Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Girlfriend/Grandmother Test

I was browsing around the Village Voice's "Pazz & Jop Poll" page and came across this comment from A.S. Van Dorstan, one of the participants:

I have a question for everyone who put the Clipse, T.I., Lil' Wayne and the Game on top of their lists. Are you embarrassed to play it around your girlfriends, wives, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, and friends? Yeah? Then WTF are you thinking?

I kind of get the point A.S. is trying to make here: I'm certainly ambivalent about the whole gangsta rap ethos. Still, though, I think the "Embarrassment Test" is a pretty awful way to think about arts & culture stuff and not only because it sort of assumes that all women have the same sensibility as my grandmother.

Blue Velvet is one of my favorite movies, but I'm not sure that I'd be all that comfortable watching it with my parents. The situation would probably be pretty embarrassing, partly because I know it's not the kind of movie they'd like and I'd feel like a jerk for making them sit through it.


I enjoy horror movies of all stripes, but my girlfriend has an aversion to shocking/scary/gross stuff in general and a particular dislike for "women-in-peril" and/or serial killer movies. So, if I made her watch a Dario Argento movie with me, I'm sure that things would get uncomfortable pretty quickly. That's not quite the same as being embarrassed, but it's close. I mean, I'm not ashamed that I like Argento movies, but I would feel like a creep if I made my girlfriend watch one.


I have no problems with movies that feature a lot of swearing, but I know, for example, that my girlfriend's mother does. I probably would be embarrassed if, say, based on my recommendation the whole family sat down to watch Goodfellas. Again, not because I'm ashamed that I like Goodfellas, but because that would be an awkward and unpleasant social situation.

Here's the thing: different people are going to have different levels of tolerance for different kinds of "offensiveness" (gangsta posturing, psychologically disturbing sexuality, graphic violence, coarse language). I put "offensiveness" in quotes because some people aren't going to find, say, Blue Velvet offensive. And unless you go around excommunicating people from your family/circle of friends if they have different tastes than you, chances are everyone is going to like some kind of arts & culture thing that someone they are close to might find offensive.

A tangential issue:

Our experience of arts & culture stuff might be private, but talking about our experience of arts & culture stuff - including writing up Top Ten lists - is social. To what extent does embarrassment and social anxiety already play a role in how we talk about what we like? I could be completely off base here, but I sometimes get the sense reading through best lists that some albums/movies/books/etc. are there because, well, it would have been embarrassing for critics to leave them off and that a lot of albums/movies/books/etc. don't make these lists because, well, critics would be embarrassed to reveal their genuine likes and dislikes to an audience of their peers.

Now, assuming that all those Pazz & Jop contributors who did put the Clipse album on their best list did so because they actually really like the album, I'm just not sure that the fact that it might be socially awkward to play the album to their grandmothers means a whole hell of a lot. (My guess is my grandmother would have a hard time making out any specifically misogynistic sentiments amid what she would probably hear as a lot of unpleasant noise, so that it probably wouldn't be embarrassing for me so much as mean-spirited of me to make her listen to it.)

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