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The Value of "Depressing" Fiction

Updated on February 14, 2017

The terms "comedy" and "tragedy" come to us from ancient Greek theater. The idea was that tragedy would create a serious mood and make people think about important things like war and death, and scare them into obeying the rules of society, especially when it came to religious reverence for the gods. Following a tragedy, a comedy play involving a happy ending and less violence would come, lightening the mood darkened by the tragedy. Thus, the Greeks recognized the importance of both for a 'balanced diet' of both types of fiction.

But I feel like modern American culture has strayed from that ideal too much, making movies that are pretty much always happy in the end, where problems are easily fixed in 20 minutes or 2 hours depending on format. There are good reasons for this. America is one of the most optimistic nations on Earth, founded on ideals and principles rather than on an ethnic identity. And this optimism has allowed Americans to become greatly successful at many things. But the downside of our culture, compared to others in the past, is that we don't tend to see the value in tragic stories. It seems that exceptions to this rule like Game of Thrones might be a push back against this overly cheery sentiment in our culture, and that's a good thing.

Why? Why have a story that deals with pain, suffering, loss, and sadness? Here are my 3 reasons.

1. Chicken Soup for the Amygdala

As a person suffering from PTSD (I'm up right now writing this at 5:20 am because I had a recurring, severe nightmare and couldn't fall back asleep), mild social anxiety, and chronic depression, I sometimes ask myself why my favorite anime, books, and songs are often so sad. Wouldn't it be better for me, I wonder, if I consumed "healthy", joyful stuff about heroes who succeed, instead of dwelling endlessly on stories like Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Neon Genesis Evangelion and the like? Would I cure myself if I only watched shows like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic?

I don't think so. The reason I watch shows like Puella Magi Madoka Magica is because I experienced a lot of pain during adolescence myself. Maybe not exactly what the PMMM crowd faced, with a talking gerbil or whatever tricking them into signing their souls away, but what they all went through resonated with things I had. Kyoko sacrificed everything for a father who later turned on her and her family, and that reminded me of my abusive step-dad, who started out seeming perfectly nice. Sayaka makes her wish to help a boy, but is crushed and devastated when he doesn't return her feelings for him, and goes out with her best friend instead. I think it's safe to say we've all been in a similar situation at some point, doing something that takes a lot of effort and time in the hopes that you'll be rewarded by the person you like liking you back, only to have that not happen. In Puella Magi Madoka Magica, there is a distant happy ending (but you could have an endless debate of how happy it is, it's more of a bittersweet ending), but Kyoko, Sayaka, and Mami still cannot avoid their tragic ends, and Homura sees Madoka become a god-like being embodying hope, but that means she has to let go of Madoka the person forever. Goddesses have a bit too much on their schedules to be friends or more with humans. Lots of hair appointments. Anyway, through Homura's eyes we see a lot of suffering and pain, because she has to experience the same month over and over again until she is able to save Madoka. That usually means, despite her best efforts, she will not be able to save Mami, Kyoko, or Sayaka from their fates. And sometimes, her efforts to do so only make everything worse.

So, what I'm saying is, depressed people like me tend to like "depressing" things, because for us they resonate with our own experiences with negative emotions. It's comforting to watch or listen to or read something and understand right away that the author had a life that was just as much fraught with trouble as ours have been. One reason I like art so much, for example, is that many artists have used painting or other media as a way of expressing their emotional pain, and that pain can resonate with the viewer's experiences, even hundreds of years later.

There's good catnip and then there's REALLY good catnip.
There's good catnip and then there's REALLY good catnip.

2. Cure for Entitlement

Anyone over 35 probably thinks something along the somewhat cliche lines of "kids these days are so spoiled and lazy". Well, people have always been saying that. But it is true that young people today are displaying signs of narcissism at a higher rate. People have blamed lots of things, but I think many factors are at work here simultaneously. But one is definitely that fiction, especially for children, got lighter and softer over the years. Parents pushed for intellectual, sensitive stories that taught lessons about teamwork and problem solving, as opposed to the "junk" cartoons of yore that they insisted would rot kids' brains. Events like the Columbine shooting and later school shootings convinced many people that kids should not be exposed to violent media or overly angry messages like those found in rap music, subversive shock comedy, grunge, metal, video games, etc. Suddenly, people who put out anything aimed at young adults were pressured into being more sunny, which effectively ended grunge and created a demand for cheesy, upbeat dance-pop hits, so music went 'disco-y' again. Ugh.

Except there are problems with showing kids only the sunny side of things. For my sisters (aged 10 and 11), I often find it more valuable to have them watch movies like The Princess Bride and The Labyrinth with me than like 90% of what's made for old kids/young teenagers these days. Because they're afraid to show too much violence, or even sorrow and disappointment, stuff that's being made today, especially for the younger demographic, never really challenges its protagonists that much. For example, compare The Labyrinth to The Hunger Games. Sure, Katniss has a rough life (well, so does everyone in that world who isn't living in the Capitol, and even some of them have it tough too), but she skates through the titular hunger games, overcoming most of her challenges by convenient luck, by other people working to her benefit. In The Labyrinth, Sarah has to work hard and struggle with many frustrating challenges on her own before convincing some of the denizens of the labyrinth to help her out, which takes a long time and is met with initial resistance. So kids now never really learn as much about struggle and perseverance. And this problem with YA fiction is what I think is causing the youth narcissism epidemic, in a nutshell.

3. Beauty and the Bleak

The main purpose of tragedy is to see higher meaning and beauty in suffering. The aforementioned visual arts are full of this, and so are books, plays, movies, TV series, and so on. Anyone can help us appreciate something already beautiful, like a picturesque, sunny landscape. But it takes a special sort of artistic skill to help people appreciate the beauty in say, an old woman, a dead tree, a dull apartment building, a war, etc. That's what I like about the hit web video series Salad Fingers, for example, because it takes things that are twisted, gory, and bleak, and turns them into a story people find fascinating and compelling anyway.

In that way, finding the beauty in suffering is a way to build resilience, but also compassion, by developing our ability to empathize with the pain of others. Empathy is like a muscle that must be exercised. It's not exercised when we watch something with an obvious hero who acts like a saint, not to pick on it, but again, like The Hunger Games. What's hard is to empathize with a morally ambiguous protagonist, or a character with flaws and unlikable characteristics, like Shinji from Evangelion. So watching tragic shows, or anything with a villain protagonist, anti-hero protagonist, or tragic hero is better than watching something with an obvious good guy. That's one of the reasons Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of my favorite Disney movies, for example. It has a main character who's good on the inside, but ugly on the outside, paired with a villain who's accepted as a good person by society outwardly, but is evil on the inside. With this extra layer of complexity to the story, we're being challenged to empathize with the protagonist and the villain, instead of having someone we automatically know we're going to be rooting for without question.

Thus, as tragedy challenges to see the beautiful in people and situations and places that are highly flawed or sad, it builds up our ability to see the beauty in things considered ugly in our own lives, to be more optimistic and see the good balancing out the bad. It's easy to do that when life is good. Tragedy prepares us for when it's not so good.


This Guy Gets It!

Conclusion:

I'm not dropping my Evangelion or Puella Magi Madoka Magica obsessions any time soon. But, I do understand the importance of balance, as the ancient Greeks did, between light and darkness in fiction. Both are equally necessary for character development and growth.

Thanks for reading!

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