The Wow Climax by Henry Jenkins

Henry Jenkins III is something of a mainstay in the academic world of media and pop cultural studies. The founder and director of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program, he’s the author and editor of many books and articles on cultural forms from video games and Hollywood movies to children’s programming. He also pops up a lot as a talking head on documentaries and television shows, not only because of his expert credentials, but also because — with his balding pate and graying Amish-style beard — he looks like an egghead professor straight out of Central Casting.

His new book, The Wow Climax, sounds from the subtitle (Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture) as though it contains a new, coherent, and sustained argument about the important pay-offs to be gained from the kinds of television shows, movies, and video games that are often overlooked — something along the lines of Steven Johnson’s 2005 best-seller, Everything Bad is Good for You, which, according to Jenkins, doesn’t really say anything new. Speaking of not saying anything new, it comes as something as a disappointment to discover that, rather than “tracing” anything specific in a particular way, The Wow Climax is actually a collection of essays on disparate subjects, many of them previously published 10, 15, and (in one case) even 20 years ago. How are they connected? Very simply. “The essays in The Wow Climax,” explains Jenkins, “are about things that make me go ‘wow’.”

This isn’t to say these essays aren’t interesting or relevant. On the contrary, this is a well-written and engaging book, in which Jenkins, writing about some of his favorite subjects, displays the infectious enthusiasm of the old-fashioned scholar-fan. In “Games, the New Lively Art,” for example — first published in 2005 — he explains the role of audience participation in video and computer games, and the (positive) impact that can have on participants’ attitudes and behavior. In “Complete Freedom of Movement,” an essay on “Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces” — first published in 1998 — he writes persuasively about how the metaphorical “space” of the video game can function as an effective virtual playground for children who, in many cases, no longer have access to the yards, parks, and other urban spaces that earlier generations took for granted. Jenkins has had a long-standing interest in this kind of media-participant interaction; it formed the basis of his 2006 book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, and led to the founding of the Convergence Culture Consortium research group at the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT.

Other chapters work well because they place the “wow” in a personal context, usually in relation to some form of nostalgia. This is the case with “Death-Defying Heroes,” a chapter on how superhero comics helped Jenkins come to terms with the death of his mother, and the last essay, “Her Suffering Aristocratic Majesty,” on his affection for Lassie as a child (contrasted with his current distaste for dogs). And in his essay on Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Jenkins — rather touchingly — investigates the show’s appeal by hosting a “Pee Wee party” for his precocious-sounding young son, Henry Jenkins IV, and some of his son’s pre-school chums.

Just a few caveats. First, as he makes abundantly clear, Jenkins is writing about things that make him go “wow,” but he needs to remember his readers won’t always feel the same way. Most conspicuously, he seems to be writing not about consumers of pop culture today, most of whom are in their late teens or early 20s, but about males of his own generation, who can look back with nostalgia to their own teenage love of Lassie and superhero comics. He seems to forget that many teenagers today can’t even remember Pee Wee Herman, let alone Lassie or Lupe Velez. Of course, one of the problems with writing about pop culture is that, although certain themes may remain the same, what’s “popular” can change remarkably fast.

On the subject of things being dated, sometimes Jenkins comes off sounding like the Victorian paterfamilias he resembles. In an early chapter, he lets off a minor harrumph about people’s tendency to associate popular culture with “the lower orders,” “as I discover,” he bemoans, “almost every time I go to a cocktail party”. In such circumstances, complains Jenkins, he always seems to run into people “who are exceedingly proud of the fact that they do not own a television set, go to movies, play games, or read comics.” This may be true enough among the kind of people who give (and attend) “cocktail parties” (do they still exist?), but maybe Jenkins should consider finding other venues of social engagement. There are plenty of people for whom there’s never been a division between popular and “high” art. Many of my students and colleagues, just to take one example, are at art school to research experimental animation design, interactive media, or digital imaging, without it ever crossing their minds that some might consider these fields less of an “art” than, say, traditional disciplines like painting or sculpture.

Finally, there’s an odd note of prurience in some of the chapters. While Jenkins admits a fondness for horror films, Pee Wee Herman, and WWF wrestling, he describes Tijuana Bibles as “truly tasteless works”, and wants to reclaim Lupe Velez from Kenneth Anger’s “gross and disturbing representation of her death” in Hollywood Babylon. Like it or not, cultural forms like Tijuana Bibles and scandal-mongering books have made an awful lot of people go “wow,” too.