The Problem With Edge
Content Warning: Mental Illness, Suicide, Sexual Assault.
Spoiler Warning for Nier: Automata
If you've been on the internet long enough, odds are pretty decent that you've seen something described as "edgy." That said, if you're one of the numerous forty-somethings I've had to describe the term to, I'll preface this post with a short and sweet refresher.
Calling something "edgy," at the most basic level, tends to be a disparaging remark directed at the overtly dark nature of something. If a work is gratuitously violent, deals in dark subject matter like drug usage/suicide/rape/mental illness/anything that makes tends to make people uncomfortable, contains thematic elements about the permeability of morality or flirts with the idea that "bad is good, actually," then odds are, it's liable to get branded as "edgy." Some prime examples of popularly accepted edginess include:
- Suicide Squad
- Shadow the Hedgehog
- Any Final Fantasy after Nomura took over
- Linkin Park
- Papa Roach
- Insane Clown Posse, excluding the landmark Big Money Rustlas
That's just the edgy tip of the iceberg, but you get the idea. Things that are overtly dark, excessively grim, meticulously macabre, et cetera, et cetera. Apologies for the adverbs, as that's quite lazy, but it's late and I'm tired. Let's move on.
As readers of this blog might know, I've been fond of using "edgy" as a descriptor. It gets the point across without much legwork, and for the most part, my primary readership knows precisely what I mean when I use the term. I can call something "edgy," the intent behind my usage of the word is known, and I can move on. A late, great teacher of mine once hammered home the importance of never wasting words when writing. Extraneous bullshit does not a good read make, and so concision is something that I tend to find very important. Except for those times I go on multi-thousand word rants about Frozen fan art or Shadow the Hedgehog.
Yet something about the phrase "edgy" has been bothering me lately, and to get to the heart of why that is, I'll need to explain why I dislike another catch-all criticism: "overrated." "Overrated" is a critique that is, to be blunt, a facile and lazy excuse to be contrarian. As somebody who used to use the phrase on a daily basis, I came to this revelation on my own over time. It's easy to point to a popular thing, something that's generally accepted as A Good Thing For Good People, and say that it's "not that good." It's Donald Trump Insults 101, even. Observe.
Person A: "This thing is great."
Person B: "Eh, it's pretty overrated."
Person A: "Really? Why's that?"
Person B: "Meh. It's just not as good as people say."
Person A: "Okay, but why?"
Person B: "It just kind of sucks, I guess. People like it too much."
I digress. Calling something "overrated" is to immediately set oneself up as a sort of contrarian id, and a cheap way to provoke conversation. It's no surprise to me, then, that it's become especially popular in a post-internet age, where people's primary interactions seem to be based on disagreeing with each other and willful avoidance to reach a mutual agreement because compromise is hard. It's a word I've tried to faze out of my vocabulary over time, because it's vapid and ultimately useless to actual conversation. Plus, it's just a prickish thing to say. Do you really want to be that guy? I used to be that guy, and trust me, you don't.
Clearly, it's easier to write 2700 words about why you don't like something.
What does this have to do with edginess, though? Surely, it's such a niche term that it doesn't deserve to be called out. As much as it pains me to say, I'm afraid that's becoming patently untrue. More and more modern media criticism, from films to video games, have begun to utilize "edgy" as a disparaging descriptor for the same reason I've historically used it. Thanks to the inherently memetic nature of language, it's becoming a commonly understood word among the masses. "Edge" is needlessly dark, as far as the masses are concerned. A year ago, or even a few months ago, I might've not had an issue with that.
What's changed? Well, for starters, the lead singer of one of my favorite bands killed himself.
A few months ago, Chester Bennington, frontman of Linkin Park, hung himself. You'll notice that Linkin Park is one of the most widely accepted examples of "edginess" that I mentioned above. Lyrics to their songs are often copy-pasted onto ironic memes, with the joke being that their songs are "edgy" or "grimdark." These are jokes that I used to find kind of funny, admittedly, with one particular example of Donald Duck wailing the lyrics to "Crawling" coming to mind.
And yet, when the news hit that Bennington had taken his own life, I started to reevaluate my relationship with their music. It used to be that I liked their songs with a defensive bent. If I admitted to my girlfriend, my friends, anyone I knew, really, that I liked Linkin Park unironically and that their music spoke to me on a very personal level, I'd be made fun of in one way or another. After all, those songs were all an act, right? It was almost funny, how needlessly dark they were, and how much the lead singer talked about depression. And suicide. Repeatedly. On almost every album.
