A Genesis for Generation Y

I’ve said from time to time that I think we would be better off if we could just stop using the word “Millennials” to describe my generation. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that word written down where it wasn’t meant disparagingly, and it often comes with very little other information to describe what it means.

So, for a bit of background, let’s learn about Generation Y (which is a boring term, but so far doesn’t carry the weight that “Millennial” does) in America.

We are the generation born from around 1980 to around 2000. We were all children when 9/11 happened, and the “post-9/11” global politic has been the one that has shaped us most into adulthood. We are the first generation to have “grown up” with the internet, and we respond quickly to technological advances. We are, generally speaking, more politically liberal than our parents. We are less religious than previous generations, and we are often anti-religion. We have (or had) great expectations of educational and economic success, and have been characteristically disappointed by the world we found ourselves in after school. We also had great expectations of our impact on the world, and have met with frustration over perceived inability to affect change.

I’m sure you can quickly find out more about us, but this paints a broad-stroke picture of the generation of people I believe the graphic short-story Genesis (created by Nathan Edmonson, Alison Sampson, and Jason Wordie) was written for.

The comic is bookended with the simple phrase, “They said I’d change the world for better or worse.” This is an idea that has been offered to the members of Generation Y since the beginning of our education. We were told the stories of Martin Luther King Jr., of John F. Kennedy, of Mother Theresa, even Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. We were told all of these stories and then we were told that we could do so much more!

These were the kind of expectations with which we approached adulthood.

In the comic, the main character becomes a priest, determining that religion was how he would make a difference, but he quickly discovers that — despite the fact that he is speaking to people, and they seem to be listening — nothing is changing.

I can identify with this sentiment, partially as a preacher and partially as a member of this generation. I value words, partially because I was taught that what we write and what we say matter, but also because most of my work as a preacher is centered around words. Words spoken in worship, words in lessons, words in sermons. But at the end of the day, saying something is not the same as doing something, and speaking about change is not the same as seeing change happen.

In the comic, by means of some mystical encounter, the main character gains the ability to change the world just by imagining something. He can create with mere thoughts.

Suddenly his perceived impotence to change the world is gone, and he sets about “fixing” the world. He makes food grow where people are hungry, he provides shelter for victims of a hurricane. He provides for the world in the best way he can imagine, and the world loves him for it.

Then, in an act of selfishness, he changes his wife’s body and it results in her death.

From that point on, his imaginations are dark and twisted, and he is afraid of his own mind. He curses the being that gave him his powers over reality. In the process of trying to undo the damage that he’s done, he learns how his abilities are limited. He can manifest things from his imagination, things that already exist somehow, but he can’t create from nothing.

Eventually, through effort and wrestling with himself he comes to realize the following: He has the power to destroy, the power to change the world, and the power to hurt people – all powers he already had before the mystical encounter.

Without spoiling the rest of the comic, I believe this is the crux of what we are meant to read in this book. It’s the message that Generation Y has to hear, so that it doesn’t get bogged down in the places where it feels like the world is out of its hands. Generation Y needs more than words to take advantage of its power, but the power is still out there.

And like another comic we all know and love told us, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

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Writing Sexy Well

99% of the time, when someone talks about the sexualization of pop culture, they mean it in a negative way. I’m guilty of this negative thinking, of course. I get annoyed when characters (especially female) are included in stories just to be sexy counterparts to the main character. The writer of Pretty Deadly, Kelly Sue DeConnick, calls this the “sexy lamp” paradox — if a character could be replaced with a nice looking lamp and not really change the story at all, then you have a problem.

To be honest, though, I wouldn’t want a comic culture completely devoid of sex (or sexiness). After all, sex is a pretty natural and (nearly) universal aspect of humanity. It’s valuable to have art and stories that address sex in a comfortable and honest way, while still dealing with the strange social conventions (and shame and discomfort) that come with it.

That’s what Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky does.

When the book first began it’s monthly run, I was resistant. First of all, I had just read a book by Matt Fraction that I didn’t really like, so I was suspicious of all the hype he was getting as a writer on a new Image title. Secondly, there was just so much hype. After a while, reading comic journalistic outlets became frustrating. “We get it, already, Sex Criminals is starting soon…” Thirdly, I thought the concept of the book sounded kind of lame. The back cover reads: “Girl meets boy, girl hooks up with boy, and for the first time in their lives they find themselves alone, together. So they do what any new young couple having sex and freezing time might do: they rob banks.”

