Courting Popularity:Trying to be Liked

In the UK, we have a television program called Room 101. Taken from Orwell’s 1984, the concept is that people of note make the case for things that they don’t like to be obliterated from society, via the subterranean torture chamber, used in the novel to punishingly confront the socially ‘deviant’ with their greatest fears.

The TV faces, in accordance with the values of ‘offend- confront -or-challenge-no-one’ television, never come out with real, painful, human anxieties. Like Ingrid Thulin’s Ester in Bergman’s The Silence finding the smell of semen rotten, as a result of her fear of impregnation, or the fictional author of Notes from the Underground’s fear of social humiliation (leading him to, in affect, seek out social humiliation) or even Peter Pan’s fear of growing old. They usually put in littering, or gum on bus seats, or the assumed pretentiousness of liking herbal tea (I like herbal tea. Happy to lay my cards on the table). Its a way of ‘not liking things’ via the public gallery of courting popularity.

What goes into Room 101 for me this month?

Indeed, it is a society that functions around persuading people to court popularity, whilst punishing those who draw attention to the craven spinelessness of our structured social interactions, by courting popularity poorly.

In social groups, there are often people who have proffered upon them the status of lowliness or ‘not requiring of respect’, even whose ‘job’ it is to stomach the domineering, aggrandizing, repetitious, hierarchical, conformist and petty elitisms of other people…a person who anyone can lord it over, attack or deride with more or less safety from resentment or reprisal. Someone who tries to fit in, or do right, and is seen to fail, is one of those people.

OK so we live in a society of ‘kiss ups and piss downs’ and more or less unsubtle hierarchies; the extent to which we ‘succeed’ in terms of popularity and social respect depend on our ability to seamlessly – as opposed to obviously – accord ourselves with the wants, wishes and ideals of people who have already been designated as having high status. In other words, studies show that people who are deemed more popular, generally are more astute to the behaviours and attitudes needed to be so, largely because they value popularity in the first place, not because of some other ineffable aspect of their character.

The contemporary specific ‘popularity pressures’ for women reside in emulating the most lauded aspects of ‘femininity’ in order to maintain high sexual appraisal, whilst emulating some ‘masculine’ behaviours, simultaneously, because things made, done, thought and said by men are deemed of more cultural value, in most contexts. Indeed, we have a commercially sexualized female culture (post the concept of women seeking value for their own selves), in part, because the tendency of a woman seeking sexual appraisal fits more intuitively with attempts to be praised as though one were also a man, than domestic, reproductive, or emotional labour appraisal. Of course that does not mean that it works.

But the idea that popularity achieved due to sensitivity to the very fact of social expectation, does not take into account people who value popularity (or at the least being liked) , but try and imitate its tenets clumsily (often as a result of social isolation or insecurity), in a way that ultimately draws attention to the attempts, and thus the very artifice of popularity – or social currency – as an ideal.People who – to the hive minded – ‘try’ to be ‘cool’, ‘overestimate’ their ‘attractiveness’ or tell jokes that ‘flop’.

The contemporary ‘talent’ show is mandated by this tendency, because people who ‘succeed’ are purported to be interesting or have the ‘X Factor’ but are usually some seamless derivation of previous tropes (women warbling a la Maria Carey, white troused boy bands; I’m probably out of date on the specifics) , and people who are there to be mocked in the early stages are those who attempt to imitate these repetitions, albeit poorly.

Of course, someone can hit musical notes or not, but it is also the case that the demonic production decision to put people ‘out there’ with the full intention of having them humiliated, is done purposefully, to give those who invest in social hierarchy and elitism a pressure valve. In order to mock the very pretensions to which they are invested. We laugh at those who ‘try to be cool’ but fail, so that we don’t have to challenge the drive to seek vindication via other’s expectations of what has already been deemed ‘good’, in and of itself.

Of course counter or high culture does this too (maybe with less febrile nastiness); we mock those who poorly attempt to emulate the urban economy of a Beat writer, or the language twists of a philosopher or the hair cut of a punk.

Of course you can probably guess that the term to be floated up from the dregs abouts now, is ‘authenticity’. Simon Cowell uses it a lot (don’t ask how I know that.) The person who is considered cool is a maverick (usually deemed male), who makes things new, creates things fresh, who is the locus of our social, cultural and intellectual orientation. We worship at their alters, we, even human strangers, put flowers on their graves.

