Monday, April 21, 2008
No such thing as a guilty pleasure
No matter how disappointed many Hills fans might be at that New Yorker article (a pointless, lazy exercise in condescension that didn't even make a good faith effort to understand the show), it's not nearly as bad as this embarrassingly gushing review like this one of Gossip Girl. The conclusion to that article is that GG offers "profound social commentary." By which they mean: "The show mocks our superficial fantasies while satisfying them, allowing us to partake in the over-the-top pleasures of the irresponsible superrich without anxiety or guilt or moralizing." Um... let's just say that my definition of "profound" is very different from the one used by Ms. Pressler and Mr. Rovzar. "Social commentary," too. Or is that irony I smell? I can't quite tell, which in itself is a bad sign.
Actually I'm not sure Hills fans care that much about the New Yorker thing. The official MTV blog puts a positive spin on it, claiming that any mention in the New Yorker is an accomplishment, given the prestige of the magazine. They don't really need to take it seriously because the group of people who 1) read the New Yorker and 2) might possibly watch more than one episode of the show is approximately... me.
The two shows are actually pretty similar. Both are about the romantic lives of the hyperrich, centered on a Betty/Veronica rivalry; both include lots of references to text messaging and general new media connectivity as a nod to their interconnected audience. The difference between New York and LA is not that great. The real difference between the shows is that Gossip Girl allows for distanced, ironic viewing while The Hills does not. Kristen Bell's kitsch narration has a lot to do with this--because she doesn't appear in the show, the effect is to distance the viewer from the action and allow viewers to not feel guilty about indulging in their "superficial fantasies." Lauren Conrad's narration is limited to the "previouslies," and takes itself very seriously.
So we have people feeling superior to Gossip Girl but liking it anyway, and people feeling superior to The Hills and mocking it incessantly. None of this is surprising. But there's a way to feel superior to the show without mocking it or calling it a guilty pleasure--analyze it! Compare it to Antonioni, analyze narrative distance, name-drop Derrida and Barthes to show you've got more cultural capital than Heidi Montag. There's an obscurantist tendency in cultural studies to analyze the most disrespected aspects of popular culture; this may in the end be as condescending as simply dismissing them. To be honest, my appreciation of the show has very little to do with my feelings for its stars--Nancy Franklin is not far off when she says "I have yet to hear any character on the show say something interesting or funny." But the pleasures, for me anyway, lie elsewhere: I'm enough of a theory geek to actually enjoy all that cultural studies stuff.