I can’t remember when I became fascinated by the Tank Man. I was in my early 20s, and the image of a single individual, standing against oppression at great personal risk, really resonated with me. I periodically thought about it, and after a couple of years I took action: I bought a poster, framed it, and hung it on my wall. More than twenty years later, the irony isn’t lost on me that when confronted – and moved by – an example of Man versus Society, my response was to add something to my living room. If I’m not much of an activist, though, I am quite compulsive, and having written about Man versus Nature and Man versus Self, it would be very difficult for me to not continue working my way through some of the different ways we experience the four major types of narrative conflict. So Man versus Society, it is!
1. High School
High school gets a special mention, since every generation has its own set of movies and novels about young people struggling to fit into a society that seems to be set against them. Sometimes opposition comes from the world of adults (The Breakfast Club, The Catcher in the Rye), sometimes from the petty drama of other kids (Mean Girls), but the teen years are a time when the individual struggles both to fit in and to be unique, which makes it a perfect backdrop for Man versus Society. My examples of this (the original Footloose?) are woefully out of date, because years ago I stopped thinking yeah! The adults just don’t get it! and instead started thinking goofy kids. What they need is to take a little responsibility for themselves, maybe cut their hair and get a job!
2. Fight the Power!
Sometimes a solitary citizen (like the Tank Man) has to stand up against some aspect of society (a corrupt police force, or an out-of-control company), or even the culture as a whole (an oppressive government, or restrictive community). Movies like Boys Don’t Cry or plays like Romeo and Juliet set protagonists against society not based on a desire to change the world, but because being true to themselves means going against the culture in which they live. In stories where characters are forced to oppose society rather than choosing to oppose it, the results are often grim.
In some narratives, the conflict is more subtle. Movies like American Beauty or Nebraska feature characters that are struggling against society’s expectations in their own, personal ways. When characters are set more aggressively against society, conflict escalates into revolution, but stories involving the overthrow of an existing government are more likely to be told through speculative fiction, where threads of the real are taken to extremes, and an oppressive world is created for the protagonist to fight against.
In The Hunger Games Trilogy, Katniss is set against a violent, predatory society. Protagonists like Katniss symbolize the individual’s power to create change, and their stories are told again and again, whether in the form of a lone individual undertaking a world-saving quest (Frodo in Lord of the Rings), or an individual like Katniss, who rises to the forefront of a movement. Speculative fiction spins threads from the real world into a warning, but the ultimate message is usually as reassuring as it is dark, as individual heroes – through bravery and sacrifice – change the world.
In movies like Brazil and novels like 1984, however, Man versus Society is as much about humanity’s inability to stand alone as its ability to effect change. When individuals are placed against society, the message can range from one of empowerment, to a cynical statement about the powerlessness of the individual in the face of an oppressive regime.
4. The Stranger
Outsider narratives (what I’ve referred to in the past as New Kid stories) involve a stranger in a new, hostile environment. In books like Neverwhere, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms or The Goblin Emperor, the outsider must navigate an entirely new world, culture, or social group. Though there may be individual personalities set against the protagonist, as well (Man versus Man), the environment itself – its rules, laws, and people – bring important challenges that must be dealt with. Along the way, the stranger is usually revealed to be extraordinary (or even the chosen one). The culture may not be the main focus of the narrative, but instead might provide a setting that adds additional obstacles, or complicates existing ones.
5. The Criminal
Sometimes, the hero isn’t set up against an oppressive society, or dropped into an unfamiliar culture; sometimes, instead of Man versus Society taking the form of a good hero in a troubled world, it takes the form of an anti-hero in a good (or “normal”) world. In shows like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, the hero is set against society, but it’s the protagonist that is in some way corrupt. In a similar way to stranger and dystopian versions of Man versus Nature, though, the stress is still on the individual’s ability to triumph when set against the culture – there’s just no attempt to make the world a better place. Unlike in stories where the hero is set against against society by chance or against his or her will, when the hero is a criminal, success becomes a sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes enjoyable affirmation of the power of the individual to break the rules.
What are your favorite stories where a protagonist is pitted against society? Can you think of any interesting spins that I haven’t mentioned? As a side comment, my discomfort with using “Man versus” as opposed to “People versus” continues, but I wasn’t quite ready to jump completely away from the accepted term. Blarg.