Pop Culture Revanchism

In recent years I’ve been noticing a subtle trend in online fan art and memes. Probably the most early and notable examples were in the bizzaro world cgi shorts of seinfeld spitstain, which were based on using ill-gotten Nickelodeon computer models of Jimmy Neutron characters and making them do obscene things. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend looking that up and I certainly wouldn’t condone its even more well known counterpart ‘Shrek is Love, Shrek Is Life’ but these are probably the two first and greatest examples of what I’m talking about. So what am I talking about? A new wave of pop culture deconstructionist fan art that takes advantage of memetic social media like YouTube and Facebook in order to spread grotesque and metaphysical revisioning of brightly colored children’s programming schlock.

It makes sense that cg animators who get ahold of computer models for popular characters are naturally going to make them want to do obscene things. But the trend continues, even in handrawn illustration and animation. I think this is best embodied currently in the work of the animator u m a m i who, along with original work, animates short scenes based on trite pop culture mascots like Ronald McDonald, Teletubbies and Thomas the Tank Engine, the latter of which features as a Thomas the Tank Engine thermonuclear bomb dropped on Sodor, peeling the flesh from Mr. Topham Hat’s face.

What makes this trend different from any other kind of deconstruction or reimagining? Parodies abound online of all different kinds. What sets apart this flavor? Well, I believe it’s a movement (consciously perpetuated or otherwise) that specifically seeks to rework the most stale and infantilizing artifacts of childhood mass media. There are no truly beloved pop cultural properties that are the targets here; instead, they must already occupy a weird twilight space between fondness and distaste. They must be simultaneously nostalgic while also being inherently repulsive or cheap in some way. The most common targets are the vibrantly colored and often annoying icons of children’s cartoons, fast food mascots, comic strips: Thomas the Tank Engine, Jimmy Neutron, Shrek, Garfield, Teletubbies, Ronald McDonald, etc. Think of this trend as borrowing the same principles of ‘Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared’ but instead of making original puppets, they’re breaking down the already nonsensical logic behind widely accepted and hugely lucrative characters. The only task is to make gruesome the dregs of consumer culture. Most often it’s in the form of art or animation, revisiting the most banal characters in the ever expanding and revealing them to be the lovecraftian horrors they truly are.

will burke's garfield

Or it can be a little less blatantly horrific as Will Burke’s Halloween Garfield pictured above, yet still very unsettling and insectile, as we see in Joel Caroll’s illustration of Thomas the Tank Engine’s true anatomy:

joel caroll thomas anatomy

This got 88,000 retweets. I think people appreciate these kinds of clever deconstructions because it causes them to look with new eyes (and often horror) on things that they have taken since childhood to be unquestioned fixtures of the world. I appreciate it because I find it deeply troubling that children are encouraged from birth to be fixated on these hackneyed cultural properties. The more that these icons are revisited and made fun of and broken down, I think the more people will be encouraged to ask questions and no longer blindly accept kind of pop culture being offered to them and, even more, what they ought to be showing to their kids.

The trend can also be found in photography, where it might simply consist discovering and recording bizarre incongruities of advertising and design out there in the real world, such as the infamous sponge bob circumcision poster.

sponge bob circumcision

I’m actually really hopeful for this movement. On the one hand, it’s hard to believe that animations of Ronald McDonald driving grimly into the sunset are going to work much moral change in people’s hearts. On the other hand, I see within the trend certain strains that could bear much good fruit. As I said above, it’s troubling to me how eagerly people vacuum up the vapid and easily reproducible products that are offered to them, and how happy they are to distract their children with the colorful corporate mascots.

Revanchism: ‘The political policy of endeavouring to regain lost territory.’ It’s my hope that we can someday regain the territory of the imagination that has been lost to corporations and the great deadening blinders they place on the hearts of the young. Not that the imagination should be conflated with the soul. It’s not a sin to have grown up (as I did) playing with Thomas the Tank Engine toys or having seen Ronald McDonald dance around in the commercials padding my saturday morning cartoons. Nevertheless the imagination is one of many crucial tributaries to the soul, to the great lake of one’s life, and we spend decades polluting the streams of children’s imaginations and expecting there won’t be any larger consequences for the broader ecosystem. The imagination has been dammed off, we assume. It’s been made profitable.

A lot of people assume that dystopia will be a grey, cement covered society populated only by brutalist buildings. But the omnipresence of characters like Ronald McDonald and the Teletubbies remind us that our dystopia has come in primary colors. Spiritual hollowness doesn’t stay hollow: it will be filled. But by what? It’s not hard to see Spongebob or Garfield as demons and idols of the lowest and most pathetic order. Nevertheless they are constantly roaming about seeking a place of rest, and often that place of rest is in the attention of otherwise imaginative children. The mascot is a dull and fairly ineffective demon – easy to overcome. And yet so few even try. Indeed, we’re finding that many adults are unwilling to move beyond much of the pop culture they grew up with. Criticizing very childlike products like Teletubbies, which no adult would claim in earnest, becomes an implicit criticism of the legions of adults who are unwilling to move beyond Marvel movies and Star Wars. Is there much of a difference between the adult who obsessively watches Marvel movies and the adult who watches Sponge Bob? The more that we deconstruct this deeply profitable, deeply entrenched system of advertising and visual attraction, the more we might encourage children and adults to break free from the school of illusion that is our current pop culture industry.

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