"Who is Bruce Jenner?" "Who cares about Bruce Jenner?" "Bruce Jenner is newsworthy how?"
These are the sorts of comments that have stayed with me most vexingly since the posting of Kyosuke's MP article, Bruce Jenner, Transitioning or Not: You're Reporting It Wrong. Those comments have mostly been culled and that makes me somewhat relieved, but I still know that more than one person in every article feels like that is something worth taking the time to post. Those ridiculous rhetorical comments clutter pages, enforce intellectual elitism, and derail genuinely productive conversations.
The divide between popular culture and high culture is a separation forged in classism and maintained with fervent elitism. The divide is not immutable. Popular culture can become high culture and Shakespeare is the go to example of this (I prefer Dickens and Hollywood film noir as more relatable fodder). And, high culture can also become popular culture. Think of Pride and Prejudice, which has transformed from great literature to Bridget Jones, Colin Firth wet, and zombies. The continued distinctions between the two classes perpetuates the anxiety that spawned the classes in the fist place. John Mullan explains:
As pleasure became 'culture', it became increasingly important for the polite classes (many of them nouveaux riches) to distinguish between high and low entertainments. Then, as now, those most insecure about their own refinement were likeliest to be most hostile to all that might be thought 'low' or 'vulgar' (until the mid-19th century the words most commonly used for what we might call 'popular').
It is those people most insecure in their own position that defend the ramparts with the highest degree of commitment. These are the same people who will assert that they feel stupider for having read/seen/heard/watched something. That claim argues that acquisition of information can actively create stupidity. But, that simply isn't a possible reality. The quality of information is not related to the intelligence of the person procuring it. For this to be the case, the person would have to simply be an empty vessel with no capacity for critical thought. If this is the case, the person was 'stupid' to begin with and the information has nothing to do with it.
Certainly, people can feel insecure when they are not part of a conversation. But, the productive response is to use that insecurity to fuel intellectual curiosity. Only through increased participation in the dialogue does a person begin to feel secure. Instead, people seem to take specific pride in ignorance. This can be ignorance of high culture, popular culture, or folk culture.
I am reminded of RuPaul's Drag Race season five, when contestant Jinkx Monsoon decided to impersonate Little Edie Bouvier. In what felt like a bizarre turn of events, the loudest competitors used her decision as a time to shame her. They mocked her for knowing something. Further, they tried to use her knowledge of a queer icon against her credibility as a drag performer. The fuck? But, in retrospect, that isn't bizarre at all in this culture of Let Me Google That For You. People are more defensive of their witlessness than they are motivated to discover. Not knowing something has never made the bigger person, but behavior shows that most people don't accept that.
Beyond cementing inclusion in a particular group, dismissing those elements of culture deemed unimportant is the foundation of a much more insidious practice: it ends conversations. The conversation in the instance of Kyosuke's article is about contemporary news media's treatment of the transgender concept. Bruce Jenner serves as a locus for the discussion, but he isn't the discussion.
Here is the thing about subjects of discussion, much like a concept can't make a person stupid, a topic doesn't confer value of thought. A person can have a discussion of Syria that is emotionally reactionary, thoughtless, and mired in shallow thinking. Ask Mike from a Yahoo! comment section about that reality: "Obama wants to use them [Syria's weapons] on The U.S.A.'s former Allis to show his Muslim Brotherhood friends he is down with them and as a way of saying sorry" (sic x 100). And a person can have one that is well developed and demonstrates depth of thought. Equally, a person can have a discussion of Flavor of Love that runs the spectrum from crude and demeaning to well-reasoned and compelling:
Reality television bears the image of authenticity and the opportunity for decisive self-representation on the part of participants. This is not a sitcom, written by a host of white male writers, or news programming obviously controlled by an overwhelmingly white cast of decision makers. Instead, here are black people deciding how to 'represent themselves' by exploiting the stereotypic imagery for personal gain with minimal regard for how their image impacts the larger populace.
Obviously, the context plays a huge role in the quality of the conversations, which I would argue is why people come to Jezebel and Group Think. But, if we can acknowledge that context can elevate discussion and topic has no power over discussion quality, then why is it acceptable to ask "Is this a thing?"? If people are talking about it and negotiating experience and learning and challenging and making jokes, then it is a fucking thing.
Bruce Jenner is a thing, but not a thing that is high culture. He is not a great artist or thinker. He hasn't published a scathing critique of the modern condition that brings its reader to tears while simultaneously challenging their very humanity. At his personal peak, arguably, he was a great athlete. But, athletics are themselves popular culture. Now, he is a part of one of the most popular television franchises of the last decade, also known as his family. Keeping up with the Kardashians "was the #1 reality show on cable in the timeslot and #2 overall behind only AMC dramas Breaking Bad/Walking Dead with P18-49 (1.6 MM), W18-49 (1.2 MM), P18-34 (1.0 MM), W18-34 (739K), P12-34 (1.2 MM) and F12-34 (929K)." He may not matter in circles of elevated culture, but in the world of vulgar reality television, he and his family are legend. This is how he comes to be a cultural artifact worth studying.
Television is a representative example of popular culture's reach.It can be a bit of a shock to confront figures from Nielsen's latest quarterly cross-platform report and acknowledge the amount of time the average American spends watching TV each week. Even the low end of the spectrum (21 hours) falls close to three 8 hour work days. For people working part time, 21 hours may be more hours that they are scheduled for at work and is a larger chunk of time than would be spent sitting in a classroom each week as a full time college student. Arguably, an activity that so many people engage in is one that deserves examination.
But, other areas of interest also fall within the popular culture boundaries and these concepts/items/artifacts/moments (whatever term best fits depending upon the element of popular culture being referenced) reflect the culture in which they become popular. Perhaps, they are not always the best examples of artistry or critical thought, but that doesn't discount their usefulness in determining the value system of the community that created their popularity.
It is all well and good to brush aside all the references to Lorde and Amanda Bynes and Bruce Jenner. Instead, perhaps the conversations should be about Sandra Fluke considering running for a senate seat. Actually, I think we should be talking about that, but not instead of. In addition to. Period. Through Lorde, we can discuss her in contrast to Miley Cyrus and look at class issues of feminism, as they are a contemporary locus of the very discussion I am having here. Implicitly, Lorde presents as higher culture than Cyrus. Through Amanda Bynes, discussion about mental illness made an appearance and many of them were productive, while many were not. Such is the nature of discussion. Through Jenner, Kyosuke made some valid and important arguments about the nature of media in regard to trans people. That conversation matters and if Jenner inspires it, then he matters. And any person who chooses to negate that important discussion because Jenner is the starting point, isn't somehow above the Kardashians; that person is missing the point.
In closing, I defer to the words of Linda Holmes, a writer for the Monkey See blog, in reference to the Duck Dynasty debate:
The same is true — even more — of the Duck Dynasty story. There are over 750 comments on a post I wrote about that story, even though the post was really very mild. And in those comments, you will see multiple and profound cultural divides that touch on issues of region, class, religion, race, sexuality, trust, authenticity, and power. Duck Dynasty is not important, but that story exposed that divide and, just as importantly, shows how easy it has become to exploit it.
The utter lack of importance of the underlying subject, in fact, is exactly what tells you how close to the surface and at how high a temperature these conflicts are simmering. In fact, it is often those conversations about seemingly insignificant cultural issues that (for me) sheds light on what makes larger issues of war and peace and the economy so difficult to address.