Superheroes & Social Justice: How Megafranchises Diversified the Blockbuster

On Friday November 20th, Netflix released the entire first series of a new TV show, Jessica Jones. The main character of Jessica Jones is naturally a woman named Jessica Jones, a private detective with superhero powers who is coming to terms with a stressful ordeal she experienced shortly before we meet her. Her nemesis is an abusive former lover who can control the minds of others to make them do anything he wants, which is how he managed to form a relationship with her in the first place. She is therefore a rape victim, and sees it as her duty to stop the man from doing the same to anyone else. Since the man can control minds, she has trouble with society actually believing that he exists or did anything wrong, so the rape metaphor continues, and the main plot of the series is how Jessica can prove his existence and somehow stop him. Jessica is helped by her foster-sister, her black lover Luke Cage, and her lesbian lawyer (Trinity from the Matrix). Jessica Jones therefore is a superhero story covering a very female storyline, led by women, and featuring further social minorities in the supporting cast. Further to the point, things do not go well for any white man that appears in the show. This makes Jessica Jones sound like the fan fiction of a Tumblr Social Justice Warrior, but it is important to remember that the show is actually a big budget, highly glossed superhero story. What is more important is that it is the TV expansion of a megafranchise,.

Yes, Jessica Jones is part of the megafranchise known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which includes all of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, as well the individual movies of Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and the like. Jessica exists in the same world as all those guys, and rumour has it she may meet them at some stage in the future (to talk about diversity in the Avengers, I guess). More specifically, Jessica Jones is part of a side project of the Marvel Megafranchise which focuses on street level crime in New York City. It started in April this year with Daredevil, followed by the recent Jessica Jones, next spring it continues with a Luke Cage series, then a few months later another hero (Iron Fist) gets a series. Once these four series have concluded, all four of these protagonists join together for a miniseries called The Defenders, and these guys will probably then move from TV to the movies to join up with the Avengers. So while the Jessica Jones series that was just released in November does tell a single story, the show itself is merely a cog in a giant machine that will be spewing out similar interlinked content for years to come, with little risk, as it is just part of a massively diversified Marvel portfolio. Therefore Jessica Jones could afford to take chances in its storytelling and character diversification that not many similar standalone big budget TV show possibly could. While Jessica Jones is not a movie blockbuster, it is blockbuster TV, and exists solely because of the acquired and future capital of the Marvel Megafranchise, and it is worth looking at how it and the other megafranchises are using their considerable power to promote diversity in mainstream media.

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I started thinking about this while one eye was on the TV, where Jessica Jones and Luke Cage shared a lover’s embrace, and my other eye was on my laptop, as I watched the newly released trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I risk accusations of both racism and sexism, but the fact is that they both feature love stories between a white woman and a black man. The Star Wars Megafranchise kicks off in a few weeks, and it has diversity written all over it. While characters from the old movies do appear, the main storyline focuses on new characters, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (David Boyega). Star Wars is therefore showing it has moved on from the original trilogy, which featured two women (in fairness, both held leadership positions), and one black man (again, in fairness it was Billy Dee Williams, the coolest black man around at the time) in the course of three movies. The prequel trilogy had more women (although most seemed to be pretending to be Natalie Portman), and one more black man (again, they went for the coolest black man around at the time: Samuel L. Jackson). It is commendable that the makers of the new Star Wars movies decided to correct these perceived wrongs, and they will go further next year when they release their first spinoff, Star Wars: Rogue One, which has a woman as the main character.

The Star Wars Megafranchise therefore has not even started yet, and is already shunning the traditional route of casting young handsome white men as the lead characters in the movies. The same cannot be said of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), despite its recent Jessica Jones social justice crusade. The MCU started in 2008, and still, after 12 movies, has yet to have a single movie about anything other than a white man (or superhero teams led by white men). Scarlett Johanssen has been in the background of a number of these films, as has the coolest black man available at the time (yep, Samuel L. Jackson again), but these characters merely served as bridges through the multiple movies rather than having real stories of their own. This is about to change when Marvel get around to releasing a Black Panther movie in 2018, about an African king who can harness the power of nature. In 2017 they will release a movie about a female superhero, Captain Marvel. So it will have taken them almost a decade to release a movie about about anything other than a super-powered white man. Jessica Jones can be seen as a way to achieve forgiveness for this, as well as a testing ground for what kind of female-centric stories that audiences will tolerate.

Finally, the last of the three main megafranchises, the DC Extended Universe, kicks off next year with Batman v Superman and was envisaged from the outset to produce a Wonder Woman movie as quickly as possible. This turns out to be in summer 2017, and they have already started producing their black superhero movie, Cyborg, which is released in 2020.

So, taking the output of all three megafranchises into account, there are five blockbuster movies coming out in the next five years that focus on superheroes other than white men. Add to this the Netflix TV shows, and you can see that there is definitely a trend emerging. While social equality has always been around in some shape or form, the past two years have seen a palpable change in attitudes towards such things as the gender pay gap, as there has been a persistent effort to keep this inequality in the limelight, to entrench it in the imagination to the extent that it becomes more than just a fleeting “cause of the day”. Hollywood blockbusters are not known for their diversity, and the Hollywood system of movie making is extremely conservative: spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a movie means that movie studios rarely will take chances, and stick instead to formulas, and characters, that have worked in the past.

The emergence of megafranchises within the studio system has changed this game a little, and there is room to take chances. Since the megafranchises entail a large series of interconnected but independent parts, no longer can the future of a franchise be put in jeopardy by a single bad movie in the series. If the next Captain America movie is terrible, this is irrelevant to the future of the other Avengers movies. Therefore in the individual movies that appear in-between the big group movies, it is definitely possible to tell stories that would be deemed financially risky by conservative investors if the movies were not part of such a grand, diversified portfolio that the megafranchises consist of. I am not implying that movies about black superheroes are funded due to Hollywood movie studios promoting diversity, but that they are far less risky under the protection of the megafranchise umbrella, and that the movie studios can therefore fund a $200m Wonder Woman movie and be impressed if it succeeds, but not too worried if it fails. In my least cynical terms: the megafranchises are giving diversity a chance, in as risk-averse a setting as possible in Hollywood. In my most cynical terms: the megafranchises don’t care about diversity, they just want to see if they can make money from it.

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They will definitely make money from all of the movies I have mentioned, but the real issue is what happens next: when the megafranchise umbrella is removed, will we be seeing anything other than white men leading other big movies? Well, I’ve told you already: Hollywood sees these superhero movies about women and black men as tests to see if such movies can make money, so it really depends on how successful movies like Captain Marvel and Black Panther are at the box office. Hollywood is not a social justice warrior, it’s a business: it knows that movies with handsome white men can make money, and therefore it favours these movies. In turn, movie writers know that movie studios like movies about white men, and therefore their screenplays will start from this building block. It’s a circle that can only be broken if a viable alternative is demonstrated to be successful, and the focus of any pro-diversity criticism of Hollywood should be on this aspect rather than current or recent output. Decent roles for women and minorities will not be found by simply criticising them with things such as the Bechdel Test, they must come from producing quality characters and storylines that revolve around those people, and this emanates from the screenwriting process.

If the diversity-infused megafranchise movies make money, the acceptance of a screenplay about women and minorities will be much easier in the Hollywood system, and therefore the future of diversity in Hollywood blockbusters has been democratised. The studios have found a way to make massive movies about something other than white men, with little financial risk, and are pumping these movies with every marketing resource used for traditional blockbusters. The question of whether this continues or not is solely down to the success of these films, and of shows such as Jessica Jones, and not in analysing and complaining about what went before. If you want diversity in big movies, go see Captain Marvel, Black Panther, Cyborg, Wonder Woman and Rogue One when they are released, and hope that they are all good. Hollywood is a business that has no obligation but to make passable movies that they hope will make money, so there is absolutely no point in complaining about them in the hope they will one day see sense and enforce equal opportunities and affirmative action. They owe us nothing, but at least with the megafranchises they can explore whether or not they should listen to what the pro-diversity critics are saying. They have found a way to do it that suits everybody, and what happens next is up to the viewing public.

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The Power of the Binge

Binging is rarely looked upon as something to be proud of, but every time 13 hours of a show like House of Cards is dumped onto our Netflix playlists, suddenly all anyone can talk about online is how fast they got through the whole series. This of course happened in the last weekend of February, where Netflix ejaculated the whole third series adventures of Kevin Spaceys manoeuvring, conniving, murdering and most of all monologue-ing politician (now President) Frank Underwood into the peaceful living-room based habitat of their passive subscribers. The third series of House of Cards had been online a mere 9 hours before I got home from work that Friday, February 27th, yet already there were reviews online about “mid-season” shenanigans and even reviews of the shows final episode, and subsequently the series as a whole.

I had nothing to do that Friday night, so I decided that if I was to achieve nothing else that weekend, it would be the passive consumption of an entire season of high quality (production values anyway) TV. Resigned to the decision, I slipped off my work clothes, laid down on the couch in my underpants and did what Netflix told me to do: I checked out the new series of House of Cards. I’m not proud of it, but I shall boast about it anyway: I watched the entire season over that weekend. Season 3 of House of Cards is much like Seasons 1 and 2: slightly above average TV, but extremely well made. The series as a whole was interesting, but by far the most interesting aspect for me came right in the first episode, and had absolutely nothing to do with Kevin Spacey, or politics, or Washington skulduggery. What was interesting in that first episode is that after a brief check-in with President Underwood and his wife, the story then shifts to a supporting character, Doug Stamper, who had been Underwoods right hand man in Seasons 1 and 2. Injured at the end of the previous season, the first episode is spent mostly dealing with his isolated recovery from injury, and apart from the beginning and end of the hour long episode, the President barely gets a look-in. What is so interesting about it is that this structure of the opening episode of House of Cards Season 3 is only possible because every single person who is watching that episode has the ability to watch all subsequent episodes immediately afterwards.

