LSFRC 2021 Papers
The Hero Doesn’t Need a Face and We Don’t Need a Hero: 3%, Social Justice, and the Shared Protagonism of Brazilian Science Fiction
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell develops the theory that there is a common structure to many stories, myths, and legends called the “monomyth” or “the hero’s journey.” More than merely naming the main character of a given narrative, the hero is an archetype, an image that synthesizes social ideas of what heroism and valor are. This means that in a given society, all heroes share some traits, such as looking just like any other person on the outside, but having exceptional qualities on the inside (Campbell 95). And these qualities help the adventure entice him, call him to action, to travel (metaphorically or not) to achieve his own greatness; another feature of the hero is that he is meant to be great, in many cases since he was conceived or born. He is fated to be who he is.
Campbell’s idea became very influential in what audiovisual narratives assume a hero is and in the way it builds this archetype and its story. But Campbell’s ideas were not widely accepted when his book was first released. A great influence in popularizing Campbell’s work was George Lucas and his Star Wars films. It is up to debate how much influence Campbell’s work had on the making of the original script of the 1977 movie. Chris Taylor argues that based on early drafts, Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and a far wider range of references were more influential (533), with Campbell’s book serving more as a “user’s manual” for understanding Frazer’s work (245).
After the movie was released, the association between Campbell’s and Lucas’s works became unavoidable. Influential critics such as Roger Ebert quickly recognized the relation between Lucas’s film and mythology, pointing to a lexicon very similar to those Campbell used in The Hero with A Thousand Faces. Through the end of the 1970s and all of the 1980s, Lucas embraced this supposed influence, turning himself into a great advocate of Campbell’s work. After Star Wars’ tremendous success, the hero’s journey spread like a plague in Hollywood, mainly in science fiction and fantasy film narratives, but also in other genres and media. Even a big player like Disney took advantage of that: a memo written in the end of the 1980s by screenwriter Christopher Vogler circulated inside the studio praising the monomyth and offering a guide to replicate it. Not by coincidence, all Disney’s big hits of the 1990s were structured around the hero’s journey.
Ursula Le Guin performs a compelling analysis of the hero in The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. She underlines the idea that the hero must act to be considered heroic; thus it is fair to say that the hero’s journey and, by extension, heroic stories, are centered around action-based narratives. This may sound insignificant, but it is actually important: it makes heroic narratives about those who can act and by extension, those who end up overcoming the existing power structures. As Michel Foucault states, power exists only in relation and action; power and knowledge imply one another (26-27), and narratives play a large role in spreading knowledge and, therefore, power. It is not only about who, but also about what: the hero must travel, must fight, must hurl the spear, must shoot, must kill (Le Guin 31) to overcome what he is supposed to. So the hero was born exceptional and for this exceptionality to be shown, he must sacrifice something, sometimes even himself, for the greater good. But, most of all, he must sacrifice something for his own success. This may sound like heroism, but it is also very similar to what white men did in Africa, America, and in many parts of Asia and the Middle East.
It is phenomenal how Hollywood can make these imperialist traits so ingrained with the hero figure and, moreover, how they make it look completely apolitical. Hollywood takes away the political aspects of the hero’s actions by making their narratives sound like good stories, like stories of an individual overcoming difficulties to become the hero he was meant to be. But Hollywood has also added something more to this mixture. The United States has a public self-narrative of exceptionalism and sacrifice, which some experts like Robert Bellah call the civil religion of the United States. Of course, it can be seen more clearly in politics, but it is also present in movies and especially, as one might expect, in Hollywood science fiction and fantasy.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Star Wars a lot. I actually like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi. And even John Connor, Neo, Capitan America, Hulk. Damn it, I like Iron Man . . . Film reception is complex; these characters aren’t just part of a plain fairy tale about the hero. They are what we make of them too, how we relate ourselves to them. But the thing is: their stories are theirs; I can make them mine, for example, but as somebody who values diversity, their stories can’t be the only ones that are distributed to the entire world. Not just because they all tell stories of white men, but because we should search for other ways to tell stories—stories that are different, not just with minorities playing the same parts.
It is important that we valorize diversity in how we tell stories. The Brazilian series 3% is a great example of that. The series, produced and streamed by Netflix, is set in the near future. In the first season, we see how the population of the impoverished Inland (“Continente,” in Portuguese) can take a chance when they are twenty years old to change their lives by participating in “The Process,” a challenge that only three percent of the participants are able to pass. Those who are accepted by The Process go to the richer and technologically advanced Offshore, or “Maralto.” In the following three seasons, we discover that Offshore hides many secrets to maintain its dominant position over Inland and its population. We watch a group of Inland youngsters in their twenties who, for many different reasons, join a rebellious movement that wants to destroy the Offshore.
From the first season, we follow the paths of Michele, Fernando, Marco, Rafael, and Joana while they try to survive and join the top 3%. While Michele and Fernando seem to take a more prominent position as the main characters, Rafael and Joana are significant in showing the viewers aspects of Offshore that, at first glance, are hidden. In turn, Marco serves as the character who shows us the complexities of Inland. At the same time, the importance of Marco, Rafael, and Joana grows through the seasons. After a period of fighting against the Offshore, they found The Shell, an egalitarian place where those who don’t believe in the Process and its hierarchy can live. With Michele taking part as a founder of The Shell, the series shows us how important the collectivity is for this place to fulfill its objective. Every one of the main characters is complex in their own way and assumes one important function in the narrative. As we might expect, Offshore doesn’t accept the existence of The Shell and its people must confront the nuances of violent fighting against an oppressive system, choosing when to negotiate with it and how to help the poor population of the Inland.
