We’ve all seen those movies and TV shows where the – usually white – lead is faced with a moral dilemma. The easy path is carved out in flashing neon lights. The bad guy wants them to do something a little shady, or a lot shady, and they have to choose going with the flow or disrupting the plans and taking what I call the Principled Stand (Or the Principled Stand of Bad Ideas).
Now, I’m not ignorant to the flow of drama, and how these big moments have to resound in the hearts of all who see it in order to understand what kind of person the hero is. They have to show that hero is GOOD and the other guys are BAD. Often, the point of these moments is to make it easy for the audience to translate morality easily, with minimal effort.
An example in a recent movie I watched was in National Treasure. (Shut up, you love it, too.) I know it’s not the pinnacle of cinema masterpieces, but this Principled Stand (of Bad Ideas) is a writing choice that has been present in across action-adventure movies for decades and it was exceedingly obvious here. There’s one scene at the beginning of the movie where they’ve found a big clue and realize, gasp!, that they have to steal the Declaration of Independence. Nevermind that instead of just pulling the alarm when the other bad guys are stealing the thing, or how Nic Cage ends up stealing it anyways, in this scene that lays out the rest of the movie, our buddy Nic decides to take a stand. He declares that stealing is BAD, and he is GOOD. This ends up with guns being drawn, explosions being had, and everyone running off to steal stuff and go on adventures. (Then turns around and steals it anyways.)
I might not have a fancy archaeology degree, or years of experience in being a hero, but it strikes me as a really bad idea to say no in the middle of a snowy tundra when the dude you’re arguing with is your ride home. Or in the middle of the bad guy’s hideout. Or where he has a weapon and you don’t. That’s just common sense.
Them having the upper hand makes it dramatic, yes, but how we can trust anything these guys do ever again when they don’t have the common sense to realize that they should stop flapping their jaws and go along with it until they’re a safe distance away from the bad guys? As an example of smart stands we can look at Daisy from Agents of SHIELD. When she realized her boo was Hydra, she didn’t start screaming about how she had trusted him and how he wouldn’t get away with being bad, or how she would stop him. She went along with his crazy to get more information, and until it was safer to make her move. Granted, she’s not as emotionally unstable as white men can be, but you get the drift. There are options out there that don’t include stranding yourself, my principled-stand-loving dudes.
While it might not have been the height of taking a principled stand, Nic could have at least gotten a ride back to D.C., and then sent not-Boromir a nice email that read something along the lines of “LOL, nah, dude.” Alternatively, he could have waited to see what not-Boromir’s plan was, used that nice camera he had to take pics of them planning the heist, and then worked out a deal with the FBI to get crafty with lemons on the back of the Declaration.
And since we’re now in the age of constant cell phone use, it’s even easier. The good guy just has to agree with the bad guy on the surface, tell everyone that they’re gonna pick up McDonald’s, because who doesn’t love how the smoothie machine is always broken?, and then send a text once they’re on the other side of town. Again, I recommend sending something simple, like a gif.
Once the hero is out of danger, they can worry about stopping the bad guy and go on adventures for treasure. I promise that the movie or TV show can still be interesting and show off how good the good guy is without the Principled Stand.
This lack of a Principled Stand is one of the things that I appreciated about Leverage when it was on the air. No one had principles, so making a stand wasn’t really an issue. They had to use their brains, and their brains were a valued part of the plot. And the white dude who did like principled stands, learned from his crew not to be that way. It was amazing.
All too often, we’re shown these heroes who we are meant to look at as intelligent, super, and amazing, and principled, only to have them be really about their egos when you dig a little deeper. They get to the prize first. They get to win without any of the consequences, while their actions aren’t all that removed from the bad guys. They aren’t all that principled, they’re just loud about it, and frankly, we could do with more smarter characters and less loud ones.
So, instead of the Principled Stand, I now suggest we have the principled text message. (Or, you know, stop writing hyper-masculine men.) It is possible for people to take a stand smartly, to do it where they don’t immediately have to dig their way out of the trouble they caused by opening their mouths. These characters who can outthink their opponents are more interesting, and even if their morality is a little bit more grey, it is possible to keep them in the right without them having to use their “smarts” to outthink a situation they just put themselves into by not realizing there’s a time and a place for opening their mouths. Optimally, for when you’re behind bulletproof glass and not outnumbered by the bad guy’s people, or after you figure out their plan.
Anyways, the next time any of you find yourselves searching for treasure, be sure to consider your ride options before you get indignant. Make good choices.