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  • Writer's pictureBrianna Tibbetts

Viewing Complexity

The other night, my family and I sat down to watch a film called The Song. It was about a musician who turned away from his marriage and family due to the temptations being in the spotlight afforded him. Ultimately the film follows his journey through recovery and returning to his family, but not before Jed, the main character, goes through some pretty significant struggles.

The film itself was well done and followed a set of storytelling parameters that were evident to anyone with a familiarity with the Bible. However, I took away from the film something that didn't have much to do with the story at all. One of the temptations that Jed faces in the film is in the form of his opening act, a woman named Shelby. She's far more free with her beliefs and her morals, and tempts him away from his wife. Shelby is one of the major stumbles in Jed's walk, and exists within the film primarily to play the adulterous woman. Most viewers of the film wouldn't see anything past the danger she posed to the main character. To most viewers of the film, Shelby was a trope. She was an adulterous woman, but nothing else.

Now, in terms of the way The Song was constructed, there's not really anything wrong with viewing Shelby as a trope. The whole film was constructed with tropes, and spoken Bible verses as narration ensure that viewers see everything in a specific way.

The reason I took issue with reducing Shelby to a trope, no matter how accurate and reasonable it was to do so, was because we as humans have a tendency to reduce everyone to a trope. Shelby, though created to be the adulterous woman, was also a massively talented violinist. She must have trained for years, meaning that she's dedicated and passionate. She was lonely, scared, jealous, and working towards a goal she thought was good based on her own definition of morality. There was a lot more to Shelby than just her adultery.

I had already been thinking about this very topic recently. In God's Not Dead 2, a Christian juror who helps sway the vote in the depicted court case is initially presented as a punk rock young woman. Her appearance was clearly designed in order to subvert expectations when she's revealed to be a believer. I actually found it a little annoying, because the implication was that audiences would assume this punk rock young woman with the dyed hair and the piercings wasn't saved. She would be immediately contained within a box, then the box would be broken when her faith was revealed. It was an interesting twist, but the assumption that led to it bothered me.

We often look at people and place them into very specific boxes. Whether it's based on their jobs, skin colour, hair colour, piercings, tattoos, accents, or any number of other things. We're programmed to do this with characters in many films and television shows, because simple tropes are a way of allowing the audience to learn the primary cast of characters quickly. It's not always bad, but it can be a product of lazy writing. The majority of the programs I enjoy put a heavy focus on character development, encouraging audiences to imagine those characters complexly.

If good writing results in imagining characters complexly, then why is God's outstanding writing of our very DNA not cause to imagine humanity complexly? People are more than your assumptions of them. Every single person has an entire life full of motivation, struggle, and goals that you may never even see. Remembering that those lives are there is just the first step to imagining everyone as more than what you see.

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