128 Comments

This essay was a great read, and captured many of the feelings I've had myself as an intellectual nerd. I could simplify and call it an immaturity problem, because to an extent, it is. The extension of adolescence through early and well into middle adulthood has made it easier I think, to remain in the realms of the fantastic, to become embroiled in the tribal politics of arguing over this character or that plot line, whereas before, people would graduate to more high brow pursuits. There are no constraints requiring people to genuinely grow up, and if tragedy strikes, it is easier to resort to the realms of adolescent fantasy than contend with the brutality of adulthood. Their character formation and ability to reason and draw from experience is nascent at best.

As such, I've often noted how, even above-average people can tell you ad-nauseum about Taylor Swift and the deep meaning behind her lyrics, endless hours of conversation and thought dedicated to knowing every little nuance about characters in their favorite franchise, and yet -- basic grade school knowledge about weather, geology, history, literature -- it's all replaced with candy-coated fantasy. And they can't contend intellectually or conversationally on topics outside of those very niche fields. It's like talking to philosophy majors who have stayed confined to their one corner of the library, who stare dumbfounded at you when you talk about anything outside of that limited shelf.

Take your LOTR example. I have gotten in knock-down drag-out arguments with men and women who, despite their passionate love for the story, know nothing of Tolkien's life, and at worst, are totally dismissive of how much his love for his Catholic faith infused many elements of the world, without it being a direct parallel (Lembas = the Holy Eucharist, Galadriel as inspired by the Virgin Mary). It is a paltry intellectualism and poor facsimile of a well-formed intellectual life.

For so many adults, there is little guidance to an intellectual formation, as well as how the spiritual and physical formations play into one another as well toward being a fully, well-rounded person. Everything just comes down to dilution and irrelevance, to be commercialized and exploited, ad-infinitum.

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Thinking about it in terms of "maturity" makes sense - there is often something immature about nerdom, with its heroes and villains.

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It reminds me of that passage from 1 Corinthians 13:11 "When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things."

Comics became an escape for those writers and artists of WWI, the Depression, and WWI, who invented mythic heroes, telling stories of good vs evil, to children. As the culture has shifted in rejecting the American mythos, moving away from Christianity, and social attitudes about what is and isn't acceptable for adults to like publicly has changed, again...part of it may be a throw-back to something that was well-loved in childhood, but also it fills a "God-shaped" void. Humans are quite geared toward some kind of mythic storytelling, to relate to, inspire, warn, or comfort.

As one commenter here already noted, he's started to go back and read philosophy and literature. The choice to outgrow what is no longer useful or helps us move forward is one of growth and maturity. A good phrase to summarize your piece is "intellectual stagnation".

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This comment is a bit ironic. I rather see Bible nerds the same way, as overly obsessed with a little bit of fiction, and the simplistic morality therein.

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I suppose it depends on whose theology you're examining. Some protestant theologians are very deep and some aren't, and I'll try not to knock them, but there is also a great richness in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. The ultimate point of the comment, if I remember, was that there is an element of immaturity where the growth process is interrupted, and the people described in the article have not outgrown their childish inclinations.

It seems a bit unfair to assume that those who are religious believe in childish fictions, as humans overall, even the secular ones, are attracted to ritual and and the rhythm of traditions. If you haven't read any theologians, Catholic ones being what I'm familiar with, you may try St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, or St. Edith Stein, a Jewish convert, who is more recent to the cannon of Sts. After all, I myself converted as an adult, well into my adulthood, and my reasons were far from childish. Ironic or not, faith is a choice. I wish you well Miss.

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A book lurks in this comment. Brilliant.

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Brooo...I know right 😹😭😭😭

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Feels like it also might have something to do with the very "heady" and disembodied nature of the nerd. I'm reminded of SBF's insane thoughts on Shakespeare.

Their very sterile outlook earns them status in "logical" circles, but they have a disconnected, impoverished, and child-like yearning for myth. Hence, you have man-babies worshiping Luke Skywalker (Christ) and having a tantrum when their savior is sacrilege'd.

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Interesting thought about SBF - I thought about mentioning him as a sort of person / scandal only possible under nerdom, but sometimes I purposefully resist the topical.