That summary is eye-roll inducing at best.

But I waited a few months and the hype didn’t die down. Every month Sex Criminals was getting rave reviews and was earning more and more buzz in the comics community. The first issue went into 5 print runs. That means it sold out at least 4 times before they quit selling it.

I wasn’t even convinced by its popularity until I saw the 4th printing cover of issue 1.

When I saw it, I was ready to pony up the dollars to check it out. Unfortunately my local comic book shop at the time sold out of that printing and so I didn’t get to read it until this past month when Volume 1 of Sex Criminals was released. It collects issues #1-5.

I don’t want to spoil the comic too much because it’s worth reading on your own another time but here’s the core concept: whenever Suzie (the female lead) or Jon (the male lead) orgasm, time stops around them. The first volume is mostly about the conditions under which they meet and decide to attempt the “crime” that earns the book its title.

Despite the setting, the majority of the book is actually a realistic (or at least believable) look at how adolescent-to-teenage people encounter sex. In Jon’s words, “Back then sex was everywhere… and, like, nowhere at the same time. Right?”

Suzie and Jon are introduced to sex in different ways. Perhaps both in ways that women and men can identify with respectively. Suzie “stops time” before she understands what sexuality is, and is met with resistance whenever she asks questions from those who might know. Her mother refuses to answer anything and offers only shame, her doctor dissuades her from experiencing (or asking about) sex until she’s married, even her peers can only offer more confusion – since they are equally uninformed.

Jon doesn’t get it either – he just understands sex as something adults did “like doing your taxes,” and then doesn’t understand why he wants so badly “to do his taxes.” Instead of seeking answers from someone who might know, Jon goes to the next best authority figure: porn. For both of them, sex is a secret and opens them up to a world of more secrets.

Suzie calls it “the Quiet” – the period after sex when the time stops around them – because the rest of the world stops making any sound. (Jon calls it something else, decidedly NSFW.) The Quiet seems like a good metaphor for the way adolescents and teens are exposed to sex for the first time. It’s secret, but it’s all around them; it’s private, and it’s weird; it’s confusing and it’s unfathomably desirable.

Suzie and Jon’s first time together in the Quiet.

Aside from the way Sex Criminals handles the attitudes of each character toward sex, and the development of each one’s sexuality, the book also does something impeccable. It is honest about how funny sex is! Let’s think for a second and be honest with ourselves – sex is weird and fun and awkward and it makes us giggle. While the humor in this book doesn’t always stem from sexual encounters, it’s disarming and makes the whole book feel more authentic.

When you pick up Sex Criminals, keep an eye out for the subtle (or not so subtle) jokes in the background. Plenty of the porn titles seen in the background of a sex shop had me laughing outloud while I read.

It’s refreshing to see a comic book that is so comfortable with sexuality. I was suspect of the campy, B-Reel movie plot that is teased on the back cover, but this book has a lot more going for it that can’t be summed up in cover quotes and blurbs. Pop-culture has a love-hate relationship with sex – it either falls into the trap of feigned maturity (masking immaturity) that oversexualizes characters and situations (usually female characters), or it avoids the topic of sex entirely. It’s not that every comic book has to mention sex to tell “real” stories, but telling stories about human experience must sometimes require acknowledging our sexual natures.

Sex Criminals is definitely the exception to the rule. It’s disarmingly tongue in-cheek, but without belittling sexuality; it speaks seriously about social conventions of sex, but without being a treatise on sex-positive child-rearing.

Comics have grown up. For real this time. Instead of pretending to be grown-up by being ridiculously violent, now they’re effortlessly comfortable with their own sexuality. That’s a good thing, and I’m interested to see if it’s a new trend or just a flash in the pan.

Super Shame

NPR recently re-aired an episode This American Life from February 2001 about Superpowers. The entire episode is well worth a listen, but I’ll be focusing on Act One for this article. Act One of this episode features John Hodgeman’s “unscientific survey” about superpowers: “Would you rather have the power of Flight… or Invisibility?”

