America's deep and sadly abiding fascination with the spending of money will obviously never die completely -- we're too wish-based a society for that. But as long as we're wishing, might there be hope that something like Occupy Wall Street could, in some moderately significant way, at least change current tastes in pop culture? We're certainly rooting for that!
We've now suffered a half-decade of Real Housewives and all the E! reality series (Kim Kardashian's being one of them) that glorify the vacuous cult of money for money's sake, that beseech us to view them aspirationally. These could be our lives too, these series lie to us--provided we take hormone butt injections or land a rich husband (or a fake rich husband, as is the case for many a Housewife). And how well that message has been taken to heart! All of these Classy Consumer shows have been our entertainment while we built ghost towns of foreclosed homes and amassed landfills' worth of credit debt. This particular art (if you can call it that) holds a mirror up to our nature and that light bounces back and forth forever in a loop of cause and effect. We want what we see, what we see is shaped by what we want, etc etc forever.
Just as one generation of fabulous New Yorkers encouraged legions of younger women to stomp into Manhattan on wobbly heels in the wake of Sex and the City, so too have all the label-conscious, nü-mansion dwelling reality stars influenced trends in buying that, at least indirectly, feed into the hands of the shadowy oligarchy that likes us plebs poor but willing to spend more. Who else are we to blame for a mom from Sandusky knowing the difference between a Manolo and a Louboutin? The current economic unrest isn't entirely junky reality TV's fault, obviously, but the consumer-celebrating aspects of popular culture certainly make up a tentacle of the problem, one that slithers its way into our homes every day.
So now Occupy Wall Street. Now a pushback. Now an ending? Not sure if you've heard, but Kim Kardashian is getting divorced. Yes, with only 72 days of wedded bliss under her garter belt, the be-rumped reality star is splitting up with her athlete husband, citing irreconcilable differences. This comes after a big stupid wedding that cost nearly $10 million, which, as Nick Kristoff recently pointed out, is an absurd amount of money that could have been far better spent. Yes, Kim Kardashian is the 1%! Duly noted for sure, but it seems unlikely that that sad little fact will change much of anything right now. But could it someday?
For now the OWS sentiment takes big aim at the vague corporate Saurons that glare down at most of us from atop their mountains, the ones from which they control large sections of the political machine, and thus our lives, with their heaps of stained money. They are the chosen, and worthy, targets. But might someday that OWS sentiment -- that particular disgust and frustration with such a dispassionately inequitable economic model -- trickle down (heh) to the lowly environs of pop culture? In a few years, could something like a $10 million TV wedding be viewed with as much horror as we now look at Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?
While this will certainly not happen overnight, we've already seen some hints of schism between the entertainment culture we love and the economic one the protestors and their supporters despise. Zuccotti Park, the white-hot epicenter of the movement, has become a cyber-gypsy crossroads of political unrest and cultural cool. It all blends in there. Well, until the celebrities show up to slather on cred. Yes, the oftentimes oppositional nature of the cultural and the political became immediately palpable when celebrities, whether earnest or opportunistic, began trooping down to the protest to "show their support." Why, there was the king of swag and braggadocio himself, Kanye West taking a tour of the encampment with Russell Simmons. Trouble is, West showed up draped in gold, and while the socially conscious rapper is of course about more than bling (or whatever less terrible word the kids are using these days), he's certainly got a love for it, one that seemed more than a bit tone deaf as he glided through Zuccotti Park. West and other celebrity OWS peepers were no doubt drawn in by the certain kind of edgy, youthful hipness that is the engine of their business, but these kids were, in essence, protesting them and their fellow 1 percent. Support and visibility is good, sure, but not when it feels so off, as Kanye's visit did. (So, to be fair, did Alec Baldwin's and Susan Sarandon's. And Meghan McCain's.) The Zuccotti awkwardness might not have quite represented a definitive break between adorer and adored, but a usually overlooked cultural fault line was on display. It would be heartening, in many ways, to see that rift grow wider.
Maybe MTV and then VH1 and then whoever else will selfishly co-opt the movement for their own nefarious gains, thus unwittingly doing the good work of saying: Eat the rich. Or at least stop jealously reveling in their morbid excess. Maybe the Housewives will be forced to do a furious amount of cringing backpedaling, dialing everything back in an effort to be more sympathetic or with-it. There is, after all, no greater crime than to be out of vogue. Or maybe these folks won't scale back and they'll be reduced in the public's eyes to reviled freaks (more so than they already are), gluttonous and gout-ridden, like parodies of a medieval king. The latter scenario would require a sort of major cultural and ideological shift that is probably not likely to happen anytime soon. But the former could happen! The greed-is-good 1980s replaced the working class sitcoms of the 1970s with rococo fantasias like Dynasty, so maybe now the reverse of that will happen. Maybe we'll want to shift from aspirational to relatable, from focusing blindly and in vain on what we want to seeking out the shared recognition of what we (don't) have.
Or not! Maybe nothing will change and culture (ahem, kulture) will not punish Kim Kardashian's foolish money fart of a wedding nor prevent it from happening again the future. Perhaps OWS will remain just its collection of outre diehard souls surrounded by passive supporters and in a little while nothing will have changed. But we can dream. We still have hope. Demanding sweeping social and political and economic change might be a tall order. But is reprogramming, or hell getting rid of entirely, the E! network such a big thing to ask?
(Illustration by Fate Fatal via Flickr, photo by Associated Press)
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.