4 Great Ideas That No One Uses Correctly Anymore
Remember in 2004 when Napoleon Dynamite came out, and all of the sudden saying stuff like "Whatever I feel like I'm gonna do. Gosh!" and "A liger is pretty much my favorite animal" was funny and clever and fresh? Remember how a year later, like three of your friends were still inserting "Gimme some of your tots!" into random conversations for no reason, and now, 11 years after it came out, Napoleon Dynamite has been completely ruined and is totally unwatchable for anyone?
Well, the Internet doesn't just do that with jokes; it also does it with ideas. People find a cool thing that they like, and they repeat it because they want to show off how cool and clever they are and get some residual credit. But because they don't understand the idea in the first place, it just ends up getting ruined. For example ...
The "Manic Pixie Dream Girl"
In 2007, Nathan Rabin coined the term "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" to describe Kirsten Dunst's "psychotically chipper" character in Elizabethtown, whom we can only pray was named "Elizabeth." Rabin said that she was just the latest version of a weird trope movies use: female characters with no depth beyond being "quirky" and no purpose to the story other than helping the male character loosen up and be free through the power of sex magic.
Here's an example from a movie that people have actually seen.
He was totally right, too. These characters show up famously in movies like Garden State, Sweet November, and Enchanted. But my favorite example is probably from Doctor Who, in which longtime companion Clara Oswald actually says: "I don't know where I am. It's like I'm breaking into a million pieces, and there's one thing I remember. I have to save The Doctor." It's important to have a purpose in life, I guess.
"Look at all my agencyyyyyyyy!!"
It was a neat observation. And why it's an issue was actually summed up pretty perfectly by Natalie Portman herself:
"I appreciate that people are writing characters that are interesting and unusual, rather than some bland female character as the girlfriend in a movie, but when the point of the character in this movie is to, like, help the guy have his arc, that's sort of the problem, and that's why it's good that they're talking about it, because it certainly is a troubling trope."
There's just one problem: The Internet is super dumb.
How We Ruined It
The biggest misunderstanding surrounding Rabin's criticism is that it describes any kooky female character. That's why Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby and Maria Rainer in The Sound of Music have been called "Manic Pixie Dream Girls." You may as well say that Sally Albright from When Harry Met Sally is one, too. And Marge Gunderson from Fargo, because she's got a funny accent. Or you could acknowledge that giving a female character some distinguishing traits is actually just what writing is.
For Pete's sake.
Imagine the person who thinks like this. They read blog posts, pick out buzzwords, excitedly repeat them all day, and then confuse that with actual thought. They don't actually care about context or nuance so much as they do gathering trend-credit for using this shiny new term. "Belle from Beauty And The Beast?" they ask sweetly. "Ever notice how she has fun that one time and let helps Beast grow as a person? Why, she's nothing but a stupid Panic Mixie Dream Person!"
Incidentally, this is exactly why Rabin apologized for inventing the term. His idea had been murdered by stupid people.
By far my favorite type of stupidity is when someone doesn't understand a satirist. That's why I frequent the blog Literally Unbelievable, which aggregates social media posts made by people who think The Onion is a real news site. It's not, by the way; The Onion is a website for jokes.
This didn't really happen.
How We Ruined It
If the definition of a "meme" is a deceptively simple concept that gets repeated endlessly and instinctively regardless of context or thought, then "It's satire" is probably the most popular meme ever. Now, there are a lot of hot-button examples I could use in this entry. I could talk about comedians being murdered over offensive jokes. Or I could talk about the phenomenon of hipster racism, in which dudes who look a lot like me think that they can get away with saying racist and homophobic stuff just because they're doing it "ironically." But instead I'm going to talk about something far more important: Starship Troopers.
You already knew that Starship Troopers was a satire, because any time somebody mentions this movie, they follow it up with an explanation of how nobody understands that it's a satire with a glint in their eye that, if you zoom in, is actually the concept of irony dying in a house fire. This is a movie in which the heroes dress in actual Nazi SS uniforms and high school teachers explain "the failure of democracy." The movie uses satire the way an eight-year-old uses curses when her mother is at the grocery store. Everybody gets that this movie is a satire. Everybody.
The insufferable arrogance at the center of every "It's satire!" claim is that people who disagree with you just don't get it. I "get" Starship Troopers and I like it a lot, but a lot of other people "get" the movie and happen to hate it. That's fine. "Satire" is not a defense of shittiness. It has nothing to do with quality at all.