Which would you choose? It’s not an easy choice. There are clear advantages to either power, but then there are disadvantages too.

Most of the people quoted in the segment make their choice for based on some kind of practical convenience. From this point, Hodgeman begins a social commentary about why people choose their power – and what they would do with it.

“People who turn invisible will sneak into the movies or onto airplanes … people who fly stop taking the bus. Here’s one thing that pretty much no one ever says, ‘I would use my power to fight crime.’ No one seems to care about crime.”

Super-heroics don’t necessarily go hand-in hand with super powers. There are, of course, practical reasons for this as well. Superman is able to fight evil because he can do a great deal more than fly — he’s also super-strong and practically invulnerable. Invisible Woman can also create force-fields and is part of the Fantastic Four, only one part of a team that fights evil. Even the anti-heroic Shadow (who uses psychic tricks to make himself invisible) relies heavily on guns to do the fighting for him.

Flight or invisibility aren’t enough to make us safe from someone stronger or better armed than us. So we ask ourselves, “Why take the chance?”

Back to Hodgeman’s interviews:

“More than the ability to, say, burst into flame or shoot arrows with uncanny accuracy, flight and invisibility touch a nerve — actually they touch two different nerves. [They] speak to different primal desires and unconscious fears.”

One interviewee noted the following:

“One superpower is about something that’s obvious, the other is about something that’s hidden. I think it indicates your level of shame. A person who chooses to fly has nothing to hide, a person who chooses to turn invisible wants to hide themselves.”

Another interviewee made this observation:

“It all has to do with guile. If you want to be invisible, it means you’re a more guileful person. If you want to fly it means you’re guileless. And I think the reason that I’m so conflicted about flight vrs. invisibility is that I have guile, but I wish that I didn’t.”

Whether or not you’re willing to admit that you have guile (sly cunning and dishonesty), another interviewee made the accusation that people who would chose flight are lying. All of us want to be invisible so that we can do any number of sneaky or voyeuristic things, she insists. She believes that if you really want to fly, you’ve made yourself believe something false about your own heroic identity.

Hodgeman ends up his act by saying this, “At the heart of this decision, the question I really don’t want to face, is this: who do you want to be? The person you hope to be, or the person you fear you actually are?”

Superheroes already have a complex relationship with expectation and shame. It’s one of the sources for the problem of needing a secret identity. How can Peter Parker deal with the expectations of being Spider-Man all the time? He can’t, which is why it’s important that Peter Parker and Spider-Man be (at least nominally) different people. Most superheroes will also have a secret identity to protect their loved ones from harm at the hands of a supervillain who would use them as leverage against the hero.

But there’s an aspect of shame tied to every masked super-hero. What they’re doing must be done, at least partially, in secret. At the end of the day, every superhero with a mask is a vulnerable human being (whether or not they’re actually human) that fears for their own safety and social stability enough to adopt a new personality and hide it from their old one.

Like any classic hero, we’re all often stuck between two worlds. We’re public and private. We’re graceful and awkward. We’re brave and fearful. There are times where we’re proud – where we accomplish things that put us above our peers, soaring through the air. And there are times where we hide – when we’re embarrassed or afraid and we want to disappear into the shadows. The choice between two powers is more than arbitrary, and it’s difficult for an important reason: according to Hodgeman it’s not a once-and-for-all question of whether we fly or whether we fade. We all do both every day. 

Kamala Khan: Phil Coulson 2014

The two biggest publishing houses in comics, Marvel and DC, have been under a lot of scrutiny in the past few years for how their titles portray women, people of color, and LGBT characters, as well as how many creators they employ who are women, people of color, or LGBT. It started a sort of Race to Diversity in some readers’ eyes, and many thought that “good storytelling” was being compromised for the sake of “unnecessary” or “arbitrary” diversity.

It hasn’t been easy for either Marvel or DC to make and keep the changes that would bring their comics into the year 2014 as far as demographics are concerned – but Marvel seems to be doing a much better job. In many ways I think that’s because Marvel excels at telling stories about how super-heroes affect non-powered humans. The more your stories are about the “average person” the more you’re able to invest in discussing what “average” actually means.

