I want my students to believe that it’s good to fall in love with fictional people. But I may be wrong.
My English course for Child Studies majors is called “A Question of Character.” We’ve spent the last few weeks discussing what “characterization” means in literature, and what “character” means in life. Along the way, we’ve talked a little about whether reading literature can influence our personal characters and, as a result, our success and happiness in the present and future. This is a question I want to explore more deeply in the coming weeks.
Our foray into this topic has corresponded, accidentally, with my sudden, random, out-of-control obsession with the TV show Community. This obsession is inconvenient because it means that I can’t grade papers, can’t read the 45 books I need to read for this class, can’t really leave the house or do my laundry. I can’t do anything but watch Community. I devoured all 74 episodes in 2 weeks, and when they were over, I was so grief-stricken over the loss that I went back to the beginning and started again. My husband is getting a little worried.
That said, my obsession with the show IS convenient because, although it is a multifaceted obsession, it is also focused. I love the writing, I love the bizarro universe, I love the many layers of meta-meaning. Mostly, though, I love Abed Nadir. And I think my love for Abed is an appropriate discussion topic in a course that deals with character.
For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Community has followed a band of 7 oddball students and their equally oddball teachers through their first 3 years of community college. (The 4th season has just begun, and I’m disappointed with it so far – a lot of changes have happened behind the scenes – but I still have high hopes.) Abed is, at least on the surface, the oddest of them all. In the pilot, another student, irritated with Abed, barks that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, and he does seem to be a textbook case. His consuming passion is pop culture, and he makes terrible movies that reveal some of his buried emotional truths. He’s rigid and aloof, yet remarkably sensitive; a genius, yet utterly naive. He repeats the phrase “Cool. Cool cool cool” like a distracted owl, and he does a lot of blank, fish-eyed staring and subtle head-cocking. He’s able to connect with the people around him only by imagining that they’re all in a film or television show – when his friends pressure him to flirt, he channels Mad Men’s Don Draper; when he dresses up as Batman for Hallowe’en, he turns into an actual superhero.
Abed isn’t really capable of loving anyone, but the closest he gets is his relationship with his best friend Troy, former high school quarterback and prom king. Troy, for his part, loves Abed to distraction. When a girl Troy’s interested in says Abed is weird, Troy walks out on her. (Abed: ” I AM weird.”) When he thinks Abed might be stolen away to England by a pen pal, Troy’s jealousy leads him to go “all psycho girlfriend,” as Troy’s actual girlfriend gently describes it.
It’s not just Troy, though; everyone around Abed loves him, even though they don’t understand him. His friends listen to his advice because they know he has absolutely no emotional investment in their problems. They step in front of bullies who want to pick on him; they pay for film courses that his father won’t cover, because they want him to follow his dreams. From the moment he appears in the first minute of the pilot, telling the leading man his life story and THEN his name, he gives Community its wonky center. And the fans love Abed with a love so demanding that some critics think it will warp the show’s orbit entirely. (The Facebook page of the actor who plays him, Danny Pudi, has over 15,000 fans, and I would wager that at least 14,000 of them know Pudi ONLY as Abed. That’s a LOT of love for a character who can barely make eye contact and has shrieking meltdowns when clocks are reset for Daylight Savings.)
It’s Abed who keeps me glued to Netflix for 6-hour blocks. I want to spend all my time with him. In the beginning, I had only a vague, inarticulate understanding of why this was, and a feeling that it would make a good basis for a lesson. Also, great news: if I teach a lesson about Community, and Abed, I get to spend more time watching Community, and Abed.
My initial, intuitive analysis went something like this:
- I love Abed because I’m just like him: socially awkward, unintentionally aloof, isolated inside my own mind and often unable to connect with others. (I always score in the borderline-to-Asperger’s range on autism self-tests.)
- I love Abed because he’s so, so much better than me. He’s adorable. He’s charming and funny. He’s completely self-assured – he fears losing his friends but has no fear of losing himself. (And he doesn’t lose his friends. This is also important.)
- Abed therefore represents an ideal, but one I can actually aspire to. He’s not realistic, but he feels real; I recognize so much of myself in him that it seems possible I could, someday, be as wonderful as he is. Maybe loving him will improve me.
What does this have to do with my class?
I decided to find out by doing some research, and came across an article in the journal Children’s Literature in Education called “Why Readers Read What Writers Write,” by Hugh Crago. Crago presents us with the term “emotional matching,” which he defines as the way “a work of fiction has matched or paralleled the reader’s ‘self-narrative,’ that is, the shadowy concept most of us have about who we are, why we act the way we do, and the sort of ‘history’ we have had in the past and expect to have in the future.” (280)
Crago gives us a couple of examples to illustrate how “identification” works as powerfully with a fictional character as it does with a real human being. For children, especially – and my course is a Child Studies course – an imaginary person can be an (unrequited but never rejecting) friend and role model, someone to connect to and also to admire, to seek comfort from and to imitate. When we love Anne Shirley or Harry Potter, Tarzan or Nancy Drew, we feel, “I want to be like that, and I COULD be like that, because that person may be awesome, but he/she is also like me.”
Is it really this straightforward? It feels so magical and chemical, so deeply personal despite its universality, this infatuation with a person who doesn’t exist. Could it really come down to a simple Lego model of the soul – if your piece fits onto my piece, I get bigger?
Come to think of it, that IS kind of magic. Maybe it’s why kids love Lego, too.
Or maybe it’s even simpler than that. Maybe we love these characters because, by watching them or reading about them, we can feel what it would be like to be as amazing as they are, without doing any of the work required to actually be so. This is a less encouraging scenario, and certainly undermines the pedagogical validity of my lesson. Are Harry Potter and Anne Shirley and Abed merely ways for us to escape our real selves, to put on, in our own minds, costumes that make us appear to ourselves to be more than we are?
Mark David Chapman and Holden Caulfield immediately spring to mind.
I have written about the benefits of obsession before, but am I making excuses for something that is usually a waste of time and sometimes dangerous? The greatest achievements in art and other creative pursuits are often the fruit of a creator’s obsession – or perhaps “grit” or “focus” would be a nicer word – but can passive, compulsive consumption of a sitcom or a novel ever lead to real personal growth? Or can it only offer us, at best, comfort?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. As any lonely, bullied, awkward or frightened child will tell you: such comfort is nothing to sneeze at. This moving post, by an autistic woman who saw, in Abed, the first authentic reflection of herself on television, would convince anyone that simply recognizing oneself in the other is one of the most life-changing experiences we can have.
My plan is to start my lessson by asking my students to think of a book, a film, or a TV show that they have, at some point in their lives, loved to the point of obsession. I’ll then get them to watch an episode of Community, to name the character that they each like best, and to discuss why. I’ll ask them to guess which character I like best, and that will give me an excuse to talk about Abed for a while. And then we’ll look at Crago’s article, and discuss the uses of “identification,” of “emotional matching.” What do kids, and the rest of us, learn from falling in love with people who aren’t real? Can we learn to be better versions of ourselves? Or can we mostly just take refuge?
And if it’s only refuge, isn’t it still worth an awful lot?
Some related and worthwhile links: