Recently, I found myself at a wine-tasting session with a friend, only to be confronted with the embarrassing reality that I had no idea how to act “appropriately” in the situation. The whole thing wasn’t helped by the fact that I was wearing an outfit much like Julia Roberts circa Pretty Woman, as I sometimes care to do (it’s a great look). Trying to “be myself” rather than affect a more refined countenance turned out to be quite the faux pas in terms of the disdainful/pitying/embarrassed looks I got from other patrons. While on the one hand I was rather “f*** you” about it, it also later resulted in me crying into my pillow.
Later, I came across this article about the UK’s Education Secretary Michael Gove, and his comments that working class children must learn to be middle class to get on in life. The basic gist of Gove’s sentiments is that upper-middle class kids are mostly the ones in charge and working class kids need to develop more refined cultural tastes so they can fit in with the elites and get a leg up. The whole thing reminded me of my wine-tasting misadventure. I thought, should I read the ancients, learn Latin, listen to classic music, learn what the f*** foie gras is, so I too can run the world one day? I’ve spent much of my life trying to dress and appear more middle-class than my background would suggest and I definitely understand the mobility that this has afforded me. This is not to mention the fact that the (relatively free) education system of Australia has allowed me to work my way up to doing a PhD and now I have the privilege of education giving me a leg up to even comment on all this.
Struggling with this issue, I showed the Gove article to my first year sociology classes yesterday. They rightly pointed out that while Gove brings to light the important issue of cultural capital, his solution reinforces the same hierarchy of inequality he’s talking about (<3 my students those smart little beans).
The idea of cultural capital comes from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and as this handy quote from McLaren (1994) suggests, cultural capital is “the general cultural background, knowledge, disposition, and skills that are passed on from one generation to another. Cultural capital represents ways of talking, acting, and socializing, as well as language practices, values, and types of dress and behavior.” So, the whole wine-tasting biz revealed my lack of cultural capital in this arena – probably owing to the fact that I was raised in a single-parent welfare-dependent family in a rural area and wine-tasting was something we had no access to, let alone interest in. But cultural capital isn’t just about etiquette, it’s about taste, as Bourdieu (1984) himself states, “…art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences.”
I talked about the hierarchy of taste with my classes and asked them what was at the top versus the bottom – i.e. if someone loved and knew lots about X what would make them seem really sophisticated, but if they loved Y would be looked down upon? People had some difficulty identifying what would be at the top – Mozart perhaps, Kafka? But when I asked them what was at the bottom, they all knew instantly – pop music, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, basically anything that was seen as the stuff of the masses. I joked with my students that I decide what I like based on what carries the least cultural capital, because f*** that sh**. When I came across this article in The Guardian about how horrifying it is when “pop and rock collide” I couldn’t help thinking it might be because pop is seen as such a low art form that it contaminates all “true art” that it comes in contact with.
You may be thinking, well hang on, rock is also the stuff of the masses isn’t it? Why would rock be above pop in this crazy hierarchy of taste? Jimmy Hendrix ain’t no Mozart…right? Here we come to the gendered aspect of this culture war. I can’t help but see how within evaluations of “good” versus “bad” taste, often what is seen as of interest to women (or made by women) is way down the ladder. For example, what ridicule do writers or readers of romance fiction face compared to those of crime novels? How often have you heard someone bemoan how problematic Girls is, but how amazing Game of Thrones is? Or how Kanye West is some kind of genius and gets played on alternative radio stations, but Beyoncé stays within the realm of commercial radio (unless she’s featured by Kanye)? It’s as if something carries more cultural value if it’s seen as belonging to the realm of men’s taste, men’s stereotypical areas of interest like action-adventure, if it’s made by men or simply features men being awesome.
While Kanye is a world away from the cultural capital Michael Gove is talking about, the gendering of taste also plays a huge part in what counts right at the top of the hierarchy. The ancients, classical artists and musicians, the writers of classic texts and operas…predominately men (well, at least the ones we value/know about – the erasure of women from history in all this is another story). Feminists and cultural theorists have been fighting this for years, to try and turn the tables around. That’s at least part of the reason why you see university courses geared toward taking popular culture more seriously, particularly that which is seen as “women’s interest” areas (like romance).
Of course none of this means we shouldn’t critique popular culture for its downfalls and the way it reproduces other problematic norms around sexuality, bodies, consumption, race, ability, etc. But it does mean we need to hold ourselves to account when we’re critiquing these things. When we judge “popular” culture who are we judging along with it? The working-class? Women? The under-privileged? And we might also ask ourselves: what are we going to do about it?