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Traditional TV

Traditional, conventional TV shows are defined by their constraints. Television networks operate in a two-sided market where TV shows are used to attract eyeballs, and the precise details of the number and demographic make-up of these eyeballs are used to attract advertising money from anyone who wants to advertise during the commercial break of a TV show. In the US, which is where most of the shows anyone watches are produced, a TV drama such as a procedural cop show like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation will be reported as lasting for one hour, yet when you watch an episode on DVD or online, you will see that it actually barely lasts 45 minutes, meaning that if you watched this episode when you were supposed to, during its debut on TV where advertising revenue is greatest, more than 25% of what you were watching would have been commercials.

Writers, producers and directors of hour-long TV shows in the US know this of course, and therefore build the enforced pauses caused by ad breaks into the episodes. If you watch an episode of a 45 minute American TV show online, you can easily spot where the ad breaks would have been. In something like CSI, an interesting clue may be revealed, causing everyone to look at each other, and then the screen fades to black. After a few seconds, the show returns, showing the exterior of a different location, and we are back in business. In a show like CSI, which doesn’t require a massive IQ to enjoy, what will often happen then is a character will casually re-explain the plot thus far to someone else, just in case you forgot who you were while watching ads for Fast and the Furious 10 (or whatever godawful crap is advertised to people who watch CSI). This is done far more subtly in many shows, but the main point is that the revenue model behind the TV industry has always affected the plot and narrative structure of television shows.

I mentioned previously that the highest advertising revenue potential for a TV show exists during its premiere. This is a highly outdated metric, and has led to the death of many a fine TV show, but in any case it still exists to this day and is how the success or failure of a show is measured by TV Networks and advertisers. While many problems exist with this model, I find the main one is that due to the necessity of making sure an entire targeted audience is in the same place at the same time (in front of their TV’s) it requires the show to be played on a weekly basis, therefore staggering the entire series of up to 24 episodes over the course of many months. We are accustomed to the idea of waiting a week to watch the next episode of a TV show, but this too effects how an individual episode progresses, from a narrative point of view. Each individual episode works towards capturing the viewer within its world, and immersing him/her in its atmosphere. Even if the viewer can stay within this world through multiple ad breaks, the effect will certainly not last until the next week, where the viewer continues the series. This therefore means that every TV show under this revenue model has to designate a few minutes of its already constrained running time (<45 minutes) on building up this atmosphere again. This is the origin of pre-opening credits opening scenes which exist simply to re-acclimatise the viewer to the atmosphere of the show they are watching. Those cheesy CSI:Miami opening scenes with David Caruso arriving at a murder scene and delivering a terrible pun exist simply because anyone watching his show hasn’t seen him for a week and needs a reminder of who the hell he is.

It’s obviously difficult to tell a grand, overarching, nuanced narrative over several weeks in this set-up, and this also has an effect on the type of stories that can be told in traditional TV shows. If you ever wondered why a story can be introduced, explored, and resolved in the space of 43 minutes in a procedural American cop show, this is it: same characters, new disposable plot every week. All that is necessary to remember is a vague recollection of the characters, but they will reintroduce themselves at the beginning anyway.

 The Future

This, by and large, is how TV shows have been formulated since their inception in the middle of the 20th Century. The revenue model of the TV industry was a boon on creativity and innovation in storytelling (Twin Peaks being the obvious outlier), and only the eventual realisation by the industry that revenue could be obtained elsewhere, through pay TV channels, DVD sales and subsequently online streaming subscriptions did the makers of TV shows consider that the way things were always done was not the way that they always had to be. House of Cards is produced by Netflix, and will never be serialised on a TV network in any large advertising market, and this removes a lot of constraints to what its creators can do. Further constraints are alleviated by having all episodes available to viewers instantaneously. I mentioned earlier on that I was interested in the fact that so much of the opening episode of House of Cards Season 3 was spent on a supporting character, Doug Stamper. Just imagine this occurring in a highly anticipated traditional season opener, where little was learned about the main characters, and viewers would have to wait an entire week for the next episode. It simply wouldn’t happen, as advertisers and viewers alike wouldn’t be satisfied, and the only reason the people who make House of Cards can do it is purely because of the distribution and revenue structure of their show/product.

