We need to take a step back and look at why we love the things we love.
This past weekend, I watched Hannah Gadsby’s comedy special, “Nanette,” on Netflix. It was a revelation. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say her words confirmed and shaped some things that had been percolating at the edges of my subconscious for the last several years. In the special, which you should absolutely watch if you have not yet, Gadsby talks about why she is quitting comedy, how jokes are only two parts — setup and punchline — and not a whole story. Essentially, she says comedians create tensions through their setups so that the punchlines can break it, and she no longer wants to create tension. She wishes to instead create connection. Rather than use comedy to obfuscate her painful past, she tells the rest of the stories that inspired her funniest bits, and the humor goes away, but something so much deeper remains.
This week, I had meant to write about why I have quit consuming and engaging with so much of nerd culture in recent years. And while I cannot make quite so eloquent a connection as Hannah Gadsby with the two parts versus a whole story metaphor, I can say that I think it’s to do with how mistaking engaging with pop culture the same as engaging with and influencing our communities.
Jon covered the more toxic aspects of nerd culture in his wonderful piece on Monday. And in it, he touched on something important: there’s a dangerous undercurrent of racism and sexism masquerading as nostalgia in nerd culture today. And because we equate our nerdy pursuits with our identity, we feel that fighting angry nerds constitutes improving culture. And while representation is truly important, I think conflating fandom with identity forces us into an easy bubble. We feel we are fighting a crusade for social justice when we champion a female Doctor or a lady Jedi who is more competent than her whiny force-sensitive counterparts.
The fight isn’t in the properties themselves. We need to step back and think about what these stories represent for us in real life. We need to, like Hannah Gadsby, take that next step and look at our own world, look at our real truth, to see why representation matters, to see why these properties are so important to us in the first place.
As an example inn my own life, I love the the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Hobbit films broke my heart because they did not seem to care what the original trilogy stood for, at least in my mind. I cried the whole way home after a midnight screening, and I felt so betrayed. When someone dared tell me that they thought the second film might actually compare to Return of the King, I legitimately contemplated whether or not I wanted to stay friends with that person. And some of you are probably nodding your heads in agreement — this seems totally logical.
But now, older and wiser and more concerned with rising rents in Los Angeles, the safety of my minority friends, and the impending restriction of women’s rights, I see why those original movies had such an impact. It’s not because the films themselves — beautiful little pieces of commerce that grew an island nation into a cinema powerhouse — are inherently moral or right. It’s because of the lessons I took from them. They taught me, before I had a diverse friend group, what it meant to come together as a community for the good of the Earth. They taught me that even the smallest, most ill-equipped seeming person can contain the sort of multitudes that save the world. They taught me that materialism makes you Gollum and that loving Sam can save your life. So now, instead of fighting this idea of the Hobbit films, of bad CGI or cash-grabbing sequels or 48 FPS projection, instead of treating these films as a part of my identity, I can thank them for helping shape who I actually try to be while still acknowledging that they are just a tool in the process.
It is perfectly ok to love a fandom or a franchise. But it is so important to ask why. These properties are just that — properties, pieces of commerce. They possess no inherent value except that which we give them. So instead of fighting for fewer CGI orcs, fight for conservation like an elf. Instead of fighting over whether or not Moffat screwed the Who-niverse, embrace the idea of perpetual change and reincarnation in the pursuit of a better universe. Don’t keep new fans from the gates of Star Wars. Show them with gusto, and explain to them that a better future comes from always fighting the dark side. We tell stories to help communicate the unknowable and uncertain in our real world, so do not forget that world in pursuit of defending one where you have no stake.