Everyone wants to be authentic, so our tendency to copycat others or imbibe the zeitgeist – perhaps out of necessity – needs to be screened out; the fact that much of our behaviour, language, values are handed to us and are not a result of our own intuitions or indeed, because of some essential, transcendental good sense (see, common sense) needs to be kicked under the carpet. Again, those who attempt to be popular, or even ‘normal’, but fail, undermine this, they draw attention to the persistence of human interpretation,imitation and replication.

Indeed the trend setters are more those who successfully combine various facets and textures of other subcultures, rather than creating an ostensibly new culture. Arguably, some of the most popular contemporary creators do just this; Quentin Tarantino’s films, Madonna’s music. It is by its nature a strange bricolage of ideas, thoughts and practices from a multitude of places, which again, is presumed to be seamless, convergent, cohesive, but is usually actually discordant, confused and contradictory. In such an environment success depends more on an emotive assimilation of different outputs to make up one ‘brand’. Despite an awareness of the multitude of people and organisations that enable these brands, there is still an attempt by some to deem these cultural creators as intuitive artists of the modernist variety, rather than successful coordinators of social expectation.

So social currency is on the one hand a process of behaviours, attitudes and appearances that have already been intuited to have value, but the Holy Grail of popularity is to be considered the very source of the value in the first place. However, because we deem such capacity – whether trend setter, game changer, genius – to be of such rarity, most of us settle to be good emulators. Or at least as good as we can be.

Of course for women, being an ‘ideal’ woman has no inherent cultural currency, unlike being a sports person or writer or scientist (always presumed, even now, to be male in the first instance) because beauty in women is supposed to be born, not made, whereas genius, talent or capacity, though also inherent, is more obviously noted and understood to contain labour. No-one ever says ‘I worked so hard to beautiful’ as they do say ‘I worked so hard to win gold’. Although we all know it is true.

But nonetheless, the attempt to repeat the beauty rituals of rich or famous women, to bad effect, is a source of mockery and humiliation for the attempter. I’m not even trying to reinvent the feminist wheel here by pointing out (see what I did there?) that women with hair roots expose the artifice of the dye, or streaky foundation the artifice of the make up. Again, like the poor joker, or the fat dancer, or the out of date music fan, these people are not poppies that stick up from the bush, so much as jut out from the sides, whilst they attempt to fit in.

The social climber is perhaps, in this genre of those who try and court popularity badly, the most enduring of stereotypes. Hyacinth Bucket (or as she pronounces it Bouquet) from Keeping Up Appearances, is one example of a lower middle class women suffused with pretensions of high social status. Basil Fawlty of the Towers is persistently on the look out for ‘the right class of persons’ to stay at his hotel, and is often, as a result, taken in by what we are to see as charlatans who look the part. Del Boy’s entire personal output is predicated around the hope that “This time next year boy, we all be millionaires.” This indeed, seems obviously a particularly British anxiety. We don’t much like obvious ‘social climbing’. But in some ways at least our bitter admittance that most people end up in the class house they were born in, is less toxic than the American Dream, which serves up heavy servings of false hope.

In comedy, these people can be lightly ribbed, but in life, being perceived to implore the vindication of those around us – and to fail – is one of the most devastating of humiliations. As ever, being the person who tells the flat jokes, or makes the slowly or not replied to emails, or organizes the parties that no-one attends, is the cultural thing that many people fear most.

Of course it would be easy for me to admonish those who vie for vindication as driven by narcissism and vanity, but given that we do live in a society that rewards people on the basis of their ability to ‘to fit in’ it seems hopelessly unfair to judge only those who do it least well. To give out platitudes to selfish psychopaths capable of glibly rubbing people up the right way, in order to get what they want, but to dish out mockery to those whose just want to be liked for being liked sakes’, especially given the social bent of our species – is an injustice indeed. Especially when others are given a head start by virtue of their demographic.

The saddest thing, is that because of our fear of being that person, many people opt for social isolation, afraid to make friends, crack jokes, offer insights. And it is ever increasing, with Like culture and Reality TV persistently organizing us into social winners and losers. But like the Capitalist system, in terms of money, the Popularity system is predicated on harsh competition, and it is a game that the vast majority of us, by its very nature, cannot win. By giving those who court popularity successfully their status, or by flattering them with hapless imitation, we are rendering ourselves subordinate.


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