What modern film and fiction will age badly

I’m reading a 1970s Space Opera series (thanks to Kindle, I can read it end-to-end without trawling dusty second hand bookshops for battered copies that reek of other people’s lives). It reminds me of playing Traveller and watching Babylon 5 and I am happy. Then something throws me. Something that’s dated so badly that I bounce off the series.

Not the science. Sure, that is badly dated, we even have data tapes and printouts. On the other hand there are some wonderful blaster fights and spaceship chases, so I don’t care.

No. It’s this.

A likable male character gives a non-consensual spanking to a female character and they both agree she deserves it… so much so that they pair up on the spot.

The whole series is a little Mad Men in its attitudes, but it hit an uncomfortable nadir at that point.

Rewind further to the Pulp Era, and EE “Doc” Smith’s manly characters are busy remarking on how nursing is an appropriate task for a girl. Yuk. And Robert E Howard and HP Lovecraft are starting to look more and more like products of their time, their time being one that was both sexist and racist.

The same goes for the movies of yesteryear, e.g. when John Wayne grabs the girl and forces a kiss on her, a kiss that she then responds to, or even that scene in Temple of Doom when Indy uses his whip to lasso the escaping love interest. They make us squirm a little and – if we have younger people with us – stop to explain the cultural context.

It’s not that these books and DVDs deserve the cleansing flames, it’s just that you can no longer consume them without being aware of the context. That’s OK, we enjoy Shakespeare and Wagner the same way.

So look around, what do we enjoy that will date badly?

Here’s a clue:

Thanks to a drug addled minor criminal, a caravan and hauler combo jack-knifes  the wrong way down a three lane highway. Drivers swerve to avoid certain death and multiple pile up.

Actually it’s funny because we’re watching Due Date, and it’s the moment when the uptight protagonist is finally, fully drawn into the chaos  that halos Zach Galifianakis‘s flaky loser stoner character.

But as I’m laughing and swilling my beer, I’m also getting a vision of tired families, the children asleep in the back, and business folk making a long haul just to get home to their partner, and old people driving back from a week of looking after the grandchildren… and then this bloody great caravan hurtles out of nowhere and…

Really, these two characters don’t deserve personal growth and a hug, they deserve to be shot and left to bleed out on the verge.

“Daddy, why’s that bleeding man waving to us?”

“Perhaps he’s sorry for the number of people he might have killed.”

And talking of “killed”, let’s have a think about some of the lovable bad boys and femme fatalles that certain fans just want to cuddle and more.

“Hot Cylon Girl” from BSG kills a baby in episode one. “Charming rogue” Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones throws a child out of a  window. Severus Snape… well, somebody else has talked about how Severus Snape does not deserve your pity. And, don’t get me started on vampires.

We’re not talking about context-dependent culturally-driven violence here. Not the old trainer in Gladiator feeding more warm bodies into the arena, nor thugs, gunfighters and military veterans with the possibility of redemption.

We’re talking people who commit violence on whim, or for purely personal reasons. How did our culture get to the point where these people can be attractive or sympathetic?

Something has made it cool to be solipsistic.  It seems it’s OK to regard other people as not real, not important, just Non Player Characters, as long as you are on some  kind of journey or “arc”, or “deserve” it. Other people are just zombies, spear carriers in your personal drama.

"We are the Spear Carriers, and we are real"

“We are the Spear Carriers, and we are real”

We see this with drivers as soon as they’re late for work and kids on the crossing are in the way. We see this when parents herd their children through public spaces and growl at you if you want to get past. We see this in the workplace in casual classism, racisim and sexism. And then there’s the Internet and its trolls, and Geek World and its “difficult” characters.

Just switching off recognition of other people has become a secret cosy indulgence, and a fantasy so powerful and seductive that we see, to crave a Zombie Apocalypse.

So, don’t expect series like Friends or Ally McBeal to be classics, nor the slew of madcap buddy comedies parading across our screens. In books, don’t expect genre series with sociopathic heroes to win an enduring place in the canon.

Sooner or later we’ll all realize that we are the Spear Carriers, and we are real.

 

Share

Writer. Swordsman.
CLICK TO SEE MY BOOKS !

Posted in Genre, Modern Culture, Other People Are Real
25 comments on “What modern film and fiction will age badly
  1. Douglas says:

    That is one of the reasons I like Terry Pratchett’s work so much.
    Even the spear carriers are fleshed out as real characters, and then he sometimes just goes off on a tangent and writes whole sequences of books about characters that were initially just passing through the main story (for example Death, the Watch).

  2. Sherwood Smith says:

    I absolutely loathed Due Date, and wondered how anyone could find it funny. But there seems to be a long tradition of ordinary guys shoved in a nightmare world of humiliation and pain through contact with a weirdo, and people laugh at it. They also used to attend the coliseum, where the pain was real.

