Thursday, July 28, 2011

Nerds in Costume: Corrupting America?

In her latest book Of Thee I Zing!, conservative social critic Laura Ingraham takes aim at what passes for popular "culture" here in the U.S., highlighting what she perceives as its most squalid, debasing aspects. Much of the time I can't disagree with her disdain for her targets; reality television, advertisements, and even some branches of popular music are squalid and debasing -- nauseatingly so. But I wonder what Ingraham expects us to do about the Snookis and Charlie Sheens and Kim Kardashians of the world. Certainly the last thing any sane person would want is for the government to step up and take charge of TV, movies, books, magazines, commercials, sports, etc. We've seen what that looks like, after all. Germany under Hitler, anyone? The Soviet Union under Stalin? What passes for art and entertainment in countries dominated by Sharia law? I'm guessing we would rather not see that over here.

However, I wish to take up a small issue with Ingraham and her tome -- small, but nonetheless irksome to a speculative fiction fan like me. In among the potshots at reality TV and dumbed-down educational standards, she finds time to express her contempt for moviegoers who dress in costumes to attend the premieres of much-anticipated fantasy films (in this case, the Harry Potter films). She finds standing in line with people clad in Hogwarts regalia troubling enough to include it in her attack on cultural corruption, right alongside the transformation of sex tape stars into celebrities.

Confession: I love dressing in costume. Along with books, new costumes are my biggest temptation to spend money. I will leap at any reasonable excuse to clothe myself in my sixteenth- or nineteenth-century finery, so naturally I relish going to places where it's accepted, nay, encouraged for grown folk to play dress-up (e.g. Renaissance Festivals, Dragon Con, Anime Weekend Atlanta). My goal when I don my costumes is the same as when I pick up a fantasy or sci-fi novel: to step out of myself and my own problems and into a character and world of my own imagination, for at least a little while.

Am I really contributing to the devolution of our culture?

What Ms. Ingraham conspicuously fails to understand is that many of us who occasionally fancy ourselves as students or professors of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are actually rebelling against the very pop-culture turgidity she decries in the rest of her book. In immersing ourselves in worlds like Hogwarts, Middle Earth, or Narnia, we're fleeing the moral relativism and casual hedonism that characterize so much of the world we were born into. We're escaping the ugliness, the cheapness, the bad taste. In exchange we're embracing an environment where virtue is not some distant abstract idea but an action, a conscious decision. An environment where courage, loyalty, honor, kindness, and ingenuity may carry the day. An environment where toxic narcissists like Charlie Sheen are the bad guys, not the "heroes" whose public appearances draw crowds. Sure, it's fun to imagine wielding a magic wand or a mighty sword, but on a deeper level, when we take up that wand or that sword, we're engaging in battles that matter. We're taking a stand. Our fantasy lives may teach us the very things we need to know about ourselves.

Besides, my long, flowing costume skirts are my own private antidote to the "slut chic" I see on every side. In my fantasy travels I may have to defeat orcs and Death Eaters, but I will never meet a Paris Hilton. There are no Kardashians to be found -- though maybe a few Cardassians, that no one in her right mind would want to keep up with. As long as I'm in Middle Earth, I'm light years away from Jersey Shore.

So let us have our costumes, Ms. Ingraham. Under our Hogwarts cloaks, we may have more in common with you than you realize. After all, if you know about the costume parades at the premieres, you must have gone to see Harry Potter.