It’s 1984, I am eight years old, and I am up past my bedtime. I’m doing the thing that would define a good chunk of the rest of my life: sitting in front of pop culture, reacting to it, and working out why that was happening.
This particular instance is important, because this is the first time I saw myself and the first time I saw what I wanted to be. I’m watching Film 1984, home of the best theme tune in cinema show history. I’m watching it because Film 1984 regularly has the Top 10 chart for movies in the US. None of these films will be released in the UK for months. Perhaps half of them will make it to the Isle of Man where I’m growing up. I will be old enough to see precisely none of them.
So the 30 seconds or so of Ghostbusters I get are pretty important. And in those 30 seconds I get Venkman duckwalking, a joke or two, and Egon Spengler.
Venkman was smart and funny and very good at making his own fun. As someone who grew up on a scrap of land 30 km wide and a boat and or plane ride away from every piece of culture that interested me, I could relate to that.
Egon was tall. Egon had glasses. Egon was smart. Egon wasn’t socially confident. Egon was one of the heroes.
Venkman was who I wanted to be. Egon was who I was. And with adolescence bearing down on me like a tidal wave of hormones, terrible hair choices, and six years of trying to work out everything from my career path to my sexuality, I found joy in those 30 seconds. And, it would turn out, both a way to escape and a calling.
Noted cultural critic Polonius talks, pre-stabbing, about holding a mirror up to nature. That’s what pop culture is. It shows us Venkman and Egon, and in doing shows us who we are and who we want to be. It also sometimes, doesn’t show us at all.
But back in 1984 I didn’t know that. All I did know was that I felt seen, that the burgeoning fear no one had ever been a brain trapped in a meatsuit before was just that, a fear, not a fact. What I understand now is that joy is the moment where the circuit between you, the text, and the author, lights up. If the center of that circuit is the fictional topography I talked about last time, joy is what gets you there. It renders us down to our most honest and in doing so both disarms us and hands us the tool that best fits our hand
That’s vital, now more than ever. If joy, if the sense of being recognized is the first stage, then the second is using the narratives in the culture we see ourselves in to help make our own lives and the lives of those around us better. Sometimes that’s a call to arms and those always have power. Few things give me goosebumps more than the whispered “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches,” at the end of episode four of The Handmaid’s Tale. At times like those, being seen is being made part of a group, of knowing someone else is in the same position as you are and together you can hopefully get out. That solidarity, that sense you’re not the first one to be where you are, puts me in mind of The West Wing episode “Noel.” Josh hiding his trauma and rage behind humor is uncomfortably familiar ground for me. Leo’s speech, specifically, “I’ve been down here before. And I know the way out,” is one of those lines of dialogue that’s written on my soul. It still hurts to watch, but there’s joy there, in recognition, in solidarity, in realizing someone has a MAP and your journey is not going to be a solitary one.
There’s also vulnerability, both in trusting yourself to look at what’s in the way and, for a lot of men, in accepting that you’re not just allowed to have emotions, they’re compulsory. For men, in particular in my age group and nationality, emotional constipation is a constant concern. We’re expected to be the Terminator when in reality all that does is internalize our damage and just let it fester. That’s how the British Empire happens, how “harmless banter” and toxic masculinity get so many host bodies you find yourselves convinced you’re in a community theatre remake of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers with a NO GURLS ALLOWED sign on the door. We’re told we need to be strong, so what we become is immobile. We’re told to fight for what’s right but we fight with what’s there.
And that brings us to the inherent defensiveness that’s the other side of the coin to joy. We all come in alone, to every piece of culture, and the joy we find is realizing we don’t have to leave that way. But that joy is also tempered with something close to loyalty and that loyalty, far too often, tips over into belligerence. Look at the response to Jodie Whitaker’s casting as the Thirteenth Doctor. Look too, albeit in a much more nuanced way, at the responses to The Last Jedi. The film is absolutely not what was expected. It’s absolutely, for me, what it needed to be. But I understand the visceral pushback from a lot of places, even if I don’t subscribe to it myself. It’s tough seeing your heroes fall. It’s tough seeing stories end or places where you’ve made your stand being criticized. Of course you want to push back if someone tells you that your fave is problematic. It’s your fave. That’s how it works, right?
But here’s the thing, the phrase “your fave is problematic” stems from a Tumblr that ran earlier this decade. In that time, it pioneered the idea of looking at any piece of culture not with an inherently negative eye (a lesson geek culture as a whole singularly failed to learn) but with a discerning one. The push back it got was understandable—if certainly not excusable—and later versions of the phrase expressed the philosophy behind it far better:
Everyone’s fave is problematic.
