The Way We Talk About Pop Culture

When I was a teenager, I would’ve judged you for your pop culture predilections.

I would judge you based on what you liked or didn’t like.

If you liked a movie I thought was stupid, I thought you were probably stupid.

If you liked a book or TV show or whatever that I also liked, I assumed we could be friends.

I believed I held objectivity in my hand. My opinion felt like a glorious hammer and given half a chance I’d smack you with it to teach you a lesson about the failure of your personal tastes.

It was a jerky, self-righteous viewpoint. It was me squinting at you through my asshole, not through my eyes, and I think now — not then, sadly — I know where it was coming from.

I thought at the time if you didn’t like the things I liked, how the hell could you like me?

It came from a sad and uncertain place within — a place notorious to teenagers, I suspect. Those years I was plagued by a lack of self-esteem and a fundamental kind of anger over that perceived weakness, and what happens sometimes is we see a hole and we try to fill it. We fill it with distractions and we cram it with a papier-mâché version of ego that looks like confidence but is really just a shitty origami boulder, flimsy and hollow. It’s a stop-gap measure, a finger in the hole of a dam crack, a gym sock stuffed in a shotgun wound. It’s triage, in a way.

I figure we all have this in some measure — it’s not just teenagers, of course. We all get these holes, holes in how we feel, holes in how we perceive ourselves. And we patch them hastily, hurriedly, without much concern for what we’re shoving in there to fill those pits and fissures.

Point is, what happened then is when I found the things I loved — books and films and games and TV — I used them as standard-bearers in my army, I saw them as representations of me, extensions of myself. I bound myself up with them like a sailor lashing himself to the mast of a ship in a hard storm.

So, when you insulted those things, I felt like, you insulted me.

You didn’t like them, you didn’t like me.

And if you did like them — or could be made to see the error of your ways — then we were pals.

Like I said, bullshit.

But that’s part of the toxic thread that runs through pop and geek culture, I think. I don’t say that with any lack of love for geekery — I’m still a geek about a lot of things and I love to love things because hell, I think it’s cool as fuck to love stuff. We should celebrate the things we love! Nothing wrong with adoring the work of an author or a particular film or a modern classic television show (I’d argue this is a Renaissance of television right now).

It’s cool to like stuff.

Just the same, it’s really important to disentangle yourselves from that stuff.

And it’s important we look at the ways we talk about pop culture.

See, I understand that you have Very Strong Opinions about that Pop Culture Thumbtack stuck in the great big corkboard of our Geeky Heritage. Like I said: totally cool. You should! You should be encouraged to love the things that you love and to have reasons to love them. Hell, you don’t need reasons, either. You can just love something unabashedly, flopping and flipping around on it like a kid at a fucking Bouncy Castle. “I LOVE THIS AND I DON’T KNOW WHY,” you can say, a blissed-out look on your face. I adore your adoration. I love that love.

Embrace your bliss monkey.

You’re also allowed — encouraged, even! — to not like stuff. While I don’t know that “hating” something is valuable, at least in the sense that, say, That New TV Show is worth the hot irons of your internal furnace, but hey, you feel what you feel. Once again, unless you’re a paid critic, you’re allowed to dislike something without any rational or cogent reason presented. You can just be like, “Man, that show Homeland just, it just, gnaaaarghle vvvzzzzz ahhhhhh. You know?”  And then you flounce about and angrily eat a churro. CRUNCH CRUNCH FROWN.

Here’s the thing.

When it comes to pop culture —

Someone is going to dislike the things you dig.

Someone is going to adore the things you don’t.

And that has to be okay.

Is it worth discussing? Of course. We should engage in conversations about the stories that we shove in our media-hungry mouths! We should be free to talk about why we like things, or dislike things, or even better, why we liked some stuff and didn’t like other stuff and oh hey look a nuanced opinion. Engaging in thoughtful dissection of why something works for us or fails for us is really valuable! It helps us discover more things we like. It lends us a greater understanding of the things we consume beyond them being mere entertainment.

But here’s what it comes down to: when we talk about this stuff, we need to maaaaaaybe ease off the stick a little bit. Fandom can get a little intense, moving beyond passionate nerdery to codependent geekery. We feel so intimately toward some of this stuff you’d think we created it, or that we represent the creators in some big way. This is a time of big pop culture releases: the end of Breaking Bad, the start of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a brand new Stephen King. The way some folks talk about Joss Whedon suggests they’re part of a Whedonesque hive-mind, representative spore cultures of the Original Whedon Mother Patch.

