Updated: Sep 11, 2019
I don’t know about you, but I’m absolutely sick of people making me feel bad for the shows and films that I love. I must admit, I’ve been one of those people that scoffs at others’ entertainment choices; just recently I was getting on my partner for liking Richard LaGravenese’s P.S. I Love You (2007). This is not okay, and I’m working on it, I promise. Thus, as part of my selfish attempt to make amends to those I have wronged, I’m going to explain the origin of the bullshit common misconception that anything considered pop culture is trash.
Historically, cultural value has predominantly been assessed and assigned in a rather hierarchical manner. In “Distinction and the Aristocracy of Culture,” Pierre Bourdieu argues that cultural practices and preferences in the arts depend on an individual’s level of education and social origin and that those practices and preferences are indicative of social status. Thus, there is a hierarchy of the arts and of consumers which enables taste to function as an indication of an individual’s class. According to Bourdieu, a work of art is only meaningful and interesting if its observer has the cultural competence to understand it; that is, unless the observer knows the code in which the work of art is encoded, they will not be able to appreciate it. For example, a person who has studied art history is going to appreciate a Picasso or Warhol more than someone who has not. The result of not possessing the necessary codes for appreciating a work of art is confusion; without the cultural competence, an individual is unable to move past the “primary stratum meaning” of a text which is understood on the basis of “ordinary experience.”
This inevitably results in people being sorted into two “antagonistic castes, those who understand and those who don’t” (473), which implies that some individuals have a capacity for understanding that others do not (Ortega y Gasset qtd. in Bourdieu 473). These castes become painfully obvious when it comes to modern art; according to Ortega and Gasset, modern art requires a rejection of everything intrinsically human, meaning the emotions and feelings which “ordinary people put into their ordinary existence” (Bourdieu 474); that is, you have to reject the ‘human,’ the drive to give into the primal and instinctual emotions that characterize the generic and thus easily accessible. Essentially, Bourdieu believes that what is easy to understand, that which has a simplistic surface-level interpretation, does not have significant cultural or aesthetic value. This is why comic books, video games, children’s movies, and the like have been considered nonsense since their emergence; only recently have such entertainment texts gained attention as valid fields of study and professional development.
The feminization of American culture and its resulting lowbrow assignation, which Ann Douglas discusses in her book The Feminization of American Culture, is the reason consumers of popular culture have had to come up with ways to defend their preference for what Bourdieu considers a popular aesthetic. According to Douglas, American religion and, as a consequence, American culture was feminized by the sentimentalism brought on by clerical and feminine disestablishment in the late nineteenth century; this feminization is not portrayed positively. In fact, Douglass seems to believe this feminization was damaging for American culture because it did not truly stimulate feminism or help the country progress. Instead, she believes the feminization of American culture ushered in the rise of anti-intellectualism (141).
Ien Ang addresses the belittling of popular culture in his book Watching Dallas where he discusses the massive success of the internationally screened soap opera Dallas. Ang explains that fans who feel embarrassed because of their love of the show defend their preference by using the ideology of mass culture which “takes on here the status of Absolute Truth . . .” and “supplies ready-made conceptions, as it were, which sound self-evident and can be used without any strain or hesitation” (95). In the ideology of mass culture, “some cultural forms – mostly very popular cultural products and practices cast in the American mould – are tout court labelled ‘bad mass culture’” (94); that is, if its mass/popular culture, then its trash. The ideology of mass culture essentially “makes a search for more detailed and personal explanations superfluous, because it provides a finished explanatory model that convinces, sounds logical and radiates legitimacy” (Ang 96); in other words, it suffices to say that it is popular culture to defend the position that its bad. Ang’s work proves that viewers individually assign cultural value to popular culture texts, and there is nothing the encoders of those texts or the hegemony can do to prevent or disqualify individuals’ personal interpretations.
Now that that very long-winded introduction is out of the way, here are five pop culture texts that my partner and myself have constantly been made to feel shame for adoring.
Jason Katims’ Roswell (1999-2001) is one big ball of cheesy alien teenage fun. It follows the life of teenage human/alien hybrids who have no idea where they come from or what they truly are. The narrator, a regular teenage girl, and her friends get caught up in the alien drama and from there it’s all about finding answers while keeping the cosmic secret. The concept of feeling out of place is not alien to me (pun intended), as I’m sure it isn’t to many of you. Of course, it’s not just the aliens, but also the humans in the show who feel like outsiders.
