The Myth of Popularity

WARNING: Everything I say forthwith is purely speculative based on a rough approximation of a presented view of how a part of our world works, plus some vaguely related stuff I happen to know. It is very likely to differ from your own personal view of things, so please don’t get angry with me if it does.

Bad TV and cinema is a great source of inspiration; not because there’s much in it that’s interesting, but because there’s just so much of it that even without watching any it is possible to pick up enough information to diagnose trends, which are generally interesting to analyse. In this case, I refer to the picture of American schools that is so often portrayed by iteration after iteration of generic teenage romance/romcom/’drama’, and more specifically the people in it.

One of the classic plot lines of these types of things involves the ‘hopelessly lonely/unpopular nerd who has crush on Miss Popular de Cheerleader and must prove himself by [insert totally retarded idea]’. Needless to say these plot lines are more unintentionally hilarious and excruciating than anything else, but they work because they play on the one trope that so many of us are familiar with; that of the overbearing, idiotic, horrible people from the ‘popular’ social circle. Even if we were not raised within a sitcom, it’s a situation repeated in thousands of schools across the world- the popular kids are the arseholes at the top with inexplicable access to all the gadgets and girls, and the more normal, nice people lower down the social circle.

The image exists in our conciousness long after leaving school for a whole host of reasons; partly because major personal events during our formative years tend to have a greater impact on our psyche than those occurring later on in life, but also because it is often our first major interaction with the harsh unfairness life is capable of throwing at us. The whole situation seems totally unfair and unjust; why should all these horrible people be the popular ones, and get all the social benefits associated with that? Why not me, a basically nice, humble person without a Ralph Lauren jacket or an iPad 3, but with a genuine personality? Why should they have all the luck?

However, upon analysing the issue then this object of hate begins to break down; not because the ‘popular kids’ are any less hateful, but because they are not genuinely popular. If we define popular as a scale representative of how many and how much people like you (because what the hell else is it?), then it becomes a lot easier to approach it from a numerical, mathematical perspective. Those at the perceived top end of the social spectrum generally form themselves into a clique of superiority, where they all like one another (presumably- I’ve never been privy to being in that kind of group in order to find out) but their arrogance means that they receive a certain amount of dislike, and even some downright resentment, from the rest of the immediate social world. By contrast, members of other social groups (nerds, academics [often not the same people], those sportsmen not in the ‘popular’ sphere, and the myriad of groups of undefineable ‘normies’ who just splinter off into their own little cliques) tend to be liked by members of their selected group and treated with either neutrality or minor positive or negative feeling from everyone else, leaving them with an overall ‘popularity score’, from an approximated mathematical point of view, roughly equal to or even greater than the ‘popular’ kids. Thus, the image of popularity is really something of a myth, as these people are not technically speaking any more popular than anyone else.

So, then, how has this image come to present itself as one of popularity, of being the top of the social spectrum? Why are these guys on top, seemingly above group after group of normal, friendly people with a roughly level playing field when it comes to social standing?

If you were to ask George Orwell this question, he would present you with a very compelling argument concerning the nature of a social structure to form a ‘high’ class of people (shortly after asking you how you managed to communicate with him beyond the grave). He and other social commentators have frequently pointed out that the existence of a social system where all are genuinely treated equally is unstable without some ‘higher class’ of people to look up to- even if it is only in hatred. It is humanity’s natural tendency to try and better itself, try to fight its way to the top of the pile, so if the ‘high’ group disappear temporarily they will be quickly replaced; hence why there is such a disparity between rich and poor even in a country such as the USA founded on the principle that ‘all men are created free and equal’. This principle applies to social situations too; if the ‘popular’ kids were to fall from grace, then some other group would likely rise to fill the power vacuum at the top of the social spectrum. And, as we all know, power and influence are powerful corrupting forces, so this position would be likely to transform this new ‘popular’ group into arrogant b*stards too, removing the niceness they had when they were just normal guys. This effect is also in evidence that many of the previously hateful people at the top of the spectrum become very normal and friendly when spoken to one-on-one, outside of their social group (from my experience anyway; this does not apply to all people in such groups)

