I keep noticing a recurring trope in mainstream TV and movies which really bothers me. Maybe you noticed it too. Next time you watch a random sitcom, or some crappy a movie on some cable channel look for the way it portrays smart people. More often than not, the main protagonist will be an average Joe (or Jane) who is good looking but usually not terribly smart. Whenever the hero needs to tackle some scientific/technology related problem he/she will call on the token geek, almost invariably portrayed as a socially inept, reclusive eccentric with taped up glasses and a pocket protector.
Medical doctors are exception to this rule. They can be portrayed as highly intelligent, well adjusted characters with multi-faceted personalities and are allowed to be role models for the audience. But only if they are holding and MD. Anyone who has a PHD or any other doctoral degree automatically becomes an walking plot device or comic relief.
Even when the writers decide to skip the traditional nerd attire, the smart characters are almost always depicted as outsiders. They are never as a member of the inner circle of protagonists, and once they fulfill their role (hack into the main computer, identify someones DNA, explain a difficult subject to the audience and etc…) they are promptly discarded.
Sure, there are shows and movies where the protagonist is a highly educated scientist – but more often than not, these suffer from what I call the Gordon Freeman syndrome. Just like the hero of the Half Life series these characters spend most of their time shooting bad guys, and saving the world using bullets and brute force. Their education and experience only comes into play when they need to overload the flux combibulator to disable the shields on the alien mothership or something like that. And whenever they do apply science in this way, they need to explain themselves to their sidekicks almost apologizing for doing something clever.
This bothers me. How come being ignorant of science and technology is almost always portrayed in such a positive way? How come education and intelligence of a character must always be offset by his social ineptitude, or condescending attitude toward his “techno babble?” How come being above the average in some area is so often portrayed as some sort of socially undesirable eccentricity?
It would be nice to see some dynamic flipped around more often. Why not portray intelligent, educated and insightful characters in positive light, while relegating the ignorant brutes to the role of comic relief. There are shows and movies that try to do that, but many of them do it the wrong way. For example picking a bunch of socially backwards, stereotypical nerds as your protagonists, and then spending most of the time poking fun at their silly habits, hobbies and behavior is just the same kind of anti-intellectual comedy. People keep telling me about the IT Crowd but after watching few episodes, it seems almost as bad as the classic Revenge of the Nerds movies.
Let’s make a smart educated character play the straight man for a change. Instead of caricaturing geeky interests into some monstrous proportion lets elevate them into normalcy. Lets lift the stigma from science – and also science fiction while we are at it. How come characters on a show can never discuss a work of SF or Fantasy without the whole thing turning into a big joke.
How about characters have intelligent and insightful discussions on geeky topics, without making fun of them. For example, take the famous Star Wars conversation from Clerks. There you have two characters who are not stereotypical nerds, discussing a Science Fiction show, making interesting observations without turning the whole thing into a big joke about unhealthy SW obsession. I thought it was brilliant – smart, insightful, and hilarious at the same time.
We need more of that kind of stuff. Let’s make geek or scientist play the straight man for a change – make them be the “normal” character that the audience identifies with.
What do you think? Am I off the mark here? Perhaps I’m watching the wrong shows and movies. Do you think this sad state of affairs is a deeper social issue, or just a side effect of TV and movie makers pandering to the lowest common denominator?
[tags]tv, anti-intellectualism, intellectuals, protagonists, trope, tv, movies, entertainment[/tags]