Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Minions and the Illusion of Voting

by Matt McKenna

Minions-movie-first-trailer-P5gV20-2015Avoiding ads featuring Universal Pictures' Minions is almost as difficult as avoiding political ads for the upcoming presidential election. In case you're somehow not familiar with the minion characters, they are small Tic-Tac-looking creatures who speak half-gibberish and first appeared as bumbling sidekicks in the animated Despicable Me franchise. When it became clear the marketing potential of minions outgrew the confines of the passable children's movie from which they originated, Universal spun out a film focusing on the minions characters themselves. Thus, we have Minions, a story about the eponymous characters' attempt to find an evil leader to whom to pledge allegiance and fulfill their species' destiny. The film's premise may be simple, but it provides a view into our own election process by describing its apparent opposite–instead of politicians being forced to pander to the voting public in order to be elected, Minions inverts the who-must-ingratiate-themselves-to-whom situation and considers what the world would be like if voters (minions) had to convince politicians they are worthy followers. When reexamining American elections through the lens of Minions, it becomes clear that though the minions' leadership-acquiring process may appear to be the exact inverse of the American voters' leadership-acquiring process, they are, in fact, identical.

Minions opens by showing the evolution of the minion species from single cell organism to the plush-doll friendly form that they take in the Despicable Me franchise. Through narration, we learn that minions are a species who form a symbiotic/parasitic relationship with the most “despicable” organism in its ecosystem. Over time, minions are forced to find new villains to follow: from the biggest organism in the primordial soup, to the most fearsome dinosaur in the jungle, to eventually Napoleon, the fiercest dictator on the planet. Unfortunately, after failing Napoleon for the last time, the minions are banished to an ice-cave where they toil away until the 1960s, conveniently rendering them absent from Europe during World War II presumably so the filmmakers wouldn't have to grapple with the minions' desire to serve Hitler.

Eventually, a group of minions courageously leaves the ice-cave in search of a new master. Through some good luck, this minion fellowship discovers and attends “Villain Con” in Orlando where they learn that Scarlet Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock) is the baddest bad guy around. Indeed, every villain at Villain Con desperately wants to serve Overkill. Having her pick of the litter, Overkill designs a competition that will decide who she will take on as her faithful servant. The minions, of course, win the competition in spite of themselves and set the rest of the film in motion.

At this point, it may not be immediately clear how minions represent voters. After all, the minions had to win a competition to acquire the leadership of Overkill, while in the real world it is the politician who must win a competition in order to become the voters' leader. But do our leaders truly have to win a competition to gain our support? Not really. It only appears that way when we mistakenly collapse the metonymic relationship between the individual politician and the interests the politician represents.

Let's start with Villain Con, which is clearly meant to represent Democrat and Republican national conventions. At Villain Con, the villains nominate their most despicable member. Similarly, at the two major parties' conventions, the delegates nominate their most electable (i.e. despicable) candidate. In the case of Minions, Scarlet Overkill is nominated as the most despicable villain, and therefore all the villains (minions included) are vociferously in support of her. Though lip service is paid to other powerful villains (a sumo villain, a fish villain, etc.) in the movie world, Overkill's status as torchbearer of evil goes unquestioned for the duration of the film.

Is the minions' stalwart support of their nominee not the same stalwart support given to the nominee of each party after the primary season? Though the primaries are often brutal in terms of attack ads and insinuations, after the convention, Democrat and Republican voters are expected to vote for the candidate representing their party regardless of who it is. Therefore, the outcome of the primary is essentially meaningless since each primary candidate's platform doesn't vary much within the party, and the primary winner is virtually guaranteed to receive nearly all their party members' votes during the general election. The primary is therefore but a ritual that provides an illusion of choice, like laboring over the choice between one of the many brands of colas at the grocery store (in the end, it's all cola–just read the nutrition label). The fact that voters initially care who the person is that will represent their party is this mistaken collapse of the metonymic relationship between politician and party–Democrat voters believe they are voting for Hillary Clinton the person, but she is really just a signifier for the Democrats; Republican voters believe they are voting for Jeb Bush the person, but he is really just a signifier for the Republicans.

Minions goes one step further and suggests a second layer of voter misidentification of the recipient of their vote. While the first layer of misidentification involves voters believing a vote for a politician is a vote for the individual person rather than for the party to which the individual belongs, a second layer comes in when the voter believes voting for a particular party is a vote for a particular set of values (e.g. a vote for Democrats is a vote for social equality or a vote for Republicans is a vote for individual liberty). As we see in the film, minions unabashedly follow the most despicable being in existence, even as the definition of “despicable” changes over time. Back in the single-cell days, minions supported the organism most able to mercilessly eat its competition. By the 1960s, the minions supported bad guys with less violent aims–Scarlet Overkill, for example, merely wants to steal the Queen's crown. And by the time Despicable Me 2 rolls around, the minions are following Gru, a reformed bad guy who is actually attempting to stop other bad guys. At this point, the definition of “despicable” has completely flipped from what it originally meant–the most “despicable” person now is the best good guy rather than the worst bad guy.

How similar the above feels to our own reality in which at different times the parties have stood for opposite things. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, instituted policies such as Don't Ask Don't Tell and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Now in 2015, Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton supports same-sex marriages without reservation. Even more telling is that President Barack Obama flipped his position on same-sex marriage coincidently right as Americans' support for same-sex marriage surged above 50%. In another reversal of espoused values, the Affordable Care Act is currently seen as legislation utterly associated with Democrats, but many of its tenets were pulled from Republican suggestions for health care reform in the 1990s. And of course, Republican presidential runner-up Mitt Romney famously instituted health policies similar to the ACA at the state level as Governor of Massachusetts in 2006.

The point here isn't to say that the politicians themselves are inconsistent, but rather to say that identification with a political party is yet another way to mistakenly confuse the signifier for the signified. Just as Clinton/Bush are mere signifiers for Democrats/Republicans, Democrats/Republicans are mere signifiers for the political system itself. In other words, a vote for Clinton or Bush is indeed a vote for their respective parties, but it is also ultimately a vote for the current status quo as it relates to politics, economics, and human rights. Another way to see how the distinction between parties is minimal is to look at the distribution of funding sources of their campaigns. Were you to look at a table indicating the amount of money various interests gave to each party but with the names of the party removed, I'd wager you'd have a difficult time correctly labeling the contribution with its target.

If minions are voters, and minions were forced to compete with other villains to serve Overkill, what must voters do to ingratiate themselves to their leaders in reality? The answer, simply enough, is give money and volunteer. By the time the 2016 presidential election is over, Americans will have donated billions of dollars to candidates' campaigns. It is no secret that donating money to a winning campaign is the surest way to gain political influence, and if you don't have money then volunteering is the best you can do. So strap on those adorable goggles and those utilitarian denim overalls, fellow voters/minions, because it's time to compete for the attention of the political system.