Minerva winner (2)

guy lanoueThis is a second winner of the Minerva contest.

Congratulations to Guy Lanoue. There is some wonderful writing here.

Gue Lanoue,
Département d’anthropologie, Université de Montréal

Apparently, there could not be two more different women claiming to represent young, hip urban women swimming in the rapid currents of pop culture: one, a gifted actress, film maker, advocate (same-sex marriage); the other a style entreprenista catering to, well, I’m not sure: a media-whoring heiress: ‘leaked’ sex tape; ‘reality’ shows where no amount of staging can ramp up the drama factor; possibly faked marriage; chemically-derived scents that fuel her fashion motor. Kim comes by this naturally, with owl-faced dad babysitting friend O.J. Simpson, and prototypical social climbing mother Kris pushing Kim and her sisters into the limelight since forever. Queen of the double play, Kim exploits the California-bling card to the hilt while calling for moral reparation for the genocide perpetrated on her father’s Armenian ancestors. Even here, that’s just on the edge of authentic as one can possibly get. It’s a safe call; far away, long ago, and nobody really cares (except Armenians).

By contrast, Lena wins the pop authenticity sweepstakes hands down: New York pop-artist father, designer and photographer mom, growing up in chic and hip TriBeCa loft – slash – movie set. Retro-tweeting about a 2002 incident involving a cheese doodle and a (her) bellybutton, Lena seems to have the avant-garde, bohemian and ironically self-referential side of pop culture sewed up. Girls (a.k.a Sex and the City 3.0, after the book and the series) combines self-absorption with hipster aggressiveness. Its protagonists’ total inability to connect with others roots them to an eternal, adolescent now. Watching this, I get nostalgic for the time when The System’s rigidity only provoked an existential life crisis after one had in fact grown up.

These successful embodiments of pop-ness have both basked beside Letterman, yet seemingly for very different reasons: Kim glories in self-parody as long as the money comes in and the cameras roll, while Lena is a mistress of the pseudo-philosophical sound bite and bare-all tattooed angst-as-armour who’s in it for the real, as long as the real is Me. Yet both in their own way are mining the same ore. In the nearly 60 years pop culture has been with us, the Beat – slash – bohemian self-doubter motif (Lena) is just as vintage as the shameless sell-out Sammy Glick trope (Kim).

Kim and Lena both cause me to question the line between persona and authenticity, even though Kim is ‘real’ and Lena is not necessarily Hannah. They are both numb: Kim is apparently completely impermeable to criticism and avoids (but invites) criticism by the uber-cool by blurring the line between artifice and real; even her pregnancy-induced weight gain was tweeted as a Disturbance in the Force that threatened her crafted faux-ista image; no Christina Aguilera you-loved-me-thin-now-love-me-fat Appeal To The Inner Me here. Lena’s inside-out combination of psychic prickliness is no less effective in shutting out the world, in creating a hermetic and eminently sellable brand to young hip wannabes who are just savvy enough to disarm criticism from the ultra-hip by putting their chameleon-like Who-Shall-I-Be-Today uncertainty out there first. The psychic body armour constructed around spinning one’s psychic wheels makes Lena her generation’s Janeane Garofalo or, depending on how much hardness you like to dial in, Sandra Bernhard. It’s easy to say Kim has got brass balls the size of Kentucky that makes her a standout in a sea of shopping channel pseudo-style, while Lena’s self-advertised emotional confusion in ballsy New York is her winning ticket, but maybe that’s all there is to it. They both seemingly put everything out there, but the trick is that what’s ‘out there’ is shallow, vain and self-centered.

This is their craft: making us suspect there’s some deep inner core inside. Lena/Hannah is only angs-itive to suburban wannabes; even her TV parents show the audience they see through her pose, just enough to suggest Lena/Hannah the screenwriter is winking at her audience. In her own way, Kim also refrains from being completely Out There; SoCal is full of swag-masters much more addicted to money and media fame than she is, though maybe not as smart or as lucky as Kim. In the end, both embody old and tired poses of flirting but never fully embracing either thesis or antithesis.

Kim in her own way is the more honest of the two: It’s About the Economy, Stupid worked for Bill Clinton and it works for her. Lena’s out-there-ism is a harder game to play, since the antithesis has to emerge from endless self-referencing; in other words, eat the heart to feed the skin. After Françoise Sagan bared her soul in Bonjour Tristesse, she had nothing left to feed the next cohort of disaffected jeunesse dorée wannabes, condemning herself to another fifty years of just hanging around: the Wallis Simpson syndrome. Just how much post-adolescent anguish can Lena generate, and for how long? Kim only has to put up with facile attacks on her gold digging image, which she easily shrugs off by a) making heaps of money, and b) winking at the culture apparatchiks to let us know that she’s an internet troll IRL: she carefully turns the criticism into gold. She may be as emotionally shallow as Lena, but she’s on the yellow brick road to riches. Unabashedly making money is a much more powerful and comforting trope than Making It By Working On Yourself. It’s ageless. If you fail, you can blame the economy.

Kim is successfully swimming in the heavily chummed currents of pop-culture commerce. Lena, however, is still splashing in a bathtub, and even her fellow walking wounded water-wing friends won’t keep her Hannah quasi-persona afloat forever. Both play on pop culture’s superficiality, but their goals are different: Money or Me. The latter is a semiotic dead end. Pop culture’s unstoppable recycling enriches our world, but an endlessly recursive self soon runs out of steam. Both now-credible, both vulnerable enough to be likeable, both able pop culture doyennes who serve up yesterday’s stale goods in a new wrapping, but my money’s on Kim for the long run.