Is “Geek Culture” Embracing Our Inner Child, or Infantilising a Generation of Adults?
Ever heard the expression: “Revenge is a dish best served cold”?
People will often reference this as sage advice handed down through the ages by ancient Chinese philosophers like Sun Tzu or Confucious. This is partially true. These are ancient words passed down from generation to generation by a society that reveres its own history and cultural traditions. There is only one problem.
It is a Klingon proverb.
This pearl of wisdom which has been regarded as part of our own human history was, in fact, part of the Star Trek universe. Some have argued that it was heavily inspired by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
“La vengeance est un plat qui se mange froide.”
But regardless of its origins, both examples are works of fiction.
These references have permeated our culture so deeply that we don’t have to be a fan, or even see the source material, to understand. Consider the popular misquote of The Empire Strikes Back: ‘No, I am your father.’ became ‘Luke, I am your father.’; just as the line ‘Hello, Clarice,’ never appears in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter actually says: ‘Good evening, Clarice’. Still, the misquoted lines are woven into our popular culture.
Embracing fiction is nothing new. People have been doing it for millennia, but the paradigm has shifted over generations. The silent ‘traditionalist’ generation believed that silly stories about space trekking aliens or fantastical tales of elves and dwarves fighting in the woods are meant entirely for children. The baby boomers believed that a series like Star Trek or Lord of the Rings are enjoyable, but they are just stories and nothing more. Now, generation Xers and millennials have embraced their favourite fictional entities as a religious experience, blending these characters and worlds into their everyday lives and filling their homes with merchandise like religious paraphernalia.
We have definitely embraced the world (or worlds) of fiction, but is this growing obsession healthy? Is it good for our culture to infuse fiction with fact? Can we live by their moral codes like the mythological tales that came before them? Or will we devolve into delusion and start to lose grip on reality?
Cosplay and Keeping Our Inner Child Alive
One of the biggest shifts in the entertainment industry over the last twenty years was the introduction of conventions like PAX West and Comic-Con. Fans come to these conventions to bond with like-minded individuals, hear insights from the cast and crew and possibly get small snippets from their favourite franchise’s latest instalment. It is a way to demonstrate pride, adoration and allegiance to their favourite books, movies and television series; much like a religious person attends church to reaffirm their beliefs.
It is common for fans to dress as their favourite characters, walking around the convention as Harley Quinn or Princess Leia without a second glance. This cosplay culture is not perceived as childish like it would have been by previous generations; instead, it is seen as embracing your ‘inner child’, allowing yourself to succumb to the wonder and innocence of youth.
The world is hard for adults. You must consider bills and taxes, and you must go to work five days a week to pay said bills and taxes. Part of this cosplay fascination derives from a need to shed those adult responsibilities and return to the innocence of childhood. It also stems from another disappointing revelation: As adults, faults become more apparent. Back in the 90s, when many of us were children, we would love watching Pokemon and Power Rangers; but to go back now, unclouded by nostalgia, they are not quite as we remember them. As an adult, you notice how cheaply produced and repetitive they are; and through more cynical adult eyes, it is clear that many, though not all, of our cherished childhood favourites were merely a front to sell merchandise.
There is definitely something soothing about shaking off the shackles of adulthood and enjoying something for what it is.
But is this really a healthy thing for grown adults to do? Some would argue that this is just a bunch of lost children trying to prolong their childhood in their own metaphorical Neverland. But haven’t we been doing that for generations? Going back to the 50s, it was perfectly normal for people to run game nights; for grown adults to play Charades and Monopoly, reverting to a childlike state of play. For decades, there have been large groups of people who play tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons well into adulthood: a game that was literally invented as an extension of childhood storytelling with toys and imaginative play.
So perhaps things have not changed as much as people think. Perhaps people have always been searching for outlets to temporarily relax from their adult woes, and maybe cosplay and conventions are the new generation’s way of achieving this.
Blurring the Lines Between Fact and Fandoms
“…films, football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds.” George Orwell ~ 1984
This quote from George Orwell’s 1984 expresses his belief that the people of our world would succumb to obsession with fiction and fanaticism. This obsession with entertainment would become the primary concern of the world’s citizens; disregarding the very real atrocities happening right under their noses.