However, another explanation is perhaps more believable; that arrogance is a cause rather than a symptom. By acting like they are better than the rest of the world, the rest of the world subconsciously get it into their heads that, much though they are hated, they are the top of the social ladder purely because they said so. And perhaps this idea is more comforting, because it takes us back to the idea we started with; that nobody is more actually popular than anyone else, and that it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Regardless of where your group ranks on the social scale, if it’s yours and you get along with the people in it, then it doesn’t really matter about everyone else or what they think, so long as you can get on, be happy, and enjoy yourself.

Footnote: I get most of these ideas from what is painted by the media as being the norm in American schools and from what friends have told me, since I’ve been lucky enough that the social hierarchies I encountered from my school experience basically left one another along. Judging by the horror stories other people tell me, I presume it was just my school. Plus, even if it’s total horseshit, it’s enough of a trope that I can write a post about it.

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The President Problem

As one or two of you may have noticed, our good friends across the pond are getting dreadfully overexcited at the prospect of their upcoming election later this year, and America is gripped by the paralyzing dilemma of whether a Mormon or a black guy would be worse to put in charge of their country for the next four years. This has got me, when I have nothing better to do, having the occasional think about politics, politicians and the whole mess in general, and about how worked up everyone seems to get over it.

It is a long-established fact that the fastest way for a politician to get himself hated, apart from murdering some puppies on live TV, is to actually get himself in power. As the opposition, constantly biting at the heels of those in power, they can have lots of fun making snarky comments and criticisms about their opponent’s ineptitude, whereas when in power they have no choice but to sit quietly and absorb the insults, since their opponents are rarely doing anything interesting or important enough to warrant a good shouting. When in power, one constantly has the media jumping at every opportunity to ridicule decisions and throw around labels like ‘out of touch’ or just plain old ‘stupid’, and even the public seem to make it their business to hate everything their glorious leader does in their name. Nobody likes their politicians, and the only way for them once in power is, it seems, down.

An awful lot of reasons have been suggested for this trend, including the fact that we humans do love to hate stuff- but more on that another time, because I want to make another point. Consider why you, or anyone else for that matter, vote for your respective candidate during an election. Maybe it’s their dedication to a particular cause, such as education, that really makes you back them, or maybe their political philosophy is, broadly speaking, aligned with yours. Maybe it’s something that could be called politically superficial, such as skin colour; when Robert Mugabe became Prime Minister of Zimbabwe in 1980 it was for almost entirely that reason. Or is it because of the person themselves; somebody who presents themselves as a strong, capable leader, the kind of person you want to lead your country into the future?

Broadly speaking, we have to consider the fact that it is not just someone’s political alignment that gets a cross next to their name; it is who they are. To even become a politician somebody needs to be intelligent, diligent, very strong in their opinions and beliefs, have a good understanding of all the principles involved and an active political contributor. To persuade their party to let them stand, they need to be good with people, able to excite their peers and seniors, demonstrate an aligning political philosophy with the kind of people who choose these things, and able to lay everything, including their pride, in pursuit of a chance to run. To get elected, they need to be charismatic, tireless workers, dedicated to their cause, very good at getting their point across and associated PR, have no skeletons in the closet and be prepared to get shouted at by constituents for the rest of their career. To become a leader of a country, they need to have that art mastered to within a pinprick of perfection.

All of these requirements are what stop the bloke in the pub with a reason why the government is wrong about everything from ever actually having a chance to action his opinions, and they weed out a lot of people with one good idea from getting that idea out there- it takes an awful lot more than strong opinions and reasons why they will work to actually become a politician. However, this process has a habit of moulding people into politicians, rather than letting politicians be people, and that is often to the detriment of people in general. Everything becomes about what will let you stay in power, what you will have to give up to allow you to push the things you feel really strong for, and how many concessions you will have to make for the sake of popularity, just so you can do a little good with your time in power.