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I haven't read SBF's take on Shakespeare. If it's anything like his philosophy, it probably leaves much to be desired at best, and is corrupted at worst.

And I think you hit the nail on the head. Impoverished and child-like is a great way to describe it; poor or lack of character and intellectual formation just prolongs the issue. Unfortunately, nerd culture just gets exploited; Hoel is right about the mimetic desire part.

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Unsurprisingly, the unwittingly self-satirizing Richard Hanania (also a subscriber here) agrees with SBF. Shakespeare, alas, is not 'intrinsically great' like everyone believes, according to RH. Know why? Because if you trained someone to write like Shakespeare, no one unfamiliar with Shakespeare would be able to tell the difference.

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If Shakespeare were alive today and collecting royalties on his works, he’d be stupendously rich, JK Rowling rich, cubed. So, if it were true one could be trained to write indistinguishably like Shakespeare, someone would be doing it and the VCs would be lining up to fund them.

I wrote a skit a long time ago in which an unknown Shakespeare appears on Shark Tank appealing for funds to stage a new play he’d written that he titled Hamlet. Not one of the sharks could be tempted to bite. They were briefly interested in a CGI ghost and a duel with light sabres, but Shakespeare wasn’t into the nerd thing.

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A wild take, to say the least.

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I think Hanania said that great works of literature were too sparsely packed with information to be worth reading.

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Yes, the modern hubris of thinking information (meaning measurable tangible info) trumps wisdom or humanity or beauty. Sane civilizations considered information as a mere servant of the latter.

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Hubris being one of the perennial themes in great literature. Maybe there's something like the Dunning-Krueger effect for wisdom?

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Here it is. It’s not so much corrupted, as drained to an awful sort of purity:

I could go on and on about the failings of Shakespeare . . . but really I shouldn’t need to: the Bayesian priors are pretty damning. About half the people born since 1600 have been born in the past 100 years, but it gets much worse than that. When Shakespeare wrote almost all Europeans were busy farming, and very few people attended university; few people were even literate—probably as low as ten million people. By contrast there are now upwards of a billion literate people in the Western sphere. What are the odds that the greatest writer would have been born in 1564? The Bayesian priors aren’t very favorable.

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That's the kind of stupidity you end up with when you understand culture as a numbers game.

Even sticking to practical matters, a wiser person would have understood that human experience (love, death, betrayal, passion, faith, doubt, and so on) is something people shared whether they lived in 1600 or 400 B.C or today.

And that earlier eras could see and feel those things in a more raw way, just like they experienced war in a more raw way, or friendship in a more raw way, and so on, without all the artifice, abstraction, and distance we've added to them and piled upon them. Which means they could write about them in a more raw way too. A do it first - defining the scene, not as copies of copies, and references upon references.

Shakespeare knew of Greek and Latin tragedies and British History, sure, but modern writers know of Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, 1000s of famous books, dozens of literary theories, plays, TV series, films, and much more clatter. This doesn't make them better - it makes them derivative and referential. Especially if they are "literate", meaning indoctrinated to be slaves to the theories of their professors and aspiring to be welcomed into literally circles and play to their tastes and all that.

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I actually disagree with this thesis: Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones and Marvel comics were never nerdy. Reading was. (As evidenced by the fact then when all three stories became movies they were suddenly mainstream.)

There are still nerdy intellectuals reading things no one else is, but that’s because no one else reads. It’s the widespread adoption of video that is bringing them into the mainstream (not tech CEOs making nerdom cool).

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Counterpoint: reading is not as much nerdy as intellectual, and nerd-dom being converted into video just exacerbates the problem that nerd culture has less overlap with intellectualism than it used to.

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I think I must just have a completely different meaning of Nerd to the author. The Marvel movies were never by or for nerds.

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I don't remember where I read that, but someone wrote once that the kind of person prone to become obsessed with a niche interest — so, nerds — would, in the past, collect and classify butterflies or something, thereby advancing knowledge; while the same kind of person today is more likely to spend their free time recording every detail from a video game in a specialized wiki instead. (My first thought upon seeing the butterfly illustration was that is was reference to this.)

I'm not sure if that's true, but if so we might reasonably be worried that nerdom becoming a cultural force of its own, with a large market of video games and entertainment franchises to satisfy it, is diverting some of humanity's capabilities towards pointless ends. Maybe that's fine, but I do have a small worry that we're wasting some of our potential, which dovetails nicely with your point on intellectualism.

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Ha, my friend and I call taking photos of wildlives, posting them on iNatutalist and classifying them with other nerds "collecting Pokemons". However, getting into the wilderness is a lot costlier, financially and time wise, than sitting in front of a computer.

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I think the other way around is more likely. Discovering and documenting actual new knowledge is incredibly difficult and unlikely in our day. Therefore, those who desire being experts have a richer opportunities in researching the fictional rather than the physical.

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I think it was also difficult for most people in all periods—there was more low hanging fruit but people had far fewer resources to devote to the task. So a lot of 'nerds' also put their minds to fiction, which often meant mythology and religion. What's change is that there are far more fiction options now.

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Nov 9, 2023Liked by Erik Hoel

Your essay makes me think about the evolution of Jazz — first, its evolution out of more popular forms to become a high art enjoyed by a subculture (bebop in Harlem); then its spread to a broader spectrum of intellectuals (whites in America, then Europe and Asia); then its later popular versions (things like Dave Brubeck, muzak, etc.); then its return to more esoteric roots.

That's a simplification, but the broader pattern is a swing back and forth between esoteric and exoteric. Amazing things come from concentration into an esoteric culture (GRRM's books are a great example), which then expands outwards and cools down (think about how JRRT's characters are flattened and made into comic relief in the films). When this process goes on long enough, interest dies out, the form contracts back into the esoteric core, and the process repeats.

I don't see the CGI fests as surviving much longer; they feel like a hangover from the Joss Whedon era. They remind me of the seriously violent "action" movies from the 1980s — perhaps some people will still consume them, in the same way that some people will continue to consume horror movie franchises, but if I were to predict the next five years, I'd say far fewer Marvel-style films, and probably no high fantasy.

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A bold prediction! I'd love it if CGI fests declined, as I keep seeing those "behind the scenes" and it'll be like a green screen being used in a drama and the actors are talking in a digital park. Like, why didn't you just find a real park...

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The CGI massive budget film has a lot to do with the way the industry was taken over by venture capitalists, but there are legitimate reasons to think that the Marvel/Star Wars industrial complex is running out of steam as it oversaturates the industry. Who knows what will come next, but Disney is actively cutting back on some of these franchises as they haven’t been performing as well anymore.

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We'll have to see. There have been some good films in 2023 that seemed to be taking culture in a different direction, but if I look at the top-grossing films most of them are still hero-villan CGI superhero stories.

The streaming services seem to be taking up the slack with non-nerd content, but it's not particularly good either. Part of the problem is that it's very hard to make a movie without being able to guarantee success.

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When you lump Dave Brubeck, one of the most talented jazz musicians to ever live, in with muzak, you lose a lot of credibility.

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I'm not anti-Brubeck, but I don't think it makes a lot of sense to put him in the same category as the greats. Time Out is fun, but it's not comparable to Mingus Ah Um or Kind of Blue (to take two albums that also came out that year).

What Brubeck *did* do was regularize and popularize some of the idioms in a way that drew a wider crowd of white intellectuals than previously; he showed them how one might listen to (say) Mingus or Charlie Parker.

Trying to think of the parallel in fantasy or science fiction. A recent example might be Andy Weir; for some reason, he was able to capture something of the appeal of hard science fiction, but in a way that was instantly accessible to a much wider audience.

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I don't think I'm in the minority when I say Brubeck is absolutely on par with Mingus and Davis. They are three absolute masters of the jazz artform, and I while we can all rank their music based on our own tastes, I don't think a credible argument can be made that Brubeck's music was somehow lesser than Mingus', or that he had less talent, or less ability to swing.

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And I think the idea that Brubeck , either wittingly or not, 'showed white intellectuals how to listen to' Mingus or Parker, is absurd.

In terms of gateway jazz, 'Kind of Blue' stomps 'Time Out'. Though it, too, is hardly a primer on Mingus or Bird.

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You guys should turn on each other!

