“You’re worth more than what you can give to other people”
– Mara, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
That line’s gotten lost in a lot of the hoopla surrounding She-Ra, and not without reason. A singular line, no matter how good, can get lost in a powerful scene, in a powerful episode, of one of the best well-written and beloved TV series in the last year. I stand by my previous assertion that She-Ra and the Princesses of Power will go down as one of the best cartoons ever, full-stop. I have little doubt it will be remembered along with Avatar the Last Airbender, Batman the Animated Series, GI Joe: Real American Hero, Super Friends, and Speed Racer.
But this little kernel of brilliance really deserves some evaluation on its own, independent of the scene that showcased it. I’ve been fixated on it since it was utter because I feel like there’s something strangely prescient here, relevant to today’s world.
While COVID-19 has been dire for the world as a whole, it’s been truly catastrophic for the United States (where I live) because we have a bumbling fool in charge who put other bumbling fools in charge, all of whom seem aggressively proud of their own ignorance and incompetence. So what should have been a very serious situation has turned into a quite frankly societally-threatening situation. As the infection rates and death toll rises, the America that existed before 2020 quite simply will never exist again. There will be no ‘returning to normal’, in even the best-case scenarios.
That isn’t entirely bad, however. American society had a lot of problems. Depending on where you fit on the social spectrum tended to determine just how broken you thought the situation was. Yet one thing I believe most everybody agreed on is that the American relationship with work was staggeringly out-of-whack. This was best exemplified by Americans who go to work abroad, and see what work cultures are like elsewhere. In America, eating at your desk if not working through your lunch break is commonplace if not quietly encouraged. Businesses were required to put into place a vacation-time-buy-back program because people would retire from their jobs having never used the majority of their vacation and/or sick leave.
If you’re friends with an artist, you’ve seen obsession first-hand. Every spare second you aren’t practicing your art and promoting your art and updating your portfolio is a second you fall behind, in skill and relevancy. This is true for pretty much any medium, be it graphic arts or music performing arts or literature.
Our culture idolizes the workhorse, the ones who never stop, the ones who log sixteen, eighteen-hour days. The ones who work during the day, then come home and take classes at night. Get the bachelors so you can get a better job. Got the bachelors? Get that masters degree. Real experts have a doctorate. It never stops. It’s true in every industry. Publish-or-perish in academia. Fantasy sports numbers in pro athletics. There is always a metric that you must move higher and faster than everyone else or you will be left behind.
All these numbers, all this effort, all this work, seems geared towards something commercial. Make more art. Why? So you can post it online. Why? So you get likes. Why? Because then you’ll have dollar signs attached to your name and you can get a job with a bigger company. Why? So you can have more opportunities. Why? So you can do more work. Why? So you can be listed among the greats.
Do we pursue artistic greatness or do we pursue fame?
Do we purse achievement or do we pursue simply more work?
Do we work for unfair wages now so we can earn fair wages later?
It all seems to spin around work, and work seems to be about generating sales, generating revenue, doing something for someone else. But we’re worth more than what we can give other people.
As writer, I’ve been told I live and die by social media. I have to be on social media to network with fans and publishers and whatnot to promote my books. But when I’ve tracked my metrics, I saw no appreciable jump in sales or page hits. So clearly I was social media-ing wrong, correct?
Or was I doing it right, just for someone else?
A page hit is where a person loads a page. On that page are ads, which someone paid for. My being on social media, my engaging fans and publishers and whoever, it also generates traffic for the social media site. So while I may or may not make any money from that effort, someone is absolutely making money from that effort.
Why is my effort tied to money? Why is success determined by marketability and sales? I described above without even thinking about ‘get dollar signs attached to your name’. In the professional arts, you are only as big as the units you can move. Why? Why that metric? Why do we say ‘she sold 100,000 books’ and not ‘she inspired fifteen hundred fanfics’? Or seventy cosplayers?
I’ve been fixated on all of this because during the quarantine for COVID-19, there’s been a lot of talk about work. Being out of work. Having to get work done. Having to be productive.
There is a genuinely deadly plague that is ravaging our country, ravaging our world, and people are feeling bad that they haven’t updated their resume or taken enough online classes. They HAVE to use this time productively. What does that even mean?
Genuine, what DOES that mean?
I’m getting the impression it means ‘come out of the quarantine with a new skill by which you can generate revenue’. And odds are, generate revenue for someone else.
This is starting to sound anti-capitalist. And maybe it is, though that isn’t the intention. I just know that I’m getting increasingly uncomfortable with every ounce of my effort being defined by a dollar sign.