As I was chasing down inspiration for my pen and paper doll RPG, I came across “Monster High dolls that seemed very interesting. They conform to a beauty standard that is frankly absurd, but they also bring out the monster in us. That – together with a talk I held recently at Södertörns Högskola and at work – got me thinking.
I’ve written about the grotesque and the mishappen before, but that was in a different context. What I’m about to talk about in this text is our inability or unwillingness to see “evil” in the same context as “normal” or “beautiful”*. By “evil” I of course mean those morally and ethically despicable acts that no human being should be allowed to perform – but still does.
The vilification of men like Josef Fritzl and Adolf Hitler turn them into men that are almost beyond human. Their deeds so evil that no one can really comprehend that a person that evil is even a person. We do this to “other” them, make them exceptions for the human race, because after all, if they are capable of such evil, doesn’t that mean that we are too? You and me. The truth is of course that no one is exempt from the potential to do evil, nor is anyone exempt from the potential to do good.
But we’re also trying, which Monster High is a good example of, to tame the monsters of our subconscious by making them pretty. Just like Edward, the monster has been prettified and made possible to handle. A tame monster is after all a lot easier to sympathize with.
I think this quest to de-claw our monsters was started somewhere around Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire and then revived with Dexter – a serial killer tamed. Someone who kills killers and tries to live a normal life in between. Pull his teeth out, make him less of a monster. Because surely, a killer who kills other killers must be much better than a killer who kills innocents?
The moral grayscaling is interesting to me. Dexter becomes a vigilante rather than a villain and viligantes are uncomfortable, sort of, but not as bad as pure, evil monsters.
I can see a similar process with the distinction between “good” and “bad” monsters in literature and other media such as games. A “good” monster is almost always handsome or beautiful or – as in Monster High – cute. I think this is connected to our wish to look at beautiful people as good, and ugly people as evil. This tendency we have to use our first impression to judge someone in the first twenty seconds based on looks is somewhat unfortunate, since these impressions are not always correct or less than ideal. But in popular culture we have the option to twist the world to suit our own purposes, and one such twist is to make beautiful monsters good and evil monsters ugly. This means that books like Twilight are propagating a visual stereotype that is frankly kind of boring. The same goes for video games and role-playing games. The bigger and more grotesque the opponent, the more evil it is.
This is, of course, an attempt at readability. The player will recognize the grotesque brute for what it is immediately. Evil and powerful. And the reader of Twilight will recognize Edward for what he is straight away as well. A good vampire, battling his bestial nature. Also, he sparkles.
This is a dangerous – not to mention boring – assumption, that we believe that we can “see” evil in a person just by looking at them. And yet we do. When patriarchs such as Josef Fritzl get discovered, a common cry of “why” and “how” goes out, because we just can’t believe the evil done. The same thing happened with Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Surely such a nice boy…
Our intuition and reliance on stereotypes occasionally put us in danger.
And our need for readability make for morally and visually simplistic games, games that have no grayscale, just obviousness and black and white.
Unless the villain is a woman. Female villains can be beautiful, but in those cases they are almost exclusively manipulative and uses their sexuality to conquer the hero. In any case – the way we function as human beings is fascinating. We need the othering process to build our own identity, to create a divide between us and our enemies. But we also believe that our baser natures can be tamed and prettified.
Personally I prefer greyscales. I prefer 30 Days of Night, Dracula and the world between dark and light, but where the monsters are real monsters and the heroes are tarnished and human. Makes for better drama.