The world has over 7 billion people in it. It’s therefore easy to feel insignificant. Expression of personal taste in fashion and entertainment can become an important statement of who you are, as well as open doors to becoming parts of fandom groups. The paradox is, of course, is that we simultaneously want to belong AND we want to be perceived as unique, the proverbial “special snowflake”.
This creates an irresolvable tension between the desire to conform, to fit in, and the need to be ourselves, unfettered with any external obligation.
How many of us were the captain of the football team or the homecoming queen? Most of us are some flavor of misfit. And over time we learn to bury some of our individuality for the sake of getting by in the real world. It’s no secret, then, that some of the most impactful stories are literally about the archetypal misfit.
To Judy Hopps:
The crazy aspect of modern life is that stories about misfits rake in billions of dollars while the level of empathy we express to others has gone into the shitter thanks to the perceived anonymity of the internet and our miniscule attention-spans. We’re losing our ability to relate to each other in the real world as we stare at screens and either dish out haterade or attempt to act as thought-police over every conceivable prejudice or micro-aggression, real or imaginary.
We have an increasing hunger for belonging and approval, while we simultaneously lose our ability to give that which we seek. (I hate to use this phrase, but it’s entitlement culture.) Our entertainment becomes a substitute. If the story itself isn’t about being a misfit, then the show simply takes place from a narrow point-of view. This is what’s known as narrowcasting.
It’s part of my GenX background to have mixed feelings at best about narrowcasting since I grew up in an era with just three networks and some UHF channels playing reruns. These shows had to be broad, and I think this was ultimately a good thing. The reason why holiday specials like Rudolph or Charlie Brown Christmas seem to possess an enormous amount of pop-culture power is because of the sense of shared-experience there was of those who watched it, in real-time, without competition from hundreds of channels, twitter, facebook, videogames, or time-shifting DVRs.
Genre is the oldest and crudest form of narrowcasting, as different demographics gravitate towards different genre. Sci-fi, western, rom-com, etc… But as media exploded, so too have definitions of genre. There are shows that cater specifically to certain demographic groups, which tell stories that are filtered through that groups’ sensibilities. While it would be unfair to say this as a criticism, taken in extremes, this can lead to isolated echo-chambers. Dialogue becomes monologue. Debate becomes dogma.
My critique of Steven Universe is a case in point. The people who make the show go by the name of the crewniverse. While I have no demographic statistics on hand, I know that at least two of the people behind it are gay, and the show’s mission-statement was to do things from a LGBT perspective. What this then does is become a magnet for LGBTs to become fans, and use the presence of the show as a form of representation, a rallying flag. Therefore part of the appeal of the show rests not on its intrinsic merits, but simply the fact that this or that under-represented group has been given a voice.
Where I part company with this mindset is when this need for representation/identification makes it impossible to submit the work to proper criticism. Since the work has taken on so much symbolic import by simply existing at all, it is put on a pedestal, and criticism is perceived as stealth-bigotry. But this is true to a larger extent with fandom as a whole. Once you become a fan, you close the circle and those who rattle off a litany of flaws in the work are simply shouted down on the basis that there is simply something “wrong” with them for not liking X, Y, or Z. A critique of the work feels like a critique of the self, hence they raise the drawbridges and arm the battlements. Suddenly out shoots the usual “You’re too (fill in the blanks) to get-it.”
The recent controversy over Suicide Squad is a great example of this. I really don’t know what social group in particular are Suicide Squad fans or apologists. One would think they’re on the young side as far as being into the “bad guys are actually the good guys” narrative as well as being into the whole punky piercings and tattoos look these bad guys are now sporting.
You can see how quickly the identity issue devolves into ideological/socio-political firestorms. When it gets that far, it’s not about arts or entertainment anymore. It’s about who we feel we are and what we stand for or stand against. While speech is always intertwined with politics, I think it can get a little out of hand, witness this breaking story about Harry Potter fans mutinying against JK Rowling because her definition of a character doesn’t meet their imagined expectations.
Another way this expresses itself is in the heated passion over casting decisions. Since most modern movies these days are comic-book movies, and comic-books are like modern mythology, everyone has their own inner vision of who these people should look like. Controversy over gender or race-swapping an icon is not unlike the controversy over the race of Jesus or Santa Claus. These images feel deeply personal and we’re very protective of them.
Here’s a great example that’s a personal pet-peeve of mine, Jason Momoa cast as Aquaman. Here’s a side-by-side.
To some people, the need to pull out a scorecard and right the wrongs of these preexisting properties having been visualized mostly from a WASP perspective is more important than being somehow true to the integrity of the source material.
Another recent dustup was about the decision to “honor” George Takei by making John Cho’s Sulu gay in Star Trek Beyond, only for George Himself to rebuff it as a bastardization of Gene’s concept for the character. This led to the absurdity of the Trek Beyond cast and crew fighting a war of words with George, that he is somehow “misguided” for not liking the move. The reason both sides reached an impasse is exactly what I’m talking about. Nobody can claim George doesn’t stand for diversity, but in this particular case, he saw the character’s concept as written-in-stone at the moment of conception and not something to screw with, even for good-intentions.
My feeling is that ticking identity boxes off doesn’t accomplish much after all. It sounds good on paper but in the end, your goal as a storyteller is to give anyone and everyone reason to care about your characters. I am not going to care about a character just because their vital statistics match mine, or ignore others because they don’t. In fact some of my favorite characters aren’t anything like me, at least on the surface. What you have to do is dig deep into the primal, universal aspects of human nature. Yes, story can celebrate our individuality, but it should also be about the things we all share, giving us reason to care about those we otherwise write-off as “the other”.