Julia Errens on Her 2018 Pop Culture Review: Part 1
2018 was a huge year for pop culture. So big, in fact, that we needed a two-part interview with Julia Errens, our Media & Marketing editor – and author of our 2018 Pop Culture Review – to make sense of it.
From Netflix shows that reveal sex-education opportunities to ad campaigns that demystify taboos, in part one Julia talks about the moments she believes are redefining our cultural values.
Julia, one of the shows you mention in your review is Netflix’s Big Mouth, and how it’s tapping into the “sex education opportunity”. Tell me more…
“Big Mouth is interesting because it’s raunchy and brash, but it’s not about laughing at people who are too stuck up to find sex funny. It’s more about stepping back and analysing what sexual experiences are, and casting a light on the development of personal sexuality.
“We use sex and position it as a powerful force in society, but then we punish certain people for talking about or trying to change it [case in point: CES revoking an award for a female pleasure device]. But I think this is changing, and this Netflix cartoon is an expression of that shift in thinking.”
“I kept imagining what it would have been like as a 13-year-old to have a show like it, where it’s not ‘Ha, this type of sex is funny,’ but more ‘Here’s how those feelings you have are shared by other people. You’re not disgusting for having them, but here’s what you can do to guide yourself without hurting others.’”
This leads in nicely to your point about brands in the pop culture space “demystifying taboos”. Are there further examples that businesses more generally can learn from?
“Bodyform/Libresse updated its 2017 Blood Normal campaign with Viva la Vulva in 2018. The video supporting it is set to a hymn of gratefulness, where women sing about their vulva and vagina to explicit, but not off-putting, imagery.
“When approaching a taboo, brands shouldn’t just go out and say the most horrible thing they can think of. They instead need to look at something that’s viewed as horrible and have an objective view on it.
“Look at the cleanse on Tumblr, which banned all adult content on December 12. I think there’s merit in examining how our social mores have driven us to tabooise certain issues, and whether these are still valid from a modern perspective of equity and equality.
“This is what Bodyform did by trying to de-tabooise menstruation blood, which led to massive Instagram blocking issues in 2017, and again now with Viva la Vulva. But it’s still just anatomy, and it’s all in context.
“Brands should ask why we shame certain behaviours. I think, though, that this is shifting socially, and that new moral lines are being drawn.”
So is it a case of pop-culture brands opening up taboo topics, and then others joining in by being genuinely useful somehow?
“It’s something people always say across social movements – the best thing to do is show up and ask the people already doing the work how you can help.
“Brands – which presumably have bigger social or other content platforms, and definitely have higher funds than most volunteer organisations – need to look for the community that exists around a message, say body positivity, and then find the thought leaders.
“They need to communicate not just with one or two, but a whole group, so they can get an understanding of what that community’s central issues are. There’s a difference between virality and clickbait, so brands need to find out what it is that a movement they find interesting has been pursuing historically.
“Then, they need to collaborate with them and use their cash, money and influence to help them amplify their message. You can’t gentrify an issue – you can’t come in because you have the money, the platform, and you think you have something to say, and then overwrite your opinion over the work that’s already happened. This is how you create a backlash.”
I guess this chimes with your line in the review about how “brands need to move beyond authenticity to reflect the complexity of modern existence”?
“In 2018 everybody went crazy for Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, a comedy stand-up set whose entire purpose was to remove the key mechanism of comedy. Normally you set up tension and then relieve it – that’s where the laugh and the twist and the experience comes from.
“Gadsby instead gets up on stage and sets up a personal experience. She initially presents in a classic stand-up way before going into broader societal issues like the way women are treated, the experience of LGBTQ youth, and the many mental struggles that come from being ostracised, whether by your family or society at large.
“Then she goes back to her personal story, which actually has a harrowing ending. It culminates in the idea that it’s not the job of entertainers to take their own personal pain and present it in a digestible, approachable way.
“If you’re listening to something and it just ends up being a heart-warming, fun little story, then maybe you haven’t gone through the necessary process of empathy and feeling that pain, or at least sympathising with that pain – a process that might lead to genuine change.
“There’s an interesting discussion here, which brands can be a part of, over what many people becry as identity politics. ‘Why do you always have to talk about being black or gay or a woman? Aren’t we all the same?’
“Well, no, we’re not. When we talk about being the same we’re just defaulting to the status quo, which is reasonably wealthy, white, middle class and straight. The cultural default doesn’t actually exist because culturally speaking, the majority of us are sitting on different rungs of oppression.
“We need to create a broader, more open conversation on culture to really understand people who have traditionally been under-represented, oppressed or ostracised. We shouldn’t have to bleach their experience to make it fit into an easier perspective on the world.
“This will help us move beyond packaging something to be digestible to actually reflecting on what, as an audience, we’re being presented with. This shift has been notable in pop culture over the past year – now we’re getting much more specific stories, and taking more time to get to know specific and complex characters from different cultures and backgrounds.”
How will the different generations respond to this shift, do you think?
“I don’t think they’ll respond to it as much as they’re already willing it, and entertainment is just catching up.
“Young people have quite a bit to fight against with school shootings and violence, and trying to further the liberation of LGBTQ people. They have a different sphere of awareness.
“They also, thanks to having more access to cultural goods via the internet, no longer have to choose a single identity. You’re not just a pop-punk kid from the suburbs; you can be a pop-punk kid on Mondays, a goth on Fridays, and you can go to your Black Lives Matter march on Wednesdays.
“They have access to overlapping identities, which I think builds the culture I referred to earlier – this idea that we need to lean more towards discomfort and investing in understanding each other.
“The younger generation is already living it, so I don’t think they’re going to react to the revolution of inclusivity so much as they are already building it – not least because, in the US, census data shows that they’re the most ethnically diverse generation so far.”
Are they building it partly in response to what they perceive to be a broadly negative social and political environment?
“I think the current situation mostly just creates a sense of urgency; how much of this is honest anxiety I don’t know. Not so much with climate change because that really seems to be at squeaky bum time, but I remain uncertain whether it’s worse nowadays than it used to be, or whether we just hear about it more.
“But it does certainly feel like the world is on fire, in a social sense, right now. We’re so globally interconnected now that we’re sharing each other’s anxieties, and when they’re shared societies are pushed to extremes. This will always motivate people to see the severity of certain issues, and to develop movements to counter them.”