In the advent of The Emoji Movie earlier this year, Twitter exploded with outrage as the film’s official account released an image in very poor taste, satirising The Handmaid’s Tale. The core of the outrage was that the advert made light of the suffering of women; but some Twitter users even went as far to compare The Handmaid’s Tale to Schindler’s List and 12 Years a Slave.
This highly offensive comparison does the very thing it is claiming outrage over. In comparing the fictional dystopian novel’s emotional validity to Schindler’s List and 12 Years a Slave, two films very heavily steeped in actual history, they have completely belittled the suffering of real people. Should the fictional trials and oppression of Offred have the same emotional heft as the very real African-Americans who were beaten, raped and forced into slavery and servitude? Or do her problems compare to the estimated 15 to 20 million people killed or imprisoned during WWII under Hitler’s regime? These were real Jewish, Afro-Germanic and mentally disabled people; real gay men; and real people who harboured a dissenting opinion. These men and women were starved, subjected to stomach churning experiments and killed in the most horrific ways. Surely, their stories should be elevated above those of fiction.
It also raises a big question: At what point should we stand for social justice against a parody of a completely fictional story as we would a real-life event? Star Wars was heavily inspired by Nazi Germany and the rise of Hitler. Does mimicking Star Wars then mock the plight of anybody who suffered under the Third Reich? Can we take any parody of Zootopia as an affront to the underlying tones of racism and racial oppression? This is the dark side of immersing yourself in a fictional world like some pseudo-religion. People blend these stories with reality, giving them the same credence as real historical tragedies.
This is not an isolated incident, and it is not restricted to any particular political faction. We have seen it from both sides of the political coin: whether it be social media using Sansa Stark’s rape as evidence of a real-world sexual assault epidemic, or right-wing news outlets claiming that by virtue of Zootopia‘s inclusive message, young people everywhere will flock to the polling booths to vote for Hillary Clinton like a hive of autonomous bees; both examples painting a bleak picture of a future where people are stripped of their abilities for critical thinking and rational debate.
Statistics published by the FBI show that there has been a steady decrease in rape cases in the US since 2011 (the year that Game of Thrones first aired). This is not to diminish the atrocious things that victims of these assaults have endured, the life-long impact they will face, or the work that still needs to be done to stop it. Game of Thrones is not responsible for the reduction in these heinous crimes, but it is certainly not contributing to them. Regardless of your stance on these issues, we must create a divide between fiction and reality and stop blurring the lines. Both of these examples claim that our society is so caught up in the worlds of fiction that we will be unable to distinguish the difference; that we will throw our moral compasses out the window and head straight for Bedlam.
Game of Thrones is one of the most popular shows in television history, but we don’t see too many people fix their squabbles with trial by combat; and despite the large number of voting-aged viewers of Zootopia, it didn’t change the outcome of the 2016 election. These claims are baseless and dangerous. Thankfully, the vast majority of viewers do not use Game of Thrones as a how-to-guide. People aren’t tuning in to Everybody Loves Hypnotoad just yet.
But if we are so invested in the works of fiction, how much of the messages will rub off on us?
“Don’t you blame the movies. Movies don’t make psychos. Movies make psychos more creative.”
This quote from Scream perfectly encapsulates the human relationship with fiction (and no, the irony of using a fictional quote to justify an opinion is not lost). But the 1996 meta-slasher film really did hit the nail on the head: You need to have a predisposition to being a serial killer or believing that sexual assault is okay; and research has suggested that political preferences are more likely to be shaped by those of your families and friends growing up than the entertainment industry. Any sane person wouldn’t let their real-world actions be determined by the events of their favourite television show or film.
Previous life experience has formed the notion, the film just reinforces it.
But does this mean that there isn’t any value to narratives; that they are merely a distraction that help ease the pain of living in an imperfect world? That is also too simple an explanation. Though we need to differentiate between the truth and fiction, we also must understand that narratives have valuable purposes beyond entertainment.
