Tuesday, September 25, 2012

*Pop* Goes the Culture

Well, I've been writing about our trip to Bali a lot lately; and, while there's still MUCH more to share, I thought I'd take a little departure to talk a bit about what I do.

It's probably the question asked of me most, "What does an anthropologist do?" A close second would definitely be, "What does a travel host do?" And, honestly, the answers to both questions are really the same. I study people and talk about them. I study their culture, mainly. But that includes a pretty giant swath of goodies...rituals, traditions, religions, stories, histories, etc...

Well, that all sounds noble enough; but, there is a also a dirty little secret involved with the more modern element of my chosen career. A side of anthropology that often had my classmates at Columbia rolling their eyes. And, oh how I love it so! I'm talking about pop(ular) culture.

I'm sure it would seem strange for one of you to spot me at the airport, walking away from the newsstand, not carrying the latest issue of Science News or the Economist; but, clutching my fix of People & US Weekly. (Especially when I've been abroad for weeks at a time.) The fact that most countries carry outdated issues makes no difference to me. It's about the ritual; it's about the familiarity of the story-telling; it's my touchstone to my country's immediate history.

Like it or not, we are currently writing our own history. And, this new form of a very old tradition -- this voracious consumption of 'who wore it best' and 'who lost the baby weight in time to walk the catwalk'  (I'm talking to you, Heidi Klum, you gorgeous freak of nature) -- is the general public's chance to weigh-in on a part of their culture with which they identify...or would desperately like to.

Now, more than ever before, we are all easy-chair scientists. Every time we tune-in regularly to view our guiltiest pleasure -- reality television -- we are essentially viewing 22 or 45 minutes of a modern-day field study, where we are viewing a sub-culture at length to better understand what makes them who they are. And that, my friends, is anthropology!

I think the label of being reality television watchers is the hardest part. I'm a travel television host and I don't even like the idea of the 'reality' distinction. I tell folks that I work in 'documentary television' simply to put more space between me and the dreaded turn of phrase. But, c'mon, if it quacks like a Real Housewife! However, when you really break down the types of shows that have never been more popular, you are left with some stark looks into the lives of people that we would otherwise never know. Tattoo artists in Los Angeles; Pageant-winning children in Georgia; Fashion designers in New York City; Angry dance instructors in Pittsburgh.

We've collected quite an interesting assortment of specimens in our reality zoo. We have had the opportunity to better understand disorders like pica and compulsive hoarding, thanks to shows like My Strange Addiction and Hoarders. We can move from sample to sample; case history to case history. Solving. Deducing. And, hopefully, concluding something that eventually allows us to move on.

For some of us, it also may simply be about the fairy tale. Say what you will about certain magazines and television shows and the celebutantes and pop-tresses we invite into our living rooms; but, anthropologically speaking, it's all story-telling -- a tradition so old that it predates the written record. It can be a nice break from the rigors of hunting and gathering to fantasize about having a Kardashian bank account or Lohan sense of entitlement. Or perhaps, we see it as more of a morality play, wherein we can sit back and judge the ladies and gents who are happily destroying their livers and professional connections. Either way, we have an opinion.
(Heck, even the general public that swears-off reality television has a pretty loud and specific opinion about the Kims, Lindsays, and Britneys of the moment.)

And, I would argue that's a good thing. You SHOULD have an opinion. If this is, in fact, a historical imprint we are leaving of ourselves, then we should all know how we feel about it.

When I think of the anthropologists that forged the social sciences. I visualize Margaret Mead and Franz Boas flying for countless hours, boldly charging into the midst of unknown and potentially aggressive communities, penning tomes about a culture so foreign and new that it would certainly change the course of modern history.

And, those journals...all of that sweat and dust...they sit...deep in the lowest level...of the nicest libraries...in the most beautiful universities. My Arctic Expedition; Devil & Commodity Fetishism in South America; A Land of Ghosts; Coming of Age in Somoa. And, the more I think about those beautiful findings, the more they start to resemble their tiny ancestors on my cable channel guide. Ice Road Truckers, Amish: Out of Order; Ghost Hunters...

So, say what you will about the scourge that is reality television; but, hear me when I counter with -- Margaret Mead never had it so good!

The “Packing List”

This week, we were rocking the following: