It’s not news that American society and its media disseminate gender roles on a daily basis. In regards to 9/11, we are given three primary options: heroes, damsels, and villains. This is a concept that Susan Faludi explores in her recent book, The Terror Dream. Every September, we are inundated by images of courageous firemen, mourning women and children, and dark, stony-eyed, scowling Middle Eastern men.
Without thinking, these archetypes seem to be fair descriptions that still resonate from the tragedy. There is no question that firemen were heroes ten years ago, and there are surely hundreds, if not thousands, of women and children who lost spouses and parents in the attacks. And how can the terrorists not be considered villains? Quotes from terrorist organizations seemingly prove that these men are capable of nothing but hate toward liberty, democracy, and the American people.
But therein lies the problem of all archetypes: they’re too simple. They tell familiar stories that form the basis of so many of our classic stories. Look at any fairytale, popular book, or even most Hollywood movies today; many feature somewhat clichéd characters that are based on common characteristics. The naïve child; the strong hero; the caring mother. In some ways, these are created at the fault of writers – proven by undeveloped, predictable characters that lack depth – but most importantly, archetypes are used to save time in the plot. In film, it is incredibly difficult to develop strong characters while simultaneously creating captivating, exciting plots that can captivate viewers.
This sentiment is echoed in the media. During 24-hour news cycles, anchors and writers don’t have the time to develop stories that counter these archetypes. These characters are easy to identify and connect with, and in that way they make news stories stronger and easier to quickly digest.
But at what cost? By relying on these archetypes – the hero, the damsel, the villain – our country is unfortunately blind to many of the stories that have risen out of that day. Female firemen and paramedics saving lives; women who can continue to function in society after the death’s of their husbands. Simultaneously, men who react the oppositely from deaths of their wives. Children who have difficulty mourning their parents death’s because they simply cannot remember their parents. And, possibly the most important, is the popular belief of the terrorist himself: yes, these men are considered by many to be terrible, American-hating zealots who killed thousands of people, but they were also deeply religious men. They feared for the destruction of their society and died to protect their countries from a threat that they felt was very real. These men were also husbands, sons, fathers – they once played games in the streets of their neighborhoods with their friends, gave their mothers gifts, fell in love. We often forget that these men’s families are still mourning their loss ten years later, too.
The danger of these archetypes is that they only tell half of the story. Without a change in how these events are communicated in the media, the public will continue to misunderstand the causes and repercussions of 9/11 and our country’s reactions to that day, both at home and abroad. As Faludi said in her presentation at Ithaca College, “Living in a myth cleared the way to the erosion of civil liberties and government endorsements of torture. It crippled our fight against those who attacked us, led us into a misbegotten war against people who did not attack us, created many more enemies, and all financed through debt that still threatens to destroy the economy.” If the American public fully understood the situation in the Middle East, ten years ago, how different would our country be today?
Granted, this style of reporting isn’t well-suited to the 24-hour news cycle, or to our public’s usual desire to have fast news that is easily digestible. In that regard, we are desperately in need of a revolution in both our media and our citizens. Since that’s unlikely, though, we have to start our own, personal revolutions within our own lives. “Interrogate the myth,” Faludi said, and in turn, in time, we will convince others to do the same.