Wanting for a Better World (or Relishing Someone Else’s Misery)
People are not drawn to stories simply by the promise of exciting plot twists and heart-pounding action, but something much deeper.
One might argue over the superior value of particular stories (e.g. Star Wars vs Star Trek, The Hunger Games vs Divergent), but everyone has a favourite movie, book or television show. Everybody has that character that resonated with them, or that moment in a story that made a lump form in their throat. So, Why do people embrace these worlds (sometimes to an obsessive degree) when they are nothing more than somebody’s creative daydreaming that has been put on the page or screen?
There are two reasons for this, and they both have very different consequences for the modern viewer who treats their favourite ‘fandoms’ to an obsessive degree.
Even going back to the legends from Greek, Sumerian and Japanese culture (just to name a few), stories have been used to explain the unexplainable and give us moral lessons about our own humanity. A modern example of this is Star Trek. While the series has changed over the various iterations, it has always retained a philosophical approach that explores all facets of humanity, from racism to transgender issues; all leading to a larger humanist message that we should treat people the same. No better. No worse. Using these stories can have positive effects on a generation that takes their fiction seriously. Somebody who loves Star Trek and treats it like a religion will transfer its humanist message that might one day bring them closer to the Utopian future of Starfleet.
There is another reason why people find themselves drawn to narratives. It is catharsis, both for the writer and the consumer, that can express deeper emotions that lurk beneath the surface. A series like Game of Thrones shows the other side of the narrative coin to Star Trek. People tune in every Sunday to watch Game of Thrones because they become so invested in the characters that they feel genuine emotion when they are sexually abused, have their eyes gouged out, or are ambushed at a wedding. This cathartic expression is a healthy way of releasing pent up emotion that might otherwise lead to depression, anxiety or any number of mental health issues, but there is a darker side to this narrative appeal: The dehumanisation of real world atrocities.
Dehumanisation is nothing new within human society; we have been using it to justify horrible actions since morality was first conceived, but now cultures around the world embraced social media. There are clear advantages to this. It has connected us the world over; people who once knew each other in high school are suddenly reconnected, and friendships are made stronger with everyone being in constant contact with each other, but it has also led to a distancing from the real world. You only need to look at the comment sections on YouTube to see how easily people can dehumanise a content creator so they don’t feel the same guilt they would saying it to their face, and this trend is only compounding by a society of fans who embrace these fictions as though they are real. We start to lose sight of our priorities; then, when a character we’ve loved for five seasons dies in a horrific accident, we give that death more credence than a real human being that we see on the news who has suffered a similar fate. Also, this exposure to such things, if not properly distinguished, can numb us to the severe impact of these real-world stories. We have become so adept at dehumanising news stories about car accidents or global famine that even though our minds know they really happened, they are still not associated that with the real world.
Both sides of storytelling immersion have their purposes, whether it is to teach us a valuable lesson about our humanity or some greater emotional truth; but it is important to never lose sight of the fact that these are fictional worlds with fictional characters and while they may reflect our values, they should never be used as genuine representations of our world, and they certainly shouldn’t be prioritised.
Collecting or Hoarding: The Rise of Funko Pops and Other Merchandise
As children, we all collected toys of our favourite intellectual properties, and periodically checked them after we watched Toy Story to see if they were holding secret meetings about keeping us happy (Admit it, you did it too).
Going back a few generations, the most people would display their IP loyalty was to wear a shirt emblazoned with a logo from their favourite shows, but this was generally reserved for the upper echelons of hard-core sci-fi/fantasy fans. Now, it has become common for licensed clothing to be sold in department stores like Kmart and Target.
Merchandising has become a more lucrative business than making the books, films or television series themselves. The market has exploded with Pop! Vinyls to fill this exact market. Funko makes these cube-headed, button eyed dolls for most shows from Game of Thrones to The Golden Girls. If you love a moderately popular television show, your favourite characters have, or soon will be, produced into a pile of plastic adorableness that can be yours if you shell out the cash.
