The brutality of being chosen

One of my creative associates (who may have words with me at that particular phrasing in the name of identity plausible deniability) has a discussion piece up on Friends of the Text today about the premise of being chosen within texts and the idea of being chosen by texts. Thematically relevant to the stuff that interests me? You bet.

But also, of course, thematically relevant to my life. It’s easy to say, I think, and Balaka says as much in the piece, that everyone wants to be chosen. It is, she notes, like winning in the passive voice. But I wonder. Do boys want to be chosen as much as girls? Is the chosen part of the narrative what makes Harry Potter and Star Wars exciting to the male segments of their audiences? Do men have a Pygmalion narrative in their fantasies, one in which they are the transformed and not the transformer? Are women more socialized to this idea of being chosen? Is that why Twilight flies off the shelves? What’s it like, I wonder, to grow up, wanting to choose. Who is that person? And how are they formed? Were they once waiting to get chosen and finally got sick of not having magic powers or not becoming a star just for sitting at the table in the window of some diner?

It’s a sticky, nasty, uncomfortable question. At least for me. Because it touches, potentially, not just on ideas of gender, but also on ideas of dominance and submission and of leadership. It speaks to the troubling idea that chosen just means, “you’re good enough to be transmuted into gold.” It’s not just that you’re nothing without being chosen, it’s the suggestion that you’re nothing without acquiescing to the consequences of being chosen, and they are legion.

For me, this whole chosen business also speaks to ideas I have about the directorial imagination and my fears about whether I have enough of one. And it speaks to the doubt I have about the idea that the best thing anyone can do for themselves is get over that fantasy of being chosen, even though I know that waiting isn’t how to do life, poetic, rigorous, and narratively enticing though it may sometimes be.

Of course, I work in industries that largely are about “winning in the passive voice.” I write something, and then someone snatches it out of a pile of slush and publishes it. Sure, sometimes I get asked for things up front, and sure, I have to write things (which is an active endeavor) before waiting for them to get chosen, but “winning in the passive voice” is definitely the right description of the experience of it. At least for me.

Acting can be even more bizarre in that regard. You get a call; someone likes how you look; can you come in now and show us what you can do? It’s “winning in the passive voice” before there’s even a chance of winning in the active voice, and trust me, when they say you’ve got it, and it’s a contract, it doesn’t, in that moment, feel like you did anything, other than get plucked out of a crowd. A week later, you might recall how damn hard you worked for that opportunity, but the first flush of reaction is, at least for me, and I suspect for many other performers is “They picked me! Me!” Chosen.

“Winning in the passive voice.” It implies all of the benefits and none of the hard work of this success thing, doesn’t it? Seems snazzy. But there’s a real brutality that underlies it, one of clay in the kiln, and the insidious possibility that it might have actually been a certain peculiar and shifting inadequacy that brought you to attention. To be fair, I grew up as a dancer, and being chosen meant being told how you were wrong and being pressed harder and further into shapes to which you did not yet conform. But I suspect, regardless of background, that for a lot of people, it is this idea of brutality that appeals.

To return us to matters of the text and this idea of being chosen by the text, it makes me think about the work I’ve done regarding death and mourning. Or, at least, the tangential experience I’ve had in having done that work of seeing a lot of anger and distress from audiences in which beloved characters do die. Does this speak, I wonder, to this idea of being chosen by the text, and then finding out — for those who have had negative reactions to these fictional deaths — that this was really not what you signed up in that moment where you felt the text chose you. Conversely, for those of us who have felt vastly satisfied in those losses, is it because of the relief of encountering the expected brutality in our selection by the text?

And it’s not just on death that texts can brutalize us. Look at Bella in Twilight and look at our reactions. Is not the inspired longing for that type of impossibility a brutality of the text? Is not what Bella experiences in the face of the love she endures another brutality of the text, this one intradiegetic, instead of extradiegetic?

What, ultimately, do these narratives of being chosen suggest to us about the ethics of favor and brutality in our relationships with texts and in texts’ relationships with us? And how much choice do we have about those relationships, when the narratives themselves are, at base, about not having choice, and the supposedly great good fortune of that condition? Nobody ever asked Harry Potter if he wanted to save the world.

Thinky thoughts are a double thumbs up. Please make sure to give Balaka’s post some love too, especially if your reactions are more about her work than my little digression/extrapolation here. I would also particularly love to hear here from men on the subject of Pygmalion narratives and anyone who feels they are instinctively wired towards being the one who chooses.

