Maybe I don't want to meet someone who shares my interests. I hate my interests.
This line from Ghost World sums up my relationship with my geekiness incredibly well. In the past I've talked about being a geek as an affliction - a thing you're born with, not a thing you choose. I didn't look at geek stuff and decide it was for me, my whole life I have been inexorably drawn to it, finding myself interested in things that the mainstream ridiculed, that my family didn't understand and that were absolutely lame. When other kids were out playing I was reading The Silmarillion with Star Trek VHS tapes running in the background. This isn't a lifestyle you choose.
Having that attitude towards my interests has always made me very critical of them. I can't help the fact that I am magnetically drawn to this stuff, that I have Pavolvian reactions to starships and superheroes, to super-intelligent apes and the lost continent of Atlantis, but I can be quite cognizant of which of these things are actually good. I have spent a lot of my life being discerning within my passions, and that means I'm even very critical and analytical of the stuff I absolutely adore. I spend a lot of time thinking about geek culture and what it means and how it has changed and how it is changing. A lot. I could probably teach a sociology class on this shit at this point.
Which leads me to what Simon Pegg said, and the anger it caused, and his measured - and brilliant - reply.
What he said, in an interview with the Radio Times:
Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema but part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes. Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously.
It is a kind of dumbing down, in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever.
Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.
People got a little mad at this - io9 ran a really defensive piece about it that included this bit of reasoning:
It’s internally inconsistent to say that adults are taking “childish” things seriously, and say that this is making us dumber.
Anyway, he's right, and anyone with even a modicum of self-awareness would know this. What Pegg is doing is having a nuanced thought process about his interests and the world that he is creating by working on and writing movies like Star Trek Beyond (and by the way, in his reply Pegg confirms this is the name of the new Trek movie). This is a struggle I have all the time - have I, through my boosterism of the geek shit I love, made the world a little bit worse? Have I added to the din of consumerist-driven noise that has turned the detritus of my childhood into the biggest money making events of all time? Have I forsaken grown up concerns and issues in order to fixate on just whose funeral Steve Rogers is attending in Captain America: Civil War?
These are actually complicated questions, but they're questions we should all be asking ourselves. When we're getting riled up about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Jem and the Hologram movies have we entered a kind of social arrested development? Are we doing future generations any favors by hoarding all the childish stuff for ourselves? Are we actually using these fantastical properties to reflect on the world or are we just engaging in mass levels of escapism that are not that different from the people who wear diapers and hang out in cribs and identify as adult babies?
To look at these kinds of questions as attacks on you means Pegg is right - you're not absorbing your entertainment intelligently. You're only using it as escapism, and you're being infantilized. And there's more - as Pegg points out in his reply, you're being coopted by a massive consumerist machine that has turned you into a pliable, exploitable resource - a resource that puts money into their system in exchange for an endless supply of plastic garbage and shitty t-shirts.
Recent developments in popular culture were arguably predicted by the French philosopher and cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard in his book, ‘America’, in which he talks about the infantilzation of society. Put simply, this is the idea that as a society, we are kept in a state of arrested development by dominant forces in order to keep us more pliant. We are made passionate about the things that occupied us as children as a means of drawing our attentions away from the things we really should be invested in, inequality, corruption, economic injustice etc. It makes sense that when faced with the awfulness of the world, the harsh realities that surround us, our instinct is to seek comfort, and where else were the majority of us most comfortable than our youth? A time when we were shielded from painful truths by our recreational passions, the toys we played with, the games we played, the comics we read. There was probably more discussion on Twitter about the The Force Awakens and the Batman vs Superman trailers than there was about the Nepalese earthquake or the British general election.
