Simon Pegg’s Wake-Up Call To Geek Culture

simon-pegg-to-play-an-assassin-in-kill-me-three-times-headerThere is a chance that you heard about Simon Pegg’s recent discussion about the state of geek culture. If not, here is his blog post about it, where he makes his point more clearly than in his original comments. Despite initial appearances, Pegg is not attacking sci-fi blockbusters or superhero movies as being immature or shallow per se. As Pegg himself acknowledges, the release of Mad Max: Fury Road alone proves that geek-friendly tentpoles are as capable of thematic depth as any other kind of movie. What Pegg does argue is that much of modern geekdom tends to get too caught up in the surface-level branding and aesthetics and loses sight of the context that makes such movies truly impactful in the first place. That, he says, is what is infantilizing geek audiences: not what they like, but how they interact with it. While some geek patrons might be insulted or offended by this suggestion, I think that Pegg is absolutely right and his point is one worth listening to.

There’s no denying that there is an escapism aspect to the appeal of science-fiction and fantasy stories. People want to see the impossible and put themselves at arm’s length from the real struggles they confront in their daily lives. However, as Pegg says, there’s something dangerous about using such stories only as an escape. If you watch something or read something only for the immediate, visceral entertainment value then not only are you remaining stagnant as an audience member but you become too beholden to the most ephemeral part of the story. While it’s true that all of the best scifi/fantasy stories have their share of amazing SFX and action setpieces and whatnot, what makes the absolute best of them so impactful and so resonant is the way those stories speak to who we are as real people. Star Wars works not because of the lightsabers and aliens but because of how it captures the universal feeling of wanting to be an adult and not quite being there yet… and how once you get there, it is never as easy or safe as you might expect and you are never quite ready for what is next. Keeping that in mind, to watch a science-fiction movie or read a superhero comic without trying to connect with it on a more intellectual level is to be ignorant to both the legacy of those genres and to what makes those stories so relevant in the first place.

And when we allow our pop culture to be driven by the less-intellectual ingredients, namely the iconography and the whiz-bang spectacle, than the easier it is to allow ourselves to be distracted from real world problems. When we’re more wrapped up in how photorealistic Caesar looks in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes than we are in the thematic underpinnings of his story, then that is one further step removed from reality. If you come out of Pacific Rim more concerned with wanting to buy as much Gipsy Danger merchandise as possible, without considering Guillermo del Toro’s message about setting aside our petty differences to work toward a stable future, then you are sending a message of your own that your attention can be bought wholesale for the price of a bunch of pixels. These are films that are trying to illuminate real life for us so we can better respond to real challenges in our future, and many people ignore that and focus on what was cool or badass about it. And if we let that happen, then we are betraying the very spirit that drives the best of these movies in the first place. It is a heavy, cynical thing to consider, but sadly Pegg is right about all of this too.

What Pegg is really saying to all of us is that we should try and be more aware of ourselves, what art we consume and how we consume it. We should try and recognize what the human core of the story is- assuming there is one, of course- and find some relation to our real lives, rather than try and completely leave our real lives behind for empty spectacle. The point of genre entertainment, even the most escapist-minded of it, should be not to provide a complete vacation from our troubles but to serve as a prism through which to better understand them. This is what makes spaceships and superheroes and orcs and mecha worthwhile: not the cool imagery, not the collectibles, not the limited endorphin rush from watching them in action, but how they can externalize and dramatize the issues that affect us and hopefully shine a light on our own lives.

And I’m not saying I am immune to this intellectual pitfall. I own my fair share of collectibles and get worked up about my fair share of spectacle, and while I consider myself pretty self-aware and tied into what really matters about these stories I know I can do better. I’m just glad someone with a strong voice can capture exactly how and why. So, bravo to Simon Pegg for tackling such a murky and difficult side of fandom. Hopefully the rest of us can take the time to tackle it for ourselves too.

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