Sunday, 14 June 2009

Star Trek and the American Psyche

I love action films. Mostly of the superhero variety. They make me feel powerful, like I could take on the world. Like anything is possible.

At least for the hour or so after watching one.

After finishing finals and getting all of my students' grades in on time, I felt I deserved a little treat, so I took myself to see Star Trek. By the time I left the theater, my can't-get-out-of-its-own-way 4-banger Honda was a bomb of a starship, powering down the onramp of Highway 101 on a Thursday night. Every other car on the road was a chunk of blown-up scrap metal and I was on my way to save the planet from the Romu--I mean...my husband from the kids.

I am, as I write this, listening to the soundtrack. In my room sits a Star Trek poster that, lucky me, was being taken down as I was walking into the theater. Really, I'm no Trekkie. Not that there's anything wrong with being a Trekophile. It's just that I'm into diverse experiences and rarely let myself get tied down to one genre of film, music, sport, or hobby for long. I like to soak it all in. I guess you could say I know just enough about my favorite things to be dangerous.

I'll leave the movie reviews to the experts; there've certainly been enough of those. But, for those of you who wanted to know, yes, I loved it. Yes, I saw it again tonight, when I took my husband for our date night and he loved it. The characterizations were so brilliant that when Karl Urban (who plays Leonard "Bones" McCoy) says, "Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a physicist!" it was like hearing an old inside joke, rather than a cheesy one-liner. Anton Yelchin (the engaging star of the film, Charlie Bartlett), and British comedian/actor Simon Pegg, as Chekov and Scotty, respectfully, were my favorites by far, with their amusing, wide-eyed enthusiasm and excellent reactive timing.



The Cal State Northridge Oviatt Library gets a shout-out, too: it's never looked so good, upgraded as it has been to Starfleet Academy's venerable gateway to the universe (as an alum of CSUN, this was probably the only thing that pulled me out of that delicate suspension of disbelief no filmmaker of good fiction ever wants you to part with).

What I realized as I sat through the end of the credits (yeah, I'm one of those people) was that this movie specifically spoke to the American psyche. It touched on many of things we purport to value: Independence? Check. Strength? Check. Intelligence? Check. Compassion? Check. Loyalty? Check. Freedom? Check.
Cue one slowly-raised eyebrow.

Americans are generally seen as being strongly independent. We certainly don't like being told what to do. Rebellion is our hallmark. Ah-ha, James T. Kirk, right? And yet...in truth Americans are fiercely interdependent, creating families where none exist, emphasizing community, supporting one another. Seriously, why are you even reading this blog to begin with, if not to make a connection or be part of the community of Trek-watchers?

When Americans have trouble making human connections in the world around them, they become depressed, lonely, anxious, even downright crazy. Maybe that's true of humans in general. But we sometimes ignore even this essential element of human nature in our quest to be independent citizens. I talk with my students about this every year during our discussion of the regionalization of popular culture. Americans all strive to be "different", and yet we desperately want to surround ourselves with other people who are different just like us. Because we don't want to be alone.

We admire strength--cage matches, wrestling, superheros. It sets us constantly at war with ourselves: brain vs. brawn. We tend to hate hanging out with people smarter than ourselves, because it makes us feel dumb when we know we're not. (Related fact check: Did you know that we rarely marry outside our I.Q. range?) I've gotten so sick of the "Proud Parent" bumper stickers that I'll cop to having laughed at the one that reads, "My kid could beat up your honors student." On second thought, maybe that's not so funny.

At the same time, we expect our nation's leaders and innovators to be America's "best and brightest" (well...for the most part, anyway). Kirk has always been seen as the classic brawler type and Spock was always the brain. But Kirk was no dummy, either, as this film works hard to emphasize. It isn't just anyone who can outwit the infamously unwinnable Kobayashi-Maru training exercise. And he did manage to surround himself with an exceptionally talented crew. Keeping in mind that this is just a film, it does tell us something about the expectations we have of our heroes. Maybe there's hope for my brainy daughter, yet.

We don't want to hand everything to our young people, though. They have to want it badly enough to overcome challenges--sometimes the kind that can kill you. In your deepest heart-of-hearts, you want to be a risk taker, I bet. (You can nod--no one's looking over your shoulder.) Even if you can't possibly imagine yourself parachuting out of an airplane, you wish you had the guts to do it. And you want to watch someone else try it. (Survivor, anyone?)

