

Too bad for us all that the line between fiction and reality started to blur long ago at the dawn of the television age. The brand is dead! Long live the brand!

References   [ + ]

1. see James Dean Transfigured: The Many Faces of Rebel Iconography by Claudia Springer

Author: Jesse Roche

An original thinker, Jesse enjoys writing, asking questions, and creating things. Greatly concerned with the deteriorating condition of public dialogue in the U.S., Jesse started ModernFolktales.com in 2006. He posts essays there in his spare time about topics linked to major forces that are impacting society and require more analysis than they typically receive in the mass media. The modern monster is a focus of some of these essays and represents a developing body of thought about its place in American society and the role it serves. Jesse is currently working on a book.

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