Popular Culture Incognito

In the season four episode of Friends “The One with the Embryo”, Joey and Chandler challenge Monica and Rachel to a quiz show-like game to see how much they know about each other. With Ross hosting a lightning round of rapid fire questions, he asks Joey and Chandler what Rachel claims is her favourite movie, to which they respond Dangerous Liaisons. Ross follows their correct answer by asking them what Rachel’s actual favourite movie is, which a confident Joey tells him is Weekend at Bernie’s.

Last year a BBC poll revealed the most lied-about books Britons claim to have read — among the top ten were Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Judging from this poll it is safe to assume that people also lie about the television and films they watch, too. There are three lies that people can make about their viewing habits:

  1. Claiming to have seen a film or TV series when they haven’t
  2. Lying about their enjoyment of a film or TV series
  3. Concealing the films and TV series they do watch

There have been numerous times when I’ve suspected people of lying about their personal viewership in public. When actors and filmmakers name and list their favourite films and TV shows, I sometimes look at them with a dubious and critical eye — I have no proof that they’re lying, but something feels ‘off’ as I’m reading through them. Sometimes their selections feel disingenuous or cliché to me.

How does one quantify their favourites, anyway? Is it related to how many times you’ve seen them? Is it related to how much time you’ve spent talking about them? Or is it about the lasting impression they’ve left on you?

I feel that many people are presenting a front, playing a masquerade, disguising their true viewership when publicly discussing them. If that’s the case the pressing question then becomes: if people are lying about their pop cultural consumption, whether it be literature or film or television, why? Why the subterfuge? Why the false pretense?

The most honest and likely answer is that people succumb to peer pressure. Wanting to save face, wanting to impress others, people present inaccurate pictures of themselves through what they consume in order to appear cultured, tasteful and intellectual. It may be that a person fears what they view and enjoy is unpopular or inferior in comparison to those around them.

Al Pacino and Marlon Brando play Michael and Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972)

Literature, film and television is often divided into classes of quality, taste, sophistication and intelligence by critics and the public alike. In popular culture there is an elitism and pretension associated to what we consume, with high art at one end, and ‘trash’ that appeals to the lowest common denominator at the other. This construct elevates and shames people on the basis of what is judged by the masses to be ‘worthy’ or ‘disposable’.

I’m sure in a poll of the most lied-about films people would claim to have seen Citizen Kane and The Godfather would both rank in the top ten. (Similarly Breaking Bad and The Wire would appear in an equivalent poll for most lied-about TV series’.) The cultural status of both films is so great that to not have seen them or not like them is considered to be a signifier that your view doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t conform with the popular consensus.

To not have seen Citizen Kane or The Godfather is to have an incomplete view of film history and culture. To not like Citizen Kane or The Godfather is to not have good taste.

Unless you’re an historian, critic or writer, whose life and career revolves around film, a lot of titles are going to pass you by. There is no imperative for you to watch Citizen Kane if you don’t want to. If you have seen the ‘classics’ and didn’t like them that’s your prerogative — you shouldn’t feel the need to kowtow in submission to the mass opinion and disregard your own. Despite what others might say it’s okay not to like The Godfather.

(Note: I’ve used The Godfather simply as an example — I genuinely do love Parts One and Two, though I have yet to sit down and watch The Godfather Part III.)

Creature features, slapstick comedies, chick flicks, Van Damme movies: just some of the popular culture we’re shy to admit we love

A closely-related phenomena seen in popular culture is the concept of the guilty pleasure, where people feel reluctant or embarrassed to reveal which books, films and TV shows they enjoy. Media intended for the purposes of entertainment is often dismissed as low brow and devoid of artistic merit, and consequently their audiences are perceived as immature and unsophisticated. A guilty pleasure denotes a degree of shame in relation to a title’s ‘worthiness’ and cultural acceptance.

It’s ridiculous that many of us feel this pressure to obfuscate what we view and read to others — that we’re made to feel embarrassed by our choices and tastes on the basis of pretension and snobbery. It makes it all the more admirable when people can express themselves and not care what others may think. It’s refreshing when names in the cultural spotlight are candid enough to share their real tastes and not cling to delusions of artistic grandeur. (I love that Terrence Malick is allegedly a massive fan of Ben Stiller’s 2001 Zoolander.)

As much as we may value the greatest heights art is capable of we cannot indefinitely immerse ourselves in a world of deep thinking and introspection. We need to balance our serious sides with our playful sides. In literature we should be mixing our Leo Tolstoys with our Cecelia Aherns. In television we should be mixing our sombre dramas with our sitcoms. In film we should be mixing our Schindler’s List Spielberg with our Indiana Jones Spielberg. Being a thoughtful and understanding person doesn’t preclude you from enjoying yourself.

I will be honest now: in the past I’ve lied about watching films that I hadn’t. I’ve kept my opinions hidden about what I did and didn’t like. I’ve felt embarrassed having to admit or hide what movies and TV shows I used to watch. Why did I lie? Why did I keep my thoughts hidden? Why did I feel embarrassed? Because I was insecure. I didn’t want people to think less of me. I was playing into others’ expectations about what I should read and watch and like and dislike. I judged people based on my own opinions and tastes, which was itself buoyed by pompous elitism.

Today, I’m more open about what I read and watch, and I’m more respectful about what others read and watch. So my sister loves Grey’s Anatomy and I don’t — if it brings her joy who am I to try and change her mind? So I’m not a fan of French New Wave cinema — does that mean I can’t discuss the films of Truffaut, Goddard, etc.? I won’t allow myself or anyone else to be deemed second-class because of institutional arrogance and condescending pretentiousness anymore.

It’s not a case of one versus the other — art versus entertainment. It’s important that we have variety in our cultural experience, and that people can be honest and happy exploring that diversity. Conformity in opinion can be stifling and intimidating. Rather than playing along we should confront those prejudices that would make us feel like we can’t be ourselves. Don’t hide your pop culture identity — own it.

Coming soon: The Following Film Contains Strong Language

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