We also expect compassion--kindness and mercy shown to those weaker than ourselves. Animals, children, even a tough guy sprawled on the floor in a puddle of his own fluids. When Nero the nasty dude's ship is about to fall into a black hole, Kirk offers to help him out of his moment of peril. Nero's such an ass****, even Spock doesn't want Kirk to offer--but that's what the good guys do, right? Perhaps a bit of the chivalrous ideal has carried through to the 21st Century. But we do wish we didn't have to be so nice, all the time. And quite often we aren't. In real life, we try to show mercy when we can emotionally afford to, but we all have those moments when what has been done to us is more than we can bear and we go a little overboard. It's just part of being human. Or, in Spock's case, half-human.

Different cultures have different ideas about what it takes to overload someone's personal circuits. And for those cultures that don't get our fascination with violence, let me put it to you this way: it's great to let our heroes kick some bad guy ass and just be done with it. These are imaginary people who will never have to face a courtroom, never have to think about the family of the person they're shooting. Real life isn't like the movies. So it's okay with us when the bad dude loses that last sweaty hold on the ledge while the hero watches, unmoving. Nevertheless, I have to admit that this is one area of the American experience that could maybe still use a little tweaking.

Americans value loyalty. The buddies who stick up for one another. The person who won't give up the secret codes. The friends and even enemies who won't leave a team member behind, despite the odds. We respect stepping into the lion's den and putting your life on the line to help another out of danger. The vast majority of Americans deeply admire those who serve in the armed forces--it is the ultimate sacrifice in the name of loyalty to country, kin, and freedom. And we go out of our way to point out these examples of loyalty and celebrate them.

Why? I think it's because human beings are save-our-own-asses creatures. For the average person, "loyal" only goes as far as it serves us to be so. Have you never been disloyal to a co-worker, a friend, or a loved one in the interest of getting what you really want? Don't tell me you've never said, "So-and-so asked me not to say anything, so this doesn't go past this room, but..." Come on. I'll admit it--I stole the guy my best friend was eyeing in high school. And again in college. (Loyalty often takes an especially large, flying leap when our hormones are at stake. Just ask anyone who's ever dealt with the repercussions of an affair.) It makes us feel as though there's hope for our selfish selves when we see others giving so much. Kirk has to enter Nero's ship in order to save his captain from Nero's clutches. If he doesn't go, we couldn't respect him.

Freedom is something we have been fighting for as a nation since Day One. The right to choose our own destinies--to do what we want, when we want, however we want. And yet we give those freedoms up every day. For work. For our own or our children's education. For the basic need to maintain order in the world around us. Often we give up our freedoms in the name of security. Heads-up: terrorists are now using common American surnames as disguises, so even guys like Bob Smith are getting searched at airports. Think about how much control over your life lies in the hands of any company with which you hold a credit card. What would happen if you stopped paying? But just try giving all of your credit cards up. Do you realize how hard it is to live a socially and culturally well-adjusted life without a credit card? Yeah, okay, I know there are thousands of people who live "off the grid". I dare you to try it. Let me know how it works out.

All action films have that "saving the [something or someone]" intensity. These are, in essence, bedtime stories for grown-ups. The best action films, like the best bedtime stories, remind us of what is important, what we should aspire to. Ultimately, this film, and the series that begat it, was about more than independence, strength, intelligence, compassion, loyalty, or freedom. It was about hoping. Hoping there's a better future. Trying to make it so.

And that, right there, is the American psyche at its best.

This is an original post. Not only is she a superhero in training, Angela also writes for the Silicon Valley Mom's Blog, Basic Training To Black Sash: A Mother's Wing Chun Journey, Sundance...Or Bust! and her Twitter followers.

Image created by: Mark Storey Graphic Design & Art. Star Trek movie imagery: Copyright 2009 Paramount Pictures. Star Trek and all related marks and logos are trademarks of CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved by their respective owners.

1 comment:

  1. I have been visiting various blogs for my Research papers help . I have found your blog to be quite useful. Keep updating your blog with valuable information... Regards

    ReplyDelete

Comments are welcome, within the limits of social decency.