Any decent TV show presented to us in the past should be commended, as the makers had to deal with great constraints in order to deliver a quality finished product, but the success of House of Cards and its new online revenue model means that all of the traditional constraints of television storytelling will now be lifted, and the potential of television as a narrative device can truly be explored. An early mover in this department was the most recent series of Arrested Development, released entirely on Netflix in May 2013. The series was much maligned by fans of the show, yet in the near-future it will be viewed as a template for how to produce a binge-watchable show. Its creators knew their hardcore viewers would be finished watching the entire series mere hours after it would be uploaded onto Netflix, and therefore created a series that shifted the boundaries of what to expect from a show: each episode showed the same events of the overarching narrative from different perspectives, meaning events from episode 5 could replay in episode 7, from a different perspective, and change the viewers mind on what was actually occurring in the earlier episode. One binge-watch of the fourth season of Arrested Development is not enough to appreciate the scope of its creators accomplishments. The entire series is a very flawed successful circular reference, but must be applauded for its early attempts to play with the narrative potential made possible by its new distribution method. Interrupted constantly by ads, and subsequent episodes delayed by a week, such storytelling would be possible, and the same goes for much of the latest season of House of Cards. The possibility of binge-watching new TV shows through online streaming may have changed how we expect to watch TV, but also it will increasingly change the nature of the entertainment product we are consuming. That’s right, must-binge TV just became self aware.

It’s A Mad Mad Mad Men World

After having abandoned Mad Men about halfway through its 6th season a few years ago, I reasoned last week that a freezing January weekend was as good a time as any to give it another shot, especially since the show will end this spring and we’ll all soon find out what is to become of poor old Don Draper. I originally gave up the show because it had lost the atmosphere of the first few seasons, and by the middle of Season 5 had become a parody of itself. It turned out, putting a pin in Season 6 and returning to it later over this past week was beneficial, so much so that I am actually looking forward to new episodes this April. It’s decent TV after all, it’s very well made, and its meticulous attention to detail is admirable. One of these details stuck with me more than others however. In the last episode of Season 6, Don Draper at the zenith of his alcoholism hides his drinking by pouring his Canadian Club into a mug at his office. It’s a colourful, psychedelically designed mug and is therefore one that the dour old fashioned 1950s man Don Draper has no business possessing. He knew it too, as he grimaces at this mug as the camera lingers upon it, before he takes one more gulp. The noticeable mug of course bears the logo of the newly rebranded company (Sterling Cooper and Partners) he now works for, and this grimace of course is meant to symbolise both his distaste for his current lifestyle and also his queasiness at his position in the restructured advertising agency. It serves a point therefore, both physically and thematically, but the camera lingers a bit too long on this mug for me to think anything else than they want me to go online and buy it. Continue reading

Restricting the Cosmos

I didn’t take any science subjects in school, which is something I regret more and more as I get older. In my high/secondary/whatever school, geography was considered a science, and I took that as my mandatory science requirement instead of biology, chemistry or physics. While geography in an abstract sense is interesting, the subject itself is not so much: different types of rocks, glaciers moving, rivers moving stuff. It’s ok, but not especially fascinating. As I mentioned, I regret not taking any advanced science courses, as I see more and more that there is a big gap in my education when it comes to such things the periodic table of elements, species classification and generally how stuff works. I have tried to rectify this in my adult life by reading a lot of popular science books, mostly with regard to physics. After reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, I went on to a few Stephen Hawking books, became interested in quantum physics and went on to some Brian Greene and Roger Penrose . At around this time I hit a wall with popular physics books, as no one out there really compares to Stephen Hawking when it comes to explaining complex theories in a simple yet interesting way. Most popular science books are an absolute chore, and the main reason for this is that they are written by academics, whose basic job is to bore people into accepting them as an authority on a subject.

A few years ago I was about to start another dull Brian Greene book, and then discovered that it was the tie-in to a TV documentary series he had done on the topic. I downloaded it (legally), took in the information passively in a fraction of the time I would have spent reading, and never looked back. Since then, I have been relying on documentaries to supplement my lack of scientific expertise. Physics documentaries in particular are a rare beast, as given how complex the concepts in modern physics are, computer animated graphics are required every few seconds in order to communicate even the least important idea. Therefore it was exciting to hear that Fox TV and National Geographic were funding a new big-budget version of Cosmos, to debut in spring 2014. The original Cosmos, with renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan narrating the vastness of space and time, is the absolute gold standard in communicating complex science effectively to a large, diverse audience. It was such an institution that it has been shown in physics classrooms around the world for almost 35 years, despite our understanding of its subject changing so much in that time period. An update was needed however in order to chart our advances in describing the universe, and the torch was handed to Neil deGrasse Tyson, a disciple and informal student of Sagan, who takes us through space and time with the help of blockbuster special effects and thousands of years of cumulative scientific progress.

Tyson is such a capable host that after the first episode I looked him up and found it hard to believe that he was actually an academic: I was convinced he was an actor. He does a good job of simplifying the material and also making it interesting and relevant for the viewer. The producers of this version of Cosmos however decided to expand the scope of the material, so in addition to describing the formation and vastness of the known universe, they include discussion on the process of evolution. This was always going to be a problem, given that this is an American documentary and a significant minority of Americans reject evolution, and are creationists who believe in the idea of a Grand Design by some sort of eternal Creator. Cosmos is an expensive, mass-marketed blockbuster series, and therefore can’t afford to isolate any part of its audience and must dance a fine line between the two views. Tyson does just that in the first episode, mentioning evolution as something that is “still controversial to this day”. In the second episode he bravely (and surprisingly to me) goes further and directly confronts the creationists to try and win them to his side. He spends a large portion of the episode attempting to debunk the seminal intelligent design argument that the human eye is so complex and intricate, it is impossible that it is the result of chance improvements that an evolutionary process would suggest. With irreducible complexity seemingly destroyed as a logical argument, Tyson then goes on a passionate rant about how evolution is more than just theory. His efforts are noble, but the damage had already been done.

