It’s Community Time!: escapism and non-normative support systems in yr mainstream TV schedule
In The Queer Art of Failure, Judith Jack Halberstam points out the revolutionary and queer properties of contemporary animated films from the Pixar and Aardman studios. This means unearthing Marxist/feminist utopian ideals in 2000’s Chicken Run (in which a mostly female coop working together to escape its exploitive farmers), and non-traditional ideas of family in Finding Nemo (2003, wherein a single father must navigate an ocean’s worth of colourful, non-romantic social interactions and connections in order to find his son). While the majority of popular films and TV shows can be seen to lionize the nuclear family and the romantic, heterosexual relationships at its head, these animations showcase the community as the primary locus for growth and socialisation.
When it comes to child-rearing, this method is either cutting-edge or as old as time, depending on your perspective. To a middle-class white experience like my own, alternative family structures are a pre-Industrial artefact, a cultural memory so distant that it is radical anew; outside of this bubble, of course, an enormous variety of larger, not necessarily familial, kinship networks have been operating all along.
In Time interview ‘The Pain of Being Black’ in 1989, Toni Morrison responded to the single-parent household ‘crisis’ with characteristic common sense (emphasis mine):
I don’t think a female running a house is a problem, a broken family. It’s perceived as one because of the notion that a head is a man. Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community – everybody – to raise a child. The notion that the head is the one who brings in the most money is a patriarchal notion, that a woman – and I have raised two children, alone – is somehow lesser than a male head. Or that I am incomplete without the male. This is not true. And the little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for white people or for black people. Why we are hanging onto it, I don’t know. It isolates people into little units – people need a larger unit.
The quotation above sees Morrison referring not only to children but to ‘people’. Halberstam also acknowledges the ‘adult’ import of children’s films like Over The Hedge and Toy Story by noting the political relevance of a group of oddballs of myriad species (/genders) banding together to fight a shared oppressor. So the benefits of greater communal integration clearly go beyond child rearing, continuing into our adult lives. Dave Eggers, in his first book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, wrote about both these forms of communal support: about his alternative experience of child-rearing when, after his parents’ death, he, his siblings and his friends assumed collective responsibility for his younger brother Toph; and about his support network as an adult, which he referred to as ‘the lattice’.
The lattice is everyone else, the lattice is my people, collective youth, people like me, hearts ripe, brains aglow. … I see us as one, as a vast matrix, an army, a whole, each one of us responsible to one another, because no one else is … people who have everything in common no matter where they’re from, all these people know all the same things and truly hope for the same things, it’s undeniable that they do … Like a snowshoe. You wear snowshoes when the snow is deep and porous. The latticework within the snowshoe’s oval distributes the wearer’s weight over a wider area, in order to keep him or her from falling through the snow. So people, the connections between people, the people you know, become a sort of lattice, and the more people, good people, they must be good people, who know that they are here to help, the more of these people you know, and that know you, and know your situation and your story and your troubles or whatnot, the wider and stronger the lattice, the less likely you are to–
Fall through the snow.
Heartbreaking Work was noted, and often reviled, for its child-like qualities: the way Eggers raced off into tangents, run-on sentences and epic, vivid fibs. There was a sense that some critics wished he would grow up and stop feeling sorry for himself. And it strikes me that a worrying amount of expression and modes of being seem to be repressed in the ‘grown-up’ world, and particularly in its films and TV.
TV shows and movies ostensibly for children, like those mentioned by Halberstam, teach the importance of friendship, tolerance and sharing. But as the viewer lurches towards adulthood, their entertainment becomes less didactic and more (allegedly) realistic – and ‘reality’, whether in the form of gritty drama or lighthearted comedy, is mainly portrayed as a staunchly individualistic, don’t-trust-anybody environment. Admittedly, ‘reality’ sometimes mean betrayal, being lied to by your work peers, or an altercation with gang rivals. But even light romantic comedies seem unfairly pessimistic, with their tiny, homogenised friendship groups that shriek and fuck each other over until they actually fuck and divide into heterosexual pairs. (See Friends and How I Met Your Mother.) Onscreen adulthood is about killing off all fantasies other than the romantic/sexual, and drinking coffee or beer with the same lousy, hateful group of people for the rest of your life.
It would be obtuse to ask that all TV shows and films portray an idealised, Care-Bear world in which everyone is friends and can trust one another. But viewers do deserve some variation in the kind of relationships they see onscreen. Thankfully, the last few years have seen several TV shows reintroduce wide kinship networks into mainstream imagination, and it is no coincidence that many of these shows have distinctly ‘child-like’ elements.