Simply put, I felt I could really relate to story, the characters, and their interactions as a young adult; I took comfort in their struggles and learned from their mistakes. What young adolescent woman hasn’t been swept up in some kind of romantically magical love story, anyway? Plus, Roswell has a pretty decent soundtrack with Dido’s “Here with Me” leading the charge as the show’s theme; “Edge of the Ocean” by ivy and “Brothers & Sisters” by Coldplay are also pretty legit.
2) H2O: Just Add Water
Jonathan M. Shiff’s H2O: Just Add Water (2006-2010) was attractive to me for the same reason Roswell was; it’s about teenagers feeling out of place except in this show it’s because they are mermaids. The show follows the three main characters as they manage their double lives, guard their secret, and put their powers to good use helping those in need. In addition to utilizing the concept of the outsider, H2O also brought my childhood fantasy of being a mermaid with magical powers to life. And if you’re thinking I’m a total goober right now, you’re full of shit because EVERYONE has thought about how dope it would be to be a supernatural being with powers.
3) The Vampire Diaries
In addition to being another supernatural teenage melodrama, Kevin Williamson’s and Julie Plec’s The Vampire Diaries (2009-2017) obviously makes full use of the vampire motif that has been enthralling audiences since Universal released Tod Browning’s Dracula in 1931. Contrary to popular belief, The Vampire Diaries book series precedes both the Twilight novels ( and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s tv and comic book series (1997-2003), so even though the first Twilight film came out a year before The Vampire Diaries tv series aired, The Vampire Diaries is by no means a Twilight or Buffy the Vampire Slayer knockoff. In fact, the motif and aesthetic of the brooding, mysterious, dark, sexy vampire we know so well today may very well have started with Stefan Salvatore.
But it’s not all vampires! My favorite element from the show is actually the witches. Contrary to predominant portrayals, my favorite witch, Bonnie, gets her magic from nature, the universe; it’s a light magic meant to be used responsibly.
Now that you’ve put up with my very girly perspective, here’s my partner’s experience dealing with his love of supposedly embarrassing pop culture texts.
As a guy, liking a show about teenage romance doesn’t usually get you a warm reception. So, the fact that I love an anime series that revolves around the romance that blossoms between two high school bruisers with nasty reputations has won me more than a few smart-ass comments. Feared by all those at school, Taiga, a.k.a. the Palm Top Tiger intimidates and attacks near everyone she meets. After a fate encounter, Taiga meets Ryuji, a gentle boy with the eyes of a delinquent and a school reputation as potent and negative as her own. Ryuji is best friends with Taiga’s love interest, just as Taiga is best friend’s with Ryuji’s love interest. After learning of each other's circumstance, they make a truce and help each other get the person they desire.
During their time together, they learn about each other and, long story short, they fall in love. With his menacing face and rumored violent tendencies, Ryuji was my main access point into the show; that is, he is the one I can relate to the most. Nonetheless, it’s the deceivingly adorable Taiga that makes Tatsuyuki Nagai's Toradora! (2008-2009) the show truly interesting for me because her bad reputation is actually warranted; I mean, what’s more badass than a petite female intimidating the masses?
5) My Little Monster
Hiro Kaburaki's My Little Monster (2012-2013) is yet another anime high school love story, one I’ve denied watching many a time. Much like Ryuji from Toradora, Haru has a bad reputation, but his isn’t completely fictional; while he is actually kind and gentle, he expresses his emotions through violence. Shizuku, who is socially awkward, unfriendly, and totally devoted to her studies begrudgingly falls for his innocence and ignorance regarding relationships; she even envies the fact that academic success comes naturally to the cheerful and careless Haru.
Basically, she wishes she could be like him. Even though she constantly questions why she is attracted to him, her love for him continues to grow. I think my penchant for this show also comes from how I relate to Haru; I too have issues expressing my emotions and do random things like carry around pet roosters.
In the end, guilty pleasures are valid because of the personal and emotional connections we make with them. I’m drawn to supernatural, romantic storylines and marginalized characters that are waiting to discover the destiny that will make sense of their tedious lives. My partner’s tastes are not much different; he loves stories of misunderstood males with bad reputations and deep seeded issues that manage to find love. To some extent, we're clearly attracted to each other because we resemble the love interests of the characters we relate to (adorable, I know). The truth is no one can definitively tell you the value of any entertainment text. Your tastes are your own and everyone else can SUCK IT.
Ang, Ien. Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination. Methuen, 1985.
Bourdieu, Pierre. “Distinction and the Aristocracy of Culture.” Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Routledge, 1984.
Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. The Noonday Press, 1998.
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