The Smash 64 Combo Contest Taught Me More About Art Than My MFA

For those unfamiliar with the Smash 64 combo contest, an introduction: Each year, an elite group of attendees at Super Smash Con in Chantilly, VA compete to demonstrate the most eye-poppingly complex combos possible in Super Smash Bros. 64, the original entry in a now iconic series of fighting games. Super Smash Bros. 64 was released on January 21, 1999. The first recorded Combo Contest took place in 2016, seventeen years later.

The Combo Contest is presented like a fighting game tournament — that is, it’s presented like an amateur sporting event broadcast live from an echoey convention center auditorium. And for the first year, that’s exactly what it was.

Then, in year two of the combo contest, a player named Tacos discovered that it was possible to open the settings menu mid-combo and switch the game to slow-mo right before his final hit connected, and everyone went apeshit. Since then, each year has brought new innovations, from ping-ponging enemies between items, to playing blindfolded, to controlling a second character with a bare foot

Tacos’ groundbreaking slowmo donk combo

None of these things are necessarily more technically difficult than the complex button inputs that inaugurated the combo contest. In fact, putting the game in slow-mo is dramatically easier than executing taunt-cancels, ledge-cancels, z-cancels, and all the other kinds of cancels I found when I looked up “difficult things to do in Smash 64” online. But technically impressive feats are only impressive to other technicians. Mechanically proficient combos tend to score more points with judges familiar with the game, but for everybody else the slow-mo slam dunk combo just feels better. They can’t justify that feeling on a checklist, but it’s a real feeling nonetheless. In fact, one possible definition of art might be, “a thing that is much easier to like than it is to explain why you like it.”

But the player who proved to me the artistic merit of the Smash 64 Combo Contest was not Tacos. It was a perpetually-masked Japanese player by the name of Prince.

It’s not spoiling anything to tell you that Prince has won five of the seven recorded combo contests. He is the shonen protagonist of the Combo Contest, destined to win by some accident of birth or godlike persistence. Each Prince combo is a precisely cut gem, reflecting the programmer’s original intentions through a maze of dazzling facets until it becomes something else entirely. Before watching Prince play, Smash 64 was just a game my friends used to use to assert their dominance over me in college. After seeing what that masked man could do, I saw the game for what it truly is: an artistic medium as expressive as charcoal or watercolor.

Every combo contest highlights video is pretty much just a Prince combo compilation

But there’s another important element to Prince’s success: his reputation. From the moment Prince walks up to the stage, everyone in the audience is ready to be impressed. This puts a lot of pressure on Prince, obviously (and in fact, his one recorded loss occurred when his reach finally exceeded his grasp), but as long as he continues to execute at the level for which he’s renowned, that renown in itself acts as a multiplier on the impressiveness of his combos.

When I described prince as the shonen protagonist of the combo contest, I meant it. Every time he picks up the controller, it feels like watching Goku take on his latest invincible opponent. You know Goku’s going to find a way to win, because he’s fucking Goku, but everyone else is so powerful, how’s he going to manage to actually pull it off this time? That anticipation, that expectation of success, plays a huge role in how it feels to watch Prince compete.

But even after being blown away by Prince’s combos for years, the realization that the combo contest is art didn’t truly sink in for me until 2022. After the contest was over, I sat listening to the commentators trying to explain what they’d just seen Prince do.

“The ending, the mid– some part of it is just… out of nowhere,” a commentator named Darkhorse stammered, reaching out with his hands as if trying to physically hold onto the feeling he was experiencing. “You don’t know what’s coming. This is just… where the combo contest is going. You know, we were like ‘everything’s about items. Everything’s gotta use custom spawns.’ [But] it’s still all about the showmanship. Like, what can you do to wow the audience. How can you surprise them.”

The other commentator laughed, plainly sharing his partner’s befuddlement. “Yeah, [show them] what they didn’t expect in a … 23 year old game.”

This year I was on the lookout for similar sentiments, and I found them. After the last combo of the night, commentator Kerokeroppi, struggling to find the right words, said,

“That… I don’t even know what to call it. He tricked us.” I felt, um… I don’t even know how to identify that element that he introduced.”

These are men who still think they’re showing up to a sporting event, attempting to reckon with the fact that they’ve been shown art instead. They can’t quite describe what separates the transcendent combos from the merely technically competent. It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the difficulty of the execution, or the number of hits. It’s not quantifiable. They showed up to try to evaluate which player did best, not realizing that doing so would require them to become art critics.

