Reflections on: Fandoms

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When I was a little girl, I went on an archaeological dig through my family’s “basement.” I say “basement” because we were then renting a house whose basement had been converted (or perhaps built from the get-go) as a full functional living space that mirrored the floor above ground. Below the stairs was a convenient storage area for family artifacts that didn’t belong in other places. I was prompted by my mother to go on this dig–perhaps to give me something to do while she quietly sewed her latest project–because I had recently discovered Star Wars. She revealed to me that my brothers were avid fans and thought that some of their toys might be found in that storage area. Yes, I did find their old Millennium Falcon and some action figures (a few of which were missing limbs). And I found an almost complete set of trading cards. And there was an envelope of ship blueprints that I wish I still had. But there was one other gem (that I also wish I still had): a quiz that my brother had written to pass around his friends. In my love of Star Wars, my Trivia Geek persona was born thanks to my brother’s little quiz.

Back then, being part of a “fandom” was very different than it is now. Well, not really. There are those fans who dress up, attend cons, have salons in their mom’s basement. But being “out” as a fan outside the acceptable realms of fandom marked one negatively with a scarlet letter “x.” I remember one of my junior high crushes was very “out” as a Star Trek fan, which was perfect since I was fairly “out” at the time as well, but I also remember the difficulties of being a tween and young teen were that much more annoying because I was a Star Trek geek and fairly uncool.

At some point between my awful junior high experiences and right now, being part of a fandom has shifted from being something negative, but rather has become a crucial part of one’s identity. Remember that Star Trek fan in [was it Arkansas?] who wore her uniform to work? She stood out at the time. People either praised her for being true to her self and her values, or they judged her negatively. Now, it’s okay for me to wear my Doctor Who scarf. It marks me as a “friendly,” it helps build communitas. I occasionally wear my Harry Potter sweater (complete with tie) without shame. I could even dye my hair Twilight Sparkle purple.

So what is it about fandoms? I just finished wanting a documentary about Bronies (a My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fandom). The Bronies are the latest incarnation of the “inclusive” fandom–”it’s the place where I find acceptance;” “it’s where I can feel like myself;” etc etc etc. A Brony made a comment in this documentary about how other fandoms are exclusive. I have yet to have this experience. If I feel excluded, it’s likely because I’m not pouring enough energy into the fandom.

Which I don’t much any more. I followed the Potter fandom with fever until it lost steam after the release of the seventh book. I also lost a lot of respect for it after Pottercast made a comment that Twilight was the next Potter. I do wish I could have the hours of my life back from reading that series. I walk on the fringe of several fandoms.

Fandoms seem to exist because a particular pop culture channel speaks to several people on a mythic level. They provide the fulfillment that Joseph Campbell would once have attributed to traditional myths (I often wonder what he would have to say about fandoms if he were alive today). They also allow us to respond to the pop culture channel in our own unique way. Some people consume the fandom–they collect, they decorate their homes and offices around the fandom, and they are walking encyclopedias about the original work (and maybe all of the collectibles and fandom artifacts as well). Some people are the creatives–they are so inspired by the original work that they create something new within the parameters of the canon–fanfiction, filks, and for the obsessive knitter like me, wearables and toys. And there are those who just need the community–are they looking for validation or are they so hungry for community? These people want the conversation. And there are those who are along for the experience.

“Experience” is a complicated word. In the way I’m using it here, it could mean a few different things. I could be referring to the experience of the myth. I could be referring to the experience of the fandom. I could be referring to the experience of the experience of communitas. I could be referring to the ritualistic experience fandoms allow. I refer to all of the above. “Mythic experience” happens for each of us differently. That moment when “Star Wars” engulfed the screen for my first viewing is just as potent to me as the moment when the Enterprise first hits the screen, or when the TARDIS appears, or when I exit the tunnel under the railroad and am embraced (welcomed) by the sights and sounds of Main Street, U.S.A., or when I am standing underneath the Rose Window at Notre Dame de Paris during mass, or when I first stood in the Sistine Chapel and looked up into the face of God. My mythic experience is different than your mythic experience because we are different people. Fandoms are born when we find people who have the same degree of experience that we had. The Internet has made it easier for us to find each other and, hopefully, be friends. And that’s totally groovy.

