Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: the 1990’s

JT, Xtina and Britney

As many of you probably know, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, along with Keri ‘Felcity’ Russell, Ryan ‘Breaker High’ Gosling and JC ‘the other cute one’ Chavez, were all on ‘The Mickey Mouse Club’ together in the early 1990’s. Who would have thought JT, as a superstar twenty years later, would revive the same geek-chic spectacles!


Ross and Rachel

If you were a pre-teen in the late 1990’s, it was all about Ross and Rachel. Sure, Chandler got the best one-liners, and Phoebe’s pseudo-hippie zaniness made her a favourite of my Grade Seven crew, but Ross and Rachel taught us about love, and break-ups, and what grown-up relationships were supposed to be like. When we linked ourselves with the characters of Friends, which of course we did all the time, I was inevitably Ross, the sensitive, slightly-nerdish, archetypal nice guy.

Nowadays, overrun with Michael Cera-esque sensitive heroes (this month Scott Pilgrim opens, in which Cera literally plays a comic book hero), it’s hard to remember that back in the day David Schwimmer was seen as a breakaway from the traditional leading man. He was trumpeted on magazine covers (“Do Nice Guys Always Finish Last?”) and cultural critics wondered if we were entering a new era of feminized masculinity. Then Schwimmer’s film career tanked (like those of all his Friends co-stars), metrosexuality and hipsterism became marketing tools, followed by a retrograde mildly-homophobic ‘real-man’ backlash, and Friends DVDs sit idly on bookshelves gathering dust.

It doesn’t help that Friends is rerun seventeen times a day. It seems like at any hour you can dip into the adventures of those six over-caffeinated Gen Xers and all you have to do is figure out where Ross and Rachel’s romance is at. From the very first episode, when Rachel (Jennifer Aniston, as you know) storms into the coffee shop in her wedding dress, having left her boring fiancé at the altar, and we learn that Ross has been crushing on her since High School, their fateful courting was at the nexus of the show.

The writers skilfully drew out every stage in their relationship (he likes her, she doesn’t know; she likes him, he doesn’t know; they’re almost together, then not; they are together, then not; they’re ex’s; they’re almost on again, but not; she ruins his wedding; they wed by mistake; etc.) to the full comic effect. I consider Ross and Rachel the blueprint for other sitcoms on how they can get a decade’s worth of episodes out of one relationship, and I get frustrated when the love stories of Niles and Daphne or Mr. Shuster and Ms. Pillsbury pointlessly fizzle out.

The only problem was that we all knew they would have to end up together in the end. Somehow, the geeky palaeontologist and the ditsy assistant-buyer would get over their shit and make it work. I still watched the last episode, even though I hadn’t tuned in for years: the show went from being a mildly-dirty chronicler of the dating lives of New York twenty-somethings, to one about the childish antics of over-tanned thirty-something actors who were more famous than their show and demanded a million dollars per episode.

The last episode had Rachel contemplating leaving New York for Paris and Ross’s attempts to get her to stay (like she’s Carrie and he’s Big, as if), and her change of heart, if memory serves, on the airplane, and she hops a cab downtown back into Ross’s arms. Despite not having dated for years, we’re meant to believe that now the two will actually make  it, happily ever after. The fact that we have watched them be jerked around by eachother for years is ironically evidence that they are meant to be together, rather than proof of the opposite.

And it kind of makes me wish that I had a person in my life who I had loved, and been through everything with, and who I learned to be just friends with, while secretly assuming that we’d end up back together, just in time for the happy ending before the credits roll. What troubles me is I probably could have had that with my big Ex, but I had needed to push him out of my life in order to simply cope and get through the days. Now, while it’s still too soon, it’s a bit too late.

But turning to more recent heartaches, I finally sucked it up and wrote the Gentleman an email. He got upset at me for writing about the break-up on this here website, I got upset at him for the whole thing, I explained how much I cared and would miss him, he wrote back similarly nice things, and that was that. Despite me never having been able to be friends with ex’s, we said we’d meet up and talk when he’s back from his latest trip. Not a bang, but a whimper.

