How do fringe interests like abortion and homophobia take center stage at a time when we have bigger issues? (N. B. We always have bigger issues. So we might as well ask how anti-choice and anti-queer people ever take center-stage.) The answer actually has something to do with how to be a good writer. It has to do with how to create convincing characters.
One of humanity’s basic questions is how to choose a leader based on competence and alignment of values. In theory, we’d all comb through old legislation and speeches and make our decisions based on that. But our politicians know that we don’t always have or take the time to make an informed decision. Or the law degree. And we are often misled by wishful thinking and perceived self-interest. These blind spots on our part open the door for politicians to use shorthand. Something that has come to be known as virtue-signaling. All politicians do this to some extent.
A Quick Example
Biden famously helped pass the crime bill in 1994 to end two decades of Democrats being perceived as soft on crime. One result of the bill was the continued rise in the non-violent prison population. Far from reducing crime, the bill’s actual effect is to destabilize entire neighborhoods (particularly Black and Latin communities) with the result being more crime not less. And that’s before you even consider that many of the draconian measures imposed by the bill are themselves criminal, given that they violate the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. That was twenty-eight years ago and the law in question is still on the books. Virtue signaling is hardly a new idea.
You can actually see something similar play out more obviously in a novel or movie. As with a political campaign, a novel or movie takes place over a finite amount of time. Information needs to be conveyed to the reader in symbols because there isn’t always room to do so in a deeper and more thorough way.
“Save the Cat”
Enter: “Save the cat.” This literary cliche is as simple as it is obvious. If you’re constructing a story in which the main character needs to be likable immediately, just have them do something that shows sympathy for the helpless. Like saving a cat. Or protecting a student from bullying. Or preventing nuclear devastation at the hands of terrorists with suspiciously non-white sounding names. The point is that a scene like this early on tells us two pieces of information.
-That the character in question is moral.
-That the character is willing to stand up for what is right.
The thing is that a lot of characters end up doing morally questionable things in the course of their story. When the Avengers, for example, fight against their grey, interchangeable CGI invader du jour, we rarely see the collateral damage of their victory. And even if we do, the music is always joyous and stirring as they knock over buildings that have definitely not been evacuated and slam into cars that definitely contain people fleeing the carnage. But they saved a cat. So we know they’re our guys. We know that whatever they’re doing, it’s the right thing. Or at least, they’re doing it for the right reason.
Subversions of the “Save the Cat” Trope… from 200 Years Ago
Interestingly, this trope is so old that even subversions of the trope are old. Read any Jane Austen book and there will be some early moment when a (male, douchebaggy) character demonstrates his gallantry in some superficial way. I.e. he has some kind of “save the cat” moment that convinces the point-of-view character he is a good guy. And then, later in the book, he demonstrates his douchebaggery in some deeper and more substantial way that causes the point-of-view character not only to reassess their opinion of him but to question why they ever saw any good in him in the first place.
The lesson is that people often show their quality over time. And first impressions are not always accurate. In particular, there are people who excel at making a good first impression but do not have any other skill. For some reason, their names almost always begin with “W”–”Wickham,” or “Willoughby,” for example.
The thing about Austen, though, is that her plots revolve entirely around the point-of-view of character forming and then questioning their first impressions. So our heroine has time for these kinds of shenanigans, even in the much-shorter movie versions. But what if that’s not what your book or film is about? What if you just want to follow around an overpowered secret agent like James Bond. There’s not a whole lot of room in a Bond movie for changing your opinion regarding the virtues of the main character. And it would be out of step with the vibe of the movie even if there were time to indulge in such a thing. So an action movie starts with a “save the cat” moment and then we follow the main character faithfully for the rest of the film.
Unfortunately, life is more like an Austen novel than it is like a Bond movie . A politician showing you at the beginning of the relationship that they are “one of the good guys” will not necessarily mean they stay “one of the good guys” for the length of the campaign, much less for the length of their term in office.
