Love and Rockets: Simon Pegg Blows up the Internet

 Simon Pegg, actor, screenwriter, and self-confessed fan of science fiction. 

Simon Pegg, actor, screenwriter, and self-confessed fan of science fiction. 

Earlier this week, Simon Pegg, the veritable face of modern geekdom and a hero to sci-fi fans everywhere, blew up a corner of the Internet with some controversial comments about the genre he has been celebrating as a screenwriter and actor for 20 years. Then, in what should become the model for anyone, famous or otherwise, who has the misfortune of blowing up any part of the Internet with words that may or may not have been spoken in jest and may or may not have been taken out of context, Pegg responded on his website with a thoughtful, humorous, and (to me) just plain inspiring post in which he owned up to the controversy, apologized for it, explained what it was he meant to say in the first place, and advanced his intended point all at the same time. 

The inciting incident was an interview with Radio Times, published May 19, in which Pegg appeared to draw a straight line between the mainstream popularity of sci-fi and genre films and the dumbing down of society, worrying that “we’ve been infantalized by our own taste” and suggesting he might “retire from geekdom.” The interview was previewed online by The Independent and Irish Examiner under headlines that were perhaps more sensational than the content of the articles themselves, and, in the case of The Independent, completely missing the wink-wink, nudge-nudge insights of its own reporting, which includes this spot-on assessment of the interview in its lead paragraph: 

When an actor has built a career on playing hapless, slightly immature characters while paying homage to science fiction and comic books, it might pay to remember he specializes in comedy and doesn’t want his work to be taken entirely seriously.

An actor’s work, we can surely assume, includes interviews and all other forms of performance meant for public consumption, but this nuance was lost in translation by the time io9, the excellent (and popular) science and sci-fi blog, got wind of the story and posted an impassioned rebuttal crackling with barely contained outrage at what seemed, from a certain point of view, to be a betrayal worthy of a George R.R. Martin plot twist

From here the outrage spread faster than the speed of reason, rippling through geekdom and across the virtual pages of mainstream news outlets as far afield as Salon, where Pegg was unjustly pilloried as a “genre snob” alongside author Jonathan Franzen. 

At this point my head was spinning and I thought to myself, Really? Come on, people, it’s Simon Pegg! 

And then, in a plot twist worthy of a Simon Pegg film, it was Simon Pegg to the rescue. His response deserves to be read in its entirety, so go read it. He expounds on the origins of extended adolescence as a social phenomenon that began with the children of the 70s and 80s, rightly identifies the co-opting of this phenomenon for profit by marketers and the entertainment industry, and contends that such co-opting has consequences beyond multi-billion-dollar global box office hauls for The Avengers franchise: 

We are made passionate about the things that occupied us as children as a means of drawing our attentions away from the things we really should be invested in, inequality, corruption, economic injustice, etc. It makes sense that when faced with the awfulness of the world, the harsh realities that surround us, our instinct is to seek comfort, and where else were the majority of us most comfortable than our youth? A time when we were shielded from painful truths by our recreational passions, the toys we played with, the games we played, the comics we read. There was probably more discussion on Twitter about the The Force Awakens and the Batman vs Superman trailers than there was about the Nepalese earthquake or the British general election.

Clearly the topic of prolonged youth is one Pegg has given careful thought. If the nuance of his thinking didn’t come across in the Radio Times interview, well, the risk of misinterpretation comes with being a performer, especially one who admittedly “can be a bit of a Contrary Mary in interviews sometimes.” Even so, at least some responsibility for how any performance is received must rest with the audience. Caveat emptor, remember? But that’s a topic for another time. 

In the end, Pegg is unequivocal about his feelings for the speculative genres he has reveled in throughout his career: 

I did not mean that science fiction or fantasy are dumb, far from it. How could I say that? In the words of Han Solo, ‘Hey, it’s me!’... Fantasy in all its forms is probably the most potent of social metaphors and as such can be complex and poetic.... I’m not out of the fold, my passions and preoccupations remain. Sometimes it’s good to look at the state of the union and make sure we’re getting the best we can get.... Also, it’s good to ask why we like this stuff, what makes it so alluring, so discussed, so sacred. Do we channel our passion and indignation into ephemera, rather than reality? Not just science fiction and fantasy but gossip and talent shows and nostalgia and people’s arses. Is it right? Is it dangerous?

Important questions to consider while we wait for the next bit of ephemera to blow up the Internet with outrage and indignation. In the meantime, it can’t hurt to watch the trailer for The Force Awakens again, right? 


Sources:

Adam Lusher, "Simon Pegg: Adults' obsession with science fiction causing society to become infantilised," The Independent, May 18, 2015.

Simon Pegg, "Big Mouth Strikes Again," simonpegg.net, May 19, 2015. 


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