Monday, May 28, 2007

Slacker Mystics: Gen Y Visions in Joan of Arcadia and Wonderfalls

Downloadable mp3 file: podcast

In 2004, two television series, Joan of Arcadia and Wonderfalls, both of which were critically acclaimed but fairly quickly cancelled despite fervent fan bases, featured young, underachieving “slacker” females who started to receive messages from a higher power, through both human and inanimate messengers. In Joan of Arcadia, protagonist Joan Girardi, a 16-year-old C-average high school sophomore at Arcadia High School, reluctantly comes to believe that the individuals she happens to encounter in her daily life are actually God. The way they appear to her is disconcerting: God takes human form as a little girl wearing mismatched outfits, a gruff, elderly dogwalker, a high school maintenance man, to a punk high school student with piercings and safety pins in his lips, and many other quotidian personae.



For Jaye Tyler, a Brown University graduate with a degree in philosophy, who decides, to the dismay of her over-achieving family, to work as a clerk at a gift shop at Niagara Falls and to live in a down-at-the-heels trailer park, the voices do not purport to be God, but they still give her divine instructions. Jaye’s divine edicts are delivered to her by inanimate objects (all with a face) that suddenly start to bark cryptic orders at her. They range from a taxidermied trout on the wall of a Niagara Falls bar, a malformed wax lion, a chameleon puppet, plush animal souvenirs of Niagara Falls, and even the carved head at the top of a wooden totem pole outside a gas station.



At the beginning of both series, both Jaye and Joan are quintessential slackers. They resist attachment or involvement in the lives of their family and community. Further, neither Jaye nor Joan is religious nor has religious leanings, although Jaye’s brother is working on his doctorate in comparative religion and Joan’s mother is immersing herself in Catholicism. Nevertheless, somewhere within a nihilistic consumer culture in a kitschy tourist destination where Native American myths and heritage have been commercialized (Niagara Falls) or a decaying, ethically empty American city (Joan’s Arcadia), voices appear, and they ask the young women to resist the constructivist pressures of their environments, and to replace emptiness and passivity with activity.



Both Joan of Arcadia and Wonderfalls reflect contemporary culture’s anxieties about imparted wisdom, and they question the assumptions that are embedded in the skepticism that characterizes an existentialist legacy. Yet, Gen Y lives and operates in a world where there is enormous tension between observable, Newtonian views of reality and seemingly irrational quantum world of unpredictable possibility. The generation is comfortable with believing in processes they can neither see nor understand. In Joan of Arcadia, Joan’s younger brother, Luke, is an honor student whose interest in science and physics gravitates him toward string theory, quantum mechanics, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which he describes in almost every episode. With a degree in philosophy, Jaye Tyler is comfortable with multiple explanations for reality, although she does worry about her sanity when the wax lion speaks to her.


Further, Gen Y and the “millennial generation” are of special concern because they seem to be two generations that embody the digital divide. While other generations have learned to navigate a world with rapid technological change, they are not “digital natives” like Gen Y and the millennial generation. Are “digital natives” truly different? If one believes in environment pressure and adaptive speciation, there is cause for concern.

Rather than relying on the latest handheld device, powerful computer, or wireless gadget, both Jaye and Joan tend to find their messages in people or “things with faces.” As a result, one might conclude that the digital natives may be skeptical of digital information (knowing that everything digital can be manipulated) while people and stuffed animals possess more authenticity.

The two series also reflect a certain view of Gen Y’s response to a context that includes both religious fundamentalism and New Age spiritual eclecticism. As platforms for re-examining determinism, free will, ethical dilemmas, and other philosophical issues through often quirky, touching Gen Y lenses, they provide a fascinating opportunity to examine how kitsch and popular culture are deployed to impose a sense of mission and purpose upon two nervous, intimacy-averse, Gen Y slacker grrlz.

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