“Save the Cat” Politicians
But most people don’t have the time it takes to become a political expert. Even if you do manage to read an article or two, catch a debate or two, you don’t necessarily know who or what to believe. Politicians make promises and don’t necessarily keep them . They stretch and exaggerate their claims. Maybe they try to keep their promises and a Joe Manchin or a Kyrsten Sinema gets in the way. Or maybe they just don’t try that hard to keep them. Sometimes it feels like a little bit of all three.
So how do you tell who to vote for? Well, issues like abortion and homophobia serve as a kind of “save the cat” moment for a politician. They directly affect a much smaller portion of the population. Often they are most predatory towards a portion of the population that is disenfranchised anyway.
That’s one problem. The average voter can say they are unaffected. Even if they have female relatives of childbearing age and inclination. Or a queer relative. But another problem is that these issues don’t serve as a barometer of how the politician in question will govern or legislate in other areas. For example, you’d think, logically, that the party in favor of banning abortion would also be in favor of a massive expansion of the welfare state, specifically for new parents. A person who becomes pregnant is, at least in some circumstances, more likely to choose birth over abortion if there is a viable social safety-net in place. Yet the same American political party for whom anti-choice legislation is such a watchword are also notoriously prone to speaking and acting against the social safety-net.
Political Theater Versus What Happens Backstage
So why do we use things like abortion as our political “save the cat” moment? Because it’s convenient. And it’s usually an easy promise to keep, one way or the other. And ultimately, as many lives as it costs or ruins, it’s just theater. It doesn’t even tell you whether the candidate themselves will be pro-abortion or anti-abortion in their own lives. Consider the case of Tom DeLay, who rose to prominence in the late 90s for refusing to let Terry Schiavo be taken off life support. It later came out that DeLay had faced the same decision in 1988 when his own father had lost his cognitive functioning. The DeLay family allowed Papa Charles to pass away without aggressive medical intervention. And without a media circus.
Similarly, it would even be nice if conservative politicians who were anti-abortion were actually anti-abortion. It wouldn’t help us directly. But at least we could console ourselves that we were living in a world where even the political leaders we disagree with are acting in good faith. But alas not. The roll of Conservatives who are conservative in public but not in private goes on and on. (Sadly this list is old and so most of its references are dead links. But I remember the more prominent stories from when they came out in the news, and can vouch for the overall accuracy of the list.)
So, no, we cannot assume that just because a person votes pro-life on the floor of the senate that they actually hold such views in private. Which means that the person’s pro-life stance is not a reliable indicator of virtue. All it tells you is that the politician in question is willing to lie to get elected. Which tells you they are more interested in the perks of being an elected official than in the responsibility of governing.
“Save the Cat” is a Simple Metric. But Life is not Simple
It would be nice if a senator’s or president’s political theater to “save” fetuses, that is, to force the pregnant to give birth against their will even in cases where there is substantial risk to the mother, were an indication that they are the hero of their story. It would be nice if we could just think of fetuses as the most helpless kittens of all. And to think of anti-abortion legislation as “saving the cat.” But think about it. In movies that employ the “save the cat” shorthand, are the main characters really the heroes? Always? Even if they are, what about the collateral damage that the camera pans shyly away from?
Just as it would be nice if anti-abortion politicians had their hearts in the right place, it would be nice, too, if life were as simple as a Bond movie. But they don’t. And it’s not. If life were that simple, we wouldn’t need Bond movies. We wouldn’t need black-and-white morality plays to live vicariously through. We’d already be there.
The point is: these are difficult decisions for a family to make. Whether to bring a child into the world. Whether to allow an irretrievably sick person to leave the world. And a fetus is not a cat; a defenseless pet. Not least because the owners of that cat made the decision to have that cat. So we are left where we started: with the idea that these symbols are just that: symbols. And the decision to keep or abort a pregnancy should be just that: a decision. A choice between two less-than-ideal possibilities.