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 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.