[The article you are reading is the one thousandth post to Overthinking It. It comes just shy of our two and a half year anniversary, which means we have averaged about 1.1 posts per day since we went live on January 22, 2008. To mark the milestone, the writers decided to turn inward, and subject ourselves to a level of scrutiny we definitely don’t deserve. Enjoy! And many thanks for reading. — Ed.]
Wrather: In The Beginning
I had started—or been involved in the starting of—a couple of websites before Overthinking It. (One abortive attempt, which we christened “The Singing Bus”, actually had some pretty good articles—including a version of Belinkie’s fabled NES Contra fanfic, Red Pants/Blue Pants—and a logo featuring a pickle driving a sports car. Long story.) All of them had limited appeal (even to the small audience of friends and family I convinced to read them), and all folded inside a month.
But like many of my generation, I was convinced that every thought in my head was worthy of publication, and as I cast about for a suitable topic for a website, one thought kept recurring to me: “You know what’s fascinating? Us.”
You see, most of my smartest and funniest friends had gone to college with me, where we had been involved in the same extracurricular activity. A unique quirk of this organization was that during fall semester—what other, more athletically inclined classmates might have called “football season”—we were tasked with performing an original comedy show with music every Saturday afternoon. Which meant that every Sunday night, we would gather in someone’s dorm room, watch The Simpsons (back when it was good), and try our damnedest to make each other laugh as we dreamt up material for next week.
You can imagine that the obscure pop culture references came fast an furious—and, over time, the whole thing got pretty inside baseball as we, like the dread pirate Blackbeard, sought the mysterious doubloons of comedy gold. And then Belinkie would rewrite the whole damn thing until it was unrecognizable and much better.
(Dedicated fans will note that we record the Overthinking It Podcast on Sunday nights. It is, as Joe McCarthy would say, no accident.)
It was my goal, when I pitched the initial group of writers on my concept for this site, to recreate the feeling of those Sunday nights—watching Manos, The Hands of Fate or Shaft with your underdressed, overeducated pals, shooting Hot Damn and seeing who could make the most meta of jokes on IMDb—and invite an audience into our passion for obscure (and not-so-obscure) pop culture, our friendly one-upsmanship, and our sometimes rather odd obsessions. There was just one hitch.
I had no idea what to call it.
“Overthinking It” was, as I recall, suggested by Stokes. At the time, it was a positive and not a normative claim. It was a attempt—offhand, probably—to approximate what we did. We had no clue that one day we would shoot down one another’s ideas on our writers’ mailing list as lacking in overthink. But we made it our bed, and by gum, we’re going to lie in it.
You see, over time, “Overthinking It” has become our cri de coeur, the almost defiant exclamation of our relationship to the popular culture we love and yet must destroy with our analysis. The “over” in Overthinking It belies the fact that, to a person, we consider this stance a perfectly normal—healthy, even—way to relate to popular culture. And as the audience has widened, I am gratified to say that many agree.
But I am still mindful of those early, primal experiences of overthinking, and I notice that they were always social. And this is my small, provisional contribution to the definition we are working out in this article. Overthinking is a group activity. It was something I did with my friends. It still is—though I’m now proud to count among their numer the over one million people who have visited this website.
Here’s what they have to say.
I’ve never been as comfortable embracing the enthusiasm of geek pursuits as others. I like video games but I’m not an early adopter. I read the occasional graphic novel but find most of what passes for drama in comics to be a bit silly. I’m entertained by the work of nerd icons like Joss Whedon and Neil Gaiman, but I cringe at their faked cleverness. The incoherent squealing that passes for criticism on most genre sites—where the only two settings are “SQUEE!” or “how DARE they?”—turns me off. And the geek world’s continued obsession with tits and swords doesn’t help.
Maybe this makes me a snob. Check that—my continued interest in a genre whose other adherents I disdain absolutely makes me a snob. But I think this also explains why a lot of geek passions struggled for years to find mainstream acceptance. Science-fiction, in the U.S., is as old as professional football. And the #1 movie in America, for the past 30 years, is more likely to be sci-fi or fantasy than any other genre. But it’s hard to say the same of #2 through #5. D&D and the videogames that it inspired have become more mainstream, but you still won’t see a D&D convention game on ESPN2 at one in the morning (as you would with the World Series of Poker).
