Essay:Burning Staw: The Smart Guy

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Burning Straw: The Smart Guy

More Sad Violin Music for Knight.[edit]

I have to start by saying I was harassed as a child by my peers. If I hadn't been, I probably would have straightened up and flew right a lot quicker when I did. Nothing breeds a them-vs-me dislike of other people like being picked on. No, I don't mean fake-picked-on.' Many, many people remember picked on as a kid because the alternative is to either be the un-noteable person who said nothing when others were picked on, or the person who picked on others. It's much more romantic to be the underdog and I think that most everybody's memories selectively like that more. No, I was actually picked on. I have the records from the principal's office. I was selected in both elementary school and in middle school to have special psychiatrist sessions because they thought I was 'at risk.'

At risk for what? I don't know. In elementary school it might have been because they didn't know what to do with me and few of the other kids liked me. In middle school it might have been because the Columbine high school massacre happened only scant years before in 1999 and a lonely, friendless kid who had a chip on her shoulder, dressed in camo, and wrote bad heartbroken notes to her former friends asking why they were acting terrible that just-so-happened to contain words such as 'darkness' and 'blood' and 'sadness'[1] and that made them feel uncomfortable.

But all that is ancient history. It's the MANNER of being picked on that jogs my memory.

Say Something Smart Stupid[edit]

It was always 'say something stupid.' Except it wasn't 'stupid' in the literal sense. I have always been encouraged to have and use a large vocabulary. When I was as young as to be in elementary school, reading out loud before breakfast was a daily ritual. I won't get around it: I was considered an infamous dork in school. But when I was picked on, it was always to goad me into saying something that would use my relatively large vocabulary. They thought it was funny. I didn't understand it for the longest time. Why would they bother looking intentionally stupid (one of their tactics was to say something ridiculous in the hopes I'd correct them) in order to make me make what I deemed for quite a while to be an innocent statement about their fallacious point.

Yes, yes, I hear you sighing in the background; they were trolling me, in the modern sense of that slang. But it wasn't to get an angry reaction (the frustration was secondary; I was more likely to shoot off some archaic insult when angry), it was merely to make me say something they considered to be funny. I wasn't exactly a weak or easily-taken-advantage-of individual; it was way more effort to harass me than that other kid in my class who was clearly a wreck; if they wanted someone to simply bully to make themselves feel better, they could have had that kid easily.

After a while, it became clear why they went after me in particular.

I have a hypothesis that kids are encouraged to dislike a strawman intellectual. Or at least a strawman that's grounded in 'reality'.

Let's Look at What Those Kids Consume[edit]

When you look at a lot of programming that's marketed at kids, it's a lot of magic, or at least technology that's so fantastic that it could be considered magic. Now, I am not anti-magic. The idea of magic is fanciful and fun and has a very respectable place in fiction. But many shows had magic or 'belief' (Even without magic, a lot of kids' shows float on through reality, taking unbelievable circumstances for granted and just believing that they could exist) as part of their core themes when I was a kid. Generally the point was to go on a fantastic adventure, full of wonder and joy and all of that good stuff. Which is also fine.

But it's the characters I often notice a clear trend in. In particular, the characters cast as the 'smart' guys.

For one, they're almost never the hero. They're usually one of the supporting characters, and their 'smartness' (I'll get to that, later) hardly ever is what saves the day. Believing in the magic is what saves the day most often. You know, having faith in one's friends[2], magically tapping some as-of-unknown strength, trusting in the heart of the cards, that sort of thing. Even when a hero solves something with cleverness, being the 'smart' guy is almost never his trait: he can even appear to be totally detached from being smart at all until he somehow pulls this clever maneuver out of thin air and saves the day.

I am not really sure I like the idea that the guy who takes impossible things for granted, who shuts down the most educated person in the group, and often has 'bravery' or 'courage' as his virtue (while pulling the traits of others out of thin air) rather than 'being a rational human being' as the leader in a group off to save the world.

Smart characters, as I mentioned above, are often characterized by their 'smartness.' That is to say, an outward demeanor that is made to constantly remind us of how smart they are, with related skills. While sometimes these skills are useful and may even factor in the plot, they are almost never major. Other 'smartness' traits are almost entirely played for humor. A character may insert long words into their speech seemingly at random to remind us of how smart they are. A character may wear glasses or unfashionable clothes to remind us, too. A character may even be annoying to remind us: constantly being shut down over and over again when he or she speaks up with some fact or idea. There are very few characters that are considered to be smart without this 'smartness', though many suspiciously pull this character's skills out of their rear end when it's needed for the plot. And there are few to no characters that have these traits without being considered smart. In reality, it's rather easy to be an idiot with a high vocabulary, or an idiot that likes to type very quickly on his computer. But most shockingly, few people with these traits were ever considered the 'hero' of the story. They weren't considered what the normal kid would... or should... relate to.

