If all we have is Jack Ryan, everyone looks like a terrorist


In her mesmerizing TED talk, neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor tells the story of having a stroke in her mid-40s. She points out that, biologically speaking, we are not thinking beings who feel. We are feeling beings who think. Great intelligence resides in the space of our heart and when we nurture that with breath and awareness, our resilience and creativity in crisis increases dramatically.

This innate wisdom and gift of connection to our fellow beings is lost in the rush to analysis brought on by recent crises and instability around the world. We channel our inner Jack Ryan when we resort to habitual ways of relating to the crisis, to each other, and to any possible courses of action that occur to us. Still, in modern western culture, reason and analysis are revered above all. Anyone who suggests a more feeling response is ridiculed as soft or complicit.

Recently, I watched three “John Ryan” movies, featuring either Harrison Ford or Ben Affleck as novelist Tom Clancy’s hero, a CIA analyst thrust into unlikely situations where he must rise to the occasion. Ryan is the archetype of the accidental hero, a very relatable desk jockey who relies on good intelligence, but also follows his instincts and quick thinking to prevail in the most challenging circumstances. He’s a likeable, smart Everyman.

The plot formula includes rogue operatives who wreak havoc with dirty bombs or ambushes or assault weapons. The only time you see a woman in a scene is as a nurse or doctor triaging victims or the rare military officer who hangs in the back behind the men who outrank her. There’s also Jack Ryan’s lovely, ophthalmic-surgeon wife (or girlfriend, depending on the movie), to establish his “normal guy” domesticity. She holds down the softer side of home and children, freeing him up to do the dirty work of fighting terrorists.

These films consist of frame after frame after frame of men, with their important Guy Things— wallet-size cards with the special nuclear codes, suitcases with lit-up buttons, arsenals of phallic missiles ready to strike. In a crisis, they take to bunkers or airplanes that can be refueled in flight; they scramble jet fighters and argue about launching first strikes. They scrutinize satellite intel and send telexes to the Russian president, leading to the inevitable climax when life hangs in the balance and they take out the bad guys to make the world safe again.

Tom Clancy is a mega-bestselling novelist, largely because his plots are fast-paced thrillers that play by the rules of the genre while innovating and twisting in clever ways. He uses current-event political topics—the IRA, Islamic terrorism, rogue nations, drug wars. His stories of analytical reasoning and fast action are disturbingly satisfying, but wholly inadequate in response to the complex circumstances of today’s crises.

I am so ready for other kinds of storytelling and storytellers, men and women, who are willing to explore different territory than the black-and-white good-guy-bad-guy fare that hypnotizes the mainstream. Given the power that stories have not only to mirror reality but to create it, this is not merely a plea for more variety. I am sounding an alarm. To paraphrase the old adage about hammers and nails, if all we have is Jack Ryan, everyone looks like a terrorist.

Kathryn Bigelow’s film, “The Hurt Locker,” comes to mind for its exploration of the emotional and psychological tolls of war. I’m sure there are others, but what about entirely different stories, rather than different perspectives on the same kinds of stories? Last weekend, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story about the absurdly low representation of women in any role in Hollywood, particularly as directors, but also on camera with speaking roles. Besides the power struggles familiar in every inch of our culture, there is the distrust, even disdain, of emotion:

“I think there’s a fear that females can only tell female stories, like if they’re given free rein, they’ll just write stories where everyone’s braiding each other’s hair and crying.” (Jessica Elbaum, head of production at Gloria Sanchez Productions)

While some women are proving that they can direct the blockbuster films as well as men, others are interested in exploring the uniquely heroic qualities of women. The article quotes director Shira Piven:

“I feel there’s something going on underneath all of this which is the idea that women aren’t quite as interesting as men. That men have heroic lives, do heroic things, are these kind of warriors in the world, and that women have a certain set of rooms that they have to operate in.”

Against all odds and funding, women in Hollywood—the great story factory in our culture—are crafting stories that are more nuanced, less good-guy-bad-guy, with heroes that rely on feeling and intuition as much as reason and action. Think of the critically-acclaimed film, “Room,” based on the novel by Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue. We can move past stories that substitute a woman into the man’s role without changing anything else. It’s time for more stories like this Neruda poem about keeping still, about the spaciousness of inaction, the life and understanding that emerges from silence.


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