Oh, no! Nintendo has laid off Luigi, and now he’s drinking away his sorrows in Sin City.
Americans have an ambivalent attitude towards the homeless and panhandlers. When asked for change from a beggar on the street, the most common reaction is an agitated nervousness from the passerby. Many of us think, “He probably would use the money to get drunk/do drugs.”
I object to this excuse since it seems to me an obvious case of what Sigmund Freud called projection. Projection is a psychological condition where we take our own negative qualities and project them onto someone else, and then despise that person for carrying our own flaws. Homeless people remind us that our society has problems. We don’t like being faced with that. It makes us feel guilty; we don’t like that feeling so we have to create a reason to see a homeless person as worthy of scorn, so that they deserve their situation and we no longer have to feel guilty about it.
Probably it’s true most panhandlers want small change to buy alcohol (true necessities are available at homeless shelters and through other social services). But homeless people are still people, and like the rest of us they would like to feel some autonomy and sense of control. Hard to get that at a homeless shelter. Money, even in small amounts, allows that bit of autonomy. They can make choices, and indulge in small pleasures that aren’t strictly necessary (just like the rest of us!)
Homeless in Las Vegas
This is a photo of a homeless man on “The Strip” in Las Vegas. I had noticed probably a dozen or so homeless up and down The Strip who had donned various cartoon character costumes, and it struck me as a brilliant form of marketing.
Las Vegas, known as “Sin City,” is where people with money to throw around irresponsibly come to enjoy themselves doing exactly that. Gambling, drinking, whoring. All the things we “shouldn’t” do with our money, right? So who would judge you there?
Vegas is also a place to enjoy culture and entertainment, with shows, exhibitions, and extravagant casino architecture mimicking various prominent locations around the world. Tied in with this, it’s a city of illusions. Plenty of stage magicians, “fake cities” inside the casinos, visitors acting out their forbidden alter egos, costumed performers of all sorts including people posing as statues, and Madame Toussad’s Wax Museum with its life-like reproductions of celebrities. It’s a place void of guilt, because everything is just a mirage in the desert.
The Homeless Performer
The homeless in cartoon character costumes are to me, street performers. Their “act” is a complicated one.
1 – Masking. They hide their true face and form; this helps rid the spectator of that sense of guilt and “otherness.” Illusion is the norm in Las Vegas.
2 – Safety. The homeless person is just another performer and therefore approachable. Really even more approachable since the costumes I saw were always some beloved children’s cartoon character.
3 – Relatedness. This photo was taken during the Great Recession. Most people could relate to being suddenly laid off from a tech company. Maybe that’s why a lot of people were in Vegas at the time, to escape their unemployment shock. When you lose your job it seems so unjustified, so senseless. So easy to see how this is reflected in Luigi, laid off by Nintendo. Nothing could be more absurd. Luigi has a necessary part to play in many bestselling Nintendo games. How could his company see any value in laying him off? Suddenly this homeless person is expressing an entire philosophy that the spectator participates in. He’s like a mirror.
4 – Hidden in plain sight. This is sometimes called the undersell. Talking down your product helps a customer think you are honest and that the product is more genuine. So this homeless guy has beer cans as part of his act. Poor laid-off Luigi is drinking his troubles away. So now we have no objection to giving this guy money because “he’ll just buy alcohol with it,” because he’s made that obvious anyway.
5 – Anti-corporatism. Americans love to hate corporations and their power, even when we like their products. We know that Nintendo would not approve of this act! So we kind of like it. This creates sympathy. Especially if you were laid off by a big corporation, too!