Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Bluff British Man

Let me tell you about a character archetype peculiar to British media: the bluff British man.

The bluff, beefy British man is typically in his forties, with some muscle and some bulk to him. He’s not a prizefighter, but he’s physically capable. He’s a family man (that’s very important), with a wife and kids, typically at least one son. He is not inclined to understanding. Let me put it another way: He rules his family by prestige. He is the provider, the breadwinner, and by God if he has to go out and work for his crust, he is going to get the respect he deserves from his family when he comes home at night. That’s not usually a problem with his wife, but it is usually a problem with his son. Instead of trying to understand his son, he generally tries to browbeat and bludgeon him (verbally speaking) into submission, which of course only makes the son angrier. He won’t hesitate to use, or at least threaten to use, his physical strength in cases like these.

The most important thing for the bluff British man is maintaining that status of domineering respect with his family, and by extension, with any group of people he might happen to find himself in. In addition to all of his above qualities, he’s also not very clever or smart. He often finds himself intellectually overmatched, and his primary response to such a situation is to try and overbear his way out of it. It must be noted, however, that he is also very protective of his family.
Ultimately, the bluff British man is a very self-centered and insecure person, who cannot allow his fa├žade of outward authority to be tarnished. At any such tarnishing, he must strike back and prove his primacy. See the Doctor Who episode in Season 2, “The Idiot’s Lantern”, or J.K. Rowling’s Vernon Dursley for examples.

Now consider this character in the light of the man in “Midnight”, Biff Cane. (Even his name suggests physical force; ‘Biff’ used to be a common sound effect in cartoons and comic books.) He begins the ride with his wife, but with his rebellious son ensconced in the other seat. That’s okay, as long as he can socialize with the rest of the group and crack wise and make people laugh. As long as he’s telling the slightly self-deflating story, it’s okay. One could even see it as him taking control of his own image and saying, “Here, look, I can laugh at myself. That makes me even more solidified.”

When trouble starts, however, Biff is as scared as anyone else. But he has to cover that to protect his image, and also to protect his wife and son. So he puts up a blustery, bluff exterior, and advocates a hard-line stance against the creature in Skye, up to the point of throwing her out the airlock. This naturally puts him in conflict with the Doctor, and here’s where things get interesting. The Doctor wants to keep him in check, needs to keep him and everyone else in check in order to avoid violence. But because everyone’s scared, and because Biff’s anger is based on fear, there’s no way the Doctor is going to intellectually argue him out of this. Biff just remains set in his opinions, and keeps agitating for the death of the creature. The Doctor gets frustrated by this, and eventually tries to assert his (well-earned) primacy in the group, first by saying he’s clever, then by saying that to get to Skye, they’ll have to go through him first.

That’s a mistake. Immediately after the Doctor says “Because I’m clever!”, Biff takes it as demeaning to him. He assumes that the Doctor is trying to degrade him and assert his own status as the alpha male, which he essentially is, although for good reasons. And when the Doctor challenges him, asking if he would really, honestly throw another person out of the airlock, it’s not about Skye. Biff has written her off by this point anyway. It’s about, “Am I going to let this guy show me up? Am I going to let him tell me what to do?” and his answer is, “NO”. Thus begins a hard core of resentment and anger focused on the Doctor, which will not go away until the end of the episode.

He can’t allow the Doctor to be cleverer than he is. The Doctor is clearly more literate, as shown by the Christina Rosetti comment, more experienced and smarter than Biff can even hope to be. He can’t allow the Doctor to supplant him. And while those aren’t the only reasons why he eventually wants to throw the Doctor out the airlock, they are the big ones that explain why he’s so solidly behind it. He needs to prove himself in some way, and the last reservoir at his disposal is physical force.

The biggest takeaway, in terms of how you should view the Bluff British Man, is that he is scared out of his mind. He tends to be a very insecure individual. Vernon Dursley, Biff, the Idiot’s Lantern guy—all of them are terrified of the strange things entering their relatively ordered universe. Their only out, their only escape, is to get angry and assertive and hope to bluff their way through things by yelling at them. They are psychologically incapable of understanding either the situation they’re in or the other people in that situation, because they’re trapped so deeply inside their own heads. The thing is, approaching them from that direction only enrages them further, because they find it emasculating. Once you understand the Bluff British Man’s motivations—his fears and his desire to not appear weak in front of his family—his behavior suddenly becomes very understandable, even moving.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Tisdel's Law

My experience has shown me that for whatever reason, people who love sports strongly tend to love politics as well. That may be partially a product of the competitiveness of each, or the fact that the linguistics of each tend to creep into the other (witness Newt Gingrich saying he's "at his best in the fourth quarter", or the name "Spygate" for Bill Belichick's videotaping scandal a few years ago), but those two demographics just tend to overlap strongly. It's been my observation that conversations between people astute in both areas tend to bleed over into one another, which leads me to Tisdel's Law. 

Weak application of Tisdel's Law: All conversations that begin by talking about politics will inevitably segue into talking about sports. (Jon King, moderating the GOP Presidential Debate last night, did it right at the start by mentioning he was rooting for the Patriots this weekend.)

Strong application of Tisdel's Law: No matter how they start, all conversations that begin with either politics or sports will end up incorporating the other field. 

Tisdel's Law has been demonstrated repeatedly during conversations within my friend group and political discussion group, the League of Informed Voters. (The name isn't mine, by the way; I believe my friend Dick gets credit for formally naming the phenomenon.) I'm currently trying to scrape together funds for a wider study. Tisdel's Law is predicated on my observations at the following places: Wooster, OH; Washington, D.C; Milwaukee, WI; and various televised coverage of Presidential candidates/Congressional races, all of which indicate that interest in politics and sports tend to go hand in hand. Tisdel's Law should not be used to place bets; any such responsibility is yours.