I think mass culture’s continued (though waning) skepticism toward geek culture comes from geeks’ refusal to translate. Geeks get excited about obscure things. That’s what makes them geeks. But geeks have a hard time translating that excitement into a language that non-geeks can get. They have a hard time critically evaluating their own passions. This is why it just now occurred to DC to put some pants on Wonder Woman.
So that’s why I overthink. I want to give geek culture—video games, RPGs and sci-fi movies—the language of sober analysis. I want to turn the Coke-bottle lenses back in on themselves. I want to teach people that mere enthusiasm is not enough to make something Good Art. I want people to start thinking about their passions.
Stokes: Joseph Campbell/Roger Ebert Slashfic
My answer is exactly the opposite of John’s.
I Overthink because I am, like, an unabsashed, mouth-breathing fanboy. But I am not a science fiction fanboy. I am a science fiction fan—there’s a difference. I am a fanboy for critical discourse. (This, by the way, is just about as socially unacceptable as being any other kind of fanboy. Oh sure, most people know that someone is doing it somewhere, but tell someone outside of the ivory tower that “hey, I think Julia Kristeva is just the coolest,” and they’ll look at you like you’ve
grown an extra head admitted that you spend most weekends dressing up in a fursuit and running around the woods pretending to be a wizard.)
Geeks of all stripes like to find outlets for their geekery, and OverthinkingIt.com is for me a daily Comic-Con, a safe space where I can void my lit-crit bile without censure. Why do I overthink? Because it feels so…damn…good! Because, against all odds, we have found an audience whose reaction to our Joseph Campbell/Roger Ebert slashfic is, “That sounds totally hawt.” Because the alternative, for me, is curling up in the corner on my life-size Michel Foucault body-pillow and crying myself to sleep. If John is trying to bring analysis back to geeky hedonism, my goal is to bring the geeky hedonism back to analysis.
Mlawski: Doin’ it Granger Style
In tenth grade, we read Lord of the Flies, as tenth-graders are wont to do. At some point after we had completed the novel, my English teacher, Ms. Green-Lee, asked us to write a short essay on what we thought the book meant.
This came as a shock to me. Before that moment, I don’t believe I was ever asked to consider my own response to a novel beyond the obvious “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” In elementary school we read Number the Stars, and our teachers told us what Number the Stars was about. In middle school we read The Giver and Tuck Everlasting, and our teachers told us what The Giver and Tuck Everlasting were about. To be fair, when I was Bat Mitzvahed, I was told to write a sermon about the meaning of my assigned Torah portion, as I saw it. Unfortunately my portion was all about the proper way to sacrifice a goat, and I didn’t come up with a particularly nuanced interpretation.
Then, in tenth grade, Ms. Green-Lee sat us down in the computer lab and asked us to write an essay about the meaning of Lord of the Flies. I skimmed through the book, lingering on the pig-rape scene, and had an epiphany. “Yes, what is it, Shana?” Ms. Green-Lee said, seeing my hand rigid in the air.
“I know what the book is about!” I said. I was slightly breathless. “It’s about William Golding’s fear of sex!”
Ms. Green-Lee took a breath and paused. Fear of sex. I see. She appeared, shall we say, bemused. Then, with an awkward laugh she said, “Okay! And… can you, uh, support this claim with passages from the text?”
“Of course!” I said, flinging my book open, Granger-style. “Just look at the pig-hunt scene! It’s not just a pig—it’s a mother sow. Golding seems to believe that, without laws or government, pre-teen boys would immediately start raping their mothers!” I could see Golding in my mind’s eye, sweaty and breathing belaboredly as he wiped his glasses with a handkerchief. (In my mind, William Golding wore glasses and carried a handkerchief.) “Seriously!” I exclaimed, pointing down at my book. “He’s so scared of sex that he didn’t even put one girl in the whole thing!”
Ms. Green-Lee seemed to shake her head a little, but then she laughed again. “Okay!” she said again. I don’t think she agreed with my reading. But then she added, “Now write it down.”
So I did. And that is why I overthink.
Lee: Why do I Overthink? Because chicks dig it. Duh.
Seriously, though, I do it because it’s how I was taught to enjoy pop culture by the rest of the Overthinkers. When I met these guys in college, I was a young, naive product of an environment that lacked an appreciation for irony, subtext, alternative interpretations that deviate from the orthodoxy, amendments to the constitution other than the 2nd and 10th, etc. etc.