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This post reminded me of a great blog post from 2020 titled "Millennials, the Dying Children":

"It's sad to watch my generation collapse into nihilism and fear as our bodies begin the process of dying. The men become bugmen, living to consume, filling shelf after shelf with toys their adult brains can't find amusement in, because they know of nothing else to do. The women are in a panic, desperately trying to hold onto their evaporating youth, trying to prove to themselves that a woman can be just as sexy and alluring at 35 as she could at 23. There's a lot of rage at the Boomers, but it's aimless and uninformed….

Boomers have a perpetual teenage mentality that their parents never understood, and they raised us to be the eternal teenagers they didn't get to be. When you're 17, the idea of just buying cool stuff, having consequence-free sex, and binge-consuming media for the rest of your life sounds fantastic. You do not understand that when you are 40, you will not want that any more. There are tons of guys my age and younger who wear Star Wars T-shirts, collect Marvel [toys], and have gotten vasectomies, and they have no idea why they're so miserable. There are women my age who just broke up with another live-in boyfriend of three years and have no children. So here we are, and we're falling apart....

For my generation, there is not really a path back out. All the social institutions of this country have been detonated in the quest for money and self, or via the hysterical condemnation of every kind of organic social relation as "sexist" or "racist." In the cities, nobody knows anybody. Professional associations and social clubs are borderline nonexistent. Nobody knows or cares about anyone, and nobody knows how to start. It's so sick and twisted that my generation uses the word "community" to refer to people who buy the same consumer products, like going to see a movie means you're part of the "Star Wars community." Even churches have been consolidated into massive theme parks where anonymous masses of people go to be entertained; centuries-old congregations have shuttered as the people moved to the megaplex. Brain-dead "conservative" pundits can only worry our declining birth rate in terms of funding entitlements or GDP; hardly anyone will come right out and say a society with low fertility is fundamentally sick and disordered.

Millennials need to accept that the values inculcated in us were a load of horse crap. I don't see that happening, as we're mostly are upset that we can't live the idyllic lives of self-indulgence the Boomers promised us. Even suggesting that divorce should be harder, marriage should be younger, and women were built to be mothers, not office drones, causes the average Millennial to dissolve into hysterical outrage. We're the generation that thinks having a country is racist and the most important thing about space exploration is making sure hijab-clad Muslims are a part of it. So we're probably not going to snap out of it. We'll be buried in Batman coffins, surrounded by our Xbox games. Maybe whoever buries us will finally discard the morality of the Boomers."

From: https://archive.is/7VPGE

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'Women were built to be mothers'? Charming. And very nerdy.

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Nov 9, 2023Liked by Erik Hoel

This fits with something I’ve been turning over in my head awhile, which is our culture’s deepening obsession with niche achievement. It’s not enough to have a mild enthusiasm for a hobby, it seems. If you like running, you need to run 10ks and marathons; if you like baseball, you need to get deep into the different calculations for defensive WAR (talk about nerd culture). Obsessiveness is increasingly lauded and rewarded; casual enjoyment is derided.

It’s not just that previously nerdy things are cool, it’s that the obsessive fixation that typifies nerdiness is now rewarded in every form.

I think there are a lot more factors at work than top-down tastemaking, though you’re right to highlight. But there’s also the late capitalist strategies of creating demand and the unhealthy fixation on childhood attainment is also at play, where kids are encouraged to fixate on a certain pursuit. I’m not sure how they all relate to each other, but I think you’re absolutely right that a larger cultural shift has occurred.

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Nov 9, 2023·edited Nov 10, 2023Liked by Erik Hoel

Related cultural development around turn-of-century: The shift from nerds-as-sympathetic-underdogs to nerds-as-incumbent-bullies.

For example: This scene in Legally Blonde (2001). https://youtu.be/PlOx9obQ2yg?t=43

Here the nerds are the snobs, Elle is the sympathetic underdog normie.

Even as far as the late 90s movies, the hot blonde would be the unattainable snobbish bully (and the nerd would be the underdog).

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It's almost a sign of being super comfortable with an archetype / demographic when you can make them the villain

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I've read that "comfortability" with certain demographics follows this pattern:

1. No representation

2. Represented as villians

3. Represented as comic relief characters

4. Represented as noble heroes

5. Represented as everyman

Presumably the opposite pattern could be observed as a society becomes less comfortable with a particular demographic.