The ‘dumbing down’ comment came off as a huge generalisation by an A-grade asshorn. I did not mean that science fiction or fantasy are dumb, far from it. How could I say that? In the words of Han Solo, “Hey, it’s me!” In the last two weeks, I have seen two brilliant exponents of the genre. Ex Machina and Mad Max: Fury Road, both of which had my head spinning in different and wonderful ways and are both very grown up films (although Max has a youthful exuberance which is nothing’s short of joyous, thanks George Miller, 70) I’ve yet to see Tomorrowland but with Brad Bird at the helm, it cannot be anything but a hugely entertaining think piece.
I guess what I meant was, the more spectacle becomes the driving creative priority, the less thoughtful or challenging the films can become. The spectacle of Mad Max is underpinned not only multiple layers of plot and character but also by an almost lost cinematic sense of ‘how did they do that?’ The best thing art can do is make you think, make you re-evaluate the opinions you thought were yours. It’s interesting to see how a cerebral film maker like Christopher Nolan, took on Batman and made it something more adult, more challenging, chasing Frank Miller’s peerless Dark Knight into a slightly less murky world of questionable morality and violence. But even these films are ultimately driven by market forces and somebody somewhere will want to soften the edges, so that toys and lunch boxes can be sold. In that respect, Bruce Wayne’s fascistic vigilantism was never really held to account, however interesting Nolan doubtless found that idea. Did he have an abiding love of Batman or was it a means of making his kind of movie on the mainstream stage?
Fantasy in all its forms is probably the most potent of social metaphors and as such can be complex and poetic. No one could ever accuse Game of Thrones of being childish. George RR Martin clearly saw the swords and sorcery genre as a fertile means to express his musings on ambition, power and lust. Perhaps it milieu makes it more commercial though, would a straight up historical drama have lasted so long? Maybe Game of Thrones wouldn’t have been made at all ten years ago. A world without Game of Thrones?! if Baudrillard had predicted that, I probably would have dropped out of university and become a cobbler.
Also, it’s good to ask why we like this stuff, what makes it so alluring, so discussed, so sacred. Do we channel our passion and indignation into ephemera, rather than reality? Not just science fiction and fantasy but gossip and talent shows and nostalgia and people’s arses. Is it right? Is it dangerous? Something to discuss over a game of 3D chess, perhaps.
This shit is BRILLIANT. I wish Pegg was writing for me. This is the kind of self-aware geekiness that is necessary as our subculture consumes the entire fucking world. And Pegg pulls it into the larger picture of society today, asking if we are amusing ourselves to death - a question that has been asked throughout history and one we should never stop asking.
This is why I can never be Chris Hardwick, an endless booster of all these things*. I think about them too much, and have a hard time always standing behind even the stuff I like. And this is why I love Simon Pegg - he's on the same wavelength, spending the time to actually consider and analyze and think, in a sociohistorical context, about his interests. I am absolutely swooning for him right now.
Scifi and fantasy are incredible tools not just for entertainment but for learning, inspiration and progressing humanity. NASA is full of people who were inspired into the sciences by Star Trek, and who are trying to bring to reality scifi concepts like warp drive. Princess Leia inspired a whole generation of women, and modern characters like Batgirl, Imperator Furiosa and Ms. Marvel will do the same. Films like The Lord of the Rings trilogy teach people how to hope and persevere in tough times. These are all important things... but when the focus shifts from the meaning of these stories to the clutter surrounding them, we've lost sight of why they mattered in the first place. And I look around the geek landscape, at conventions and online, and I wonder if we haven't completely lost sight of why these things mattered. And I am with Simon Pegg, and I wonder if these things that once allowed us to escape and to dream have become things that are being used to keep us quiet and docile.
There's a line between childlike and childish - on which side of it are we standing today?
* I just want to say that some people have seen this as a knock on Hardwick, a guy I legitimately like. It isn't. But Chris, like Felicia Day, fulfills a very positive, forward-facing role in geekdom, one that is much more about supporting and promoting the culture. I, a habitual contrarian, have a hard time doing that - I'm too quick to say 'Yeah, but...' Chris is great at what he does, and he supports a lot of good things. He just does something very different than what I do, and I could never be him.