Movie sessions of Barbie have been selling out, but Sarah Lang hasn’t been keen to see it. She asks herself why.
Last weekend, my husband asked if I wanted to see the Barbie movie with him and our son. I said “na, I’m just not interested. The Film Festival is on and I’d rather go see something from that.” I told him I was surprised he wanted to see Barbie, and he said “I do, because it’s a cultural phenomenon”. I still didn’t want to go.
Why? Maybe it was because my parents never bought me a Barbie and I still rationally resent Barbie for it. More seriously, I’ve long been aware of Barbie’s influence on girls’ body-image issues. Yes, I know the dolls have diversified in recent years – and, yes, I’ve heard this is arguably a feminist film – but I still didn’t want to go.
My husband called me a contrarian, and that’s certainly a personality trait inherited from my father (and one I try to keep in check). So I got to wondering: am I particularly contrarian when it comes to popular culture?
We know what popular culture is, but it’s not necessarily easy to put it into words. Here’s one definition from publisher WorldAtlas: “Popular culture, pop culture for short, generally refers to the dominant or prevalent traditions and aspects of material culture in a certain society. In modern Western countries, the term is used to describe various cultural products (movies, music, art, television, and more) that the majority of the population regularly consumes.” It’s culture that is, well, popular!
I can be a little resistant to popular culture. For instance, I never read the Harry Potter books or watched the Harry Potter films (to be fair, I was not the target age group when they came out). I never watched Twilight. I’m not interested in Taylor Swift’s music.
My question is: do I not watch, read or listen to some pop-culture stuff because I’m simply more interested in other things? Or am I snubbing pop-culture stuff because I’m a contrarian who doesn’t want to do what everyone else is doing?
I “interviewed” my husband on this topic. His response? “Is my wife a contrarian? Of course she is, but also she’s just not interested in certain things and more interested in others. Also, I think she sometimes discounts or discards some activity or item [in popular culture] because she maybe misunderstands it or doesn’t think she’ll like it.” Fair. He says I’m not a snob and he damn well better mean that! I absolutely don’t think my tastes are better than anyone else’s, just different sometimes.
But definitely not always, particularly with TV. I watched Game of Thrones. I talked about Succession and Breaking Bad to anyone who would listen. And, as explained in an earlier story, I watched The Bachelor franchise for 15 years.
Around the campfire
Here’s my husband’s take on why popular culture is important. “It harks back to a time in New Zealand when there were only two TV channels, meaning most people had something in common to talk about because they were watching the same program – or reading the same book. Now, think of cultural phenomena like Game of Thrones and Harry Potter – these things give us an opportunity to have something in common with other people. They are a few common cultural touchstones in this day and age.”
I mean, he’s not wrong. These pop-culture things give us something to talk about at the office water-cooler, at social-club drinks, in online groups, on social media, with other parents equally bored by watching our kids’ sports games (we can admit it, right?). Popular culture is the campfire around which we sit and talk. It can bond us.
Psychologist and professor Dr Lawrence Rubin, who also writes about the intersection between popular culture and psychology, has said that “if we simply consider popular culture as banality, it certainly seems meaningless, even potentially destructive. However, if instead we recognise that it is simply an expression of our collective experiences, its importance becomes more clear.”
Some pop-culture snobs can certainly be assholes. In a story called ‘The Problem With “Not Caring” About Pop Culture’, U.K. journalist Philip Ellis decries people who look down on others’ enjoyment of popular culture with disdain and arrogance, especially when it comes to men dismissing things liked mainly by women, or straight people dismissing things liked mainly by gay people.
“There is almost always an element of prejudice behind this kind of pop culture shaming,” he writes. “It is easy to imagine that, in the hive mind of these sorts, ‘real’ music is the province of anaemic-looking dudes with guitars, not young women; that ‘important’ storytelling belongs to Aaron Sorkin, not Shonda Rhimes; that ‘highbrow’ novels are unreadable tomes about college professors who think about cheating on their wives, because any book about the inner lives of women needs a cartoonish high-heel shoe on the cover. This perspective is shared and accepted by many. Whether it’s a rap song or a reality show, there is this notion of widely enjoyed media as ‘junk food’ – something to feel bad about consuming.”
Philip also writes: “It is absolutely fine to not be immersed in pop culture 24/7 if that’s not your cup of tea – sometimes, asking “Who? [are you talking about]” is simply an expression of curiosity.”
So, back to my self-interrogation: the book group that I run turned 10 this week. At the bar where we celebrated, there happened to be pink balloons on the ceiling and a separate Barbie cocktail menu. Now, I’ll never turn down a cocktail because of its name. The Malibu Barbie was delicious.
And after our lit quiz, we talked briefly about the Barbie movie. Nearly everyone had seen it or was going to. I decided I would too. Now I just need to find a session that isn’t sold out!