Right now, there’s a not altogether unprecedented trend toward what I’m going to call concentrated apathy when it comes to pop cultural criticism. When it comes to anything that’s not an opera, a Murakami novel, or Hamilton, we’re only supposed to care so much. We’re to drop our give-a-fuck bags at the borders when we leave the world of the story. It’s egotistical, absurd, downright unseemly to hold genre art to the rigorous standards to which we hold art that isn’t ‘fun.’ It’s imperative that we turn our brains off and just enjoy Batman vs. Superman somehow, or else the whole of society will collapse and crush us and our artistic hubris. But, of course, we must take video games just seriously enough that no one gets made fun of for playing them or making them professionally. And fantasy novels, oh, those don’t worry about at all, but also respect them a lot because who would condemn escapism but a jailer.
It’s an ugly, transparent duplicity that I see too often, one that frustrates me because I don’t get to entertain it. For self-preservation’s sake, I don’t get to not care about the Hugos being co-opted by literal angry r/MensRights/ posts, or about Orson Scott Card‘s defenders, or about how ‘colorblind casting’ only applies when its seen as advantageous to erase characters who had color in the first place.
I don’t get to keep reading an author’s books for the fun of it, for the story content that I’m always assured is entirely separate from anything else in his head, when he says that gay people literally deserve to die. That’s fun I don’t get to have anymore; that’s peace of mind that I lose.
There’s a saying that goes, “Stay woke,” and you’ve probably used it as an ironic hashtag at some point. To stay woke, to stay awake, is to remain in touch with reality, especially the harsh reality that social constructions insist we ignore. Depending on one’s situation, it can be easy or very hard to stay asleep. You might start waking up when you’re 10 years old and a grown man yells his desire to fuck you out the window of his speeding car, or when you’re 8 and your mother has to sit you down and explain the inherent danger (for you, almost exclusively you) in encountering a police officer, or when you’re 14 and it comes to light that there’s some secret thing so utterly wrong with you that to divulge it may mean being destroyed or institutionalized.
I don’t tell you this to make you feel bad about not caring about fantasy novels, or about video games, or about anything. I tell you this so that you’ll begin to understand that your position of not caring, if that’s your position, is a peculiar psychological blessing. It’s an anomaly. You’re in a blessed place, constructed by your circumstances or by your steadfast need for sleep, where the background radiation of culture can’t touch you like it does the majority of humanity.
Make no mistake: If you can bang on your little drum about how stupid it is to care about sexism in comics (they’re fake! only the bad people rape women!!) or about #oscarssowhite, or about the Hugos hijack, you’re an exceedingly fortunate human. You’re fortunate because you, above and removed from nothing, nestled comfy in the valley rutted out for you, cannot see the curve of the Earth or the gathering clouds creeping over the far horizon. Culture is no bellweather for you, it simply is. It’s an easy and comfortable constant. It confirms what you know to be true and it challenges no part of your person you can’t quietly squelch and ignore.
If things don’t get better, you don’t stand to suffer. Yes, I know, that’s a very uncomfortable idea for nerds. Half your social constructions as a group hinge on the idea that you’re deeply oppressed and utterly innocent in that, but consider this: You, white male nerds concerned still about being bullied and excluded in the 8th grade, you made this place for yourselves. You get to keep it if it never gets better than you were in 8th grade.
People like me don’t. If you needed a place for male power fantasy in a world where you were too Gameboy-atrophied or asthma-cursed to play sports, where your pseudo-friends called you a homo and a girl because you didn’t outright try to grab handfuls of women’s tits on the bus, that was waiting for you. Your older brothers and fathers and grandfathers made it for you. Your adolescent anxieties, aged in their breasts for decades and regurgitated in concentrated form on page or film, made it all the more glossy and appealing. You have this massive wealth of places to go when you need to be strong, or smart, or desirable, or brave, or just appreciated.
People like me don’t, not just because we don’t exist within those stories, but because the whole of nerd storytelling kind of hates us. It comes from the same White Boy in 8th Grade place where women are still non-person objects to acquire, non-white people exist as separate non-person entities one does not interact with, and gay people are fucking terrifying. Just scrolling through an app store is a weird experience for me as someone who’s only ever seen women as friends and can’t see why even cute puzzle apps suited to small children are advertised with giant pendulous boobs. And that’s a low-level discomfort experience, that’s just noticing weirdness. High-level is being black or gay and either not finding yourself in stories at all, or just straight up finding monsters that are supposed to be you.
High-level is trying to exist in a system wherein the constant shouted assurance is that all of this is actually fine, that there’s never been a problem and that it’s all fake and not important. High-level is knowing that you can’t exist within that system, that you must further diasporize yourself to have a chance at getting anything done in relative peace. High-level is still feeling a responsibility to the place to which you can’t return because you are not, never were, wanted.
When you say that the Hugos don’t matter, that the Oscars don’t matter, that GameGate doesn’t matter, that sexism and racism and all the assorted phobias in your dork media choice, don’t matter, that’s not what you communicate to me. What you communicate to me with these statements is that if these things were to matter that would be inconvenient to you. And it would. It would mean waking up, getting dressed, and doing something about it.