A rant about seriousness in pop culture, Simon Pegg, and moral complexity

simon-pegg-star-trekIn an interview with Radio Times, Simon Pegg said that we culture consumers are being rendered unserious:

Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes. Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously.

It is a kind of dumbing down, in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever.

The nuances of Pegg’s argument go beyond the above quote, and his clarifying remarks add further to his point (be sure to read them). But the crux is really this: culture is being dumbed-down by our celebration of superheroes, spectacle, comic-books and all the unserious things that define our current pop culture landscape.

That’s the argument. Is he correct? Or being a condescending ass?

Devin Faraci of Birth. Movies. Death. thinks he’s correct (Devin, how do we punctuate the new site name?). Faraci, an admitted geek obsessive, writes that “anyone with even a modicum of self-awareness would know” that Pegg is right.

Katherine Trendacosta of io9 disagrees. Trendacosta provides a list of “rebuttals so obvious that it took literally seconds for me to come up with them.” One example: “It’s internally inconsistent to say that adults are taking “childish” things seriously, and say that this is making us dumber.”

Pegg’s comments remind me of the argument against reading Young Adult Fiction that comes up every 18 months or so, like the one made by Ruth Graham in her Slate article Against YA. Or A.O. Scott’s New York Times piece, The Death of Adulthood in American Culture, which argued that adult perspectives are no longer central to American stories.

These stories make me throw my hands up in the air with frustration. I say, come on. I say, be inclusive. I say that reading The Hunger Games enhances sensitivity to economic inequality, even if it’s a story of, and for, youth. That Harry Potter makes readers more accepting of people unlike ourselves, and the value of empathy in a morally uncertain world. That science-fiction stories from –Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin to Octavia Butler and John Scalzi– are capable of poignant and inspiring and complex reflections on our collective societal success and failures.

I say: Don’t criticize those of us who take this stuff seriously. Because this stuff, Harry Potter and Hunger Games and Sci-Fi, is serious stuff.

But you know what’s wrong with this defensive posture in response to comments like Pegg’s? Simon Pegg doesn’t disagree. Simon Pegg is not saying that genre and pop culture are making us dumb. He’s not saying we should not enjoy spectacle. He’s Simon Fucking Pegg for god’s sake. He’s writing Star Trek 3. To reduce his comments to such a statement is ungenerous and silly.

He, and many others who have come before and will come after, is saying something more like this: emotionally and morally complex stories make emotionally and morally complex people. Those 9 Marvel movies and Star Wars, Star Trek, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Man of Steel, the LEGO movie, the X-Men movies, the Amazing Spider-Mans, etc etc etc etc are not emotionally and morally complex stories.

They’re just not. They’re exciting, and engaging, and spectacular film experiences. They are made with skill, and talent, and tell moving stories, yes. At their best they are capable of stripping the layers of complexity into component parts, and exposing a rawness of emotion or social reflection for truthful examination. When this happens, we are all rewarded. But emotionally complex? Layered, elegant pieces of narrative exploration that push audiences moral understanding of the human experience? Not really.

For the record, that’s barely a criticism.

Some of those are good movies (I think some are even great movies). Each is worth taking seriously, and at this site we take them as seriously as anyone. Marvel, Star Trek, Star Wars (and things not owned by Disney), these are worth taking seriously. But guess what: EVERYONE TAKES THEM SERIOUSLY.

You, viewers, should watch any film that you are so inclined to watch. Enjoy whatever films you enjoy. Fuck anyone who says otherwise. But if, as a culture, we forget that to partake in rich stories about human relationships (in realistic fiction, or fantasy, or sci-fi or anywhere) and we stop watching and reading those stories, then we ARE in fact dumb. The point is that Disney’s genre properties are not the only thing that one should take seriously.

Everything you watch and read and consume can teach you something about the world. I believe that. But what can be learned in the nicely packaged lessons of blockbuster cinema (work as a team to accomplish your goals, or some such thing) simply cannot compare to the emotional difficulty of parsing out the final scene of Ex Machina. Or watching Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne end their relationship in Theory of Everything. 

The world is complicated, and you are going to experience that world whether you like it or not. Prepare yourself accordingly. Or just read Harry Potter. It bridges everything.

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8 thoughts on “A rant about seriousness in pop culture, Simon Pegg, and moral complexity

  1. I think Pegg’s comments about Baudrillard and capitalism bear deeper engagement. Pegg summarizes: “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.” Another of his comments: “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.”

    To make this about highbrow vs. lowbrow, and some are good and some are bad and 90% of everything is crap (which you didn’t explicitly but the ideas are in there somewhere) I think does disservice to Pegg’s argument. Perhaps Pegg does disservice to his own argument by indulging these same or similar ideas here and there.

    But to me, the point is not that sci-fi is dumb and art film is smart, but that whenever anything real and important emerges and captures the public imagination, the tendency of the market is to take it and repackage it and feed it to us over and over until everything that made that thing lovely and poignant and true in the first place is gone. Harry Potter is transcendent—but are the many imitators it spawned? What about its branded empire? Star Wars and Star Trek were great and could be great again…or we may get a series of packaged products that try to recapture that old magic, with continually diminishing returns. Mad Max is the newest blockbuster cultural text that can also lay some claim to being transcendent—and even as we speak, men in suits are probably engineering ways to repackage that transcendence and feed it to us in the form of more movies and comics and TV and spinoffs and reboots and merch until it, like so many other cultural properties, becomes nothing but empty spectacle that infantilizes its audience and takes up space that could be occupied by the next wonderful, real, true thing.

    As a culture and as an audience, it takes a lot of self-awareness and self-criticism and willpower to say no to something you want, that tastes good and goes down easy and makes you feel, briefly, happy. I’m glad that Pegg is one of the ones arguing for that self-awareness.

    • you’re right and I don’t think this is a high-low issue (and I don’t think I make it one). I think that Pegg’s initial interview comments are directed towards the capacity to engage seriously in complex film stories, and what that means.

      his clarifying comments, which you’re addressing, are really on another matter entirely, which is the capacity to self-reflect in a market-driven industry that depends largely on the lack of self-reflection.

  2. I also agree that Pegg has some points. Though I’ll take his wager and not invest any further effort to this Internet debacle since he’s right, there are more worthy causes. ;)

  3. This “dumbing down” and “taking away focus from serious issues” that’s going on in pop culture is how our society is trying to find some relief from the terrible anxiety and fear going on right now. We haven’t learned to grapple with the great and terrible technology we’ve unleashed yet and and that technology (like the internet) has made us more and more cognizant of the truly terrible things happening everywhere. The growing popularity of comic books and remaking of older franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek is a nostalgic comfort blankey. Relief is needed.
    But there’s also popular culture itself. People have Always critiqued popular culture. Good grief, look at Mozart. He wrote operas at a time when the crummiest, silliest operas were going on and people didn’t like his operas because they weren’t low brow enough. Mozart’s music made people think and nobody went to opera for thinking back then.
    Popular culture has always distressing and rather silly and that’s what makes it so fascinating.

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