It’s tempting to compare the Combo Contest to a figure skating competition. After all, the points are subjective, and awarded by a panel of judges who hold up scores on printed cards. There are a number of sports like this in the Olympics, where a bunch of people from different countries attempt to assign numerical values to beauty. But there’s something more to the Smash 64 Combo Contest that elevates it above mere figure skating.

Competitive figure skating has many generations of scoring convention which constrain how many points a skater can be awarded. Figure skating also doesn’t allow you to drop a magic wand out of a dinosaur’s ass while controlling a second figure skater with your feet. There are six figure skating tricks which can earn points in competition. There are 50 unique items in Super Smash Brothers 64, twelve characters, nine stages, and hundreds of moves. And that’s leaving aside the player’s reputations, the way they interact with the crowd, how quickly they manage to pull off their combo, and probably a slew of other factors that haven’t even been discovered yet. The thing that makes the combo contest unique is that nobody has any idea what’s possible. All they know is what they’ve seen, and how it makes them feel.

There’s this belief out there that art should “say something,” that it should reveal some truth about the world, communicate some holy message. But some of the most enduring works of art I’ve experienced stick with me because of the pure emotions they evoked. Books have made me cry, made me cackle uncontrollably, made me feel so full of crackling energy that I had to put them down and just breathe for a minute. A book doesn’t have to mean something to mean something to me. The emotion is enough. And in the case of the Smash 64 Combo Contest, that emotion is HYPE.

This, finally, is what the Combo Contest has taught me about art: That something does not need to be Important to be Good. That the mission of art can be, in fact, to reach past the part of the brain that determines meaning, straight for the brain stem, and light us up from within. I will watch the Smash 64 Combo Contest religiously, every year until it dies or I do. And in the months between, I will strive to write just one sentence that slaps as hard as Prince’s double red-shell Samus SD blaster combo from 2022.

The Modern Internet, or: This Toilet We Are All Drowning in Together

Relaunching this website, which I first started thirteen god damn years ago, has got me thinking a lot about what’s changed in the past thirteen years. In particular, I’m interested in how today’s internet is different than the slapdash beta version I grew up with.

It is a truth universally acknowledged among people of my generation that the internet used to be great, and now it sucks butt in a bad way. Back in the olden times, we lament, everything was free, but we hadn’t yet become the product. There were forums, and chatrooms, and nobody had figured out how to send swat teams to each others’ houses yet. The worst anybody had to fear from the internet was accidentally downloading a virus from kazaa, (or pedophilia, but shut up, we’re trying to be nostalgic).

Nowadays, we complain, everyone online is a bastard, and some of those bastards have guns. The people who faithfully produce our content are all so burnt out that they’re having literal health problems. And Amazon dot com is currently using the most sophisticated information infrastructure ever created to figure out how to deliver you thirty assorted plastic ducks as quickly as possible.

So the internet was good, and now it’s bad. That’s the universally-agreed-upon starting point from which I intended to construct this entire essay. But when I tried to pinpoint exactly what made the modern internet bad, I kept coming up short. Is social media bad? Many people seem to agree that it is. And yet, I owe basically my entire career to social media, since most of the people who originally found this site discovered it when Neil Gaiman posted about it on Twitter. Online abuse is rampant, and it’s certainly better organized than it’s ever been, but the worst of it is still being organized on the same sorts of forums and private groups that have been around since I was a kid. And what about Amazon? They’re so cartoonishly evil that I would not be surprised to learn they’d started taking payments in baby skin, but did they, like, invent capitalism? Rich people have been drinking our blood and shitting in our water since forever — we’re just more aware of their skulldickery than ever before.

I began to doubt myself, to ask whether things had truly been better during my youth, or whether I was simply following the curmudgeonly trajectory of all aging men. Maybe things just feel worse now because I’m older, I told myself, and being older blows. I have to pay taxes now, and if I shit myself in public it’s a whole big thing and I have to apologize to all the other guys in the funeral procession. Of course I’m nostalgic for an internet that reminds me of a time when things were easier, when my brain was smaller and spongier. Maybe I should focus on what’s gone wrong with my own life, rather than attempting to diagnose the whole entire internet.

No wait, fuck that, I can do this.

