Jungian Archetypes in Media

According to psychologist Carl Jung there are several archetypes that are burned into the collective unconscious of all humanity. This then got turned into the commonly cited “Twelve Archetypes” that you see in world-building, spirituality, pop-psychology articles or trippy album covers. I’m not a psychologist but I do think there’s a lot of truth to the idea that there are certain repeating character models (or images and primal fears, as in Jung’s original conception of the idea) that are present in the collective subconscious. As a result, they’re expressed in nearly every story that’s ever been told, from the tribal elder who first invented Zeus (the ruler) to the modern TV show writer making Darlene Alderson (the rebel). A more concrete example would be the prevalence of flood myths in Bronze Age civilizations. They’re like ingrained Muses we all invoke, if even just subconsciously, when we tap into our imagination and tell stories.

Just for fun I thought I’d choose my own example for each of the 12 archetypes, some more obvious than others.

Cover for the obscure album Magical Love by Saturnalia.

The Orphan

For this archetype, I went with Lapis Lazuli from Steven Universe. Lapis is orphaned on a planet she doesn’t know or particularly care for (at least not at first). She’s been injured by those around her and has no one to look out for her interests, so she latches onto the first person who’s ever shown her any kindness at all and doesn’t let go (Steven). Throughout the series Lapis deals with the trauma of being imprisoned in the mirror as well as her bad “relationship” with another gem. Her arc is about overcoming her traumatic past and learning to call the Earth her home.

The Innocent

I went with Mabel Pines from Gravity Falls. This type is described as being optimistic and trusting, but fears abandonment. In the show Mabel is always upbeat, trusts Grunkle Stan when nobody else would but fears Dipper will outgrow her and she’ll be alone. I don’t mind saying, she’s one of the most adorable fictional characters I’ve ever seen; the perfect embodiment of childhood whimsy that you never want to see a person lose.

The Joker

For this one I went with Del Griffith, from Planes Trains and Automobiles. This type is defined as someone who always tries to make the mundane fun. Someone who uses humor and good spirits to make others laugh or barring that, stop taking things so seriously. That’s Del’s entire narrative purpose in the film. He helps his traveling companion, Neal Page, loosen up and enjoy the trip, however unfortunate it’s been. But we see he also uses his frivolities as a way of coping with his wife’s unfortunate passing.

Slightly off-topic, but John Hughes is one of the best screenplay writers and a true artist in his craft. Someone who could communicate the angst and uncertainties of teenhood in his writing more effectively than anyone else I’ve ever seen. I will talk about some of his other films in the near future.

The Lover

For this one, I went with Sonny Wortzik from Dog Day Afternoon. What this archetype represents is pretty obvious, but my particular selection for an exemplar is maybe the least obvious choice in my list. In its first half or so, DDA seems like a straight heist movie gone wrong. It isn’t until later in the story that we see the reason for Sonny’s reckless bank robbery; he was motivated by his love for Leon, and the need to give her money for a sex change operation (what we’d now call Gender Reconstruction Surgery). In a way, it’s a beautiful gesture if completely misguided.  

The Explorer

Here, I chose the fictionalized portrayal of T.E. Lawrence from Lawrence of Arabia. This one is pretty obvious again. The Explorer is described as someone who travels to new places and seeks the unknown. They are said to “help us discover our uniqueness, our perspectives and our callings.” Lawrence is an Englishman who doesn’t fit in with his own people, but finds himself out in the Arabian desert. He loves their country and takes up their cause of independence as his own. But more than that, there’s some nice subtext in the movie of Lawrence exploring his sexuality in the film. He’s seen prancing around in the lighter, more feminine (by Western standards of course) robes of a Sharif. When Ali calls him “a conqueror […] the prince […] the man” Lawrence responds that he is none of those things. This somewhat reflects the real man, whom many suspect was either gay or an asexual. In any case, it’s all about individuality apart from the crowd, going your own way when no one else would understand.

The Magician

I chose Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series. Described as one who seeks out the scientific or metaphysical truth, I think that suits her more than Ron or Harry, the other two most likely selections from that series. Where Ron and Harry, though talented, were more interested in Quidditch or frustrating the efforts of Snape and Voldemort, Hermione would be at the library actually studying things. She’s probably the most famous female spell-caster there is right now. Both the character and the actress who brought her to life on screen are considered feminist icons. Seemed like a simple choice.

The Caregiver (aka The Mother)

I selected Evelyn Mulwray from Chinatown. For the majority of the film, Evelyn is treated as a straightforward femme fatale stand-in. For those unaware, that means a dangerous, mysterious woman who’s unmarried and uses her feminine wiles to manipulate men. But near the end of the story, we find out the truth, which is that Evelyn is actually just a caring and devoted mother. Her motivation is merely to protect her daughter Katherine from the same cruelty that traumatized her (represented by both women’s father, Noah Cross.) Evelyn is a caregiver because she stands up against the authoritarian-elitist forces which seek to exploit the entire world for their own gain. She’s one of the most tragic heroines of the cinema, who unfortunately never gets the credit for it.

While I’m on the subject of Chinatown, this is only tangentially related but I love how the concept of love is depicted in the film. Evelyn cares for Katherine despite Katherine herself being a reminder of her trauma, as the living reminder of an incestuous rape. Similarly, Jake is moved to kiss Evelyn only after he notices her “flaw in the iris.” The idea of loving someone not only despite, but because of their flaws is so moving to me. I don’t think that’s a trait you see in any other animals but humans, though I’d love to be corrected if I’m wrong.

The Ruler

My choice is Don Vito Corleone from The Godfather. On the surface, he’s a repugnant crime boss and a tyrant. However, the movies (and to a lesser extent the book) go out of their way to romanticize him and show his good qualities.

