Kony 2012: rebels without a pause

In the mid-1940s, Walt Disney produced a number of cartoons at the request of the United States government. These shorts, given titles like “Commando Duck,” portrayed Germans and Japanese as corrupt and uncivilized caricatures. As modern viewers, we laugh at the images of the three industrious pigs taking on a Nazi wolf, and at dopey inhabitants of America 1945 who swallowed that two-dimensional waffle without thinking twice. We snort, close the tab, open Facebook, and all but declare war on a man whose name we just learned in a country we couldn’t point to on a map.

We have more in common with the sentimental Cleaver families of WWII America than we’d like to think. Although red flags have been raised about the motivations of Invisible Children Inc.’s viral Kony 2012 campaign, this isn’t my concern.

The important question is: How did they manage to hold the interest and mold the opinions of a notoriously apathetic generation using a 30-minute informational video? Easy answer: They didn’t. Kony 2012 is no documentary; it’s a melodrama.

Melodrama carves a shortcut to our hearts, bypassing our brains, and it’s what convinced millions of viewers that they were convinced by Kony 2012. From the Greek melos (music) and drān (to do, act, or perform), the word has historically referred to plays accompanied by a musical score. The power of music to elicit an emotional response cannot be overstated. Every one of us has had a simple walk to the T transformed into a purposeful opening-credits sequence for the day by a pair of earbuds, or a breakup magnified into the universe’s greatest and only tragedy courtesy of Adele. The scoring and soundtrack of the Kony video, along with the employment of other tropes, modern and ancient, override our natural skepticism. 

Jane Shattuc, a professor at Emerson and author of several important works on pop culture and media theory, explains that melodrama “takes a conflict and refines it to a simple triad: victim, victimizer, and hero.”  This serves to homogenize the experience for everyone. In life, we each witness the same events and conflicts from a different angle, and our brains use that input to generate a conclusion. It wouldn’t do for media writers to present things so three-dimensionally, though. If we saw Wile E. Coyote at home with his starving family, we might not enjoy watching him fail so consistently. And then we’d stop watching it. So they show us fractions of that fictional reality that support one predefined conclusion.

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News outlets, of course, employ this technique as well, creating a master narrative, often with a clear villain or scapegoat, to stabilize and manage the opinions of the public. In an interview with CNN, Jason Russell, the director of Kony 2012, admitted, “Because of the zeitgeist of the culture and the world, we need an enemy. We need to know who the worst is.” 

This is a diplomatic, if inarticulate, way of saying an incredibly condescending thing. And the triad, in Kony 2012, is clear. Victim: African Children. Victimizer: Joseph Kony. Hero: Russell and — here’s the genius part — you.    

Our generation, Generation Y, the Millenials — we yearn to feel significant. We watch footage from the sixties that shows youth unified by common ideals and we lust for that sense of community and importance: a cohesive generational identity. We are thirsty for causes, desperate for a role in history. And when we see footage of riots in the Middle East, of the Egyptians — some no older than we are — participating in a revolution, we think, What they’re doing is important. What are we doing? That restlessness and longing for purpose — Millennial Ennui — makes us fetishize the idea of a movement or revolution. 

Kony 2012 went right for that Achilles heel. It told us, perhaps rightly so, that we are living in an incredibly important time. It spat out phrases like “the world we are living in has new rules” and “governments are trying to keep up” and “older generations are concerned,” and our subconscious recalls the image of Roald Dahl’s Matilda and her class chasing the draconian Trunchbull out of the school. Young people have power. While appeals to the restlessness of youth are nothing novel, appeals to a yearning for generational identity affect us uniquely, because our penchant for retro-gazing and nostalgia, Instagram filters and 90’s Nickelodeon respectively, has left us without one of our own. When they told us “if we succeed, we change the course of human history,” it affected us in a way that no other generation could understand. That is exactly what we wanted to hear. 

They know where our buttons are. When the sunshiny dance montage starts in the video, I want to throw my money at them, even as I watch it now. But that’s the same want I feel after watching a Coca-Cola commercial that frames the drink at a rooftop party. I don’t want a Coke; I hate Coke. I want to be invited to rooftop parties. Kony 2012 uses aesthetics and associations to hijack your empathy. There is no logic to it, and this makes it dangerous. It’s a back door to your brain. 

Invisible Children Inc. isn’t evil. Its status as a 24-karat charity is dubious, but their leaders are not, as they’d put it, “Bad Guys.” They are, in all probability, good guys — or at least well-intentioned guys. And they reached us, the youth of America, because they could afford to make an evocative little movie. 

But what happens when the Bad Guys make a movie? When they realize the power that the hive-mind of the Internet and the restless, guilty, empathetic, cause-hungry, change-hungry youth of America have?

It’s okay to let Angry Boys make you cry, or to momentarily believe that Celie in The Color Purple is a real person and feel her pain and hate her abuser, because these works admit they are fictions and, more importantly, they don’t ask anything of you. They are here simply to make you feel. But the minute you feel something being asked of you, you must step back. You must. Even from The Lorax, you must step back. Strip away the music and the melodrama and consider what you’re being fed before you swallow it. It’s your responsibility to be a critical viewer. It’s easy to recognize when something complex is being represented in a reduced form, and it’s often easy to recognize the agenda. 

This doesn’t mean you have to reject it — it means you have to question it in the context of the real world and make your decision there, rather than while you’re immersed in the universe of the media. Because as it stands, Russell’s belittling remarks and Invisible Children Inc.’s insulting assumptions about what will move our society are true, and that leaves us in a terrifyingly vulnerable place.