The Intellectual in modern pop culture

Published January 26, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

So, in class on Wednesday, the professor started out — as one does — by defining the most important terms for the semester.  This being a course on Intellectual History, that meant both defining the subfield that is Intellectual History, and defining just who counts as “an intellectual.”  (This being the graduate level, he did not feel it necessary to define “history” itself.  That would be silly.)

To summarize, his definition of an intellectual is someone who has knowledge that is both broad and deep, is part of a community of other intellectuals like-minded others, obeys an agreed-upon procedure, and asks the right kind of questions about the following three topics:

  1. What makes a human?
  2. What is the world/universe?
  3. What is the relationship between humans and the world?

The questions could be in any field (medicine asks questions about humanity, physics tries to define the universe, literature tries to explore the relationship between people and the world they live in, et cetera) so long as there is broad depth of knowledge, and the correct procedures are followed for the relevant field.  (A philosopher isn’t expected to follow the same procedure as a molecular biologist, who in turn doesn’t follow the same procedure as a poet, but each of those fields has a procedure…uh, less so in the case of the poet, but even there procedures do exist.)

The professor’s definition was phrased better, but I’ve given you the gist of it.  He also talked about the paradoxical nature of America as both the nation that is the most anti-intellectual and the most intellectual at the same time.  This led into his assessment of the negative concept of the “nerd” as a uniquely American phenomenon.  (I would counter, personally, that the “nerd” is no longer uniquely American.  While the negative side may be more common in America than in the rest of the world, it definitely has infected other countries.  Witness Duane Dibbly on Red Dwarf, for example.  (Though he’s way funnier than any American portrayal of the negative aspects of the “nerd.”))

In order to illustrate his point about the negative stereotype of the “nerd,” he said that he had forced himself to watch a few episodes of The Big Bang Theory, and described what he saw in those episodes.  (Fair warning:  I’ve never seen the show, as I have an aversion to modern American comedy, so everything I’m about to say is paraphrasing what he said.  I apologize if anyone who is a fan of the show reads this and is offended by his observations.  They’re only the jumping-off point for my own point, however.)  He said that the main joke of the entire show seemed to be how out of touch and socially inept the central characters were, and that the portrayal of the female characters seemed particularly egregious, in that you had the female “nerds” who were just as socially backwards as their male counterparts, and were on top of that unattractive, while the one pretty girl was a complete idiot, so that the show had the message that girls could be intelligent while also being ugly and unloved, or pretty and desired while also being stupid.

If that was the current state of the intellectual in all modern American pop culture, I would be deeply alarmed.

But it occurred to me that there is another branch of pop culture that portrays brilliant people as socially connected and highly desirable.  Now, maybe the reason for that is because that branch of pop culture’s original target audience is viewed as being “nerdy,” but the box office on the movies is proof enough that the actual audience includes many non-“nerds”.

That branch, as you can probably guess, is superhero movies and television.  (With one notable television exception.)

This thought occurred to me because in the past few weeks, my brother and I have been marathoning the first season of The Flash so that I’d be ready for The Adventures of Rory the Time Agent…though we didn’t quite finish the season in time for the premiere, but since it was a two hour pilot split up across two weeks, we’re just going to hold off on it until the second half airs.  (And yes, I’m aware that that isn’t the actual title of the show.  And that his name isn’t Rory in it.  But, seriously, they’d probably get higher ratings if they did call it The Adventures of Rory the Time Agent.)  So because of that (and being shown a few key episodes of Arrow as well), I’ve been introduced to a whole new crop of brilliant characters, in addition to the ones in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  (Oh, btw, I probably won’t see season two of The Flash until the season is over, so please no spoilers, ‘kay?  Er, except the ones my brother already gave me because he figures they’ll come up on the other show.)

In the following discussion, there will be some spoilers for the linked Marvel movies, and…yeah, actually I don’t think there will be any particular spoilers for the X-Men movies, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Agent Carter, just basic character information.  There will probably be spoilers for season 1 of The Flash, too.  However, I can only address movies/shows I’ve personally seen, so there will be a number of them left out, whether they would support or refute my argument.  Those which I have not seen include the recent, already defunct Spiderman reboot, all of the Fantastic Four movies, Jessica Jones and Supergirl.  (It’s a pity about the Fantastic Four movies, as those would definitely tie into my argument one way or the other, since all (or is it only most?) of the characters are scientists, but I’m not going to watch three movies just for one blog post.  Jessica Jones is on my “to-watch” list, so please don’t spoil it for me.  As to Supergirl…I think I made it through about fifteen minutes of the pilot before the stupidity defeated me, and I gave up in disgust.)  I also haven’t seen any modern TV cartoons on the subject.  There may be other television shows I haven’t seen, too; I don’t even have TV reception, so I don’t really know what all there is on TV these days.  (Basically, if I haven’t just listed a show as being something I’ve watched, then that means I haven’t watched it.  Oh, except Daredevil.  I watched that.  Though a Netflix show isn’t quite the same as a TV show…)