Rational, or at least skeptical, people were presented in the same sidelined way: assigned token secondary traits and then pushed to the side. Are strange, unexplainable things happening all around you? Are you questioning them, or your safety, or the sanity of the people around you? Congratulations, you're a wet blanket, a coward, or someone that simply needs to 'loosen up' and accept the fantastic adventure. I always felt bad for Arnold and Phoebe in the Magic School Bus. Sure, they learned up close about science. But they were constantly freaked out by the magic aspect of it and then asked to accept the science part of it when they couldn't explain how in the non-existent hells they were rocketing past Jupiter in the first place. Poor Joe from Digimon. He was pinned as the 'dependable' type and often that meant questioning the strange things they encountered... although he was a good character he was constantly shoved to the sidelines to make room for the conflict between the believe-in-yourself genki hero and his cool, angsty rival/friend. Izzy was the same, except replace 'dependable' with 'smart.'

Damn you, Seto Kaiba![edit]

OK, embarrassing confession time again. When I was in middle school, I liked Yu-Gi-Oh. Not the card game, the goofy Saturday morning 4kids-dubbed-over anime[3]. This is back before it was card games on motorcycles, it was ancient Egyptian card games that happened to be magic.

And I had a favorite character: Seto Kaiba. I liked him because he was super cool. He was a super genius. He owned a giant corporation and was very successful. He was cold and suave and detached at the point when I was in middle school and that type of guy was very appealing to me. He had an awesome trench coat. He could drive a motor cycle. His special monster was a freaking awesome dragon. He didn't need no friends (I was in my antisocial period, as mentioned above), he loved his little brother (I have a little sister of similar age gap) and above all he took no crap.

None of this magic bullshit. He demanded evidence before he believed anything. There's no such thing as a 'heart of the cards' that can somehow make you draw the perfect right one at the perfect right time. There's only chance, strategy, and other skill-and-luck based aspects to the game. Fuck ancient Egyptian stuff. He grounded himself in what he considered to be reality.

But as I watched, remained in the goofy kid fandom of it... I began to get angry at him. And then I began to be furious at him.

The magic in the series was demonstrated to him more than once. Way more than once. When it obviously could not be smoke and mirrors. Yet, until the very end of the series, he always dismissed it as some kind of trick, or some kind of hologram. This was a serious problem when he was the one that designed all of the holographic technology used in the game and he should have known that his equipment was not capable of doing this. The other characters constantly proved that the magic was, if not explained fully, an actual phenomenon that could then be studied and later explained. It was an extant thing, and Kaiba dismissed the evidence without even considering it. Even when he used magic himself.

You pasty, emaciated anime-styled fool! You are given buckets of evidence that something is up! You can't dismiss it simply because you personally don't think it exists! You are supposedly a super-genius, I should not be telling you that you are an idiot!

But it was clear that he was designed to be an antagonist. He was designed to deny the element that was the core of the plot, at all costs. He was designed to be defeated by the protagonist. He was designed to be an obstruction and above all else, to be wrong.

And it's not just Kaiba. It's all around us, at startling frequency. Many, many alleged 'smart' characters, are designed to be wrong. Even poor Spock, condolences to him, takes a back seat while Kirk repeatedly 'proves' him wrong with the intangible qualities of heart and belief in oneself and no real plan to speak of. Spock sometimes saved the day. But when he did, he was aided by more 'human' qualities.

Why aren't logic and rationality human qualities? Why are they inhuman, and not given to the character we're supposed to identify with?

And I'm so Tired of This Crap[edit]

You would think we'd have grown up by now. But no, 'smart' characters are played more for humor or antagonism than anything else. I don't watch that much Big Bang theory, and it IS a fun show that I like quite a lot to be sure, there sure is a lot of 'smartness' as mentioned above floating around there, to be laughed at. And the idea of intelligence-as-The-Other is very old. In terms of TV, Urkel was before my time. In terms of culture... look back. Only just now is being a nerd to be considered cool. Except the idea isn't out of the woods yet.

People still classify 'smart guys' as The Other. Yet, we all say we are smart people. I know no person who wants to classify him/her self as a less intellectual person than anyone else. So why do we need strawmen? Is it to make ourselves feel better for not being perfectly smart? Are movies, TV, books, cartoons, simply not written by the right people, and instead fall to people who may not have an interest in avoiding the geek/dork archetype?

Why would that be, when nearly everyone considered themselves a dork in high school, even the jocks?

I don't really know why culture is this way. But is it any mystery why kids pick on those they think are 'smarter' (I wasn't even that intelligent in middle school) than themselves? Or that as adults, so many people have an intense distrust of academics or education in general? It's not just religion, and it's not just politics.

It's culture. Culture that really has to change before we're seen as anything but nerds squatting in a basement, to be mocked.


  1. I was in middle school and I considered myself some sort of terrible camo-print goth? I don't even know, I wrote bad fanfiction, all bets are off on my common sense at that point in time
  2. to do... what? Back you up? Use their specific skills to save your ass? With, perhaps, their smartness? Hero, why are you taking the credit by claiming that your belief in them was what saved the day; they saved your ass!
  3. This anime was dubbed for American audiences, so the original dialogue of the Japanese cartoon is often very different, turning a show that once was oriented to a different general culture into a show that plays perfectly into American stigmas and attitudes.