Tag Archives: TV

Making Sense of the Things We Love

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It’s early on a Saturday morning in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and scholars wander around with free coffee in their hands to one of a dozen panels in one of many sessions in the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference. Topics range from The Grateful Dead to Motor Culture to Film and History. I attend one on Sci-Fi and Fantasy during this session.

The two papers presented are on Jim Henson’s fantasy films (such as Labyrinth, featuring David Bowie) and the television program Ancient Aliens. The second speaker states that he loves Ancient Aliens, and though he refrains from using the phrase “guilty pleasure,” it’s clear from his analysis that he agrees with none of the theories put forward on the program. Instead, he critiques the faulty logic and Euro-centric rhetoric while simultaneously praising the show for trying to subvert the idea that hard-fixed academia is the only source of knowledge. The speaker also points out that the show is outside his academic field. His paper is simply an attempt to make sense of something he loves, and that the whole conference is about people making sense of things they love.

I find that sentiment reassuring. It proves to me something I’d suspected, that pleasure and criticism are not mutually exclusive. Speakers stepped out of their fields of immediate interest to talk about their favorite movies, books, TV shows, music, and the pop culture they love, not to ridicule it but to analyze it.

Almost entirely absent from the conference is a kind of academic elitism that I’ve encountered more and more lately, a hierarchy placing scholars above fans. Obviously, scholars do not need to enjoy everything we analyze (I’m looking at you, James Fenimore Cooper), and maybe we do not need to analyze everything we enjoy (though for an academic, that is very hard to do). Nevertheless, there are many academics who believe that the ability to criticize makes them superior to others.

The conference proved fans and academics can inhabit the same space equally. There were very few moments when scholars looked down on anybody for enjoying pop culture. There was no status involved in the academia; it was communal, friendly, positive, constructive, and creative, qualities I’ve found myself missing in academia lately.

Being critical does not make me better than others. It may give me a more nuanced perspective, but more accurately, I think, it gives me a differently nuanced perspective. With few exceptions, nobody is better than anybody for anything; the rigid hierarchies I’ve encountered so often separating students from faculty, graduate from undergraduate, critic from fan, are unnecessary and unhealthy. I’m pleased to have found a space where fans and critics are on equal footing, where people can be both at the same time. I’m glad to find a place where the egotism that drives much of academia is suspended, and criticism and enjoyment work hand-in-hand.


World War One: The Unpopular Prequel to World War Two

World War One BooksThis semester I’m taking a senior seminar on World War One, for many different reasons: it’s an important event that changed the shape of the world in the twentieth century, I want to know more about it, it’s the hundredth anniversary. I’m also frequently disappointed by how often popular media ignore World War One.

European military history appears in popular arts on a regular basis. We have numerous video games, movies, and documentaries about World War Two. The History Channel has a long list of Hitler-fetish programs (Hitler and the Occult, Hitler’s Henchmen, Hitler’s Women), and in the U.S., WWII movies often come out on or near Christmas Day (Schindler’s List, Valkyrie, and most recently Unbroken, because there’s no better way to celebrate Christmas than by watching portrayals of crimes against humanity). I was excited this past summer when the History Channel announced a six-hour special on both World Wars, but was disappointed when it ignored much of World War One in favor of yet another biography of Hitler; I jokingly called the series Hitler: Origins. Complete with historical inaccuracies, it was effectively a Hollywood trilogy.

Nevertheless, there are some very good portrayals of history in popular media, such as the documentaries of Ken Burns and the BBC series Foyle’s War. These and others pay close attention to detail and often avoid simplifying history. The problem with so many popular depictions is that they present a simple Good Guy/Bad Guy narrative, to the point that World War Two is often reduced to a standard action movie format: bad guys do bad things to good people, good guys intervene, and there’s a happy ending. On the other hand, World War One resists this narrative completely: morally ambiguous empires kept promises to invade each other, millions died without significant progress, and nobody was happy about how it ended.

Popular arts can be useful if treated with the proper attention, and understanding World War One, I think, is sometimes more important than understanding its wildly popular sequel. The problem is that history never translates easily into narrative. It’s not a study of plot and characters, it’s a study of variable circumstance and decision-making without foresight, which can be messy, scary, and uncomfortable. It almost never works out the way we expect or want. Nevertheless, I long for better popular depictions of history. If the History Channel and Hollywood will not grant this wish, then I’ll simply have to do my part as a writer and contribute better, more accurate stories to the canon.