I’m going to start the discussion with Iron Man, skipping over the first three X-Men movies.  This is partially because I didn’t actually see any of the X-Men movies until my brother came back from seeing Days of Future Past and realized that I absolutely had to see it, so he showed me all the earlier ones.  (And I’m glad he did, because First Class and Days of Future Past were great.  The others weren’t really my cup of tea.)  The other reason I’m skipping over the first three is that they present nothing unusual in terms of the portrayal of intellectuals.  The main intellectual in them in Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier, who’s presented in one of the most typical ways for an intellectual:  an old, white man who teaches.  (Yeah, an oversimplification, but not an inaccurate one.)

But with Tony Stark we got someone different.  He’s a genius, and an unparalleled mechanical engineer, but he’s also a super-popular playboy, who wins over the numerous women he sleeps with by means of his natural charm and good looks, not with his oodles of money.  Of course, as the movie opens, it’s questionable how well he fits into the definition of intellectual given above:  we don’t know if he follows procedure properly, how much time he spends with (other) intellectuals, and he doesn’t seem to be asking the right questions.  But that changes after he returns from his hostage experience.  We see him following proper scientific procedures — filming the flight tests, for example, to provide the correct documentation — and he starts asking himself how he can use the technology he’s developed to make life better for the people of the world, definitely one of the right questions.  Admittedly, he doesn’t start spending much (on-screen) time with other intellectuals until he starts hanging out with Bruce Banner in The Avengers, but…well, considering we’re looking at action movies, it’s unreasonable to demand that much accuracy to the real-world definition of “intellectual.”  (Scientists comparing notes and so on is not necessarily interesting viewing, after all, and there’s a limited amount of screen time.)  Sometimes his attempted solutions to problems go awry — Ultron being the major example — but he owns up to his mistakes and tries to correct them, as a proper intellectual should.

There’s not much to say about Captain America, in this context, because you have three primary intellectuals — Dr. Erskin, Howard Stark, and Dr. Zola — and Howard Stark is essentially in the same mold as his son Tony (what a shocker!), while the other two fulfill the traditional roles of good and bad scientists in this kind of movie, though both are elevated by being well written and well acted.  Despite that we catch glimpses of him at various times in his life across different movies and TV programs, Howard Stark has managed to remain relatively consistent, working with other intellectuals, and working to improve the world through his technology.  (We don’t really spend enough time with him to know if he’s following proper procedures, but…as I said, limited time.  There’s no real reason to think he isn’t following procedure properly.)  At some point post-Agent Carter, he’ll give up his playboy ways (one hopes) when he gets married to Tony’s mother, but that’s certainly not an argument against social desirability.

Moving on to Thor, we finally get to counteract the sexual imbalance, as we add a female intellectual to the list, in the person of the very attractive Jane Foster.  Right from her first introduction, she’s already working with another scientist, Eric Selvig (who’s a bit more stereotypical, being somewhat eccentric, and an older, white, male teacher), and we know she keeps extensive notes and records of all her experiments, what with the plot point about SHIELD taking them all away.  She’s not as socially skilled as the Starks, but few people are.  Despite a certain amount of giddy nervousness around Thor (and who wouldn’t be giddy and nervous when facing that much hotness in person?), overall she shows a normal level of social ability.  In short, she’s someone girls could easily want to emulate, even without her love affair with a dreamy alien “god.”