Putting his unethical business aside for a minute, let’s look at how Vito interacts with people on a human level. The Don takes a great deal of time away from enjoying his daughter’s wedding day, what should be one of the happiest of his life, to fix other people’s problems. He helps out little people like a baker who almost certainly can’t be of any real use. And with Bonasera, the Don helps those who have been cold or even outright rude to him in the past. Vito agrees to perform potentially dangerous tasks on his behalf that, if traced back, could get his family in trouble. He asks a favor in return, but considering it was merely for Bonasera to do his job as an undertaker, it’s hardly unreasonable. When Johnny, the prodigal son, returns home from California to ask a favor, the Don helps him out too. He does not talk down to his underlings, and even allows those who’ve wronged him like Carlo Rizzi (who beats his daughter and set his son up to be killed) to remain alive for the good of the overall family. In the book, he gives Michael the important lesson that when you have to say “no” to someone, “make it sound like a yes.”

The Godfather: Part II is a contrast to the sort of “golden age” we see in the first film. We see Vito’s predecessor Fanucci and his successor Michael Corleone, both of whom rule out of fear as opposed to love. Fanucci manhandles the denizens of “his” neighborhood, muscles everyone for money and generally demeans those under his power. Michael forces his underlings to leave the room only to immediately come back in when he doesn’t want them to hear a piece of info, rather than just wait until he can be alone with Tom to ask it. He forces Pentangeli to suffer many insults so he (Michael) can secure his own deal with Hyman Roth. Michael doesn’t buy his own son’s Christmas presents, and treats his wife like a prisoner where she cannot leave the house. But perhaps worst of all, Michael allows his own brother to feel neglected and impotent, ordering him around like a servant rather than make him feel like a valued member of the family. These are all the marks of a bad ruler, and culminate in Michael becoming a lonely old man at the end of the story.

The Rebel

Princess Leia Organa from Star Wars. I consider her a more worthy representation than Han or Luke in the same series for the simple reason that she was a leader in the cause from the beginning. Luke and Han, while invaluable in winning the war, were late additions and as far as we can see they had little grasp of the political or military intricacies and stratagem. Luke had his own personal struggle with bringing the light side of the force back, and for much of the saga he was fighting to avenge his father. Han was fighting for his friends, to keep them safe and become a better man. Leia, on the other hand, was fighting for a cause from day one. Her motivation was purely standing up against the status quo of a conformist government.

I think each of the 3 main human characters in the series was a metaphorical rebel against some aspect of harmful oppression in society (nominally the Galactic Empire, but also in our own). Luke represents religious discrimination, as well as overcoming expectations based on birth/heritage. He’s a believer in a faith that was forcibly wiped out, and sort of destined to fail by virtue of his parentage, but he overcomes those obstacles. Han Solo represents the discrimination that comes when your every move or thought is watched, cataloged and used against you. He could outrun the entire Imperial fleet in ESB but couldn’t escape his own past (represented by Boba Fett taking him to Jabba.) Vader, in Han’s story, represents a corrupt judicial system that hands people over to a virtual death sentence without a fair trial. No matter how good Han had become since his smuggling days, he could never rise up in a world where every act of disobedience or nonconformity is perpetually held against you. Of course, he’s saved in the end by his redemption (represented by his friends coming to save him.) Princess Leia represents sexual oppression in the beginning of ROTJ when she is reduced to her sex appeal but rises above it and frees herself. She more than the other two also represents general discrimination against alternate political ideologies.

The Hero

I went with Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. He’s the perfect example of how a hero need not wear a cape, or be physically domineering. Being a hero is chiefly about being a respectable member of the community, setting a good example, and defending those who need it most. It means standing up to the majority when the majority is wrong. Besides defending a black man in the segregationist South, Atticus embodies this concept in raising two amazing kids. 

The Creator

I selected Mozart as depicted in the film, Amadeus. I debated going with Willy Wonka, but ultimately decided on Mozart for several reasons. In Wonka’s universe, he’s already hailed as a genius, while Mozart’s fame only came after his own death. I think it’s commendable to celebrate those who didn’t get the recognition they deserved in their own time. It sends a good example to all those who would want to create something beautiful but are discouraged by indifference or outright rejection. Maybe most people won’t like your work…but perhaps future generations will. Maybe it will always be unpopular, but someone out there will appreciate it, even if you’re never aware. It’s worth putting your art out there, even if it only reaches one other person.

Beyond that, I think Salieri’s rivalry with Mozart in the film raises some interesting observations on the nature of the creator. In the film, Salieri is initially disgusted by Mozart’s childishness, his sexual conquests and his supposedly feminine demeanor. As someone rigid, pious and celibate he feels he’s “earned” the right to be given talent by God. But this is not how great art is made. It comes from exploring your own mind, your own individuality and emotions. That mistaken belief is what led Salieri (the film version at least) down a path of resentment and bitterness to a man who otherwise might have made a great friend and collaborator.

The Sage

This is the other most oblique choice on this list. There’s this picture I always remembered from my European History textbook in High School, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. I love the little girl‘s expression; it’s one of the most haunting and poignant I’ve seen in a painting. Just looking at it in its own context, that expression of apprehensive curiosity as she allows the older, more frightened child to hold on for comfort…that’s humanity in a nutshell. We’re always pressing on, trying to explore and learn even though whats unknown is evolutionarily programmed to scare us. We document what we encounter on the other side of the looking glass. We are the only apes that ask questions, we are the only species that documents knowledge and experience to benefit the next generation. That’s what the Sage archetype is all about, whether they fit the conventional image of an old scholar or a young girl on her way to becoming one.

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