    • mharoldpage says:

      I suppose I enjoyed it the way I enjoyed John Cleese in Faulty Towers; the protagonist wasn’t normal – he had major “rage issues” and it was funny to watch him tested to destruction and come out illuminated.

      However, the beer helped.

      • Martha says:

        I find Fawlty Towers is aging wonderfully. I use it on rainy Mondays with my Hotel & Tourism students.)I’m an English teacher.) They ‘get’ it absolutely.

        I wonder how The West Wing fill fare. Will it still seem brilliant 20 years from now. I think so.

        • mharoldpage says:

          Alas, as people become more sophisticated in their understanding of how power works, the characters of West Wing will start to seem painfully naive.

          (In the UK we are plagued by politicians who watched enough of the West Wing to get elected, but not enough to make a good job of governing the country.)

          • Sandy says:

            The nieve idealism of the West Wing was much of the point.

            It was not so much a power fantasy as an ideology fantasy.

            The way I’m noticing it date, actually, is the way that the political manoeuvres that are used by antagonists as dirty tricks are essentially now commonplace hazards of the U.S. legislatures.

          • mharoldpage says:

            [WP Won’t let the threads get deeper]

            Sandy said:

            “The naive idealism of the West Wing was much of the point.”

            Yes, but that note will still seem dated.

  3. I whole-heartedly agree with your main point. There is a tendency in fiction to sympathize with characters who are ruthless, or careless of the lives and fortunes of others, in ways which would both horrify and actually endanger us if they were real.

    … and EE “Doc” Smith’s manly characters are busy remarking on how nursing is an appropriate task for a girl. Yuk.

    If you’re talking about the nurse I think you are talking about (Clarissa MacDougall), she goes on to become the Red Lensman, the Ambassador to the Lyranian Matriachy, and the mother of the Children of the Lens. I’m not sure which of those deeds was the most difficult. Anyway, Clarissa would just laugh at any attempt to defend her from male chauvanism — she was perfectly-capable of taking care of herself!

    Beyond that, “Doc” Smith was essentially a believer in female equality, though like practically everyone of his generation saw it as an equality of two complementary halves of the human species, rather than total interchangability. One of the points of superiority that his Civilization had over Boskone was that the cultures of Civilization valued both sexes; the Boskonians, secretly ruled by an asexual culture (Eddore) produced cultures which exalted one sex (usually men) at the expense of the other. This is explicitly discussed in the stories.

    And Robert E Howard and HP Lovecraft are starting to look more and more like products of their time, their time being one that was both sexist and racist.

    Total agreement there. The interesting thing about this is that Howard, who comes off as the more tolerant of the two in his stories, was actually the less tolerant in real life. Howard never mingled on an equal footing with non-WASP’s in reality, and apparently avoided all romantic connections with women; Lovecraft was friendly with many non-WASP’s, and married a Jewish woman. Which is odd because Howard’s fiction often had romantic or sexual themes, while Lovecraft’s never did.

    “Charming rogue” Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones throws a child out of a window.

    Yes, but Jamie does this in defense of his sister Cersei, whom he regards as his True Love. Had the truth of their relationship been revealed, it would have meant at least her death, probably his own, and possibly the fall of his whole family due to the uncertainity of the parentage of Cersei’s children. I’m not saying it wasn’t an evil thing to do, just pointing out that he had an understandable motivation: he didn’t just do it for the Evulz.

    As for Snape: I can’t really defend him at all — I feel sorry for him, but most of his problems he made for himself. And as the article you quotes argues, Snape was never able to love Lily other than selfishly until she was gone; and when she was gone he loved her un-sanely. He’s essentially an Edgar Allen Poe character, and Poe characters are not the world’s best role model.

    Something has made it cool to be solipsistic. It seems it’s OK to regard other people as not real, not important, just Non Player Characters, as long as you are on some kind of journey or “arc”, or “deserve” it. Other people are just zombies, spear carriers in your personal drama.

    This. Every time I see a movie play the death or severe harm or humiliation to a non-enemy character, especially by the protagonist, as meaningless, or worse just for laughs, it really bothers me. And it has since I was a small child.

    Just switching off recognition of other people has become a secret cosy indulgence, and a fantasy so powerful and seductive that we see, to crave a Zombie Apocalypse.

    Incidentally, one of the reasons I love The Walking Dead is that it doesn’t do this — it instead plays the deaths of most of the people in the world for horror, and shows the severe psychological damage that this has wreaked on the survivors. I can believe in these characters as real in ways that I can’t really believe the characters in a lot of other survival horror.

    Sooner or later we’ll all realize that we are the Spear Carriers, and we are real.

    Well said.

