WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the movie Serenity.
January 20, 2010
My name is Michel Martin del Campo, and I am a geek. It’s been two weeks since my last Battlestar Galactica viewing. I had the urge the other day to watch Revenge of the Sith, but thank God my sponsor came over and we talked until that feeling went away.
Yeah, I’m addicted.
I can pin-point the exact thing that led me down this dark path. Transformers. You tell a five year old boy that the really cool red truck he’s looking at can also turn into a three-story tall robot with lasers and it can crush tanks with its bare hands and that boy has suddenly seen the greatest thing he will ever see. Until he sees this:
But that’s another story.
The point is that fans have that moment where something, a scene, a line, a piece of music, something grabbed our attention and drew us in. We got hooked. My youth was spent with Optimus Prime, the Ninja Turtles, and a slew of other wonderful 80’s work. It’s carried over into franchises like Star Trek, Star Wars, the aforementioned Battlestar Galactica, and it’s inspired my reading and writing habits. In fact, Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy is the reason I decided to become a writer. Not a speculative fiction writer per say. I fell in love with writing for writing’s sake. That’s the kind of impact this hobby has had on my life…
Which makes me wonder what Twilight, Jonas Brothers, John and Kate Plus Eight, and other fans who obsessively watch and follow these institutions will be able to say a few years down the road. Why did they watch these shows? Were they “good”? Why? “Good” tells me nothing. People say avocado is “good,” but it’s one of the few foods I actually don’t like. I’d like something more insightful.
I’ve actually gotten into very heated discussions with people about this. I am not afraid to say that I’ve mockedTwilight fans, and the Twilight books and movies, for shallow stories, badly written characters, and a fan-base I can only describe as a cult on par with the Snuggie Cult.
The same goes for soap operas, Dan Brown books, and any number of fictional works that seem to inspire legions of followers. Why do so many people become obsessed with these shows, books, and movies? Why have millions poured into Stephanie Meyers’ account? Why do we care what John and Kate are doing? How much more of the English language will Dan Brown destroy? Where does this fanaticism come from?
Let’s get real, though. My beloved D&D, Trek, and others are as guilty as others.
I’ve dressed up to the premiers of Attack of the Clones and The Dark Knight. I own two retractable plastic lightsabers. Red. I have a picture autographed by William Shatner. I learned the Cortex gaming system for the sole purpose of playing a Serenity RPG. And I’m tame by comparison. I don’t know Klingon. I’ve never LARPED. I didn’t petition to get Star Trek: Enterprise brought back when it was cancelled.
Because it sucked towards the end! I love these shows and movies, but when they started to stink, I had to back away. Did Star Trek influence me? Of course. Did it suck like a Paris Hilton movie at times? Oh, most definitely. And there’s the crucial difference between a fan and a, well, let’s call it a cultist. If someone tells me Star Trek is unrealistic, infantile, and badly written, I’ll very likely agree to a point. Episodes like The City on the Edge of Forever, Chain of Command, and movies like Star Trek II and the recent prequel are fine examples of what the show could be when it really tried. Then you have… other things. Nemesis, Insurrection, Star Trek V, Star Trek: Voyager… oh it hurts.
I just felt a little chicken from dinner come back up. I can admit when the things that I love, the things that helped shape both my life and career, fail me. Why? Because I do something weird. When I see Captain Kirk, I don’t think I’m Captain Kirk. When Wash got killed in Serenity, I was sad because he was a fun character, but I didn’t have a funeral for him in real life. I have personally met so many people who follow Twilight, and I’m singling it out because it’s the one that annoys me the most, with a fervor I can only call religious. Nothing bad may be said of their Edward. Yes, they call him “their” Edward. I can’t say the stories are badly written because at least they’re getting people to read, or so the opposition reminds me. Popularity doesn’t negate bad writing. I can look at that novel and probably at the dialogue in the movie if I ever get the will to actually sit through it, and point out specific, objective things that are wrong with it. They’re not based on whether or not vampires should sparkle.
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The reason people fall in love with all these things, from Kirk to Edward, John and Kate to Roslin and Adama, is that we find something to identify with in these characters. At least, that’s the idea. We may look up to them or use them as surrogates. I won’t deny that there are times I wish I could have those kinds of adventures on the Enterprise or fought in some major battle against Decepticons. The life of a writer lacks lasers and green women. The problem arises when we can no longer make the distinction between “us” and “them.”
Let’s go back to Twilight for a moment. What does our heroine (and I gag to call her that) Bella look like?
Anyone? Based on the book? Description? We know the color of her hair and skin, but pale and brown hair apply to so many people that it’s difficult to not get a fuzzy image. Was this bad writing? Probably. However, look at what it does for the reader. Suddenly, the main character is blank. You can fill in anything you want. Bella becomes a surrogate for the reader. This is the same reason reality television is so popular. The contestants and cast are portrayed as real people, so we’re supposed to feel a kinship with them. They are us. We can vote for the next American Idol. We have power! They are us and we is them who are me! At least, that’s the plan.
The producers made the show. They had a plan-
Here’s where a fan and a cultist diverge. The difference between comedy and drama is empathy. Mel Brooks said it best when he said that tragedy was him getting a splinter in his finger. Comedy is if you fall into an open manhole and die. What does he care? To me, Twilight is a comedy because I find nothing in common with its characters. The story has no appeal to me. The same goes for a bad horror movie. I’m not saying that you can’t feel anything for the characters in a comedy, but if you’re completely detached, then nothing that happens to them is going to matter to you. It’s the reason why white kids getting slashed to pieces in a bad horror movie is hi-larious.
Ever wonder why romance novels are so popular? They do a great job of putting the reader in the story. Despite all the near-rape that occurs in every romance novel ever published, it’s an accessible escape for many people. If you think that’s weird, when was the last time you let a stranger strap you to a small metal car so you could careen through a wooden track within nothing but a few metal bars holding you in place?
When someone identifies that closely with a work of fiction, suddenly, the fiction becomes his or her life. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that immersive, either. The reader or viewer may already be predisposed to not like his or her life, and the idea of a new one to become a part of may be too tempting. The cultist takes these new worlds and makes them part of his or her new reality. That’s what creates the attachment. Someone criticizes these shows, movies, books, whatever, and you’re actually insulting their own reality. That’s what causes fanaticism for entertainment. Most people can detach themselves from fiction. When the show ends, they may be left with a feeling of sadness for the characters, but they remember that they’re characters. The ability to differentiate between fantasy and fiction is one of the key indicators of sanity. If you can’t detach yourself from something that’s clearly and obviously fake, you have a problem.
These shows, movies, and books can get pretty crappy, but many will stay with them for the good times they remember. It’s the same principle as any abusive relationship. Battered women. Abused children. Edward and Bella.
People become attached to these works, artists, fads, whatever, simply because they got something from them at one point. It was something they needed, and now they keep going back. Like a heroin addict looking for the same rush of the first high, they’ll never find it, but they keep looking, or maybe they never even got that. Maybe they just saw something that was better than the life they had and the saw a piece of themselves, however small, in that world. Whatever the reason, they can’t let go of something that should be, at worst, a hobby and at best something to admire. I’ve let go of childish things. I still like Star Trek and Star Wars despite recent… entries into the genre. I just can’t to wait until Eclipse comes out. Never read it, but it apparently involves vampire C-sections performed with fangs, werewolf pedophilia, and a host of other socially ambiguous behavior.
I’m curious if this will be the straw that lodges itself in the fans’ eyes.
Or something like that.