23 thoughts on “The brutality of being chosen”

  1. This is one of the things that interested me about Merlin, the conversaion of Merlin from the chooser to the chosen (although I didn’t think about it in those terms). The only main character I can think of who is a chooser is the Doctor, and part of the magic is waiting for him to choose you.

    1. That’s a very interesting though about the Doctor. (This is all about New Who. It works differently in Classic Who.) On the one hand, I think of him as chosen/damned by fate to be the last of the Time Lords (inasmuch as fate exists in that universe). On the other hand, I’m convinced there’s a strong existentialist bent to the program in general, one that’s about creation of meaning and purpose, which isn’t entirely dissimilar to choosing meaning and purpose.

      On a third hand, I think part of what appeals to me about the Doctor (and this I think goes for all of the continuity) is that he’s seemingly chosen his life and that’s an incredibly powerful idea. But perhaps that allure of the Doctor is about waiting for him to choose you. Perhaps the strongest image of Doctor Who for me is in Rose when he sticks his head round the door and says ‘I’m the Doctor by the way.’ The second (well, the strongest sound memory, I guess) is the ‘Have a fantastic life.’ in the Parting of the Ways. I don’t think it’s so much that travelling with the Doctor gives her the ability to have a fantastic life, but that it makes her realise she can. (I have a horrible feeling I’m channelling RTD in that last bit, but I don’t think I’ve ever read or heard what he thinks is so astonishingly clever in that scene. (He’s RTD, he thinks everything is astonishingly clever.))

      1. I love this comment so hard, just because of the stuff said creative associate and I do together. So much of the fanfic we’ve done is about how people have to choose these difficult and wonderful adventures in the Whoniverse. You can’t just wait to be chose. It’s not quite enough.

        1. But if you don’t get chosen, you don’t get a choice. Kicked out of Paradise.

          Being a n00b who just finished the new S1, this hit me really hard. Sparked an angst-ridden LJ post (f-locked).

  2. I don’t know about whether I’m attracted to being the chooser, but I’m definitely wired against being chosen. I’ve never had the slightest interest in reading either Twilight or Harry Potter, and if I see “chosen” or “destiny” on the back blurb of a book I typically put it right back down. The kind of narratives that attract me on the most visceral level are the ones where people are randomly thrown into great adversity and have to make the best with what they end up with.

    I think much of the attraction to the “chosen” idea comes from our sort of stunted relationship to feudalism and aristocracy… we’re modern enough to realize that aristocracy is fucked up, but still halfway in love with the idea. So being MADE into the aristocracy instead of born into it is a way of preserving the mystique while pretending not to buy into the system.

    1. Exactly. I’m currently watching the Buffy series for the first time (yeah, I know, I’ve been actively ignoring it for ages now), and I’m one of those strange people who actually liked the original movie. And being chosen has some less than positive meanings for people like Buffy, Kendra and Harry.

      It also had negative connotations for many women and some men throughout history. I’m thinking about Marie Antoinette, Any of King Henry’s wives, the beautiful young woman who is chosen for her looks to be a house slave and the master’s mistress, the women who are chosen for sexual assault because of their looks or their age, the men who are born into privilege on one hand but have no freedom because they’re chosen to succeed their fathers, and so on.

      In a lot of ways, you (RM) and I were chosen – we got to go to private schools even though we didn’t have a lot of money. We struggled with that because we didn’t fit in, and at least in my case I rebelled hardcore against being chosen. Much like some of my friends with money did, like fictional characters who are chosen do, we do not want to have to live the lives we are “chosen” for.

      I think it’s a very double edged sword at best, and as we grow older we figure out that perhaps being chosen is a good thing – when it’s something we want to do. But being chosen for a responsibility or a life we don’t desire sucks regardless of the privilege, the money, the fame that are part of that.

      I often wonder if (but I absolutely think their behavior is appalling regardless) this is part of what makes people like Charlie Sheen and the Hilton kids such a mess at times. I mean we’ve watched child stars and children of stars blow up for as long as I can remember – perhaps in part because being chosen has unseen consequences.

  3. “Do boys want to be chosen as much as girls?”

