The Emperor’s Game of Clothes

In some strange fluke of fate, I have managed to convince some people that I am rather intelligent. Sometimes I even believe it myself. Even so, often I feel like society is playing a huge joke that I’m not in on. As if there is some kind of required cultural reading I didn’t know about.

You see, I’m one of those terrible boors who wrinkles her nose at modern art, who doesn’t know anything about wine, and who gets bored watching slow-paced, “artistic” films. Sometimes I’m sad about that, because it makes me feel like I’m not smart enough or “cool” enough. Then I get annoyed, because what difference does it make and whose business is it, anyway?

Joy and I compared this social tendency to the Emperor’s New Clothes. We wondered if everyone else is just as clueless about what this movie or that song was trying to say, but are afraid to admit their ignorance.

This seemed to start when I saw Lost in Translation in college, and was so bored. It’s a beautiful film, technically, but that’s not enough for me—I need plot and story, I need at least one character to connect with. The movie was a big hit, and I was left wondering what I had missed.

This wondering recently resurfaced in a discussion of my favorite actors and some of their quirkier roles. Being mostly British, they all seem to make small, artistic films when they’re not filming action/sci-fi-movie franchises or performing in yet another classic-literature adaptation. As much as I want to support their work, I often cannot make heads or tails of it. (I did love Third Star, partly because it touched on a topic close to my heart, and also because I love movies about dudes being dudes, which is a whole other blog post in itself.)

Pictured: Professional British thespians taking their craft very seriously

When discussing a more artsy, less “commercial” film, I hear people say stuff like, “It is so profound, all about love and time and the decay of society and ennui and the burden of existence.” (Granted, the people saying these types of things are usually the filmmakers and the critics.) I end up in an imaginary conversation like this:

Me: But nothing is happening.

Them: Yes, well, it’s all subtext.

Me: I’m pretty sure this is just a dysfunctional relationship, only with vampires.

Them: One man’s dysfunction is another man’s existential crisis.

Me: If I wanted to watch people mope around and be angsty, I could go to any coffee shop within a mile of a college campus.

Them: But this film is a great work that speaks to us as a society!

Me: I’m gonna go see Guardians of the Galaxy. That one has a speaking raccoon.

Coming Soon: My next obsession, probably

This phenomenon isn’t just related to art and other luxuries. Last week, AirBNB unveiled a “rebranding,” with a new website design and a new logo that symbolizes “belonging” because evidently that’s what AirBNB is “about.”

I’m reading articles full of marketing jargon and BS and emotional nonsense and people falling over themselves to weigh in on the changes, and I’m going, “But you’re still just getting people to rent rooms, right? That’s what the company is about.” I saw the new logo and went, “It’s just a squiggle.” Again–was I missing something?

I can understand a company wanting to spiff up and try to develop a plan for what it does and what it’s all about. What annoys me is when they get so feelsy. AirBNB talks about people wanting to “belong” in the most saccharine way possible. Get to the point. We know you’re trying to make money by competing with hotels. Find me a cheap, safe place to stay—I don’t care about your squiggly logo.

I’m wondering if people who aren’t marketing execs really care about this sort of thing. Are people actually touched in their deepest hearts by AirBNB’s blatant efforts to cater to their emotions? Or is it something that, much like with artsy films, is primarily of interest to critics and the people who made it?

Based on a quote from C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, I think he would say that it is just the insiders—the filmmakers, the artists, the critics, the marketing executives—who really care. We peasants are the ones left desperate to feign interest and expertise, or shrugging and saying “I don’t get it,” and buying tickets for blockbuster action films and $5 bottles of wine at the grocery store.

“Why you fool, it’s the educated reader who CAN be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the little paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the high-brow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything.”

(So who’s really the dumb one here?)

I’m still insecure about it, and about anything that makes me feel unsophisticated or unintelligent. I wonder if that’s just the human desire to be part of a group, to not be an outsider. In a way, AirBNB is correct to say that people want to belong. That’s a major theme of That Hideous Strength—young aspiring academic Mark Studdock takes a wrong turning because he desperately wants the approval and inclusion of his superiors. Eventually he joins the circle he had been seeking.

