A few months ago, I said I was messing about with Myers-Briggs again, and that individual stories could be said to have a personality. At the end, I suggested that my dislike of Steven Universe came down not to its quality – even at my most hysterically frustrated, I could recognise individual great elements – but to a simple personality clash, and I’m back to say that I was completely right. Type theory makes the most sense to me if it’s understood as the way individual minds process and prioritise information (Type In Mind is the site where I understood it best). This is the kind of information that you’re attracted to, this is how you sort it, and these two motivations generally bounce off each other and off the things that drain you in such a way as to create this sense of personality.
A basic rundown: First are the dominant and auxiliary functions, with one extroverted (i.e. the primary kind of information one takes in) and one introverted (how one processes and sorts the information). For example, in my case, as an INFJ:
Ni (iNtroverted iNtuition): I get tremendous pleasure out of arranging details and finding connections.
Fe (extroverted Feeling): I see the world in terms of details of people, and especially of their moods. My feelings are very much dictated by the room; if everyone’s sad, I get sad with them.
(If it were the other way around, as it is in an ENFJ, I’d be stimulated primarily by making other people happy; as I am, creating personality profiles in my head is how I get my kicks and making people happy is a sub-goal)
Below this are the tertiary and inferior functions.
Ti (introverted Thinking): The internal creation of a system of logic, or to put it another way the pleasure of creating a scheme. Within me, this is usually expressed as enjoying puzzles but not being very good at them. It also helps as a way to organise information into a coherent statement; it’s something that provides an overall structure to my thoughts rather than anything that could be relied upon.
Se (extroverted Sensing): An external awareness of the immediate surroundings, and a general sense of pleasure in new experiences. In a Se-dominant person, this expresses itself as fast-thinking, hyperawareness, and a strong enthusiasm for the practical world. In me, it expresses itself as not always walking into a wall. Having to focus too much on my external surroundings for too long is one of the most tedious, actively draining things I could do (as opposed to, say, being in a room full of moody assholes, which affects my mood but doesn’t suck the life from me).
You can see someone like me, younger and less self-aware or self-confident, would be as attracted to Cowboy Bebop as I was at seventeen. As I said in the previous article, the show is ISTP, which in terms of traits is TiSe-NiFe. One commonly accepted aspect of type theory is that over your life, you learn how to stimulate each function in order of priority; Cowboy Bebop initially uses craft (both the craft of creating an animated television show, and the craft of bounty hunting in space) in order to create uncanny sensory experiences, and this was an idea just enough out of my experience that I wouldn’t intuitively do it but I’d grasp why it was pleasurable, and find genuine pleasure in it.
The flipside of this is that, as the show goes long enough, it starts revealing Ni and Fe tendencies. Much as I don’t consciously use Ti except for shits and giggles, ISTPs don’t use Ni with any seriousness; in Cowboy Bebop, this manifests in the episodic structure of the show, with themes and ideas recurring in subtle ways and converging in the finale. And the show’s Fe is always shoved in the background; it’s rarely expressed directly, which means a) it’s mainly expressed in a low-key humanism I have to study to find and b) when its allowed to fully flower in the final few episodes, the effect is quite spectacular. At the beginning of the show, we think Spike, Jet, Faye, Ed, and Ein are cool; at the end, we love them.
My overall point here is that the show initially stimulated me in ways I didn’t expect and wouldn’t have sought out outside the context of wanting to watch a scifi action show, and then followed through on that with stimuli I actively seek out, but in ways that I still have to work to get. It’s almost too obviously the kind of thing I’d describe as genius at seventeen – enough like me that I’d recognise it, different enough to be alien and uncanny.
On the flipside, my violently negative reaction to Steven Universe also makes sense. I would type the show as ISFP, or FiSe-NiTe. The show begins with a specific moral outlook – one based on being kind to people, of encouraging creativity, and finding beauty in things – and then finds nuance within sensory expressions of those beliefs, or to put it another way it starts with Fi and uses it to explore Se.
I can see the appeal. If you find expressions of your moral or aesthetic views inherently beautiful, then something that ticks off as many as possible while explicitly promising certain values will NOT be expressed must be like a breath of fresh air; I’ve seen many SU fans who said they wished they had the show as kids, telling them that their inborn values of empathy and kindness (especially for men) are okay. I can sympathise with that; I can understand why fans are so violently defensive of the show, when it’s the only thing they’ve found that tells them they’re okay.
But the show simply and fundamentally cannot appeal to me. Ni-dominance requires a steady influx of new ideas; Fe auxiliary requires those ideas be based in morality. To set a specific moral outlook and promise that it won’t be challenged or complicated doesn’t thrill me, it bores me. You’re constricting a worldview that craves expansion; nothing Steven Universe does is a wrong choice, but it is a set of choices that leaves me cold, and the sensory pleasures of the show are little comfort. Cowboy Bebop‘s viewpoint allowed the presentation of different moralities, even if it wasn’t the point; Steven Universe, in conception, does not.
In contrast to that, you have the works of Quentin Tarantino; I have no idea what the man himself is, but his movies are very ENFP (NeFi-TeSi). His movies are famous for being primarily made up of ideas from other movies, but what’s harder to notice is that he almost never goes in the same direction as those movies; he banks left where most movies would turn right (most famously, when he killed Hitler, the one thing all those badass Nazisploitation and Men On A Mission WWII movies could never do).