It had finally come to this. After years laughing at those idiot Americans across the Atlantic passing law after law that rejected the theory of evolution, they finally made their way into scientific debate. In contrast to Tyson and Cosmos’s view of debunking creationism with their second episode, in my opinion this was the moment of acceptance for intelligent design. The fact that the production team felt they needed to address the issue of creationism in a serious, educational documentary gives the movement the legitimacy that no law in any hick town nor state can give. If this iteration of Cosmos is to achieve the legacy that its predecessor had, classrooms around the world for the next few decades will see the same frustrated, highly educated man defending a perfectly scientific and falsifiable* theory such as evolution against a popular view of an outspoken element of society at a certain time. This is not science, and it is not educational. It simply shows that political bullying can get any message at all into the classroom. The producers of Cosmos knew what they were getting into when they signed on to produce the show for Fox, which is a network that panders to the right-leaning and often evolution-doubting sect of the United States. The producers were given a lot of freedom, and were allowed to get their message across, yet still were forced to address the creationist ideology as if it were a legitimate concern in the scientific world. Cosmos spent half an episode arguing against creationism, but in doing so acted as if creationism was a real scientific and falsifiable theory, which amounts to nothing but creationist propaganda.

I have yet to get past this second episode, but Cosmos may still prove a useful tool in understanding the universe. The invasion of politics into science is highly frustrating however, and if I watch subsequent episodes I will be viewing it more as entertainment rather than as something informative or educational: its credibility has been lost. Much better are Brian Cox’s BBC Documentaries on the same topic, starting with Wonders of the Solar System and most recently with Wonders of Life. In the three series, Cox describes the formation and future of the universe, and all life on Earth without one reference to any god, and it was all funded by UK taxpayers. If Cosmos is what we get from a US-based corporation afraid of alienating a small but powerful minority of the population, just imagine what a science documentary funded by US taxpayers would look like.


*Falsifiability is a fundamental characteristic of a scientific theory. In order to be considered a valid argument, a statement must be falsifiable: there must be a possibility to prove the statement/theory wrong. Creationism is based on faith and therefore is not falsifiable nor a valid scientific theory.

The Greatest Trick Facebook Ever Pulled….

Recently, Channel 4 in the UK aired a documentary chronicling the rise of video games, hosted by England’s best satirist, Charlie Brooker. There’s not a lot in How Videogames Changed The World for people who don’t think videogames are one of the best things ever. For one thing, Brooker can’t decide if he wants the show to be a serious discussion of the issue or just a comic nostalgia-fest for people who grew up with Ataris or SNES’s or PSOnes. So, interspersed with jokes about our mothers’ sexual exploits are genuine discussions about the treatment of women in videogames, violence, and how Street Fighter 2 changed the industry by requiring tactical thinking in a videogame for the first time. Not many people watched it for this however, most of us just watched it to see where our favourite childhood games would come in the ranking of most influential videogames, a countdown which moved the narrative forward. No one watching it nor involved in the making of it actually believed that videogames changed the world, it was merely an exploratory discussion of the topic, and a love-letter to the medium in general. This was how I viewed it up until around the 90 minute mark. In the last argument of the 97 minute show, a curveball is thrown that really made me sit up and wonder if videogames actually had changed the world. It was the so-simple-that-it’s-almost-profound idea that social media websites like Twitter and Facebook are really just Massively Multiplayer Online videogames played out on a grand scale.

I try to stay away from videogames, as ever since my earliest days of Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt on the Nintendo Entertainment System, I tend to get overly-obsessed with them very quickly. As a result of this, I have probably bought 10 games in the last 15 years. Nowadays I only get my fix from the FIFA and Grand Theft Auto Franchises, and many of you will remember my obsession with GTAV from early October, which highlights the severity of my addiction to the medium, however isolated. Videogames operate through a system of challenges and rewards. A challenge is posed, which the gamer overcomes. The gamer then feels the thrill of overcoming the challenge as well as whatever rewards system is involved within the game. This is the essence of why people play videogames: in no other medium are we constantly, consistently validated and congratulated for our accomplishments. Feeling unappreciated at work? Come home, lead a squadron of soldiers safely through the photorealistic D-Day Landing in Medal of Honour. Or maybe, just maybe, post something funny, or a flattering photo of yourself on Facebook and see how many likes/comments/shares you get?

