The University of Washington Student Newspaper Tuesday, October 10, 1995
Pop-culture irony has lost its bite Sam Appleton Daily Staff
Barbie. Love me. I'll be your pussy. There's nothing like brandishing clever irony across your chest.The first time the baby doll look (see Retro Viva or your local middle school for examples) took a stroll down the Ave, I was ready to applaud the attempt to inflate the boundaries of femininity via irony. What better way to recognize Barbie's biologically impossible proportions than to wear a tiny tee in cotton-candy pink? Shove the derogatory notions of femininity into the faces of the abusers.My mistake. Irony was fun for a while but the inflation of boundaries actually became a conflation - a melding of a sharper exploitation with a handy excuse in tow. A 30-year-old wearing a backpack that reads "Je suis Lolita" is irony, but a 13-year-old wearing one is sad; Nabokov is still a few years away.Pop culture can start on the haute-couture runways or at your aunt Gertie's yard sale. Someone is inspired, someone else markets it effectively, and a year or so down the line a Bon Marché mannequin is wearing it in the Back To School window. The fashion industry's excuse for setting a trend that only three percent of the population can biologically follow? To embrace a new kind of woman. They are so sweet to think of those on the fringe.Well, even Kate Moss has filled out in the right places, thanks to either biology, modern photographic technology or both, but the clothes she grew out of have been left behind for us in the form of clever irony. By layering the now-defunct waif trend with smart-ass comments like "I'm your baby" on a T-shirt, girls and women may think they're blasting the waif stereotype by being ironic, but the irony can backlash.As pop-culture trends change like rapid fire - each new trend undermining the last in a descending ironic spiral - the mirrors can reflect into infinity and consumers must become more perceptive in telling the difference between intelligent messages and backlashing stereotypes.Even lines in the sacred "Pulp Fiction" - one of the 1990s' most universally embraced pop-culture icons - can backfire if not looked at intelligently. Unless you completely shut off all capacity for critical thinking, you will not assume that all women are childishly sexy after watching the female characters in "Pulp Fiction," but the stereotype Quentin Tarantino played with is pretty thickly straight-forward. Tarantino was most likely making fun of a predominant image of female screen roles by exaggerating the stereotype, but there is danger in even the most intelligent irony.Like baby tees, Tarantino's characters were originally an attempt to explode stereotypes by amplifying them. Unfortunately there are some people who will take this exaggeration as truth and fail to see the artist's intention of higher irony. This is a major flaw in pop-culture's overwhelming use of irony.For every miscommunication of an intelligent message, there is false communication of an unintelligent message. What may be well-marketed kitsch can be dubbed brilliant with a simple disclaimer: I was being ironic. Madonna's book "Sex," for example, was touted as a revolution in sexual freedom in pop culture, but when the critics hailed it as an accomplishment only in its amazing tackiness, she turned around and said she was making a little joke - and nobody got it.Irony is nothing new in art or pop culture, but its overwhelming use today has dried its effectiveness. Without a keen consumer's eye, it becomes more difficult to decipher sharp ideas from well-marketed cheese whiz. The only solution is as old as pop culture itself: Take a look at what is spoon-fed to you and decide for yourself whether the irony is too thickly textured to see what's at the core.
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