X Factories

I used to quite enjoy the X-Factor (UK’s Pop Idol equivalent) audition round; the combination of the deluded, the talentless, the clearly taking-the-piss and the odd gem was just wonderful.

I think the first time I saw it was about when I was running a cabaret night down in Brixton – as a rule, I’d have booked the acts that the judges rejected most directly, because they tended to be the most eccentrically individual ones.

I didn’t have too much of a problem with judge harshness. They seemed to be pretty selective with their responses, and there always seemed to be an effective good cop / bad cop balance going on. So, when I turned on this year’s X Factor the other day, I thought I’d get half an hour or so of enjoyable mayhem.

Instead, I got bullying. Pre-selected acts were marched through to be shredded, directly and brutally. There was a coarseness and absolute lack of empathy I hadn’t seen before, combined with a lack of any sort of balance on the judging panel itself. I watched about five minutes, then turned over.

I’m sure I’m not the first blogger to rant about judge brutality on the X-Factor, and I certainly won’t be the last. But I suspect I’ll be one of the few to link it to the ethical problems implicit in 3 act narrative structure.

Let me explain. As I’m sure you know, three act narrative structure is the dominant modern model for building narratives. If you follow the classic Hollywood version of it, you use Act 1 to establish motivation (‘Luke wants to rescue Princess Leia’), Act 2 to frustrate achievement of that motivation (‘Luke can’t rescue her because of Darth Vader, the Death Star, etc’) and Act 3 to show what happens when that motivation is achieved (‘Luke blows up the Death Star, defeats Darth Vader, and rescues PL’).

Implicit in that structure is a very basic binary opposition – good vs evil. At the start of the story, somebody is shown to have a ‘good’ motivation. The action of the story is generated as the ‘good’ motivation is frustrated by ‘evil’ people or events. The protagonist’s triumph comes when he finally and absolutely overcomes ‘evil’, and his / her little moral universe is thus purged and rendered exclusively ‘good’.

What’s that got to do with the X-Factor? Well, within that structure only the good succeed and only the evil fail. Success itself becomes a basis on which to reach a full and final moral judgement on any given character. If you fail, you fail because you’re evil – you’re worth less than the protagonist, in a very real sense.

And that’s the morality that’s infected the X-Factor. Successful people judge failed people – and, because success gives automatic moral justification, they’re free to inflict any kind of humiliation on those in front of them. The failed X-Factor singers aren’t just bad singers; they’re flawed people, evil, representing the kind of weakness and failure that any true hero can and must leave behind.

And of course, in the X-Factor narrative, the true heroes do leave this perceived mire behind, rising up into another world of one-on-one engagement with Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh and the rest.

Subsequent episodes become a drama of detection; individual contestants are found out as impostors, not potential winners, but rather people who stand in the way of the final winner’s ascension. Deemed impure, they’re booted out until only unfrustrated goodness remains.

But that’s utter bollocks. The show isn’t a ritual of purification; rather, it’s a ritual of commodification, as the contestants are ruthlessly stripped back to reveal the most commercial performers. And ‘commercial’ as a category is very limited, aiming ruthlessly for that which is closest to the already successful. It demands repetition, not originality; homogeneity, not personality.

And that reflects back on three act narrative structure, too. Far from achieving ‘good’, its most simple (and therefore most common – for we live in a world that privileges the simple) variants achieve ‘smoothed over’, ‘polished’. Anything awkward is banished; anything complex is broken down into neat categories, until we’re left in a landscape that’s both a moral and an emotional pablum.

It’s a key problem of our modern culture that that pablum is taken to represent absolute moral truths, rather than a passing entertainment. Much as I didn’t enjoy the X-Factor, I have to admit that it shows us back to ourselves very effectively; bullying the weak from a position of absolute righteousness, and using the extent of that bullying as a measure of our virtue.

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