pop culture

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Nonflict.

Rachel Manija Brown on story without conflict.

I’m always really (a-har) conflicted by these sorts of posts, because on the one hand I agree—I love quiet scenes and cutrainfic and so on—but, on the other, I think in some respects they sell the notion of “conflict” itself short. Yes, there is an over-emphasis on superficial external conflict (e.g. violence, arguments) in a lot of media nowadays, see pretty much every action movie, for example. But, also, I think it’s possible for subtler forms of conflict to exist within a narrative, including metatextual conflict between the narrative and itself, the narrative and other works, or the narrative and the reader.

Brown mentions the “secret garden” genre, for example, as one that tends to be without conflict. But I’d argue that the attraction of the secret garden is, in fact, rooted in a metatextual conflict in this latter sense. That is, it’s the conflict between the reader’s unfulfilled desire for their own secret garden and the fact that the protagonist has one that the reader, by the very action of reading, intrudes upon and eventually takes over (by subsuming the book, and thus the garden, into their own memories).

Curtainfic, meanwhile, is a work that’s almost always in conflict with its own source material. A solid third of all fics tagged curtainfic on the AO3, for example, are in the Supernatural fandom, with the next biggest chunk coming from the MCU. These are not canons known for their fluffy domesticity! As someone who loves a curtainfic, and particularly loves its Villains Out Shopping subtrope, I can assert the fun in both reading and writing these scenarios is definitely in exploring the conflict their quiet mundanity presents against either the canon or the characters. (See also: why villain/antihero/antagonist fandoms tend to be full of “fluffy” memes.)

Like Roadhog and his pachimari.

For another, related, example, see any time anyone trots out kishōtenketsu as a “story without conflict” trope… and then proceed to give a handful of examples all of which include some kind of conflict. The fact that the conflict is usually framed as the story presenting contrasting narrative elements, with the conflict between them occurring within the reader’s head as a kind of dialectic—as opposed to direct “on the page” action—does not, in fact, actually mean the narrative is “without conflict”. But, like. Good luck getting anyone to admit that.

“But, Alis!” you might be thinking. “What you’re describing is contrast, not ‘conflict’. You’ve even used the word multiple times!”

Yeah. And what I’d argue is that, in almost all circumstances, when people talk about “conflict” in the context of narrative what they actually mean to talk about is contrast (a.k.a. tension). Two random characters having a fight is conflict, but it isn’t narratively interesting unless you’re one of those people who nuts to mechanized descriptions of fight scenes.1 Two characters having a fight over differing ideologies, on the other hand, is interesting, particularly when each side has some valid points and the audience themselves is engaged with attempting to determine who to root for and why. This is also why so many “popcorn villains” are so flat and kinda bullshit.

Think about, say, Strickland in Shape of Water, for example, who is pretty much the epitome of an uncompelling antagonist. This isn’t the fault of Michael Shannon, who does great; it’s because in the context of the narrative Strickland is just a one-note bad guy. He’s a bigot who hates the fish man! Okay, well… good on him, I guess. But the reality is Strickland could be replaced by literally anything else—including nothing at all—and the film’s conflict would remain the same. Why? Because the conflict in the film isn’t “oh no gubba gonna getcha fish, gurl”. It’s “ahaha in every other story like this the fish guy is either evil, or dies, or turns human at the end”. It’s a metatextual conflict, in other words, between the audience and their expectations for the genre. This is also, incidentally, why I thought the film was kinda meh; because I read a lot of monster romance, I have no genre expectation of the narrative going in any way other than “girl fucks fish man”. Because that’s how monster romances work!2 Which means the actual narrative itself felt empty in the “superficial conflict no contrast/tension” way.3 Also, the romance was really flat. Like, really flat.

I did look pretty, though. So… there’s that I guess.4 Also, it won a bunch of Oscars, which just goes to show why narrative conflict is such a minefield, since it leans so heavily on being able to anticipate the mental/emotional states of your audience…

  1. No judgement, you do you. ^
  2. Except when they’re, like, “boy fucks fish man”, or “girl fucks eldritch horror”, or “enby shares non-sexual intimacy with demon”, or whatever. ^
  3. Also see: the Obvious Hints that Sally is also, in fact, a fish monster. Meaning the story isn’t even “girl fucks fish man”, it’s “fish woman fucks fish man” which… eeeeeh. ^
  4. Though don’t get me started on the whole “sassy Black best friend with deadbeat husband” and “tragic queer uncle” tropes because, ugh. What is it about del Toro films and throwing intersectionality under the goddamn bus? ^
2018-07-27T14:30:20+00:0023rd September, 2018|Tags: fandom, fanfic, film, pop culture, writing, xp|0 Comments

Six twenty-nine.

