WHAT IN THE WORD

A personal exploration of words. Come sail with me through the struggles I’ve had with certain words, drift through how they’ve changed etymologically in my life, and perhaps we can think of words in unique ways.

What in the Word: Entertainment by Neena Phan

I wasn’t aware of the word “ENTERTAINMENT” until I moved to NYC to study at a socially progressive art school, which felt like falling up the map and landing in the center of art and culture, a strange, skyscraper-filled wonderland called: Manhattan. It was brilliant. But I was blind.

Let me set the scene. Second semester, in a course called “Fake”—which all incoming freshmen were required to take—air conditioner blasting, in a fluorescent classroom, cream painted walls of intimidating brick, old school desks large enough to hold half a college notebook, zero windows and no professor yet.

Only four students: a guy, full face of makeup, flaunting chic Prada sunglasses, posing like a beautiful giant in the tiny desk beside me, looking even cooler than the rattling air conditioner in the back of the room; a girl next to him, Birkenstocks lying like muddy footprints in front of her desk as she was cross-legged in cut off jeans, gorgeous legs of hair (which she pulled off), a half-eaten tin of veggie sushi on her desk next to stickers like “vegan or kill” plastered on a blue, reusable water bottle; another person (who I later found out was nonbinary and used the pronoun “they”), slouching in their ripped skinny jeans, resting their lime green mohawk on the edge of their seat, with a fan of post-it notes spraying out the sides of an “Intro to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies”  book atop three covers of the latest Vogue.

Then there was me. Like poor Alice who’d just chugged the potion which made me feel three times smaller than my normal 5’3”, shivering furthest from the dark wooden door.

“Where’s the prof?” said the Birkenstock girl, plopping more vegan, sushi-like pills as she barefooted to the front to recycle her plastic by the blackboard. I was too shy to answer, so I just stared at the light, red chalk scratched onto the blackboard like a shattered twig. It read “FAKE” but might as well have read, “You’re fake, Neena. You don’t belong here. And why aren’t you wearing any pants?” 

“Sorry!” chimed a shrill voice, thick red-rimmed glasses, angular shawl, sauntering in with platform heels higher than the mad hatter’s hat, our professor. “What do y’all think of the word ‘fake’?” she sked in a thick, Texan accent.

A shiny acrylic nail pointed to the student next to me,.

“Fake,” they yanked themselves up, their mohawk not budging a centimeter, “is when Disney announced a sequel to Captain America.”

“Why?” Professor Jane crossed her arms.

Because he’s a heterosexual. White. Cisgender,” a scowl appeared, “male. In mainstream media. What a shocker!”

Jane, a smug look on her face, “And why—”

Marvel,” Birkenstock girl was quickly on her feet, “promotes acts of violence creating fictive kinship amongst tween boys who think it’s okay to shoot things if it’s ‘for good.’” Her face turned brighter than Jane’s red glasses. 

Nodding in agreement, Jane held up her hand, and the Birkenstock girl slowly sank into her chair, her arms still mounted on the table for her next defensive attack.

The class went silent.

You.” Jane glared at the human in the full face of makeup, which made me almost wet my pants thinking she was about to point to me. I edged up pretending to have a stance, though deep down, I knew I had a neutral view—but hadn’t the words to express myself.

“Uh,” they said, clearly not paying attention.

“Captain America,” the mohawk whispered, sensing the human’s discomfort.

Marvel,” whispered Birkenstock girl.

Their eyes lit up.

“They’re body shaming men with unrealistic muscles, muscles you can only achieve through taking steroids, working out for five hours and eating ten meals every single day.” They glanced down, voice quiet, “Which I’ve tried.”

My cheeks burned like scorching tea as Jane swiveled her eyes towards me, pursing her lips, but before she could point, a small voice came from the back corner. Everyone turned to where a small Asian girl in white linen (which blended her into the walls) rose, closing her anthology of Kafka short stories.

What the—” said the lime green mohawk.

“Sorry, had to finish up Penal Colony before my lecture,” the Asian girl floated to a seat next to me, making her the furthest from the door, “No art. Just box-office sales. It’s all stupid entertainment.”

Everyone turned to Jane.

“Fake, fake, fake, fake, faaake!” Janes eyes gleaned shinier than her nails, “Entertainment is fake. Fake is popular. Popular is not art. Art is not popular. Popular is entertainment!” At this point she was talking at the ceiling, “And why can’t anyone make anything real anymore?”

The class cheered as I sank in my seat.

Jane’s smile glowed crazier than the Cheshire Cat’s.

“That’s what this class is about,” Jane turned around and crossed out “fake,” scribbling underneath it “entertainment” as she muttered through her teeth, “We are going to make real art.”

I kept quiet the rest of the year, pretending I was sleepier than the dormouse at the Hatter’s tea-party so I wouldn’t get called on, feeling both types of media had a place in this world (even though their value might not be exactly the same), but too scared to say anything in a room full of intelligent, strong humans. I was wrong. And I felt it.

It wasn’t until years later that I questioned the meaning of ‘entertainment,’ fearing it would stick to my novel, lessening it in value, but after months of bullying myself to write with the depth of Kafka or the poetry of Poe, one morning, staring at a blank ,white page, my life changed.

Entertainment definition:

First: “Provide someone with amusement or enjoyment

Second: “Give attention or consideration to (an idea, suggestion, or feeling)

My eyes widened.

Give attention or consideration to ideas, suggestions, or feelings. Wasn’t this very close to the definition of “enlighten”? As I ran to the dictionary again, my mouth dropped, I knew there was truth in both statements, and that one couldn’t exist without the other. To my warming soul, enlighten means to “shed light upon” (on a subject). I felt like I could breathe. It’s the same. The exact same. My heart leapt out of my chest; I danced, and my smile grew wider than Jane’s on that disheartening first day.

I looked at the definition again: give attention or consideration to (ideas, suggestions, or feelings). That meant the Bible is entertainment. The Quran is entertainment. Kafka’s Penal Colony is entertainment. I leaned back in my chair. Was the word “entertainment” really something that I needed to fear? Was it true? My computer flashed down to a black screen—Captain America and God fell into the same category?

Yes, yes, and yes.

How could it not?

From that moment, after wiggling my mouse and flashing back to the blank page, something lit up in me, words started to flow. The story was finally popping onto the page, the story came to life. And the most unexpected thing happened. The theme showed up when I was the least bit thinking of it, while I focused on the craft of story: conflict, character, human emotion/connection, and, dare I say it, “entertainment” value. Voilà! The meaning of my novel smacked me in the face after finishing my second draft. I was so busy trying to create theme, meanwhile theme was always there, jumping like crazy in the corner and I just ignored it. If we really think, isn’t there a meaning in everything—good or bad, merely the way we see things?

Is Captain America enlightening and entertaining? Like my mohawk friend said, he’s a straight, white dude playing the lead of a story we’ve seen many times before. But if it weren’t for the Avengers/Marvel Universe, my mohawk friend wouldn’t have been able to make such a valid, important point: where’s the representation? Perhaps stories like Marvel’s Captain America enlighten us to a larger issue at hand, the lack of representation for sexual orientation, body type, gender, skin color, everything and anything in the universe.

If I could calm down my freshman self through time travel, shivering in that icy classroom, insecure of my own view of the world, I would tell her, listen to Jane, but also listen to you and make something. Make anything, because meaning can’t be seen in something that doesn’t exist yet. Create first. Worry later. Work first. Meaning later. Be you first. And don’t be you later. Be you always. Are you being true to yourself?

If you answered yes, then congratulations. You’re making real art.

Neena Phan is an illustrator/writer of children’s books.