Monday, May 11, 2015

Scattered Thoughts on Art, Nerd Culture, and The Big Bang Theory

Yesterday, as I was at the gym, an episode of The Big Bang Theory was on. I typically don't watch it because it makes me a li'l angry, but I happened to catch this exchange -- which reminded me exactly why it made me a li'l angry:
Penny: You're such a crybaby.
Leonard: I'm not a crybaby.
Penny: Toy Story 3?
Leonard: The toys were holding hands inside a furnace!
The more I thought about that exchange -- and specifically why it was a joke -- the more intriguing it became to me, and the more I remembered why I find BBT so frustrating as something of a nerd myself.

The joke here is that Penny (and the audience, judging by the laugh track) think that it's ridiculous of Leonard to form an emotional attachment to a fictional character. Ridiculous and laughable and possibly a little childish. Even if the laughs come out of "Oh, haha, I did that too," they're still laughing because it's ridiculous.

I have a couple mostly-unrelated thoughts on this.

1. Isn't that what art is supposed to do? Isn't one of the purposes of art, whether it's "high art" like theater and paintings or "low art" like TV and graphic novels, to make a connection with its viewers? Certainly not all art requires that, but it's hard to look at something like opera and claim that it's not supposed to be emotional.

Great movies, like so much great art, can be at their most powerful when they make us feel things. They can make us sad, happy, angry, afraid. They can make us connect with something we hadn't connected with before -- a character, an idea, a way of life -- and change how we think and feel about them.

This is not necessarily because of the weakness of the viewer, but often because of the strength of the art. Toy Story 3 is actually a terrible example for Penny to choose for mocking Leonard, because that movie put a lot of art into its process, slowly building its characters over three movies and then filming one of the most beautiful, non-Disney-like possible death sequences of all time. The music, the visuals, the culmination of these characters' lives all meld together into a really artful scene that made a whole lot of people tear up in theaters.

Toy Story 3 is a success. Leonard is a successful "art receiver." Leonard got what Toy Story 3 was trying to do. Are there cases where maybe you could make fun of someone for "getting" a piece of art because the art wasn't very good? Well, I hope so, because I do that with BBT itself all the time. :-) But Penny wasn't arguing that Leonard is weak because TS3 is not good. She is arguing that he is weak for mourning a fictional character at all.

2. Nerd culture seems especially attuned to creating and connecting with new worlds. So many hobbies deemed "nerdy" can be seen as a way to be a part of a created world other than the one you live in. This includes comic books, science fiction, and fantasy novels, all the way over to far more immersive options like video games, live-action RPGs, and LARPing.

I bonded very strongly with characters in musicals and movies as a teen, partly because I felt profoundly misunderstood by the people around me. As much as I tried to forge connections in real life, it was Eponine Thenardier who I truly connected with, as she longed for the boy she could never have. It was Woody Allen's neurotic protagonists, who said out loud so many of the things I was thinking. It was Elphaba, whose efforts to blend in with the crowd were awkward and uncomfortable. To others, it is Batman or Luke Skywalker or Turanga Leela. You have very little control over the people you will meet and interact with in real life, so if no true friends or mentors or role models happen to come your way, there's always the world of fiction.

To BBT's Penny, this is pathetic, that I would connect so deeply with a fictional character that I would mourn their death (over and over) or that I would rather spend time with them than with a social group. But if I didn't have those fictional characters to reassure me that other people feel like this too, I would have had a much harder adolescence.

Fictional characters still do this for me. They can serve as an example of an ideal when I have trouble finding that ideal in real life, like Leslie Knope's optimism. They can make me feel like I'm not the only one in the universe who feels and thinks the way I do, like Daria Morgendorfer's deadpan snark. They remind me that I can change to be better than I am, like Willow Rosenberg's journey from quiet fear to quiet confidence.

Why do nerds gravitate so much toward stories in their entertainment? I don't know. Maybe we like the creativity or we like the escape. More mainstream hobbies like sports, crafting, cooking, or working on cars certainly tend to focus more strongly on practical outcomes than creating and inhabiting new worlds.

When Penny reacts with scorn to the guys' love of Star Wars (in the same episode I saw), she seems to view their love for the movies as less worthy than any of the hobbies she pursues. Perhaps they're not tangible enough, or the whole idea of "it's not real!" makes her think it cannot be substantial. Well... she's wrong. Fiction in any form can evoke very real responses from people, who in the process do not become weak or pathetic or "less" than anyone else.

And that is why The Big Bang Theory bothers me so much. These men are chided over and over again for loving their fictional worlds, as if only children should be so fond of stories.

I don't really have a conclusion to any of these thoughts. They were just rattling around in my head and I wanted to share them with you.