    • mharoldpage says:

      Yes. Howard was relatively young and sheltered when he died, and his racism is more cultural default than anything with vitriol. EE “Doc” Smith could glimpse the social future. And so on. But even if they are battling against it in places, the world view they project is “of their time”; which is fine – I like reading these guys, would probably enjoy having a beer with them once I’ve finished this damned time portal – but I couldn’t just, say, hand them to my son without having a chat about it first.

    • Taranaich says:

      The interesting thing about this is that Howard, who comes off as the more tolerant of the two in his stories, was actually the less tolerant in real life. Howard never mingled on an equal footing with non-WASP’s in reality

      First of all, Howard never mingled with non-WASPS because non-WASPs were kind of hard to come by in 1920s/30s Texas. Secondly, mingling with non-WASPs in 1920s and 1930s Texas was far more likely to get you assaulted than relatively progressive Rhode Island. There’s an illuminating moment in Novalyne Price’s biography where this subject is broached:

      “Why, girl,” Bob said. “what you said about Negroes today no man in the town would understand, and they might even run you out of town, or tar and feather you.”

      Reading about exactly how horrendous turn of the 20th Century Texas was is hard reading, but I think essential to understanding authors of the time and place’s views.

      and apparently avoided all romantic connections with women

      Presumably you mean apart from Novalyne Price?

      Lovecraft undoubtedly changed his views on non-whites over time, and Howard did too – but the crucial difference is Lovecraft was born and raised in a far more progressive environment where the locals weren’t as likely to beat you up for even talking to minorities, much less befriend or defend them. Not to take anything away from Lovecraft’s improving sensibilities, but it’s easier to be tolerant in an environment that doesn’t punish you for it.

      • mharoldpage says:

        Yes. And I never had much sense of vitriol from Howard. Had he lived and had a wider life experience, I’m sure his views would have changed. Behind the writing was an intelligent and well read man.

        But this takes us back to “of his time”, like Shakespeare was of his/her/their time.

        Our views on race and sex have changed, therefore popular writers before a certain date seem dated. That’s how it should be.

      • mharoldpage says:

        Actually, here’s a thought: 21st century critics jumping on un-PC attitudes in early 20th century genre literature will seem hopelessly dated,

        • Sandy says:

          Im sure. Just like the first and 2nd wave feminists seem dated now and are taking a lot of flack for not well handling, say, trans-gender issues.

          I’d argue though that this very datable backlash against last century’s values is just as necessary as the early feminists though, given what we are learning in scientific terms about what those values are doing to peoples’ mental health.

          • Sandy says:

            But then it’s more the late 20th century that is the real battleground now.

          • mharoldpage says:

            “I’d argue though that this very datable backlash against last century’s values is just as necessary as the early feminists”

            Yes, it’s like rabbit and fox populations.

            It will still, however, seem dated.

          • Ria says:

            PCness itself comes from last century. it has hardly evolved. it has a few new concerns like TG rights, as you said, but the substance of it remains the same: class struggle.

        • Ria says:

          I had that exact same thought. I think or, at least hope, so.

      • Novalyne Price was 1/4 Native American if I remember right, which made her “that Indian girl” to Howard’s mother. She doesn’t talk much about her background in her memoir, since it’s about Howard and his personality more than it is an autobiography, but it does come up.

  4. A great article, Martin. It immediately struck me that the movie Ruby Sparks (which I really wanted to like but ended up hating) has a solipsist protagonist that behaves exactly in this manner and does some rather reprehensible things, yet we are supposed to like him.

    As pointed out by Jordan above, I think GRRM is doing something more subtle with Jaime Lannister, though. We get a bit deeper inside his head as the series progresses and at least understand his worldview and motivations. And getting inside the mind of someone who we think we could never sympathise with is one of the most valuable things fiction can do, IMHO – but obviously that is different from the point you are making. (See also Patrick Susskind’s novel Perfume.)

    In more nitpicky mode, “Hot Cylon Girl” is not a perfect example either as the fictional context is a bit more complicated, but I’ll leave that to the Battlestar Galactica fans. 🙂

    • mharoldpage says:

      I did not mean to reference the fictional context or the authorial intent so much as the reader/viewer reaction. A writer creates a complex, flawed antagonist who does evil deeds, and a community of shippers read this as “broken bad boy”/”hot evil girl” and start ‘shipping them.

  5. Ria says:

    I do not, for the most part, consume contemporary popular culture. I have a longstanding love of DOCTOR WHO and even there, I have noticed, a shift from “I will save and protect the innocent” to “I will save and protect my friends”. particularly noticeable in the season finale “Heaven Sent”.

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "What modern film and fiction will age badly"
  1. […] to this story but diegetically less important than the protagonist’s. Some time ago I read a blog post I found striking enough that I saved the URL, speculating on what about our current cult…. The author guessed it might be stories that treat minor characters, extras, as literally less […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*