Why Mr. Banks Needed Saving

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*This post contains minor spoilers about the film, Saving Mr. Banks, but I question if they count as spoilers since the historical events in the film are well-documented in many Walt Disney biographies or Disney histories.*
*and there are some spoilers about Mary Poppins, but I would like to pretend that everyone has seen that film in this day and age.*

My friend in her review of Oz Great and Powerful observed that Disney has been rewriting its origin myths lately. Indeed, they invested gobs into a redo of Disneyland California Adventure to theme the park to the Los Angeles of Walt’s arrival. When I initially saw the trailers for Saving Mr. Banks, I saw her observation in action to a new level. Here is the first bio-pic of Walt Disney, highlighting a very specific time and turning point in Disney History–the production meetings with P.L. Travers to secure the rights to Mary Poppins.

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Mary Poppins is one of my favorite Disney films. Heck, it may possibly be one of my favorite films of All Time. I found solace in Mary’s guidance when my mother was first hospitalized for her COPD. I still to this day think of the Denver capitol building when I hear “Feed the Birds.” Whenever I feel a little blue, Mary Poppins is one of my cheer-up films. I have such intimacy with the film that I refuse to see it on stage…So I can understand why Mrs. Travers would hesitate to allow Disney to make the film.

Here’s the trailer:

I have always been aware that Mary Poppins arrives at the Banks’ to help put a family back together, which also involves helping Mr. Banks appreciate his family, not just his well-ordered life. Mrs. Banks is a secret suffragette, dividing her time between her husband, children, and her cause. Sometimes she can get overwhelmed, as when she comes home from the meeting and doesn’t initially hear Katie Nanna’s resignation, but she quickly comes around. The children just want to be loved.

There are two distinct storylines, beautifully interwoven in Saving Mr. Banks: Travers’ memories of her childhood at a particularly difficult time and her visit to Disney to negotiate how the film will be made. The underlying theme of the film appears to address the classic Freudian Daddy Issue. The film portrays Travers Goff, Mrs. Travers’ father, as kind and loving, but drunk and falling apart. The young Travers loves her father completely, even defying her mother to get him booze. We see Mrs. Travers (played by Emma Thompson) in the middle of the film meltdown during a production meeting because she feels they are making Mr. Banks into this cruel father who doesn’t even mend the kite (inspiring the “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” sequence, borrowed also from the Sherman Brothers’ relationship with their father). Walt (Tom Hanks) convinces her to give him the rights when he flies to London and explains his own father relationship and that Mary Poppins is actually about saving Mr. Banks.

Who is Mr. Banks but that hyperrational piece of all of us who just needs some play in his life? Regardless of the claim that Walt wanted the rights because of a promise to his daughters, the movie of Mary Poppins reminds us to just stop and play, or fly a kite or just love to laugh. Much of Disney reflects the need for play, ever more so following the opening of Disneyland. Play is the spoonful of medicine, and with the total themed experience of the park, we’re allowed to shut out the outside world and be in the land of Dream. That we can do it consciously and physically is what makes it so potent, provided we are willing to release ourselves to it, captured beautifully in Travers’ (Emma Thompson) hesitation to go to the park, much less ride the carousel.

The business about the origin story? Mary Poppins ushered in a new era for the Disney studio, allowing it to grow and expand in a way it hadn’t done since the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It gave the studio the money to continue developing films and to be able to devote itself to the World’s Fair attractions, expanding Disneyland, and dreaming about the Florida Project. In other words, Mary Poppins made possible the only Disney I and many others know–the Legacy that was able to survive Walt’s death.

Sure, there were some liberties taken in this film (Saving Mr. Banks), some of which may even include the storyline of Travers’ childhood (I know nothing about her). But the film does stay true to the spirit of Poppins and to the spirit of Disney. Travers (Emma Thompson) remarks to Walt, “You mean, Disney didn’t make man in his own image?” Well, no, but those of us who willingly go for the Disney dream share the same attributes: we love to laugh, we happily will fly a kite, and we know how to invest our tuppance.