For instance, a while ago somebody compiled a list of the key demographics of British people (and gave them all stupid names like ‘Dinky Developers’ or whatever), expanded to include information about typical geographical spread, income and, among other things, political views. Two of those groups have been identified by the three main parties as being the most likely to swing their vote one way or the other (being middle of the road liberal types without a strong preference either way), and are thus the victim of an awful lot of vote-fishing by the various parties. In the 2005 election, some 80% of campaign funding (I’ve probably got this stat wrong; it’s been a while since I heard it) was directed towards swinging the votes of these key demographics to try and win key seats; never mind whether these policies were part of their exponent’s political views or even whether they ever got enacted to any great degree, they had to go in just to try and appease the voters. And, of course, when power eventually does come their way many of their promises prove an undeliverable part of their vision for a healthier future of their country.

This basically means that only ‘political people’, those suited to the hierarchical mess of a workplace environment and the PR mayhem that comes with the job, are able to ever get a shot at the top job, and these are not necessarily those who are best suited to get the best out of a country. And that, in turn means everybody gets pissed off with them. All. The. Bloody. Time.

But, unfortunately, this is the only way that the system of democracy can ever really function, for human nature will always drag it back to some semblance of this no matter how hard we try to change it; and that’s if it were ever to change at all. Maybe Terry Pratchett had it right all along; maybe a benevolent dictatorship is the way to go instead.

Equality vs. Superiority

Has anyone here heard of Anita Sarkeesian? If not, I don’t blame you- I hadn’t either until this morning. She is a feminist activist and video blogger, who recently decided to start a video series entitled ‘Tropes vs Women in Videogames’, in an effort to discuss and address some of the clichés (tropes) that game developers continually use in their portrayal of female characters, the archetypal one being armour (such as that on World of Warcraft) that leaves very little to the imagination. To both fund (since this is one of her main sources of income) and publicise this project, she set up a Kickstarter page (asking for$6,000), and posted a YouTube video… and this is where the trouble started.

As I have said before, the internet (and YouTube in particular) has always attracted the loud, shouty and mind-blowingly offensive, but the response to this video really took the biscuit. I won’t bore you by listing all the comments here, but suffice it to say that the sheer outpouring of hate was quite something to behold. The sheer anger awoken at the merest mention of feminism is quite truly staggering, and it didn’t end there- her Wikipedia page was repeatedly vandalised with explicit sexual references, matching pictures and links to porn sites until it was taken down, at which point the ‘trolls’ started spamming her Kickstarter page to try and get the company to shut her down (although, to their credit, they left it up and her campaign has now received something like $50,000, so there are at least some generous people out there).

The thing that really struck me about the whole business though was the arguments being made against her. For a change, at least some YouTube commenters appeared to actually have a reason for their outrage, and were at least trying (between bouts of  CAPITAL LETTERS and overuse of the word ‘bullshit’) to say what it was.

One chief argument is the current most popular anti-feminist one, namely because it is the only argument with even an ounce of sanity behind it- the idea that nowadays feminism is not about promoting equality, but instead about promoting female supremacy. Now, I actually get where this argument is coming from, because it is actually an issue. Some of the points being raised included the lack of rights for divorced fathers (an area in which I am not especially knowledgeable but am aware there is room for improvement), and the increasing trend for feminists to blame everything bad men do to women on sexism and everything bad women do to men to either be ignored or dismissed as an enigma. This was often linked to another argument regularly championed, namely that complaining about representing women as sex objects in videogames was unjustified because 99% of male gaming characters are the kind of muscled hunks who represent male sex objects, which men never complain about and in any case sex appeal is a necessary selling point of many games. The other main argument centred around ‘why the hell is she asking for money for what she could do for free?’, but since this argument is 1) irrelevant and 2) not thought through (this is her job, so she could do with some cash for it- and more importantly there is no requirement for you to donate so if you dislike the idea then just don’t give her money), I’m just going to stick to the first two arguments for now.

Since so much has been offered championing these two ideas, I thought I would begin by offering the feminist counter-argument to them, so that people can understand the issue fully. Both arguments are, in actuality, perfectly valid and do have evidence to back them up- however, whilst they are entirely appropriate in some scenarios, trouble arises from when they are applied in the wrong place. For example- complaining that women are overly prejudiced against men if a female candidate is preferred over a better-qualified male candidate by a female selector (I will not mention the issue of quotas here, but may in another post) is completely valid. Complaining in this way when a man is given a 20-year sentence for sexual assault is, however, entirely inappropriate.Thus, in this case, the ‘male’ viewpoint thinks that it is entirely appropriate to claim that ‘feminism has gone too far’, because it thinks that the representation of men as muscular ‘perfect males’ means that both men and women are treated as sex objects equally in games. The ‘female’ argument however holds the opinion that T&A is used far more for pure sex appeal than the muscular build of male characters, and that this balance should be redressed by adding more realistic and deep female characters to the gaming world.

To all men reading this (I should probably remind everyone at this point that I am male), feminists have a reason for believing this- and it’s purely social. One bone of contention among feminists is that a sexually overactive male is championed as a ‘ladies’ man’, whilst a comparable woman is simply degraded as a ‘slut’. The old, and relatively true, unfortunately, argument to counter this is the old ‘locks and keys’ principle- the traditional roles of men and women in sex, throughout the animal kingdom in fact, is of the male actively seeking sex wherever it can get it and of the female ‘witholding herself’ until she has found a male she is willing to mate with. Thus, we have locks and keys- a key that can open a lot of locks is an impressive tool, a ladies’ man, whilst a lock that can be opened by a lot of keys is rather insecure and considered a bit rubbish, a slut (my apologies for the rather crude imagery here). The same kind of thing applies in the whole ‘sex objects’ thing- when a man looks at a particularly well-endowed female character, she is more likely to be immediately viewed as a potential sex object to be sought out, whereas if a woman looks at a strong, muscular, impressive guy then he is less likely to be viewed as a one until he ‘comes on’. Thus, one use of female sexual iconography is not ‘balanced out’ by even a large number of ‘ideal men’ unless the sexual link is made explicitly. This also does not take into account the fact that these ‘ideal men’ that people claim are sex symbols are never as provocatively dressed as their female counterparts, which only strengthens the focus on sex appeal portrayed by female characters and skews the balance in favour of the objectification of women.

This counter-argument is, in some ways, no more valid than it’s ‘male’ counterpart- both are opinions based on whether one thinks that sexual imagery within videogames is overly focused towards women or not. If this matter were debated below Sarkeesian’s video, then I actually think it would be beneficial towards all concerned. What I don’t think is right however, is the hideous attacks that have been made against her in that space.

Disagree with her opinion? Fine, make your voice heard. But to attack her personally, to label her “a fucking hypocrite slut”, a coward, to attack her as a Jew, call her a “feminazi” and then claim that her dubbing these people “sexist trolls” is just because ‘oh she has a different opinion to us, so we’re CLEARLY all dicks’ or, worse, ‘because she’s wrong’? That, people, is just being a bunch of idiotic, insensitive morons. Some of the posts just resort to abject rubbish, claiming that ‘women get everything for free’ and ‘why should I have to pay if we get a divorce?’ (quick legal detour- normally because you were her only source of income and she could probably do with a hand to make sure she and your kids don’t starve and have to live out on the streets), and other assorted rubbish. Not only that, but the men (predominantly) posting these are only giving her more ammo, letting her ‘show the world how sexist men still are’, when in reality most of us have got nothing against women being our equals.

I’m not entirely sure where to stand on modern feminism- I entirely agree with equal rights for both sexes, and agree that their representation is not yet equal, but am in places unsure whether they’re pushing a little too far or in the wrong direction. I’m also not sure where I stand on Anita Sarkeesian. But I don’t have to have any views to be appalled at the way she’s been attacked in this scenario, and to condemn the rank idiocy of what is, once again, a minority misrepresenting a huge slice of culture. I mean seriously guys- what the f*&£ are you on?