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Monday, November 15, 2010

Living in Twilight

This past summer, while visiting Milwaukee, my wife and I had a chance to see a touring production of the musical Wicked. Wicked tells the back-story of the Wicked Witch of the West, a character from Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland. The musical, however, has a lot of fun deconstructing the character we know from these two earlier sources. In Wicked, the Wicked Witch of the West is, not evil, but misunderstood. Indeed, she even turns out to be the heroine that helps save Oz from the truly wicked designs of the not-so-benign Wizard.

Wicked’s Wicked Witch is just one example of a troubling phenomenon that has arisen in popular entertainment over the past several years: that of a traditionally “wicked” character playing the role of the hero or heroine.

One of the most popular instances of the phenomenon is Fox’s series, House, where we have a misanthrope who also happens to be a genius clinical diagnostician. But Greg House’s issues are nothing compared to the character of Dexter in the eponymous Showtime series. For in Dexter we have a serial killer—yes, a serial killer—serving as the hero of a police procedural (Dexter is good enough only to kill other killers).

Then there is the recent tsunami of middle grade and young adult novels, as well as movies and television shows, in which vampires serve as heroes and heroines—whether in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, Heather Brewer’s Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, or in the HBO series, True Blood.

Notice that the “heroes” and “heroines” on this list are not merely characters with flaws. No, they are witches, vampires, misanthropes, and serial killers, characters that have traditionally been associated with unmitigated evil, but which are now more associated with good than with evil. What these characters disturbingly represent is the thought there is no such thing as good and evil—there is only a space between, a world of neither dark nor light but of “twilight” (as Stephenie Meyer would have it). In such a twilit world, even a vampire who wants to suck the life out of you, even a witch who torments a kid from Kansas, can be the instrument of salvation.

What does it say about the state of our popular culture, when not even the vampire can be named as evil, and when good is always a compromise with—not an overcoming of—that which is most despicable in human behavior?

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