Pop Culture

Your Entertainment Choices Are Not Your Identity

As a professional media consumer and explainer, I'll go ahead and say it: if your main source of your identity is related to the genre you consume, you probably need to diversify your hobbies. Sure, in the department, I'm the Early Americanist, the 19th Century guy, and sometimes the Film Dude, but I don't worry overmuch about how 19th Century American Lit fans are vilified, or Whitmanians. Your entertainment choices are not your identity.

-Associate Professor Steve Marsden, Stephen F. Austin University

The other day as I was getting dressed, I realized something weird. Even though I had written a few articles about video games, had edited a short story I wrote that takes place partially inside a video game, and was putting on a T-shirt with characters from a video game on it, I hadn’t actually sat down and played a video game in nearly two weeks. Literally, this huge part of my life, both personally and professionally, had just kind of slipped my mind, and I realized I was okay with that because becoming defined by what one consumes usually makes people into jerks.

One of the things I run into a lot online is people who define themselves almost exclusively by what they consume. During GamerGate, there were hordes on Twitter holding up the banner of Gamer with a capital G, comparing attitudes and feelings they held toward gaming to a cultural identity being appropriated by leftists and feminists. It’s the old geekdom as a simulated ethnicity thing. Then there are the foodies, a major reason why I almost never write for the Houston Press food blog. The sheer amount of vitriol that can arise from a question as simple as “should beans be in chili?” is staggering. The only thing in a cooking pot that should cause that much outrage is a human baby.

Or take the never-ending parade of Bernie Sanders memes, the likes of which get shared far and wide in a way almost no candidate has ever inspired before. Watching various ones flourish throughout social media creates this weird, niche market of people who consume iconography the way people binge-watch shows on Netflix. Metal heads, horror fans, any group whose members can claim that their consumption of something makes them somehow different, or better yet outsiders, will inevitably produce this crop of people for whom that consumption makes up a big chunk of their self-identity.

That’s a problem that tends to follow a very specific path towards jerkdom.

1. A person allows his identity to be dominated not by what he produces but by what he consumes, probably because he doesn't produce much of value and sees his consumption as a substitute. It’s the pop-culture equivalent of eating your feelings.

2. Having hung his self-worth on the object of his consumption, any criticism of that object is an attack on himself.

3. Treating criticism of an exterior object as a personal insult, he lashes out at the critic.

4. The response is a counterattack, condemnation or refusal to engage through banning or blocking because most adults have little patience with threats and insults from someone in a rage over toys, music or dank memes.

5. Because the person's identity is intrinsically tied to the object, he will assume it's his consumption of the object rather than his behavior regarding the object that was the cause of the backlash, and if he's particularly far gone, he will assume the original criticism was deliberately intended as an attack to make people feel bad. They also tend, in this stage, to start attributing any rejection of him, especially romantic rejection, as being tied to his consumption.

6. Repeat instances reinforce the feeling.

Now, I’m a huge Doctor Who fan among other things, and I’ve professionally written tens of thousands of words on the subject. That said, I don’t take criticism or hatred of Doctor Who from other people personally because it’s a television show and shows don’t actually have feelings I need to protect. The Doctor doesn’t care if you call him stupid or racist or something because The Doctor is not real. Even things that may be real, like the sports team you might obsessively follow, do not require the guarding of their virtue and feelings. That sort of personal connection to something like sports is very unhealthy and occasionally fatal.

Mass consumption of things also tends to bestow an unearned sense of expertise on the consumable. To stick with the geek subjects, playing hours of video games or reading stacks of comics goes from being a diversion to being an investment in your personal worth. It has to be for something, and it’s exactly where gatekeeping comes from. All this does is up the ante on how much a person has traded his own sense of self for shares in something he doesn't truly own, only consumed. If what’s being consumed has a history of being marketed toward a specific and fairly homogeneous demographic, it gets even worse, dragging tribalism and othering into the conversation. Consumption becomes a resource to be protected against invaders.

So, before you see someone writing a critique of the metal scene or representation in video game and start penning your rage-tweet, let me quote David Wong and ask you this: How much of your time is spent consuming things other people have made (TV, music, video games, websites) versus making your own? Only one of those adds to your value as a human being.

What did I do in the two weeks when I apparently forgot to be a gamer, let alone a Gamer? Well, I worked on my ongoing book series. I spent spring break with my daughter playing board games and working on her reading comprehension. I delivered Girl Scout cookies. I made potatoes for potluck Easter dinner. I wrote some blog posts for the Houston Press (and so can you!) And yes, well-crafted critical writing is making something.

Producing things for others is the difference between being a grown-up and being a child, and once making something rather than defending the purity of medium or the problematic aspects of a spending habit becomes routine, you find that you spend a lot less time unhappily screaming about raped childhoods and the SJW menace. There’s a reason that, whenever a criticism is raised against something like a game or a TV show, the first response is always someone shouting, “If you don’t like something, make your own.” It’s because that person feels like he can’t and he assumes you can’t either.

But you can, you know? You can make the thing. People do every day, and the more you do it openly, honestly and with the sincere attempt to do your best, the happier you will be. 

Jef's collection of short stories about robotic sharks and drive-thru churches, The Rook Circle, is available now. You can also find him on Patreon, Facebook and Twitter
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner