2012-2013 Winner: “Does What You Like Define Who You Are” by Malie Fujii
Does What You Like Define Who You Are?
The reliability of one’s popular culture preferences as true indicators of his or her identity is a matter that relies heavily on perspective. Some view an individual’s cultural interests as insignificant factors in determining identity, pointing instead to innate elements of character as the traditionally dominant mediums of personal definition and asserting that common interests among groups do not always signal a universally definable identity. However, when approached from a perspective that focuses on individuals rather than culturally-categorized groups, preferences can provide revealing information about an individual’s character, ultimately serving the external purpose of communicating and facilitating interpersonal understanding amongst individuals. With change being one of few things that holds constant in today’s increasingly diverse cultural landscape, personal definition is more important than ever. As society morphs from a unified picture of traditional Americanism into a vastly varied medley distinguished by difference and dissimilarity, individual identity has entered into the spotlight of social scrutiny, with historic emphasis on unanimity and conformity now holding less of a presence in modern culture. This newly diversified state of society calls for a new and necessary means of social unity. With the spotlight on this modern emphasis on individualism, the nature of social and individual identity composition is important to clarify: interests define identity not by creating it, but by reflecting it.
When considering “what you like,” it is important to think about the scope of an individual’s preferences rather than zeroing in on just one particular tendency of interest. It may be easy to single out a person as a sports fan, a Beatles fan, or a science fiction fan, but shallow labels like these cannot even begin to provide a holistic depiction of an individual’s ideology. As Gary Westfahl claims in his article “Ways of Defining Personal Identity, and Popular Culture: Two (Largely) Unrelated Subjects,” while “one might imagine that science fiction enthusiasts would at least be united in supporting the American space program,” the diverse reactions within the sci-fi community in response to events such as the Columbia space shuttle tragedy suggest that although fans may have similar interests, their individual points of view vary significantly (Westfahl). Because different people hold varying stances on a multitude of facets of popular culture, only a consideration of the multiplicity of an individual’s interests can provide an accurate understanding of the forces acting on a person’s identity. It is this notion of individualized multiplicities of interests that subverts attempts to apply universal assessments of character to seemingly monochromatic groups.
While the implications of what you like are important to our investigation of identity, it is also necessary to enunciate the process of how exactly these interests define who you are as an individual. One could argue that an interest defines a person by directly accounting for changes to his or her character. However, the acquisition of this interest must be called into question; an internal foundation of identity was likely responsible for assessing this new popular culture interest and embedding it into this person’s essence of character. Consider an individual brought up in a Christian household who listens to contemporary Christian music. It is difficult to argue that this person’s interest in Christian music is the direct source of his or her religious identity, since chronologically, their Christian upbringing preceded their preference for Christian music. Rather, based on this individual’s upbringing, their music preferences make sense; their religious background is the foundation upon which their subsequent musical taste is built, with this individual’s interest in Christian music pointing to valuable information about their identity. Instead of creating character traits, popular culture interests serve as symbolic indications of one’s inherent identity and provide a method for clarifying an individual’s character based on what one’s various interests imply and define about oneself.
In contrast with the notion that cultural interests define character by serving as vehicles of individual symbolism, Westfahl argues that only in extreme cases of fandom and scholarship can people be accurately defined by their popular culture interests. In Westfahl’s view, only scholars and fans who are “utterly devoted to varieties of pop culture” are truly definable by the areas in which they focus their attention; popular culture scholars dedicate their entire careers to their mainstream literary concentrations, while fans sometimes become so enveloped in their interests that they engage in extreme behavior such as when “they fill their homes with Miami Dolphins memorabilia, attempt to own every single Barbie doll ever produced, or collect thousands and thousands of detective novels” (Westfahl). According to Westfahl, these scholars and overzealous fans comprise a limited exception of the population whose identities could be predicted based on their interests alone. This element of predictability stems from the extensive time and resources that these individuals dedicate to their popular culture interests, thus making their tastes a more visible part of the identity they convey to society. However, this take on how interests define identity is inconsistent with the concept of interests as symbols of identity that was discussed previously. In the extreme case of fans and scholars, rather than seeing interests as reflections of character, Westfahl sees interests as primary determinants of character. While it is accurate to say that a person may become engaged in a certain type of behavior due to that behavior’s relation to the individual’s main interests, it is more important to note that a person’s inherent character, values, and desires still function as the core foundation from which interests are developed. One wouldn’t know how to assess and acquire interests without a sense of their own self-concept to begin with. Therefore, tastes in popular culture define individuals in a way that describes who they are rather than decides who they are. Although a group may share a common interest, the group generally does not have a uniform ideology that can holistically define its members. With this reasoning, Westfahl concludes that popular culture interests are irrelevant in revealing details about individual identity. Yet, while it is true that not all people who share a common interest share similar beliefs, even on seemingly one-sided issues, we must furthermore investigate the multiplicity of interests that are acting on each individual and their role in defining identity. Consider the television series Glee. While fans of Glee all share the Gleek name, they each hold a different stake with regard to their interest in the series, bringing personal ideas and values about gender, race, sexuality, and other social matters to their viewing experience. These fans can be identified collectively as Gleeks, but beyond this title, they differ greatly on an individual basis in views, interests, and most importantly, identity. With varied influences and components to their identity, individuals within a group undoubtedly differ on certain issues, but still share basic identity elements in common based on their mutual areas of interest. Ultimately, Westfahl’s attempts to apply universal assumptions to diverse groups and to completely dismiss the significance of popular culture interests fail to expose the complexity of an individual’s identity and the factors interacting with it.
