Language Games

Famed YouTube media critic Lindsay Ellis talks aliens, LeftTube and role of media with EW

Lindsay Ellis, a commentator popular for her media-criticism combining comedy and education, says she hadn’t heard about the Facebook group organized to storm Area 51 and free the aliens when I ask her about the event.

“Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us,” scheduled for Sept. 20, has grabbed headlines and even caused the military to increase security on the base rumored for years to be housing alien lifeforms. If the movement inspires a “what-if” Hollywood movie, what would the aliens sound like?

More importantly, why would their language matter?

Alien languages have been on Ellis’ mind for some time while working on her first book — currently untitled — and is a side effect of her video essays, she says.

Ellis, who will bring her trademark YouTube style to the Eugene Public Library to discuss alien language representation in sci-fi, encourages people to practice media literacy rather than search for morally pure media.

Her upcoming book focuses on a woman who’s become the sole communication between hostile alien species and humans, which takes place in an alternate timeline set in 2007.

“I pitched it as The Big Short meets Independence Day,” she says, with a laugh. “But my agent didn’t like that.”

While writing the manuscript, Ellis says she thought about how the book interacts with a large body of film and literature. She says she had to dive back into some linguistics coursework she took while an undergrad, such as Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar theory.

After all of that research, Ellis says she realized she had enough for a talk about alien language.

She made a chronicle of patterns she saw in alien communication. In the 1950s, aliens just spoke English, she says, but as the genre grew, so did the issue of alien language.

These days, extraterrestrial language in sci-fi is diverse, which varies from aliens that communicate in idioms (as in Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok”) or pattern recognition (Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

This is essentially what Ellis will cover when she delivers a presentation at the Eugene Public Library on Saturday, July 27. She says her talk, which will be followed by a public discussion, will be more fun than academic.

Her presentation sounds a lot like her YouTube videos. But who is this media critic who plans to boldly go where no one has been before — and explore alien language?

Besides working on a currently untitled book slated for publication in 2020, Ellis has been nominated for a Hugo Award for The Hobbit Duology, a three-part documentary written by her and Angelina Meehan. She says she’ll most likely lose to Ursula K. Le Guin, but getting nominated for the most prestigious sci-fi award is a huge deal — especially since she isn’t a published author yet.

Some media outlets have deemed Ellis a part of the LeftTube, a group of YouTube personalities who apparently form a leftist movement on the video website. She says the press is looking for a movement, but she’s not sure it really exists — rather, it’s a loose confederacy of content that offers insight in socio-political subjects.

“Algorithmically, we tend to get grouped together, and we know each other in real life,” she says. “But there’s no LeftTube agenda.”

There have been numerous profiles about the so-called LeftTube in media outlets because, Ellis says, people are looking for an antidote to the glut of right-wing reactionary YouTube content — as if the website is now the new AM talk radio.

Ellis says she doesn’t consider herself to be an antidote to that problem. Rather, she’s more of a gateway drug to the antidote.

“I deliberately pick topics that aren’t terribly controversial and try to present them in an accessible way,” she says.

When Ellis has a video on why Game of Thrones or Disney are bad and disappointing, she presents the argument in an accessible way. That way, for instance, if a young viewer holds the belief that white privilege isn’t real, that person can find out about other YouTube channels like Philosophy Tube or ContraPoints, she says.

After watching those channels, viewers can have their beliefs challenged — or even debunked.

Even though reactionary beliefs are growing throughout the world with increased right-wingers elected to leadership positions (as the British have shown is still a thing), Ellis says sci-fi today is actually more sympathetic to “the other” despite the current epidemic of xenophobia and nationalism.

“In publishing, the trend has been more about understanding,” she says, referring to movies like Arrival being successful.

Sci-fi movies with an invasion slant are on the downward trend, but with the increase in understanding of “the other” in sci-fi, does this mean art can save the world?

Yes and no, she says. Citing reflective media theory, she tells me media tends to draw on worldviews and then reinforce those worldviews. She uses toxic masculinity as an example, and points at Transformers (she’s a fan of the series, by the way).

“Sam Witwicky is an insecure coward who objectifies women because that’s how Michael Bay thinks men see themselves,” she says. “Men then say, ‘Yep, that’s me,’ and then you get more movies made like that.”

Media shapes worldviews more than action, she adds, saying that video games may desensitize people to violence but isn’t likely to encourage violent behavior.

With the media’s role in shaping worldviews, it leads to the question of whether a pure media exists?

“I’ve noticed this troubling trend where people keep trying to moralize their taste, moralize their emotional reaction to things,” she says. “Personally, I’m of the opinion that there’s always going to be a moral concession because no art is perfect.”

Ellis adds that she’d have a conversation about media’s place in culture rather than finding pure media, because “it doesn’t exist.”

“I advocate for more media literacy,” she says. “Whenever you invest in studying the things you like, that brings out more potential for enjoyment because you have a deeper understanding for it.”

Lindsay Ellis presents: Universal Language – How Sci-Fi Imagines Alien Language at the Eugene Public Library 2 pm Saturday, July 27; free to the public.