Because the truth of the matter is that the internet feels different now. It feels bad. I can’t stop checking my phone — sometimes I find it in my hand after specifically putting it down and promising not to look at it — but staring at that tiny screen feels like dragging sheets of sandpaper across my brain. I don’t actually miss forums or chatrooms — I never joined any chatrooms, and when I joined the SomethingAwful forums at the age of thirteen, I narrowly avoided being banned for posting thirty pictures of a guy with his dick in his own butt and was too embarrassed to ever go back — but I do miss how the internet used to feel.

I miss watching hours of dogshit animation on Newgrounds, and occasionally being shocked by something really, really good. I miss traveling cross-country, messaging strangers on CouchSurfing and asking to crash at their houses for free. I miss the web game I used to play that was just all of us going out into the world, doing artistic crimes, and posting documentation of those crimes with our faces blurred out. I miss the horrific blue-and-orange color scheme of my old blog on Xanga, and I miss the earsplitting sound of a new incoming message on AIM.

But also, the internet I grew up on was full of utterly horrible shit. I mean, at thirteen years old I had easy access to thirty pictures of a guy with his dick in his own butt (it was the same picture thirty times, but still). And that was just the tip of the iceberg. The concept of Rickrolling, now itself an outdated custom, was a sanitized version of the “shock sites” we used to trick each other into viewing: lemonparty, goatse, hai2u, two girls one cup; heinous depictions of sex acts we barely understood. To this day, I am still unreasonably afraid of helicopters, because when I was a teenager I saw a bunch of jpegs of helicopter decapitations on The internet was a funnel of poison, directly into my brain. It was probably really bad for me! So why do I still miss that internet? How can I be nostalgic for that?

Well, there’s a weird common denominator between the stuff I miss and the stuff that messed me up: it was all, viewed objectively, pretty bad. was, like, morally bad. But Xanga and Newgrounds and so on were bad in a different way: bad, as in poorly executed. So for me, it’s not that the internet used to be good and now it’s bad. It’s that the internet used to be awful, and now it’s too good. Like, okay, let me give you an example…

Maybe you remember the Million Dollar Homepage. If you don’t, it’s a pretty simple concept: some dingus bought a website, cordoned off a million pixels, and then sold them as ad space, one dollar per pixel, until all the pixels were filled and he had a million dollars. It’s still up, and it looks like ass:

Screenshot of the Million Dollar Homepage, looking like someone just beat the shit out of a pinata full of casinos.

Jesus Christ. Just looking at this pile of clown vomit makes me want to hose my eyes out with one of those things dentists use to waterboard people. But contrary to what you might hope after looking at that shit, the guy who made it is still alive, and now his Twitter page looks like this:

Twitter profile of Alex Tew, the creator of the Million Dollar Homepage, looking like a bottle of pure mountain springwater.

Isn’t this just absolutely the most pleasant thing you’ve ever seen? I can’t think of anything that better illustrates the difference between the internet we have now and the digital trap house I grew up in. The internet used to feel like a foreign place — fraught with danger, populated by pseudonyms, totally uncurated. It was a legitimately dangerous place. But that danger, and cringe, and bullshit all ended up online because the internet was an escape from real life. Now all the bad shit on the internet is there because the internet is real life, just amplified.

The truth is, pretty much all the stuff we miss about the old internet is still on the internet. SomethingAwful still exists. The Million Dollar Homepage (unfortunately) still exists. This website still exists. The only reason the internet feels like it’s changed is because we’ve changed the way we use it. Why sift through the muck yourself, when you can float along a lazy river of algorithmically curated content?

And the fucked up thing is, I’ve participated in this transformation without even realizing it! I don’t hit up strangers on Couchsurfing anymore, I book through AirBnB. I don’t trawl Newgrounds for edgy content, I watch whatever YouTube decides to serve me. And I certainly don’t post shirtless videos of myself recorded on a built-in webcam anymore, as much as I’m sure certain fetishists would like me to.

Part of this is a money thing. I make a lot more money than I used to, in no small part due to the name I made for myself writing dumb shit on this website. More money has changed me in two big ways: it’s allowed me to pay for convenience rather than making due with inconvenience, and it’s made me beholden to the system that pays me. I don’t just represent myself — I represent everyone who pays my bills. The amount of money being made online these days is orders of magnitude greater than it was when I was growing up, and all that money constrains what the internet is, the same way it constrains me.

