Alexander Hellene

The Loudest Voice in the Ghetto

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became mas one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23

Do heroes even exist in popular fiction anymore? What about romance? Good versus evil?

In my circles, we tend to act like heroism and moral clarity are things of the past, relics of an age that the wokesters in charge of entertainment treat like bygone times they can’t want to urinate on the grave of. “Good riddance!” they say in our minds. “We hate good guys. We love bad guys! Except our bad guys are all straight, white, male, and Christian!”

Now, while there is truth to the idea that Hollywood and other centers of popular mass entertainment harbor great antipathy for those of us who unapologetically bear X and Y chromosomes, are attracted to bearers of two X chromosomes and what to have children with them, believe in God the father of Jesus Christ, and are of a certain, shall we say, disfavored chromatic disposition, the idea that “good triumphing over evil” isn’t represented anymore is flat-out false. Ditto the idea that nothing is about family anymore.

What are superhero movies but cartoonishly exaggerated battles between good and evil, with good proving triumphant? I haven’t seen any Marvel movies since The Avengers, but I’m pretty sure moral ambiguity isn’t really a thing in those flicks. Now, the quality of said flicks is a different story, but my assumption is that it’s not related to the underlying conflicts presented therein. For example, a superhero movie may be awful, but the good guy can still win.

Is what we’re complaining about the quality of writing? Or who the good guy is? “Why did the race-swap so-and-so for no good reason” is a valid complaint, as is “Why are they putting in anti-this or anti-that messaging in the story” and “Why are the sexualizing these things which are aimed at kids?” These are perfectly acceptable criticisms. But averring that “There are no movies about good versus evil anymore” simply isn’t true.

It’s not all moral sludge and ambiguous, relativistic gray out there.

How about movies about family and the importance thereof? Didn’t the Big Bad D just come out with a movie called Encanto that was all about family? How about the new Pixar movie Turning Red which, while not a good movie (I saw it; it was weird and pretty bad), was all about family.

Is the issue that the families in said movies are Colombian and Chinese, respectively, and not of European extraction? I don’t think so. I think it’s more who produced them versus what was in them. And a lot of this acrimony towards popular entertainment tends to be made by those who have not seen it for themselves.

I’m guilty of this. Captain Marvel sounded awful. Note the key word I used: “sounded.” I read and listened to reviews of it and decided it wasn’t worth my money or time to see the movie. Lead actress Brie Larson also came across as, shall we say, a word that rhymes with a situational baseball maneuver, which didn’t help. Don’t give money to people who hate you and all of that—which I agree with!

On the other hand, when my friend Rawle Nyanzi and I went to see the 2016 version of Ghostbusters, which was horrible, it allowed us to hone in on what was wrong with the movie with more authority and nuance than if we hadn’t.

Such ability to criticize really only matters if you throw yourself into the ring of criticism in the first place. Ditto The Last Jedi. I saw that one, and I was able to articulate why it failed as a movie.

One way in which it didn’t fail is that it still depicted the battle of good versus evil, with good triumphing, or at least attempting to. I didn’t see that final movie due to utter disgust with the entire laser-sword franchise, and therefore did not offer my opinion on the movie beyond saying “Man, that sounds dumb.”

There’s this tendency in our circles to dismiss things for reasons that aren’t true. Good-versus-evil based stories, as well as family-based ones, are still being made. Whether we like them and how they’re presented is a different story.  

That’s where we can have an impact. But in order to change a culture, you really do need to engage with it.

Keeping your kids away from harmful media is important. But if you’re an adult, you should be able to check it out for yourself without being unduly influenced by any propagandistic elements therein. Most people in the country, including and especially the people you’re trying to reach, watch, listen to, play, and read this stuff. If we want to provide a better alternative that might be more suited to their tastes, we have to reach them.

And I’m sorry, you don’t reach them by saying “Everything you like is garbage, and you’re a bad and stupid person for liking it.”

I do this too, and I need to stop. It’s a bad habit that is emotional and ultimately pushes away the normal people any movement needs to win over if it hopes to gain any momentum. Purity spirals can attract a hard core of followers, but this hardcore—while important—tends to be pretty off-putting to the regular guy who would love to read your great adventure story, but doesn’t want to give money to someone who—drumroll please—appears to hate them.

This meme is funny–and credit where credit is due–but the right is not representative of every modern female character.

Like it or not, most Dungeons & Dragons players are playing the 5th edition. Most people who watch movies like Disney, Pixar, Marvel, and so on. Most people who read new stuff are buying books by well-known authors or parts of well-known franchises. One area where alternative creators are doing a good job is in comic books—most people are actually not reading American superhero books, and are enjoying Japanese comics instead. Comic books are an area outside of my wheelhouse, but from what I’ve heard (there’s that term again!) it’s that they present things like romance, heroism, and action without the navel-gazing and shoehorning in of contemporary political issues.

Lots of Big Name Brand X stuff still puts out appealing products that, more or less, provide what they are intended to provide. Of course there are failures, whether it’s due to the quality of the contents or marketing, and we should keep these in mind.

Let’s leave quality aside for a second and think about some marketing failures. These noticeably happen when the producers of some new thing insult their audience.

Does this sound familiar?

* * *

Ghetto: (a) an isolated group (b) a situation that resembles a ghetto especially in conferring inferior status or limiting opportunity

It’s great when our cultural opponents fail and ghettoize themselves into isolated pockets where they’re doing nothing but howling at each other about their hatred of the cis/het/white patriarchy. It’s not great when we ghettoize ourselves into isolated pockets where we do nothing but howl at each other about our hatred of woke entertainment.