Last month saw the release of Ms. Marvel #1. “Ms. Marvel” was the former super-hero name of Carol Danvers, a lesser-known Avenger known now as “Captain Marvel.” (Trivia: Captain Marvel was previously a DC title featuring the character now known as Shazam until Marvel recently re-acquired the rights.) But in the past year, Carol Danvers has been to deep-space and back with the rest of the extended Avengers team in the Infinity storyline (which is well worth the read, if you haven’t gotten around to it yet).

Anyway, part of including the stories of non-powered humans is telling the stories of fictional fans of the super-hero teams. The Avengers, being the most well-known group, naturally attract a lot of fans. The kind of fans that write fan-fics and blog about their favorite heroes. The kind of fans who act out pretend super-battles in their house while their family roles their eyes. The kind of fans who collect vintage trading cards of with their favorite heroes on them.

Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) was the film that pushed the super-hero movie genre fully into the mainstream of entertainment as the third highest grossing film of all time. One of the most memorable scenes in that entire film was the fanboyish fawning that Phil Coulson does over his hero, Captain America. He asks him to sign his vintage collectible cards. Fans took to Phil Coulson right away. Marvel’s newest sensation. He was one of us, a non-powered hero that was prone to hero-worship himself — awkwardly embarrassing himself on a quinjet full of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and superhumans when he tried to explain to Steve Rogers that there were collectible cards with his face on them.

Back to 2014, a new face of comic super-fandom has arrived: Kamala Khan, the star of Ms. Marvel #1.

Kamala is a quirky, nerdy, teenage Avengers superfan. She wears a sweatshirt with Carol Danvers’ trademark lightning-strike logo, she writes fan-fiction comics, and she even talks to an imaginary Carol about how much she’d like to be her! She’s also Muslim, a very under-represented demographic in pop culture.

The dramatic conclusion to Kamala’s fan fiction…

Well, for anyone who loved Coulson before his debut in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tv show, you might have a new fictional best friend. What most of us loved about Coulson was that he was charming in his awkward hero worship, but he was also competent, dangerous, and loyal. Kamala, in this first issue of Ms. Marvel is shown to be awkward, charming, and loyal, and the teaser at the end of the issue indicates she’s going to be competent and dangerous – like any good hero should be. The difference between Coulson and Khan is that where Coulson is a middle-aged white man, Khan is a teenaged, brown-skinned, Muslim girl.

If we take a moment to look back into comics history, Peter Parker was so important  in his time because the original Spider-Man comics tackled not only with street crime and super-villainy, but what it meant to be a contemporary teenager. The X-Men were trying to live the dual life of young Americans whose identities would make them outcasts – a very real feeling for many people, even today.

It represents a lot that Marvel’s newest, most relatable character is a Muslim teenage girl. I hope that Kamala will be for comic fans of all identities what Peter Parker was for previous generations of awkward teens – escapism with a dose of what’s real to them. Nobody has to imagine what it’s like to be a teenager, or even what it’s like to feel like you don’t quite fit in. We’ve all been there. For Kamala Khan, her religious identity and nerdy fandom set her on the fringes of her social scene; for others it might be sexual orientation, gender, age, or skin color. But seeing heroes with whom we can identify coping with “real” problems at the same time as they’re saving the world is the kind of cathartic pop art that, historically, brought comics into their own.

Everybody knows that feel. Well… Except for the boot thing I guess.

Ms. Marvel is in the rising tide of new characters and ideas that will make comics (my favorite pop culture art medium), and all the greatness that’s a part of them, available to people that aren’t white dudes and want to occasionally read a story about someone like them.

Hellhound on my Trail

Geek culture, perhaps more than any other American subculture except fundamentalist Christianity, is fascinated with Hell.

From Hellboy, Hellblazer, and Spawn to Devil May Cry, Doom, and the Diablo series, geeks are going to hell on a startlingly regular basis. Maybe it’s not too hard to understand. Even as far back as Dante, Inferno shows us that the hell is ripe with vivid imagery that captures our imaginations.

