(Posted by Martha S.)
Let’s talk about intent.
Pete and I got into possibly our most pedantic argument yet in our sixth episode, where we realized we’d been thinking about “sacrifice” in two very different ways: as a function of the story (for Pete), and as a function of character intent (for me). I’ve been giving this a lot of thought and unfortunately for Pete, I’m going to have to double down on my position: I think sacrifice is something that a character does, not the plot.
Mirriam Webster is pretty non-partisan on the issue: the dictionary defines “sacrifice” as “something offered in sacrifice; destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else; something given up or lost.” Phrased like that, you could look at the active agent as being the story or plot – giving something up (say, killing a character) in service to the story that is being told. However, I think intent is too important to ignore in this case, and I don’t think a story can be said to have intent. An author absolutely has intent. Characters have intent. Those things combined create your story, which in and of itself has no existence outside of those intents.
Pete’s definitions work fine as a guide to how sacrifice works inside of a narrative, but I’m not sure how useful that is if we’re talking about what a sacrifice means to a character or to that narrative.
Other supplementary materials we couldn’t quite squeeze in:
The Book of Life
A seriously beautiful fable set against the backdrop of the Day of the Dead. Not only does it feature an unwitting (not unwilling – for the distinction, see below) sacrifice, but it also manages to give us a lovely hero’s journey in the bargain. Manolo, our hero, gives up his life to be reunited with the woman he loves – only to find out he’s been tricked, she isn’t actually dead, and now he has to journey through the Land of the Dead to regain his life and save his village.
Oooh, John Constantine. The master of what I’m going to refer to as the “screwball sacrifice” – the sacrifice that looks serious on the surface, but underneath you find that he has given away nothing and taken everything (and then underneath THAT you realize he’s given up more than he perhaps banked on in the first place). In one of his key stories, “Dangerous Habits,” he sells his soul three times and somehow ends up cured of lung cancer; in “Critical Mass,” he separates the worst parts of his soul (and all the other stuff he doesn’t want to deal with) and sends them to hell in his stead. Not to mention all the times he’s put unwitting or unwilling sacrifices into play “for the greater good.”
The Wicker Man
Perhaps the one kind of sacrifice I am willing to admit is plot-driven rather than character driven is the unwilling sacrifice – the people who offer someone up for their own gains, without that victim’s consent. The Wicker Man (the 1973 masterpiece featuring Christopher Lee, not the hilariously misguided 2006 remake starring Nicholas Cage) is a prime example of this, with a whole group of people not only sacrificing the poor unwitting Sergeant Howie to ensure their own prosperity but also thoroughly misleading, confusing, and abusing him. They offer up something that is not theirs to give, but I think it qualifies as a sacrifice nonetheless.
A note about Disney films: almost the entire Disney oeuvre contains a sacrifice of some kind. Typically, it involves our female lead giving up something in order to save someone (Anna in Frozen, Pocahontas in Pocahontas, Jasmine in Aladdin), or to be with the man she loves (Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Belle in Beauty & the Beast, Tiana in The Princess & the Frog). The use of sacrifice for the main character to gain something they want seems to be a distinctly female trope; selfless sacrifice (or heroic sacrifice, for the sake of others), seems to be distinctly male – unless we’re talking about sacrifice for the sake of family, which again, is codified as very female.
I was going to try and rewrite that last paragraph to make more sense, but I think the point is actually salient, so instead I’m just going to add: in general, female characters seem expected to make personal sacrifices in order to preserve familial structures (I’m including marriage as well as sibling/parent family in this generalization), while male characters are expected to make physical sacrifices for the sake of heroism. Obviously, there are exceptions to everything and characters that do not fall in any of those neat categories (Mulan springs pretty immediately to mind, but then, her story is all about subversion of gender roles so she may be reinforcing my point anyway), but it seems to me to be pretty clear: women are expected to sacrifice for the things they want. Men are expected to sacrifice for the greater good.
In conclusion: bees.