The film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure features two dim-witted metalheads—Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted Theodore Logan—who need to pass high school history class in order to remain together as a band and bring about a utopian society via the power of their music. To do so, they receive a time machine from the utopian future.
The pair’s motto is a simple one, adopted as a means of living by the future society: “Be excellent to each other”. As a statement, it can be seen as a pro-active and positive form of Wheaton’s Law. Wheaton only advocates avoiding negative behaviour, while Bill and Ted instead put forth that one should be actively supportive and generally excellent to other people. Is this, however, simply an example of what certain corners of the internet call ‘virtue signalling’?
As a term, virtue signalling was initially popularised among certain circles by the writings of self-titled ‘rationalist’1 crackpot Elizer Yudowski. However, it wasn’t until columnist and suspected hedgehog-masturbator James Bartholemew used it in the disappointing over-priced bog-roll that is The Spectator that it gained prominence among the kind of people who talk about social justice in negative terms. He described virtue signalling in terms of a journalist’s interview with suited racist Nigel Farage thusly (emphasis added):
indicating that she has the right, approved, liberal media- elite opinions, one of which is despising Ukip and thus, most importantly, advertising that she is not racist. When she later goes to a dinner party attended by other members of the media elite, she will be welcomed and approved for having displayed the approved, virtuous views.
The neoreactionary sphere2 soon latched on to the phrase. In use, they have somewhat broadened the usage to a claim that large sectors of the nebulous ‘left’ make public pronouncements of the approved, virtuous views whether they believe them or not, in order to fit in. The idea that one would display these views because one actually believes them is anathema.
Saying that one is virtue signalling carries with it the implication that one does not believe the stated position, but must claim to do so in order to fit in with the left-wing hivemind that controls conversation3. It is claiming to hold an opinion as a combination of advertising and camouflage.
The argument backing up this interpretation is that virtue signalling is itself an empty gesture if it is not backed by significant changes in behaviour, not just statements4. Simply claiming to be in favour of LGBTQIA rights, for example, does nothing to further the cause of said rights.
This is trivially disprovable even without invoking the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. By altering the shape of discourse, one makes society more accepting of unprivileged groups. The comedian Stewart Lee demonstrated that political correctness—and thus the discourse now being described as virtue signalling—has had a positive effect on the radio programme Heresy (BBC Radio 4, 16th May 2007).
TW: racist slurs in the quoted section:
It really worries me that 84% of this audience agrees with that statement, because the kind of people that say “political correctness gone mad” are usually using that phrase as a kind of cover action to attack minorities or people that they disagree with. I’m of an age that I can see what a difference political correctness has made. When I was four years old, my grandfather drove me around Birmingham, where the Tories had just fought an election campaign saying, “if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour,” and he drove me around saying, “this is where all the niggers and the coons and the jungle bunnies live.” And I remember being at school in the early 80s and my teacher, when he read the register, instead of saying the name of the one asian boy in the class, he would say, “is the black spot in,” right? And all these things have gradually been eroded by political correctness, which seems to me to be about an institutionalised politeness at its worst. And if there is some fallout from this, which means that someone in an office might get in trouble one day for saying something that someone was a bit unsure about because they couldn’t decide whether it was sexist or homophobic or racist, it’s a small price to pay for the massive benefits and improvements in the quality of life for millions of people that political correctness has made. It’s a complete lie that allows the right, which basically controls media now, and international politics, to make people on the left who are concerned about the way people are represented look like killjoys. And I’m sick, I’m really sick– 84% of you in this room that have agreed with this phrase, you’re like those people who turn around and go, “you know who the most oppressed minorities in Britain are? White, middle-class men.” You’re a bunch of idiots.
Having defined virtue signalling in (potentially exhaustive) detail, we should examine its role in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Most obviously, the phrase “be excellent to one another” could in and of itself be seen as virtue signalling. If neither Bill nor Ted actually exhibit behaviour consistent with the principle of being excellent to each other, then are they not just making the statement in order to fit in?
Most of Bill and Ted’s actions in the film are natural extensions of their characters: they’re slackers and (arguably) dumb, but they’re not malicious about it. And while they do slack off it is not their major drive. They feel bad about failing out of history class before being told that to do so will lead to them flunking out of school—and before Ted’s father raises the threat of military school.
When in the middle of a bar fight the two do not throw the first punch, and only become actually involved in the action when attacked by other people. While they do fight back, it’s only so that they can escape. And while Bill is ready to lash out when he believes a guard has killed Ted, that’s the only time either protagonist instigates violence. The rest of the time, they display a live-and-let-live attitude thoroughly in tune with the ethos of being excellent to one another.
Having accidentally transported Napoleon to the present day (and getting the seed of the idea to gather historic personages) they don’t simply leave him in a room or tie him up, but get Ted’s brother to look after Napoleon, providing money so that Deacon and his friends can expose the Frenchman to the wonders of 1988 San Dimas.
While the cast of characters do get up to a range of hijinks, their main opposition is forces of authority, ranging from mall security guards to Ted’s dad. While the mall guards may have a point with arresting Genghis Khan, the other characters are rounded up for enjoying themselves in a way that is not shown as causing any harm. They are Authority, they are The Man, and The Man does not want people to be excellent to one another. Punking them is being excellent to everyone else they’ve kept down, and is thus a public service.
The film itself plays to the message, outside of just the characters of Bill and Ted. The utopian society as depicted has a good balance of depicted genders and races, more so than the crowd scenes in the present day. While Napoleon is presented as a selfish brat, the film doesn’t use these personality traits to downplay his importance or show him as ineffectual.