While Westfahl’s broad definition of identity ignores the complicated nature of modern character, a view that focuses on the individualistic state of society more accurately describes how preferences define people. On an individual level, internal forces play a key role in defining who you are based on what you like. People are not exclusively reactant; often the environment that one lives in and the values one has acquired throughout life provide an individual with a core foundation for defining who they are. When confronted with new issues and factors in the popular culture world, an individual’s existing sense of identity examines these external stimuli, assessing whether they are a match or mismatch for a person’s character. It is in this way that interests define characteristics of individuals; interests acquired in this case-by-case basis symbolize a person’s traits, forming a mosaic of individual identity. For example, it can be inferred that a person with strong feminist views is likely to revere a culturally significant woman—Tina Fey, for instance—and reject the antifeminist sentiments of mainstream rappers whose lyrics often depict women as objects of the male gaze. While character assumptions like these do not necessarily imply universal relevance, this illustration reveals that popular culture tastes are often strongly linked with a person’s core identity and beliefs; it is highly unlikely that this individual formed a feminist viewpoint purely because they were influenced by Tina Fey and rap alone. Instead, it is more reasonable that their perspective is determined by internal values and beliefs, which then act as a filter for external cultural influences.
In addition to the notion that existing internal forces facilitate the acquisition of relevant interests, another important implication of popular culture tastes is that they are valuable tools for communicating identity to others. Brian Cogan, in his article “Pop Culture and Individual Identity,” claims that cultural tastes hold meaningful information about identity. He argues that members of large groups, whether in sports, science fiction, or straight edge, all prove the importance of the influence of popular culture in facilitating socialization among likeminded individuals. Identifying with certain aspects of popular culture conveys different elements of one’s personality to others; in other words, mutual interests serve as a common language with which like-minded individuals can communicate their identities. For example, Cogan describes the straight edge ideology, a subculture of punk rock that emphasizes a substance-free lifestyle, as a popular cultural movement in which likeminded members of the punk rock community see straight edge as a “system where they can feel at home with others with…common belief systems” (Cogan). These individuals adopt the ideology and practices of the straight edge way of life, sometimes even marking their hands with X’s in order to identify themselves with the movement. This simple display of membership to a larger cultural community is more than just an expression of oneself as an individual composed of unique interests; it is simultaneously an external method of communication that allows others in the straight edge movement to recognize common beliefs. Mutual popular culture tastes not only reflect intrinsic beliefs on an individual level, but furthermore facilitate open communication and expression within communities, conveying valuable information about who individuals are in a broader cultural context.
While some believe that what you like does not define who you are, it is unfair to assess the impact that interests have on identity by looking for group uniformity amongst individuals affected by a multiplicity of popular culture stimuli. It is also inaccurate to describe popular culture preferences as insignificant in defining character, as tastes serve as meaningful reflections of an individual’s own beliefs and values. A person’s identity can be symbolically defined through their preferences due to the fact that their internal sense of identity caused them to acquire their unique preferences in the first place. These elements of character are in turn reflected externally as the tastes in popular culture that are observed by society and communicated within it. Interests act as expressions of identity that allow people to unite over common tastes and the implied beliefs that accompany those tastes, leading to perceptions of group unity, despite seemingly overwhelming diversity. Ultimately, rather than dismissing popular culture interests as uninformative factors of personal identification, we must recognize the key role they play in revealing and expressing the character of individuals.
Cogan, Brian. “Pop Culture and Individual Identity.” Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas. ABC-CLIO, 2013. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.
Westfahl, Gary. “Ways of Defining Personal Identity, and Popular Culture: Two (Largely) Unrelated Subjects.” Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas. ABC-CLIO, 2013. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.
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