Last month we talked out the concept of the Other, a person or group outside of the common group, and its role in our history and culture. The practice of this concept in history saw the rise of the Third Reich and justification for Jim Crow Laws and Apartheid. So this begs the question.
Have we made progress?
We would hope so, but we still see this concept popping up in media very often, especially concerning this month’s topic, the Unknown.
Sometimes the scariest thing is what we do not know or cannot see. Think about it this way, how scary was Jaws? When you saw it for the first time what was the one thing that was the most terrifying? If you were like me, the answer would be that we never really saw the shark besides the dorsal fin and flashes of small sections of the shark’s body through out most of the film. Even now when I get into the ocean there is still that lingering fear what may or may not be lurking beneath the water.
The Other also taps into this fear. Taking a look at past science fiction films we see this very well. Take Invasion of the Body Snatchers for example. Story where a doctor and his friend learn that the people in his town are being replaced by doppelgangers who are devoid of emotion and work toward a common agenda. The fear and suspense of this film lies with now knowing who is and is not one of “them.” This film stirs similarities with McCarthyism, the prevalent dogma that plays heavily into the Red Scare of the 40s and 50s.
The Red Scare is a byproduct of the Cold War where heightened paranoia led to the government accusing many people of being Communist spies secretly working towards dismantling the US government. We see this in today’s media with concerns about sleeper cells or covert jihadists such as the individual arrested this past week near Ft. Hood. Similar works play into this as well, such as the Donald Sutherland film The Puppet Masters or the short-lived TV series Threshold.
The fear of not knowing the true nature of others also played a key role in the SciFi (now Syfy) channel’s reboot of the Battlestar Galactica series. By introducing the concept of cyclons that look like regular humans the show introduced a very real metaphor for what many of us were feeling in a post 9/11 world. Anyone could be a cylon, even Bill Adama was suspected at one point in time. This went one step further because even Cylons may not realize they are cylons until, activated. The concept of the sleeper agent reignites the fear of the unknown origin. Another example that resonated in the overall mindset of popular culture would be Lost.
Lost presents otherness as something fearful and suspicious. Debuting in 2004, Lost presents the story of castaways on a remote island struggling to survive. The underlying theme of the show, “Live together, die alone,” sets up the inevitable conflict with the unknown and the underlying support for the “us versus them” mind-set. The castaways band together to build shelter and unify under a common identity. They learn of other inhabitants on the island, unknown individuals who dwell deep in the jungle, from Rousseau, another castaway. Rousseau labels them as the Others, and warns they should be feared,
ROUSSEAU: …That night, they came. They came and took her. Alex. They came and took my baby. And now, they’re coming again.
They’re coming for all of you.
JACK: Who’s coming?
ROUSSEAU: The Others. You have only three choices: run, hide, or die. (“Exodus: Part1”)1
The repetition of the word they focuses on the separation of “us,” the castaways, and “them,” being the Others.2 The Others now represent fear among the castaways, the shadowy bogeymen who stalk in the shadows. The portrayal in the narrative supports this conclusion when they attack the camp to kidnap castaways and ultimately kidnap Walt, one of the main characters. These events lead to the next question regarding how to deal with the Others.
Lost follows previous otherness and presents the Others as inhumane and uncivilized. Ana Lucia describes the Others as animals, less than human.3 This description reinforces the concept of the Other as something below the normal culture. We even see this mentality supported when we first see the Others “camp” where they are dressed in rags and almost give off a savage, Lord of the Flies vibe. Savage and uncivilized this description makes them sub-human and therefore subject to whatever retaliation necessary.4 Ana Lucia’s actions support this; when upon learning Goodwin’s true origin she kills him.5 She later kills another castaway Shannon, mistaking her for an Other.5
The fear of the threat of the Others creates an important parallel when both Ana Lucia and Rousseau communicate this to the unified group. Once expressed, the whole group grows extremely fearful as well reinforcing the power of the concept.4 This provokes further actions by other castaways explore this further when Jacks requests Sayid torture a man named Henry Gale whom they suspect to be an Other.6
The presentation of Otherness in Lost holds ramifications for mainstream viewers. It supports the notion that society should fear or be suspicious of the unknown Other. Even after the third season reveals the true nature of the Others as (relatively) normal people, characters and viewers maintain that same fear and suspicion of new characters. In Season four, when the freighter arrives all the castaways remain suspicious of the newcomers’ intentions.7 Locke acts on this suspicion and kills Naomi at the end of Season three. A dangerous ethical issue lies in the fact that the narrative later proves both Ana Lucia and Locke correct in their fears. By presenting the Other as something one genuinely should fear Lost sets a precedent in stabilizing the concept of the Other as enemy.
The fear of the unknown stands very strongly in the forefront of our culture. Does it remain so prominent because the media continuously stokes its fire?
Possibly, while I am of the mindset that media does not control our actions, I can see that media is also something that we can and often use as a litmus test for our own attitudes and actions. Watching stories like Lost may not make us into super paranoid people. They may still reinforce these mindsets that already exist. In the past, stories like the Greek fables, plays, and tragedies and parables in the Bible served as moral guidance. People would hear or experience these stories and gain a better understanding of their own culture and perception of the world. Television and other Media step up and fill this role for us now. We are going to see increasingly how they fill this role for our culture as we progress through this series.
Next month we will pick back up with Lost and other examples as we explore the Foreign as the Other in Geek and Gamer Culture.
- “Exodus: Part 1,” Lost, ABC, 19 May 2005, DVD.
- Karen Gaffney, “Ideology and Otherness in Lost,” The Ultimare Lost and Philosophy: Think Together, Die Alone, Ed. William Irwin and Sharon Kaye, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, 2011. 194. Print.
- “Abandoned,” Lost, ABC, 9 Nov 2005, DVD.
- Gaffney, 195.
- “The Other 48 Days,” Lost, ABC, 16 Nov 2005, DVD
- “One of Them,” Lost, ABC, 15 Feb 2006, DVD
- Gaffney, 200.