Downton Abbey Took a Violent Turn and I’m Not Happy About It

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***This post is inspired by a recent broadcast of Downton Abbey in the US, and contains spoilers.***

When it comes to violence in the media, I have a few criteria I like to follow:
(As a note: I’m not a big fan of violence. I don’t condone it. I would love a world without violence, and maybe someday such a world will exist.)
1. Is it gratuitous? My gratuity line is significantly lower than most of Hollywood–thanks to my Walt Disney-colored glasses and parenthood–but I can appreciate that some violence is supposed to be there. For instance, you can’t have Romeo and Juliet without the death of Tybalt, and The Shining or Titanic wouldn’t have made such an impact without characters freezing to death. But did Johnny Depp really need his eyes ripped out in Once Upon a Time in Mexico or did Doc really need to chop off his fingers in Escape from Alcatraz?
2. The obvious intent behind the film. I allow Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock to get away with their violence because they are either presenting dark satire or handle the violence artfully. A movie like Caligula haunts me with its gratuitous sexual violence (it is an art porn, as it were), as do many horror movies. It may be sacrilegious, but I even find the two major acts of violence done to Luke Skywalker in Empire Strikes Back unnecessary. There isn’t significant character transformation by his experiences.
3. Who is the violence against? Who doesn’t cheer when the Evil Queen falls to her death?
(I don’t buy into the argument that violence in media causes violence in real life. Violent people are violent in their nature. Violence in media is a response to something in the culture. Think there is too much violence? Then, please, rethink what media you consume. Through embargo can we get the moguls to give us new themes. But if 100 years of Hollywood is any indicator, we like the catharsis of violence. Victorian repression doesn’t work either. Oh well.)

This is all getting me to Downton Abbey‘s recent episode, Season Four Episode 2. I binge-watched the entire show, since it airs the hour before Sherlock, which returns this weekend with Season 3. It is well-written, such that I imagine that fans cried at the same points, laughed at the same scenes, held their breath at the same time. The characters are fairly black and white. By the end of the first episode in which they appear, we know who to love, who to hate, and who to pity.

Come to think of it, Aristotle would be pleased with this show, if he were writing The Poetics today.

So Anna’s brutal rape is a matter of controversy. Not only is she one of the most loved and selfless characters, but how it was presented recalls the old cinematic trick of careful montage editing. While an opera singer performs for the entire house (upstairs and downstairs), her screams echo through an empty hallway. The performance is full of light, while the hallway is dark. I’m not remembering which silent film dealt with a rape in much the same fashion. This type of distancing effect tugs at our heartstrings: we are connected to the show (if you’re a faithful watcher), but this scene confuses us. Anger for Anna or joy at operatic beauty?

A commentary I read pointed out that the scandal of her situation could ruin her career as a Lady’s Maid and mark her publicly forever. Such is British society. Julian Fellows did her a favor of writing her attacker from her class, even if she can never have justice. Another commentary, or maybe the same one, suggests that how this is handled in coming episodes will make or break the season. And Fellows himself suggests that it had to be Anna.

Even knowing writer’s intent and show purpose, I’m not in favor of this one. If Fellows needed to rape Anna, did we really have to see it? After all, we were spared Matthew’s war and car accidents, Thomas’s coward shot (how on earth did he get away with that?!), Cora’s fall, and do on. So why this?

Yet another commentary suggests that this event is designed to speak to the fate of Downton Abbey in a time when the family itself is losing its grip. Downton Abbey is meant to represent a microcosm. Through the disguise of a period piece, I suspect the primary commentary is about the tension between nostalgia and the ever-changing face of the planet. Through a piece at the time when Britain stopped being an empire and the class divide became less rigid, we can read a commentary about the connectivity of the world and how easy we can go from place to place through the Internet. How much easier it is to be a self-made person with the right resources, or not.

Perhaps Anna represents Britain, or the West, or the Earth. Perhaps the rape of her is the rape of our planet of her resources. I suppose I’ll know more on Sunday.

*Please no spoilers about what happens next if you already know.*

Random Thought: Does Disneyland have a bomb shelter?

