When I was young, I watched a lot of T.V. It was my reward for getting homework finished and for making it through the school day alive. And in that twilight era of innocence and naiveté, one of my favorite
shows to watch was Boy Meets World on Disney Channel. One day sometime during my 6th grade year, I caught an episode called “The Play’s the Thing.” In this episode, Cory Matthews and the gang are part of a school staging of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Cory hates it and, of course, ends up complaining to Mr. Feeny (his teacher for you uninitiated viewers) about how boring it is. Mr. Feeny, with his usual sarcastic wit, responds with “Of course you’re right, Cory. Shakespeare is dry, tedious and there is no way for a person your age to be affected by it.” However, as he says it, the lights above the auditorium stage that he and Cory had been sitting on dim and Mr. Feeny stands and grabs a spear.
As he slowly approaches a shocked Cory, he begins to recite the monologue delivered by Hamlet’s father.
“I am thy father’s spirit,
doomed for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.”
While the scene is clearly played for laughs in the show, it had me fascinated. And while it will probably never be ranked in the top 10 or even top 20 scenes in the show’s long run, it brought something to light for me.
I’ve always been a bookworm. I spent so much time in the library as a kid that the librarians recognize me to this day when I go in there. I have bookmarks that I’ve had since the 1st grade and I still use them. Books have been one of the biggest parts of my life for as long as I can remember.
But, strangely enough, it was this sitcom that introduced me to William Shakespeare. After watching Mr. Feeny recite the monologue, I did exactly what I’m sure he wanted Cory to do. I realized that Shakespeare is fascinating. I read as much of Hamlet as a 6th grader could understand and I memorized the entire monologue. Now, 11 years and one B.A. in English Literature later, I can still recite most of it from memory.
Pop culture is something that is often maligned and more often ignored. I’m guilty of it myself. I don’t care about Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke and Katy Perry. I don’t care about most movies and the vast majority of pop music seems to fly straight over my head.
With that said, I think that more attention should be given to pop culture nonetheless. We should pay attention to what shows we watched as a child. We should pay attention to what messages are out there within even the poppiest of pop culture.
It’s true that pop culture is often stupid. It’s often meaningless. However, it can also be incredibly powerful. It can contain moments of such intense beauty and bewildering meaning that even the most ardent of poets would have to stop and admire.
I have run into this power many times. When I first began to really struggle with clinical depression, I picked up the first volume of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. It’s a series of graphic novels focused on a personification of Dream, a character named Morpheus. In one scene, Morpheus heads to Hell itself and battles a demon for something that belongs to him. The rules are simple. Each competitor names an object or idea and the other competitor has to say something that would, if real, top that object or idea. This is how the game ends:
Choronzon: “I am anti-life, the Beast of Judgement. I am the dark at the end of everything. The end of universes, gods, worlds … of everything. And what will you be then, Dreamlord?”
Dream: “I am Hope.”
– Choronzon and Dream, playing “the oldest game”in Sandman #4: “A Hope in Hell”
As I began to fight my own mind, I too had hope simply because someone else believed that it could triumph over all.
Often, seemingly simple pop culture holds the deepest meanings.
The Dementors of the Harry Potter series represent depression. J.K. Rowling has said that they are characters that she crafted from her own experience with depression. That’s why the best thing to do after a dementor attack is to eat chocolate. That works pretty well for attacks of anxiety and depression too.
It’s so difficult to describe [depression] to someone who’s never been there, because it’s not sadness. I know sadness. Sadness is to cry and to feel. But it’s that cold absence of feeling — that really hollowed-out feeling. That’s what Dementors are. – J.K Rowling
The Ents of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are Tolkien’s way of showing how much he hated the destruction of the Earth that came with Britain’s entry in the Industrial Age.
X-Men could easily be seen as a very fitting metaphor for the Gay Rights movement.
Pop culture, in ways I never really appreciated until I went to college and started really thinking analytically, shaped me. I’m not the only one either. Harry Potter is what got me most of the friends I have today. We played Quidditch instead of handball and we spent our lunch hour dissecting plots and deciding what houses we would want to be placed in by the Sorting Hat.
12 years later, we’re busy freaking out together about the new set of movies set in the Harry Potter universe that J.K Rowling is now penning.
My mother once told me why reading was important. She said that it lets you enter an entirely new world. You can be a pirate or a dancer or an alien. It doesn’t matter. Words let you do that.
However, I’d add this to that idea. Pop culture, whether in the form of movies or books or music or television, also provides your first real introduction the world. It teaches you. It shapes you. It shapes you into a way of thinking that does follow you into adulthood.
And that, in a nutshell, is the importance of Mr. Feeny.