Who doesn’t like a good movie? One that allows to follow the characters’ development and emphasize with them? Quite often such stories need an “igniter” — either in the beginning to get things going or in the middle to increase the tension. When there is no external trigger, writers often use a conflict between characters in order to achieve this. And that’s where the perfectly normal argument comes in.
Let’s look at the way these arguments are structured and what story they tell us about how people deal with conflicts. I brought four examples for that: An excerpt from the children’s show “Milo”, a scene from the Disney movie “The Lion King”, a snippet from Marvel’s “The Avengers” and a scene from the Netflix series “Ozark”.
Have a look at this scene from the children’s show:
The scene depicts what I would call the stereotypical “marriage” fight — this argument is so embedded in our view of what a classic fight looks like, that it is even used in a children’s show like this. It can be characterized by one person making an accusation, usually based on a previously unresolved conflict. As a response, the other person takes a defensive position and reacts with another accusation, hence increasing the tension:
Parent 1: “It’s always the same story with you! You do nothing to help me out! Nothing! I can’t stand it anymore.”
Parent 2: “Oh, and you think you are so great because you pick up my socks! You think you’re such a perfect partner? […]”
It is not uncommon for one of the characters to even end the argument by fleeing the situation.
In this case, the actual trigger of the argument is not depicted and the viewer’s attention focused on the argument itself. As the fight is used for educational purposes, it is later resolved by the parents meeting up again, saying “sorry” to each other, and explaining that fights are normal and not the end of the world. It can be pointed out that the actual argument and how the parents voice their statements are not discussed and rather left for the young viewer to be accepted as is, hence making the point “this is how normal arguments go”.
The Lion King
Let’s look at the second example, an argument between the main characters Nala and Simba. Nala wants Simba to come back to save the kingdom from his uncle, while Simba is reluctant to do so:
Nala beliefs that Simba coming back is the “right” thing to do, while Simba has come to belief in the “Hakuna Matata” way, arguing that sometimes bad things happen, and you can do nothing about them.
This is could be labelled as a second type of argument, one that is based on conflicting values. Two characters believe two different things: e.g. being “strong” by taking responsibility vs. accepting things how they are and staying safe — which in their own right are both valid beliefs. But following the classic hero story, Simba needs to go back to where the story started, so the argument is framed in a way that the viewer more easily identifies with Nala’s perspective.
To provide tension, however, Nala does not show empathy for Simba’s reluctance, but rather makes an accusation to which Simba reacts strongly, following the same pattern as in the previous example. Eventually, here as well, fleeing the situation is depicted as the way out of the conflict. In these “my-belief-vs-your-belief” type of arguments, the fight is usually shown as an attempted persuasion of the other character by using more and more personal accusations. Often the argument is later “resolved” by one character reflecting on his situation or receiving external input.
In the next example, we look at an argument in „The Avengers“ between the characters Tony Stark and Steve Rogers:
What we see here is probably the most verbal “Hollywood” fight you could get: Two male characters one-upping each other on how the other is not competent and how they themselves are the best.
The only reason for the existence of this argument is to have a fight, which can then be interrupted by an event driving the story. Nevertheless, it also carries a notion of what a “normal argument between men” looks like.
Instead of focusing on the problem at hand (which is not even clear at this point), the characters are allowed to get completely carried away by their emotional state, focusing on reaffirming the image they have of themselves. All of this suggesting that verbally dominating the other character could possibly lead to a conflict resolution.
Here is one last example from Netflix show Ozark (S1E7) — the couple Wendy and Marty Byrde are getting more and more entangled in work with the Mexican drug cartel and struggle to find a solution to get out of it. Wendy made plans without communicating with Marty and arranged for their kids to be sent back to their previous home in Chicago:
In this example, the argument context is much more complicated and requires deeper understanding of the characters and the previous story. It combines, however, all three previous types of arguments, tying them together:
Marty’s “Hang on a second, are you trying to teach them your little trick, when shit gets high you just pack up and run?” indicates that there is a previously unresolved conflict. It is also an iteration of the second example, focusing on different values and beliefs: “going to Chicago means death” vs. “it can’t get worse”. Finally, it also has aspects of the third example in the way the characters try to assert dominance over each other either through phrasing (“let me tell you something”) or through physical gestures (Wendy standing up and leaning over the table, pointing at Marty).