So imagine my shock when I discovered this motley crew of pop culture enthusiasts who enjoyed spending hours coming up with alternative porn titles to movies, analyzing the theological implications of Crom worship, and debating the ethical implications of killing thousands of stormtroopers on the Death Star for the greater good of the galactic rebellion. I was way out of my league, and way out of my comfort zone. At first I recoiled in fear. Then I came to embrace this way of thinking, not solely from peer pressure (though there were severe beatings involved at one point when I refused to acknowledge that one can appreciate “Freebird” ironically), but mostly from simply learning to appreciate things on more than one level. Two, most of the time. Three on a good day.
I don’t know if there was a specific moment when I realized I’d finally become one with my postmodern brothers and sisters. Perhaps it was that time we performed Oedipus Rex as a football halftime show. Or perhaps it was that time we organized a screening of the then-rare Mr. T VHS tape, Be Somebody or Be Somebody’s Fool.
No, it was probably that moment when I organized a Terminator marathon and realized there were enough people in my life who shared in both my dedication to Arnold Schwarzenegger and lack of anything better to do for 6 hours than debate time travel paradoxes and Skynet’s tactical mistakes.
I was with friends then, and I’m so grateful that I’m still with them now.
Fenzel: The Rule of Three
I overthink for three reasons. Firstly, I believe we should never apologize for what we love. To shout your love from the rooftops is one of the great redemptive joys. I love the world I live in, I love humanity-of-the-now (as distinct from the Cool Tombs of Sandberg), I love the weird things humanity creates that it loves (I mean, soaps! Really! Shoes for sliding down railings!), and I love that it loves them. Yes, I only know a slice of it, as much as I know, but I feel the dual loves of the eater of birthday cake —I love my slice, and I love that, my slice taken, huge and frosted, there is still so… much… cake…
Sure, I could put aside my given slice and scour the earth, searching for a sliver of the finest cake, high in the Tibetan Himalayas, but nobody would ever dream of demanding better cake at as fine a birthday party as this.
Despite the fortunate worldly condition of many geeks, overthinking is democratizing in two ways—it formally elevates and legitimizes the downcast and illegitimate, and it mocks and deflates formal elevation and legitimization themselves in the process. It is both right and ridiculous at the same time, like most love that demands rooftop-shouting.
Secondly, I get to play the Shakespearean fool, who is able in a special way, to speak the truth. Even in our liberal society, there’s a lot an adult just plain can’t say, because of both internal and external factors. By framing what I’m saying as a little foolish or disposable, I hope to find and express greater honesty.
Thirdly, restrictions breed creativity. I love writing, talking and performing and love when I get to do a lot of it. Having a premise to work from gets me past the terror of the blank page and gets me going. Not the most romantic reason, but, pragmatically speaking, a very important one.
Belinkie: What, me Overthink?
I don’t think what we do here is Overthinking at all. Creating good pop culture is every bit as hard as creating good high culture. When they wanted to make Spider-man 2, they hired Michael Chabon to write the screenplay. This was right after he won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Know what happened? They ended up tossing out most of his work. He also pitched movie plots for The Fantastic Four and X-Men, which were rejected. You could argue that this is just proof that movie studios don’t value talent or originality, but I don’t buy it. Movies just require a different kind of talent and originality. William Faulkner was one of the greatest writers in American history, but he spent ten years trying to hack it in Hollywood and got only a few credits and a lot of writer’s block.
Great blockbusters are actually rarer than great novels, because while you can produce a novel by yourself, a movie takes the work of a thousand people. When something like The Dark Knight comes along, it’s a goddamn miracle. It’s the same thing with a great pop song, TV show, or even a commercial. Take the Old Spice guy who’s currently burning up the internet. You can dismiss it as silly fun and roll your eyes at anyone who takes it seriously. But there’s a world of ad agencies out there who spend all day, every day, trying to create a viral hit like that. “Livin’ on a Prayer,” Pirates of the Caribbean, Gossip Girl… whether you personally dig them or not, home runs like these take skill, hard work, and plain old serendipity. They may be designed for thoughtless consumption, but there’s a tremendous amount of thought that goes into their creation.
Our tag line is cute, but I don’t think any of us feel that we’re subjecting the popular culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve. We’re taking something many people take for granted and popping open the hood, to reveal just how complicated it is to create the simple pleasures in life.
[So, readers: Have we got it? Or are we, like, totally taking this website too seriously? I mean, c’mon, it’s just for entertainment, right? Why do you overthink? Let us know in the comments.]