Thursday, August 22, 2013

Reviewing is Hard

One of the best and worst things about online Nerd/Geek Culture is the overwhelming desire to prove the things we enjoy are not simply enjoyable but intellectually challenging and socially responsible. There are masses of people out there who have built their very identities around being intellectual outcasts with a shared interest in popular genre fiction and proving oneself to be the smartest person in the room is a primal urge no matter what gender the fan. Part of proving yourself the smartest person in the room is proving that your intellectual diet is truly refined, that you are careful to consume only that cultural fare which nourishes the mind and spirit as befits the elite intellectual.

This is why we have things like the Fake Nerd Girl and tests for being a Real Fan. Because not only must our stuff be enjoyed, it must be enjoyed on a greater level. The identities of nerd and geek are based upon not only consumption, but on having superior brainpower over the jocks, the dudebros, the poseurs, the mainstream plebs who watch mindless mainstream fare and consume even our scifi without TRULY appreciating it. This is not mere junk food on your plate, as it is for them, it is a gourmet feast which can only be properly appreciated by YOU! The Geek.

Now don't take this opening to mean I'm turning my back on analyzing the minutia of the commercial franchises which I personally enjoy. Don't take this to mean that I think people in Geek Culture are thinking too much.

No, my problem today is that we're thinking too little.

Consider the Bechdel Test. We all know this one, though I doubt all of us have actually read the initial strip. It's based on a one page cartoon joke that is not really a conversation starter so much as something that hits you immediately with how true and bleak it is. It's a punchline, that's all. The conversation only comes after the initial shock over just how barren the wasteland of our culture truly is subsides and we start applying t to every movie we ever liked so that we can say "Ha! The original Clash of the Titans passes the test in the second act where Cassiopeia and Thetis's fallen head discuss Andromeda! That PROVES it was better than the remake!" (Disclaimer: I have not seen Clash of the Titans in over a decade, I only really remember that Andromeda didn't look Ethiopian and that Mechanical Owl was the coolest thing ever and I want one.)

And it grows from there freeing us of the need to analyze and consider the fiction we consume, it frees of the need to take this variable or that variable into account when discussing the work in cultural context with this simple, blessed formula:

[Conversation + (Named Female Character * 2)] - Man = Feminist

What a relief! To be freed of the responsibility of critical analysis without losing our intellectual identity! And Iron Man 3 passed, so it's okay to like it. And now I can go enjoy Pacific Rim without having to worry about accidentally thinking of an uncomfortable truth in our society.

Oh no! Pacific Rim failed the Bechdel Test. It must be limited. THAT'S the problem, it's limited. That's okay, I'll make a new test that we can now apply to everything. It'll go something like this:

(Goal – Woman)2 + (Determination – Woman)2 = Plot2

There, Pacific Rim is exponentially feminist.

Phew! That thinking was hard. But that's okay, I can apply this one to everything and then be free to make gifs.

Now, earlier when I pointed out that the Bechdel Test in particular was actually stopping us from thinking at this point rather than causing us to, I got a bazillion responses explaining to me that that wasn't the original point. (That's right, the original point was to get a laugh out of the Dykes to Watch Out For audience.) I get told its still a useful tool, that it's great for pointing out longterm trends, that it's limited but that's okay, that it shows that the screenwriters STILL aren't thinking et cetera et cetera.

No. It WAS a useful tool when it was new. But that didn't last long. That's not how its mostly used and you know it. It's used to argue that your opinion about a work of art is objective reality, as a simple rule that gives us a chance to argue our favorite movie is feminist. And in the area of the Internet where much of the discussion is about the role of women in fiction, being the Best Feminist is the same as being the Smartest Person in the Room.

We know what nerds can be like. Hell, we know what we can be like. There is this great desire to appear More Intellectual Than Thou. We all want to win the argument. We all want to be the smartest person in the room. We all want to have Reality on our side in any given dispute.

And if we can do that with as little actual thought as possible, all the better.

Just taking these rules and applying them to every fucking movie or TV show we see is not analysis. It's simple pattern recognition. We originally came up with up these rules because they are an easy way to introduce complex concepts like "Women are portrayed as revolving around men in fiction" to people who haven't discussed them before, but after having taken the intellectual shortcut once we take it again in another discussion and again and again until we're not really discussing anything of substance anymore, we're just trying to prove something is objectively good with math. And easy math at that. Just plug in the numbers in the formula. Simple calculations and counting that take a lot less work than actually thinking through all of the variables involved in a story.

We're trying to prove that we're the Smartest Person in the Room without having to actually think.