If I am making an argument about Facebook being a medium of self-validation, it is necessary to go back to the self. The Facebook Self is a special domain. It is not you, it is your ‘profile’. You create this profile by carefully selecting information you want others to know about you, and pictures of yourself that you think best define who you are. I am not being cynical or sarcastic: it is perfectly natural when given the opportunity to represent yourself virtually that you wish to portray your ideal self, the one you think you are or want to be: the one that is closest to the You that lives with you in your head. A Facebook profile is thus an avatar that we use to navigate ourselves though the digital world. This avatar interacts with other avatars, it has opinions, and it can recommend things it likes to others who can see its activity. All of these actions can be validated instantly by other users, either through a simple ‘like’ or an actual comment. If you ever wondered why you are addicted to Facebook, the answer is here: it is the only place that your ideal, perfect self will ever be validated, and this can happen hundreds of times a day if you wish. The more you use it, the more validation you will get. Every argument, link, opinion or photo is posted by and endorsed by the avatar you created to represent who you are. If someone ‘likes’ that, then that is not only a validation for your You, but also the actual you. Traditional videogames rarely achieved such a transcendence in transporting the achievements of an avatar onto the confidence of the gamer in real life.

As with any MMOG, there are of course many different ways to play the game. It is possible to be passive, to observe, and to use the Facebook platform simply to communicate with friends. These people obviously have never played videogames, and are immune to the rewards system. Others play the game by recommending things like music, movies, food or political opinions. In this mode of the game, being first to mention the topic is pivotal in the rewards mechanism. Having someone share a link/song/movie trailer that you originally posted is the pinnacle of success, especially as it will include a mention of you as the finder of the content. A corollary of this type of player would be being the first person to announce a celebrity death or world event. Other players try and create content for their avatars to endorse. They write funny one-liners, they take photos, make videos, write blogs. Players achieve validation and earn rewards (likes/comments/shares) through getting noticed above all the other things that litter the newsfeed of his/her followers. All of these game modes are equally valid, in the same way that when you start playing Grand Theft Auto V you have the choice to engage in the story, play the multiplayer, or else simply drive around killing people. It really doesn’t matter in the end, it’s all just a game.

Videogames did change the world in that without generations of kids growing up with videogame systems and their rewards mechanisms, social networks like Facebook and Twitter would not be so prevalent. And anyone who does not think that these networks are important for the way this world works is absolutely delusional. Justin Bieber made millions of dollars simply by validating one out every thousand of his Twitter followers with a retweet. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was built on the back of Facebook. As with all of my videogame endeavours, I am thoroughly addicted to social networks. Like many of you who sit in an office at a computer for much of the day, I have a Facebook tab constantly open on my browser, in order to learn of new notifications. By posting this blog on Facebook I am of course attempting to communicate ideas which befit the ideal Me, but which the actual me would fall short on delivering in person (any validation is appreciated).  We create Facebook profiles and Twitter profiles to portray us, delivering a selection of carefully curated content that we think best represents us, and by others liking that content, they are actually liking us. It may sound sad and pathetic to put it in these words, but it is no more sad and pathetic than the rush you get from finally achieving three stars on that level of Angry Birds, finally defeating M. Bison in Street Fighter 2: Turbo, or getting retweeted by someone with one million followers. If you think about it, there is an upside. Stop worrying about the NSA stealing all your metadata: the person whose data they are stealing isn’t you anyway.

 

Fight the Dead, Fear the Living: Civil Inattention at the End of the World

As anyone who has reached the age of 30 can attest, the hangovers sure do not get better with age. What make these hangovers almost bearable is the existence of Netflix, and having the unbelievable power of limitless streamed TV shows and movies available while you lie on the couch and hate yourself. After a particularly heavy night last Saturday, my girlfriend and I dragged ourselves out onto the couch at around 2pm on Sunday, and started binge-watching The Walking Dead. The show revolves around a group of people struggling to survive a Zombie Apocalypse, but is far more interesting than that premise sounds. Zombies are slow and stupid, so within a series or two, the zombie threat somewhat stabilises as our survivors learn how to deal with them, and the focus of the show shifts to their interaction with other groups of survivors in this post-apocalyptic world. These interactions rarely end well, and usually involve as many deaths as a zombie attack would have yielded. Maybe I have seen too many post-apocalyptic movies in my lifetime, but I did not find this too shocking. My girlfriend, on the other hand, could not believe that people would be so ruthless to each other when they were all going through this nightmare zombie plague together. They were all human and should help each other survive, she said, why should they act so barbarically to each other? Now, as you may have noticed if you are a regular reader of this blog, I am not the type of person that hears a question and doesn’t at least pretend to know the answer.