The reality is that Starship Troopers is a fun, dumb movie with some clever bits thrown in to make you feel less guilty about what you're enjoying, like Flintstones Vitamins in a bowl of Lucky Charms (don't try that, it's no good). That's fine. But if you want to talk about actual brilliant satire, then just put in Robocop.
Or just put in Robocop because it's fucking Robocop.
The Bechdel-Wallace Test
In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel wrote a strip of her comic Dykes To Watch Out For that included an observation about movies. She pointed out how rare it is for two female movie characters to have a conversation that isn't about a man (which is actually rooted in an observation borrowed from Virginia Woolf). Here's that strip:
The magic is that it's so simple. "Two girls talk" isn't this crazy-high bar for feminine empowerment, and it seems like it should be pretty easy to achieve. So the simple fact that so few movies meet that comically low standard is crazy. If you actually limited yourself to only seeing those kinds of movies, then you wouldn't be able to go see anything. That is, in fact, the joke. Now I've explained it and it's dead, so sorry about that. But before just now, it was a pretty good one.
How We Ruined It (Before I Did Just Now By Explaining It To You. Again, Sorry)
In some corners of the Internet, the Bechdel-Wallace Test has supplanted the MPAA as the end-all, be-all judgment of cinematic progress. Cosmopolitan says that it's the best metric for determining if a movie is feminist. Some Gawker writers have speculated over whether it's ever okay for a movie to fail it.
The problem is that once you use the joke as litmus test instead of just a general observation about movies, it stops working. Scary Movie features a woman getting plastered to the ceiling in semen but still technically passes, while Boys Don't Cry, which was directed by Kimberly Peirce and stars Hilary Swank as a trans man, fails. The use of the word "test" in the name (which, I'll note, doesn't appear in the original comic) is misleading, because it implies that we're getting some kind of meaningful results from this joke. But figuring out what a movie means is always a crazy complicated discussion; here are 9,000 words about whether Gone Girl is feminist, and here are 9,000 more on fucking Twilight.
Good words, too. Not Twilight words.
Part of the reason this particular topic has gotten so popular and trendy over the past decade or so is because it's really goddamn complicated. That's why people want a simple test. It seems like an easy shortcut. Which is why even when people admit that the Bechdel-Wallace Test isn't the end-all, be-all of feminism in film, their next step is to try and create another test. The Mako Mori Test (inspired by Pacific Rim -- one of main touchstones of modern feminism) tries to distill "Is this woman a well-written character?" down to a simple three-pronged checklist. Because why use 9,000 words to explore an interesting idea when you can distill the subject down to a simple, binary yes or no?
Great jokes jog your brain and let you re-explore your world with perspective. Bechdel's strip does exactly that. So stop using it as an excuse not to.
"Privilege" is a weird concept to wrap your head around. Particularly for me. I'd say that I got the short end of the stick when it comes to privilege, since as a straight white educated American cisgender white dude, I have literally all of it. "I was born with almost every advantage there is?" I cry through a veil of tears and snot, "Then who do I blame for what a piece of shit I am?"
Surely, this is someone else's fault.
And that's where the "first-world problems" meme came from. People realizing that their problems (or other people's problems) were small in the grand scheme of things. It's good to have perspective. The human brain seems designed to forget that the world is far bigger than our immediate surroundings, and it's good to force ourselves to remember that sometimes.
How We Ruined It Forever
Mentioning first-world problems occasionally is something approaching social consciousness and acknowledgement of a larger world. But right now, we have an entire community of people celebrating how rad their lives are under the guise of advancing some kind of clever social justice movement. What was the point of this tweet?
That's not a first-world problem. That's an Arianna Huffington Problem. That's an excuse to talk about your helicopter ride. I don't even know what the hell that is. Good for you, getting to ride in that helicopter, I guess. I hope that I some day get to ride in a helicopter. It's a total blast in Metal Gear Solid.
People love remixing things, and people love repeating things with the bare minimum contribution so that they can take credit. But not every idea works as a meme. Not every idea should be endlessly screamed by the anonymous masses of Twitter and Facebook. I'm just saying that we should try to be more responsible with ideas, especially when they aren't ours. Though I don't know why I'm even bothering, because we'll never, ever stop.
The internet has taken some good concepts and, in ways only the internet can, has grown them into some horrible epidemics. Which brings us to the proliferation of the bleached butthole as seen in 5 Terrible Things We Only Know Because Of The Internet. However, there is one group that has not had their image tarnished by the internet. Yet. Check out some manic pixie goth chicks in 5 Goth Women Of Film(And Why We Love Them).
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