Last week perceptions of US democracy took a knock when Trump supporters occupied Capital Hill. From a storytelling perspective this could dissipate from mainstream public awareness, or it could go on to have a lasting impact, much like the Watergate scandal did in the 1970s. Right now it’s difficult to tell.
I’ve selected three American story types to represent a changing America, especially America’s changing perception of itself.
The Old American West
The Western (the story of the Old American West) is possibly America’s greatest, and first, story about itself.
Today people will see a glaring hole in the timeline of American storytelling, one where slavery and the slave owning society is completely unrepresented, because American storytelling skipped over this phase and went straight to the myth of the Cowboy and Indian.
The Western story is the frontier story, the wilderness trek, the ramshackle small town, one where European settlers come into conflict with the Native American Indian.
The story was a meme before internet memes existed. It was the genre of choice for countless pulp fiction novels, comics, TV shows, books, and films where outnumbered settlers fought off the barbaric Indian. The Western is a celebration of the heroic individual, the rugged individual, the American pioneer spirit.
The Western story is based on myth and legend, and frankly a whole lot of bullshit. The Cowboy was the good guy and the Indian was the bad guy. It was clear who the audience was supposed to identify with.
The settlers, the Cowboys, and the US Cavalry were making a safer and better world, not for the Indians (they were the bad guys so they didn’t matter).
The Western is a story about power and empire — the power to tell the story that Americans wanted to hear and believe about themselves. That they were the good guys, thus creating an empire of the mind, as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in De La Démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America), in 1835:
I consider the people of the United States as that portion of the English people which is commissioned to explore the wilds of the New World; whilst the rest of the nation, enjoying more leisure and less harassed by the drudgery of life, may devote its energies to thought, and enlarge in all directions the empire of the mind.
The Gangster Story
The second American story I’ve chosen is the gangster story. Like Cowboys and Indians, this story is also clearly defined by good and bad characters, in this case it’s Cops and Robbers. The gangster story featured in pulp fiction and ‘B’ movies, where tough talking men fought one another for control of the city. It wasn’t personal, it was business.
The gangster story is the story of free market Capitalism taken to an extreme. It’s deregulation paradise. It’s the story of family, of personal sacrifice, of loyalty, and of extreme violence in the pursuit of the American dream. ‘Get rich or die trying.’ The only things that matter in life are money, power, and status, and in the gangster story characters will do anything, risk anything, to get what they want.
This is a story about winners and losers. It’s about the deluded charisma of the fanatic, a central character’s mania for attaining riches beyond belief. And everyone is just a sucker. Unlike The Western it’s a less appealing vision of America. The action has moved from a vast landscapes and small towns, to an urban environment, the ruthless city. There’s little in the way of the noble hero here, but plenty of car chases and gunfights, and doomed romance.
The American Dystopia
As if the gangster story wasn’t enough, there’s the American dystopia (in the widest sense). In this story something’s gone wrong with the entire nation. Unlike the gangster story where the baddies might have a certain macho appeal, here the fabric of society itself is rotten.
The American dystopia has many versions of itself. There’s the conspiracy story where the government is lying to its people, pod people are being grown in the local farm, and the hero doesn’t know who to trust.
There’s the post-apocalypse story where the whole world has gone crazy and there isn’t much left to salvage. A lone hero or a small band of heroes struggles to maintain their humanity and restore a semblance of civilisation.
There’s the 1970s disaster movie where greed and incompetence has compromised basic safety. Impossibly tall buildings will burn, ships will capsize in the ocean, and dams will crack apart, and nuclear power stations will go into meltdown.
Government is ineffective at solving even the basic problems and the corporations are running out of control. There will be wide scale corruption, and a crazy religious cult will eventually take control.
It’s all going wrong in the American dystopia. But there are good people out there too, brave individuals, people who care, people who are attempting to make a difference. But, should they no longer exist, there will always be the superhero to save America.
What three American stories would you include?
What else could I have put in? The Film Noir detective story? Space opera? Something on a lighter note perhaps, like the musical or the romantic comedy? What do those stories say about America, and how it sees itself?
It’s interesting how as writers we like to believe that we’re bigger than events, at least theoretically, but really we’re just reflecting prevailing public desires and fears.