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One of the main reasons people congregate together en masse is because more is accomplished when we work together. Human society only really emerged when groups of people stopped wandering around hunting, and made permanent residences where they farmed, growing their own food rather than relying on just killing animals to survive. This led to probably the greatest achievement of the human race, which was how our ancestors removed us from the food chain. When within the food chain, our ancestors survived day-to-day, constantly scavenging for food and living from meal to meal. This is how all other animals on this planet spend their lives. To most animals, the future is merely where the next meal is coming from: it would be pointless to imagine further than that, even if their brains had the power to do so. To us, outside of the food chain, we can imagine tomorrow, and next week, and even do things today that we hope will benefit us years from now. We go to university, invest in the stock market, and commit to a twenty year mortgage.  All of this is backed up by our faith in the power of laws and law enforcers to ensure that society will still be there when this future that we imagine actually occurs.

Further, and I will be blunt; people are not actually supposed to live as close together as we do now. More specifically, we are not supposed to interact so much with people who are not in our own immediate family. Often we forget that we are little more than animals with big brains, but animals nonetheless. Not many animals play well with others of the same species that are not part of their own community. Communities develop from the mixing of two or more families that learn to cooperate, and these communities do not react well to outsiders. This was the same with humans, yet over a period of thousands of years, technological and political advancement have led to the emergence of towns and cities. The idea of a city, with millions of perfect strangers living side-by-side on a daily basis is something that is extremely unnatural  in an evolutionary sense, and one that is unique to humans.

Think of yourself on an elevator when a stranger enters. You both pretend to ignore the fact that you don’t know each other and are trapped in an enclosed space for what can feel like an excruciating amount of time. If you put one of your homo-erectus ancestors in that space with a stranger for the same amount of time, only one of them would be coming out when the elevator doors open again. The awkwardness you feel in the elevator is a kickback to this: your primal urges indicating to you that the stranger is a threat to you. What human society has achieved over the millennia is the strength of will to ignore these urges, and trust that the other person will not harm you, that the hundreds of other people walking down the crowded street with you will not harm you, and will ignore you if you ignore them. This system is known as “civil inattention”, and is once again backed up by the existence of laws and a police force to step in and impose order if it all breaks down.

Back to zombies. I hopefully have conveyed above that two of the main lynchpins of the massively urbanised society are 1) that we have removed ourselves from the food chain and 2) that we can safely live amongst strangers. These advancements are backed up by a system of laws that ensure the safety of all of us in case some deviants may veer from the course of civilised behaviour. In the event of a zombie (or any other kind of) apocalypse, the first thing to disintegrate will be the mechanisms of the state that impose order. The police force and army are not trained to combat the undead, and therefore will be overrun and therefore join them in their quest for brains, swelling the ranks of the walking dead. This precipitates the breakdown of the very fabric of society. When thousands of zombies are baying for your flesh, it is fair to say that we are well and truly back in the food chain. Further, with the breakdown of organised society, no excess food is being produced anymore, and therefore any survivors of the apocalypse must once again scavenge for each meal, living from day-to-day, while at the same time escaping the hoards of zombies who only want to eat human flesh.

Humans are adaptable, however, and this is why we have survived. After a certain amount of time, any survivors will adapt to the situation and forge outposts for themselves, attempting to rebuild a sense of society. Small communities may emerge, but how will they react to outsiders? Any safe haven from the zombie threat has been hard won, and no one wants to give up ground, or share scarce resources. In essence, this reduces the human race to how we were a few hundred thousand years ago, to the level of an animal fighting for territory when confronted with a stranger that is not part of the settled community. Even if the outsider is harmless, it is impossible to ignore the threat, as the times are different and there is nothing to stop one overpowering the other and stealing possessions. What is most unsettling is that even if you don’t believe this, and you believe people would never resort to this, your best strategy for survival would be just to simply assume that everyone you meet will try to kill you and that it is up to them to prove you wrong. Civil inattention is therefore impossible and the collapse of society becomes a mutually detrimental equilibrium in a prisoners dilemma. Survival, from the clutches of zombies and outsiders alike, is the only future in such a world, and therefore thousands of years of our advancement has been destroyed.

I don’t like zombie movies, nor the supernatural in general, yet I liked The Walking Dead. In a similar vein I am not a fan of fantasy, dragons nor magic, yet I have devoured every minute of Game of Thrones and every page of A Song of Ice and Fire. What I find fascinating in all of these is simply the politics involved in societies so vastly different from our own. The Walking Dead in particular makes you realise just how quickly the norms of society could breakdown if just a few hundred million people die, and in the process become zombies that crave the flesh of the living. It really reminds us of how fragile an existence we really live and how far we have come as a species, particularly when lying on a couch all Sunday evening praying for the end of your world.

Did South Park Lower The Bar?

