Sunday, July 1, 2012

SMART PEOPLE CAN'T BE FUN oh wait yes they can

So this morning I saw the following tweet from Carole Barrowman (@BarrowmanCrime on twitter):

 Now granted, when I clicked on the link to an article on the subject, I got a notice saying that the article in question didn't exist, but that doesn't mean I can't say anything on the general subject of whether fiction can be both entertaining and thought-provoking. And let me tell you, I have a lot to say about this. Not to mention I replied to her and she actually retweeted my response:

 So now I feel kind of obligated to actually write something on the subject. Which is probably a good thing because it means I'll actually be doing something productive with my morning that doesn't involve leveling up in Maplestory Adventures on Facebook.

To be honest, I'm not much of a crime fiction reader. I was a pretty dedicated reader when I was younger, and of course I went through a phase where I would read every single "Cat Who" book I could get my hands on, but in general, I tended to stray towards fantasy, sci-fi and action/adventure books like Harry Potter, Animorphs, and anything Star Wars related, and nowadays the most reading I do is reading webcomics or the text in video games. There's just something about the physical action of reading books that doesn't work for me (namely, the fact that books are hard to hold open when you're sitting at your computer). Still, it would be wrong of me to deny that reading has been a huge part of my life.

I don't speak only as a reader, either. I speak also as a gamer, as a youtuber, as a writer, and as someone whose life has been impacted - both negatively and positively - by all sorts of works of fiction. Fiction, whether in books, movies, TV shows, comics, video games, or any other form of media that I might be forgetting, is important, and it influences us a lot more than you might think. Hell, I did an entire study on the subject for my senior capstone project (Montana State University's equivalent of a thesis - they're too cool to use those mainstream terms), and every day I'm finding that there is so much more to it than what I managed to scrape together last spring. It's also relevant to the afore-mentioned tweet, so let me take a moment to explain what I found. It may seem like I'm going off on a tangent here, but you'll see how it relates in the end.

First of all, I'm not exactly an average student. Granted, that's mostly because I graduated from MSU last year so I'm technically not even a student anymore, but it's also because I have a rather different learning style from most students. How is it different, you might ask? Well, it's simple (sort of). I have an anxiety disorder (that manifests mostly in social anxiety and obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors - basically, I'm afraid of people and I have to have things a certain way all the time or else I start getting really uncomfortable) and ADHD (which shifts from not being able to concentrate on anything for very long to getting way too focused on something and not thinking about anything else for like five hours). I saw the world differently from the people around me, and since I didn't get a diagnosis on the anxiety disorder until I was in college, it made my childhood… well, difficult. I was more or less the go-to target for bullies not just in my class, but in the grades above and below me. It was a small school, too, so there wasn't much I could do to get away from it all. That's why I turned to fiction, and I spent more time in my own little fantasy worlds than I did trying to make friends and be social. I also ended up having such low self-esteem that it took an extreme amount of courage to wear a funny t-shirt to school and unzip my sweatshirt enough for other people to see it.

It's easy to see why I became so fascinated with mental disorders, and their portrayals in mainstream and independent media, after I finally learned about my anxiety disorder. It was such a huge part of my life that I was honestly baffled that nobody caught it when I was a kid, and I wanted to find out why that was. Thus, when I was given the chance to research a subject of my choosing in my last year of college, it was a pretty easy choice to make. I wanted to learn why it was so hard for see just how bad my anxiety was, and as I worked on my capstone project, it became pretty clear what the problem was.

Now, this is a subject that could easily fill over 200 pages, so I'll just summarize what I found. First of all, anxiety disorders are both incredibly common and painfully under- or misdiagnosed. What I found in my study suggested that up to a quarter of the population could have an anxiety disorder or some experience with anxiety at some point in their lives, but of those people, less than 10% will actually get a diagnosis or any kind of treatment, and those who do get diagnosed tend to be adults. Not too surprising when you think about it - when you're overwhelmed with anxiety about all kinds of things, it's easy to be afraid that you're overreacting and there's actually nothing wrong with you and that people will give you crap for saying you need help, especially when your anxiety is strongest when it comes to doing anything social.

Second, there is a distinct lack of representation of anxiety disorders - and mental disorders in general - in mainstream media. Sure, we've got shows like Monk, and movies like Mercury Rising, but it's pretty rare to see a character who's not just openly mentally disabled but also acts like a real human being, by which I mean it's rare to see a character who isn't defined by their disability.

Third, most mentally disabled characters in the media are, well, really disabled. You get the extremes of the spectrum - the autistic kid who's also a genius and solves codes that are supposed to be unsolvable, the bipolar parent who murders their kids (I think this one shows up mostly in news stories), the grown man who's too mentally disabled to take care of himself, and of course, about half the villains in CSI. There are two popular stereotypes of mentally disabled folks in the media - either they're violent, psychopathic murderers with no capacity for empathy, or they're nice people who have Inspiring Life Stories About Overcoming Adversity. Sometimes the latter will even have an amazing gift that makes up for their disability (one article I read for my study called them "supercrips," which is one of my favorite terms because it pretty much nails it).

