December 7, 2023   6 mins

On Christmas Eve, a kidnapped girl lies asleep in a bed that’s not her own. Her captors, two men, stand over her and discuss their plans to detonate a bomb at a holiday parade. The older, balder man glances at their hostage and grimaces: there she is, the living, breathing embodiment of his moral corruption. Then, from a brown paper bag, he produces a hideous baby doll — the cheap, bald, plastic kind that you sometimes see covered with dust at Walmart — and nestles it against the sleeping child. “I’m not a complete ogre,” he says. “The young one gets a doll to play with at Christmas.”

This scene is from The Long Kiss Goodnight, a Nineties action movie about a mercenary-turned-suburban mum whose past comes back to haunt her. It’s not a particularly central moment, but it does act as an excellent meta-study in the way that Hollywood tropes serve as shorthand, reducing complex characters to simple, and sometimes self-delusional, stereotypes. By having the man offer a doll to the child, the scriptwriters spin a narrative about how we should see him: there are villains and there are villains, and this one, despite having masterminded a plan to explode thousands of people to death, has a soft side. Maybe he’s not so bad?

It’s been two weeks since Hamas began to release some of the Israeli hostages kidnapped on October 7 — women and children mostly, many of whom had been held in the tunnels beneath Gaza for 50 straight days. Since then, I’ve noticed a version of the scene above playing out again and again, especially in the US, and especially online, as people hunt for familiar tropes that might shape their understanding of the story, and of the people in it. These commentators, always Western and often very young, have learned to watch the news in search of a story instead of the truth — and they’re certain that they recognise the typical characters.

The young woman photographed gazing at her captors with seemingly dizzy adoration, for instance, looks an awful lot like the kidnapped princess who falls in love with her roguish captor before joining his revolution. The 9-year-old who returned to Israel with a fixation — not uncommon among victims of group starvation scenarios — on making sure that the people around her are getting enough to eat is the archetypal foundling, raised by so-called savages who taught her hospitality, manners and consideration of others. There’s even a classic save-the-cat moment, that plot device in which a character’s kindness to an animal establishes him as a good guy worth rooting for. If a shih-tzu survived nearly two months under the care of Hamas, how bad could they really be? Perhaps a heart of gold lurks under that villainous exterior. Or: perhaps these so-called terrorists aren’t the villains at all.

“As the Israel regime — with full Western support — is committing genocide in Gaza and massacring women and children, the Israeli female prisoners held by the Resistance are treated with kindness and respect,” reads one representative post on X. On TikTok, commentators are claiming outright that the Israeli hostages clearly love their kidnappers and would have preferred to stay in Gaza: “These people are friends. Don’t even tell me that was acting.”

In the past two months, much has been written about the oppressor/oppressed framework that the progressive Left applies to the question of Israel and Gaza. Seeing Israeli citizens as white-privileged settler-colonisers is a way of justifying a bizarrely sympathetic, even celebratory reaction to the militants who killed hundreds of civilians. But while the phenomenon I’m observing slightly overlaps, it’s ultimately something different: a particularly American tendency to treat whatever is happening in the world like a months-long entertainment event, equal parts melodrama and spectator sport. Having identified the players on the stage — the heroic underdog, the corrupt superpower, the villain with a soft side — progressives are watching the war in Gaza like it’s a Marvel superhero film.

There are shades, here, of the early days of the war in Ukraine, when arts institutions were hurriedly scrubbing Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky from their programmes, bars purged vodka-based drinks from their menus, and it was difficult to tell where pro-Ukraine sentiment ended and anti-Russian animus began. That binary thinking is a hallmark of fan culture, increasingly the dominant if not only mode of engagement, no matter how serious a subject. Once a person has decided that Hamas are the good-guy underdogs who can do no wrong, any allegations of wrong-doing will naturally be received with incredulity. “Zionists are asking that we believe the uncorroborated eyewitness account of *men* who describe alleged rape victims in odd, fetishistic terms,” writes commentator Briahna Joy Gray. “Shame on Israel for not seriously investigating claims of rape and collecting rape kits.”