Egon is a stereotypical nerd with an implied, vast libido barely held in check. Venkman is the world’s most charming sex pest whose every gag is designed to belittle a woman, get into bed with her, or both of the above. Josh Lyman is a career politician 30 seconds away from burn out who has barely concealed contempt or patronizing fondness for his female colleagues. Leo McGarry is a high functioning alcoholic who sacrifices marriage, family, health, and life to a greater cause. Scrubs, which we’ll get to in a moment, mashes the “FEEL SAD BECAUSE MORTALITY” button so hard the casing cracks and Pixar scriptwriters, attracted by the noise, lean around the door, see what they’ve done, and take notes.
All of this is true. All of this does absolutely nothing to negate the emotional power of my examples. All it does is point out how limited they are and, by extension, ask a question:
Why can’t everyone have this?
That principle, that fundamental fairness, is something that lies at the heart of what I do. I describe myself as a pop culture analyst rather than a critic because I’ve trained myself to break everything down, look at the component parts, and highlight both what works and what doesn’t. There is always, without exception, something of both and almost always, without exception, what’s missing is representation. Whether it’s whitewashing a cast, removing female characters, or Hollywood’s charmless tendency to pretend everyone above 130 pounds doesn’t exist, there isn’t a piece of culture on Earth that isn’t problematic.
And the fact we see that? Is amazingly good news.
Because everyone deserves to be seen. And if we go into the creation of new culture, and new creators are educated, to look for these problems, then more people will be seen. There will, of course, always be more problems. But those problems will change and that change is itself a sign of progress. Culture gives us the tools that fit our hand. It’s up to us to help culture become the tool that fits everybody’s hand. Because if we do that, then everyone will feel the joy I felt from 30 seconds of TV footage. Everyone will be seen and everyone’s stories will be heard.
I use joy a lot here because that visceral, immediate connection is so often a joyful experience. But sometimes, joy doesn’t cover it. Sometimes the connection is necessary in ways you don’t like or don’t want to face. And those are the times it’s needed most of all. This is one of mine.
I lost my best friend aged 17. He had leukemia three times in three years and the third time he opted not to have treatment and died about eight weeks later. He was an ornery bastard and lasted about three weeks more than we’d been told.
I wasn’t okay. For a long time. I’m still not, if I’m being completely honest. I’ve had a parent and a sibling both have, and survive, different cancers, and those three events have locked my “Mortality Awareness” meter somewhere between “High” and “Dear God the needle, it’s breaking through the casing!” Depending on how things are going. That’s my damage, but it’s not all I am.
I learned that through, well I wouldn’t call it joy, but through the emotional catharsis that connecting with a text brings with it. The text in this instance was two episodes of Scrubs, “My Hero” and “My Screw Up.” Both deal with the impact cancer has on friends and family, and both have one message carved into every single frame.
It’s okay to not be okay. Be not okay.
I wasn’t fixed. But I knew that wasn’t a failing now.
It’s not joy, I’ll grant you (although Brendan Fraser is just straight up delightful in both episodes) but it uses that connection, that emotional circuit in the same way. I cried my eyes out watching both. I still do and probably always will. And that’s what they’re designed to do. That’s the tool which fits my particular hand in that particular instance.
The takeaway here is this; joy is not always joy, but it’s the best possible word for the feeling of an emotional circuit being closed with you at one end and a piece of culture at the other. The mirror gets held up to nature, Doctor Cox’s cape flies away, Offred mutters some Latin, Leo reaches out to Josh and Josh reaches back. That connection is vital in both senses of the word. It’s what makes culture work. It’s what gives culture the power to teach us how to be who we want to be, and to see who we are.
Imagine it not being there.
I’m 8 and watching Film 1984 and the Ghostbusters are all Chippendales with dimpled chins, earnest voices, and no glasses. I’m 33 and Josh just returns to work. Or isn’t there at all. Ben’s cancer is cured. Or just never happens.
I’m not seen. And no one notices but me.
Imagine what that feels like.
That sensation, and what side of it you fall on, is key to the ongoing debate about whether the “your fave is problematic” approach is killing popular culture in particular or saving it.
There’s almost no way to not look at someone poking holes in something you love as an attack. It’s just how culture is wired and fandom culture in particular. Look at the push back against the increasingly diverse approach taken in in comics and the 150,000th rallying cry of “Quickly! To the olden days!” to echo across genre fiction so far this year.
We like equilibrium. A lot of us resent change. When empowered, we will absolutely push back against it and in doing so will believe absolutely that we’re also an oppressed minority. Because when you have 98 percent of everything and someone takes three percent, that’s a traumatic experience some people never fully shake off.
But you should. You have to. And on the other side of that debate is where joy, hope, and the future lie. And who wouldn’t want to go to there?
© 2018 by Alasdair Stuart