3% has an action-based narrative, and the actions that characters perform are what move the story forward. They hurl the spear, they shoot, they kill. But here we can’t separate characters into good guys versus the villains because their motivations are not black and white. Indeed, this is what gives their actions weight. In a heroic narrative, if the villain dies, most of the time we accept it, as killing the villain is the hero’s main goal. In 3% we can’t easily accept it because we don’t know who the real villain is. If there is a villain at all, it is society, and along with it, the hierarchy, the difficult circumstances in which the Inlanders live, and the conflicted relationship between Inland and Offshore.
At the same time, there are many moments in every season where the narrative takes some time to breathe, to just enjoy the complexity of each character, to contemplate joy even in a miserable reality, even if this joy might be sad. The second season has a great example of that: in a very tense moment, there is something that resembles Brazilian carnival with percussion instruments and a lot of color and happiness. But the lyric that Liniker (a Brazilian singer) is singing—“Preciso me encontrar” [I Need to Find Me], written by the famous samba singer and songwriter Candeia and made famous in the voice of Cartola—has many mixed feelings that are summarized in a popular Brazilian saying: “rir pra não chorar” [laugh to not cry], which means that in a sad situation, people can choose to laugh even if it is more rational to cry.
But what probably is the most important thing about 3% is that it does not exemplify heroism. The protagonism here is shared: Michele, Fernando, Marco, Rafael, and Joana are important in the same way, and each one of them has a complete narrative arc (with the exception of Fernando). At the same time, none of them is exceptional. On the contrary, in 3% we see the everyday lives of normal people who are full of flaws. People oppressed by Offshore, people who trust the placement of their lives through the Process, but, simply put, people. They are not archetypes like a hero; they are complex, working more on a gray scale, sometimes doing things that we can’t understand or agree with, things that are condemnable.
If the hero works in a “one for all” way, focusing on individual greatness to achieve well-being for all, in 3% we see both “one for oneself” and “all for all,” and they can be either positive or negative, depending on the situation. It depends on how others will react, on what that will lead to. That is a great way to represent a rebellion against an oppressive society because social justice is not about one person changing everything or about a hero, but about collective change, about creating new ways of living together in a place, about liberating everyone from oppressive chains, metaphorical or real. Moreover, achieving this is difficult, it is not a trip to Disney World.
Brazilian science fiction seems to be increasingly betting on collective solutions for its stories. The 2021 film Bacurau by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, for example, tells the story of a small village in northeast Brazil called Bacurau that is attacked by a group of foreign psychopaths who intends to murder the entire population of the region just to feed their hunger to kill. To avoid that, the people of Bacurau unite to find a collective solution to their problem. It is not beautiful, but answers the attack they are suffering in the same way. With this same feeling, we also recall White Out Black In, directed by Adirley Queirós. This film is fictional and also a documentary depicting the lives of victims of police violence in the city of Brasilia, Brazil’s capital. The fictional solution the two main characters find for all the problems Brazilian state caused them is to destroy the government buildings with a sound bomb made with pancadão, a subgenre of Brazilian funk music. Again, a collective solution solves a collective problem, not in a beautiful or heroic way, but in thinking and acting collectively.
So if there is anything that Brazilian science fiction is trying to think through, of which 3% is a part, it is that we don’t need a hero, we need hierarchical changes and social justice, and that only will be achieved if we stop and think together about the Brazil that we want. At the same time, the problems that Brazil faces are not only ours, they were established in the colonial era and deepened by capitalism in many places around the world. But Brazilian science fiction doesn’t want to save the world, we want every community to unite to find solutions to their problems. That might not be beautiful and heroic, but it could be more productive than heroism.
3%. Created by Pedro Aguilera, Boutique Filmes, 2016-2020.
Bacurau. Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, CinemaScópio and Globo Filmes, 2019.
Bellah, Robert. Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World. Harper & Row Publishers, 1976.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 4th ed., Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2020.
Ebert, Roger. “Star Wars, 4 stars.” RogerEbert.com, 01 Jan. 1977, www.rogerebert.com/reviews/star-wars-1977.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd ed., Vintage, 1995.
Frazer, James. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Macmillan, 1976.
Le Guin, Ursula K.. The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. Ignota, 2019.
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Directed by George Lucas, Lucasfilm, 1977.
Taylor, Chris. How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise. Basic Books, 2014.
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Michael Wiese Productions, 2007.
White Out, Black In. Directed by Adirley Queirós, Cinco da Norte, Vitrine filmes, 2015.
Thais Lassali is a Ph.D. student in social anthropology at the University of Campinas, Brazil. She also has a bachelor’s degree in social sciences and a master’s degree in social anthropology at the same university. She is a member of the Laboratory of Fiction and Science (LABFICC) and of the Atelier of Anthropology and Symbolic Production (APSA), both of the University of Campinas. Her research interests are science fiction, Hollywood cinema, film, media and gender studies, and anthropology of science. This text is a partial outcome of the doctoral research made by the author with financing of the Research Support Foundation of the State of São Paulo (Fundação de Amparo a Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo – FAPESP), Process Number 2018/00862-6.