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Disneyland opened in 1955, on the early end of the Cold War, but still during the period of Nuclear Fear. So I got to thinking, does Disneyland have a fallout shelter and where would it be? 20131216-105823.jpg

A quick Google didn’t yield any definitive answers. Disneyland wasn’t built with the super tunnel system that Walt Disney World has (which apparently will protect you during a nuclear attack). Also WDW may have a bona fide shelter under the Main Street Train Station.

This speaks, I think, to the illusion that Disneyland is not only the happiest place on earth, but also the safest. As we walk through the entry tunnels, we are greeted with a sign that reads, “Here you leave the world of today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.” This hyperrealistic constructed world claims to take us out of time, away from real world worries. There are reported cases (see any of David Koenig’s books) of people getting so caught up in the illusion that they do something reckless, and thanks to Disney’s PR and law teams, any injury is quickly covered up. Koenig also writes about violent acts at Disneyland, easily occurring because people lower their guard at Disneyland. It’s a safe place.

So why not extend this illusion to nuclear attack? No one wants to go to Disneyland and think about nuclear bombs. In Tomorrowland, there used to be attractions celebrating nuclear energy used to make life easier, not destructive.

I’ve decided that the safest place at Disneyland, in the event of nuclear attack, is the Haunted Mansion. The stretching room is actually an elevator that takes you underground and the hallway to the Doom Buggies takes you outside the berm. Perfect place. And the Grim Grinning Ghosts are good company. Why not Pirates of the Caribbean? It’s also underground. Simple answer. The water, that recognizably smelly water, will become radiated. If there’s a secret room down there (the room where Walt’s body isn’t), maybe that’s the safest, but it doesn’t have the capacity.

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Volunteers in Service to…Something, Part 1

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For the past six months, I’ve been serving as an AmeriCorps*VISTA, a volunteer (with a paid living stipend) that attempts

To strengthen and supplement efforts to eliminate and alleviate poverty … in the United States by encouraging and enabling persons from all walks of life, all geographic areas, and all age groups, including low-income individuals … to perform meaningful and constructive volunteer service in agencies, institutions, and situations where the application of human talent and dedication may assist in the solution of poverty and poverty related problems. (VISTA handbook, derived from the Domestic Volunteer Service Act of 1973)

My specific job site is an awesome program that helps students transition into college by providing a (free!) refresher in math and writing, with the intent of helping students skip over as many remedial classes as possible. Many colleges and universities have placement testing. Some students are exempt from such testing based on their high school exit exams or their SAT/ACT scores. Others have to take the school’s preferred test. The problem that this program tries to address is that non-traditional students, typically adults, who are returning to school after a) passing their GED, b) moving to this country with limited English skills, or c) haven’t been in school for a long time, typically test into remedial classes from the outset, classes that cost them precious tuition money but don’t offer credit. Having taught a number of similar students when I was teaching in Austin, I wholeheartedly support programs designed to help students get on track. From what I hear from other VISTAs, my site is an anomaly, and, frankly, there are some organizational issues I have with the VISTA mission and model.

For one thing, I don’t believe–contrary to Bono’s enthusiastic Ted talk–that it’s possible to eliminate poverty. I question whether it’s even possible to alleviate poverty. Why? Because poverty is the by-product of the nature of civilization. As soon as humans decided to live under a hierarchy, they created poverty. As soon as someone is/people are flagged as superior because of their leadership or other valued status, as soon as a resource becomes a mode of wealth, humanity created poverty. Someone will miss out. Not everyone can be leaders, not everyone can be the wealth holders. It’s the nature of civilization. Is it possible to alleviate poverty? Well, that goes against the nature of human greed.

Here’s the model: VISTAs are also expected to live in poverty “to better empathize with the communities we serve,” nor are VISTAs allowed to have other jobs. Theoretically, this is okay. As long as the Government is functioning appropriately. During the recent shut down, we were told to work, but our living stipends were suspending during that time, with the promise of receiving back pay after the shutdown.

To be continued.

“Those Christians”

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We all have that *one* thing that rubs us the wrong way. You know, that one issue that a friend innocently brings up during a poker game that turns you into Mr. Hyde. Perhaps it’s something that embedded in your shadow, or perhaps it’s a cause you’ve silently taken the call to defend. Either way, you find yourself getting extremely defensive when that *one* thing is brought up.

