Save the cat. Then stop saving the cat.
Disclaimer: Cats are resilient, I love cats, and no cats were harmed in this article.
Shortly after I submitted the first draft of Driving by Starlight to my agent, she recommended I read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. The book fundamentally changed how I read books and view films, as if I had been given X-ray vision and the underlying skeleton of the finished product was now visible to me. That said, it also made me realize this methodology of Western storytelling, so ingrained in us now, is also fundamentally insufficient as a means of disrupting systems of oppression. As a writer, all my stories are about fighting oppressive systems. Every. Single. One. Some would say that all literature is rebellion against oppression. Stories are our weapon, but they’re not working the way they should. Here’s why.
To review, Save the Cat is a screenwriting rule articulated by Blake Snyder, that says, “The hero has to do something when we meet him so that we like him and want him to win.” Sometimes, as in the Hunger Games, Katniss saves an actual cat, showing that despite her own feral, ruthless instincts she has a good heart. But this cat-saving is usually metaphorical, from Isabel Allende’s Victor Dalmau saving a wounded boy-soldier by holding his very heart in his hands, to Harvey Specter in Suits saving a lost and desperate Michael Ross. Particularly when you have morally dubious protagonists, saving the cat becomes essential to having them be likeable as well.
In storytelling, we want our protagonists to be exceptional, to stand out from the crowd because of their willingness to do something others would not do, usually showing greater curiosity, courage, conviction or compassion than others in their situation. In life, it sets us up to expect individual heroism where instead structural change is necessary.
I recently gave a talk at my alma mater, and posed the question:
You fell in a river and are swimming upstream to get out, but you’re exhausted. You see a drowning cat. Do you save the cat?
Naturally, teenagers are contrarian, and a few mentioned they were dog-people, but the response was not only instinctive, it was clear that not saving the cat would be morally abhorrent. The expectation we are raised with is to choose heroism even over our own survival. I made the question harder.
You fell in a river and are swimming upstream and it’s getting dark. If you don’t get out of the river, you’ll die. You see two drowning cats. Do you save one? Both? Neither?
It was at this point that the students started to realize that under certain circumstances, victory would not be possible. At most, you could save one cat and continue to swim with one arm. You might feel survivor’s guilt over the cat or cats you couldn’t save, which went right back to the expectation that the only moral action requires self-sacrifice. While many would (rightly) argue that this mindset has Christian roots, it is strongly reinforced by Western storytelling, which places the work of righting injustice at the feet of individual heroes.
Consider, for instance, the absurdity of Batman. (P.S. I love Batman and can recite all the dialog of the Nolan trilogy from memory). However, his very existence is absurd. Gotham’s original sin is wealth-inequality that sets the very rich in conflict with the poor masses driven to a life of crime. This original sin manifests in the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents in a desperate mugging gone wrong. Bruce wallows in self-pity and survivor’s guilt and eventually decides to confront the individual responsible… but he fails, and is confronted instead by the reality of the system. It is larger than him, it is reinforced by the law, and he cannot win. And what does he do? Attempt to change the law, reduce the wealth-inequality from which he benefits through charity, or correct the system? No, that’s the woman’s job, and she’ll die doing it.
Bruce Wayne instead spends his money on expensive toys, and spends his nights beating up individuals for the bad but inevitable choices they made. He gets to feel better about himself, and while his new hobby keeps him from the love of his life, sacrificing his relationship with Rachel only serves to make him feel even better about his place in the system. He’s stinking rich, yes, but can’t you see how unhappy he is?
Back to the talk I gave, and the drowning cats. As someone who has studied and taught ethics, it takes a lot of work to get people to stop asking, “What’s the correct answer?” and instead ask, “What’s the correct question?”
The correct question, or at least a better one than “How many cats do you save?” is:
Why the hell are there so many drowning cats?
Maybe there’s a gap in the fence in a nearby park, and while dogs are on leash cats are on their own. Maybe there’s a dumpster that fell in the river. Maybe this society is full of dog-people and they get paid to drown cats to end the “infestation.” You won’t know until you get out of the river. If you drown, nobody’s going to ask the question, and more cats will die. If you get out of the river, the cats in it will drown anyway. Either way, some cats will die.
Systems thinking allows you to move beyond understanding and reacting to particular events and into why those events happen. In particular, it pushes you to move through four levels of understanding:
- Events: What is happening? What is the fastest way to react?
- Patterns: Why does this keep happening? What is the fastest way to prevent it from happening again?
- Structures: What systems and incentives led to these patterns?
- Vision: What underlying values and goals led to these structures?
Once we stop feeling this desperate need to save the cat, we can start asking ourselves and each other the right questions. This is absolutely necessary if we are to confront deeper societal problems like wealth inequality, white supremacy or police brutality.
A few days ago, Trevor Noah and Roy Wood Jr. asked us, in the 1-year wake of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, why Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law that sanctioned that murder still remains.
The entire segment is a must-watch, but the answer is simple. The law came into being in 1863, to keep freed slaves from escaping North to “enemy” lines. So, to answer Roy’s question, “How is this still a law?” values bring laws into being. And which values brought the laws we currently live under into being? That answer, too, is obvious.
It can take people an entire lifetime to realize that they are trapped in the system, when they are conditioned to believe individual acts of heroism will result in a broader victory. It will take us generations to realize that we, too, are products of the system and while we attempt to change the law and make it reflect our values, we must do so with humility, knowing that at every step we find easy outs: donate here, sign there, retweet this, that make us believe that as individuals we are doing our part, or are at least unhappy enough about our inability to do more.
How can we change this? We have to get out of the river, stop allowing it to exhaust us and dictate our moral choices.
In my talk, I spoke of my life and travels in the Middle East, where law, technology, media and people serve to reinforce norms on women’s behavior. The law might state that women wear the veil, the media reinforces that “modest women need no mirrors” and makes wearing it culturally positive, technology establishes enforcement at scale, for instance through guardianship apps that police women’s travel, and people, individually or in groups, act to regulate each others’ behavior to prevent individuals from standing out.
It is only when we start to see that these operate together as an interconnected system, and therefore must be changed together, can we start to imagine a new system, one which different values have brought into being.
What does that mean for us? It means identifying the part(s) of the system we feel we can wrangle some control over. Technology and media (writing) have been my chosen weapons in the struggle, and my entire career has been devoted to using them as levers to change the system as a whole. But I can’t do it alone. None of us can. And in the meantime, it’s easy to exhaust and drown us out by throwing more cats in the river. After all, this is what the system was built to do.
Being the protagonists of our heroic stories feels rewarding, but it’s not the way to achieve lasting change. In my talk, I compared it to the difference between driving a car and laying tracks for trains. Driving a car feels heroic, feels powerful, but at most we can take a few other passengers with us (the saved cats). If we stop driving, the car stops moving. And while we may get to our destination, we don’t leave a way for others to follow. Laying train tracks on the other hand creates a path that outlives you, that will carry hundreds or even thousands of passengers to their destination. But it feels slow and unrewarding by comparison. Why? Because our stories have conditioned us to believe that.
It’s time for a new kind of storytelling, one that recognizes the system in action and disrupts it at the source. One that stops counting victories in cats saved and starts imagining the kind of system that stops drowning cats in the first place. So, even if your journey into disrupting the system began with noticing the drowning cats, it’s now time to stop saving them and get out of the river.
This article has been the first part of a four-part series, making the content of my talk more publicly available.