All is not, however, excellent with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. At one point, Bill and Ted call one another ‘fag’ for displaying their emotions, showing a level of casual homophobia that, while possibly acceptable in 1988, is thankfully not the case any more5.
The treatment of women both by the lead characters and by the film itself leaves a lot to be desired. Ted openly letches over Bill’s stepmother, who is only a couple of years older than the pair. Bill also declares that he doesn’t need Freud’s psychoanalysis, declaring that he’s “just got a minor Oedipal complex”. Joan of Arc has one line in the entire film; while her character does not speak English this does not prevent Socrates or Napoleon from having multiple lines. The only ‘featured’ character with fewer lines is Genghis Khan6. Billy the Kid, Socrates, and Sigmund Freud all see nothing wrong with hitting on girls at the mall, and while they’re turned down it’s seen as a normal thing to do.
The film’s most egregious sexism, however, is reserved for the princesses Elizabeth and Joanna7. Bill and Ted meet them in medieval England, and declare them ‘babes’. They are never treated as named characters, or indeed as characters separate from each other, despite future history declaring that they become part of Bill and Ted’s band and should thus be seen to be just as important as the protagonists.
Bill and Ted’s treatment of the princesses leaves a lot to be desired, but isn’t actively malicious. When they suggest that the princesses leave for the future, the women willingly agree to go in order to get out of arranged marriages that they want no part of. Unlike other historical figures, there is no suggestion that Bill and Ted would bring the princesses to the future without their willingness to go along. As such, they do hold to being excellent to each other when it comes to the princesses8. The film’s treatment of them worsens when Rufus presents them to the protagonists near the end. While it’s presented as him having rescued them from their arraigned marriages, it is still a not-at-all-subtle indication that the princesses are a prize for having completed the history report.
Finally, while San Dimas as presented in the film has a number of black characters, the only Asian character in the film is Genghis Khan. In addition to a lack of spoken lines, he is presented as a glutton and a lech; when brought into the time machine he has to be distracted from both a meal and several women who are there for his gratification. He is portrayed as combative and violent, and while he has a number of brilliant stunts and incredible physicality (portrayed as he is by the excellent Al Leong) he is by far the least developed of all the historical figures. Indeed, Genghis Khan is possibly the most two-dimensional character in the film9.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure has its flaws. Many, but not all, can be written off as it being a product of its time, but while that provides context it does not excuse them. But does it mean that the film’s message is simply virtue signalling?
The examples of the main characters throughout the film demonstrate that they truly believe in being excellent to one another. Where they find themselves in conflict, that opposition is based on the other characters wanting to put them in a position where that would not be possible, such as King Henry.
“Put them in the Iron Maiden.”
“Iron Maiden? Excellent!”
Bill and Ted live up to their ethos. They honestly want to be excellent to one another, and this shows in their actions even when nobody but themselves would see or know. It isn’t just a performance, but an honest desire for the world to be excellent to one another.
The film as a whole also aims to be excellent to everyone, but falls short in a number of areas. However, it never does so with malicious intent. Its failings are failures of omission or of shallow characterisation, not malice. So, while it may not live up to the ideal of being excellent to each other, it is not making the claim that it does just to fit in with the agenda of another group.
If the film had made a show out of having a positive presentation of women, or of its historical accuracy, or any number of other points on which it falls down, then it could well be claimed to be virtue signalling. That is however not the case. It is flawed but it is earnest, in a clueless way reminiscent of its protagonists.
Be excellent to one another, and party on dudes!
Virtue signalling is seen as a tool to control the discourse of privileged white people. As such, surely Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is in and of itself a work of extended virtue signalling with no greater meaning or purpose. The utopian future is brought about by two privileged white dudes receiving a time machine from a privileged white dude. Because letting privileged white dudes fix things has such a great history of working out…
If, however, one posits the basic message of the film—that the future has to take actions in the past in order to ensure its own existence10—then one can argue that the film itself is a time machine to bring about a future in which “be excellent to each other” is the underlying principle of utopia.11
In this reading, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure demonstrates both the principle of utopia and the general means by which it is achieved—the ‘everyman’ who rise to fame and use that platform to promote the principle.
That the everymen were white, middle-class slackers and metalheads was a requirement of the social attitudes of the late 1980s. Unprivileged people were not accepted as protagonists by an inherently conservative film industry, and were not able to be part of such narratives in the semiotics of the time12. In order for a large audience to see the message, it had to be encoded in a way that would be acceptable to the audience. As such, as people adopt the principle of being excellent to one another, the likelihood of utopia coming about increases. And the actual people who lead the way may be non-binary, black, and queer as all hell. But the utopian future will, by virtue of being excellent to all people, be a better place for everyone.
A common point of view among those who have never watched television news or read a newspaper. ↩
Whether the reactionary sphere sees these actions as a more in-depth form of virtue signalling rather than signs of actual belief is left as an exercise for the reader. You shouldn’t need more than two seconds. ↩
Though it should be noted that this is the only example of homophobic language or behaviour in the film. ↩
Whose character demonstrates other problems with the film, as we will see. ↩
While named in the credits, they are not called by name in the film. ↩
Unlike Sigmund Freud, Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan, Beethoven, and Abraham Lincoln, all of whom the pair kidnap. ↩
While Bill’s dad is clearly driven mostly by shagging his much younger new wife, he at least takes Ted’s dad to task for claiming Bill is the bad influence, displaying something approaching a personality. ↩
This is a roundabout way of saying ‘I know my fave is problematic’ ↩
Whether this is still the case is left as an exercise for the reader. You shouldn’t need more than two seconds. ↩
A term used by people who don’t want to bother with the shorter and just as accurate ‘neo-Nazi’. ↩