Pulp Progress: How Pop Culture Deviates From and Conforms to Social Norms

Ambition and sacrifice seem to be closely intermingled with the experience of city-dwelling. The city is a place where everything is up for grabs, but it is also a place where perspective is easily lost–a place where values and virtues are in constant flux.

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The Feminist Press edition of Skyscraper headlines the novel’s cover with the tagline, “Career—Marriage—or Romance with a Dashing Stranger? What’s a Girl to Do?” Lynn entertains the possibility of all spinning all three plates at once, but her resolve is presented not as the characteristic of a cosmopolitan transcendence of social norms, but as naiveté. Every character that has committed wholeheartedly to one of the three disparate pursuits is portrayed as more self-aware and self-assured than Lynn is. It’s somewhat troubling that the hero of this convention-challenging novel has such a conventional protagonist. I’m not sure how Lynn’s going to fare by the end of this novel, but I get the feeling that she’s going to give up at least one of these pursuits by the novel’s conclusion. Jennifer Westfeldt’s 2011 comedy Friends with Kids suggests a similar sacrifice as a necessity with its tagline, “Love. Happiness. Kids. Pick two.” Westfeldt stars in her film as Julie, and her character is not dissimilar to Lynn in her drifty submissiveness. Skyscraper asked the then-radical question, “Can women have loving relationships, marriages, and careers all at once?” Friends with Kids asks the contemporarily radical question, “Can women have relationships, healthy sex lives (with multiple partners), careers, and children all at once?”

It’s difficult to imagine stories such as these existing outside of the backdrop of the metropolis. In these works, the city is a massive social laboratory—there is an endless stock of test subjects available for consideration, and the relative anonymity of the city protects experimenters from pariah status should any radical choice lead to volatile unintended consequences. Perhaps it is essential for the protagonists of these stories to be so relatively blank—there is so much being scribbled about them, that their relative permanence allows them to serve as avatars and anchors for the audience. Thinking about these women, however, I am constantly reminded of Walkowitz’s assertion that women “lacked autonomy” in the mental maps of flaneurs, and “were bearers of meaning rather than makers of meaning.” Lynn is constantly presented with possibilities—she might accept Tom’s proposal of marriage, or she might accept Dwight’s job offer. Even her career seems to be contingent upon the vicarious bestowals of a cabal of men in an unseen boardroom. Lynn’s ability to choose any path is predicated by the provision of said path by the patriarchal hegemony. Similarly, Friends with Kids has longtime pal Jason proposition Julie to enter with him into a platonic parenthood, and thus avoid the snares of a loveless marriage or a thwarted career. Julie enters the un-union with doe-eyed devotion, and suffers silently while Jason uses their son as a tool to pick up women. She eventually reneges on their platonic pact and attempts to elevate their no-mance to romance, and is rebuffed for a lonely drunk. The film only reaches its inevitable conventional conclusion when Jason loses interest in the single life and delivers the film’s consecrating epiphany.

Both works are heralded for their presentations of progressive alternatives to the status quo, but the heroines in both stories lack the boldness and authority to commit to their choices. In some respects, the unelaborate characterizations of Julie and Lynn allow them to serve as everywoman types, and to easily and believably traverse in and out of diverse social realms. However, these same unelaborate qualities render these characters mere vessels—personality extensions for their more aggressively characterized male counterparts. What reader is going to be convinced to follow in the footsteps of such neutered women? This milquetoast characterization seems to be included in these works as a fail-safe against the possibility of the affectation of any serious social upheaval. Ultimately, these works are perhaps worthwhile due to the conversations they generate, but somewhat deflating in their failure to follow through on their grander ambitions. They come across as products of a patriarchal and parochial society that views lifestyle alternatives as passing curiosities, but ultimately inferior to the comfort and security provided by submission to entrenched values and the biological imperative.

Sources:

Baldwin, Faith. Skyscraper. New York: Feminist, 2003. Print.

Friends with Kids. Dir. Jennifer Westfeldt. Perf. Jennifer Westfeldt and Adam Scott. Lionsgate, 2011. DVD.

Walkowitz, Judith. “The City of Dreadful Delight.” The Blackwell City Reader. Ed. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 303-310. Print.

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1 Comment

Filed under City Cultures

One response to “Pulp Progress: How Pop Culture Deviates From and Conforms to Social Norms

  1. I’m happy to see you extend the class conversation about cipher-like central characters to a contemporary movie. I also really liked your point about cities serving as laboratories for different social experiments. But I wonder how particular to female protagonists that kind of neutered or blank central character is. You made the point in class that Harry Potter serves a similar role, and I’d argue that Seth Rogen and Michael Cera both serve a similar purpose for male viewers.

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