Should I try internet dating again? I definitely don’t feel like it, but the alternative may be chastity until one of my friends pressures me into creating yet another smart but humble, sexy (but not too sexy!) plenty of fish profile in order to simply meet people.

I began writing an email to a guy who I dated for awhile and have seen on and off periodically, but then I changed my mind, deleting the subject line letter by letter.

I’m kidding myself if I think I’ll get over the loss of the Gentleman, my second longest boyfriend, by throwing myself at someone else.

I’ll wait, because, despite it all, I’m still a romantic and I’m searching for my Rachel.

4 Weddings / 1 Funeral

Before he was romantic comedy’s automatic leading man, matched with a never-ending parade of marketable mates through process of spinning game-show wheel (‘And the next one will be… Sandra Bullock!’ DING DING DING!), Hugh Grant was an unknown actor who starred in a small British production named Four Weddings and a Funeral. And, although it went on to become the most successful English movie at the time and launched him into floppy-haired stardom, it is far from the traditional romantic comedy many remember it to be.

While the tribulations of the central couple, bumbling Charles (Grant) and beautiful Carrie (Andie MacDowell, while she still made movies rather than just L’Oreal ads), progresses in the recognizable boy-meets-loves-loses-and-gets-girl trajectory, that romantic relationship is secondary. Carrie, who lives in America and only seems to visit England to randomly attend weddings in big hats, is only a fleeting premise, whose motivations are never really understood by the viewer.

The relationship that is the real centre of the film is that of Charles and his band of misfit friends; glamourous Fiona (Kristen Scott Thomas, in perhaps her best role); her aristocratic brother Tom (James Fleet), who’s thought to be stupid but is actually wise; henna-haired pseudo-punk Scarlet (Charlotte Coleman), who is inexplicably Charles’s platonic flatmate; and gregarious gay couple Matthew (John Hannah, with a Scotch brood which has to be heard to be believed) and Gareth (Simon Callow), a bearded Bacchus-like hedonist.

How this group became friends is never explained, and that makes it all the more believable: the movie simply presents a group of friends, and the viewer takes them at face value.

Beyond shifting the focus from the traditional boy-girl romantic dichotomy, the group also houses a myriad of alternative relationships and love stories, gradually drawn out throughout the film.  

Unexpectedly, for a movie structured around four weddings, which these characters are supposedly invited to all the time, what links the members of the group is the various ways they attempt to hijack and subvert the proceedings. Scarlet discusses her dating problems to seven-year old flower girls, and explains that bonking is like table-tennis “but with smaller balls”; Gareth gets drunk, dances highland flings, cheers on awkward toasts, lies to dumb Americans (“Do you actually know Oscar Wilde?”) and theorizes that the one reason couples get married is to have something to talk about for the rest of their lives.

My favourite line is the exchange between these two, when Gareth compliments Scarlet’s clashingly-coloured ensemble: “Scarlotta! Fabulous dress. The ecclesiastical purple and the pagan orange symbolizing the mystical symbiosis in marriage between the heathen and Christian traditions?” To which she replies, with perfect working-class dead pan, “That’s right.” 

Fiona, in contrast, always wears black and habitually introduces inappropriate discussions. She compares performing a wedding ceremony for the first time to sex with uncomfortable vicar-in-training Rowan Atkinson (“Only not as messy, and far less cause for condoms”) and, when an old lady asks her if she’s a lesbian (“Well, it is one of the possibilities for unmarried girls nowadays, and it’s rather more interesting than saying, ‘Oh dear, never met the right chap,’ eh?”) she describes herself as being a lesbian once in school, for about fifteen minutes.

She goes on to explain that she has in fact met the right chap, but she doesn’t love her back, and no will compare until she gets over him. She’s talking about Charles, who for most of the movie is completely oblivious to her feelings, until she admits them to him in a heart-breaking, incredibly-acted scene. Fiona offers no explanation for her deep feelings for the childish Charles, and Charles can offer none in return for why he doesn’t feel the same way about this beautiful and witty woman, who he clearly adores as a friend. These are the messy realities of love, rarely acknowledged in movies.

