What’s the Meme Behind this Story?

As I’ve said on numerous occasions to my beloved readers, everything that has taken root in our culture started out as the seed of an idea—a prototypical meme. So now, let’s take this idea further. Imagine that that seed then grew into a phenomenon that we can all point to, like a great tree in the backyard where we grew up. We don’t think of that tree as having had a beginning, because we’re so accustomed to it, but of course we know that everything had a beginning…

Take the story of Pretty Woman, one of the most popular non-CGI films of all time. Astute observers of culture will recognize that it’s the same basic pattern behind the iconic musical My Fair Lady, by Lerner and Lowe. Which had as its basis the play Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw. Which took its name from the Greek myth Pygmalion, from about 2,500 years ago. Before that, we start to lose the thread a bit. One wonders where exactly this story originated, whether it was in fact thousands of years before that in some Bronze Age village, where an early sculptor of sorts imagined a story where we fell in love with a statue he (or she) had created—and in their imagination the object magically came to life and became human.

Another example is the more recent film Avatar, the highest-grossing movie of all time by a wide margin. As anyone who follows the movie business knows, just having cool special effects and famous stars does not at all guarantee success at the box office. One must have a story that is gripping, that pulls you in emotionally. In Avatar, there are many memes/archetypes at work, such as a reiteration of the Pocahontas story, and the popular post-Industrial meme of Machine vs. Man.

But what struck me when I saw the film is the overt ecological myth. The powerful scene when the human army converges around the great tree that is the home of those weird, magnificent blue aliens (a civilization that is entirely in tune with nature)—is book-ended at the end when the spiritually significant white tree that is the nerve centre of all life on that planet, calls upon all indigenous forms to fight the invasion of men with monstrous machines.

The ancient Greeks, who were wise about everything it seems, called this concept Gaia, the goddess of the earth. The planetary consciousness. The spirit that contains and connects all living things. From thousands of years ago, all the way to this century, this idea keeps expressing itself in different guise. And Jim Cameron instinctually chose that meme, one that is perhaps deeply needed in this time of ecological crisis, as the central theme of his story.

Cameron has a gift for identifying the big, undeniable emotional currents that move us as a species. I remember sitting behind a group of high school-age girls when Titanic first came out. Never have I seen such weeping at a movie theatre. And quite frankly, I couldn’t help but get emotional myself at the end. I couldn’t even get embarrassed about it, because everyone in that massive movie theatre, from all walks of life, was reaching for the Kleenex. Such is the power of a deep meme.

Next time you’re watching your favourite TV show or in a packed movie theatre watching a blockbuster film, ask yourself what big meme or memes are being utilized, albeit dressed in new outfits. I guarantee you that you’ll quickly start to understand the structure of that story—and its resulting effect on the human psyche—much more clearly.