    Absolutely. While my own preferences are atypical for my sex, I’ve seen a whole lot of genre fic marketed at male teens and 20s, that’s all about being chosen. Much of it is different from similar stories marketed at young women – the focus is often on being chosen because the young man in question is incredibly awesome (rather than possessed of the correct ancestry), but both exist – The Last Starfighter, and Star Wars (old and new) are examples of the first and second of these sorts of protagonists. I think the reasons and the details may be different, but I think everyone really does want to be chosen – if it wasn’t true for young men – the King Arthur story wouldn’t have anything like the mythic resonance that it does.

    1. I am commenting solely to express my undying love of The Last Starfighter. Did that have epic training montage/transformation stuff, or was it just “you’re awesome, here’s your uniform, OH SHIT” — because I can’t remember, and that would indicate a variance (one that we see in the Tron films come to think of it, especially the more recent one).

      1. Pretty much “You’re awesome, here’s your uniform, here’s a briefing showing how screwed you are, Oh shit.” Alex gets about five minutes of exposition, and then everybody dies but him and his copilot.

        1. Thanks. That’s a critical difference to my from these transformative acts of being chosen. Makes me want to poke at Arthurian stuff and see how that’s structured around versions of the narrative with followings that are particularly gendered in one way or another.

  4. This is a very well-written post, one which I will be reading again when I have time to think properly about it and its meaning to me. You may have hit on something I’ve been struggling with for quite some time, the lack of being chosen in some ways, and the pondering for me is going to be very interesting.

    Thank you for sharing all of your ideas, but this one especially.

    1. Having thought a smidgen about this, I can see that some of the characters I’ve identified with or wanted to be, were chosen characters, and that was all tied up in my own feelings of inadequacy. I wanted to be “special”, and never felt I was, and so being chosen would make me so.
      Lots of childhood growing up gunk tied up in that one.

  5. The concept of being chosen, sadly, makes me think about gym class and NOT being chosen. I wonder if a lot of the appeal of Being Chosen in stories comes from that experience of never being chosen, and fantasizing about what it would be like?

      1. Actually, what was worse than not being chosen was at the end when one team or another was FORCED to take me. Ironically, I would’ve liked nothing more than to be off the hook for the whole team-choosing thing, and go read someplace instead.

        I wonder if there’s ever somebody at Hogwarts who NONE OF THE HOUSES wants? OK, the Sorting Hat really makes those decisions, but it did sort of go back and forth with where Harry belonged, didn’t it? Now I want a story where the Sorting Hat doesn’t think this student belongs in ANY of the Houses. Heh, maybe they’d just go live with Hagrid in his cottage and commute to classes – and end up having a better time than anyone!

  6. What’s it like, I wonder, to grow up, wanting to choose. Who is that person? And how are they formed?

    In my vase, I looked around me at the age of eight and decided I was good enough to transmute myself into gold, as it were. I decided what I wanted then started working and shaping myself towards that end. I looked at those who were chosen in one way or another, and decided I didn’t like them very much in most cases. I decided that I could be better, and set about doing that, if that makes any sense.

    What does it look like narratively? It looks like Nevil in the later Harry Potter books shaping himself into a hero, or Ianto Jones persistently putting his metaphorically foot in the door until Jack lets him in.

  7. I like texts that are brutal. They are comforting to me. I don’t really care about the “being chosen” part – it’s the “not having a choice” that I relate to, as well as the choice to keep on trucking despite that.

    While I don’t want to craft a revisionist history that glosses over my angsty teenagerhood, I think I’ve always been more of a “chooser” myself. Some people had no friends in elementary school and were bullied. I had no friends in elementary school for two years because I had discovered books and thought they were more interesting. Even when I was actively excluded, I was like, “whatever, I will go write epic fanpoems about Anastasia in my Mary Engelbreit notebook like all the cool fifth graders do.” I’m not sure how exactly this influenced the kind of narratives I’m drawn to. Except maybe for the crackfic part.

  8. Where does Thomas Covenant fit into this? He spends a long time resisting being chosen, and a lot of people hate him for that.

    I think that’s one of the reasons l liked the books– he’s not very adult, but he’s very much like a teenager who refuses to comply with a world that doesn’t make sense to him, and may have no perceptible options other than being obstructive.