The one with the most idealistic ideas about marriage is Matthew, who is the only one to have found his love but ironically the only one not allowed to wed. The group of friends, stuck on the idea that they are united in their un-married status, don’t actually think about Matthew and Gareth as a couple until two thirds of the way through the movie.

“It’s odd, isn’t it?” Charles muses to Tom. “All these years we’ve been single and proud of it and never noticed that two of us were, in effect, married all the time.” A revolutionary line in 1994.

The hapless Tom, who makes a habit of proposing to all his female friends, presents another subversive relationship concept when he then explains to Charles that he never expected a “thunder-bolt”: “I always just hoped that, that I’d meet some nice friendly girl, like the look of her, hope the look of me didn’t make her physically sick, then pop the question and settle down and be happy. It worked for my parents. Well, apart from the divorce and all that.” Only in a movie which already presented so many alternative relationships would this description of a traditional, unexciting but stable romance stand out as subversive to the norm.

Stephen Fry’s Peter’s Friends, a sort of British The Big Chill from a few years earlier, had also featured a group of friends at its centre along with different types of relationships and a ground-breaking gay subplot (in its case, the lead character disclosing his HIV positive status), but what separates Four Weddings and a Funeral as particularly transgressive is its incorporation of alternative ways of loving into a conventional romantic comedy. What, after all, is more traditional than an English wedding?


Mike Huckabee

I find Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, an amiable fellow. He seems like a nice man and is undeniably funny. Along with both being governor, he shares the same home town with Bill Clinton (Hope, Arkansas) which led to his famous line, “Give Hope a second chance.” On a trip to Isarel, he joked that he should move there, as the yarmulke covered his bald spot perfectly. All sorts of observers, including Ariel Levy in the current issue of The New Yorker, find him charming and I would probably be no different. We wouldn’t become friends though, as he believes that my life threatens Western civilization and that, after the Rapture, I will burn in hell.

Levy’s portrait of the man, current star of a hit Fox News show and potential candidate for the Republican nomination in 2012, is a Cubist masterpiece of conflicting contradictions. Although his political sympathies are apparent, Levy attempts a balanced evaluation of the pastor-turned-politician, although he can’t help catch Huckabee in some of his more obvious hypocrisies. Without plagiarizing the whole article, and replacing my photo with a doctored one of Eustace Tilley with silver brow-line glasses and hipster bangs, I’m going to highlight some of Huckabee’s more problematic quotations.

Huckabee believes that the rules of the Bible should be followed as one would follow a recipe (he uses the analogy of his toddler son baking a cake with salt instead of sugar) and if we come up with our own ideas about what’s right and wrong the world will turn into an unappetizing, salty mess.

“Consider homosexuality,” he says. “Until recently, who would have dared t suggest that the practice should be accepted on equal footing with heterosexuality, to be thought of as a personal decision and nothing more?” His use of the word “decision”, along with the troupe “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”, makes him appear like he’s battling gay rights in 1995.

As governor, Huckabee successfully passed laws preventing gays and lesbians from becoming foster parents or adopting. He told a student journalist last April, “Children are not puppies—this is not a time to see if we can experiment and find out how does this work.” He then went on compare gay adoption to legalizing drugs or incest.

When Levy presses him to justify his position without mentioning the Bible or the “ick-factor” (Huckabee’s lovely term), he refers to studies that show that children with a mother and father are more well-adjusted than those without, the oft-misused conventional ‘wisdom’ about single-parent households that willingly ignores economics and education-levels.

“No culture in the history of mankind has ever tried to redefine marriage.” Where to begin with this whopper? Perhaps Huckabee has not been reading his Bible as closely as he pretends, for, as Levy points out, in the Old Testament polygamy was commonplace and the early Christians believed marriage was only for those without the pious self-disciple of Jesus. Marriage has even been redefined in America’s not-too-distant past: before 1967, it was defined in much of the country as a bond between a man and a woman of the same race, a definition that would annul the marriage of the current president’s parents.

