Why do we consume media at all?

Do we partake in entertainment–watching films, playing games, reading books–in order to escape reality or help understand reality?

That question sure seems mutually exclusive, but it’s something that people tend not to think about most of the time until politics rears its draconian head: how often do you hear “I don’t want politics in my football” or “keep your feminism out of my games” or “stop pushing your agenda in my television.”

The people raising those complaints are definitely in the ‘escape’ camp. When they turn on the baseball game, they don’t want to think about their problems or muse about the recent topics in the news. They just want to watch some dudes play a game and engross themselves into some lighthearted entertainment. When they watch the newest Star Wars, they don’t want to see thinly-veiled political commentary: they just want to see Kylo Ren’s chest muscles gleaming in the starlight.

kylo ren and his beautiful man breasts

On the other hand, the best media helps us process trauma, connect with others, and explore what it means to be human. By definition, that cannot occur without tackling difficult conflict. Escapism isn’t only about politics, after all; some consume media in order to take their minds off a death in the family, or worry about disease, or to attempt to forget something unforgettable. Those who argue that we consume media in order to understand reality point out the utter silliness and impossibility for media to ignore troublesome or thorny topics, and assert that it is far more healthy to process a loss than to actively ignore it and allow it to fester.

I certainly empathize with the escapists’ point. Escapism is important in a modern culture where harsh news is just a click away and digital conflict can be prompted with a single scroll of a mouse. The world is full of awful things, and good things are a welcome and necessary respite. For instance, if you’re sick of Trump, it’s almost impossible to avoid him, so you probably don’t want to see pontifications on Trumpian policies anywhere or

Donald Trump in Home Alone because reasons

Yeah…this scene aged interestingly.

…well, that.

I also empathize with the other point. We can process pain, loss, and difficulties through media. It helps us explore our emotions in a safe space, a space that is fictional. It lets us try out methods of coping by living vicariously through the characters, and so helps us decide what we ought to do in our own lives. Fiction also puts characters in situations that stress their humanity in ways that we never will experience; sci-fi and fantasy are particularly great at this.

However, I do not think that both ideas are mutually exclusive. Sometimes, we want to escape, and some media does a great job of escaping. Sometimes, we want to experience catharsis, to sit in emotion and process it.

But also I think that there can be a kind of catharsis through escapism. We can avoid our own problems by immersing ourselves in other people’s problems. And even if the conflicts happen to be similar to what we’re going through, it’s different because we actively recognize it as fiction.

Regardless, we keep coming back to fiction and other entertainment. It does something for us that we can’t or don’t get elsewhere. And what you get out of it is deeply personal. Maybe that’s why it is important.

Is anything nerdy anymore?

During last Halloween season, many of my friends posted pictures of their costumes on Facebook. A friend of mine and her husband dressed up as football players, their baby dressed as a football. Another friend of mine dressed up as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, complete with her dog standing in as Toto.

And there were plenty of fantastic costumes that would be traditionally referred to as ‘nerdy,’ and a few of my friends explicitly mentioned their nerdiness in their post. One dressed as Link from the Legend of Zelda (and had to explain to confused elders that Link was not, in fact, Zelda). Another dressed as Rey from Star Wars. Another dressed as a mashup of Doctor Who and Harry Potter.

Conventional wisdom is that these costumes, based on video games, science fiction movies and TV shows, and fantasy novels, are indeed ‘nerdy.’

But I think conventional wisdom has its drawbacks here, because I’m not entirely sure any of those costumes, or anything else on the Google Image search for ‘nerdy Halloween costumes’ are actually nerdy. I have my doubts that anything at all is truly ‘nerdy’ anymore.

Consider this: the nine-movie Harry Potter franchise has grossed over $8.5 billion worldwide. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, consisting of more than a baker’s dozen films, has grossed over $12.3 billion. Star Wars has grossed over $7.5 billion over seven films (and the entire franchise was sold for a whopping $4 billion to Disney five years ago). Of the top 12 film franchises by gross ticket sales, 10 (!) of them are science fiction or fantasy franchises.

harry potter coin gif gringotts

Harry Potter and the Coin Vault That He Got From All Those Film Revenues

What about video games? The industry generates about $100 billion in yearly revenue. Characters like Mario, Link, Sonic the Hedgehog, Master Chief, Lara Croft, and Pac Man are cultural touchstones. And television? Many of TV’s biggest hits over the last few years are, yep, science fiction and fantasy shows: The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, A Handmaiden’s Tale, Black Mirror, Westworld.

‘Nerdiness’ and ‘Geekiness’ are slippery terms to define, but I think they encompass two big ideas. The first idea is a distance from social norms, whether actively sought by nerds and geeks or thrust on them by the ‘cool’ kids. The second idea is that of an ‘in-group;’ in other words, the only thing required for access to the close-knit nerd community is a knowledge and appreciation for the culture around which said nerd community revolves.

Today, both ideas are invalid or watered down. It’s impossible for something so widespread and culturally powerful as Star Wars to actively be uncool. When the high school quarterback says, “Yeah, I saw the movie with Thor and the Hulk and Iron Man and it was wicked,” that’s pretty much the death knell of comic book characters being nerdy.