One reason I was hesitant to start posting on this blog again is because it feels so outdated. Even the word “blog” feels like a relic of another era. Every time I thought about writing something, I’d end up with a checklist of things I needed to do to “modernize” the site: Switch the page to responsive design, do some kind of Medium integration, commission new background art, and should I even by writing, or should I be doing video essays now instead? All those to-dos, all those production-quality concerns, kept me from ever getting started.

Ultimately, though, I decided it was better to do it badly than to not do it at all. And I guess that’s what I miss about the old internet, to put it simply. I miss when we were all bad at it, but we did it anyway because nobody could stop us. When the boundary between content producer and content consumer was so membrane-thin you could step right through it. I’m trying to reclaim a little bit of that for myself — to make a space where I can do something and not worry about whether it sucks.

In the end, I know the internet’s never going back to the way it was. That’s no reason to be pessimistic, though. Before the Wild West period of the Internet, there was the actual Wild West, and even now I’m sure a new gonzo frontier is opening up. I’m not cool enough to know where it is, but I believe in my heart that somewhere out there twenty-somethings are creating utter garbage and sharing it with their friends. I want that for them.

I want that for all of us.

SEO Cargo Cult Online New Tips For Optimizing Your Search Engine Performance Top Ten Business Tips and Advice

Anxiously refreshing Twitter to see how people were responding to my blog relaunch got me thinking about a story I heard a while ago. Check it out:

In AD 1941, war was beginning. I mean it had been going on for a while but that’s when AMERICA got involved, so that’s when it started mattering. The empire of Japan was sending boats full of soldiers all up over everywhere, because they wanted to own everything. Meanwhile the United States of America was sending boats full of soldiers all up over everywhere ELSE, because they didn’t want Japan to have all the fun. One of the places the US sent boats and soldiers was an archipelago called Vanuatu — a small island chain northeast of Australia, and future home of the ninth season of Survivor.

Now, war sucks, but it comes with a lot of sweet loot. All the gun boys need food and blankets and candy and cigars or they get hungry and bored and start shooting the wrong people. So when America moved in to Vanuatu, they built air strips and started airdropping INSANE AMOUNTS OF MASS-PRODUCED GOODS on an island where grass-roofed huts were still the height of technology.

Most of these goods were for the soldiers, but a ton of stuff ended up being given to the native inhabitants, in exchange for being chill about the whole military occupation thing. And the dudes who received these goods got really attached to this lifestyle. SO attached, that when the war ended and all the troops moved away, these dudes started imitating what they thought were the mystical rituals that summoned all the sweet loot. They built their own air strips, and did their own military parades, and made radios and airplanes out of coconut husks and straw. They figured if they did all the things they saw the soldiers do, then goods would rain from the sky!


Groups who did this were referred to as “cargo cults” and used as an example of consumerism or being a dummy or whatever. But leaving aside the fact that this probably isn’t exactly how things happened, put yourself in the cargo cultists’ shoes for a second. You’ve never seen any of this shit before. The goods coming out of these planes totally changed your life. Wouldn’t you do anything you could think of to make those goods come back, once they were gone?

It’s NORMAL for humans to look at a system and try a bunch of weird shit to make candy come out. It’s how we ended up drinking from cow tits and eating chicken periods. And more and more these days, it’s how we use the internet.

I used to write product descriptions for power tools I had never used. It was kind of an interesting challenge. I had keyword quotas that I had to hit — each tool description had to use words like “power tool” and “best” and “quality” a certain number of times. I wasn’t writing like this for the benefit of other humans. I was writing for the benefit of search engines. Write a perfectly informative product description without using the right number of magic words, and the search engines wouldn’t see it. And if the search engines didn’t see it, neither would the humans who used those search engines.

SEO gibberish speak has become a cargo cult ritual. Every google result is a listicle. Porn titles read like lists of ingredients. Recipe blogs have gotten longer and longer, defying anyone’s attempt to use them. They’re not for people to read, they’re for machines to read.

Like a true cargo-cult, this algorithm worship has gone on so long we’ve lost sight of its original purpose. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, a webcomic which I no longer enjoy but which I will read forever out of a grudging sense of familiarity, includes a red button under each comic, which can be clicked to view a little bit of bonus content. Clicking this button used to register as a vote on one of the popular webcomic ranking services of the time, essentially bribing users to catapult SMBC to the top of the rankings. The rankings no longer exist, but the button does, and we still press it.