It’s interesting to juxtapose this sceptical response to stories of widespread sexual violence by Hamas on October 7 with an event much closer to home: that moment, just five years ago, when Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh was accused of attempted rape by Christine Blasey Ford. What’s striking now is not just the sudden irrelevance of every hard-won #MeToo-era more — a woman’s word was to be believed, until, suddenly, it isn’t — but the way it manifested online. Images of Ford testifying about her experience were instantly remixed into a meme, while the internet set about dreamcasting what seemed like an inevitable biopic.

Here, too, everyone understood exactly what kind of story was being told — who the hero was, and conversely, who was the villain. The fact that it was playing out in real life, in real time, did not inject gravitas to the situation; if anything, it only more thoroughly crystallised into pure team sports tribalism. Hence, we all agreed that fan-favourite Laura Dern would play Ford; hence, also, nobody saw anything strange about the absolute farce of a congressional hearing in which someone blew up a page from Kavanaugh’s high school yearbook to poster size and analysed its contents like it was a message from the Zodiac killer. Remember the cynicism when Kavanaugh had to explain that “boofing” was a fart joke? He’s lying!, people screamed, in exactly the same spittle-flecked tone that my husband sometimes screams, That’s a foul!, when someone knocks down a player on Duke’s college basketball team.

It doesn’t actually matter if it was a foul. The existence of objective truth is irrelevant in this moment: facts don’t matter, feelings do. Faith does.

This is why Brett Kavanaugh was a liar, whether he was lying or not. It’s why Taylor Swift fans scrutinise footage of her and Travis Kelce like it’s the footage of JFK’s assassination, then confidently declare that they’re really in love (or not). And it’s why a self-described anti-Zionist content creator will look at a picture of a young woman surrounded by the terrorists who shot and kidnapped her — and then post it on the internet with the caption: “Find yourself a woman who looks at you like this.”

Of course, the same type of person who tweets the above will also dismiss stories of sexual violence on October 7 as “IDF propaganda”. Forget the testimonies of the forensic scientists who examined the victims’ bodies, of the soldiers who discovered them, even of the rapists themselves; forget the videos of kidnapped women being forced into cars, their trousers soaked with blood at the crotch; forget the corpses lying naked from the waist down with their legs still unmistakably spread open despite a censor’s blur. None of this will ever be enough to shake the devoted fan’s faith in his home team’s righteousness. The best you’ll get is a shrugging equivocation: if these rapes occurred, they were nothing in comparison to Palestinian suffering.

Maybe this facile, emotionally-driven logic is an inevitable feature of the digital age, where fact and fiction alike are flattened into the same familiar mould, distributed across the same platforms, consumed on the same screens. In this world, it’s increasingly hard to know the difference between news and narrative, an advertiser and an influencer, the prescriptive and the descriptive; even the lines between these things begin to blur as they all tumble around in the same giant bucket labelled with just one word: “content”.

And in this world, of course people cease to discern, and instead search for an anchor: an archetype that offers a shortcut to understanding. No wonder every conversation about Israel these days turns into a shouting match about who is the bigger villain. Why have a debate when you can impose a narrative?

Make these observations aloud, and someone will inevitably show up to claim that it’s all the fault of progressive ideology, or critical theory, or postmodernism. But I suspect this gives the narrative-clingers — not to mention the rape denialists — too much credit. Postmodernism is much more sophisticated and ideological than what actually fuels this phenomenon, which is nothing more or less than the urge to reduce a complex geopolitical conflict down to something easily understood, with familiar characters and a classic plot arc and about as much moral ambiguity as an episode of Scooby Doo.

It’s about knowing not just what is happening, but what will happen: the good guys will solve the crime, the villain will be unmasked and taken away in a paddy wagon, and a happy ending will follow shortly thereafter. And that blazing certainty feels good, no doubt, when the truth is so unsatisfying: not just that wars rarely end happily, but that this one will surely still be raging long after the radical chic have moved on.

Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.