In talking about Bruce Banner, I’m only going to be talking about the Avengers movies, not the earlier movie with Edward Norton.  Because I’ve only seen that one the once, and the character is pretty different, as far as I recall.  (And I can’t address the Ang Lee movie, ’cause I haven’t seen it.)  Obviously, a Jekyll-and-Hyde type of character like Bruce Banner requires a more complex analysis, but I’ll start with the Jekyll side, then look at the other half, and then the total picture.  Even at the beginning of The Avengers, when Bruce is hiding from practically everybody, he’s still trying to use his intellectual abilities — in this case, his medical training — to help people; it’s not precisely “asking the right questions,” as listed above, but it’s close enough.  Once he’s brought on board the airship, he starts working with Tony, fulfilling the “member of a community of intellectuals” requirement, and they start asking the questions that are right for the situation, though they’re a little different from the ones listed above.  (The questions largely being about “what is Fury/SHIELD hiding from us?”  Which with a little manipulation could probably fit into category three…)  In his natural persona as Bruce Banner, he’s reluctant to get close to people (for obvious reasons), but not due to any social ineptitude.  Now, the Hulk is a totally different type of character, and definitely not an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination.  (Though it might be amusing to see Banner’s personality coming out of his alter-ego’s green face.)  As such, he doesn’t really enter into this discussion much, apart from his relationship with the original persona.  Except for the last time we see him in Avengers 2, the Hulk doesn’t display any particular awareness of Banner’s existence, but some level of connection between the personae is obvious, in that he displays more loyalty towards those Banner is closest to, to wit saving Tony/Iron Man as he’s plummeting unconscious, and his reaction to Natasha being wounded in the battle over Slovakia.  (I am not going to go into the Natasha/Bruce relationship here, ’cause I’m honestly still not totally sure how I feel about it.)  The really important part here is how the total package is treated.  It would be easy to take a character like this and make the super-strong alter-ego the focus, the crux of the character, and the main reason the character is included in a team like the Avengers.  (For example, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the movie made it pretty clear that it wasn’t Jekyll they wanted for their team, but Hyde.)  However, when Bruce is recruited early on, he is assured that they only want his skill as a scientist, and this is borne out by the fact that (although they prepared a cage for him) they genuinely didn’t want the Hulk to come out on their airship, period, and everyone was quite alarmed when he did emerge.  By Avengers 2, it’s a little different, and the Hulk has become very important to their combat operations, but Bruce’s scientific ability is still more important to the team.  (Though, as noted with Tony above, that leads to causing the central conflict of the movie, but…that was all, in part, set up for the next Captain America movie.)  So while he’s not as representative of career goal ideals as Tony Stark, Bruce Banner still comes off as a proper intellectual, and it’s not a negative portrayal.

As an animated picture, Big Hero 6‘s portrayal of character types is extremely important:  since it’s explicitly aimed at a younger audience, parents are more likely to let children (particularly young ones) watch it, and repeatedly, so it’ll have a bigger impact on the next generation as it grows up.  Four of the six heroes referenced in the title qualify as intellectuals — like all the others in this list, they’re in scientific fields, of course — as do three major supporting characters.  (Well, maybe only two?  Not sure if the corporate guy actually counts…)  Now, this being an ensemble cast and a comedy, all the characters naturally have their quirks, like Wasabi’s OCD-level need for cleanliness and order.  But the character with the most quirks and flaws is Fred, the one non-intellectual in the bunch.  None of them show any sign of being “out of touch” or socially inhibited.  Even better, GoGo is pretty, and Honey Lemon looks like a supermodel, only friendlier.  So (apart from Fred and the OCD side of Wasabi) these are all characters who kids can look up to, and say “I’d like the be like that when I grow up!”  Twenty years from now, there will probably be people making real robots who were in part motivated by loving Big Hero 6 as a kid.  (I certainly hope there will be, anyway!)

I’ve completely lost track of the chronology of release dates at this point, so I’ll just touch on X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past briefly, before going back to the linked movies.  (And I’ll switch over to television after finishing with movies.  You know, when I first thought of doing this post, it wasn’t going to be quite such a laundry list kind of operation…and I’m pretty sure it was going to be shorter…)  In these two movies, the young Xavier is a completely different type of character from his older counterpart.  He’s quite the flirt in First Class, and despite the intellectual nature of his goals, he also displays of the same spirit and irreverence as other young characters, ones who don’t necessarily qualify as intellectuals.  In Days of Future Past, he’s obviously quite different, having essentially sunk into drug addiction.  (Not the normal type, but having the same impact on his life as the normal type does.)  At no time is he characterized by any of the normal negative traits associated with intellectuals, however.

Now, the character of Hank is a little different.  He’s on the edge of being a “nerd” in First Class (and in Days of Future Past, but less so), particularly in his reactions to Raven’s advances; he’s not socially experienced enough to handle having a pretty girl flirt with him.  On the other hand, he’s presented more as having become so socially withdrawn due to his desire to hide his mutation than because of his scientific knowledge, so it’s not as bad as it might be.  Days of Future Past also has one other intellectual worth noting:  the villain, Trask.  It seems like evil scientists are a dime a dozen in superhero materials, but Trask seems different from the herd, because he genuinely thinks he’s doing the right thing to protect the people.  (Also the performance is really excellent, which always helps.)  He’s also different from the usual negative portrayal of the intellectual in that he is his own politician, and he’s very good at it; he doesn’t need a mouthpiece to convince people to support his work.

