Disclaimer: The following essay has been reprinted with permission from Simon Pegg. It was first published on his personal blog, which you can visit here.
From the wonky opening that brought you “Fuck you Star Trek fans” and “Phwooar, Princess Leia”, comes this … “Nerd culture is the product of a late capitalist conspiracy, designed to infantalize the consumer as a means of non-aggressive control.”
It has come to my attention (thank you google), that the excellent website, Io9 picked up on some controversial comments I made to the Radio Times, which can be summed up in the above headline. Now, maybe I was being a little bit trollish, I can be a bit of a Contrary Mary in interviews sometimes. When you do lots of them, you get sick of your own opinions and start espousing other people’s. Having said that, the idea of our prolonged youth is something I’ve been interested in for a very long time. It’s essentially what Spaced was about, at least in part.
One of the things that inspired Jessica and myself, all those years ago, was the unprecedented extension our generation was granted to its youth, in contrast to the previous generation, who seemed to adopt a received notion of maturity at lot sooner. The children of the 70s and 80s were the first generation, for whom it wasn’t imperative to ‘grow up’ immediately after leaving school. Why this happened is a whole other sociological discussion: a rise in the student population, progress in gender equality, the absence of world war; all these things and more contributed to this social evolution. What fascinated Jess and I was the way we utilised this time. For Tim and Daisy, not having to grow up in the way their parents did, simply meant a continuation of their childhood. For Daisy, it was the pursuit of her girlhood dreams and fantasies. For Tim, he channeled his childhood passions into his adult life, cared about them as much, invested in them, the same level of time, importance and emotion. His hobbies and interests defined who he was, rather than his professional status.
In the 18 years since we wrote Spaced, this extended adolescence has been cannily co-opted by market forces, who have identified this relatively new demographic as an incredibly lucrative wellspring of consumerist potential. Suddenly, here was an entire generation crying out for an evolved version of the things they were consuming as children. This demographic is now well and truly serviced in all facets of entertainment and the first and second childhoods have merged into a mainstream phenomenon.
Before Star Wars, the big Hollywood studios were making art movies, with morally ambiguous characters, that were thematically troubling and often dark in a (Travis Bickle dark, as opposed to Bruce Wayne dark)*. This was probably due in large part to the Vietnam War and the fact that a large portion of America’s young men were being forced to grow up very quickly. Images beamed back home from the conflict, were troubling and a growing protest movement forced the nation to question the action abroad. Elsewhere, feminism was still dismissed as a lunatic fringe by the patriarchal old guard, as mainstream culture actively perpetuated traditional gender roles. Star Wars was very much an antidote to the moral confusion of the war, solving the conundrum of who was good and who was evil. At the heart of the story was an ass kicking princess who must surely have empowered an entire generation of girls. It was a balm for a nation in crisis in a number of ways and such was that nation’s influence, the film became a global phenomenon.
Recent developments in popular culture were arguably predicted by the French philosopher and cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard in his book, America, in which he talks about the infantilization of society. Put simply, this is the idea that as a society, we are kept in a state of arrested development by dominant forces in order to keep us more pliant. We are made passionate about the things that occupied us as children as a means of drawing our attentions away from the things we really should be invested in, inequality, corruption, economic injustice etc. It makes sense that when faced with the awfulness of the world, the harsh realities that surround us, our instinct is to seek comfort, and where else were the majority of us most comfortable than our youth? A time when we were shielded from painful truths by our recreational passions, the toys we played with, the games we played, the comics we read. There was probably more discussion on Twitter about the The Force Awakens and the Batman vs Superman trailers than there was about the Nepalese earthquake or the British general election.
The ‘dumbing down’ comment came off as a huge generalisation by an A-grade asshorn. I did not mean that science fiction or fantasy are dumb, far from it. How could I say that? In the words of Han Solo, “Hey, it’s me!” In the last two weeks, I have seen two brilliant exponents of the genre. Ex Machina and Mad Max: Fury Road, both of which had my head spinning in different and wonderful ways and are both very grown up films (although Max has a youthful exuberance which is nothing’s short of joyous, thanks George Miller, 70) I’ve yet to see Tomorrowland but with Brad Bird at the helm, it cannot be anything but a hugely entertaining think piece.
I guess what I meant was, the more spectacle becomes the driving creative priority, the less thoughtful or challenging the films can become. The spectacle of Mad Max is underpinned not only multiple layers of plot and character but also by an almost lost cinematic sense of ‘how did they do that?’ The best thing art can do is make you think, make you re-evaluate the opinions you thought were yours. It’s interesting to see how a cerebral film maker like Christopher Nolan, took on Batman and made it something more adult, more challenging, chasing Frank Miller’s peerless Dark Knight into a slightly less murky world of questionable morality and violence. But even these films are ultimately driven by market forces and somebody somewhere will want to soften the edges, so that toys and lunch boxes can be sold. In that respect, Bruce Wayne’s fascistic vigilantism was never really held to account, however interesting Nolan doubtless found that idea. Did he have an abiding love of Batman or was it a means of making his kind of movie on the mainstream stage?
Fantasy in all its forms is probably the most potent of social metaphors and as such can be complex and poetic. No one could ever accuse Game of Thrones of being childish. George RR Martin clearly saw the swords and sorcery genre as a fertile means to express his musings on ambition, power and lust. Perhaps its milieu makes it more commercial though, would a straight up historical drama have lasted so long? Maybe Game of Thrones wouldn’t have been made at all ten years ago. A world without Game of Thrones?! if Baudrillard had predicted that, I probably would have dropped out of university and become a cobbler**.
The point of all this is just to get my position clear. I’m not out of the fold, my passions and preoccupations remain. Sometimes it’s good to look at the state of the union and make sure we’re getting the best we can get. On one hand it’s a wonderful thing, having what used to be fringe concerns, suddenly ruling the mainstream but at the same time, these concerns have also been monetised and marketed and the things that made them precious to us, aren’t always the primary concern (right, Star Trek OST fans?)
Also, it’s good to ask why we like this stuff, what makes it so alluring, so discussed, so sacred. Do we channel our passion and indignation into ephemera, rather than reality? Not just science fiction and fantasy but gossip and talent shows and nostalgia and people’s arses. Is it right? Is it dangerous? Something to discuss over a game of 3D chess, perhaps.
Speaking of which I better climb aboard the old hypocropter and fly back to writing Star Trek Beyond...
- I love Science Fiction and fantasy and do not think it’s all childish.
- I do not think it is all generated by dominant forces as a direct means of control…much.
- I am still a nerd and proud.
Love and rockets, Simon
p.s. Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan are also Stormtroopers in The Force Awakens.
*Those type of films are made today but not by big studios. Before Star Wars, SciFi and Fantasy were seen as B movie fodder, that the big studios were wary of. Alan Ladd Jnr really doesn’t get the credit he deserves for backing George Lucas.**No disrespect to cobblers, I merely intended to allude to a profession that would not fill my days with fantasy. Not that cobblers can’t enjoy fantasy, they can. After all, some of them are magic elves who only come out at night to save a poor husband and wife from destitution. Surely a metaphor for the invisible underclass, enabling social mobility among the executive echelons of the pre war working class.