(Above: the cast of Adventure Time by Andy Ristaino, via frederator)
For example, one can no longer set foot in the Internet without seeing how the children’s franchise My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has touched and inspired the lives of teens and adults. Comparable is Adventure Time, a Cartoon Network show about a boy and a talking dog who fight monsters and hang out in the world of Ooo. The protagonists of these cartoons exist in largely motherless spaces, where they must rely on their wiles, strengths and strong platonic bonds in order to solve (often world-threatening!) problems. As in Halberstam’s ‘Pixarvolt’ movies, the cast of ‘friends’ available to Finn and Jake, or Twilight Sparkle, are of myriad colours, shapes, sizes and backgrounds, with their own distinct personalities. Though highly stylised in their portrayals of character traits such as shyness (Fluttershy, MLP:FIM) or a proneness to gossip (Lumpy Space Princess, AT), the idea that everyone has unique abilities and vulnerabilities is a valuable one for us humans, child and adult alike. While advertisements and magazines insist we be beautiful, fit, smart and strong all at once, these 2D characters show how true well-roundedness derives from being able to combine our individual assets as part of a team. The first two episodes of MLP:FIM see six ponies save Equestria from eternal night using the so-called Elements of Friendship – Honesty, Kindness, Laughter, Generosity, Loyalty and Magic – first on a problem-by-problem basis, and finally all together.
The pilot of Adventure Time sees Finn (then named Pen) and Jake save Princess Bubblegum from the Ice King – so far, so generic. But what sets this apart from a simple damsel-in-distress story are three firm rebuttals:
Ice King: Stop meddling, boy! You and your magical dog can’t harm me.
Finn/Pen: He’s not my dog – he’s my FRIEND!
F/P: Why are you always stealing ladies?
IK: I’m going to make one marry me!
F/P: That’s… stupid!
IK: Your hat is stupid!
F/P: My hat… is AWESOME!
Princess Bubblegum: Thank you brave knight.
F/P: Oh, I’m not a knight. I’m a boy.
PB: Well then… thank you, brave boy.
The first excerpt asserts that AT does not conform to a typical hierarchy in which humans own animals. Indeed, Finn is thus far in the series the only definitely human character in the world of Ooo; his white male humanity is stripped of privilege here. He was taken in by Jake’s parents (also dogs), but at twelve has already been living in a treehouse with Jake and their computer BMO for quite a while. This is a queered notion of the household if there ever was one.
In the second excerpt, Finn calls the practice of imprisoning ladies, in popular narrative and reality, what it is: stupid. But this is also open to interpretation towards all marriage being ‘stupid’ – because while romance certainly happens in this series, it is not exactly common in any sense of the word. Interspecies love is the norm: between a dog and a Rainicorn (who speaks Korean), a pig and an elephant, or the unrequited longing of a human boy for a Bubblegum Princess several years his elder. The third excerpt alludes to that disparity between the expected and the actual, gentry and common folk – and emphasises, too, that a person’s heroism has nothing to do with their social standing.
Too deep for Adventure Time? Maybe. And maybe it is a mistake to analyse the fabulous worlds of Ooo or Equestria by Earth standards, since a large part of these shows’ appeal is their escapism.
As mentioned, ‘reality’ is largely seen as the lot of the adult, and escapism thereby becomes another feature of ‘child-like’ TV and film. In pop-psychology ‘escapism’ is seen as an immature coping mechanism, a form of delusion; in pop-sociology, it is just another opiate. But theorists such as Ernst Bloch argue that Utopian narratives hold promises both false and real; that, ‘even if in the building of mere castles in the air the total expenditure one way or the other scarcely matters, from which misdirected and ultimately fraudulently used wishful dreams then result, hope with plan and with connection to the due Possible is still the most powerful and best thing there is’ (The Principle of Hope, 1986). J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ is an exhilarating read on this topic, a iron-clad defence of fairy-tales, fantasy and escapism as necessary tools for human beings of all ages and realities. Literary criticism, Tolkien argues, makes the mistake of conflating ‘the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter’ – and I would posit that over seventy years later scorn for escapism still operates on similar principles. When we berate people for watching cartoons about magic, glad orphans and prancing ponies, we accuse them of living in a dream world, as though a multiplicity of worlds cannot be held the mind. If anything, I think the need for a secondary world like Ooo or Equestria demonstrates a pretty sound comprehension of ‘reality’. To slightly adjust the aphorism: if you don’t ever fantasise about living in a different world, you’re not paying attention. It’s pretty bleak out there.
No coping mechanism is necessarily harmful if used with awareness and moderation. Yes, even food. Even alcohol. Even escapism.
This brings me, in closing, to two live action shows that present strong, non-familial kinship networks and escapist elements. Both are on NBC, and both have just been handed their bitersweet ‘final season’ notice, with some possibility of renegotiation. Those shows are Parks and Recreation and Community, and both deserve to be in the public consciousness for at least a few more years, for the following reasons.