Because it’s not just content creators who participate in this cult. We as consumers have also adopted bizarre rituals. When I search for a pirated movie, I type “watch The Room online free putlocker” as if I’m casting a spell or having a stroke. When I prompt Midjourney, I type, “anime girl long hair studio ghibli big titties trending on Artstation.” This is not poor grammar. This is not improper English. It’s not even English. It’s machine language.

We put up with this garbage because we’ve created a system in which a machine HAS to sort our content for us. We can’t go to a place, switch to a channel, and just see what’s on. There’s too much stuff, and it’s on all the time. We barely know what we want in the first place, so how can we ask a machine to give it to us? Instead, the machine gives us what it has determined we want . When a machine determines the value of the input, and who gets to see the output, we end up producing and consuming not what we enjoy, but what the machine enjoys. The decision has been taken entirely out of our hands. We’re just standing on the landing strip, waiting for the planes to arrive.

(OR you could ditch the algorithm entirely and sign up for my friggin newsletter!)

Captain America Isn’t Bi or a Nazi, He’s Just God

I don’t think I need to convince you that comic book heroes are our modern gods. Superman has a definite Jesus thing going on. Characters like Storm and The Black Panther form the centers of in-canon religions. Thor is literally a norse god. If I had a nickel for every time a comic book writer tried to ram the “these men and women are our modern gods but oh how fallible they are” trope down our throats, I would have enough money to purchase one, maybe two additional comic books. But there is one sticking point in the comparison between these modern gods and those ancient ones: if comic book heroes really are gods, why aren’t we worshipping them? Well, we are, and in much the same ways that the Greeks did. Check it out:

Every year, the Ancient Greeks got super hyped for a festival called the Dyonisia. How it worked was a select few playwrights would be chosen to write plays for everyone to watch. These plays couldn’t be about just anything – they had to be based on established mythological stories about existing mythological characters. Stuff like the Oerestes, or Oedipus Rex, or Philoctetes – good wholesome stories about royalty fucking each other to death. The Dyonisia was a religious festival after all, even if the god it was dedicated to was probably too fucked up to care.

These plays were a big deal. Getting selected to write, act, or direct for the Dyonisia was the height of most artists’ careers. Mega-rich patrons contributed ludicrous sums to pay for the costumes, props and effects that wowed the drunk-as-shit audiences every year.

Do I need to spell the parallel out for you? Okay, fine. Comic book movies are the modern Dyonisia. Mega-rich studios draft legendary artists like Joss Whedon and Robert Downey Jr. to produce wildly entertaining theatrical clusterfucks based on established superheroes and existing superhero stories.

It’s no accident that some heroes are getting more movie love than others. For Marvel, it’s Captain America and Iron Man. For DC, it’s Batman and Superman. This was true long before comic book movies were even a thing. For reasons that are probably too complicated to understand, something about these heroes has resonated with audiences almost since their creation, causing them to be passed lovingly from artist to artist as their stories are told and retold. Movies, though, seriously amplify this focus, bringing the characters and their canons to viewers who would never have followed them in their original format. Basically, the characters who get the most movies made about them are the ones that will survive in the popular imagination.

I’d argue that we see the exact same process going on in ancient religions. What we view as the definitive versions of Greek, Egyptian, and Norse mythology (just to name three that have been widely translated into English) are really the result of an ages-long culture war between minor local gods. Greece, especially, was a loose collection of city-states, all with their own favorite gods and customs, who all kind of fucking hated each other, and what ended up becoming “Greek Mythology” was decided through a combination of war, politics, and pop culture. Diana, for example, is said to have been the central divinity in an early Greek goddess cult, but her inclusion in “Greek mythology” lead to her being sidelined and subordinated in a male-dominated pantheon.

An even clearer example of how this works: Grimm’s fairytales are not the only fairytales German parents used to scare the shit out of their children. As recent discoveries have shown, there are literally thousands of fairytales in the same tradition. Most of those were garbage, though, and Grimm’s curated collection has thus become the most widely circulated source for an entire area of folklore. And come to think of it, which Grimm’s tales do we actually remember? Oh, just the ones that were made into movies by Disney. Disney, which now owns Marvel Studios. I better hurry up and finish this post, because it’s kind of dangerous to type when you are so on fire.

