Nadine Nozaki
Studies from Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab reveal that in the virtual world — as in the real one — the younger, hotter and more fit you appear, the better you’ll fare.
Helen Popkin
By
msnbc.com
updated 8/29/2008 8:56:45 AM ET 2008-08-29T12:56:45

Here’s my "big" problem with the “Matrix” franchise.

It’s not the idea that the “reality” humankind perceives is actually an illusion created by intelligent machines as a means to keep us in a docile state of suspended animation while our bodies are harvested as a power source.

Nor does the beautiful man oft described as “our least talented A-list actor,” portraying humanity’s savior, prevent me from suspending the required disbelief.

This is what drives me nuts. If in the “Matrix,” as in the virtual community “Second Life,” you can dictate the appearance of your online representation, or “avatar,” then why oh why does Morpheus choose to be … um … well … speaking colloquially … fat.

“Fat basher!” is the immediate response from Ree, my colleague in late night nerd proselytizing, whenever I start up this conversation. “Plus, he’s hardly ‘fat!’”

Ree (who takes pride in making her Wii Miis conform to the American body norm) is right. Morpheus (as portrayed by the iconic Laurence Fishburne) is probably within the high end of his BMI … but he sure ain’t Cowboy Curtis. And in a reality where you could look like Keanu Reeves … why don’t you? Why doesn't everyone? Men, women, tiny babies … everyone.

Image: The Matrix
Warner Bros.
Here's a "Matrix" publicity image. Just sayin' ...
That is my big “Matrix” disconnect. In the Internet age with its endless playground for reinvention and resources for human understanding, it’s painfully clear just how hung up we are on appearances. Even in a world — heck, especially in a world — where computers control our illusions, nobody wants to feel like — let alone be seen as — anything less than an “8.” The deluge of cyberspace images and social cues is making us more self conscious than ever.

Take, for example, the popularity of sites that post before-and-after photos of airbrushed celebrities, such as this entry on the online community crazyGossip. Even more disturbing, there’s the before and after photos on such sites as AwfulPlastic Surgery.com.

These are the Internet age versions of “Stars without makeup!” once the province of gossip rags. With the Internet, however, we don’t have to wait until we hit the supermarket checkout to ponder these sights. We get a 24/7 barrage from our friends e-mailing the nasty little links, along with their comments and criticisms.

We non-famous people whose jobs don’t revolve around our looks (flame author here) don’t need to page Dr. Freud to understand we obsess on these sites to feel better about ourselves. When we unilaterally agree that a size 2 Jennifer Love Hewitt is a pig , including JLH who publicly announced her recent 18-pound weight loss , it’s fairly obvious.

A recent entry in Salon.com’s must-read feminist blog Broadsheet both called out and complimented Alessandra Stanley's New York Times story on weight-loss reality TV shows. The blog writer, body-acceptance activist Kate Harding, praised Stanley for acknowledging that "against a loop of talk shows and made-for-TV dramas about eating disorders, Americans are goaded into ever more drastic and extreme expectations of physical perfection."

Earlier in the piece, however, Harding criticizes Stanley’s seemingly incongruous statement that programs such as “The Biggest Loser” feed complacency in viewers, in part by creating an illusion that the arduous road to weight loss is no biggie. Harding writes, “How does being inspired to diet represent ‘complacency’ about one's (or one's kid's) fatness again?”

With great appreciation for both Stanley and Harding, I think I get it. The increasing opportunities to immerse ourselves in fantasy stunt us in reality. At least it does me. Just like publishing behind an avatar keeps this writer off Dr. Perricone’s fat-busting/age-reducing/acne-blasting super salmon diet. (That’s why as an exercise in self esteem … and because my boss is making me … my next column will feature my real life corporeal image in the byline.)

See, living in fantasy land — whether it’s hiding behind a cranky pixie cartoon, watching weight-loss competitions or buying fitness equipment as a substitute for actually exercising — frees us from dealing with reality.  Plunking down $299 at Brookstone for that OSIM® iGallop™ Core and Abs Exerciser (on sale from $599) provides a fantasy high that you’ll actually use it for something other than a wet towel pedestal.

Rejoicing with the TV competitors, newly fit in one short TV season, creates the fantasy that since you were on their journey, at least from the comfort of your couch, you’re fit, too — at least in your imagination.

Image: Second Life
Linden Research  /  Linden Research
Players of "Second Life" can alter their characters’ appearance to be as beautiful or sexy as their imaginations — and computer graphics — allow them to be.

So it goes with the Internet. You can fantasize that you’re better than those air-brushed celebrities with their lousy rhinoplasty and live off the endorphins long enough to not think about your own health. Or you can occupy a young, hot, fit avatar in “Second Life” and boost your real world self-esteem via the elevated respect and acceptance you receive in your avatar community.

It’s true! Studies from Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab reveal that in the virtual world as in the real one, the younger, hotter and more fit you appear, the better you’ll fare. (See, there’s a reason attractive avatars are “Second Life’s” chief demographic.) And you have a good chance of letting such treatment affect your real world confidence, too. Such studies also show that exercising your avatar may motivate you to exercise yourself.

It’s not clear, however, how long these positive reinforcements in virtual reality last … maybe until “Law & Order” comes on. It could be that one good, long look in the mirror — or say, a real life rejection — is more than enough buzz kill, with the resulting emotional crash keeping you out of the gym and in line at the Dunkin’ Donuts. I mean, if you’re me.

That’s why I don’t buy it when Ree posits that Morpheus may be beyond virtual vanity. “Maybe he’s so Zen-master-guru-evolved, he doesn’t feel the need to alter his avatar’s appearance.”
Nope. No way. Not with the head-to-toe vinyl and leather Morpheus and his Scooby Gang don whenever they upload. If Morpheus is so cool with the mid-life weight gain (jeezy-creazy, even his name is antithetical), why not maintain the natural fiber/hobo chic so popular in Middle-earth?

This is one giant plot hole in “The Matrix's” humanity fable I can’t get past. If Morpheus was real and as emerged and understanding of virtual reality as his character is supposed to be, he’d feel fat, just like the rest of us. Even though, beyond our twisted standards, he really isn’t.

Helen A.S. Popkin's Netiquette is now Technotica. Same cranky avatar, now with more gadgety goodness!

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