(Above: Adam Scott, Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones and Aziz Ansari in Parks and Recreation, via avclub)
P&R takes place in the Parks and Recreation department of the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. It stars the high-wattage Amy Poehler as Lesley Knope, who has spent the most recent season campaigning for city councillor. Lesley is like no other creature on television: a self-identified feminist who is never made to look ridiculous for her views; an outspoken blonde who is optimistic but not naïve; a woman whose male friends are not all ex- or future- sexual conquests, and whose female friends are not sexual rivals. The employees of Pawnee Parks & Rec genuinely like each other, warts and all, and help each other out, whether it’s to promote Tom’s latest business venture (e.g. Snake Juice) or drum up support for Lesley’s campaign. Where many modern sitcoms lay traps to humiliate or thwart their own characters, P&R is overwhelmingly kind to Lesley and co., either rewarding strong efforts or finding a third, redemptive path between success and failure. And this is a kindness to its viewers, too – not fan-service so much as fan-respect.
Community is arguably the lesser show of the two, still wrestling with its own strange impulses towards lampshading racist and sexist stereotypes. But when the writing bothers to be clever, it’s very very clever – quick, witty and electric. Set around a study group at a small community college, much of the show’s appeal is in its ability to parody everything from Law & Order to zombie horror to Glee without dropping the personalities and motivations of its characters in so doing.
(Above: Danni Pudi as Abed in Community, from here)
But most incredible to me, and what prompted me to start writing this piece in the first place, is what the show has done with Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi). From a cringey, slightly mocking caricature of Asperger’s, Abed has grown into something warmer and more believable. There is still a sort of exoticism going on here, with Abed as wise man, robot or shaman when the plot calls for it – but there’s also evidence of the writers beginning to realise neurotypical norms and ways of thinking are not necessarily the ‘right’ ones. Consider this gem from S03E12 ‘Contemporary Impressionists’, in which Abed’s best friend Troy defends him to the rest of the group:
Annie: We could actually hurt Abed if every time he faces reality we dress up and play make-believe to bail him out.
Troy: Shame on you people. It’s not our job to help Abed ‘grow up’ – Abed doesn’t need reality. Abed is a magical elf-like man who makes us all more magical by being near us. […] All we had was dumb reality before we met that man. And he’s made all of our lives better than reality. Now it becomes a little inconvenient and it’s time to get real?
Again, though this erroneously implies Abed can’t have an adult handle on ‘reality’ because of his imaginative nature, it also emphasises the importance and validity of the imaginary. This could even be read to break down the imaginary/real binary by calling their current (real) lives ‘better than reality’.
Community followed up on this promises of this speech with a nugget of excellent television in S03E16, ‘Virtual Systems Analysis’. In this episode, Annie spends some time with Abed in the Dreamatorium – a holodeck-like room in their apartment where Abed and Troy’s imaginations run riot. (NB that Troy is not portrayed as having Asperger’s, but regardless takes part in and enjoys many of the same immersive activities as Abed.) Through a series of simulations (with Abed transforming into several other characters in sequence) Abed demonstrates his near-scientific knowledge of how the others will react in any given situation. In indignation Annie breaks into the Dreamatorium’s engine (represented by cardboard tubes) and replaces the ‘Abed’s Thoughts’ component with the ‘Other People’ component, thus throwing Abed’s world into chaos.
While the idea that Abed can be ‘taught’ empathy may be a misstep, the teaching in this episode is collaborative. Annie tries to teach Abed her perspective, but can only do so through Abed’s methods – imagination, simulation, metaphor. She discovers her capability to act far more coldly and unfeelingly in the name of empathy than Abed ever could. Most importantly, the characters self-actualise only through embodying a different self in the realm of the non-actual.
Obviously the premise of a mixed bag of characters coming together under wacky circumstances is as old as the sitcom itself, but take that as the primordial soup out of which something new is finally crawling. With Parks and Recreation and Community, and maybe surprisingly so with Adventure Time and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, adults are relearning ‘child-like’ notions of friendship and co-operation. We are digging up our imaginations from where we left them, somewhere before puberty, buried under zit cream and textbooks and get-laid imperatives. We are – I am – wondering why we were constantly told to get real, to make a ten year plan, to choose a career at thirteen, to stop watching cartoons, to stop dreaming, to stop doodling, to remember our limited fertility, to remember all our limitations, all the time, lest we overreach and make fools of ourselves.
We’re discovering now that time will make a fool out of us anyway. Almost no plans work out as expected: when you try to control ‘reality’, it invariably disappoints.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became an adult, I put away childish things. And why on earth did I do that?