Superversive Blog: The Needs of Drama vs. The Needs of Culture

Subversive Literary Movement

Sing O' Goddes of the Eternal Tug of War between Hestia and the Muses!

Of the constant struggle between the efforts to entertain and the efforts to spread a message. In particular, today, this manifests as the divide between what people say life should be like and the way life appears in stories and TV shows. The Sad Puppies: the Saddening and Rabid Puppies: the Enfoaming Hugo Slates, which many of us are following, are a volley in this struggle. 

One of the great needs in dealing with these matters is: the need for proper terms to discuss what is occurring around us. Without proper terms, it is easy to be bamboozled by folks who want to pretend that their way is the only way. Introducing terminology helps make distinctions and aids in clarifying one's position.

To that end, I would like to introduce the concept of the terms "The needs of culture" and "the needs of drama."  

The below is an excerpt from my essay "Dating The Monsters: Why It Takes A Vampire Or A Wereguy To Win The Heart Of The Modern It Girl" which appears in the Benbella anthology Ardeur.  (An anthology about the Anita Blake books in which you can see yours truly slammed by Laurell K. Hamilton for being a romantic. ;-)  

I offer it as an introduction to the idea of the Needs of Drama and the Needs of Culture, which I hope to return to in later essays.


Anita Blake

                             A series that went from serving the needs of drama but not of                      traditional culture–to serving the needs of modern culture, but not of drama.


Throughout history, a tug of war has existed between the desire to use stories to teach and the desire for them to entertain. At times, such the Middle Ages with its passion plays, teaching has won out completely. [Or so I thought when I first wrote this. I recently found out that there was a lot more to passion plays than I had realized!]

Other times, such as in Shakespeare’s age, entertainment triumphed. (It is amusing to look back and recall that Shakespeare’s plays, which so many children dread reading in English Class today, were written as pure entertainment for the masses!)

The desire to use stories to teach, I shall call: “the Needs of Culture.” Proponents of this are hoping to use the medium of entertainment to lead people to make the choices necessary for a moral, law abiding society. Such societies are great to live in – not fearing that you are going to be car jacked or molested really makes a person’s day! And if we could make our children truthful, upright, and brave through examples in literature, that would be a very gratifying indeed!

The problem is that, most of the time, the more wonderful a culture is to live in, the less interesting it is to read about. A really fine writer can make anything interesting, but few writers achieve this pinnacle of brilliance. It takes a superb writer to make the process of painting a landscape interesting to an outsider. It only takes a writer of ordinary skill to bring excitement to a chase scene with a thief and the Company assassin on ski mobiles in the midst of the Winter Olympics.

In TV entertainment today, the needs of drama often outweigh the needs of culture. We would like to teach our children to be peaceful and chaste, but violence and sex sell. They draw readers. But this does not keep those who would be the guardians of culture for criticizing our entertainment for the places where it falls short of the demands of culture.


So What Are These Needs of Culture?

What are the values those favoring improving the culture wish to put across? Currently, they fall into two categories: traditional cultural values and modern cultural values.

Traditional culture covers the kind of thing listed in the Ten Commandments or the Boy Scout’s Law. It wants people to be honest, upright, brave, clean, etc. The needs of traditional culture require that good guys be upright, bad guys always get their comeuppance, and that the line between the two remain crisply defined.

Modern culture, too, has needs, things it wants drama to portray as good and to encourage in its audience. This desire is so prevalent in our society that it has its own name: Political Correctness. Races must get along. All people, regardless of rank or birth, must be treated as equals. The old taboos are to be laid to rest, no one needs them any more. Nobility and grandeur are to be sneered at, and women must be the equal of men—or better.


What About The Needs of Drama?

The needs of drama are quite different from those of culture. They are ruled by the desire to entertain. Whatever enthralls the audience most, that is what drama requires. Unfortunately for those who would use stories to teach cultural mores, what makes a story entertaining is often directly at odds with what is good or virtuous or politically correct.

Drama is about conflict. It is about breaking taboos, the more shocking the better! Thieves, prostitutes, gamblers, alcoholics, adulterers – all the things that traditional culture does not wish to glamorize make for entrancing drama. But it is not just traditional culture that get trampled. Bigots, class struggles, and inequality among the sexes also makes for excellent storytelling!

Are the people who fear the effect of drama on society starting at shadows? Perhaps, not. Shock value is temporary. The moment you have seen a few stories that violate a particular taboo, that tension becomes old hat. Nobody cares any more. There is no sense of surprise. People do not care if they see the same thing in another movie. They start thinking of that particular behavior as normal, or, at least, as a part of reality that must be endured.

So, those who wish they could guard culture by controlling drama do have a strong argument on their side. But they cannot change the facts; a story that explores boundaries, breaks taboos, is often a better story than one that does not.  

Of course, these categories are only generalizations. The same story can serve both forces at different times or support some cultural values while chipping away at others.


This is the end of my excerpt. More to come on this topic in later weeks!