I’m not going to attempt a definition of New Sincerity; better cultural critics than I have done this better than I could, and my vanity will not allow me to merely create an inferior copy of someone else’s work. Amongst other writers, the great David Foster Wallace gave a magnificent explanation back in 1993.
What I will do is give an example of it, and then some analysis of why I think some people are drawn to it.
Please note that this isn’t intended as a condemnation of either New Sincerity or of any of the works mentioned. I probably enjoy them myself, and if you would like to engage in a discussion about them, please drop me a line.
(Except My Little Pony. I recognise that it’s incredibly good, but it just isn’t for me.)
An Example of New Sincerity
Over the last month or two I’ve been spending a lot of time with the Stellaris fandom. (If you were there you probably saw my writings; if you weren’t then I’m currently reblogging them here.) For those who haven’t come across it, Stellaris is a recently-released strategy game based on trying to cram every space opera trope into it at once, and had a very smart marketing campaign which drip-fed information out to the fans in the manner of blood to sharks.
This had the unintended (or possibly very intended) effect of becoming something like a Rohrschach blot: every fandom saw elements in it they liked, and were convinced that it would be their perfect game. The 40k fandom saw the possibility of xenophobic crusades, the Star Trek fandom saw scientific exploration and weird-forehead-alien societies forming federations, the Mass Effect fandom saw terrifying precursor aliens reemerging to reclaim their legacy, and so on.
I was really excited by this and tried to have a conversation with people about this. “What do you see as being the archetypal points of your franchise? What’s your analysis of why you like it, and which factors speak to you on a personal level?”
They were really hostile to that. Surprisingly so, in fact. Someone who was happy to have a long and drawn-out discussion about the fine points of the difference between different types of Star Destroyer would snap at me as soon as I asked them what they thought the Star Wars mythos said about our society and why that mythos made the choices it made.
“Why are Hutts crime lords?” I would ask.
“Because their society encourages…” they would begin.
“I mean, why has the galaxy been written in such a way that only one species possesses the traits to be crime lords?” I would ask. “What does that say about our view of criminality?”
“If you don’t enjoy it, just leave us alone,” they would say. “Don’t ruin our fun with your analysis.”
Those who have met me know that I can’t avoid analysing things, so I would slump dejectedly away. I had this same conversation with every fandom: some were abusive (40k fans) and some were long-winded (Mass Effect fans) but nobody wanted to unpack anything.
This is New Sincerity: the desire, at all costs, to avoid discussing what media means and to focus entirely on an enjoyment of its superficial factors.
Why I think some people like New Sincerity
Cultural critique is an enormously powerful weapon for social change. By exposing the assumptions underlying our media and our culture, critics have catalysed enormous shifts in how people behave.
It goes like this: nobody wants to think of themselves as an asshole. The human mind doesn’t work like that. When we’re shown evidence that we’re behaving like an asshole, we either change our behaviour or we attempt to deny it. This denial could take the form of erasing the issue or it could take the form of redefining “asshole.” However, both are just dodges and neither actually works.
For example, I enjoy Kit Kats. However, Kit Kats are made by Nestle, a company which literally kills babies. I know that I should boycott them (and I do, nowadays.) However, being forced to choose between one’s principles and one’s Kit Kats is a choice that no human being should have to make, and so it took some time for me to come around.
Now you too know that Nestle kills babies. As a result, you have four choices:
B) Say “don’t be ridiculous, boycotting Nestle can’t bring dead babies back to life.” (Erasing the problem.)
C) Say “it’s not a big deal, get over it, these things happen, and it was a while ago anyway.” (Redefining morality.)
D) Admit to yourself that you’re okay with supporting the killing of babies.
B and C are not long-term solutions; you may take refuge in them but at the back of your head you will hear my voice every time you eat a Kit Kat, reminding you that you’re tasting dead babies, until eventually you cave and adopt either A or D as a long-term solution. Nobody likes either A or D either: as mentioned, we don’t want to think of ourselves as the villains, but we also don’t want to give up Kit Kats. This means that the most comfortable solution is to avoid this whole issue entirely and stay blissfully ignorant.
Media is similar. I love the movie Sucker Punch. If someone points out to me that it’s misogynistic trash, I can stop enjoying it, or I can deny that it’s misogynistic, or I can redefine misogyny, or I can admit to myself that I’m imperfect. I chose option D, admitting to myself that I’m imperfect, and I think it was the right choice. However, this can be a painful admission and doing it to every aspect of one’s life is very difficult.
This is why cultural critique is so powerful: it puts us into a situation where we must either change our behaviour or give up our myth of personal righteousness. This hurts, especially when something we love is being discussed. Perhaps even more important than the pain is the fear: people have learned that the Bible was right when it said that “he who increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow”, and so when they see critique coming they bar the door against the fun ruiners.
In my opinion, that’s part of the draw of New Sincerity. It rejects analysis, depth and context entirely, and so promises its adherents that they don’t have to make the painful choice above. They can carry on loving their media without having to grapple with anything.
My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic has become the standard bearer for this movement at least partially because it has the combination of being extremely high quality and involving almost no discussion of (or metaphors for) real issues. It’s amazingly good, so adults can enjoy it, but still encourages a childlike superficiality. It is a place to hide when the fun ruiners come.