Tired of narratives that use pop-culture references as a form of characterization

Why are our books full of little hipster kids?
Why are our books full of little hipster kids?

Awhile back, I posted on Facebook about how I never want to watch another romantic comedy where the heroine displays a quirky interest in old records or classic movies, because it’s only being used as a lazy shorthand for ‘this is a cool chick.’ And that doesn’t really work for me, personally, because: a) why should an interest in a particular kind of media make a person more desirable as a partner; and b) even if liking classic movies did make a woman more desirable, I’d still be annoyed at how cynically this character trait was being deployed.

However, since then, I’ve gone through a spate of reading children’s books (by which I mean middle-grade and young adult novels), and  I’ve become sensitized to a form of pop-culture reference that is so much more annoying: the age-inappropriate pop-culture reference.

Wonder was full of these, in that all of the books and media that were name-checked were obviously ones that the author had consumed in her youth, and not necessarily ones that a kid would consume today (for instance, the main character was obsessed with Star Wars and makes references to E.T. and The Hobbit and all kinds of other 80s standbys). And right now I am reading a John Green novel where the main character is obsessed Neutral Milk Hotel.Now, I mean, sure…I bet there were teens in 2010 (the year the novel came out) who were interested in NMH, but it still strikes me as a little bit precious.

I guess what I object to is the idea that we’re supposed to respect a character more, and maybe even consider them to be something of an iconoclast, if they have media tastes that are a bit outside the mainstream. I mean, I know that’s an essential part of the self-image of many outcaste children and teens: the idea that they’re more sensitive and perceptive than those who torment them and that this sensitiveness somehow manifests itself in their ability to take joy in media that their tormenters, who have duller intellects and grosser senses, are unable to understand.

But what I don’t understand is why we, as adults, need to buy into a notion which is clearly false. Liking an indie band does not make you a better person. And there is no reason why it should be implicitly correlated with the heroes other decent traits.

Also, on a more personal note, I will say that although I have far-ranging media tastes, they don’t really impinge that much on my ordinary walking-around consciousness. When I see a handsome, but stern and beetle-browed, gentleman on the sidewalk, I don’t think to myself, “My, what a Heathcliff!”

In fact, I live inside the setting of one of my favorite shows (The Wire), but I never think, “Oh man, that cop was a real Herc” or “I bet there’s a Dukie at that school on the corner.” Instead, I at least attempt to perceive the world as it is and to form independent judgments about the things that I see. Now, those judgments are guided in subtle ways by the media that I consume (for instance, I probably carry within me the decidedly Herc-like image of the big, blustery, idiotic man-baby of a cop and perhaps I do attempt to map that image onto the cops that I see…but that isn’t something that I’m consciously doing.)

Of course, other people are different from me. I have no doubt that some of them live far more intimately with their favorite media than I do with mine, but I’ve read five children’s books in the last two weeks and every single one of them (even the futuristic dystopia!) had a protagonist with an unnatural interest in and love for media that was popular before they were born.

Just once, I’d like to read a young adult book about a teen who read one book last year and it was the Hunger Games and she liked it alright, but, really, she’s got better things to do with her life than sit around with her nose in a book.

9 thoughts on “Tired of narratives that use pop-culture references as a form of characterization

  1. Peter Galen Massey

    If I was going to blame anyone for this phenomenon, it would be Nick Hornby and “High Fidelity” in which the characters at the record store thought “what you like” was more important than “what you are like”. Now Hornby clearly knew this was a problem, to my eyes reading the book, but the novel goes down so easy that it’s easy to miss it … and all the other ways I think the novel is smart without parading its smarts.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yes, that novel is pretty smart. I think that there are other pop-culture novels that analyze this insider hipsteriness too (the graphic novel Scott Pilgrim is another example–the hero turns out to be kind of a dick, and it’s at least partially because he thinks he’s so cool).

  2. DrivenByTatiana

    To me, part of this problem is that many authors are writing about themselves to a certain extent (or entirely about themselves depending on the genre and book) so they choose to focus on what they know. I would bet money that the average adult doesn’t know what children or teenagers like. Sure, there’s pop culture, but perceiving pop culture as a 30-something author trying to understand what a 14 might like vs actually being a 14 year old in 2014 are two entirely different experiences. There’s no real way to know what young people are experiencing if you a) don’t know any young people to talk to or b) only rely on a handful of sporadic encounters to form your understanding of what people like.

    So I think people just say, “I liked the Hobbit, so this person will like it too” because it’s easier.

    Overall, though, I think it’s annoying when main characters are participating in pop culture at all. Like, I don’t give a fuck if this female lead really liked Buffy or feels really emotionally charged by some random ass 80s band I’ve never heard of. The less pop culture references in novels I read, the happier I’d be. Also, I think books (and media in general) that doesn’t tip its hat to pop culture has a better chance of existing beyond its publication date (ie: a book that makes a lot references to Facebook or Twitter probably won’t be as longer lasting since those technologies may cease to exist at some point vs a book that doesn’t fixate so much on what’s popular. Or at least, doesn’t name it specifically).

    Great post as always!

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yes, I do think that, to some extent, authors are aware that they’re writing about stuff that _they_ loved and not that teens nowadays necessarily love–in a way, it’s an act of love to try to expose modern teens to things that you think they’ll like. But in another way, it’s also quite silly and transparent.

      I am with you. I prefer a minimum of pop culture references.

  3. Anonymous

    the first graders in my chess class LOVED star wars. they wanted everything to be about star wars.

  4. none

    the first graders in my chess class LOVED star wars. and a 9 year old i worked with at via was able to casually identify “blackbird” when i played it for him on the guitar.

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