From Hannah: If you follow our show at all, you probably know that several of the main hosts (including myself) keep having a reoccuring argument about what the best show on television is: Riverdale or The Good Place (the clear winner). And you may think we’re all wrong — especially since the last season of Game of Thrones is currently airing (sorry, but it’s really not the best show on television).
I’ve purposefully written those first two sentences with my opinions to make a point. We can’t seem to help expressing our opinions on shows (or literally anything else) and — in that expression of like or dislike — we want other people to agree with us. Half the fun of Game of Thrones is watching with other people, either in person or via social media. In fact, even if we’re collectively mad about something that happens on TV, we can very well go online and find people who agree with us (Sonic the Hedgehog is getting an entire makeover because enough people on the internet were mad).
Even as we’re creating communities with people who agree with our taste, particularly in entertainment, we also judge those who view things differently than us. How can anyone who thinks Fifty Shades of Grey is good literature claims to have “taste?” How can you NOT have gone to see Avengers: Endgame in the theater opening weekend? How can you stand to read those stuffy Victorian novels for fun?
I think that we can learn a lot from The Good Place’s favorite eighteenth-century philosopher — Immanuel Kant (although you shouldn’t listen to him about a lot of things, especially marriage). As I explained on our Sexy Halloween show, Kant’s book Critique of Judgment argues that we are concerned about taste precisely because we belong in a society of other people. We want our taste to be accepted and we want to recognize our taste in others to assure ourselves that it is “good.” Kant, of course, didn’t have the first (or last) word on taste and judgment. But his thinking has certainly shaped how we think about these terms.
This episode is going to be about “taste” and “judgment” in popular culture. Why do we care that other people like what we like? Why can’t we just shut up and let people enjoy Riverdale even if we like The Good Place more? How do we even measure good or bad taste? How can we think of “taste” in relation to high and low art? And is there an ethics attached to taste — how do we justify watching shows like Game of Thrones whose “politics” are questionable? Is our taste and judgment forever tied to a community or can we just like what we like?
From Mav: I’m also very interested in seeing the other side of the coin. Hannah focused on the question of basically “why do we want everyone to like the same things we do” (and I agree with her on everything except for her obvious misconception about putting The Good Place above Riverdale, the best show on television), but there’s also the question of “why do we want people to know when we are too good to like something that they do?” She touched on this a little bit with Fifty Shades of Grey, but I want to look at it even more.
Like, in the past week, amid all of the many threads on Facebook and Twitter celebrating and analyzing the minutiae of Avengers: Endgame or Game of Thrones I’ve seen a massive uptake in what I’d like to call “performative disinterest.” You know, the people posting “Oh, everyone is out there seeing some stupid superhero movie or watching fantasy knights battle. But I’ll be doing something important this weekend!” The point where you don’t like something popular, but you have to make a big show of letting people know that you don’t like it. I think it’s interesting that this feels like it goes deeper and is more vehement the more popular something is.
It feels like there’s an attempt to sort of grab some high cultural capital by pointing out that you’re somehow above the thing that all the common folk are into. Obviously, not so much on this show, since by our very nature we’re a pop culture analysis show so we’re looking at things that the common folk like, but I’m thinking of people who feel the need to announce that they’re not watching the Super Bowl because “they have more important things going on than some silly sports ball game” (Actually, the very use of the term “sportsball” non-ironically goes here in general).
This also happens quite a bit in academia. There’s an assumption by some that “real books” like Moby Dick, Ulysses, or Crime and Punishment are somehow more valuable than something like Fifty Shade of Gray or Twilight or every comic book ever. We’re trained to think this. I just taught Persepolis this semester, and before we even started I had a fair number of kids balk at the idea because “I don’t read comic books! They’re dumb!” And I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had some random parent ask me “Hey, you’re an English teacher. My kid only reads comics. How do I get them to read REAL books.”
But there’s even an amount of this WITHIN the realm of people who study popular culture. We say stuff like “wait, you like Spiderman? Well, you SHOULD be reading Mister Miracle instead” or “you only like Star Trek because you never watched Babylon Five” or “how can you be listening to that EDM garbage when you should be listening to real music… like jazz!” Jazz may be the greatest example of something I can think of that rolled from the world of low art garbage to high art elitism. I guess to an extent though, there’s even comparisons of this type with different media versions of the same artifact. How many people have you heard say “I don’t watch Game of Thrones because I read the books and they’re better!”?
Why do we do this? Why do we feel the need to denigrate the tastes of others and to celebrate ourselves being somehow above their tastes? Why do we compare art? Tell us your thoughts and we’ll talk about it on the next show.