Rothfeld: All Quirk and No Play
By Becca Rothfeld, Guest Columnist
Published on Tuesday, August 7, 2012
In recent years, the blonde-haired, socially adept heroine of popular culture has undergone a drastic change: She has abandoned her snark and snobbery in favor of earth tones and idiosyncrasy. Cultural fodder like “Legally Blonde” (2001) has given way to the edgier material like “500 Days of Summer” (2009).
The darling of this latest trend eats peanut butter from the jar with a spoon and gazes wistfully out the window on rainy days. She’s awkward, she lists “art” and “tea” in her Facebook interests and she had formative experiences when she studied abroad in Europe. The corresponding social imperative is clear: It’s good to be different, artistic and cultured. Or at least, it’s in vogue.
By virtue of its very trendiness, however, this new and appealing identity has been incorporated into the structures of conventionality. The familiar figure of the quirky girl is just as mass-marketed as her type-A, queen bee predecessor. Like any other standardized social role, the aesthetic of individuality comes with a set of attendant social signifiers: Polaroid photographs, a penchant for Bon Iver and Instagram filters, to name a few.
The paradox of hipster credibility is that it’s impossible to universalize individuality without sacrificing its integrity. We can’t all like the band no one has ever heard of, and to pretend that no one has heard of it long after its tenth Pitchfork review is to deny a manifest reality. The cult of quirkiness is itself a brand of homogenization.
But is this such a terrible development? Insofar as the quirky girl model constitutes a response to a deeply flawed female archetype, she is undeniably a positive, and even empowering, figure. Unlike Regina George of “Mean Girls” (2004) or Cher in “Clueless” (1995), she isn’t mean-spirited or elitist, giggly or superficial. She would probably call herself a feminist, or she’s involved in some sort of activism. Her values are in order: It’s thanks to her that books and art have become cool again, and she cares about the local and global communities of which she is a part. She represents hope for intellectually inclined girls everywhere, and she has successfully provided them with the cultural resources to defend their interests and passions.
Although the quirky girl is a positive icon in many respects, she serves to popularize a complex identity and to thereby reduce it to a simple social formula. Certain books, bands and activities have become cultural code, rather than ends in themselves. Now that there is an incentive to feign interest in literature, independent filmmaking and the plight of the global south, it has become increasingly difficult to differentiate between the false and the genuine. Is the quirky girl fascinated by the ethical issues raised in “A Clockwork Orange,” or does she simply suspect that a nice hardcover copy would look good propped open on her coffee table?
There’s nothing wrong with the increased accessibility and acceptability of quirkiness. The widespread dissemination of information about worthwhile causes and the newfound social capital to be gained from expressing interest in literature and film cannot but make the world a better place. Yet the risk of inauthentic behavior is very real — the dangers it poses cannot be ignored.
It does genuine activists a disservice when we feign expertise and interest in a subject we know very little about. Devoting oneself to a cause is a serious endeavor — it entails much more than callously attending one march or talk. We cannot remedy a situation before we have grasped its complexities. Historically, well-intentioned but ill-informed people have brought about more damage than improvement. Followers of environmentalist Rachel Carson, for example, failed to grasp the nuances of the problems with which they dealt. In their blind haste to do away with DDT, they ignored the pesticide’s key role in killing insects spreading malaria.
The victims of injustices are more than pawns in an elaborate social game. To transform genuine suffering into a means of bolstering a trendy image is more than unsavory — it’s inhuman. While there is much to be gained from indulging our quirkiest selves, we must be careful to do so sincerely — to quote books we’ve actually read, to champion causes we truly care for and to remain humbly aware of our own ignorance.