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Elle's father: "Law school is for people who are boring and ungly and serious, and you're none of those things, Elle." https://youtu.be/Mq0WdUHBvC4?t=88

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Nov 9, 2023Liked by Erik Hoel

I think the truth is a combination of your theory and the FT theory. I know a lot of kids who eschew nerd culture, some who have never seen a Marvel movie, and I’m interested in seeing where that goes. They look at the adults around them (pushing 50 and still dressing like an Anime fairy every day?) and they are disgusted in to a degree that only the very young can attain.

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It's always interesting when the next generation pendulum swings back and rejects what the adults taught/have been doing. Unfortunately, there are so many pendulum swings in terms of social forces, cultural change in attitudes, it's not easy to get your bearings and wager a guess at where things are going.

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I can hardly wait. I'm fairly sick of nerdery ruling the popular arts, and very sick of it producing super-rich, pompous, emotionally stunted elites.

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I'd say one of the reasons is simply that once the *initial* hurdle of "nerds are the most uncool things there is" was passed, it was soon discovered that many nerd properties have highly marketable qualities in themselves. LotR and GoT are basically historical drama without need to observe actual history and with extras - historical drama was already popular. Superhero stuff - "capeshit" has certain soap opera qualities in the amount of characters one is able to track and their simplistic relationship. A lot of nerd stuff allows for wowing and amazing people with copious special effects. And so on.

I remember reading westeros.org when GoT had just been announced, and the median ASoIaF reader seemed to be convinced that it was going to flop, be ended after one season since no-one would watch it, and even if it became popular it would for sure not follow the books at all, the incest subplot and all things like that would be left out, characters cut etc.

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Something that felt to me like a huge milestone in the mimetic transition I remember is the term "brogrammer" around ten years ago. It was basically a signal that enough guys who would have been finance jocks in past years were opting instead to become software engineers.

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A lot of the successful Twitch streamers, like Nick Mercs, have a bro aspect to them. But they also make their living playing video games! Shows how deep nerdom has penetrated.

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An intriguing thesis, but in my estimation it is more the prevalence of ideology, largely thanks to technology, that is siphoning the nerds off before they can blossom into independent thinkers.

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I think you are missing an important point with the last 5 years of nerd culture output: it is largely losing money. The Marvel movies have been flops, Star Wars might be dead, Star Trek died, no one cares about Rings of Power.

The distinction seems to be what people are nerdy about. I suspect the early Marvel movies did well because the nerds writing them were nerds who cared about comics and the characters and settings. They know it front to back, what worked and what didn't.

Now, Marvel movies are written by people nerdy about leftist culture and don't care about the characters and settings, and in fact rather seem to hate them and wish to replace them with their own strange creations.

Early Marvel had a built in, ready made audience of character fans; later Marvel has a built in audience of... I don't know the term for them, but the sort of people who really care that a character has an unusual sexual preference or skin color but don't really care about character or story. That seems to be a really small subset of nerds, while the comic book nerds have largely abandoned the movies, and Tolkien nerds are just not having any of the Rings of Power nonsense.

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I would also note that "nerds spending money" and "nerds are the new high status rich" is essentially the same phenomenon. The nerds started spending money because they were making so much of it.

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It definitely does feel like these things are losing steam, but I don’t know if that’s the reason. I believe that it’s just these franchises having been milked too much and the culture being saturated. I used to be into Marvel, Star Wars, etc and lost interest around 2020 when all of the natural movie arcs ended and everything became contrived and unnecessary shows. There’s been more phase 4 marvel content than phases 1-3 combined, so there’s no chance of it staying nearly as relevant.

