Friday, January 6, 2012

Misfit Zeitgeist

This fall, my older daughter entered middle school, and I was scared stiff.  This is a child who runs around in the woods with a cloak on, who has always had her own (sometimes very odd) sense of style, a person who has done conceptual art -- without any prompting -- from the time she was perhaps three years old.  She is intelligent, sweet, and totally unlike any of her peers.  I knew she was doomed: she'd get eaten alive.  I certainly had, at that age -- and she was like me, but more so.  (This is the same daughter who took those endlessly popular pictures of tourists at the Tower of Pisa when she was nine).

She was aware of my anxiety, despite my attempts to be calm.  "Mama," she announced to me in August, after coming back from the be-who-you-are heaven of Camp Winnarainbow, which she says is like a second home for her,  "I've decided on a strategy.  I'm going to wear clothes that are totally me, and then see who wants to hang out with me.  If they don't like it, we'll both know we shouldn't be friends.  If they do like it, then I'll have found people like me to hang out with."

I was secretly skeptical of this idea, because I felt she had really no conception of how cruel people can be in junior high, but I stifled that part of me long enough to praise her for coming up with a plan.  And then the rest of the month she hit the thrift stores, and went through her clothes, throwing out anything that didn't fit in with the "real" her, with the exception of some comfy old clothes for around the house.

Then school came, and she wore... well, all of it.  Even the cloak.  And she got no grief for it.  Sure, she got a couple of annoying boys buzzing around, saying, "why are you wearing a cape?"  To which she answered, with admirable aplomb, "It's not a cape, it's a cloak.  Capes don't have hoods."  And they nodded!  And went away!  And the girls didn't even whisper about her!  Except for one couple of (potentially interesting) girls who said to each other "Wow!  That girl is wearing a cloak!  How cool is that?"

So either she's totally insensitive to the giggles and whispers, or middle school has changed inordinately since I was there.  True, that was a long time ago, and true, this is an unusual American town, being an easygoing surf town in California; but I don't think children that age have changed that much.  Instead, I honestly think the culture has morphed a little.  I think the geeks, by hook or by crook, have begun to inherit the earth.

This is what I arrange as my evidence:  Mulan, the girl who was not supposed to dress like a boy and go to war.  Harry Potter, who went against all that he was told to do, and endured whispers and self-doubt while hanging out with a girlgeek that we all loved.  The Incredibles, where a family of unwanted misfits save the world and learn to let their oddness hang out. Percy Jackson. How to Train Your Dragon.  The Sorcerer's Apprentice movie, which took a whole show you can see live at Maker Fair as a centerpiece of geek creativity.  Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book, which turns the whole misfit thing wonderfully on its head.

Lesser known are things like the excellent young adult book Stargirl, and the incredibly inspiring graphic novel Page by Paige, as well as the fine novel A Mango-Shaped Space, and many, many others.  All about people who do things differently than the norm, and who are worthy role models.

Face it, this isn't the 80's anymore.  This isn't Pretty in Pink, where they changed the ending so Andie gets together with the boring jerk guy, simply because the sample audience didn't like it otherwise.  In this incarnation, Ducky not only wins, but the audience applauds because the misfits are happy being themselves.

In the adult world, we have the Maker movement.  Burning Man.  XKCD.  Steve Jobs (okay, that was obvious).  In other words, the geeks of the last generation got creative jobs, started companies like Pixar, and began to influence culture.  Or they took time off from their dayjobs to go out into the desert and build huge sculptures and hang out with people in an alternate city, where the whole local cultural system is based on the idea of giving, of creativity, of being eccentric.

And what about the Steampunk movement?  Before it was boiled down to gears and Victorian garb, it was a bunch of people making things, creating their own alternate aesthetic, revamping computers and rebooting scooters.  And all the other things people did before you just bought your stuff on etsy from people who still do make things.

My point is, even in the mainstream, it's all trickling in.  Children are being raised on a diet of misfit heroes, because the people writing the stories and making the films and producing the media were often misfits themselves.  And who doesn't create stories that are, to some extent, about themselves -- or at least about people they identify with?  And, when they get older, if they're lucky, they'll discover that a lot of misfits are now having a lot of fun doing weird, fun things they made up out of thin air -- and everyone's welcome.

There are a number of interesting factors here, besides the obvious "geeks growing up and taking over" model.  For one thing, the whole Web 2.0 model of users creating content means that people are taking control over their own creative production.  Communism, if you will, of the culture, where the most outrageously weird person can get seen for their creative genius.  For another, there is the way the Internet has allowed subcultures to flourish: geeks and eccentrics and anyone else can now band together with people of like minds to create a subculture, instead of sitting at home thinking they are the only one in the world who thinks the 17th and 18th centuries were the coolest ever.