    TH White’s Arthur gets his training (the animal transformations) before being chosen, and he couldn’t have pulled the sword out of the stone without it. I’m in tears just thinking about it, (I haven’t had that reaction to the book before), and I think it’s because so many are on Arthur’s side. Part of this may be activated by your piece about grief. I’ve been thinking a lot about emotional connections to imaginary characters.

    Brutality of the text: I realized a while ago that it’s not possible, even in experimental fiction, to have a story which consists of nothing but pleasant events. Imagine a story of getting together for dinner with friends. The food is good, the conversation is good, there are no sinister undercurrents, and then the story ends. People would protest that it isn’t a story at all.

    Actually, it might be fun to do it as experimental fiction, but only for the fun of brutalizing the readers– they’d spend the whole thing waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    Recent book that I liked because it had some choosing: Mind Games by Carolyn Crane– the main character has to make a romantically and morally important choice based on insufficient evidence, and I realized how little fiction I see like that. Usually the tension is based entirely on external threats.

  9. “Do men have a Pygmalion narrative in their fantasies, one in which they are the transformed and not the transformer?”

    Oh yes, they certainly do. Millions, even billions of men on this earth live within that narrative, whether it’s the boy yearning to be a private transformed by his drill sergeant or the sports figure by his coach. Sports, in particular, is a vast, vast area where boys and men expose themselves to their own desire to be chosen, and when they can’t for whatever reason compete to be chosen in their favorite sport, they become choosers by participating in fantasy sports leagues as team owners. Watch ESPN on any of the days when there are football or baseball or hockey or basketball drafts, and you’ll be immersed in the world of men tying themselves in knots over whether they’ll be chosen and what criteria should be used if they were the choosers. Live in the world of sports fans for a while through watching some games, listening to sports radio, and reading the sports sections, and you’ll come out the other side seeing millions of instances of boys and men seeking transformation by having someone other than themselves take the clay of what physical talent they have and transforming them into machines of accomplishment.

  10. I find it interesting that while, for me, there has always been a craving to be chosen, on those rare times I actually WAS chosen it never worked out as I’d hoped. Being “passively” chosen for something I had no control over or for who I am has always felt like I’ve been robbed of choice. Being chosen for something I’ve done, something I’ve worked for, has always resulted in impostor syndrome.

    Some people want to be chosen, but can’t handle being noticed.

  11. As someone who has always had hir own dreams and goals, most of which required a great deal of work on my part, and as someone who is also a “control freak,” I can’t say I’ve ever had more than a fleeting fantasy of being chosen. It was interesting to read about or see others be chosen in various forms of fictional or non-fictional stories, but not something that particularly resonated with me. It’s why as a young adult I much preferred reading about Tamora Pierce’s Alanna character in the Song of the Lionness series to Harry Potter, even though I am a great lover of the world Rowling created and the ideas that form Potter’s journey. Alanna has every intention of becoming a knight, and no one would have ever chosen her – she has to disguise herself and fight to become who she is, and I always admired that more than I would have ever envied a character with a destiny thrust upon them. Was I jealous of Buffy because she could kick anyone’s ass? Sure. Was I a bit jealous that the people at Hogwarts had ridiculous magical powers and were considered special? Definitely. I’ve always wanted to be special…just special in my own right, and not special because I someone or something else made me that way. Plus, what with all of the things that backfire when you’re chosen for a destiny you probably never anticipated, I couldn’t see the appeal. In fact, I would comically liken it to this past year’s experience, when I was hired for an electronics sales associate position I definitely needed but didn’t really want, and had no good excuse for getting out of it. I didn’t have to save the world – far from it – but I put in several months of my life I’ll never get back.

  12. I like what erin said: “I like texts that are brutal. They are comforting to me. I don’t really care about the “being chosen” part – it’s the “not having a choice” that I relate to, as well as the choice to keep on trucking despite that.”

    I think there is often a choice within the being chosen, a sort of “I did it my way” attitude. The point of being chosen is that the person who chooses you has their own ideas of what you should be, which means that any action you take away from what they want of you and towards what you want is inherently rebellious. THAT was what always resonated with me, not the state of being chosen (which always seemed like a cliched excuse for the hero to be the hero).

    As for the genderedness of it all, I can only say that the chosen narrative shows up a whole lot in media that is explicitly aimed toward men. I’m thinking primarily of superhero stories and military stories here. Hell, Captain America is both a superhero story and a military story and it is extremely upfront about its chosen storyline.

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