Amazon Prime’s “The Boys” presents a philosophy of power that echoes the work of Michel Foucault. Faced with a growing sense that power is wielded against us by corrupt overlords, where do Christians look for a response?
The Boys is an American dark superhero television series for Amazon Prime Video. The show is set in a universe in which the public recognise superpowered people as heroes. These superheroes are owned by a powerful corporation that aggressively markets and monetises them. Outside of their heroic personas, most are arrogant and corrupt. The titular Boys are vigilantes looking to keep the corrupted heroes under control, and the superheroes are the Seven, the corporation’s premier superhero team.
The Boys centres on a philosophy of power as it explores a world where a minority elite can leap and destroy buildings in one easy action, but a majority of normal people can’t. This depiction echoes Michel Foucault’s analysis of how power functions in society. He identifies sovereign power as “the right to take life or let live” or, more simply, the right to kill. In this view of power, there’s a small elite who can annihilate the masses at will, with the masses’ only answer being the hope that they won’t. The Boys explores how dangerous this type of sovereign power is and how those who wield it rarely face consequences.
So, at least initially, it seems like the Boys are on a noble quest to level the playing field by overthrowing the superheroes and the force of their sovereign power. But the power problem isn’t limited to the wielding of power by a powerful sovereign. Rather, power is defined by what Foucault describes as “a battle about the status of truth and the economic and political role it plays.” According to Foucault, there is no truth, only power, and the end of overthrowing power structures justifies the means. Power is everywhere and is enacted more than it’s possessed.
The show also explores what Foucault refers to as biopower. He defines biopower as “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations.” Biopower is another mechanism by which societies can control who lives or dies while ensuring the health of a stable workforce. More recently in political news, this can look like governmental power to decide when life begins and what bodies containing life may do. The Boys depicts biopower by which certain humans literally have more biological power with which they can decide to hurt or to help people.
There is a growing awareness in even non-political conversations about the increasing influence of the state in our lives. The pandemic had us witness often irrational and over-reaching policies enforced quicker than we thought possible. The Internet enabled us to share footage of children threatened by police with weapons for arriving at a beach while the George Floyd protests set the US alight as a last-straw reaction to police brutality. We quote Bradbury, Huxley, and Orwell so often that we could easily use the title “A Brave New Fahrenheit 1984” as shorthand for their shared ideas. As believers, we face the same challenge as the Boys. How are we to think about power? What is the right way to manage it, and by what means must we enforce or resist it?
We have one example in the Maccabees. The Maccabees were Jewish fighters who led the revolt against the Syrian Greek ruling class. The Greeks suppressed Jewish religion to spread their Hellenistic customs and idolatrous beliefs. Named with the Hebrew word for “hammer” or the Greek words for “strong” or “fighter”, the Maccabees used guerrilla tactics to overthrow the power over them. They destroyed the pagan altars of the Greeks in villages, forcibly circumcised boys, burned down villages, and drove Hellenised Jews off of their land.
And then we have another example of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Ancient civilisations would immure the slain after war or human sacrifice into the cornerstones, walls, and foundations during the construction of their new cities. Habakkuk the prophet challenges a wicked king of Israel with “Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity. For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond” (Hab 12:2). Christ rides into Jerusalem and the people celebrate as the Messiah has come to overthrow Rome and establish the Jewish kingdom. Jesus says “if these people would be silent, the stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40). He means by this that as He enters Jerusalem, violence establishes earthly kingdoms, and human sacrifice is immured in the foundations of human cities. But He will establish a kingdom in peace with Himself as the sacrifice. He does not come to slay but to be slain, and the slain immured in the city’s stone walls will cry out to testify of this righteousness if the people won’t.
This is a challenging example. We feel the weight of power increase over us. It removes our freedoms, makes illegitimate our ethnicities and our mother tongues, frustrates our speech, and aims at our bodily autonomy. Will we reach a point where we cry out for the Maccabees? And how will we know that we’ve come to cry out for a Barabbas the Insurrectionist while not recognizing the true person of Christ next to him? We are in desperate need of having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that we may know what is the hope to which He has called us, and what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints (Eph 1:18).