Hell is also useful to comic creators and game designers because it acts as an effective stand-in for all things evil. In earlier eras of comic books and video games, Nazis filled this role. This worked in the golden age of comics because WWII was still fresh (or still going on, in some cases) and many of the industry’s progenitors were Jewish immigrants. It worked in a more recent era of video games because the first-person shooter genre experienced explosive (no pun intended) growth and killing Nazis effectively dodged any questions of morality from outsiders that the industry wasn’t ready for (but now faces anyway).

WWII games don’t sell well anymore. The games industry dried up that well. And, with the exception of the “Captain America” film, telling a story with a Nazi as the villain is falling out of vogue. That leaves us with demons to fill the void.

With a convenient, practically faceless enemy, we’re allowed to tell horror stories on an otherworldly scale. There’s nothing to lose when Jamie Delano tells a story about John Constantine foiling the machinations of (literally) baby-eating demons.

But a convenient, faceless enemy also lets us tell stories about real-world evil. Horror stories change when the thing we’re afraid of becomes real and present. Hell becomes an easily painted landscape for our own vices — greed and violence in particular.

That’s all fine and easy, but what does it say when the protagonist — the most likable character, the character most easily identified with — is a demon himself? That’s what we get with Hellboy.

Hellboy’s first day on Earth. From Mignola’s comic.

Looking at either the Hellboy movie or comic, we have a demon, summoned from hell by a power-hungry wizard, Rasputin. When he’s brought to earth, Hellboy is rescued from Rasputin by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm. Of course, Bruttenholm “raises” Hellboy and gives him a strong moral compass and by the time we see anything of an adult Hellboy he’s a hero; part of the “Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense” with his enigmatic ally Abe Sapien and the volatile Liz Sherman.

But if you’ve seen the movie or read the first couple of volumes of the comic book, you know that Hellboy’s origins are always right behind him. The hero is plagued by his hell-born nature and Rasputin (and others like him) are often hunting him down trying to coax him into embracing his birthright: bringer of destruction and downfall.

So the hero, the sympathetic character, the character with whom we identify the most, spends some time each day with a belt sander, keeping his horns from growing too large.

Theologically speaking, this type of writing gets into some funny territory. If Hellboy is meant to be our presence in the story, then we’re also meant to feel like that demonic pull is ever-present in our actions. Not only that, but we have to actively fight our so-called “true” nature to keep a fast hold on our moral compass.

There’s a big difference between saying that everyone is a demon just under the surface and telling a story about a demon who is a lot more like us than we might care to notice. I don’t actually think Mignola does the former. He certainly does the latter. It’s when we are watching our sympathetic hero being tempted and fighting back against his evil heritage that these stories pick at our own insecurities. While none of us are demons, history has shown all too well the “demonic” potential of humanity.

But then what’s just as important is what Hellboy does at the end of the film (also in the comics). Even when given all the power associated with his birthright, he breaks off his horns and tosses them away. He rejects the easy power and ensures that greed and violence don’t win the day.

Hell, in almost every story, is something to be beaten. Whether it’s something to be obliterated with guns (as in the case of Devil May Cry and Doom), or something to be overcome (like in Hellboy, and also Devil May Cry to some extent), it’s almost always a stand-in for some other hurdle. Very few of us could relate to these hellscapes if they were only about large-scale cosmic battle for good. But when they get to us for what they represent — our own evil — they draw us in.

By my estimation, all of our trips to hell mean something other than the occasional vivid or frightening image. They are a reflection of ourselves. And, in turn, that makes characters like Hellboy, who overcome the hellishness that tries to corrupt them, all the more important.

The Isolated Geek

Like a fuzzy mammalian beast emerging from it’s winter cave, the Promethean Playground writers have had our fill of holiday meals and down time, and having hibernated successfully, we’re eager to hit the ground running with a whole new set of profound thoughts  for 2014. Happy New Year!

As we go into a new year and I look forward to all the new geeky things that are coming down the pipeline, I’m sort of amused to think about how mainstream my cultural niches are becoming. Comic book movies now run with the big dogs in the summer blockbuster lineup and video games are now so popular that nearly everybody I run into considers themselves a gamer.

This really is the era of the geek. Despite the best efforts of insulting shows like Big Bang Theory, King of the Nerds, and Heroes of Cosplay to ridicule us wholesale, it remains pretty socially acceptable to be a devoted fan of sci-fi, fantasy, comic books, and video games.