You would never have guessed from the tone of Studdock’s reply what intense pleasure he derived from Curry’s use of the pronoun ‘we’. So very recently he had been an outsider, watching the proceedings of what he then called ‘Curry and his gang’ with awe and with little understanding … Now he was inside and ‘Curry and his gang’ had become ‘we’ or ‘the Progressive Element in College’. It had all happened quite suddenly and was still sweet in the mouth.…He did not like things which reminded him that he had once been not only outside the Progressive Element but even outside the College. He did not always like Curry either. His pleasure in being with him was not that sort of pleasure.

Then I go, “Well, Em, what would dear Jack say to all your angst about being cool and artsy?” He probably wouldn’t go see Guardians of the Galaxy with me, but he would say that it is a matter of taste and not morality, and therefore it doesn’t matter a jot whether or not I actually enjoy a film that Society or a critic says I “ought to” enjoy.

Lewis actually gave a lecture, called “The Inner Ring,” about the human desire to “belong” and the fear of being an outsider, in 1944. In purely secular terms, his solution to the desire was essentially to do one’s work, or duty, to the best of one’s ability, without trying too hard to “belong,” to keep company with the people you like, and do the things you genuinely enjoy, and you will realize that belonging, that “inner ring,” has found you.


At that point, you are untouchable by many burdensome concerns and distractions, and can simply live your life. In his letters, the demon Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood,

The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring two-pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the ‘best’ people, the ‘right’ food, the ‘important’ books. I have known a human defended from strong social temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.

In the end, Joy was kind enough to point out that if someone looks down on another for not liking artsy films, “then they are rendering an objective judgment over something subjective and that would be dumb of THEM.”

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6 thoughts on “The Emperor’s Game of Clothes

  1. LOL!! I have thought the same thing, about movies, marketing, etc. I think, for me, that it partially boils down to not liking artifice or anything trying to manipulate, and respecting facts as an INTJ. You know, a sort of, “Give it to me straight”, attitude.
    I also thought the Air BnB thing was weird! If I were in charge, my marketing would be the very dry, “Air BnB: rent rooms or entire homes!”, or if I was feeling clever, “Air BnB: find your spot”. LOL

    By the way, I was out of town for a church conference, and just caught up on your posts. I was encouraged by your last one (about what you felt God spoke to you) and just wanted to thank you!

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Suppose my personality permits me to dismiss the notion of popularity for the sake of superficial notions.

  3. I agree, but I will niggle a little because I can.
    There are things that come into focus, and can be enjoyed, only by delving, and this is not a bad thing (not that I think you are claiming it is).
    However, there is nothing inherently superior in wanting or not wanting to delve. I also think the inherent value we place on art objects (including books, film, dance, etc.) is a bit of a fallacy. If the Mona Lisa does nothing for me, I do not invalidate the experiences of the people she “speaks to” nor does their experience invalidate mine. Perspective and interest account for a lot. It’s the desire to be superior, or to “belong” that creates the problems in this interplay. :P

    The AirBNB thing cracks me up. It seems everywhere I look advertizements are trying to manipulate my emotions. Feeling manipulated does NOT make me want to spend money.

    1. In no way was I trying to say that people shouldn’t (over)analyze art. I do that with fiction (and heck, real people) all the time. It was the superiority that I was speaking against. If someone doesn’t see something that other people see, and what’s more, isn’t interested in doing so, that doesn’t make him or her an inferior person. This is something I’ve struggled with personally, so I wanted to see if anyone else could relate.

      1. I agree, and I didn’t think you were anti-delving.
        I just like to prod things, and in this case, I tried to prod the flip-side. If I muddied the waters, I apologize.

        I get caught (and you probably do, too) between false intellectualism and false anti-intellectualism. That is, people who look down on those who don’t like (or at least pretend to like) the obscure, and those who look down on people who don’t like (or pretend to like) the mainstream.

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