I don’t know if I care for Huckabees’s opinions on even his own marriage. He’s been with his wife Janet for 36 years, having tied the knot as teenagers. “I think we both went into it understanding it was for life. I’ve always said, I f you believe divorce is an option, you’ll take it.” Poor Janet. She seems like a cool, down to earth lady (who skydives!) but her husband admits that if divorce was part of his worldview, that if he didn’t think it was fundamentally wrong, he’d leave her. Although, that makes me more proud of my parents’ marriage, as they haven’t needed God’s threatening vengeance to keep them together.

Despite believing that homosexuality is “sinful and unnatural”, he doesn’t like being thought of as a homophobe. “I’ve had people who worked for me who are homosexuals, and I don’t walk around thinking, Oh, I pity them so much. I accept them as who they are! It’s not like somehow their sin is so much worse than mine.”

This use of the traditional ‘we’re all sinners’ Christian refrain is interesting as it positions him as humble and non-judgemental while simultaneously casting others as ‘sinners’. And he is not actively working to restrict his unnamed sins, only those of homosexuals, in this case, the sin of existing as who they are.

Like many Evangelicals, Huckabee is a strong supporter of Israel, a support which binds conservative Christians and neo-conservatives (including Jewish ones) in the Republican party. The latter don’t like to look too much at this tenuous bond, though, as some Evangelicals mainly support the Zionist state because Jewish control over the Holy Land is supposed to bring on the apocalypse. Then, watch out!

Huckabee doesn’t want to dwell on the gory details with The New Yorker or Ariel Levy, and tries to paint himself as a moderate, almost a relativist. “If somebody asked me, How do I get to Heaven, I would tell them that the only way I personally am aware of is faith in Christ, because I believe the New Testament. That’s the only map I got. Somebody says, Well, I got a different map. O.K.! You know what? If it works, I’m not going to argue with you.”

“If it works”? What the heck does that mean?

The most charitable way to interpret this is that Huckabee is accepting that no one belief system is inherently better than any other, and that they may even potentially “work” and get you into Heaven. The less charitable interpretation is that, while your spirituality may help you get through life’s difficulties now, when the End of Days comes along all bets are off. It is the ultimate politician statement: nice sounding, but decidedly ambiguous.

I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone who could talk with me, get to know me, and all the while sincerely believe that I’ll end up in Hell. I read the article because I want to understand how a politician could be pragmatic in some ways, idealistic in others (Huckabee thinks being ‘pro-life’ means you shouldn’t stop caring for babies after they’re born, and supported elements of healthcare reform), and then claim that “Everything you do and believe in is directed by your answer to the ultimate question: Is there a God?”

The problems of this new century are going to require that we attempt to understand each other and work together, but I don’t know how we’ll do it.

One of the most incredible quotes from the piece is not from Huckabee but from his former chief of staff, Brenda Turner, and is unremarked upon by Levy (so I’m going to remark upon it here).

Huckabee has been disliked and dismissed by the Republican establishment and is considered (his words) “a complete, uneducated, unprepared hick”.

“This man didn’t come from a law background,” Turner says. “He was a pastor, and that was somehow mysterious. My personal feeling is what we don’t understand we fear. And what we fear we seek to destroy.”

My personal feeling as well.

Famous on Facebook

I recently discovered an envelope of photographs from a grade seven birthday party of mine. The pictures are embarrassing not least because I was in my pre-growth-spurt chunky phase. My school friends, dressed in late 1990’s camouflage tee-shirts and jean overalls, are shown dancing, almost frolicking, around my living room, at times even lifting each other up. Obviously, these pictures will never see the light of day and will not be uploaded onto a certain social networking website.

The remind me of a pre-digital era when I borrowed my parents’ camera for special occasions and had to wait what seemed like an eternity to get the pictures developed. There is a good chance that my friends in the photographs never even saw them. It was a more innocent time when the picture you took were yours alone, to place in an album and show people only on your initiative.

