Simon Pegg gave an interview for the Radio Times, in which he criticised -or appeared to criticise- genre movies for ‘dumbing down.’ This, in the words of Douglas Adams, made a lot of people upset and was widely considered a bad move. Pegg later clarified his position on his own website and, to my mind, made a lot of good points.
Here’s a quote from the RT piece that started it all…
“Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes… Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!”
First things first, whoever decided that a slammer was a way to go, needs to look long and hard in the mirror. It is never acceptable to do that. Never!
Okay. There’s plenty to unpack in this quote. I tried to sit and write a cohesive argument, during which I hoped to figure out whether I agreed or disagreed with what he was saying. The truth it, I have views that are somewhat contradictory of each other. I both disagree with Pegg and absolutely agree with him. I’ve decided the best I can do is to present all of my opposing ideas here, and then hope that my cohesive opinion forms somewhere in the middle of the venn diagram.
Point The First; ‘Childish things.’
I have an issue with the way we talk about things being childish, or child-like. Too often, these phrases are used to refer to things beings dumbed down, or simplified. However, children are hands-down the cleverest people on the planet. Their capacity for understanding and learning far outstrips anything we can do as adults. You think it’s impressive that Einstein managed to work his way through the theory of relativity? That’s fucking nothing. Sit and watch what a child manages to do in his or her first four years. From nothing, from absolutely zero, with no frame of reference, a baby learns the world. It learns days and nights, people, communication, it learns to talk without having a language in the first place, it learns the very concept of language. Moving, shuffling, crawling, walking, running. Touching, cheating, giving pleasure, causing pain. Cause and effect. It’s amazing what those little bundles of collected water achieve. And from there, children go on to become far more ambitious, daring, and adult than any actual adult.
That’s really my problem with the way we talk about children’s entertainment; it’s fundamentally wrong. Children engage with material that is exciting, fun, ambitious. Children tell stories with a freedom and imagination that get’s taken away from us as we grow. Children also grow to understand very deep and complex issues. They learn about life and death, love and loss, grief and hope. They learn to deal with, and engage with, stories that tackle issues that we now seem to shy away from as adults.
When we find art that can bring us a little sense of that, any story, film, TV show or song that can rekindle that spark, we should treasure it. Doctor Who has survived for over 50 years now, not because it isn’t a kids show, but because it’s the very best kids show. It’s a show that allows adults to be children again, in short doses.
Like many comic book readers -certainly ones of my generation- I spent my teens and twenties insisting that super heroes were meant for adults. (I also wondered why the industry was dying.) Now, by and large, I’m drawn to super hero tales that embrace what they really are. That accept they are absurd little morality tales, with grown-ups dressing as a variety of animal-themes heroes, and blowing shit up. I find that the heart of Batman isn’t the moody adult avenger that we see on the surface of the story, but the scared and angry little boy that we engage with in the subtext. Superman is just a normal guy from Kansas, he could be your neighbour or your best friend, but he has super powers and can fly into outer space. How fucking cool is that? How much does that get the little childish spark in you burning?
Children are simply better than us when it comes to hope, excitement and ambition. Genuinely child-like storytelling is one of the best things there is (maybe even better than milkshake) and we lose sight of that, because we’ve lost sight of the verve and creativity that informs it. And that, in turn, is what leads to the ‘dumbing down’ that people have noticed. Not because we’re given stories that are too child-like, but rather, because we’re given stories by people who’ve forgotten how to be child-like.
Point The Second: On ‘Dumbing Down.’
Alan Moore has taken a lot of shit in the past for pointing out that the comic book industry has been taken over by a form of arrested development. A relevant quote can be taken from this interview;
In the 1980’s, comics didn’t actually grow up. I know there were all those newspaper articles that said, ‘Bam! Sock! Pow! Comics have grown up.’ But actually, Bam! Sock! Pow! No they haven’t. No. What they did was, I think, and this might be a controversial statement, I think they met the emotional age of the general public coming the other way. I think there has been a retreat of things in this century. Because of the burgeoning levels of complexity that assails the entirety of our culture.
