A couple days ago, my friend Scott blogged about the idea of the masterplot, or “stories that we [as a culture] tell over and over in myriad forms and that connect vitally with our deepest values, wishes, and fears.” Since reading his post, I’ve been keeping an eye out for masterplots that manifest themselves in cultural artifacts (ie. books, films, etc.) and just thinking about masterplots in general.
I was watching Aladdin last night and recognized a masterplot that is prevalent in so many films, serious and silly alike: the person who isn’t who they say they are.
Aladdin is a poor “street rat” who constantly gets into trouble with the law for stealing the food he needs to survive. He falls in love with Jasmine, the princess of Agrabah, and realizes that he has no chance with her because by law she can only marry a prince. Luckily, he comes upon a magic lamp, and promptly wishes to be a prince so that he can try to marry Jasmine. Both hilarity and trouble ensue, mostly as a result of his not being up front with Jasmine about who he really is. But in the end, as tends to happen in Disney movies, everything works out: Jasmine forgives Aladdin for lying, and the sultan changes the law so that they can marry.
What does this masterplot mean in the context of our values, hopes and fears? I think it suggests that we fear being rejected, and that we hope that the people we love will accept us without condition when they are exposed to our true self, no matter how unappealing it may be. I think a story like Aladdin speaks more to our sense of wish fulfillment than it does to reality, simply because this masterplot assumes that the person who isn’t who they say they are a) has good intentions and b) is actually a good person on the inside. It also assumes that pretending to be someone you aren’t doesn’t have that negative of an impact on a significant other or the other person involved; this made me think about stories in which people that hide who they are do so carelessly if not maliciously, and who end up destroying the lives of their significant others. The film An Education and the Showtime series Dexter immediately came to mind.
In An Education, 16-year-old Jenny (played brilliantly by Carey Mulligan) is pushed by her parents to get good marks so that she can attend university at Oxford. When she meets the much older David, he introduces her to a world she has never experienced, a world of adventure and romance and spontaneity that makes her school life look dull in comparison. David, with the encouragement and blessing of Jenny’s parents, asks Jenny to marry him, and Jenny promptly drops out of school in favor of being a wifey. What she doesn’t know (spoiler alert) is that David is actually already married. When she finds out and confronts him about it, he disappears from her life all together.
As a character, David is incredibly charming and seductive, even to Jenny’s stickler parents. He portrays himself as someone he isn’t to Jenny’s parents so that they’ll trust him, and then Jenny is surprised when he hasn’t been completely honest with her about who he is. The thing that is so awful about this story, and about this masterplot in general, is David’s abuse of Jenny’s trust in him. His intentions were dishonorable because he wanted to maintain two separate lives with two different women, and his deception derails everything that Jenny has worked for in school; he lets her drop out of school, knowing that she won’t be able to re-enter, to partake in an illusion that he has masterfully created. In this story, David hides who he is because Jenny wouldn’t want to be with him if she knew she was his mistress. No good intentions, no upstanding person underneath, no harmless aftermath. Just an asshole who wants to have his cake and eat it too, without caring about whose life is affected.
On Dexter, Dexter Morgan is a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Police Department by day, and a vigilante serial killer who kills other murderers by night. Obviously he has to hide his identity so as not to be found out by the police, but he works hard to maintain the appearance of an Average Joe, complete with wife and kids. His wife, Rita, has no idea of his double life; she just thinks that he works a lot.
Dexter hiding who he is from Rita makes sense: he is afraid that she would be horrified by who he is, by the fact that he kills people. And justifiably so; if I found out my husband was a serial killer, I would run for the hills. Whether Dexter is a good person or not is debatable (though I think he’s a decent, and even loveable, guy), but his intentions are two-fold: he hides to protect himself but also to protect Rita and his family. He wants to have a normal life but he also wants to be able to continue killing; another case of having his cake and eating it too. Dexter is a meticulous killer and always covers his tracks, and this makes him think that he is somehow above getting caught. The lie of the double life, however, catches up with Dexter when one of his serial killer nemeses, The Trinity Killer, decides to kill Rita, shortly before Dexter kills him. Poor, poor Rita. Dexter put her at risk because of his “hobby,” and Rita didn’t even know that she was at risk or know to be careful of her husband’s murderous rivals. Obviously this is fiction, but there are lots of people in the world who choose to do evil things like kill people, putting their family at risk and leaving them open to psychological turmoil and social scrutiny when they do get caught.
I find this all really depressing, because it just affirms my suspicion that it’s damn near impossible to actually know a person. All we can know is what we see and what the other person wants us to see.
Maybe instead of having a masterplot that tells us it’s okay to lie about who we are as long as the ends justify the means, we should have a masterplot that tells us to be honest about who we are, to strive to be good people, to place self-acceptance above the acceptance of others and to love ourselves so that if we are honest about who we are and end up being rejected, that we can bounce back and feel like we are still valuable in the absence of outside acceptance. Maybe that’s too vague or idealistic, but I feel like masterplots in general are both vague and idealistic.