Are you in it to win it? Or are you in it to be the loudest voice in the ghetto?

Here’s an analogy: we all know that Boomer guy, maybe even an ex-hippie, who spends all of their time telling you that the music you like sucks, that there has been no good music produced since 1974, and that only an idiot, moron, or rube with zero taste could ever listen to any music made before 1964 or after 1974.

Does that guy make you want to listen to his music?

Don’t be ex-hippie Boomer guy. Don’t be just against everything that’s popular. If you’re a creator, it’s good to be for something as well.

The challenge is to find out what it is about stuff that people like, find out what it is about stuff people don’t like, find out what it is about stuff people think is missing, and provide something that hits the sweet spot where they’re getting what they seek from Marvel, DC, Disney, Wizards of the Coasts, Tor books, Warner Music, Electronic Arts, Sony, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, or Netflix, but better. Like it or not, in the absence of anything deeper, people find their identity from pop cultural products. It’s not their fault. In the absence of any meaningful high culture, pop culture is all we’ve got. Our challenge is to tap into this and try, as vain as this may sound, to guide people towards what has been forgotten. And we can’t do that only by hanging out amongst ourselves.

Have at it.

– Alexander

6 thoughts on “The Loudest Voice in the Ghetto”

  1. Alexander,

    Challenge accepted. 🙂 People still like good vs evil, the good triumphing and the guy getting the girl. The problem is they get a very watered down if not outright counterfeits of the tropes and genres. And because they don’t know any better (cf JD’s extensive essays on pop culture where it went wrong; or Ben Epsen’s recent post on the Theology of fiction) they accept what they consume faute de mieux.

    So yes, the creators need to look at the awful content and analyze why it sucks, etc. BUT we shouldn’t get too hung up over it. The best offense is to create compelling content that satisfies the deep desires about the human condition. Next comes discoverability and support for good content. We’re taking baby steps, but the momentum is building.

    So gotta be like beavers, quietly but actively building our dams until it’s too late to get rid, cancel or deplatform the new content. Because we’ve become the dominant culture


    1. Everything you say makes sense. What I am getting at is that we have to stop insulting our potential audience. I think being confrontational and edgy is fun for the laughs on-line, but in practical terms it not only doesn’t move us any closer to the goal, it moves us away from it.

      Art is also a business. You need to know and understand your craft, but you also need to know and understand who you are trying to sell your craft to. Engaging with them and understanding what they are looking for without being off-putting is the key challenge I am referring to. A part of this does require engaging with the current culture . . . and not mocking people who like it to the point where they will refuse to give money to people that hate them, i.e., you.

  2. I may be wrong on this one, but I think the reason good vs evil narratives today tend to feel flavorless is that they’re made by people who can’t define either good or evil, but, most importantly, the struggle doesn’t feel as meaningful as in older stories.
    But I agree, we have to stop being obnoxious with the normies, especially now that they’re noticing the offer of entertainment gets blander by the day. People are desperate for something that endures the initial rush of adrenaline.

    1. Alric,

      I don’t think you’re wrong. Many–not all, but many–modern good versus evil narratives sure do feel like that. But they still exist. Lamenting their absence in the entirety is counterfactual and, I’m not sorry to say, makes us sound crazy.

      The “normies” are indeed getting restless and beginning to look outside the circle of authorized franchises. Our job is to entice them, not make fun of them so they stay with Brand X instead of associating with whom they see as, rightly or wrongly, out-of-touch, extremist, extremely online kooks.

      1. Well, if you think about it, the complain about the lack of said narratives mainly comes from the comic book readers. Now, I’m not well-versed in superhero stories but as far as I know the effort to make all superheroes in comics look like hypocrites who are worse than they believe is quite widespread. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it’s everywhere like that (by contrast, for example, superhero movies are entirely different), but due to the nature of current discourse, which is highly emotional, Internet commentators transform “everywhere in superhero comics” into “just everywhere”.
        Comic book commentators are kinda crazy, to be fair.

        1. Alric,

          Good points. I suppose that it is genre-specific, something I should have specified.

          Look, my problem isn’t with fans of things. It’s more with creators who are sealing themselves off from potential customer bases–and yes, I guess that means fans as well–by not engaging or understanding the things they claim to oppose.

          I’ll give you an example of a movement that I actually think does work: the #BROSR way of playing 1st Edition AD&D spearheaded by guys like Jeffro Johnson and BDubs1776. What they’ve done is actually looked at the current TTRPG landscape, discovered flaws and problems, and re-discovered the way the original game was meant to be played. In doing so, they’ve actually attracted a whole bunch of new people who had similar problems with modern games, particularly modern D&D, but didn’t know how to articulate exactly what was lacking. What Jeffro and company have done is put those issues in clear terms and provided an alternative . . . an alternative that had been hiding in plain sight all this time. They (1) figured out a problem facing players, (2) looked into ways to solve this problem, (3) provided the solution as an alternative, and (4) made it seem like the cooler thing to do.

          That’s how you do it. Engaging in the bitch-and-moan YouTube economy or just ragging on things without understanding them doesn’t move the needle one bit in our direction.

          As far as comic books go, Comicsgate does something similar by actually engaging with the current comic book landscape, seeing what it is about modern comics that is turning off many fans, seeing what it was about older comics that made people actually like them, and then providing more of the latter. Jon Del Arroz and other guys aren’t just complaining about comics. They understand comics.

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