Interesting take on what happened to The Simpsons, from someone who binge-watched all 629 episodes.

For the record, I don’t agree with their “turning the show character-driven killed it”, if only because a lot of the “Golden Age” Simpsons episodes were extremely character driven.1 You can’t tell me episodes like “Bart Sells His Soul” (7×04) or “And Maggie Makes Three” (6×13) or even “The Crepes of Wrath” (1×11) aren’t “character-driven” and/or focused on emotional catharsis. And the thing is… I couldn’t even really tell you a single one-off joke from any of those episodes. But I can recall every one of the climaxes: Bart’s growing wonder watching his “soul” flutter down in front of him, and his subsequent heart-to-heart with Lisa; “DO█IT FOR███ █████HER████████”; Bart suddenly speaking French to the policeman.

What I do think is that the Golden Age was better at integrating serious—or even emotionally complex—plotlines in around the jokes, which I think is also why people tend to remember the jokes and the plots separately. I mean, which episode is Lisa’s “I AM THE LIZARD QUEEN!” even from? I had to look this one up; after some thinking I was pretty sure the immediate context was the Duff Gardens episode, but… what episode even was the Duff Gardens episode?

Well, as it turns out, it’s “Selma’s Choice” (4×13), which is the one about Selma wanting to have a baby.2 And here is I think the real crux of the difference the Golden Era and the post-Golden Era. In the post-Golden Era, the plot would’ve been about the Simpson family visiting Duff Gardens, because someone thought the concept of “Duff Gardens” was lulz in-and-of itself. But in the Golden Age, the presence of Duff Gardens as a vehicle for humor is framed in the context of the broader, and (crucially) completely mundane set-up; an older woman struggling with her relationship to the social pressure for her to have children.3 In other words, what makes the Golden Age golden was its ability to successfully hide its humanist dramatic elements underneath its one-shot set-piece jokes. It was a clever (and humanist) show that worked very hard to convince its audience it was stupid (and nihilistic) and, for the most part, it succeeded. The fact that it eventually succumbed to its own version of Flanderization on a meta-level—making its jokes “jokier” and its humanist elements more glurgy—is both a bummer but, also, not surprisingly for a show that, if it were a person, would be old enough to vote.

All that being said, I do totally agree that the show massively, massively fucks over Lisa…

  1. Also, I’m sorry, but if you think the “Australian” episode was in any way anything other than awful your takes don’t count. I don’t make the rules. ^
  2. You remember it too, now, don’t you? She adopts Jub-Jub the iguana at the end. ^
  3. This is also why, for example, I think “The Crepes of Wrath” works in a way “Bart vs. Australia” doesn’t, even though they’re both technically Golden Age and have the same kind of “lawlz foreigners so weird amirite fellow Americans?” set-up. Under the jokes, “Crepes” is fundamentally about Bart’s own insecurity over his intelligence—a common theme in older Simpsons episodes, where Bart is shown to be smart, just not academic–as well as Homer’s relationship to his troubled-and-troublesome son. Meanwhile, “vs. Australia” is… I don’t even fucking know, man. It is its one-shot joke premise, all the way down. ^
2018-07-27T14:30:19+00:0022nd September, 2018|Tags: pop culture, tv|0 Comments

Castle Rock was like… the uncanny valley of Stephen King. Just that weird combination of familiar and not-quite-right, blended enough to be off-putting. And not in the way the show runners intended.

Like, I didn’t… dislike it, exactly, but it’s just odd seeing something all dressed up in the trappings of King while being very fundamentally Not King.

2018-09-17T08:00:28+00:0015th September, 2018|Tags: pop culture, sff|0 Comments

Digital preserve.

Video games are both an artform and a cultural artifact, which means there are various libraries out there that preserve them. So, yes. It really is someone’s job out there to collect every single game for the Fairchild Channel F and ensure they stay playable. So far so good.

