The reviews for Ridley Scott’s The Martian has been summed up as “competence porn” by many critics because it shows an intelligent person “science the sh*t” out of a bad situation. It seems like the 2009 coined term, competence porn, has a bad reputation when it shouldn’t. Every inch and cranny of our media consumption shows competent geniuses solving problems other average Joes’ could not. The same way competence is good for drama, incompetence is great for comedy e.g Veep or Silicon Valley. Every comic book film, Christopher Nolan picture, Shondaland TV show, and so many others revolve around the best and the brightest because intelligence is equivalent to magic to us.
Competence porn is a self congratulatory celebration of a writer or creator’s own intelligence. Watching extremely talented people do their jobs well is not dramatic. However, it is dramatic if you perceive everyone around you to be dumb and incompetent. Then you will have to use your expertise to save, con, take down, or conquer the idiots.
And I love it.
The Martian does this by making the planet Mars look like the idiot in the room.
According to Slate writer Sharan Shetty ” ‘competence porn’ is a truly excellent phrase for an old phenomenon; the frisson of watching smart people tackle tasks with freaky aptitude dates as far back as Robinson Crusoe. Liam Neeson, in movies like Taken and The Grey, is the James Deen of competence porn.”
We live in a world where everyone in our films and on our TV screens, digital devices and so on is Sherlock Holmes. They can look at a problem and figure it out in a mere few minutes. What makes this trope exhausting is not that everyone to 2009’s Star Trek to BBC’s Sherlock and beyond is a expert in their respective field; it is that the main characters are white.
Diversity will and has made this trope more interesting. For example, if the 2014 film Whiplash starred an black drummer from the inner city, the film would be drastically different than the one we have. The film is amazing as is but we have seen this before. One film that comes to mind is Black Swan.
We are already seeing this change on TV. Think about it. Annalise Keating portrayed by Viola Davis in How to Get Away With Murder is extremely competent at being a lawyer. Every case is solve in a matter of 45 minutes and she never loses. The fact that a black woman is shown to be the most competent on a TV show is impressive to me as an avid TV watcher when TV is flooded with extremely competent white characters. This can be said about Algernon Edwards from The Knick, Alex Parrish from Quantico, Olivia Pope from Scandal, Beaumont Rosewood from Rosewood, John Luther from Luther, Mary Jane Paul from Being Mary Jane and even Cookie Lyons from Empire who manages to save everyone on the show.
The best example of this competence porn featuring a POC is MR. Robot. Our main character Elliot is of mixed race and he manages to bring the down the entire global financial system all from a computer. It is a brilliant show and it is refreshing because it doesn’t focus on a typical white hacker/ programmer.
I mean if I was white, I would wonder: Are there any competent people of color? The oversaturation gets boring. It is like eating steak everyday of your life. The first few are delicious but sooner or later you will want chicken, fish, pork, etc.
New and different competent faces shakes up a trope that has been around since The Odyssey.
So yes The Martian is competence porn and that is not a problem. Hopefully, Idris Elba, Priyanka Chopra or Angela Bassett gets an opportunity to be competent in a similar film. That is all I am saying.