We see again the reoccurring pattern of the characters not focusing on the problem at hand, but instead broadening the topic and making judgements about the general behavior of the other person. The writers intentionally show that Marty has built up a judgement in his head about what Wendy’s intentions are and is simply voicing it when being challenged by Wendy: “this is just another betrayal, how long have you been planning this?”.
The common problem
As we can see from the examples (which were not hard to find), there is rarely a movie that is not driven by some form of interpersonal conflict between characters.
Beginning at childhood, we are being told what “normal” arguments look like — even if conflicts themselves are usually not tabooed and their eventual resolution praised, they are all structured in the same stereotypical way:
First, there is an unresolved conflict that builds up over time, until one character eventually “snaps” and makes some form of accusation. Secondly, the other person does not build understanding of the situation — instead of empathizing what might lead the other person to say certain things, writers usually make characters take the accusation personally and let them feel attacked. Thirdly, the “attacked” character reacts by asserting dominance — usually by bringing a counter-accusation or an insult. Interestingly, research found such verbal attacks to be “tolerated more than similar behavior manifested by women” 1. And lastly, one character flees the situation to escape the conflict — allowing the writers to end the scene at a high-tension point and contrast it with following content (one could easily imagine how “interesting” movies would otherwise be if each conflict is actually resolved at the spot).
Now, it is obvious that arguments are an efficient tool in the writer’s tool belt — they allow building story tension, provide action triggers and clues for the audience to emphasize with the characters. And they are not pure fiction: most people have been in a fight that had the structure described above — this is the reason we can relate and why they are such an efficient story telling tool. This means there is a point to be made that the way we argue in reality is flawed and should be examined more closely.
At the same time, so-called “media socialization” is “a process across the life span through which individuals acquire and interact with values and social standards of a specific society and culture” 2 — meaning the media we consume has an effect on our behavior. This process takes time: it requires a “repeated exposure to specific social standards, rules, and values […] before these become individually engrained” 2.
Since we consume more and more media that re-affirms our (potentially) flawed way of carrying out conflicts, we enter a downwards spiral. For example, one study examining the effects of television shows already suggests that “the behaviors shown in each entertainment genre are actually being imprinted into our views of romance” 3.
This is especially tragic for young media consumers, as “most important socialization occurs in childhood and youth” 2 — for example through TV, which “has an effect on the way children use to express their thoughts with each other and with caregivers” 4.
Since we look at a problem where two outcomes strengthen each other (how people argue in reality is depicted in the media and the arguments depicted in the media affects how people are socialized and argue in reality), we can try to tackle the problem from both sides.
Arguments in real life mostly escalate because of the first previously identified step, an unresolved conflict — or as social scientist Joseph Grenny puts it: “We tend to avoid these conversations [about unresolved conflicts] because we are conscious of the risks of speaking up, but unconscious of the risks of not speaking up” 5.
Also, being able to clearly communicate one’s own emotional state can be immensely helpful in order to de-escalate a conflict and argue efficiently. A tool like non-violent communication (“NVC”) can be very useful for this and has a proven record of leading to more compassionate communication and hence resolution of conflicts 6.
Looking at the media side, how could we adapt the stories we tell, so they match with a more desirable image of arguing culture?
This is a tricky question because they are a story driver. We could, however, double check if a verbal fight is actually necessary for the story or if a conflict could be depicted in an emotionally intelligent way. This could even be used by writers as a character building device.
However, especially in media for younger audiences, I’d advocate for a more conscious approach — educational shows could explicitly teach tools like NVC to kids or at least retroactively discuss depicted fights instead of just accepting them as the norm.
Arguments are a strong driver for the entertainment and education we consume. These mediums carry stories about what “perfectly normal” arguments look like, effecting how we behave in real scenarios. Hence it’s important to become more sensitive to these stories and reflect our actual arguing culture, taking active steps to improve on it.
Because in the end, arguments should be a tool to resolve conflicts, not a tool to escalate them.
Genner, Sarah. Süss, Daniel. 2017. Socialization as Media Effect↩
Hillin, Taryn. 2014. How Movies And TV Shows Are Changing The Way You Think About Love↩
Muçaj, Arjana. Korriku, Ardita. 2013. The role of television in the development of verbal communication skills in children from 3-4 years old↩
Hill, Amelia. 2018. Couples who argue together, stay together, research finds↩
Rosenberg, Marshall B. 2015. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships↩
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