Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Point of Saturation

Not every slacker is a nerd, but the slacker who writes the Slacker's Guide to School certainly is. "Nerd" in the sense that we use the term is different from "nerd" the way you may be thinking. It's a label we've been trying to rescue from our detractors, the same as we've tried to do with "man," "Democrat," "Christian,"  and "healthcare" with varying degrees of success.

One feature of nerds, in our parlance, is that we can be unironically, unambiguously enthusiastic about things. So says John Green, and he's one of our official spokespersons. A side-effect of this kind of devotion, though, is that total immersion in something is likely to leave some residue. The word steeped refers both to the influence of something like a teabag, and of something like history. Generally speaking, if there's enough of it in there, it's going to change things.

Despite the feigned outrage I try to profess at school, I'm a libertarian where so-called adult content is concerned. I didn't initially realize that movies like Clerks and Dogma had a lot of bad language in them, because I more or less talked this way when I was with my friends in college. I never noticed that Pulp Fiction had a lot of violence until I considered watching it with my kid. When I was in high school, almost every R-rated movie had a nude scene, and I never really complained. As such, I've always felt that parents who blame the movies their kids watch or the video games they play for bad behavior were intentionally ignoring more fundamental problems.

That said, I do see a significant difference between experiencing something and becoming immersed in it. Some years ago, my wife pointed out that the MUSICAL (such an important word, in Berks County at least, is granted special treatment--see also: LORD and OREO) at my school seemed to be rewiring the brains of my students. When you consider the percentage of themselves that students invest in their school MUSICAL, it makes a lot of sense. Even compared with sports, rarely in school life is a young person asked to expend such time, money, ankle integrity, vocal nodules, even melanin (students, at my school at least, are given tanning coupons if their skin-tone doesn't look too good in their costumes under the lights) on something that their school boards participate in. Because of this, you'll sometimes see the ethic of the show also play out in real life.

Here are some examples from shows that I've been involved with, or just watched (once you've noticed this phenomenon, you'll see it in other shows as well):
- West Side Story - Even in our racially monochromatic school, students fell into a Sharks vs. Jets mentality. The factions eventually healed, but were palpable during the show's run and rehearsals.
- 42nd Street - One of a number of shows where the ingĂ©nue comes in and usurps the sadder-but-wiser (see also:washed up, used up, rid-hard-put-away-wet) established character.
- Lil' Abner - No one except Daisy, the female main character, really wants her to find true love. She spends the entire show fighting the entire cast, and scheming against her supposed love interest. Meanwhile, they also battle against her, while her love interest sings songs about how much he enjoys his bachelorhood.
- Seussical - There aren't any especially horrible villains in this show, so everyone more or less gets along. The same, I understand, is true of the Muppets, a discussion of which you'll find here.
- Beauty and the Beast - The cast is divided into factions (townspeople, "objects" in the Beast's house, silly girls and Gaston, etc.) but the one thing everyone, including Belle, could agree on was that the Beast needed to get his act together and be a better man--at the business end of a pitchfork if necessary.

In each of these shows, the life choices, biases, conflicts, and overriding plot lines permeated students' lives. Participants began to alter their dealings with each other and with the world based on a theater piece. The fact that they're all an emotional pressure-cooker by this time only enhances the effect. I'm told that this also leads to lots of relationships formed, and relationships ended (see also: here).

It can happen with books, and TV shows, and video games as well. This observation is not in conflict with the libertarian views mentioned above, because it's not the existence of these art-forms and experiences that lead to problems. It is the process of inhaling them so deeply that they become a part of you.

Parents and other adults need to tread carefully with this, though. The ethic we see on the surface may not be what holds the power to change a person. Stories with horrible things happening to young people (see also: Holes, and The Hunger Games) may seem dangerous, but careful readings of these books show that the overriding ethic is not contained in the premise. The adversity is very upsetting in these stories, but the characters find a way to triumph over it. Learning to struggle through the worst of circumstances is actually pretty basic teenager stuff.

It is for this reason that I decided to finish reading Twilight. I worried that I was falling into the same trap that has caused parents to want to ban Harry Potter for its witchcraft and Looking for Alaska for its pornography. I feel strongly that you don't get to denounce a book for having a negative effect on your kids, or all kids, if you haven't actually read it. And so, I finished Twilight, even though many of the people on my wife's Facebook page worried that by doing so I risked becoming sort of a pansy.

The experience did not reverse my sense of being troubled on behalf of any serious fans of this series. If the abstinence porn thing just does it for you, fine. If you're really not bothered by the serious lack of writing chops, plot development, and depth of characters, fine. That said, I worry about people, especially young girls, who let themselves become altered these books--especially the subtle alterations mentioned above with MUSICALs. Students in those shows didn't intend for the experience change them, but it did.

By the way, it's possible for men who read Twilight to become similarly affected, but I will continue use the pronouns as they exist in the book just to help to keep things straight. By "straight," I mean nothing related to sexual orientation. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Ahem.

Twilight is a problem if it leads you to believe:
  • It's okay for men to push women around if:
    • the woman is unreasonably refusing to get into the car.
    • he's just kidding around.
    • the woman wants to use her hands, and he doesn't want her to.
  • Watching a girl while she sleeps is sweet, especially if he wants to date her, especially if she talks in her sleep, especially if she talks about him.
  • Driving too fast is okay if he's immortal, even if his passengers aren't.
  • It is sometimes a guy's girlfriend's job to talk him out of killing people.
  • Breaking into a girl's house and digging through her laundry hamper to find her keys is romantic.
  • Physical attractiveness is a great prophylactic for the consequences of acting like a complete asshat-- gorgeous people have more rights than everyone else.
  • Being consistently nice is optional, if on occasion you are especially nice.
  • If she's too slow a hiker, he should just carry her. Against her will if necessary.
  • A significant age-gap isn't a problem if he looks like he's the appropriate age.
  • Girls should make their father's dinner, even if:
    • she's not eating.
    • she's already eating. 
    • he's not all that hungry.
Books that come in a series are particularly powerful (and potentially dangerous) because they last so long. The first Twilight book came out in 2005, and the final movie hasn't happened yet. That means that we're talking about a seven-year-and-counting influence.

Twelve-hundred words into this, and it seems like I've back to suggesting that we start banning books. I'm not, really. With the abundance of electronic and non-electronic media available to us now, it's not necessary to restrict indulgences, even over-indulgences. What is necessary is to make sure that there's enough other stuff in there to dilute things a bit. Like other issues of moderation, this may be taken on a daily, weekly, or other basis as works best for the individual and the situation. That's why MUSICALs last only three months, and movies only two and a half hours, and books a week or two--I know, some people read an entire book in a night (nerds mostly). Finding a way to get something else in your life, inserted between binges of unironic, uncomplicated devotion, may be the metaphysical equivalent of yo-yo dieting. However, even yo-yo dieting could prevent a situation where the Discovery Health Channel cuts someone out of his house and carries him out with a crane. Sporadic restraint is at least better than no restraint at all.


  1. Please write a book... please?

  2. Thanks, ElzTlb. If nothing else, it would make reading these 1500 word bloated entries a little more handy.
    Thanks for commenting!