And as far as community? Over eight million copies of the seventh and final Harry Potter novel flew off the shelves in a single day when it was released in 2007. Hundreds of millions around the globe have read the series in dozens of different languages. Your aunt has probably seen a few Harry Potter films, and I do not care how old/young or clueless/hip she is. That’s just how it is. And so, yeah, it’s awfully difficult to have something be an ‘in-group’ when everybody is there.

So the weird thing is that ‘nerdy’ isn’t a functional descriptor of something sincere, but is instead used as a legacy adjective that merely designates a particular swath of pop culture. In that way, it’s like The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings used to be nerdy. Then Frodo and Gandalf and company went on a merry adventure and won a bunch of Oscars and now ‘YOU SHALL NOT PASS’ is as much (or more!) of the cultural lexicon as ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’ or ‘I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.’

You shall not pass gandalf gif parody

Is ‘nerdy’ then necessarily useless? Maybe? Maybe not. There are certainly some things that you could accurately describe as ‘nerdy’ today–role playing games, some tabletop board games, stamp collecting. Religious watchers of anime and voracious manga readers probably qualify. Cosplay, too.

But even some things that should be nerdy aren’t. Look at the curious case of fantasy football. By all accounts, it should be nerdy. Lots of numbers and analysis involved? Check. Game that you play need a computer/smartphone and an internet connection to play? Check. A sub-industry dedicated to intense fantasy football fans? Check. The word ‘fantasy’ in the name? Check.

No one calls fantasy football nerdy, though. That’s because sports are not nerdy, which is literally as nuanced and complex as the argument goes.

That throws a wrench into the existence of the word’s meaning. Put it this way: nerdiness is supposed to be about something that has a niche following, but the success of traditionally nerdy types of niche followings like Star Wars and Harry potter have nuked that definition. Nerdiness is supposed to be about traits or approaches that are not lauded by the ‘cool people,’ but the statistically-focused existence of fantasy football and sports discourse in general blow that definition out of the water. Nerdiness is supposed to be something the weird white guys did, but the continuing influx of women and people of color into the nerdy spaces has fundamentally changed that idea, too, without eroding the integrity or authenticity of the nerdy spaces itself.

There is a whole collegiate dissertation here for the writing. Actually, more than one: the gender history and implications of nerdiness alone is worth a dissertation itself. And so any conclusion of mine is going to be necessarily incomplete, but here it is anyway: while it is clear that nerdiness does not mean what it used to, and that applying the concept to wildly popular megafranchises like Harry Potter and Star Wars is inherently silly, being a nerd can mean different things to different people.

And isn’t that the point of nerd culture? For you to be you, no matter what you like to do?


Birbiglia, Burnham, and the oddity of comedy

Comedy is, on its face, pretty simple. We laugh at funny things and enjoy ourselves. BOOM.

*packs up, publishes article, goes home*


Well, you didn’t think it was that easy, did you?

Comedy, while on its face being pretty simple, is bizarre and definitely not simple. The concept of what you find ‘funny’ and what I find ‘funny’ and what humans in general find ‘funny’ is extraordinarily intricate and personal. If I put a gun to your head (a NERF gun, now, I’m not a monster) and told you to define what makes something funny, I’m guessing that you probably couldn’t find a clear and suitable definition before a pink foam bullet hammered into your skull.

I think good comedy is about pushing boundaries, deliberate timing, presenting the unexpected, and acute self-awareness. Regardless the subject, good jokes always follow those four guidelines.

But the subject matter is extremely important. Why focus on one subject over the other? Are certain subjects ripe for comedy and others taboo?

Mike Birbiglia in Netflix special Thank God for Jokes

Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia’s Netflix special Thank God for Jokes wrestles with that question. Birbiglia is adept at witty self-depreciation and wields an impressive knack for compelling storytelling. Early on in the special, Birbiglia says that “you should never tell jokes to the people the jokes are about.” One of the key parts about jokes is that they have to be about something, as he explains. You can never truly avoid making people angry forever. The point of jokes is the comedy of somebody or something being funny, and that fact is inescapable.

Extending from that is comedy’s inherent enigma: its purpose is to offer an escape and a laugh at the same time as it directly references the things from which we try to escape in the first place. We joke about the mundane, yes, but the best jokes are about what’s important. The comedy that resonates with people is often about the most important things because it reveals what’s true about those things in a unique and incisive way.

Bo Burnham’s eccentric musicality and penchant for absurdity, channeled through his Netflix special Make Happy, stares directly at the duality of performance and comedy. Burnham is unique, as far removed from mainstream comedy as you can get whilst still being extraordinarily popular. But he uses his uniqueness to great effect in Make Happy, questioning how a performer and audience connect over comedy, both parties interested in something different.

While a lot of comedians explore the full reaches of comedy, Birbiglia and Burnham are fascinating because their work is expressly aware of the oddity of comedy. They know and address comedy itself, and it’s refreshing to see two talented and funny people with fresh and important opinions on comedy itself.

I find commedy immensely important in my life. Often times, we have only two choices: we can either stew about something or make jokes about it. Comedy is a way of finding joy out of nothing, and these days that’s an extremely valuable commodity. Not everything is joyful, or fun, or great. Comedy can help do that in even the darkest situations.

In the words of Birbiglia in his special: jokes are important. They will always be important.