So you’re probably thinking “Okay, your amazing words have convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that comic book movies are the new mythology, and also you are handsome and I want to smooch you. But so what? What makes this different from any other hot take on a comic book movie?” Well first of all, thank you for telling me I’m handsome. That’s just the kind of self-esteem boost I needed. But secondly, this isn’t an article about comic book movies. I’m not saying they’re good or bad, or that you should see them or not (personally I think they are all uniformly garbage, but I’m also a huge asshole). I’m saying that the characters in these movies are more than characters now. To many of us, these heroes are living people with the capacity to arouse deep feelings in us. And that’s not far from worship. Not far at all.

This is why people get so mad when writers try to drastically change the characters, or when something is perceived as “non-canon.” This is what motivated a bunch of angry straight dudes to try to shout down #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend. Weirdly, I think it’s also what led to people getting so angry when Captain America was revealed to be a deep cover Hydra operative a few days later. These characters no longer truly belong to the writers who are writing their stories. They exist independent of their individual fictions. In our minds, many of their traits are already set in stone.

It’s more than that, though. We care about the continuity of these characters because in some ways we identify with them, aspire to be them. Insecure straight guys don’t want to identify with a bisexual Captain America, and people who don’t like racism don’t want to identify with a Captain America who is a nazi. No matter how much we talk about wanting the characters to reflect the times, or to explore new story arcs, there is a part of us that wants the thing we are worshipping to be predictable, to stay the same.

This is why we have religions, after all – to make an unpredictable world feel more predictable. And it’s why polytheism has been especially tenacious: sometimes you need different gods like you need different music. Even Jesus only acts like Superman some of the time. Put some moneylenders in a church, and suddenly dude is all Hulked out. Comic book movies give us all the comforts of polytheism without demanding we convert. Iron Man is the patron saint of startup culture. Deadpool is the patron saint of twelve-year-old boys. Superman is the patron saint of being an asshole. There’s an aspirational character for everyone, unless you’re gay or asian or a woman who doesn’t like Black Widow. And this isn’t anything new – this is exactly what Disney did with all its princesses a few decades ago. The movie pantheon will never die, and we don’t even need to sacrifice one goat. Twelve dollars a head is all the offering these gods demand.

So what I’m saying is, first of all, pay attention to the superheroes you love, and what you love about them. It probably says more about your aspirations than you’d like to admit. Our favorite superheroes as a culture also reflect our culture’s values, and changing those superheroes really does have the power to alter our culture, silly as it may seem. Third, don’t you fucking dare pretend to be a rational being. Ba’al, Belle, or Batman, we all worship gods of one kind or another.

Courtly Love isn’t about Love, You Piece of Shit

Here’s another article on the past and how you are wrong about it.

[Also: if you want to help me in my eternal quest to not starve/be homeless, you can buy my book about American History, buy my other book about World Mythology, or just stuff money in my Patreon. I’m not choosy, just jam it in there. Also this is my Twitter.]

Right, where was I? Oh yeah, Courtly Love.

The laws of chivalry themselves have basically nothing to do with romance. They’re all about trying to regulate just how much of an asshole a guy on a horse can be. The secret ingredient that links chivalry to romance in our tiny brains is called courtly love. It’s the great-great granddaddy of “Nice Guy Syndrome,” and it has always been fucked.


According to the thousands of poems, songs, and stories about courtly love, the process goes something like this:

1. Pick a total babe who is married to someone better than you.
2. Pine after said babe until you are literally ill.
3. Babe virtuously rejects you because, let’s be clear, this is a terrible idea and also her husband is better than you.
4. Do a bunch of heroic shit that nobody asked you to do, to make yourself worthy of babe.
5. Babe still says no, and you go write a fucking poem about it. OR
5b. Babe is finally like “okay fine,” in which case, great job Romeo, now you have to bust your ass to keep from getting caught. OR
5c. You get caught and the whole world catches on fire.

Courtly love was originally dreamed up by horny poets in the early 1400s, but it flourished because it served a social purpose. Most popular stories, myth and legend especially, survive because they illustrate rules that we think are important for keeping our society together. Coincidentally, most of these rules have to do with humping.

So whose social purpose is served by this miserable dicktease of a courtship ritual? Who comes out a winner? The lady is locked into a straightjacket of protocol that makes actual consent super hard to suss out, the knight is running around murdering dudes nobody asked him to murder because he’s too proud to just jack off into his helmet, and if the two of them ever do get together, every example we have shows it ending apocalyptically. No, you know who’s the real winner here? The husband.