But if you plastered your house with merchandise back in the era of the baby boomers, you might have been certified an insane hoarder with delusional tendencies. So who is right? Are we devolving as a society, infantalised and staying in our family homes for far too long? Or is this simply an outlet for young people being crushed by the burden of adulthood?
Ultimately, the real question is: Does it matter? People have always collected knick-knacks to display throughout their home for their own aesthetic pleasure. Does it really matter if those knick-knacks are branded with a Starfleet logo or the sigil for House Targaryen? While it may be unusual in the eyes of previous generations, these twenty dollar trinkets are not going to stop you from functioning as a grown adult. You are still able to work your job. You are still able to engage socially with the people around you. You are still able to be a responsible adult; so long as it has no bearing on how you contribute to society, it shouldn’t be deemed shameful or childish. These people aren’t hurting anybody with their collections. In the words of Chief Wiggum from The Simpsons: “I say: If it feels good, do it.”
Farming Fans as Commercial Commodities
After the release of Star Wars in 1977, western culture saw a large spike in merchandise for popular franchises. This was only exacerbated during the 80s and 90s with the introduction of blockbusters like Jurassic Park, Independence Day and Harry Potter. These children of the 80s and 90s, who were exposed to more merchandising than any generation that came before them, are all grown up. They have experienced a lifetime of collecting products to demonstrate their commitment to their favourite franchises, and merchandising departments have picked up on this. For every Star Wars figurine intended for a child, there is a replica lightsaber or life-size Darth Vader worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Over the years, merchandising has become such a big market that a franchise like Star Wars, whose films have made billions of dollars at the box office in recent years, make more money from merchandise than they do the actual films.
This can lead to problems from a narrative point of view. When the merchandising department is making the most money, it would be a wise business choice for the studios to let these toys and play-sets dictate where the narrative goes; rather than looking at the introspection that makes stories so engaging. When it becomes more important to have a new kind of lightsaber we can peddle to the masses rather than exploring the dangers of being too idealistic (like Star Wars has explored in the past), we lose sight of what made us fall in love with the stories in the first place.
Also, if millennials are spending all their money on replica Harry Potter wands or Star Trek Enterprise pizza cutters, they are not saving as diligently as their predecessor. The rate of young people buying houses has never been lower. It has been documented that this decline has been the result of an increase in student loans and rental prices. We have also seen a spike in people having to take several part-time jobs rather than a single full-time job. Nobody can to deny that these challenges stand in the way of millennials to achieve the dream of owning your own home, but there is also an element of a shift in priorities. Millennials don’t have the same goals as the previous generation (just as the previous generation varied from theirs). The baby boomer’s generation would have seen a cable subscription as a frivolous expense that was only for people who could afford such things; nowadays, subscription services like Netflix, Hulu and HBO Go are seen as a necessary utility, like electricity or water. Though the issue isn’t as clear cut as all millenials are on the couch watching Game of Thrones all day while their parents pay for their lifestyle, their thirst for entertainment (and all associated merchandise) as a necessary commodity can cause for some financial strain on the housing market. Perhaps there is a chunk of the new generation that simply doesn’t prioritise owning their own home. Perhaps some would rather rent and spend the extra money on tickets to Comic-Con or a three thousand dollar original 1977 remote controlled sandcrawler.
Young people are embracing the world of fiction more than their predecessors. That is undeniable; but there are pros and cons to this new found obsession. People who embrace the fictional worlds can take on their moral messages and apply them to real life, but if we become too invested in them, we start to disconnect from reality and lose part of the humanity that these stories are ironically trying to teach us. Ultimately, what it comes down to is that while fiction can hold a mirror up to us and give us introspection, it should be clearly defined as fiction. It shouldn’t hold the same weight as something that happens in the real world. In addition to this, if people are collecting trinkets and wearing licensed apparel, or if once a year they dress as Han Solo and spend the weekend at Comic-Con, it shouldn’t matter. If you are able to function as an adult within society, and you can appreciate the power of fiction without forgetting its not real, then there is no harm in indulging ourselves in morality tales from Hogwarts or Tatooine; in fact, if harnessed correctly, we might even be able to use those life lessons to make our real world a better place.
What do you think? Leave a comment.