I don’t think representation is or ever has been the cause of decline in these franchises. Black Panther has always been one of the more successful marvel movie franchises, even now. As someone who thinks diversity does matter, I stop watching when the people making these movies started doing diversity for the money without any quality (Eternals) but still think it’s neat when it’s done right (Ms. Marvel)

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I think there is something to be said for over saturation, indeed. However, I don't think it is the prime factor. After all, people still watch a hell of a lot of videos, but they want to watch good things, not bad, not to mention the fact that damned near all movies, particularly Disney ones, are doing very poorly. I think that is the biggest issue is that Disney has seemingly decided that representation is more important than story or good writing, and that turns people off. There is certainly a set that is annoyed that every character is being race and gender swapped, sure, but for the vast majority that's sort of irrelevant because they don't know the original characters well anyway. The real problem is that the writing is just abysmal, with stories that don't make sense, morality that is just bonkers wrong, characters that are just cardboard perfect author inserts, etc.

Representation is fine as far as it goes, but it is way down the list of things that matter. People are perfectly happy with female action leads, heroes of every color, so long as the writing is good, the characters are good, the stories make sense, etc. What seems to be happening now is "We hired some people based on their color and reproductive plumbing, then gave them a few million to make a movie. If people don't like it, it must be because they are racist and sexist!" Things would go a lot better if they focused on quality. I think blaming various -isms, and to an extent saturation and super hero fatigue, is really just an excuse for the studios and producers of this stuff.

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I agree that there are bad quality things, but I don't think it's because of the diversity. Movies like the new Indiana Jones, Antman, or whatever Haunted Mansion was still come out with no quality and little success, and I don't think Harrison Ford, Paul Rudd, or Owen Wilson are exactly diversity hires. Meanwhile, things like the new spider-verse are still able to reach success because of their quality and uniqueness, and themes of race are pretty significant there if you pay attention.

Obviously people are going to like things if they're quality and won't like them if they're not. But I don't think representation is what causes poor quality, especially when tv shows like Euphoria or Sex Education are successful and the Barbie movie was the event of the summer.

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I said it wasn't because of the diversity, it is because they traded diversity for quality. Why did they do that? I have no idea, but they are clearly focusing on the diversity. That's all their promotional material, and it is pretty clearly the focus.

Your examples are a bit flawed, because they are clearly focused on replacing the old white male characters with new female or minority characters. Indiana Jones is made to old, tired, depressed and miserable, not to mention incompetent, replaced with Phoebe whatever (who I find miserable, but maybe there's an audience who loves her), paired with horrible dialogue, pointless characters and a dumb as hell story. Ant Man is hardly the hero of his movie, focusing on his daughter who the brilliant perfect best person ever in a film that is just a mess of a story. You could make a really good film about Ant Man and his daughter (and the Wasp, who seems to have just noped out of that one) but that movie wasn't it.

(I have no knowledge of Haunted Mansion other than thinking "Wait... what? They made a movie of that?" so I can't speak to that.)

The Spider Verse movies are exactly my point though: Miles Morales is his own character, not just a remake of Peter Parker. He's got his own things going on and it works. It isn't Natalie Portman calling herself Thor because she got a hammer and therefore takes his first name? And oh, by the way she has cancer but we aren't going to really deal with that or allow it to be a good character moment.

So again, I am not saying the problem is diversity, the problem is that they said "We have diversity. Good enough!" and simply replaced good characters with badly written diverse versions of them, in bad stories. They focused on "diverse" traits of directors, writers, producers, actors instead of traits like "talent" or "multiple braincells to rub together". It would be just as bad if the studios said "We are only hiring white men! Who cares if they are any good!" As it is, however, they seem to have gone in the opposite direction, but the end result is still that they have no one who can create good movies or TV.

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I do not like that D&D is mainstream.

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Nov 10, 2023Liked by Erik Hoel

I think the dominance of nerd culture has fatally wounded nerd culture itself. The best nerd art is informed by outsider status--it is striving and hungry, not smug and self-satisfied. The '80s nerd heroes were heroic, in part, because jocks beat them up. They had to fight for their respect, they had to bust their asses and rack their brains and pour every ounce of themselves into their endeavors. Their work was scrappy, sometimes ugly, but wonderfully visionary and boundlessly creative. Listen to a song by Manilla Road and then one by Ghost and you'll hear what I mean.

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So the nerds are the popular ones and the intellectuals are the underdogs now. We are in some type of inverse matrix reality. Or is it the liminal space? 😂 😂😂 This was a great article by the way. I really enjoyed it! I always appreciate it when gifted writers help me glimpse the world in a new way.

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