Maybe I just know the right places to look now, but when I was younger, it was incredibly rare to find someone with whom I really shared interests, and I always felt the need to keep many of my favorite things relatively secret. As a result I had few true friendships, but those I did have were deep and long lasting.

In between the times I could be with my good friends, I often felt a little isolated. (Before I move on, I should say that this doesn’t mean I had a “bad” childhood or anything. I was never bullied, really, and occasional loneliness is a reality of many lives.) I can’t be the only one that felt this way, and I think it probably resulted in a lot of really good geek art.

What jumps immediately to mind is the work of Jeff Lemire. His writing (and art, for that matter) in The Underwater WelderLost DogsSweet Tooth, and, more recently, Animal Man shows a profound understanding of isolation that I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered anywhere else.

It’s clearest in Underwater Welder, where the protagonist relives his past while walking through a deserted parody of his home town.

It’s hard to avoid the imagery in this book. The protagonist does his job (a welder for an offshore oil rig) while trapped in waterproof armor, surrounded by silent water, connected to the rest of the world only by a thin strand.

For a person whose greatest fear really is long-term isolation, Underwater Welder is an emotional, difficult book to read. But it’s beautiful all the same. In a feeling that definitely isn’t schadenfreude, reading a book like this gives a person the relief of knowing that someone out there knows what it’s like.

So in this way, I feel like Lemire and I might be the last of a fortunately dying breed: the isolated geek. (Apologies to Mr. Lemire for making so many assumptions about his life.) I haven’t experienced that kind of isolation in years. In fact, in the room I’m sitting in now I’m surrounded on one side by group of people younger than me happily trash talking as they play a Marvel vs. Capcom fighting game, on another side by a guy perfecting a deck of trading cards, and on another by a couple with a pair of 3DS’s dueling each other in Pokemon X/Y. None of them have the trepidation I would have had when I was a teenager about doing the things they love in public. It’s wonderful.

But before we hang up our hats, turn off the lights, and enjoy our new social station, it might be worth remembering that all of geekdom isn’t as welcoming as the coffee shop I happen to be in right now.

Without getting into the exhausting details, I just hope that when we play Limbo, when we read The Underwater Welder, when we experience geek art that emphasizes the painful reality of isolation, we make every effort to make sure no other geek has to feel that isolated.

Let’s make it so every every one of our niches is as welcoming to others as this place is to us.

Salvation from the Outside-In

As much as I claim to love sci-fi in all my geekery, my exposure to it is almost exclusively through comic books or video games. I don’t have much exposure to the “classics” and genre-makers outside of Star Wars/Star Trek.

But a few years ago I read the first Dune book by Frank Herbert. It instantly became one of my favorite sci-fi stories of all time.

For anyone who hasn’t read it, it’s about Paul Atreides, the heir to a governing family who is betrayed and ousted from their throne on the desert planet of Arrakis. Arrakis seems to be a clear allegory for the middle-east. We learn very early on that Arrakis is the only source in the galaxy for the “spice” Melange. The spice is used by the spacing guild for interstellar travel. Does that sound like the oil industry to anyone else?

Anyway, the Atreides family is not native to Arrakis, but had been moved there to rule over it by an imperial edict. During the coup, Paul and his mother escape into the desert and are reluctantly taken in by a tribe of Fremen, who are the desert-dwelling natives of Arrakis. In a relatively short amount of time, Paul joins the Fremen under a new name Muad’Dib (the name of a desert mouse respected by the Fremen) and becomes their messiah, Lisan al-Gaib, who will make their desert planet more hospitable.

A couple of weeks ago I watched the 1927 film Metropolis.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s about Freder, the son of a wealthy industrialist who is the captain of industry in the Metropolis where the truly wealthy, who live high above the ground in the city’s buildings, have attained their wealth on the backs of the truly poor, who live and work on machines deep in the bowels of the city. Freder is shown the conditions of his “brothers” in the working class and is overcome with compassion. He meets a woman, Maria, who has become the spiritual leader of the working class.

