What Happened to Competence Porn?

In 2009, Leverage writer John Rogers wrote in a blog post about how viewers enjoyed “watching competent people banter and plan,” something his team had come to refer to as “competence porn.” This phenomenon, now named, has loosely cropped up throughout all forms of media over the years, from Odysseus escaping the Cyclops to Sherlock Holmes besting Moriarty to James Bond just, well, being James Bond. There’s something about watching talented, competent people using their talents and competence to their full potential and getting results.

Competence porn doesn’t have to be realistic—no normal person is out here believing they’ll ever have the observational or computational power of Sherlock Holmes or the ingenuity and efficacy of MacGyver—but it does have to exist within the realm of human experience, providing viewers with something they may never achieve but can aspire to. I’ll never smoothly pull off a casino heist a la George Clooney in Oceans 11, but I can aspire to that level of planning and execution next time I’m in charge of a group project. And maybe feel half as cool doing it. Competence porn doesn’t even have to be as high stakes as an action-packed heist or taking down a criminal empire; Parks and Rec exists as small-scale competence porn, with Leslie Knope consistently generating good ideas and making them happen through talent and determination.

As with any term coined to describe certain nebulous elements of fiction, people on the internet tend to play it fast and loose with what actually constitutes competence porn. According to tvtropes, “it’s not just characters being good at a thing” because that definition is way too broad and could apply to any fictional character who isn’t a walking disaster. It’s also not just people executing a plan, because again, that could apply to almost any piece of fiction. Smart characters don’t necessarily make something competence porn, because characters like Gregory House and Cal Lightman are brilliant, but not always fully competent. Their breakthroughs are occasionally fueled by a sort of hand-wavium intellectual happenstance, and their lives outside of their singular areas of expertise are less than ideal. 

But it’s easy to define what something isn’t. To start to home in on a definition of competence porn, we should probably first define competence. According to dictionary.com, competence is the possession of required and/or sufficient skill, knowledge, qualification, capacity, etc. for some purpose. So in order to get competent characters, the characters need talent and skill, but they also need a purpose to which they can apply those skills. Taking it to a far enough extreme to qualify it as competence porn, the characters need a clear and specific purpose, and they need the talent and abilities to make them the inalienably right person to fulfill that purpose. To reach this next level, the characters in competence porn are often set apart by their passion and ambition. Not only are they fully qualified for whatever it is they’re doing, it has to be them, because they’re the most dedicated to the job, and they’re going to get it done no matter what. This is what sets Leslie Knope apart from Liz Lemon, what separates Don Draper from Gregory House.

Those are, admittedly, thin lines to draw, and much of what constitutes competence porn lies in the writing, specifically the pacing of the story. The audience realizes there is a problem, probably one that we on our couches would not be quite capable of fixing. The characters reveal their plan—more specifically part of their plan—to fix the problem. Us armchair experts think, “that’s a good plan, it’ll probably work.” After a setback or two, it does work, and then the full plan is revealed, often accounting for the setbacks or showing that they were part of the plan all along. Sometimes the plan doesn’t account for the setbacks, and we’re even more impressed by the characters’ quick thinking and expert problem solving. And since anyone can solve a problem if they have long enough to try and retry solutions, competence porn often involves a ticking clock, with characters succeeding just under the wire.

If you read those last three paragraphs and still have a sort of cloudy idea of what might or might not count as competence porn, that’s okay. It’s a cloudy concept. I generally define it as “(1) people who are really good at something (2) doing what they’re really good at (3) really well.” Conflict comes about not through any kind of intellectual or moral failure—no poor decision making or lack of knowhow—but through outside setbacks or relational complications, maybe even the occasional ethical dilemma. Quick, intelligent banter and snark are a bonus.

I’ve noticed in the past ten years or so a drop in competence porn media. We still have people who are good at things, but we rarely see them doing those things well. (See: every superhero movie ever.) We also have people doing things well, but it’s not necessarily something they planned for or are particularly practiced at. (See: Ted Lasso, Schitt’s Creek.) As a society, we seem to have lost interest in watching professionals be professional. Even The Queen’s Gambit, which could arguably be seen as competence porn, centers around a woman whose entire struggle is between professionalism and a life of drugs and despair. In the end (spoiler alert), she doesn’t win because she’s good at chess and because she made a plan to win, she wins because of the power of friendship and despite her lack of planning. (end spoiler)

Our superhumanly competent heroes are trending away from the aspirational and toward either the truly superhuman or the brilliant but very broken. (Or both, like Tony Stark.) Society seems to want to see people succeed, but only if they struggle to get there. To see people who are good at things, but only if they realize the limits of their privilege. All of those are good stories, and of course all of those stories have existed throughout history as well. We’ve always loved the underdog and the tortured genius, and the snooty suit getting what he deserves. But we seem to be losing an important story: the triumph of talent and will, and the importance of excellence.