His movies don’t exist to prove his morality or taste in aesthetics correct; they begin with things he thinks are awesome, and find offbeat possibilities within them, and imply even greater possibilities offscreen. Cowboy Bebop mirrored me in one way; Tarantino’s works mirror me another, in that everything he does externally is something I do internally (NeFi-TeSi vs NiFe-TiSe). He constantly sets up possibilities, and I close them off, like he’s constantly setting up pins and I’m knocking them down.
It’s assisted by the Fi. Rather than closing off possibilities, it gives them shape and structure; it’s a world that feels infinite but can’t go off into endless empty noodling – or at least, that’s how it feels to my NiFe brain; the people who see his movies as entirely empty noodling cannot be ignored.
(You can contrast both with Martin Scorsese, whose works I would classify as SeFi-TeNi – he’s not starting with his morality and then generating sensory experiences from it, he’s starting with sensory experiences and then using his morality to provide it with structure)
If what attracts me to Cowboy Bebop and Tarantino’s filmography are choices I couldn’t or wouldn’t make, Mad Men uncompromisingly revs my very particular engine. Each and every scene and beat is an expression of character; it’s a constellation of human details, concerned only with what people want and feel, and why they act the way they do. And the flipside to that coin is that the series barely concerns itself with the practical day-to-day elements of the character’s lives; we are only concerned with meaningful behaviour.
This goes as far as the setting and costumes – each thing they wear, each set they spend time in, and each item they choose to surround themselves with all reflect the nature of their character; it’s not required to follow the story but it does expand your view on the characters to learn it. And the superficial pleasures of Se are serviced by the fact that, in order to expand our knowledge of the characters, we have to traverse a lot of different styles and sensations; I wonder if an ISTP would get the same uncanny pleasures out of Mad Men that I do out of Cowboy Bebop.
What’s really interesting is taking all this kind of thinking and applying it to The Shield.
In my previous article, I said that drama’s cause-and-effect structure meant that it doesn’t reflect a particular morality, but rather demonstrated it through each of its characters. The flipside of this is that I think a pure drama, much like real life, presents vivid stimulation regardless of type, but in such a way that you have to earn it. Thinking, especially extroverted Thinking, benefits the most from dramatic structure; the relentlessly logical layout and fast executive decision-making on the parts of the characters must be like heroin.
More interesting to me is the way intuition can be stimulated by drama, in opposite ways depending on if it’s extroverted or introverted. Ne is defined by the generation of possibilities; I picture an explosion of thoughts on seeing Vic put a bullet in Terry’s head, and an increasing (not entirely displeasing?) anxiety as the story goes on and the number of possible futures gets whittled down. Ni’s response is clear, though: at first, the extremely simple data is frustrating, but drama’s forward drive constantly generates more and more data for the mind to try and compact and explain; all the way to the end, characters continue to reveal new nuances and depths, and yet we’ve come to know them so well that even those nuances are a pleasing expression of something we already know.
But Feeling is where it gets really complicated. Much like intuition, these responses are inside out to each other, and even more than intuition require a degree of work to fully appreciate. Feeling in general reacts extremely positively to an emotional journey, and drama is an emotional journey. Fe’s response is easy for me to comprehend; fiction is a place where you can safely completely immerse yourself in other people’s feelings, and the inherent interpersonal politics of drama provide an intense emotional experience – I recall bouncing off the walls in season four of The Shield, because every character’s agenda was set and the social structure of the Barn was in the most turmoil, and my strongest emotional reaction to the series is a scene in which eight parallel emotions are bouncing between two people in Shane and Vic’s final conversation.
Fi is the most difficult, both for me to try and understand, and in terms of a Fi-dom reacting to the show. I find myself recommending The Shield to people a lot, admittedly partially because I’m a zealous convert, but also because I legitimately think they’d get something out of it. The only people I don’t bother recommending the show to are people who I think would react so negatively to the actions and morality it shows that they couldn’t/wouldn’t engage with the story. I think to initially engage with a drama, a Fi-user needs to see their personal morality reflected in at least one, ideally multiple characters, and the payoff is that as the characters are forced to commit to their morality and forced to engage in more powerful acts to reflect it, the Fi-user feels both a vicarious thrill at seeing their morality play out on a scale they could never have considered, as well as a sense of awe and horror at the consequences and seeing other aspects of their morality abandoned or directly attacked – as seen in the reaction to Shane’s final act in the show.
(A minor bonus is the schadenfreude at seeing someone who does not share one’s morality and seeing them get their just desserts, an emotion that one misses out on if one doesn’t engage with The Shield at all)
Sensing, probably predictably, is where I feel have the least insight. I could see a Se-user initially having fun with both the action scenes and the unique style of the series before hitting the same wall that I did with Steven Universe – the show has a set of aesthetic rules that it never breaks, both in terms of cinematography and in the sets and costumes and shit; personally I think it finds full nuance within those rules, but I concede my interest in that is limited. I do, however, see a Si-user getting a kick out of it.
The upshot of all of this is that I think I’ve found the answer to a question of tone. Personality types are often associated with the word ‘energy’ – for example, ISTPs have a ‘cool’ energy, and notice that’s also a word that Cowboy Bebop is associated with – and I think what I’m articulating here is how tone is generated. Personality types don’t mean that, like, ISTPs are never loving, just that they have specific aims that they use specific tools to get. The stories I’m describing (and nearly all stories) don’t have one strict tone (not even Steven Universe), they all simply use specific tools to specific aims, and my personal makeup responds to their stimuli in specific ways. Tone is defined by the morality of the characters (Feeling), the aesthetics (Sensing), and the plotting (both Intuition and Thinking); tonal discrepancy is when the morality, aesthetics, or plotting are violently shifted up.