Maria preaches a sermon (which Freder overhears) that compares the Metropolis to the biblical Tower of Babel. She says that those who built the tower (the “hands”) couldn’t communicate with those whose grand design the tower was (the “brain”) without an intermediary (who she calls the “heart”). To make a long story short, Maria believes Freder is the “heart,” the mediator, for the Metropolis who will ensure communication between the workers and the industrialists — but this is only discovered after the workers start a violent uprising that results in cataclysmic flooding of their homes, threatening the lives of their children.

I noticed after a little bit of reflection that these two classic works share one very obvious thing in common — both feature a privileged hero that enters into an underprivileged community to “rescue” them from their plight.

Chani, a Fremen girl with whom Paul falls in love, from the David Lynch’s 1984 Dune movie. Note her characteristic blue eyes.

Whilte Dune’s native characters seem to have a variety of skin colors (except in film, where they are white), their entirely-blue eyes are a distinct visual quality that comes from prolonged exposure to the Melange spice. But since their culture is so clearly based on Earth people of color, the Fremen are often assumed to be brown-skinned. In Metropolis, the entire cast is white, and it’s primarily clothing and demeanor that distinguish the classes. Both films, however, have an element of the White Savior trope. (Before I go on, I want to interject here and say that just the fact that a story leans on a trope doesn’t make it a bad story. I think both of these works are excellent. Or at least very important.)

The White Savior trope is found in stories where a privileged outsider (usually literally white) encounters an indigenous group who has been oppressed (usually literally non-white), joins them, and then is the catalyst for the ultimate improvement of their lives. This is typically in the form of leading a rebellion against the White Savior’s previous oppressor-group, or providing the indigenous group with some sort of wisdom (like teaching them their value).

These are nowhere near the only works that make use of this trope. More movies than I can count fit the bill, along with plenty of video games, and plenty of novels. Many stories like this have earned a solid pedigree as “classics” because arts and entertainment have long been the domain of white men.

Stories that use this trope are often quick to point out culpability. “Of course white men were responsible for oppression. But that was in the past, and it’s only a few white men that are still oppressors. See look at how good we can be!” is the premise of many of these films.

The issue with these stories isn’t necessarily that premise. It could be perfectly true and the trope would still be a problem. The issue is that the white savior trope implies that without a white savior, none of these groups could “save” themselves. In Metropolis, it seems like the writers of the story had this problematic thesis explicitly in mind. When the poor workers began their uprising without the guidance of Freder, their savior, they are caught up in a furious mob that nearly brings about the death of all of their children.

Maria tries to save the children of the Metropolis during the flood caused by their parents. Again, without Freder, the children would have died.

Dune’s white savior, Paul-Muad’Dib, was foretold in the mythology of the Fremen people. But we find out in the story that their mythology had been manipulated by a secret matriarchal religious group, called the Bene Gesserit, of which Paul’s mother is a part. The Fremen people were conditioned to believe that their salvation couldn’t come except at the hands of an outsider.

Recognizing the role that geek culture has played in forming this particular trope, what is it that we geeks (but particularly white male geeks) take away from that discovery?

White males are in the unique cultural position of having agency in every situation. Except in very intentional situations, white men always have a voice that people in power are more likely to listen to than if the voice had belonged to a woman or person of color.

Is the lesson we learn from this trope that privileged people shouldn’t use their voice on behalf of the unheard?

I don’t think so… But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything. One of the biggest pitfalls many “charities” encounter in their work in underprivileged communities is making the assumption that they know how to “fix” all of that community’s problems. They begin to act without taking time to ask the community members themselves what they need.

We who have power tend to assume that we know best. We’re not wrong to think that we should help when we can, but we need to recognize that help can only be defined by those who want it, and often listening is much more beneficial than speaking out.

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P.S. I couldn’t think of any geeky stories that explicitly resist the white-savior trope. This might be a problem of my cultural location – I’m a white man who falls easily into patterns of “favorites” and therefore doesn’t actively seek out stories created by persons of color. There are myriad works I can think of that don’t rely on this trope simply by virtue of having an all-white cast, but that hardly seems helpful either. I’d be really interested to hear from any readers that know of a story where an indigenous group advocates for themselves, or where a white-savior isn’t the sole protagonist, or where no attempt is made by a white protagonist to join and lead a closed indigenous group.