Perhaps I have several such *one* things (just try engaging me in conversation that Walt Disney was anti-Semitic or whether Disney princesses are terrible role models. Go ahead. I dare you.). I think this is a side effect of being a PhD and a mythologist. This is one take-away I’ve gotten from spending the last several years reading Joseph Campbell: it’s impossible to look at people as anything but different versions of the same thing. Sure, I disagree with many other people’s opinions, but my line is whether those opinions are doing harm (physical, mental) to anyone. For example, I support Obama’s healthcare plan because it’s pathetic that people in this country can’t get the medical attention they need, and I disagree with multi-million dollar companies that claim that they will go bankrupt if they are required to provide healthcare to their employees. (but this is an issue for another day…)

So the *one* thing I’m going to touch on today is something I first observed at a Harry Potter conference a few years ago. In the same breath of asking for tolerance, a Potter peep spoke of hating “those Christians” for making her life difficult. Going to Pacifica, a similar conversation is heard on the sidewalks between classes: Why myth is so bereft in this country is because of “those Christians” (and the Enlightenment). “Those Christians” need to step aside and let a more natural mythology (often linked to the Pagan or New Age movements) develop. And I see similar criticisms frequently cross my Facebook feed.

How can anyone ask for tolerance while also being intolerant towards a particular group of people?

Blaming “those Christians” for everything wrong with the world is like blaming all of Islam for 9/11. Blaming the Bible for faulty faith is like blaming Catcher in the Rye for killing John Lennon.

There is a GIGANTIC difference between a religion and its followers. While there are many deplorable events in history that are done “in the name of religion,” the invocation of religion is a cover to justify the selfish act of conflict. Why, then, is it does it appear the be the MO of religious followers?

Joseph Campbell cites four functions of mythology: 1) a cosmology, a sense of where we came from and why we’re here; 2) a religion (as Bones has been saying lately, “We all need a mythology”); 3) social guidelines; 4) a psychological framework. When any of the four is threatened, we react strongly. We don’t like our sense of personhood, even if others see it as skewed, threatened. Because of the nature of humanity, we may react violently, or we may just weep in a corner. Get enough of us together, the mob mind might develop. Unite us behind a charismatic leader we are supposed to trust, say a Pope or a President, the mob mind will justify to itself that it’s okay to do heinous acts against The Other.

But it’s not–and to say that it is okay runs completely counter to most religious tenants. There are also centuries of documented corruption behind the core of all “religious” conflicts. The only way it seems we can overcome these religious issues is to take them off the table, which is why our Founding Fathers separated church and state, a novel idea at the time. However, because religion plays such an essential part in our identity, it’s difficult to leave those matters off the table.

This is one of those *one* things that has no simple resolution, other than perhaps we finally learn what that call for religious tolerance actually means. It doesn’t mean, “Like me for who I am, although I find you stupid.” It means, “I find you stupid, but I love you anyway, because I don’t know anything about you and shouldn’t judge you by the simple label of your religious values.” Tolerance doesn’t mean, “I’m okay with your religious some of the time, but not all the time.” It means, “Your religion works for me, but it doesn’t for me. And that’s okay.”

And you may not agree with my stance on this. And that’s okay.

Projection and Johnny Depp (and Miley Cyrus, too)

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The recent hubbub about Miley Cyrus and the recent VMAs has gotten me thinking about Johnny Depp. Or maybe it was a dream I had last night about the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Either way, my thoughts on Miley and Johnny both have to do with the same thing: our projections.

Johnny Depp experienced an exponential growth in his fame in the 2000s, arguably with the success of Jack Sparrow. Prior to the 2000s, his roles have been unusual–Edward Sissorhands–or they have spoken to a special Aphroditic place in our culture–Don Juan. With Jack Sparrow, however, Depp played (and rather well) a character right out of our cultural shadow. The Pirate pillages and plunders, and riffles and loots, and we’re not supposed to look to them as heroes. Indeed, we wouldn’t have seen Jack Sparrow as anything but another Blackbeard had it not been for his support of the Will/Elizabeth diad. In the popularity of Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp went from being “that weird actor” to “The Sexiest Man Alive.” And it was thought for several years that is presence in a film or on marketing materials would guarantee success–blockbuster (and I mean financial) success. He continued to make successful films with Tim Burton (a relationship that I tend to trust for “good cinema”) but he also made some less successful films. Let’s consider those a moment (in no particular order):

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: I love the franchise, but without Will and Elizabeth, Jack Sparrow seems lost. I’ve heard rumor of a Pirates 5, but I think it would only work if they tied up some loose ends (such as Will Turner’s son).