It makes sense, I suppose—talent, willpower, and excellence are all antithetical to the post-truth, aspiringly hedonistic culture we currently exist in, to take a crass, oversimplified view of it. To strive for excellence is to set the bar too high for others. To have been born to that excellence is an unpardonable sin. I exaggerate, of course, but it’s not hard to see how we migrated away from stories of polished professionals professionally doing their jobs better than anyone else.

In 1961, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., wrote a story called “Harrison Bergeron” which starts out by saying, “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.” The story goes on to describe ballerinas performing on television wearing masks to cover their faces and bags of lead to weigh them down so that none would outshine the others. It’s seven short pages of satire, mocking those who would do away with competition in the name of equality, and its pointed critique feels just as relevant today, in the era of schools apparently trying to do away with advanced math courses1 for the sake of fairness. It’s not a bad thing to lessen a societal focus on competition. But I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to hold excellence up as an ideal. We should just be helping each other to get there instead of beating each other down.

Humanity will always have competition, I think. But what it is we compete for changes. Even on social media, where competition is an inherent facet of the platform itself, we tend to love our celebrities and influencers most not when they’re doing the thing that got them famous, but when they’re exuding a sense of “realness,” however fabricated that #nofilter look at their life might be. It’s a competition for who can be the most attractively open, who can play the emotional manipulation card with just the right amount of relatability. Perhaps, though, that’s too pessimistic a view of society. Perhaps our cultural values have simply shifted from idealizing achievement to idealizing authenticity, and the few gaming the system will always ruin it for everyone else.

Returning, though, to Vonnegut for a brief moment, even though pieces of our current culture are incredibly mockable and the internet has very nearly created a universal sense of humor in younger generations, we also haven’t seen much in the way of satire recently, especially in literature. Kathryn Hume, a writer and professor, in her argument that satire is becoming more diffused and less direct, attributes some of the loss of direct satire to postmodern sensibilities, including “a moral relativism that makes righteous indignation difficult.” I suspect it’s this same moral relativism causing media to trend away from competence porn, from some people being better than others as a result of skill rather than, say, being bitten by a radioactive spider. Robert C. Elliott, in The Shape of Utopia: Studies in a Literary Genre, said that “satire and utopia are not really separable, the one a critique of the real world in the name of something better, the other a hopeful construct of a world that might be.” And what is competence porn but a mild escapist utopia, showing us what the world might be if we had the opportunity and ability to live up to our full potential?

Both competence porn and satire rely on the idea that there is a right way to do things—competence porn in that there are people capable of doing the right thing, and satire in that humanity isn’t doing the right thing. In a culture that can’t seem to agree on what the right thing or the right way to do things is, it’s hard to create and market either competence porn or satire, especially while trying to appeal to the largest possible audience. 

Personally, one of my favorite things about competence porn—a thing that isn’t necessarily universal but is common—is a character who is striving to be better, both on a personal and societal scale, and is succeeding. Leslie Knope wants to make life better for the people of Pawnee, and little by little she gets there. MacKenzie McHale in The Newsroom wants to bring integrity back to news media, and she does it, despite opposition and setbacks. Both shows require accepting the premise that there is in fact an objective “better” and accepting that effort, talent, competence, and willpower will get you there.

I don’t think this is at all that far-fetched, though the media seems to think so. Most people truly seem to be striving to some degree toward a better life, whatever that means to them. Many have even banded together to try to make that better life a reality. Most people want to do what they love, be good at what they do, and have faith that other people are good at what they do, too. Of course, life sometimes sucks, and there are times no amount of competence or willpower will get you anywhere. But without getting into a philosophical argument on the meaning of life, trying will generally get you farther than not trying, and doing things well is better than doing them poorly.

Even if you disagree with all that, though, competence porn is fiction. In the vast array of escapist media available, why should we not escape into a world where skill and planning pay off and everyone has a witty comeback?

This is not to say I believe competence porn is trending out solely because our society hates excellence. That would be ridiculous. A significant quality that both competence porn and satire share—which I believe is probably playing a part in the downswing in popularity for both—is subtle and intellectual writing and a reliance on nuance, all of which have been trending out of vogue for a while. If popular media is to be believed, modern audiences much prefer to be hit over the head with analogies, exposition, and action scenes, rather than be led to draw their own conclusions. There’s definitely a place for that kind of writing, but it doesn’t work for competence porn or satire, and nuance shouldn’t be limited to under-marketed indie films and obscure genre fiction. We should let it play in the popular spaces again, especially in the age of streaming, where niche media can and does thrive.

Popular media is always trending one way and then back again, much the same as pop culture. Dystopian replaced vampires which replaced faeries, and who knows what’s coming next. And that’s all been within the last fifteen years. I sincerely hope competence porn swings back into the spotlight soon, partially because when it’s done right, it can be inspiring on a societal scale—and goodness knows we can use all the inspiration we can get—but mostly because I just really enjoy it and need a new show to binge.


1I recognize that there’s more to this story than my reductionist passing mention would indicate, but I would as always advocate doing your own research on this, as on any topic, in order to come to your own conclusions.