It was all an act, right?
I think it was right then and there that I started really reconsidering my relationship with the word "edgy." It started with music that I liked. Were Linkin Park, Papa Roach, Trapt, and other staples of early 2000's middle school actually inauthentic and ripe for mockery, or was there some tangibility to the anger and misery they put out in each album? Were people quick to dismiss them because they grew out them, and in an attempt to deflect bullying for their old interests, started liking them out of a snide irony? In retrospect, I'm fairly confident that's what happened to me.
Once I started pulling at this thread, there was no turning back. I had to get to the bottom of using "edgy" as a pejorative, and the potential ramifications that came with that. Luckily, the world gave me an easy "in" with this line of thought. This year, Nier: Automata came out, and for those of you who follow my writing, you might know that it's my new personal favorite game - dethroning reigning decade-plus champ, Metal Gear Solid 3. Now, for readability's sake, I'll put aside all conversation about how anything else being awarded "game of the year" over it is a crime against humanity and stay focused. You're welcome.
Nier: Automata is a profound and nuanced game that upends traditional narrative storytelling and conventional morality, while simultaneously questioning the tenants of established philosophies and theologies. It also concerns itself with the inherent performative nature of humanity, and the relative insignificant nature of humanity in the face of an ever-changing and adapting world. From where I stand, it's swinging for the fences while most other games are in the stands, selling peanuts and lukewarm Bud Light for a quick buck.
However, Nier: Automata is also a violent game. Not only that, but many of the characters take a great deal of time to talk about their feelings. Whether they're curious, angry, sad, some mixture of the three and then some, if it's a feeling, the characters are going to talk about it. Now, from where I stand, both of these things fit perfectly. The violence is not only aesthetically beautiful and closely tied to classical Japanese art, but it serves a metaphorical purpose in that it helps the protagonists get closer and closer to humanity with each ounce of bloodshed. On top of this, the violence is not limited to traditional blood and gore. In one particular haunting instance of brutality, a robot's mind is wiped after witnessing the slaughter of mechanical children he'd been sheltering and teaching. Because he no longer has any memories of said children, he can be found later on in the game, selling their robotic limbs for money. He laughs it off, calling his collection of mechanical corpses "junk." It is, to me, one of the most harrowing and heartwrenching things I've ever encountered in a game. It not only recontextualizes the game's violence, but makes the player question the ethicality of believing that these robots have any sort of humanity.
So, of course, this game's preoccupation with violence, death, and emotion has pigeonholed it with that dreaded "e" word. Yes, Nier: Automata has popularly been branded as "edgy," even by its fans, because of its thematic elements and narrative beats. I've encountered people online laughing the child slaughter off as being "edgy" on a few occasions in the months following the game's release. Generally, I try to let people have their opinions and move on, but this genuinely got under my skin and, speaking frankly, pissed me off a great deal. Yoko Taro clearly put a great deal of effort into investing players in this village of cute, cherubic robot kiddos and their mentor before slaughtering them and putting their appendages up for sale. There's layer upon layer upon layer of subtext in just this one event, and yet, there's an alarming amount of people willing to write it off as "edgy" due to its inherent bleak and violent nature.
Because I was so taken aback by what I viewed as a simplistic and uncritical hot take on the game, I started questioning my own take on 2017's other big JRPG: Persona 5. A few weeks after launch, I was laughing the entire game off as being "edgy." A lot of yelling about politics, tragic backstories, grim violence, overt sexuality... it set off all my red flags for what I perceived to be "edginess." That was all I needed to say. "Persona 5 is bad because it's edgy, and also, I think the gameplay is inherently awful in its handholding, monotony, and overtutorializing." Now, let's take a step back and look at that statement. One half of it is an actual complaint. Yes, Persona 5's gameplay is very poorly designed, in my opinion, and I think that's due to its oversimplicity, emphasis on tutorializing, and placement of arbitrary restrictions on the player. So, one half of that critique holds water and can be backed up.
The other half is actual garbage.
