Don't Punch Down

Status, Drama, And Storytelling Lessons

Don’t Punch Down (Status, Drama, And Storytelling Lessons)

Taylor Swift vs. Olivia Rodrigo. Beyonce vs. Country Music. College protestors vs. ? (colleges, themselves, logic, et. al)? Drake vs. Kendrick. Trump vs. Biden. 

Don’t look at a fight without the tools to look at a fight. 

Don’t look at strategy without the tools to look at the whole strategy. 

But where does one acquire these skills?

Probably at school in a textbook, but also, at school in the cafeteria, on trashy TV shows, on - ok, on anything that has a story. Anything. Ever.

Here’s just one idea (which has multitudes inside of it): Don’t punch down.

The expression “Don’t punch down” is a status and a drama idea wrapped together. 

It’s incredibly useful to think about “don’t punch town” in terms of how it balances action AND audience reactions. 

Let’s do status first. 

Imagine we’re in the audience at a play. 

A monocled boss and a tuxedoed butler take the stage. We have a playbill that tells us who is who, but we recognize the relationships just in the way they look and move. The boss has more status than the butler, and by extension, the boss has more status than us in the audience.

It’s helpful to think of the boss, the butler, and us in the audience - on some sort of fancy scale or elaborate seesaw.  

If the butler does something funny to the boss, we say he’s punched up in status. The audience might even have a laugh over it. The butler, in unveiling a weakness of the boss, has lowered the boss’ status and raised his own and the audience’s status. 

If the boss does something evil to the butler, we say he’s punched down in status. The audience might let out a gasp over it. The boss, in acting out against the butler, has bumped his own status higher by forcing the butler and the audience’s status down.  

Status helps explain why a character like the boss slipping on a banana peel is always funny. We like high status being lowered. We like punching up. 

Status also helps explain why a character like the butler getting unustly smacked by the boss is always disturbing. We don’t like high status taking advantage of lower-status, let alone forcefully. We don’t like punching down.  

That’s how status works. 

The drama idea also embedded here is best seen through what’s known as the drama triangle. It’s related to status. But it’s another layer of archetypes that fit over status. 

The 3 character types needed to satisfy drama are: a persecutor, a victim, and a rescuer. 

When the butler does something funny to the boss and we all laugh, the butler is the rescuer, the audience is the victim (in just knowing he’s the boss and we aren’t to defy him), and the boss is the persecutor. 

It’s comedic drama and it’s poetic justice. The victim and the rescuer feel their status raised against the persecutor. Good conquers evil and we all feel better about it. 

But if the boss does something evil to the butler, we feel the opposite. Here, the persecuting boss attacks the victimized butler directly. We, in the audience, even if we want to be the rescuer, are left to feel helpless as unfotunate observers. Unless another character can join the fray on stage, our lowered status has rendered us powerless. It’s defeatist. 

You see these mini-plays acting out everywhere. 

Status is always at play. Some information is always being used to identify who has more or less relative status. The same goes for drama, and the three roles of persecutor, victim, and rescuer. 

Most importantly, never forget that the audience is often a role too. 

Some real examples I’ve been observing lately:

Taylor Swift may or may not be taking a swipe at Olivia Rodrigo in some of her recent lyrics. I’m not big enough a fan to know. But, if the audience thinks she is - and some do - it looks like she’s punching down. This is a risky strategy on Taylor’s part. Even if she didn’t mean it, this audience perception won’t help her and might even hurt her. She’s got status, and this is drama-bait an audience would love to pounce on.  

Beyonce is currently taking a stance against the Nashville/Country Music establishment. She’s a black, female, pop artist encroaching on their otherwise well-walled-off scene. You might think she has all the status, but look closer. With her songs barely on the Country Music charts, she’s letting other minority artists know they’ve long been the victim of the big, bad white-male dominated country scene, and she’s here to do some rescuing. She’s low-status and punching up, and she knows it. This audience perception will help her. She’d love for them to punch down against her too. 

The Ivy League kids protesting their schools while demanding food from the meal plans they’ve paid for… they’re an extra curious example. They seem to think they’re low-status and punching up, but, they seem to be forgetting/not aware of the audience(s) and how their narrative can be swiftly reframed. Their friends in the protest might agree with them, but they have much bigger (and less friendly, and less dumb) audiences to contend with. If you play victim (“we have meal plans, even though we reject the planner of our meals”), you can’t expect your persecutor to also semi-rescue you. This isn’t punching up or down, it’s punching yourself. Likewise, force and/or excessive force by any player is always a risky move from an audience management perspective. Persecutorial force creates victims, rescuing force creates heroes, and the framing means everything. This is all very interesting to watch (and too often sad. Terrorism = bad. It’s not hard.) 

I’ll let you do Drake and Kendrick. John Green does have the best comment on this as of me writing this. I like his advice to be careful when starting a written beef with a Pulitzer Prize winner. 

Re: Trump and Biden, see the Ivy League kids comment above. As you change the audience, you change the drama triangle and status perspectives. Whatever side you’re on or center you’re dismayed to find yourself in, keep this in mind.