THE BOYS and the Gods of Mass Media

By Camilo Lehnebach Bravo

Stories are part of human nature. We tell them because that’s the way we can share our experiences and knowledge, and honestly, it’s the easiest way to communicate with each other. When you don’t know what to talk about with someone, you tell them what you did during the day, how work was, or maybe about a situation that keeps you worried. In any case, what you do is narrate a story, tell a group of events that you experienced and remember (more or less). Usually, we don’t think about it. We decide what to say and what to keep for ourselves, sure, but the act of narrating itself is natural, and in some cases, even involuntary.

Glimpses of the ancient humans communities are given by the stories that they drew in caves, and they show the things that they saw in their surroundings: animals, landscapes or natural phenomena. When language starts its development, the sounds and drawings begin to have a structure and to be more complex, and not only give their brains the push to get bigger and more functional, but also allow them to create stories with more components. In this context, we begin to create myths and god stories where we try to explain or give some sense to the things that we look around and don’t understand. The first spiritual stories are mainly nature-related, because that was the only stimulus around: the change between day and night, stars, the moon, storms, and volcanic eruptions, among other things. But when civilization starts to get bigger with agriculture and later the industrial revolution, the stories that we tell start to change because our lifestyle starts to change. The Egyptian gods are different from the Mesopotamian or the Mayan, not only due to different contexts but also different ways of interpreting and understanding what we call “reality.”

So, with that in mind, what would the gods of our time be like? Sure, we have Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, but those are religions which began thousands of years ago, born in different societies, ways of life, and almost literally in a different world, as opposed to the Anthropocene and technological age that we live in. Today, intercommunication is at the center of human interactions. The internet and the devices that let us browse on it are definitory elements of our behavior, our routines, and our interpretation of reality, so it makes sense that the gods of our time have similar characteristics.

The thing about platforms like Instagram or Twitter is that they need the digital version of yourself, the one that you can create depending on how you want to be seen, the idea of yourself that you want to show to the digital world, and one that doesn’t necessarily have to be the same one that you have in the social and biological world. This is where The Boys comes in. When we see each other through screens, we define how people see us as the most important thing. We became entrepreneurs of ourselves, as we see in the supes A-Train, The Deep, or even Queen Maeve.

So, in a society of image projection, the gods and their stories are made the same way. In The Boys’ reality, superheroes are common, and there is at least one for every town and maybe others that are a kind of 3rd class supe; what makes some of them special is the story made around them, the background and characteristics defined by Vought. This company selects a few and creates a new identity for each of them that will be shared with the world through the mass media, and that’s how they become gods.

The stories created by Madelyn Stillwell make them figures worthy of imitation, perfect persons, the ones who show us the ways we must be, but just like the people who create them, they are unholy, because it’s their idyllic image on the media that makes them gods, not their nature itself. They have become persons with two identities, the godlike one that must be protected and maintained in popular opinion, and the human, with unethical behavior that sometimes risks the business. This is shown by some members of The Seven like Translucent or A-Train, who use their social position to do whatever they want, with no ethical regret, only concerned with not damaging their godlike figures. In episode 03, when Starlight and Hughie drink a beer in the stadium where A-Train will have a race, she tells him, “I don’t know if they want you to be a real hero. I think they just want you to look like one,” an idea that later in the episode is complemented for Billy Butcher in the opposite side, when he says to Hughie, “You are a smart kid, but you don’t understand yet the only weakness that they have. Their reputations.”

With capitalism as the ruling paradigm in society, the quantification of life through statistics and computational systems makes it logical that the myths of the era are based on that, and that’s the case of the gods in The Boys. With Vought, the stories of the supes that they create are constructed according to the statistics, what people say, what people like, and what people think in accordance with societal norms; even when someone makes a huge mistake, like The Deep, they create a story that justifies his absence from the pantheon of gods. However, as with any belief, there are groups of people who don’t fully understand why the gods let bad things happen or cause situations that literally hurt them or even in some cases, kill them. Butcher must be the clearest example, because his entire journey against the supes and the re-assembling of “the boys” is because the most important of them, Homelander, has raped his wife Becca.

We see a questioning of this kind of religion in episode 06, when Billy Butcher takes Hughie to a conversation group for victims of collateral damage caused by the supes, and there are mutilated people who have lost body parts from interactions with supes, or even from being innocent bystanders. In this situation, we see different approaches to the criticism of religion, as someone says that it is wrong to feel angry with the supe who saved her life, even if he broke her spine. Another considers that losing his penis is the price that a mortal must pay for falling in love and being in a relationship with “a god like her.” In both cases the people have mixed feelings, because something bad has happened to them because of their gods, and they can’t fully embrace the rage or anger in that. This is when Butcher totally reveals his Atheism, and scolds the people for not doing anything against the supes. He represents not only the ones who deny God, but also those who call others out for passively accepting the things that religion implies and generates in people’s behavior.

Another situation is in episode 03. After killing Translucent, Hughie goes to his house for some clean clothes, and we see that his bedroom is fully adorned with posters, action figures, and various other merchandise featuring The Seven. When he sees this, after A-Train has murdered his girlfriend and he has done the same to one of the most famous supes, he destroys everything, removing the images and breaking the toys. In that moment he has become atheistic. In the society of mediatized gods and myths, the action figures, posters, Funko Pops, and others are amulets, objects that help us adore and relate to our superiors, that we can have in our houses and daily lives, and at the same time that remind us, every day, how we must be. That’s why Hughie needs to do this, because after what he has seen and experienced, those objects have become meaningless.

In conclusion, the Prime Video original The Boys shows us how the gods of our time would be. They are gods that define their actions by the way they need to be seen by the public, and ones that are created totally for Vought, as the institution that defines who are gods, who are saints, and how they must be adored. The Boys is a fiction, but contains one worrisome possibility, because it reflects the sacred way we consume mass media, not knowing what happens behind the scenes nor, especially, the intentions behind every story we watch on our screens.

Camilo is a Spanish and communication teacher with a master’s degree in communication. He likes to watch and read pop culture stuff and overthink about it. He is on Twitter and Instagram as @lajenbajen, and you can hear him on the podcast “Planeta Sapiens” (on Spotify and Youtube).

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