The Rum Diary: I liked this one, but I’m among an elite few. I think this one failed because people were expecting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and got something else entirely. I appreciate Depp’s attempts to keep the works of Hunter S. Thompson alive, but it’s really not the time for him right now. Mythically, we need someone else.

The Lone Ranger & Dark Shadows: I lump these together because they are an attempt to revive an old television franchise for a new generation. Both were expected to do well–but how can they do well when their target audiences don’t even know the shows? Dark Shadows becomes yet-another-vampire-movie and the Lone Ranger, which I haven’t seen, doesn’t fit in our mythos that presently doesn’t have space for an old fashioned Western (exceptions: sci-fi westerns–Star Trek, Firefly–and historical fiction). Because of our apocalyptic myth transition, we are hungering for saviors. It shouldn’t be surprising that Marvel films are doing so well.

I saw a headline this morning that said that Depp is thinking about stepping out of the limelight. What’s happening to Depp is akin to what happened to Charlie Chaplin. For Chaplin, the public wanted the Little Tramp so badly that they weren’t interested in The Great Dictator, when he used his medium to send us a warning about what was happening in Germany. Our public wants Jack Sparrow so badly that we aren’t interested when Depp actually gives us cinema with a purpose.

I would love to say that we’ll stop projecting our Aphroditic expectations onto Johnny Depp, but I only think that’ll happen once we get someone else to project onto. Rather, I would love to see Depp take on roles that go beyond the “Johnny Depp” brand and challenge us to see him in new ways. We’ve seen Leonardo Di Caprio do this many times. While on screen, he’s clearly Leonardo Di Caprio, but he is also a character actor like Depp, and successfully challenges us to see him as Howard Hawks, J. Edgar Hoover, and Gatsby. Depp has convinced us to see him as Hunter S. Thompson and as John Dillenger, and yet we just want Jack Sparrow.

Back to Miley. Why is it that we continually see young female celebrities needing to exert their adulthood through sexuality? Why can’t we just let them grow up and stop being “that girl next door” (or Hannah Montana)? The Disney girls seem to fare less well with the transition into adulthood than others. We want them to continue being our image of what a role model for girls should look like, but we forget that we need role models for young women as well (otherwise they’ll look at Bella Swan from Twilight). Women just don’t have decent role models because women are still fighting the sexual role defined by a male-dominated Hollywood. I don’t consider myself a feminist by any stretch, but I can appreciate that need for role models, and the need for those role models to push back at our projections and exert her independence. (which, by the way, is what the Disney Princesses and heroines of the 90s did.)

The Up Series

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My post the other day about The Truman Show inspired me to see if 56 Up was streaming on Netflix yet. Since it is, I treated myself to watching it yesterday.

The_Up_series_DVDThe premise of the Up series (of which 56 is the latest installment) begins with the philosophy of “Show me a boy at 7 and I will show you the man.” Director Michael Apted initially interviewed a collection of British children at the age of 7, showcasing a slice of British life and classism. This series continued to follow some of these children, checking in with them every 7 years. Through this series, we’ve watched them grow up, seen their opinions and attitude change with age, watched their successes and failures. Even though we only see them every 7 years, somehow they feel like they are our friends and family.

But they’re not.

Each installment is edited in a very creative way that highlights some aspect of British society–the inherent classism, political attitudes, etc. Through this careful editing, Apted or someone one his team, makes a statement at the expense of these people. And that has been the criticism against the series, coming from, among other sources, the subjects themselves. Some recognize that they only participate in the program at this point because it is an opportunity for them to advertise for their cause. One man, Nick, has said that he’s going to be remembered for the series, not for his work in Physics, and finds that a little sad.

