The Social Obligation of Fantasy


We see it less now, but we had almost a solid decade of thinkpieces and academic arguments about the role of fantasy in the post-9/11 American landscape. They all land somewhere around this point: the rise of fantasy media in a post-9/11 landscape correlates to a general malaise that Americans had around realistic politics. The didn’t want The Sum of All Fears anymore; they wanted orcs and unpronounceable place names. Americans needed somewhere to offload their new kinds of anxieties, and fantasy media provided a space for mental investment that wasn’t as stressful as the constant CNN footage of a smoking hole in New York City.

Now we’re through it, or beyond it, or the politics of the post-911 world are so brutally ingrained into us that we’re no longer shocked into shapelessness by the rah rah militarism (in the domestic police version as well as the world police version) as we once were. Politics have safely returned to the realm of pure spectacle in the run up to a new election. Fantasy fiction has more power because of market inertia, but we have the distinct feeling that it isn’t because of escape any longer. Superheroes are coherent, but they’re also brutally “real world” political in a way that we can’t really imagine The Fellowship of the Ring being (at least on its surface).

I say all of that to point out two new advertisements that are plainly attempting to lure the generation who grew up in that glut of popular fantasy. The political dramas of my 1990s were, as the critics claimed, supplanted by a fantastic double aughts, and the kids who began watching films in a broad way around the year 2000 have left or are leaving high school. The ones after that are in the prime horror of their teenage lives.

These ads:

The first is a very traditional anti-smoking ad, but instead of the “hey, peer pressure isn’t cool!” of my youth, we have A LITERAL ARMY OF ORCS FLYING INTO THIS KID’S MOUTH. It’s impossible to imagine that kind of commercial in any time other than this one since the dawn of moving images. The literacy requirement is so high that breaking it down seems unbelievable: you have to understand the scene; you have to know what orcs are; you have to get that orcs are bad; and you need to be afraid of the horde itself. It requires a significant amount of overhead information about the genre of fantasy, and it buys into many of the assumptions of those generic constraints.

The first ad required literacy and some implicit ideology: you have to know that orcs are bad for it to work, which is a particular form of baggage. But this DeVry ad is so much more explicit. There are heroes and normal people, and you want to be a hero. They can train you to be a hero. Nevermind that this is a hero who will explicitly defend the hardware and software of international corporations. And who are you protecting them from? What enemy do you define yourself against as the hero?

When I was in a high school, a friend was banned from using computers in the high school for accessing the registry on his computer to try to figure out if Deep Freeze software was preventing his online course software from working correctly. The network administrator stormed into the room and began screaming at this teenager who was doing nothing wrong, and instead of listening to the kid, the administration stuck with the “responsible” admin who had clearly been surveilling this kid.

Go to school to become a lord of the digital domain who always has the Divine Right of the Network on your side. See yourself as a champion. Stomp over the weak, or the weak-willed, or anyone who couldn’t be what you managed to be.

Fantasy was an escape from one overbearing political into a more abstracted one. Americans avoided X politics and normalized Y politics. Slowly, over the past 14 years, we’ve brought those things in line with one another–the “dog eat dog” world of Game of Thrones is just as much “medieval fantasy” as it is The Walking Dead postapocalypticism. Fantasy itself has become middle of the road political expression, and all of the conservative ideology in Tom Clancy has been resurrected in Tolkien and his legacy authors.

But you can be a fantasy warrior reskinned for the coming cyberwar.

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4 Responses to The Social Obligation of Fantasy

  1. Hey Cameron. I love this, and I agree that these ads could never exist, say, ten years ago.

    I’m not entirely sure I follow your point about orcs and literacy requirement, however. Orcs are majorly racially and culturally coded, and you I’m not at all sure you have to have read or even seen fantasy to pick up on those cues. Orcs are dark/explicitly non-white, have connotations of savagery in their presentation (moving as a horde, open fires, growls). These tropes go beyond fantasy and into a more general symbolic coding of the dangerous other. We could even argue that fantasy builds on these codes instead of the other way around, but I haven’t really delved into that.

    Anyway, what do you think?

    • kunzelman says:

      I think you’re totally right, and I think what I’m trying to get at is that the ability to recognize race itself at work is a form of literacy (the concept of the color line is basically all about this). Concepts like “savagery” have to be recognized to be political categories of those-who-do-not-get-access-to-politics, and so you first need the literacy of the political itself followed by a fairly complex set of fantasy literacies. I think it’s a mistake to read those literacies as on-face because they’re actually pretty complex to me.

      • Alright, I’m a bit confused. I agree that you need that literacy about racial and fantasy and nerd coding to be able to get how those commercials work, but I’m saying that you don’t need that literacy in order for the commercials to be effective for you. The ad’s makers obviously have that literacy, but the viewers don’t necessarily. You might need orc literacy to appreciate the fact that it uses orcs to illustrate smoking hazards, but you don’t need that literacy to pick up that the ad is trying to say that smoking is bad for you. Obviously it is because those orcs are dark and scary, whatever they are.

        • kunzelman says:

          Oh absolutely — you get that it’s “bad”, but I think you miss out on the full content of the ad without having that literacy.

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