Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Shirley Temple Effect

Happy Holidays, everyone.

So, as I look around at pop culture the last few years, I have to ask myself, when did we get so damn popular?

Fantasy used to have its own little hole in the wall cafe where fantasy people met and talked to each other.  You knew better than to mention it among mixed company.  We all had our own set of hand gesture signals to let each other know we were in the club.  Whether you said "fantasy" to the outside world with pride or shame, there was a good chance you would get ridicule.  Now I've already talked about this some with nerd evolution (see post), but I am asking specifically, why fantasy, why now?  Harry Potter is a blow up pop culture life style.  Even straight adult men could be caught reading Twilight.  People love The Lord of the Rings series and yet may not even know who Tolkien is.  Clash of the Titans just got remade, which to me is insanity.  How can you top Ray Harrihausen?  I could keep going with examples from movies to books to video games.  The mass public loves fantasy.  Why?

I'll tell you.  It is the Shirley Temple Effect.  During the Depression and to some extent the following war, the world loved that crazy, overly cute tap dancing mop head.  People actually got off on watching pretty-fied versions of the old South where some loyal slave like Step N Fetchit followed her around her daddy's plantation and pretended like he wasn't getting paid a fraction of her salary just to pretend he could dance medium to well, instead of dance the boards off the floor.  What the hell was that all about?

People had no money.  Their lives sucked.  They didn't want to see violent films or films about how much life sucked.  They were living it.  They wanted escape.  They wanted to watch a five-year-old tap dance.  They wanted to see the Old South with beautiful plantations and mansions and know that all had been better, simpler, and might be that way again.

Well.  They had Shirley Temple.  We have Harry Potter.  Our economy has been in the gutter for over a decade.  We're scared of terrorists.  We are fighting one or two wars at a time for reasons unclear to many of us.  I recently celebrated that my home state's, Michigan's, unemployment rate is under %10.  My home town doesn't even have a bookstore.  You can find parking anywhere downtown.  Sure, we've always been known for our prison, but now we own four hand job massage parlors and drug related crime is on the rise.

Detroit is a wasteland.  Let's not get started on their schools other than to say I worked a whole winter there with a broken classroom radiator because they couldn't afford to fix it.

Don't get me started on Flint.

The world is a mess.  I honestly believe it is getting better over the past few years, slowly, but in the meantime, everyone loves Frodo.  Our world sucketh in so many ways.  So we borrow someone else's world.  We slip into a world of Quidditch, hobbits, moralistic vampires, and flying horses.  Yes, they have nothing to do with reality, no matter what J.K. Rowlings aspires to, and that is why everyone flocks to fantasy.  Forget the mortgage, the school systems, what your health program does or does not pay for, and who is dying where in the greater world for an hour, just a couple of hours of respite when we can worry over such exciting prospects as finding out you are magical, being in a magical place.  Even the scary isn't that scary because the tension isn't happening to us.  Just the characters.

It's rolling up to 1212.  Hurry.  We need Shirley Temple to tap dance through the discovery she's a secret race commonly mistaken for vampires.


  1. Yeah. Who does the song--"Give us something similar/something familiar"--I know I'm murdering that. But I still think the idea that demi-monde genres--murder mysteries, sci fi, fantasy--offer a chance to escape our own worlds, into infinite possibilities.

  2. Ah. Nice reference. "Please, please, please" by Fiona Apple.