See, I wrote Persona 5's story off as "edgy" because of the issues it was trying to present. Sexual assault, suicide, abuse, corrupt politicians... everything under the sun. That's not to mention the constant railing against "rotten adults," and the dark color palette. To me, it was "edgy." That was all that needed to be said. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was me being dismissive. It was an easy out, a catch-all to disagree without actually having to back up what I'm saying. Much like a lot of my opinions, it was contrarian.However, it was without any actual substantive arguments to back it up.
So I went back to the drawing board, and challenged myself to come up with a better defense than, "it's edgy and dumb." Instead of harping on the subjects the game presented, I decided to harp on the way in which the game depicted them. That was when I struck a critical goldmine, to speak. To me, Persona 5 shoehorned in violence without it ever serving a meaningful aesthetic or thematic purpose. It dealt with issues like sexual assault and child abuse in a way that felt jarringly inauthentic, and used for shock value as opposed to actual authenticity. Not only that, but the political ideology of the creators was unclear, and it felt as if the writers were throwing the word "politics" to appear intelligent while failing to make any sort of meaningful statement. The combined effect of all this resulted in a narrative that felt tonally incongruent and largely devoid of actual substance.
See what I did there? In one paragraph, I explained myself without relying on an easy crutch, a verbal tick designed with the intent to simultaneously spark and deflect criticism. When I did this, in my head, it felt like I'd stumbled onto a major revelation. However, with this revelation came a crushing realization.
Most people don't want to think that hard.
Most of the media I like is often derided as "edgy" or "pretentious." Practically anything David Lynch or Lars von Trier has touched, Serial Experiments Lain, the Silent Hill franchise, School-Live, Neon Genesis Evangelion, the Kingdom Hearts franchise, and yes, Nomura-helmed Final Fantasy. People have often dismissed all of these things as "edgy," with the sort of snide, condescending attitude that really starts to get under your skin after a while. For a while now, I've tended to laugh it off, and taken jokes in stride that I "like edgy things."
Yet it's started to wear on me as time goes by, because the more and more I think about it, the more I think that "edgy" is a hollow and vapid criticism meant to deflect actual conversation and to give people who use it a sense of superiority. Again. This is speaking from experience on both sides.
Not only that, but I think its usage has become a catch-all for anything that deals with difficult or convoluted subject matter. Media that deals with abuse, sexual violence, drug usage, self-harm, et cetera, is often pigeonholed in this dubious "edgy" category. More age-appropriate media, as well, that concerns itself with permeable morality, mankind's inherent flirtations with darkness, doomed romance, et cetera, is also slapped with the same label. The concern I have with this is that, in our haste to feel good about ourselves and place ourselves on some intellectual high ground, we're devaluing art and the artists behind them. Not only that, but we're putting horse blinders on, in a way. If we dismiss all topics outside the realm of everyday conversation as "edgy," then we, as a society, are going to grow very ill-informed and closeminded as time goes on.
We're also being willfully blind to the reasons said art and artists might resonate with somebody when we use these catch-alls ("edgy," "overrated," "dumb,") as critique. As soon as I stopped devaluing Persona 5 as "edgy" and actually figured out concrete reasons why I didn't like it, I found myself more malleable to having conversations with people who count it among their favorite games. By opening my own mind, clarifying my thoughts to myself, and being less of a cynical, snide asshole, I found myself actually being more understanding. There's a freedom that comes from letting your guard down and not being dismissive, from not finding the easy way out of a conversation, from not being contrarian simply for the sake of being contrarian.
On a personal level, aside from having my own interests scrutinized with (often uninvited) catch-alls, I fear for my own art being subject to bad critique. Much of the stuff I write concerns itself with topics that people might construe as "edgy." Alcoholism, self-harm, sexual abuse, ritualized violence, adolescent sexuality, and a lot of other topics one might not bring up in "polite" conversation. I have a deep-seated anxiety that my stuff will be written off as "edgy" without getting actual critiques, just because of the subject matter I tend to implement. People will refuse to think about what I'm actually trying to say, because they'll be too distracted by the way I'm saying it. I've seen it happen to artists I respect and admire and hope to emulate, such as the aforementioned Lynch and von Trier, and it pains to me to see people being so uncritical because they can't handle violence or, in von Trier's, a touch of metaphor-laced genital mutilation.
That's my piece, I think. I'm retiring "edgy" from my vernacular, effective immediately, throwing it on the pile with "overrated" and "pretentious." I think it's a rote and beat criticism, and I think there are better ways to talk about something than being dismissive and condescending.