Think about this from the perspective of a Medieval monarch: you have a smoking hot wife who your buddy gave you because he wanted to use your beach house, and you also employ about a hundred of the best-armed, best-trained psychopaths in the world. These people all live inside of your home with you. At some point, at least one of these psychopaths is going to want to have sex with your wife. And these aren’t just regular psychopaths, either. These are handsome, fit, wealthy psychopaths, in an era where “wealthy” means “everybody else sleeps in mud, and I am the one who pees in that mud.” And your wife, let me reiterate, is married to you because her dad wants to use your beach house. If your stable of monsters starts spitting game at your wife, it is highly likely that your wife will want to sex them back. You need a game plan.

You can’t just tell these guys to cut it out. You hired these guys because they’re unstoppable bastards. You can’t just stand aside and let them fuck your wife, either, because then you look like a weenie, and nobody wants to bow down to King Weiner. Plus there’s all the shit with heirs and succession. It’s a logistical nightmare. But how are you gonna stop them? Put them in jail? These dudes own their own jails. Send another knight after the knight who fucks your wife? Spoiler alert: the second knight also wants to fuck your wife.

What you can do, though, is control the culture by advocating for an elaborate code of etiquette that lets these handsome nightmare people do everything *but* fuck your wife. This is, at the core, what courtly love is: a code of behavior that provides a dubiously healthy outlet for all that pent up wife-fuck-want. Every part of courtly love reinforces the same message: “you can look, but if you touch then I will chop your fucking hand off.” This is perfect for our hypothetical king with his hypothetically hot wife, because it lets him turn a blind eye to all the erotic roleplay as long as it stays “virtuous,” while reserving the right to bring the hammer down as soon as shit goes public.


What I’m trying to get at is this: Despite what everybody seems to think these days, courtly love was *never* designed to help you get laid. It is a system explicitly designed to prevent people from getting laid. The entire process is an erotic Rube Goldberg machine that is a thousand times more likely to chop off your dick than fondle it, and maybe you also kill a bear, I don’t know. If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a thousand times: DO NOT LOOK TO MEDIEVAL EUROPE FOR SEX TIPS.

And yet pretty much every movie produced in the 90s is an ode to courtly love with one key point altered: where the old stories had tragic consequences, the new stories have zero consequences. The Wedding Singer, Wet Hot American Summer, Revenge of the Nerds, The Fucking Karate Kid, and about a million other movies all follow the courtly love formula, right up to the point where the love is consummated and there is NO NEGATIVE FALLOUT. The 90s took “If you fuck someone’s honey, bad things will happen” and turned it into “If you fuck someone’s honey … you will have fucked someone’s honey?”

What we’ve done, and where the whole “Nice Guy” thing comes from, is we’ve taken the purpose and the outcome of courtly love and flipped them. We act like because our love is noble, we deserve satisfaction. Courtly love says “your love is evil and you will never be satisfied, so you might as well make it noble.” Neither one is super healthy, as evidenced by the amount of death and vitriol both camps have dealt out, but at least courtly love is honest about what you can expect.

Look, I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to fuck your boss’s spouse. Fuck away, for all I care. All I’m saying is that our modern conception of hopeless romance, of the tormented lover pining away in the night, striving to become worthy of the unattainable beloved, is based on a ridiculous, outdated, socially motivated code of behavior that was invented at a time when marriages were business mergers and adultery carried the god damn death penalty. And I get that it feels good to feel bad, to experience the exquisite pain of loving somebody you know you can never be with. I’ve done it loads of times, and I got some great poetry out of it. Just, for God’s sake, don’t pretend like your secret pain has a noble lineage. The noble lineage is inbred.

Chivalry Isn’t Dead, You Just Don’t Know What the Fuck it is.

[Hey, if you want to read more stuff I wrote, you could always buy my book. Or my other book.]

So Chivalry.

I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s dead. It used to be a lament, and then it turned into a joke, and now it’s just a fact that almost everybody accepts. Chivalry is dead, because it’s 2015 and nobody wants to suck your dick for holding the door open for them. And it’s true, nobody wants to do that to your hog in exchange for that minor favor. But that’s not what the fuck chivalry is. Chivalry is a complicated, difficult, and ultimately good code of ethics that you probably have a fundamental misunderstanding of. So let me set some things straight:


This is probably the main thing people fuck up about chivalry. The truth is, chivalry has basically fuck all to do with women, and everything to do with horses.

