You are what you read/watch/etc.

For the past several days I have been engaging in a conversation with a friend of mine (over Facebook…) about women in science fiction/fantasy/comic books that has served to spark my interest in why we, the readers, choose the stories and characters we do. Her longtime fixation has and always will be Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its titular character. Why? There was something inherently relatable about that character I describe as narcissistic, selfish, and written in a boring manner (she never fails and is always right). My friend is not alone in finding Buffy Summers such an enjoyable fiction character. The reasons others have might mirror hers or be something totally out of left field. But it got me thinking about my favorite characters and stories. What do these preferences say about me?

My favorite stories are rarely about specific characters but rather communities in which everyone plays a nigh equally important role as the next person. Some stories have a certain spiritual aspect about them, but the spirituality is something other than the mainstream faiths. It usually discusses the duality of mind and soul (and the balance between following our logical brains or our gut instincts) and the transcendent nature of who we are. Special note on Caprica: Our entire beings are more than what simply exists on this plane of existence in these skins. But I also have a special affinity for Spider-Man stories, mainly because he is completely relatable – especially after the One Day More storyline from a couple years back. I guess it says a lot about me to appreciate a loveable loser who is constantly down on his luck but is able to move forward because he sees that there is more to life than what he is personally getting out of it.

Zeta Gundam, my favorite anime, seems to combine all these requirements. Kamille Bidan, the eventual pilot of the Zeta Gundam, is a down on his luck mech-building nerd who watches both of his parents die right before his eyes. However, he grows into a strong man thanks to the surrogate family he becomes part of in a rebellious military organization. He, not unlike many others, is able to connect with people on a spiritual level - and that gives him strength. Those who have died still live on in spirit, and in the scene pictured they grant him their strength to overcome the villain.

My friend and I are academics, though. Her studies in English are cross-compatible with my own in psychology, especially since both fields involve interpretation and looking for inner truths. We are both trained to be self aware. Other people do not take the time to think about it, nor would they necessarily know where to begin. As such, I can only look at mass American culture and what it might mean on a broad scale.

Which brings me to another thing I have been thinking about quite a bit lately – Lady Gaga. To be honest, I appreciate her music. It does not earn its own playlist on my MP3 player, but it finds a place on certain playlists. For me the reason why is simple: She or her producers have successfully captured the elusive earworm and planted some of its eggs directly into her tracks. That and sometimes I like music that does not require much thought.

Simple aesthetic is what people tend to fall back on when discussing music. “I like it because it sounds good,” is a completely acceptable answer, although it does not get deep enough for understanding. Asking why generally yields little, and even someone who studies music would be hard pressed to really describe what makes it sound good aside from mentioning musical terminology. “Why does it sound good to you?” I want to know what people are personally getting out of the music. Aesthetics are makeup. They add to the overall presentation, but that does not explain what differentiates certain songs from their sound alike contemporaries.

It gets easier to understand when looking back at the top ten singles for the past few years and noticing certain trends in song content and performers. Yes, I know it is a no-brainer to mention the overwhelming trend of sexuality in music. The easy, and valid, assumption is that people like sex. That does not solve the mystery for me. If people did not like sex, procreation would predominantly be practiced by intellectuals instead of the reality of the situation. My thought is that people enjoy the freedom of sexuality advertised by these artists. Despite our being a considerably free country, we are still very much sexually repressed. Discussion of sex is taboo, and even certain acts are instilled in us as taboo in the privacy of our own bedrooms.

That helps to explain some of the interest in Lady Gaga’s music. I think the rest is how weird and therefore mysterious she is.

If all promotional images of Lady Gaga were like this one, would she still have the same appeal? Look up "vintage lady gaga" on YouTube and find a performance of hers from NYU before she was famous. She was quite talented, but you have to ask if she would be remotely as famous if she had decided not to pursue sexual wish fulfillment music and an accompanying more-free-than-you image.

But what about everyone else? What about Taylor Swift? Considering her single, I would say that girls who think they are a good girls find it completely relatable – and guys want to think that they will always eventually end up with the good girl. What about a good majority of rap music? Essentially they are popular due to male power fantasies. Guys are fulfilling their desires to be objects in pure control – hence the common “bitches and money” theme.

When it comes to movies, we find a number of romantic comedies in existence. Like I have previously mentioned, romcoms exist and persist because they imbue in some viewers the notion that real and true love does exist. (The other side of it is to set the mood for sex, which is why so many people put up with these generally poor films.) Then we look at the action films, which are usually more male power fantasies.

What it tells me is that people in my culture generally feel powerless and alone, with men generally more concerned about power and women more concerned about companionship. Definitely did not take a psychologist to point out these things, but I thought examples would be nice. I have also only scratched the surface. Television, video game (“Why do you spend more time playing Warcraft than you do experiencing your own life?”), and literary trends (“Why are you reading Harry Potter for the seventh time?”, “What do you get out of Twilight?”) were not touched. That would require watching Glee and Lost, which sounds painful (like sugar-rotting-teeth painful) on one end and time consuming on the other. I would also probably have to watch more reality television, but my guess is that reality simply is not real enough for people anymore. Probably due to a lack of truly living by the audience.

In the end, though, this is a fun exercise for those of us who like to think about the meaning behind our own choices. Our entertainment choices generally do say something about us. What do your choices say about you? How do you relate to the characters? What is being fulfilled?

About Gospel X

Media commentator who tries not to waste time - and often fails

Posted on April 13, 2010, in culture, movies, music, psychology, real life. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Your friend probably likes Buffy because there are SO FEW strong female characters in science fiction, in literature in general, not because she's narcissistic and selfish. I like Lady Gaga for her performance art…her music is okay. Taylor Swift's music doesn't do it for me at all but I see your point. I think Harry Potter and Twilight are easily consumable texts. I could probably go for sex without the romcom, so I still don't know why there are so many. If there is some story I really want to consume, I can watch it on my own. This was a very broad topic but interesting. Did you mean surface instead of service?

  2. Noted and fixed, thanks. This is an ungodly broad topic, but it's something worth thinking about.

  3. An interesting addition to our conversation — and if you're interested in any one of those topics in more depth (from Lost to Harry Potter to Lady Gaga) I can recommend some reading ;-)And for the record, part of why I like Buffy is pure nostalgia — I admit it. Part of why I like Buffy is it's "literary qualities" (which is a whole different debate).But part of why I like Buffy is the "grrrl power," a very specific type of feminism which appealed to me at one point but about which I've recently read some interesting (and fairly critical) essays… Second wave feminists feel that "feminists" of the 90's (grrrl power) don't really know what it's like to get out and fight for your rights. This probably says something else about me — it's easy to say your a feminist, it's another thing to do something to build women's rights.So yes, I agree — you are definitely the media that you consume… unless you're not a consumer. I think it's fair to say that there are still people out there that don't qualify as being defined by their favorite media… but I'm one of the ones that is heavily defined by my books, music and movies.

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