In a way, Michael Apted has given us a real live version of The Truman Show. We see these people for a short period, but we watch their stories unfold with the same engrossed entertainment that we watch reality television, that the people watched Truman’s story unfold.

But, just as with Truman’s story, there is a tragic side, and that’s the way that the series has impacted the lives of the people involved. One man, Peter, left the series after 28 because there was a negative publicity campaign about his comments (seemingly spun to be a criticism against Margaret Thatcher) that impacted his work. (He came back at 56 to use the platform to promote his band.) Another man, Tony, a professional cabbie, told a story in 56 about a time when he was driving Buzz Aldrin and another cabbie asked for his autograph. Tony assumed he meant Buzz, but the cabbie really just wanted his autograph! (Ok, that’s a positive story, but it speaks to the level these people are getting recognized.)

I enjoy the Up Series. I want nothing more than to start a campaign to help Jackie, and to send sweaters to all their grandbabies. I want to ride in Tony’s cab, and take a class from Nick. Their lives are captured forever in these little documentaries, these little nuggets of hyperreality. This is why we think the Up participants are our friends, and it’s the same reason we watch every 7 years.

I started watching the series because I was curious. I continued to watch the series because I was captivated. I am not oblivious to the political spin each installment is given. But what do we get from it?

Reality and The Truman Show

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“It’s not fake. It’s just controlled.”

I know I’m a little late to the party, but I finally saw 1998′s The Truman Show. I’ve heard much about the show for ages, so I’m not sure why I haven’t seen it before now. (Unless it’s because it’s *THAT* movie that everyone has seen already, so no one wanted to watch it with me, and I tend to watch familiar films, television shows, or documentaries when I’m alone.)

The premise is that Truman slowly discovers that his entire life has been lived on a live, 24-hour television show. It’s like what we call reality tv without the editing. Truman has no control over his life, which causes a major existential crisis. The producer, Christof, and his team fabricate every single one of Truman’s experiences.

Which invites the question, just how much control do we have over our lives?

Anyone who grew up in America following World War II has had their entire lives influenced and shaped by corporations and what Jean Baudrillard calls “hyperreality,” a simulated environment so perfect that we willingly accept it in lieu of it’s real, non-simulated counterpart. Examples permeate our consumer culture, from themed restaurants to shopping malls. Disneyland is cited by Baudrillard and Umberto Eco has the paragon example.

We would like to believe that we have control over our lives, that our decisions make a difference. My cousin recently posted on Facebook that he young son, with no known exposure to Disney princesses, could describe princess attributes. Is this because the princess is an archetype that all children can identify? No, it’s because the image is saturated across modern culture. (I’ll add here that this cousin lives outside the United States.) Prior to 1989, Disney’s princess line-up consisted of FOUR princesses: Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora/Sleeping Beauty, and what’s-her-name from The Black Cauldron (thank you to Amy Davis for that reminder). Now, almost every Disney movie has a princess and it has branded them as their own franchise. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that this young boy can identify princess behaviors.

And there’s the decisions we make thinking we are doing something good for the world, like buying eco-friendly products (that are really produced by the big corporations). For example, until I had a major life-change that hindered my idealistic intentions, I cloth diapered my baby. Once upon a time, cloth diaper options were a square of fabric folded just so and safety pinned to baby. A single Bum Genius brand diaper can go for $20, and the thinking is that what’s $20 if you’re helping the environment? What’s wrong with that square of fabric?

Reality television is one such hyperrealistic world we consume. Each episode brings into our homes someone’s “life” in a very controlled environment. Each participant is informed–to differ from Truman’s experience–of the level of involvement the show will actually have in their experience, some events are actually heightened in the interest of “good tv.”

Why are we so interested in reality television? Even though we know the set-ups are fake, we willingly accept their version of “reality” almost as reminders that our lives aren’t nearly as pathetic as we think they are. This is why reality shows dominate television.

The really sad part is the comment about our world that we choose hyperreality over reality. Is it because current culture sucks that much or is it because we are being blinded by leisure at just how much it sucks. Or is the argument that the world is suffering in fact part of the simulated illusion?