See, the word “chivalry” comes from the French word “chevalier,” which comes from “cheval,” which means “horse.” Chivalry is literally just “rules for if you have a horse.” This was an important set of rules to have in chivalry times. Horses were the Blackhawk Helicopters of the Middle Ages; if you had a horse, you could absolutely kill anybody who didn’t have a horse and nobody was going to say a god damn thing. The only thing stopping you was chivalry.

That’s what chivalry was for. Chivalry was – and still is – basically a way of saying, “okay, I have an optimized death machine between my legs, maybe I should look out for people who don’t have one of these.” So it’s not that chivalry is specifically about defending women because women are weak. It’s that chivalry is about defending people who don’t own horses, and in the middle ages women didn’t own shit.

It’s 2015 now. Women can own as many horses as they want. But there are still power structures built into society that put some people in metaphorical Blackhawk helicopters, and other people underneath those helicopters (sometimes the Blackhawk Helicopters are also literal). Real chivalry is about noticing when you have a horse and somebody else doesn’t. It’s about being careful not to trample people just because you can. It’s about holding the door for a dude in a wheelchair. It’s about actively trying to recruit more people of color in your workplace. Sometimes it really is about sticking up for women, but only if your help is wanted. And even then …


There are no prizes for being chivalrous, other than the prize of being a decent god damn human. This is because the people who chivalry was invented for were so fucking rich that prizes were totally meaningless to them. In addition to horses, knights also owned fancy armor, sick weapons, and huge tracts of land. They were powerful, exciting people relatively free of disease. They weren’t exactly hard up for sex opportunities, is what I’m trying to say. They didn’t need to invent a complex code of ethics to justify getting shit for free, because they already had all the shit. What do you get for the man who has everything? How about some fucking morals.

Anyway, if you’re desperate for booty, tales of chivalry aren’t the best place to go for inspiration. King Arthur’s court is basically one endless sex disaster, what with Arthur’s accidental incest and Lancelot’s righteous wangfoolery. Tristram and Isolde is a bonerific nightmare that borders on farce. Sir Galahad, the Greatest Knight Ever, is also the biggest virgin in the universe, and he is thrilled about it. It turns out you’re not even allowed to see the grail if you thought about a boob once. The chivalric canon is not overly sex positive, you guys. In fact the only problem-free sex I can recall from my chivalric reading is the story of Sir Gawaine and Lady Ragnell, in which everything turns out for the best because – spoiler alert – Gawaine leaves the decision up to his wife. Funny how that works out, huh?


Like most things invented in the past, chivalry has some problems. One of the problems with chivalry is that horses are no longer the height of technology. The main problem with chivalry, though, is that it can very easily cross over into paternalism, and nobody likes to be treated like a child. It is important to remember that just because you have a horse and somebody else does not have a horse, that does not make you their dad.

Even if you have the best intentions, chivalry isn’t a code you can blindly follow for A+ results. Even if chivalry was perfect, which no moral code is, it’s impossible to be a non-shitty person absolutely all the time. Like, the Knights of the Round Table were probably the most righteous group of horse-havers ever to have horses, but Gawaine chopped a lady’s head off, Lancelot fucked his boss’s wife, and Percival was the biggest idiot ever to hold a sword. Galahad was perfect I guess, but Galahad also had a magic chair with his name written on it in fire and ascended to heaven because he found a neat cup. Galahad was a fake person. All of those dudes were fake fucking people. We made them up. The people we made up to be the ideals of chivalry were still remarkably shitty. Back here on earth, nobody is chivalrous all the time, and that’s not sufficient reason to write anybody off. We are all shitty sometimes. Also Galahad is a dickhead.


Chivalry boils down to three things: mercy, charity, and humility. Mercy means being conscious of your advantages, and treating other humans gently. Charity means giving without expecting anything in return. Humility means accepting your mistakes, and recognizing that those who don’t have your advantages aren’t your inferiors. Anybody can embody these traits – woman, man, or even horse. At this point, you may be thinking “hey, this is bullshit, these are just basic guidelines for not being an asshole!” and congratulations, you’re right. That’s all chivalry is: basic guidelines for how not to be a sack of shit. And as long as a sack of shit is not a good thing to be, chivalry will never die.