A Cultural Observation


Last night my wife, daughter, and I headed to the Philadelphia Academy of Music to see Wicked. This has been on my to do list for a long time, so I was excited to go 1.

I loved the show. The music, much of which I already knew, was phenomenal. The actress who played Elphaba, Jessica Vosk, has a voice which can shake a building. And the production, effects, and set design were top notch. I also appreciate how the story is about friendship, and its effect on the people who enter into one.

But I’ve got two critiques of the story. The first is a spoiler so I won’t share it in this forum 2. The second is more general, which makes me feel comfortable discussing it.

Glinda’s character has almost zero growth arc. She does change, and her minimized role is a result of the focus shift to Elphaba, but her growth isn’t seen as a progression because her character doesn’t need such depth.

Elphaba is a deep thinker, who possesses great empathy and loyalty. Glinda is concerned with getting her way, being popular, and making people feel things are great even when they aren’t. Glinda is shallow, so her transformation could skim the narrative surface and wind up giving her a complete makeover.

This is a critique, rather than a complaint, but it’s something which speaks to the general ethos of our era. In our culture we’ve grown cynical 3 about people who portray themselves as “the good guys.” Often they appear to be little more than puppets of power, or unwitting dupes of a corrupt system. This cynicism has carried over to the way we consider fictional characters who were portrayed as both “good” and “evil” in past eras of our popular culture. We end up re-imagining them, giving “evil” characters more depth and making them more empathetic. “Good” characters, on the other hand, fall victim to our cynical perceptions — they become shallow, fraudulent, and unwitting dupes of a corrupt system. In other words, they become Glinda.

Whenever a character is seen as being above corruption, the assumption is they’ll be boring and one dimensional. This left us with the tragic depiction of Super-Man as a super-mope in the recent Batman vs. Superman film 4. The moping was an attempt to give the character accessibility and dimensionality. But it sprang from the same difficulty which gave us shallow Glinda.

Our culture has no idea how to make goodness seem both genuine and compelling. Indeed, we seem to feel “goodness” means being in line with corrupt authority — which, in truth, makes it both fraudulent and evil. Better, in our cultural mind, to be deep, buck all authority, and to tell those in power to take a long walk off a short pier. Authority, after all, is always bad and lacks self-understanding.

I am wondering if, perhaps, our inability to see goodness as compelling is one reason our culture is so keen on “destroying” the people with whom we disagree. When the depth of anger, which is often associated with being “wicked,” is seen as noble the dimwitted shallowness of goodness, can’t compete. The simplicity of goodness, found in acts of genuine kindness and compassion, lacks sex appeal.

But the show was amazing.

  1. Even if we were in the nose bleed seats. Good grief that was high! 
  2. Reach out, and if you’ve seen the show I’ll tell it to you. 
  3. With good cause. 
  4. When I viewed the recent Justice League trailer, I noticed it speak of how Super-Man inspired people. I kept wondering what movie those people had seen.