I don’t always agree with everything Moore says, because he’s prone to over-generalisation (he says, generalising…) but I think here he has a point. As the world is getting more and more complex, as technology is making it possible to see terrible events in real-time, and as our culture moves faster and faster, there seems to be a backwards shift in our entertainment. Not all entertainment, of course. Anyone reading this far is likely to have a mental list of adult, complex and insightful works of contemporary entertainment at the ready to rebut me. But those seem to be the outliers at the moment. They always were, the mainstream pop-culture level entertainment has always been a shallower-but-wider pool, but it seems to be getting ever shallower and ever wider.
Let’s take comic books as an example. Too many people want to deny that superheroes were created for children, too many people want to steal those creations away and wrap them in some kind of protective ‘adult’ bubble. This behaviour misses the point that truly allowing the characters to be great children’s literature would be the best way for us to enjoy them as adults, and that we’re trapping ourselves in a feedback loop by ignoring that.
There’s a form of extended adolesence that we as a culture seem to be trapped in. One that manages to stop us from truly growing up and embracing the childlike parts of ourselves.
I had an odd experience when I first watched SPACED. I was a bleach-blonde comic geek, mooning over a woman, and every single thing I said during any given conversation was some form of pop-culture reference. By the same token, when I first read HIGH FIDELITY, I was working in an independent record shop, mooning over a woman, and spending my days making top-five lists. I WAS those guys. I felt like they had somehow stolen my life for comedy gold (because I am a pretty funny guy, so who could blame them?) Somewhere along the line, I stopped being that guy, and I realised that the people who continued to identify with these characters were maybe missing the point. It’s much healthier to be identifying with the protagonist at the end of HIGH FIDELITY than with the snarky, mean, immature and self-obsessed character he is during the book. People still call for more SPACED, without accepting what a horrible, weird mess that would be. Those actors are in a different place, those characters would be in a different place. People who are still calling for a sequel to SHAUN OF THE DEAD are somehow missing that there was a sequel. There was a whole trilogy, and it was about growing up.
We’ve….grown up. Or have we?
Too many of our conversations are just reheated references to films we watched twenty years ago, and too much of our pop culture is driven by nostalgia as a result. But the damaging kind of nostalgia, the one that has no real warmth, and is making us think of a time that never really existed. (I’m going to let you all in on something; George Lucas has done absolutely nothing in the last twenty years that ruins your childhood.)
Point The Third: On Life Before And After Star Wars.
There is a line of argument that blames STAR WARS for some mass dumbing-down of SF. (Which is odd, since STAR WARS isn’t SF…) The reasoning is to point out that SF used to deal with things. That PLANET OF THE APES was about racism and society, that 2001 was ambitious as hell, that SILENT RUNNING was fucking grown-up. And then along came STAR WARS, which either lacked subtext or had one that we chose to ignore, and featured a slave trading white kid as the hero, and Jedi Knights who were happy for bars to refuse to serve droids, and pop culture has been a dumbed down place ever since.
I don’t really buy into the whole argument. There were dumb SF films before Star Wars, there have been intelligent ones since. The biggest films in cinema have always tended to be some form of popularist, sentimental fare of varying quality. Subtext is often subjective, and no one era of art has a real claim to be any more or less pure than another. Hollywood has always made money off sequels and reboots.
However, I do see some value in the argument. Just as the Bechdel Test isn’t really a valid way to judge any single film, but is a pretty accurate way to attack a body of work, so I think people who lay the blame on STAR WARS are being unfair to focus on one film, but they are correct to notice that something in the culture shifted around that time.
If entertainment is still art, and if art is where we deal with our modern world and the big questions of life, then what does it say about us as a culture that we are less and less dealing with these big issues in our entertainment? Which leads to….
Point The Fourth: On Consequences, Violence & Grief.
Here’s where I’m starting to feel an opinion forming, a through-line that’s pulling all together. Being genuinely child-like in our art is important, and all too rare, but we’re replacing it with an odd adult form of arrested development.