And you’re not. You’re not him. You’re not his television show.

You’re not your favorite novel. Or that beloved movie. Or a game that just came out.

(Related: Gaming Community, We Have To Talk Again, a post about toxicity and bullshit objectivity when it comes to game reviews — in particular how folks reacted with intense bat-guano vitriol around a mostly positive review of GTAV, not an unabashedly positive review.)

We should be encouraged to discuss our pop culture feelings.

We should never, ever argue about them. Or insult folks. Or tell them how they should feel.

Everything you think and feel about that book, that show, that game, that cupcake, that sunset, that proctology exam — it’s subjective. Subjective as in, I am the subject of this sentence, and this is how I personally experienced something.

(Now, all that’s a little different if you’re a critic — I mean, a real, actual, professional critic. But if what you’re doing is just talking about stuff on Facebook, believe me when I tell you: that’s not criticism. Nor should you expect that everyone surrounding you on social media is capable of dissecting the moving parts of art or pop culture. Besides, criticism is very rarely about THIS WAS GOOD or THIS SUCKED BALLS, so let’s stop confusing what proper critical theory accomplishes with what a review does.)

Stop defending your choices. Defense implies you’re going to war for the pop culture property — as if Breaking Bad or Iron Man or the books of George R. R. Martin somehow need you as a knight for the realm. This isn’t a battle. No stakes on the table.

Stop defending. Start discussing.

Stop being so invested in your pop culture that it makes you upset when someone likes something you don’t, or when someone hates something you love. It’s not personal. Joss Whedon isn’t your child. Neil Gaiman isn’t your Mom. You’re not dating Harry Potter. (I KNOW YOU’RE NOT BECAUSE I AM YOU STAY AWAY FROM HIM *hiss*). Those with different pop culture opinions than you aren’t aliens. They’re damn sure not enemies. Instead of trying to Prove Your Point and Force Them To Agree, why not have a conversation about it? Try to learn about what makes them tick. Try to suss out how the mechanics of story — and world, and character, and so on and so forth — affect different people in different ways. Stop thinking it’s awful when people disagree with you, and start thinking that it’s interesting, instead.

Because it is! It is interesting when people don’t agree. Of course we don’t all have the same tastes — why would we want that? We don’t all need to be unified.

A hive-mind would just be sticky and weird.

A diverse storytelling and pop culture environment exists because of these varying, many-headed tastes. This is a feature, not a bug.

Be polite about it. Be cool about it. Be excited, engaged. Don’t be venomous. Don’t be an asshole. (Damn sure don’t be a venomous asshole, because ew.) Love what you love! Dislike what you dislike. Don’t insult. Talk about it in ways where you seek to become enlightened and aware instead of in ways that suggest the other person just took a shit in your soup.

It’s normal to feel intimately connected to our stories and to those who like the same things we do. Stories have power! They possess a potent gravity. Just don’t let it grow tribal. Don’t throw up walls because of it. That’s how the purity of geek culture gets dragged through the muck, and that sense of tribalism and cultishness is what spawns things like the Fake Geek Girl bullshit meme or threatening people over reviews.

Hell, it goes beyond just geek culture. A lot of the problems my Dad and I had when I was a teen and beyond came when I stopped partaking in the things he loved. He loved to hunt and as a teenager, I wasn’t all that into it. I loved computers and books and he didn’t touch or even understand either of those things. A wall separated us as a result — if he loved hunting and I didn’t, well, shit. He felt insulted. Just as I felt insulted that he didn’t understand computers or read books. Neither of us tried talking about it. We were just pissed. And it stayed that way for —

Well, too damn long, really.

By the time we started fixing it, starting finding a way to appreciate each other beyond our interests and stop being so angry all the time, he only had a few more years of life and now he’s gone and — what? Was it worth it? Shit, I know, that’s an extreme example (and someone out there is like WAY TO BRING THE MOOD DOWN, DEBBIE DOWNER), but it stands to follow that we gotta be a little less wrapped up in the things we like.

That guy likes beer. Another person likes wine. This lady likes cake, some dude likes pie. You like the paddle, I like the whip. Football, baseball, foozball, fuckball. We can’t let these preferences compete. We can’t let them be subtractive to our relationships.

Don’t we have enough real things to worry about?

The government?

The climate?

Meteors?

Miley Cyrus’ sentient parasitic tongue?

NOW LET’S ALL HOLD HANDS AND MAKE OUT

*lurches toward you, mouth open*