Girls at Yale in the 1960s

I recently met a spell binding story teller.  An entire table, fell under his spell, like children at story time.  

One of his stories was about women at Yale when he was an undergraduate there in the 1960s or the 70s.

Many of these women, he said, knew the character they resembled from high fiction or art.  What’s more, they did everything they could to heighten the similarity.

If you looked like someone out of Austen or Bronte, at Yale, you walked it, talked it and coiffed it.

If you looked like someone painted by the pre-raphaelite brotherhood, this too was a similarity to be heightened, an advantage to be taken advantage of.

Forty years later, it’s hard to imagine that this still happens on university campuses.  These days inspiration is more likely to come from Kanye West lyrics (surely the only place where "blond dyke" and "Klondike" are made to rhyme.)

These days, if we are lucky enough to resemble a Hollywood celebrity, well, this is a piece of good fortune too considerable to pass up.   I remember seeing Toronto fill with David Bowie lookalikes when he was in town for a concert.  I couldn’t tell whether these people always sought to show the resemblance or were doing so just for the evening.  Pretty remarkable, either way.  In our culture, we are jealous of our uniqueness.  Only extraordinary admiration (or advantage) can move us to imitation.

But this is only sometimes slavish imitation or an act of deference.  It’s fun to quote celebrities with fleeting moments of comparison, as when we say "bag" the way Kristen Wiig does in her SNL "checkout lady" skit.  My wife does an excellent imitation of Jennifer Coolidge.  ("Thank goodness for the model trains.  It’s where they got the idea for the big trains!")

So what’s the difference between imitating a Jane Austen character or Kanye West?  I think imitating pop culture celebrity is actually more fun and more interesting.  More is left to our creative endeavor.  I mean, we arewearing a Jane Austin or Emily Bronte character.  And we are obliged to wear it all the time.  It is fully formed and we are punished, not rewarded, for departure.  We are it.  It is never us.  There is no cocreation here.

Quoting celebrities is playful, various, optional.  And we can draw on any number of celebrities over the course of the day. Actually, we are not looking for similarity (and certainly not for identity).  We are looking dramatic, transformational resources we can use for our own purposes.

Boldly stated, this is the difference I think between high culture and low culture, and it’s the reason we have moved so relentlessly from one and the other.

And that’s the challenge for social critics.  The traditional approach in an essay of this kind is to shake our heads in disapproval.  What a good thing it must have been to see all those Austen and Bronte girls at Yale!  And surely it’s a very bad thing indeed that we are moving from high fiction to the vulgar, democratic arts of Hollywood and popular music.

But this gets it, I believe, precisely wrong.  Low culture, as some insisted on calling it, is more flexible, accommodating, and creative.  It gives us a grammar instead of a language.  It gives us form that gives freedom, not a form we must con-form to.

Post script

This post filed at 31,000 feet, courtesy of Gogo and Virgin America.  The latter has been a really charming experience. The music doesn’t suck.  There are two celebrities on board. The movies leave something to be desired but hey I’m blogging.  And I have internet access. The post was written over Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.


McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Transformations: identity construction in contemporary culture. Bloomington : Indiana University Press.

Note: This post originally lost in the Network Solutions debacle of the 2009.  It was reposted December 25, 2010.