What do you think? Is nerd culture as story-centric as I think it is? And if so, why?


  1. A similar joke, reversed and told with far more skill:

    (It's embedded in a visual / editing joke that I don't think works so well, but maybe that's just me)

    1. Ah, Spaced. :-) Love that show. I do agree that joke is told much better there, with a bit more nuance.

  2. I empathize and agree with this so much! Fictional worlds and stories have always had a huge importance in my life and it's so difficult to communicate that to people who just don't get it. I'm graduating from college this week and am getting a lot of questions about my career (filmmaking, ideally - probably on the writing or animation side). People will say things like "But you love to read and write - why aren't you going to law school?" and genuinely don't understand that it's not the physical ACT of dragging my eyes across lines of text that I love, but the STORY that I get out of that. I'm generally a very practical person and I know there are a lot of other jobs I would be good at that would be steadier or pay more money, but the only ambition I've ever had is to some day create a world that means as much to someone else as other people's worlds have meant to me.

    1. Saying "You should go to law school because you love to read and write" is a completely bizarre assumption! Haha... I do think there is a disconnect between people who create/consume art and those who don't, in that sometimes people don't understand what *purpose* art serves if it's not tangible or easily measured. It's why art programs get cut and their money sent to the athletic department -- people don't get its value. And that can be hard to explain, but if you've really connected with a fictional world, if something made up out of someone's head has helped you through a rough time or made you who you are, you can see the power that this kind of work has.

      And good luck with your filmmaking career!

  3. I'd like to live in a world where instead of making fun of a person who had an emotional reaction to that scene in Toy Story 3, we ask just what is wrong with someone who didn't.

    I don't feel threatened by people who make emotional investments. I do feel threatened by people who don't. Those are the people who support reprehensible political and social movements. They're the ones who ought to be too ashamed of who they are to draw any attention to themselves; not those of us who are our brother's keeper.

    1. I will say, I believe people can definitely not get involved in fictional worlds at all and still have great empathy for real people -- I think some feel there's a glaring divide between "real" and "fictional" and connecting to one doesn't necessarily mean connecting to the other.

      That being said, I think that art and fiction are HUGELY important tools for teaching empathy, and some people who feel a disconnect from fictional characters may very well feel that disconnect from everyone who's not like them -- and that's when you get people who decide it's their job to decide what other people think, feel, and need, based solely on their own limited experience. This is one of many reasons why I feel so strongly about story-telling arts in education and wish there was more flexibility in the few that remain. If you can help someone to really engage with a fictional character and care what happens to them, it's easier to help them engage with people who exist and care what happens to *them*. Not to mention you can't argue your point with fictional characters -- all you can do is listen to their story. That's an important tool, right there.

    2. I was trying to be concise and I think I was a little too brief, because I forgot to make clear that between paragraphs, I was stepping away from the matter of relating to fiction. You're absolutely right that a person can be empathetic without connecting to art/fiction.

      Conversely, I'm certain that those who are disconnected from people are incapable of being connected to art. That's why there's so much direct correlation between people who support political movements that target the already downtrodden and weakest among us are also so hostile toward the arts.

      This also brings me to why I feel literature is the most powerful form of art, which is that it's the one form medium that both requires an active, one-on-one relationship between reader and material and the storyteller is freer there than in any other medium to bring to us the inner thoughts of any and all characters.

      What else is empathy if not an extension of "being inside" someone else's head? Or, at the very least, of recognizing that there's something inside someone else's head under whatever they may say or do that can be heard or seen?

      The counterargument, of course, is that other mediums require more sophisticated means of storytelling to convey those inner thoughts and feelings, and there's certainly something to that but I feel that literature helps us to learn to connect those dots on a fundamental level more clearly than any other medium.

    3. I think that makes sense. I definitely agree literature is *clearer* and is an excellent stepping stone in terms of learning how to empathize, but I think sometimes the visual arts can hit people on a visceral level and make connections they can't even necessarily explain. I know that's happened to me. I suspect probably some people are more swayed by one and some more swayed by another. Thus the need for LOTS OF ARTS so people can find the one that speaks to them most :-) But literature is an excellent, excellent foundation and, for some, the best of all options.

      I'm not sure I'm comfortable saying that everyone disconnected from people are disconnected from art, either, although I think that's more likely. Because the entire premise of shows like The Big Bang Theory is that these people *are* connected to art but have trouble connecting to people. For one thing, with art, you can often be sure what other people are thinking and feeling because the author has planted plenty of clues. Real life has no such clues, and I'm sure a lot of people are frustrated by that and feel disconnect. Regardless, those who have trouble connecting with people can definitely learn better *how* to connect by using art and fiction as a tool to do that, so even if the connection isn't strong at first, I believe if you connect to art, you can learn to connect to people.