Every generation has the event that can in hindsight be viewed as the watershed moment that ended one era and heralded the next. While it may in the past have been the First World War, the assassination of JFK or the death of Kurt Cobain, for people my age it occurred when we signed up for our first social networking website and began being the purveyors of our own self-image.

It was the spring of 2006 and many of my friends had already joined something called facebook. “What unlimited forms of self-presentation!” I thought as I uploaded my first profile pic. No event was too small to document with my new digital camera. My second album was of my friends and I watching Julie Andrews musicals and throwing balloons at each other.

During my black and white-themed birthday party a few weeks later, I was so impressed by the creativity and diversity of my friends’ outfits that I kept my camera clicking all night. Thanks to facebook, I could upload and ‘tag’ these pictures, sharing them with all my friends.

The two parties were separated by less than a decade but seem eons apart. My grade seven friends didn’t need to over-think their appearance because they knew that the pictures would most likely disappear into an envelope (only to be discovered by their embarrassed creator years later). In contrast, my university friend’s black and white costumes were almost instantaneously viewable for all my friends, many of their friends and anyone who adds me on facebook up to the present day. What an increased pressure to look good! And while my black and white party was early in the era of facebook and many of my guests may not have considered the long legacy of their outfits, they definitely know about it now.

When standing in front of my closet and deciding what to wear to a party or night out or any other event where a camera may be present (and that’s prey much anywhere nowadays), a series of new questions have crowded the traditional venn diagram of ‘What do I look good in?’ and ‘What’s clean?’ I’ll consider if I’ve worn a certain shirt before, and in front of whom. Was I photographed and were those pictures private or accessible to all my friends? And maybe I should wear that new one I bought because I might get a cool profile pic out of it. Any outfit that may prove controversial has to be balanced with the consideration that I now have uncles and former nannies on facebook (my parents are not allowed to join). Even before being photographed I subconsciously consider the potential fall-out of being tagged on facebook.

Social networking has turned us into celebrities. Just as Paris Hilton and Britney Spears must consider how they will look in photographs on the red carpet, we now must consider how we will look on our friends’ home pages. Is it any wonder that we no longer stand awkwardly and wave (as in traditional amateur photography of the past), but coo and pout for the cameras like actors showing off their borrowed designer duds to ‘Entertainment Tonight’?

You may be thinking that you certainly don’t put any more effort into your appearance because of facebook, and that may be true, but I have an inkling that there are more people in the other column. How else to explain the phenomenon of ‘un-tagging’, the process of removing one’s name from a photograph so it will no longer be viewable to one’s friends? Un-tagging is our best defence against looking goofy online. I recently had a friend un-tag herself due to a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ so minor that I hadn’t even noticed it: the tassels of her scarf were sticking out the bottom of her jacket creating the impression of a Muppet hand reaching down towards her crotch. Although I have as many unflattering pictures as anyone (and I’m certain some will prevent me from ever running for public office), I have taken a strict stand against ‘un-tagging’. Who am I to decide which of my friends’ pictures represents me? Un-tagging is where the metaphor of celebrity breaks down, as Britney Spears cannot scan all the tabloid shots of herself and decide which ones she be deleted (although I bet she wishes she could!)

As someone who loves fashion and enjoys putting thought into what he wears, I like that our generation may put more effort into their clothes than they might otherwise because of social networking. But with all things internet-based there is the potential that as fast as it rose, it can quickly fall. Just as we were convinced (or peer-pressured) into joining something because all of our friends were on it, everyone can abandon something in the reverse movement. While facebook tries one ham-fisted advertising strategy after another, other companies have adopted the aesthetics of social networking to attract the youth demographic. The current ads for Virgin mobile feature pictures that evoke the amateur, spur-of-the-moment look of facebook pics. When advertisers have caught on to something, it usually means it’s on the way out. And simultaneously, hipster artists have rediscovered Polaroid cameras, whose grainy quality suggests a nostalgic, pre-digital authenticity that we’ve lost in all our uploading. Facebook may eventually decline, but the lessons it taught us about self-presentation may stick. It’s not unbelievable to pictures us mooning glamorously for the cameras at the old folk’s home.