Finally, media is way more influential than we give it credit for. Whether you like it or not, you're going to pick up on things - stereotypes, behaviors, 'facts' that are completely false but are still assumed to be true because they've been around for so long (did you know that some bats actually have great night vision?) and internalize them to some degree. In short, trying to learn about mental disabilities from mainstream media is like trying to understand politics by exclusively watching Fox News. It just doesn't work. In order to find a decent representation of emotional or behavioral disorders, you have to stray from the beaten path and look at other sources of entertainment. Personally, I benefitted from reading Jeph Jacques's webcomic Questionable Content and discovering the youtuber Angry Aussie. Both of these entertainers treat the subject with some honesty and integrity (along with a butt-load of humor), which serves to prove the point I made in my project. What we see in media affects what we believe in the long run, and we have to be careful about that.

So how does this factor into whether or not media can be entertaining and insightful at the same time? Well, just take a look at how intellectuals have been portrayed in kids' shows and sitcoms (presumably some of the first things a child has any sort of consistent exposure to in the media). Remember all those stuffy teachers, all those smart kids who were incapable of feeling any sort of human emotion, those boring school assignments that consisted of reading Shakespeare in fourth grade despite it being way too complex for a fourth grader to understand? Granted, some of these shows were just trying to touch on subjects that kids could relate to, but then there were shows like Code Name: Kids Next Door, which was literally based on the concept that every adult ever was evil and lived for the sole purpose of making children's lives a complete hell (with the exception of really stupid parents). You have no idea how much that show pissed me off when I was a kid.

It seems like there's this strange idea in today's media that fun and intelligence are incapable of mixing. There's a lot of talk about high-class art and fiction, but most of the time it's either making fun of how pretentious it is or talking about how great it is without actually explaining why it's great. It took me until college to realize that not only did Shakespeare have some pretty powerful stuff, but a lot of his plays are really fucking funny. Similarly, it took me forever to realize that a lot of modernist art actually did make a valid point and wasn't just some guy putting a can of soup on a pedestal and saying "LOOK AT ME I'M AN ARTISTIC GENIUS!" Of course, there's still a lot of modern art out there that's trying to get attention for reinventing the wheel and being 'edgy,' but analyzing it isn't just something for stuffy old professors and those crazy cat ladies who always seem to be the go-to art experts in every single cartoon ever.

The funny thing is, while I did have a very enlightening class about all this during my sophomore in college, most of these realizations came to me after I started watching funny videos on the internet. It was the Nostalgia Critic who made me realize that a lot of the things I worried about as a child were actually just signs of bad writing (particularly the video in which Doug Walker, the man behind the Nostalgia Critic, describes the 10 movie clichés he hates the most - especially the #1 cliché, which I will admit probably contributed quite a bit to my social anxiety).

So the basic point here is that we, as a society, are influenced by mainstream media to think that fun and intelligent can't go together. You can see it in the way certain novels are so often referenced in shows as something that nobody would want to read (you'd think with all the times I've heard about War and Peace I'd actually know something about the plot by now), and you can see it with painful clarity when you look at how society as a whole looks down on video games.

This is where I veer (or at least openly admit to veering) from the point in the tweet at the beginning, because - like I said - I'm not as avid a reader now as I used to be, and (thanks to Mr. Roger Ebert, who I'm pretty sure is just trolling the gaming community at this point) the issue of video games as a valid source of entertainment is a pretty personal one to me. One comment I read - either on Mr. Ebert's facebook page or on an article Mr. Ebert posted to facebook - suggested that people still regard video games as mindless time-wasters such as Pong or Space Invaders and ignore the developments in the genre that have led to games such as Portal, which is a thrilling and suspenseful mystery story disguised as a first-person puzzle game. There are so many questions that the story of Portal brings up, most of which involve the ethics of scientific research and human experimentation, and the story itself is one that can only reach its full potential as a video game. It would be extremely difficult to adapt it into a movie or a novel, because the strengths of Portal lie in the way the story progresses. It wouldn't be nearly as good if you didn't have to play an active role in the story.

The conclusion I came to in my project is that the only solution to misrepresentation of mental disorders in mainstream media is the addition of more accurate depictions. Since people tend to pick up so much from cartoons or sitcoms or whatever we happen to enjoy watching, it makes sense to take advantage of it. Most of what influences us is subtle, so by making subtle changes to your work, you can manipulate people to a ridiculous degree, and that's what a lot of media aims to do to begin with. Nobody can argue that the Fresh Prince of Bel Air didn't have any sort of political message to convey, and it needs to be acknowledged that things are seldom as simple as they may seem at first. The greatest strength of fiction is in its ability to move people, and to think that nobody's taking advantage of that is, quite frankly, one of the dumbest ideas you could possibly have.

In conclusion, go play Portal (and its sequel Portal 2) because it is awesome.

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