Except… fast forward twenty-plus years, to the advent of online gaming. Of the sort that runs on proprietary tech held on private servers run by the game publisher. Who then shuts them down. And in this world of overreaching copyright (cough DMCA cough)… how do you preserve that? And, more importantly, as a third party, should you have a right to?

2018-03-14T07:34:03+00:0021st August, 2018|Tags: gaming, law, pop culture, tech, video games|2 Comments

Our school didn’t teach sax.

Interesting look on the lasting legacy of Lisa Simpson, arguably the cartoon avatar of Millennial social justice angst, as well as Yeardley Smith, the woman behind the voice. [Content warning for some parts of the article, that deal with Smith’s disordered eating and self-image issues.]

One of the things that kind of stands out to me, as someone who grew up watching The Simpsons (when I first saw it I was nine, i.e. one year older than Lisa and one year younger than Bart) but who hasn’t seen a single episode since the 90s is that, well… I have seen almost all of the episodes referenced in the article. Take that as you will, I suppose.

2018-03-05T11:38:34+00:0019th August, 2018|Tags: culture, pop culture|2 Comments

Morality plays.

For example, the idea that Captain America as presented in the MCU (or any character in big, colourful PG rated popcorn flick for that matter) is a new, revolutionary, un-problematic kind of hero is how we saw so many people unblinkingly and uncritically swallow ‘The Winter Soldier’ as some politically rebellious masterstroke of leftist defiance when it was actually a very careful, very safe, very neoliberal script that took tepid aim at something everyone agrees is bad (the Patriot Act) without offering any substantial commentary or praxis and while *still* stroking off American exceptionalism and perpetuating the inherently reactionary message of superhero vigilantism.

That’s my take at least. So why should I accept that people who like Steve Rogers are “better” and “more moral” than people who like [hot villain of the week], when I think that the entire thematic foundation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is suspect and against my personal politics?

cephiedvariable on “ethical consumption”.

Literally the next line in this post is “I’m not saying ‘The Winter Soldier’ is bad” which is why I’m cutting the quote off here, because actually I think The Winter Soldier is bad, not just as a moral statement (see above), but also as a film (I literally watched it while trapped on a plane with unlimited free alcohol and nothing else to do and it still bored me so badly I spent the entire running time playing Minecraft on my phone… and I don’t even really like Minecraft), and also as part of the terminal disease of soulless hypercapitalist paint-by-numbers superhero franchises taking over literally every film genre (and thus not making room for other works).

I mean, don’t get me wrong, you’re still “allowed” to like The Winter Soldier—I like tonnes of shitty and/or objectively bad things—only that this whole Kids These Days fandom nonsense of busting a gut trying to prove your “favs” are “unproblematic softboi cinnamon rolls uwu” is really kinda… not good for a lot of reasons, including your long-term critical thinking skills. You can like Captain America all you want but Captain America1 is the literal physical incarnation of violent, post-colonialist neoliberal attitudes including-but-not-limited to American exceptionalism, Pax Americana, and the Truman Doctrine (and its descendants)—all of which have served to cause untold suffering to millions across the world for two-ish generations—and deluding yourself into believing tepid, rightwards-Overton-window-shifting “critiques” a la literally anything offered up in an MCU film are The Discourse is a train ticket straight to Centrist Apologeticsville, not actually Progressive Revolutiontown. Which, yanno. Is more-or-less oligarchic capitalism’s working-as-intended model, because Mammon forbid the Kids These Days figure out what real revolution looks like (hint: it’s not about what backpack you wear to ComicCon).

None of which is to say that progressive praxis in media consumption isn’t A Thing, only that y’all gotta start being a bit more self-reflective about honest with yourselves about when you’re doing it versus when you’re not. And stop using that shit as a Moral Cudgel to beat other kids over the head with in shipping wars on Tumblr because, trust me. That shit? That shit ain’t doing anyone any good, least of all you…2

  1. Or, in fact, most superheroes for that matter. ^
  2. In other news: gods I miss the days of metafandom. Whatever happened to you? ^
2018-08-06T07:47:43+00:004th August, 2018|Tags: culture, fandom, pop culture|Comments Off on Morality plays.