Catching up on the new series of South Park this week, there was a part of one of the episodes that really struck me and got me thinking. This is unusual for South Park, which although quite intelligent when at its best, usually fades from the mind once the show is over. The episode was about falling cultural standards, and included James Cameron searching on the deep sea floor for the metaphorical ‘bar’ which has been lowered to such extreme depths in modern society. During the climax of the episode, there is a short scene between Stan and Kyle, played as an aside to the main action, where Kyle begins to question whether it was ‘us’ who lowered the bar. This little aside is significant, as ever since the beginning of South Park these two characters have been the representatives of the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. While Stan and Kyle have crazy familys and often get caught up in fantastic situations, they are both normal, grounded kids growing up in a world they can’t control, wondering why insane things always happen in their small town. Trey’s parents, like Stan’s, are Randy and Sharon. Kyle is Jewish, like Matt Stone, and both their respective parents are Gerald and Sheila. So in the scene mentioned above, the creators of South Park ask themselves if they have helped lower the bar, allowing popular entertainment to sink to lower and lower depths. They do have a point.

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When South Park first came along in 1997, the show was very controversial due to its foul language and more importantly, children using foul language. Animated children swearing doesn’t seem too risqué nowadays, but when it first appeared in Europe as an American import, it brought along news articles from tabloid and broadsheet newspapers detailing its depravity, and the effect it could have on YOUR children. Animated shows aimed at adults were rare back then (in English speaking countries, anyway), with The Simpsons the only one to break into the mainstream at the time. Therefore when any adult cartoon appeared, the view was that children would end up watching it and see things they shouldn’t. The same is true for any show of course, animated or not, but South Park did make it very easy for the critics. The show was very different when it first began, with much more needless swearing and plots which seemed to exist only to see how low, degraded and disgusting the characters could get. In the first episode, the kids swear a lot, and then Cartman gets an anal probe. In other episodes Barbra Streisand shows up and attempts to destroy the town, and a librarian attempts to promote reading by ‘making love’ to chickens. There was a moral to every episode, however it did take a very secondary role to the disgusting and depraved acts which led to it.

The essence to South Park was there from the start: this mix of disgusting or farcical events which eventually contribute to some overarching (and often insightful) social commentary.  All that has changed over the years is which aspect dominates in each episode. The best episodes have a fine balance of both, while the ones which are too much in one direction just do not work at all. South Park has been around for a long time now and has evolved significantly since it first appeared.  There isn’t so much swearing these days, but the gross-out humour still remains. In another new episode, a character sells his own semen as a sports drink. Back in 1997 this would have raised Daily Mail campaigns, however now for South Park and any other similar show, it doesn’t seem that bad. In its early, adoloescent years when it was still learning about itself and discovering what it wanted to be, South Park lowered the bar. Now, with the aforementioned soul searching between Stan and Kyle, and for the first time, its creators seem to acknowledge that they themselves may have contributed to the lower standards that popular culture now holds itself to. This is ironic, since South Park has made its business out of satirising these falling standards for a decade and a half.

The reason that short scene in that episode of South Park resonated so much with me was because I watched it the day after the Red Bull Stratos event, where Felix Baumgartner skydived from the edge of space and landed safely back on earth. This was a truly spectacular piece of television, an amazing feat of human drive and endeavour. It was also something that lowered the bar, and perhaps irreversibly so. This was heavily sponsored extreme sports dressed up as a noble voyage of scientific discovery. Not only that, but every detail of Red Bulls coverage was specifically designed to evoke (second-hand) memories of the Moon Landing. This is even an understatement, for with aging skydive record-holder Joseph Kittinger featured prominently throughout, this coverage was inspired by Hollywood movies versions of space missions, where the old hero is brought in to bring the main character back safely. The YouTube commentator spoke in stoic, serious tones, constantly highlighting the scientific value of the mission. Felix’s preparations were shown in full, and confirmed professionally by his aging, storied supporting actor. He then stood at the top of the world, mumbled something that Red Bull marketing may have come up with, then jumped. During this jump, the stoic commentator, speaking as if from the 1960s, mentioned that the capsule used to transport Felix would also drop down, carrying all the scientific data that had been requested by researchers interested in the mission. It was a scientific mission, after all: in the ascent. The jump however was really just a stunt, performed by a professional daredevil, commissioned by an energy drink.  This was reality television that was truly dangerous to society, and especially YOUR children: extreme sports masquerading as the eternal quest for knowledge.

There is a documentary (Six Days To Air) about Trey Parker and Matt Stones production process for South Park, where it is revealed that an episode goes from initial idea to finished product in six days, and broadcast on air that very night of completion. This explains how the show is able to keep impossibly relevant to current events. There are a few more episodes left in this season, so I hope tomorrow they start writing an episode based on Stratos, as it would be very interesting to see their interpretation. For the thing about South Park is that it has been around for almost 15 years, and has remained consistent throughout. In every season there are at least two episodes which contain truly cutting social commentary, so much so that it has got to the point where criticism from South Park cannot be laughed off by celebrities or politicians anymore. South Park is an elder statesman of the TV landscape. Maybe it has come to the point in its run where it sees the end, but at the same time looks back and wonders what effect it has had on popular culture, feels guilty and aims to salvage its legacy. South Park lowered the bar, but it is the number one social commentator on calling out others who do the same. They will never be able to raise the bar they lowered, but they can at least try to stop it from falling further.