It is a truth universally acknowledged among pop culture enthusiasts that when discussing the details of a celebrity’s life in a group setting, you run the risk of someone asking: “Who?”
Over the years, I’ve noticed the people who make a habit of this question are a very particular type: They are usually male, for one, and their tone often implies confusion, nay bafflement, by what they believe to be “lowbrow” references. Even if the celebrity in question is at the top of the charts, the star of a blockbuster movie or the main character in a popular TV show, somehow the star will have eluded this guy’s refined attention, so much so that he insists on voicing this confusion.
“Who?” he’ll ask, sometimes creatively framing the question as: “What’s a Kardashian?” While it is usually out of character for this particular breed of man to admit ignorance in any arena, in this case it is important that you know he is far too busy doing worthier things to know who Kim Kardashian is.
There is almost always an element of prejudice behind this kind of pop culture shaming. 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. But the very idea of a guilty pleasure has always felt gendered to me, at least to some degree. After all, a football fan might have the same encyclopedic knowledge and fervent love of their team as a Mariah Carey stan, but one of these people is more likely to be taken seriously when they talk about their passion at the office.
“Those who flock ’round the Beatles, who scream themselves into hysteria, whose vacant faces flicker over the TV screen, are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures,” wrote critic Paul Johnson, back when Beatlemania was at its zenith. Nowadays, The Beatles are widely considered to be one of the greatest bands of all time. What changed? The fandom. The group’s audience grew to encompass men as well as young women, and the perception of both the band and the music was altered as a result. This selective memory transcends spheres of culture, even applying to the way we think about food and drink. As Jaya Saxena writes: “When men enjoy something, they elevate it. But when women enjoy something, they ruin it.”
In her talk “How the tech sector could move in One Direction,” startup investor and diversity advocate Sacha Judd explains how pop culture snobbery helped to obscure the creativity, resourcefulness and sheer technological nous of the Directioner fandom. “I was spending all this time trying to think about how to engage women with technology, and I was ignoring the fact they already were,” she says. “They were essentially already video editors, graphic designers, community managers…front-end developers, social media managers. They were absolutely immersed in technology, every day, and we weren’t paying attention, because they were doing it in service of something we don’t care about.”
The media that young women and gay men enjoy is often dismissed as campy or trashy or culturally lightweight because as a demographic, girls and gays tend not to be taken seriously without “earning it.” For that, we can thank a patriarchal culture that continually undermines anything that might be considered “feminine”; for example, Sex and the City might have become synonymous with shoes and clothes and cosmopolitans (and there’s nothing wrong with any of those things), but when it first aired, the idea of women talking about their own bodies and desires on TV was practically unheard of, and it ended up popularizing an entire sex-positive taxonomy (I’m a total Samantha, btw). We can’t ignore the fact that there is a lens through which many of us are encouraged to view art: The work created by and targeted toward men is perceived as inherently good, and art historically geared toward women is seen as innately feminine and therefore frivolous and not worthy of analysis.
To me, as a gay man, this prejudice has always been clear. But I believe pop culture is neither a luxury nor an indulgence; it is a vital, increasingly political ingredient in modern life. Wildly popular properties like Harry Potter, Star Wars and The Hunger Games have given an entire generation a vocabulary of resistance. This year, superhero movie Black Panther got white audiences thinking about colonialism. Relevant, revolutionary stories can come from anywhere — even a makeover show. Queer Eye uses the makeover format to talk about race, mental health and toxic masculinity. (RuPaul’s Drag Race made the most of a similar opportunity to educate its audience about queer issues when it moved to VH1 last year.)
Reality TV is often derided, but we shouldn’t underestimate its ability to tell compelling stories of self-acceptance and overcoming prejudice, packaged in audience-friendly Extreme Makeover or Project Runway-style programming. In our current climate, it feels quietly radical to watch a drag queen preach body positivity in a catsuit or see an effeminate gay man teach a self-described “redneck” about self-care. These kinds of TV shows are billed as mindless escapism, but if anything, they’re a mirror.
Of course, not every movie, book or song has to launch a revolution. Enjoying something can be enough; if you like it, that’s all the defense it needs. And it is absolutely fine to not be immersed in pop culture 24/7 if that’s not your cup of tea — sometimes, asking “Who?” is simply is an expression of curiosity. The question itself is not the problem — it’s the sexist and arrogant tone in which it is all too often asked. For those who feign obliviousness to make a point, it’s worth remembering that by pretending to be above something, you don’t just disrespect diverse media and audiences; you exclude yourself from the conversation entirely. As we are seeing more and more, it’s young people (and their passions) that will shape technology, culture and discourse. If you don’t speak their language, you’ll be left behind.
Philip Ellis is a freelance writer and journalist from the U.K. You can follow him on Twitter @Philip_Ellis