And the more this happens, the more the people who learn the technology are the ones who will be producing the creative stuff that influences culture... and on and on.

Interestingly, it has been pointed out that clothes fashions haven't changed much recently.  Car styles haven't changed much either, and nor has music.  No one is coming up with the new Punk Rock, or the bouffant hairdo.  Back in the last century, clothes and cars and other things were always very distinct from each other from decade to decade, but we haven't seen much of a shift in fashion or industrial design, other than fractional differences, for about twenty years.  Why is this?  Some people say it's because there is too much change: our technology changes so fast and so often that we have had to drop something.  But I think you could phrase it another way -- you could say: our attention is elsewhere.  Cars, clothes, songs, these things are parts of our lives that we live with but don't look at so much.  Many of us are busy with other things, things less everyday.

I am finding, suddenly, that my odd tastes, my weird interests, are becoming the rage.  Everywhere you look, now, references to Wunderkammern and Cabinets of Wonder are popping up, used in every possible way.  Martin Scorcese's wonderful film, Hugo, based on Brian Selznik's even more wonderful book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is full of things which I've been talking about for years.  It's weird.  I'm finding ideas I already wrote into novels suddenly cropping up in novels I'm reading (for example, there is the fabulous Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, which I have just reviewed in the new book review blog Spec Fic Chicks -- where people are remade with machine-parts as part of their anatomies, and ultimately, part of their souls -- is disturbingly close to something I'm trying to sell in a children's book right now).

So this is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, something I hold very dear is suddenly seeing a surge in interest -- yay!  But on the other, it means that the cool things I am interested in are suddenly under public scrutiny, are being watered down as they enter the media and become part of the ad-cycle; and soon, Cabinets of Wonder will be passe, will -- oh horrors! -- show up at Costco.  Except... so little of the history will have been truly described, and thus will remain, mysterious and horrific and beautiful, and essentially untouched, the Platonic ideal of exploration and weird magical science.  I hope.

Despite the fact that I could be out of fashion next week, I find this spirit of the times to be incredibly exciting.  Watching my daughter go off to school in a tight leather vest over a cotton shirt, a Steamboy-style cap, and rainbow rubber boots, and knowing that she is doing it safe from severe criticism is honestly thrilling.  Knowing that my people, my kind, are out there remaking the culture from the ground up, even if I don't always like or believe in the things that they produce... just knowing that they're there, making stuff, questioning stuff, trying new cultural systems, makes my adrenaline pump as I think about all the doors that are opening.  Thinking about it, I get shifty in my seat.  I get excited, because you know what?

We're winning.


Simon Forster said...

As a fellow geek, I too am glad to see all the things I love making it into the mainstream in bits'n'pieces. And Hugo was a fantastic film, so in keeping with the book. I hope this means more films of that ilk, with intelligence behind them.

Purple Mark said...

Lovely post. Thanks for celebrating eccentricity.

Andrew Shields said...

Thanks for the beautiful reflections on beautiful, offbeat people and things! Great to hear that your wondrous daughter is cool in middle school.

nofixedstars said...

i think this is a beautiful musing on a trend i've been discussing with friends for a bit...i'd love to think that we might be moving, ever so incrementally, toward a world in which all manifestations of humanity/human culture are at least respected, if not actually embraced! bon chance to your daughter & kudos to her on her intelligent way of sorting out that first day of middle school.

bzyglowi said...

Certainly I think the growing acceptability of geek culture has something to do with it. I think a lot of it also has to do with confidence. People who are insecure in themselves go after those they see as easy targets. If someone is confident in themselves (as your daughter obviously is) and can brush away their questions with clear, direct answers, then she's obviously not a target.

I wish I had been confident enough to do the same in middle school. Good luck to her, and I'm glad she's able to be herself without hassle. ;)

It'sAllTooMuch said...

I was discussing this post with my nineteen-year-old son. He said that it no longer made sense to speak of geek culture, because it is the mainstream culture now. Comic books, science fiction, Harry Potter, Avatar.
I don't know about car fashions. There is a lot of music that was not around last century. I don't remember hearing anything like Matisyahu, Fleet Foxes, or Devotchka before ten years ago. They aren't mainstream music, but neither was punk rock--at least in the U.S. As for clothes, I would count "a tight leather vest over a cotton shirt, a Steamboy-style cap, and rainbow rubber boots," as something unlikely to be seen last millenium, and we were the poorer for it.