I watch a lot of TV with my four-year old daughter—mostly her pick, but every once in awhile she let’s me watch one of my shows. When she sees a character that seems particularly menacing she’ll ask, “Is that the bad guy?” Sometimes my answer comes easily, but more often it’s nuanced. By the time I finish contextualizing my convoluted response she’s lost interest. Or better yet, she’ll simply repeat the question, “Is that the bad guy?” to which I’ll respond, “Yes, that’s the bad guy.” Her world is fairly black and white. I wish it were that easy.
During the Arab Spring, the wave of revolts that swept across much of the Middle East, and the uncertainty of it all, had us asking questions about who’s good and who’s bad. The establishment was bad, but the rebels could be worse. When I heard about the revolts in Libya surrounding Muammar Gaddafi my mind began to trace neural pathways back to childhood reference points. Gaddafi with his Miami-Vice, dictator-chic wardrobe was placed on a shelf alongside The Hamburgler, Gorbachev, Peewee Herman and other bad guys from my early consciousness (not to mention the Showbiz Pizza house-band with that huge Gorilla keyboardist). And now, here was Libya and Gaddafi back in the news; his staying power was impressive.
Bad guys are generally trendy—here today and gone tomorrow. An examination of American art, design and film give evidence of who we perceive as being bad at any given time. These media forms are invaluable in turning the hearts and minds of the people. Visual art emotes the ravages of war, design in its didactic form can propagandize against the enemy, and film has a way of giving flesh to our worst fears and suspicions of the other.
Even a non-agenda, mainstream film such as Spielberg’s Back to the Future (1985), in a seemingly innocuous manner, provides a brief allusion to the geo-political climate and American foreign policy of the mid-1980s. As you may recall Professor Doc Brown absconded with some plutonium—capable of producing the necessary 1.21 gigawatts needed for time travel—from the none other than “The Libyans!”
As the times change so do our bad guys—from the redcoats, to the yankees or the rebels, to the Nazis. In the fifties it was the commies, and I suppose now it’s “the terrorists”, whoever or wherever they may be at any given time. The beauty of the cold war was that the U.S. found in the Soviet Union a formidable foe—both super powers, both in a race to space, both palpable forces with real resources, geography, weapons, and vastly different ways of doing things. It was a simpler time—Americans good. Commies bad. I wish it were that easy.
Over time the bad guys either turn good or obsolesce into historical oblivion. The bad guy may change, but one thing remains the same—there will always be bad guys. We need them… if for nothing else, to make ourselves feel good.
For more on the “bad guys” I recommend listening to an interview with Anne Applebaum, author of Iron Curtain, hosted by NPR’s Terri Gross. link: Crushing Eastern Europe Behind the Iron Curtain