Welcome to Nightvale
By Ema Kelso ’16
Fans of Welcome to Night Vale fill their enthused reviews of the show with exclamations at its surreal postmodern content. They relish the show for its powerful social criticism, and the uniquely prominent yet uncontrived queer relationship between its central characters. Today, the Welcome to Night Vale podcast is the #2 most popular on the iTunes chart, in between This American Life and NPR.
Hearing the plot of Night Vale unfold feels like getting brief glimpses into a kaleidoscopic shadow world where domestic themes are inverted. Images that seem isolated and strange begin to recur often enough to hint at a coherent narrative underlying the behavior of Night Vale’s spontaneous and subversive cast of characters. The medium itself, due to the absence of visual narrative, guarantees a variety of subjective experiences for each listener; each person listening to the podcast perceives their own radically different image of the world and its characters.
Creator, narrator and Night Vale protagonist Cecil Baldwin spins his eerie musings to the fictional audience of the town of Night Vale, all the while unveiling the town to the real-world audience of the WTNV podcast. Alongside traffic updates about ghost cars and rants about the Apache Tracker’s cultural appropriation (that guy is a jerk), Cecil walks the listeners through his infatuation and eventual romance with the elusive scientist Carlos.
Queer individuals and queer relationships have appeared in the media with increased frequency over the past decade. However, few of the fictional works that reach so large an audience contain a queer central character whose relationships neither consume the larger narrative nor are fetishized within it. The show integrates current issues of race, sexuality, class, and education into conversation without compromising the tone of essential surrealism that makes it so compelling.
In a show liberated from the constraints of visual narrative, audience members have complete control over the shapes that their idiosyncratic Night Vales assume. Audience response to Welcome to Night Vale reflects two primary facts about current youth consumer culture. The magnitude and speed with which the podcast rose to the top of the iTunes chart indicates a large population that is not only receptive to but desirous of queer media representation. Thousands of listeners create Night Vale-inspired art, music and other fanworks, immersing themselves in this new online community celebrating and canonizing the show. Unlike in the show itself, where the main relationship occurs in Cecil’s rambling tangents alongside the regular community radio show, fanworks tend to make the portmanteau couple “Cecilos” their main focus.
The question, however, of how to visually represent these characters has come to reveal the majority collective conception of what a factory-settings human being looks like. Despite the absence of visual description for Cecil (save being “neither short nor tall”), the vast majority of his depictions are of a white, often stereotypically Aryan, man. Similarly, Carlos, whom Cecil described as having “dark, delicate skin and black hair,” gets drawn with predominantly light skin. There are, in fact, fans who proceed to argue against his being a person of color at all. However, the dominant representation of cis/het/white characters and the absence of other options in contemporary culture has been proven to negatively impact the self-esteem of non-cis/het/white individuals. Not only that, limited representation reinforces a greater culture of stigma and system-wide oppression. In this context, it becomes all the more important to stop and contemplate both our notions and our representations of personho
od and how we imagine the future. Night Vale for the most part places the characters into the hands of the audience, so in terms of racial representation the audience becomes as culpable as the show’s writers in shaping the fiction of the present – and, presumably, creating demand for a new reimagining of future media.
The show has the potential to feel excessively obscure, the quintessential adolescent nihilist’s wet dream. Nevertheless, it has wide enough proven appeal, and whether or not you find the story compelling, Night Vale sparks crucial reflection on the present relationship between the production and consumption of media and the possibilities of seeing and hearing new options for representative fictional realities.