Doing good does not require everyone to be insufferably ‘good’; re-engineering narratives and characters to remove friction, discomfort, distaste — the inappropriate and the sometimes highly imperfect humanity of them — leaves a massive hole in the realm of sustainability communications.
Sustainable storytelling doesn’t really feel very … well, sustainable. Not in the ‘joyous, must watch, slightly addictive, surprised me’ department anyway.
There’s lots of one-off pieces that capture people’s attention. But I’ve seen little in the serial, episodic department to thrill and inspire me to consider a slightly more resilient and sustainable existence.
And my last blog reminded me of some of the reasons for why.
I faintly praised the recent alignment of the Thomas the Tank Engine franchise and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The reason for the faintness lay in the apparent need to reengineer the narratives and characters to make them more ‘correct’ — balanced, even, fair and ultimately, anodyne?
Re-engineering narratives and characters to remove friction, discomfort, distaste — the inappropriate and the sometimes highly imperfect humanity of them — leaves a massive hole in the realm of sustainability communications.
In the blog, I referred to what I see as a fundamental truth: Doing good does not require everyone to be insufferably ‘good’.
Bad is good, especially in storytelling. Bad provides friction. Discomfort and imperfection make for more interesting narratives. Fact. Ask anyone who has to do this for a living.
And ironing out the creases of our imperfect humanity — our need to swear and cuss, our sometimes sleepwalk stereotyping; our baseness, old prejudices and new loathings; our lazy referencing — erasing all of that makes no sense to me.
People love a good “baddie.” In fact, our waking dislike of goody-goodies mostly outweighs our dislike of baddies.
This came to me like a rather late, lazy lightning bolt [my lightning bolt had obviously chosen the slowest Southern Rail train, two buses and a walk], as opposed to the one that once released from the hands of the gods, scorches through the sky to light up what it strikes like a Christmas Tree [a theologically and culturally specific reference that may exclude some rather arch followers of monotheistic faiths other than the Christian one that bore the cultural ritualism of the Christmas Tree, but I’m not changing it — as in this lies half of my point].
The lazy bolt struck me while talking with Mark Downes, an old colleague and friend of mine. We were discussing how to further develop the story arcs and characters for his “Alphabravos” idea. The “Alphabravos” is Mark’s idea for an episodic children’s film/TV series designed to entertain and educate children about creating a more sustainable world, using five key Alphabravo characters and a slew more for good measure.
What struck me was that our focus lay in the purposefully decent, cool and quirky good guys — the Alphabravos themselves. And therein lay a missed trick.
Image credit: Alphabravos
The baddie was our best bit. The mad, bad and dangerous to know Mdudu was the greatest unrealised character in the whole idea. In fact, in true megalomaniac, socio-psychopathic, fully paid up, narcissistic fashion, it was allabout him.
Yes, the individual Alphabravo characters would allow various children of various, self-identified genders to choose their favourite character to emulate and through which to learn the behaviours of a more sustainable life, but Mdudu was the flame that the moths would fly to — the deeper, richer, most enduring and attractive human element in the whole thing.
Because that’s what we do: We need the baddie to be the best character because, in most traditional storytelling, the baddie is usually us at our ugly worst — our unvarnished, heavily flawed now (the perfect starting point) — and the heroes are us as we could be. The baddie is the measure by which we mark our hope — our optimism of what could be and the journey to it.
So, baddies are the best.
In Alphabravo world, that means that Mdudu — in all his camp, scratchy, self-obsessed, slightly savant, childish, distracted, brutal and nihilistic ugliness — is the most beautiful thing that we have. And he must be developed — but more importantly than that, he must be protected. Because if the PC Police got half a whiff of him, here’s how the conversation might go:
So … “Mdudu.” Great name. What’s that about?
Mdudu is our big, bad baddie. It’s actually a Swahili name, originally from the Arabic, for a large parasitic insect.
Hmmmn. Well, that’s not very cool. A little ethnic stereotyping there, perhaps?
The blight on the world comes from Africa and the Middle East. Is that your point? A continent exclusively populated by despots, megalomaniacs, tyrants, environmental spoilers and murderers? That won’t do. Especially when your baddie is shaped by a western, white hand. Oh, no — that’s just perpetuating ancient prejudices and colonial propaganda. So, there’s a real ethnic defamation issue here. Anyway, let’s keep it positive — let’s see if we can salvage this. Why is he called that?
Because it rhymes with ‘poo.’
Well, that’s very mature.
Well, it’s not meant to be. This is for 6- to 8-year-olds — everything is a fart gag and a poo joke.
Is it, though? Really?
Yes. And I forgot to include bogies [boogers to our American cousins].
But that is so … infantile.
We can’t go telling a 6-year-old that Mdudu is a socio-psychopathic, megalomaniacal destroyer of the planet’s natural capital, who lays waste to communities through flood, famine, war, pestilence and environmental degradation. It’s far easier to say Mdudu is a big, fat poo.
Well, that’s incredibly insensitive.
Calling someone big and fat — that’s clearly, well, fattest and sizist. We just don’t appreciate that kind of language
He’s a giant, animated, vaguely camp, clumsy baddie who’s a bit crap at his job. C’mon!!
No, really! First off, why is he a He? Pretty standard gender stereotyping of human tyranny and venality as being the sole domain of the male, if you ask me. Psychopathic elitism — ergo: Man strong, woman weak. Sexism — pure and simple. And it’s all so SENSATIONALIST! Why can’t it be more, well, relevant? Laying waste to the world? Who does that? And I really don’t appreciate the recidivist cliché of baddies being camp — obviously playing back into some post-WWII caricature of the cruel, lisping Nazi Gauleiter — and making him clumsy to boot — an object of ridicule! Surely, we are more advanced than this?
Nope. And I didn’t mention a speech impediment, by the way — you said lisping. Not me. But I like it!
That’s not helping. And ‘poo’? Really. Can’t we do better than poo?
We? When did my idea become a We idea?
Wisdom of the Crowds is everything — surely you know that? And where’s the redemption in all of this? Surely Mdudu is on a journey to redemption, no? On a journey to, errmmm, a less pooey future?
Not really. His job is to be what we kick against. What we fight. The possibility for bad in all of us. His job is to be BAD!!! What do you want him to be? A giant, humourless, flawless, good-natured, global, gender-fluid, mostly misunderstood Being (as we wouldn’t want to offend a species or genus, insect or otherwise, now would we): a Being of no real provenance or roots or ethnic specificity, with redeeming features like attending Mindfulness counselling when he’s not trying lay waste to the world?
You’re doing that sensationalist thing again — but yes, so, let’s work with this. Collaborate and co-create it. So, sure — let’s say, for example, we keep him in the rhyming world. You could call the baddie Being ‘Do’ instead of Mdudu. It’s positive, action-orientated, non-gender-specific. And if you really have to make a poo rhyme, you still can. And yes, mindfulness counselling sounds terrific. Positive attributes. Striving for better. Optimistic.
OK, so let me get this straight: The baddie is called Do, as in ‘doing’; and is a broadly good-natured, slightly misunderstood, gender-non-specific entity with no ethnic or genus specificity; whom, between doing vaguely unpleasant, non-sensational things, attends self-help groups for mindfulness and anger management. And perhaps runs a clean-up campaign in his local park?
You just sucked the light out of the world. I want to go and hide in a very, very dull, dark room.
Now you’re just being childish.
Yes. That’s the point. It’s called aligning with your audience.
I rest my case.
To find out more about the Alphabravos, go to: https://alphabravos.com.