Our biggest films now all seem to end in final Acts that are filled with explosions. Cities are falling. Aliens are being wiped out. Robots are being blown up. Both AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD have filled our screens this year with lessons in visceral, amazingly choreographed, immersive action. (For what it’s worth, FURY ROAD does it far better than AGE OF ULTRON.) Amazing amounts of work and detail are going into putting these things together. A veritable orgy of shit blowing up and people doing amazing stunts. In theory, the stakes in these stories are getting higher and higher every year, but in practice? I’m not convinced.
What real emotional consequences were there during the battles in either Avengers movie? What was to be lost, or grieved over, or paused to contemplate, in all the robots and aliens blowing up? Where did we see the cost on human lives and emotions as Metropolis fell in a pornography of destruction during MAN OF STEEL (and I don’t mean the good kind of pornography…) Star ships crashed into cities in the last STAR TREK film, how did that feel? What did we care? A lot of people died during MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, how many of them were we led to care about? How many of the people who were blown up, incinerated, chopped up, stabbed, run down, or crushed did we really care about? Or get a chance to care about?
Much has been made, naturally, of the idea that our popcorn movies have been affected by 9/11 and, to a lesser extent, the ‘war on terror’ and 7/7. We’ve all seen the images of buildings falling, of explosions, of dust clouds. But if that is what is informing the subtext of our movies, then why is it only the physical destruction that we’re dealing with? Where is the emotion? The reflection? The human cost?
It sees to me, and maybe I’m wrong, but that there’s little difference between the various reavers in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, or the robots and aliens in avengers movies, and the old villainous Indians in westerns. The characters that we’re asked not to care about, there only so that we can shoot things, kill things, and run away from things without having to think any deeper. Except, there seemed to be a moment in time when we as a culture realised that was wrong. Not only because of the implicit racism of that trope, but also because that, in turn, made us face up to complexity. We stopped making those kinds of westerns (and boy, did the genre die a quick death after that) and started to make films that explored deeper issues, and looked at more sides of the story. Then, somewhere along the line, we just wanted to have Storm Troopers to blow up again.
I don’t really know if what I’m arguing here is that we’re regressing, or simply getting better at lying to ourselves. I just wonder if, in an age when we’re all supposed to be hyper self-aware, if we’re maybe all participating in a culture that fundamentally lacks self-awareness.
Point The Fifth: The Wrong Kind Of Childishness.
Pretty much coming back to where we came in. Simon Pegg took a lot of heat for his words. Very quickly. The very fact that he needed to backtrack shows that maybe he was onto something. As much as I opened up this piece by defending the childish imagination, I think there are other sides to childhood that we can recognise as destructive. The possessiveness, the anger, the lashing out. Those of us in our various fandom sub-genres hate nothing more than having our love of something challenged, or even having the thing we love face any level of criticism.
I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We’ve all done it. Someone criticises a film, TV show, comic or novel that we’ve loved, and we react in anger. We take it personally. We maybe lash out. I think we need to stop and pause, and think about why that is.
I’ve argued before, that nothing proves literary writers correct in their disdain of genre quite as much as the way genre writers react to that disdain. We get angry and defensive fast. And the same appears (to me at least) to be true here.
Pegg raised the notion that certain aspects of out culture are overly dumbed-down and infantilised, and the response was that certain people in our culture instantly started shouting at him and calling him names. I think they’re maybe not proving what they think they’re proving…
Point The Sixth: A New Hope
Maybe this is all the end. Maybe the pop culture mainstream, driven by straight white men who steal from elsewhere and then repeat over and over, is in it’s death throws, and this is merely the end of a long game of Chinese whispers. Maybe all of these blogs, interviews and think-pieces really only speak to the fact that ‘we’ -in this form- have had our time and deep down we’re panicking about that.
As the mainstream slowly makes more room for diverse voices, as we (at glacial speed) are opening up to intersectional arguments, and to wider representation, maybe all of these issues that I’ve been arguing about will become irrelevant, as new art and culture is born. Maybe it already is irrelevant, and our mainstream culture is merely showing that the game is up, and that it’s time to change.
Or maybe this whole essay today is the one thing that’s irrelevant, who knows?