Last month, io9 did a “March Madness” competition in which they did head-to-head polls of the popularity of 64 different movies, then pitted the winners against each other repeatedly until “The Empire Strikes Back” went up against “Serenity” for the title of…and even before I’m describing it, the analogy breaks down. “Best Sci-Fi Movie”? I don’t think anyone involved really thinks that these two films represent the pinnacle of the genre. (Actually, I don’t think there is such a thing as the “science fiction genre”, but that’s a rant for another time.) “Most Popular”? Among a subset of a subset of a subset of science-fiction fans, perhaps. So why do some people feel the need to vote in these popularity contests? Why do we feel the need to rank these movies? What is, in short, going on here?
I think that at heart, it comes from something we, as geeks, try very hard to pretend isn’t true: We need validation. We like to think that we’ve gotten used to finding enjoyment in the obscure and the esoteric, that we don’t care whether anyone else likes it as long as we do…and to some extent, that’s not entirely untrue. I have long ago accepted that my unquestioning adoration of “Jason X” and “Mortal Kombat” and “Kung Pow: Enter the Fist” is never going to be reciprocated by even other sci-fi fans, and I’m okay with that. (You don’t know what you’re missing.)
But nonetheless, there is that need. The need to show that we are right in loving our favorite films, that it’s not just us but everyone who understands the appeal of Joss Whedon’s film masterwork. Even more than that, there’s the need to prove that we’re in the majority. (There’s a certain perverse brilliance to the way geeks handle popularity. Instead of desperately trying to join the “in” crowd, we desperately try to prove that the “in” crowd is the crowd we’re already “in”. With statistical data to back it up, too!)
It’s not the worst thing in the world, of course. (Taking it all seriously, on the other hand, is. The comment boards on io9 were filled with utter, incoherent nerdrage at the fact that Whedonites cheated, or that “Blade Runner” is clearly the best film ever made and it’s a shame that modern sci-fi fans don’t appreciate its greatness, or that none of the sixty-four films are anything like as good as “Kung Pow: Enter the Fist”. Um, not that I’m admitting anything.) But it nonetheless amazes me how hard it is to escape that need for validation, how hard it is to just enjoy the things we enjoy and leave it at that.
Then I look at the ESPN Power Rankings and remind myself that competitive geekery isn’t limited to science-fiction.