Okay, I think the only movie left now is Ant-man.  The reclusive Hank Pym is not particularly dissimilar to the traditional movie scientist (like Dr. Erskin), except for his past as a superhero. … And I’m pretty sure I had more to say about this, only now I don’t remember what it was.  (And I should be working on re-writing my paper right now…)

Right, so I’m going to try to get through the TV characters more quickly, in that I’d really like this post to go up today.  Agents of SHIELD introduced two new intellectuals, Fitz and Simmons.  Having recently re-watched the first season, I can say with certainty that they were much more stereotypical upon their introduction than they are now.  In fact, they had already grown from cut-and-paste characters into more fully fleshed out ones by the end of the first season.  Fitz has always had a bit of a problem socializing — though it’s worst in season two, obviously, when it’s partially medical — and generally has his mind more on the lab (or Simmons) than anything else, but it’s never too bad, and frankly his fixation on Simmons is played up a lot more than anything else, especially if the show is looking to use him to get some laughs.  Simmons is the better example of defying the “nerd” image, however.  Unlike Fitz, Simmon’s first name is used often enough that it’s easy to remember her name is Gemma; on the other hand, until re-watching season one, I couldn’t for the life of me remember that Fitz’s first name is Leopold.  (And yes, I’ve been watching it faithfully ever since it started airing.  Though of course I had to go to my brother’s or my parents’ place to do so, since I don’t have TV reception at my place.)  On top of being more naturally sociable than Fitz, Simmons is very pretty and is often flirted with, contrary to the negative “nerd” stereotype.

Okay, so now I’ll switch camps and talk about the DC TV shows.  I’ve only seen two(?) episodes of Arrow, so I don’t have the full run down on its characters, but in what I’ve seen of the cast between the episodes I saw and the character cross-overs with The Flash, I can point out two very good examples of intellectuals who aren’t negatively portrayed.  Both are attractive, both to the audience and to other characters on the show, both are outgoing and friendly, even if a little odd around the edges.  Now, Felicity does have one drawback, in that she dresses like a…I don’t know what, exactly, but it’s hard to believe someone with her intelligence would expose that much leg.  And those stiletto heels are a disaster…but I realize that’s more to compensate for the height difference between the actress and the men in the cast.  The only drawback I see to Ray Palmer is that his actor sounds so much like Christopher Reeve that it was really freaking me out.  (I mean, yes, I know he played Clark/Superman in Superman Returns, so it’s only right that he’d be reminiscent of Christopher Reeve, but I didn’t recall him sounding like him as well as looking like him!)  Seriously, why isn’t he the hero of his own show?  Well, maybe he’s too perfect to be a lead…?

So, moving on to The Flash, there are a large number of intellectuals in the cast, and almost all of them defy the “nerd” stereotype.  The one who comes closest to the “nerd” stereotype is definitely Cisco.  (Sisco?  Uh…they don’t write it out on screen, so I’m not sure how it’s spelled…)  He’s always wearing T-shirts with geek culture images on them, perhaps to clue you in to the fact that while he might look like an ordinary fifteen year old boy, he’s neither ordinary nor fifteen.  (No idea how old the character is actually supposed to be, but I was shocked the first time I saw the character drinking, as I honestly didn’t think he was over 21.)  It seems like he doesn’t have much of a social life, but I’m not sure why, considering how cute he is.  (Maybe it’s the whole “looks like a kid” thing…)  Caitlyn (or whichever spelling of that name they use) also spends most of the first season with little social life, but that’s because she’s in mourning for her hunky, (not actually) dead fiance, not because she couldn’t get a date if she wanted one.  She’s quite pretty, and apparently she’ll eventually develop ice powers to match Ronnie’s fire powers, but I doubt they’ll ever be as cool as her siccing all those plants on Penny in Sky High.  That was freakin’ sweet.  Uh, sorry, off topic there.  I’ll just close out the discussion with Barry himself.  He works as a CSI, but somehow it doesn’t seem like his degree (is that actor really old enough to have graduated from college?) is actually in Forensics, not unless he double-majored in Physics or something, because he seems to understand the majority of the science that gets discussed on the show.  (And at some time in the future he’ll design a very powerful AI, which is also impressive…and not usually done by someone whose primary training is in forensics.)  I would try to address (not)Wells, but I’m not sure where to begin; the situation is so complicated that it’s hard to discuss, and I still have a paper to re-write tonight…

…so I think I’ll call this post “half-assed” and close it here.

(Sigh.  When I first thought of it, this post was going to be awesome…)

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