The invisible fence that divides highbrow and lowbrow is largely imposed by money, those we admire, and our own social conditioning.
Days of Our Lives
still General Hospital
For the rest of my childhood and young adulthood, this incident immediately impressed upon me that I could be, and likely would be, judged by what I was into. Back then, pop culture was a way people identified with other people, or “filed” other people. Band-gig T-shirts served as a floodlight to attract like minds with like tastes and like interests. We’d congregate at gigs and in record stores, studying liner notes and lyrics as if we’d just blown the dust off of ancient hieroglyphs. Then, when I went to art school, my affectations shifted toward black, angular, gender-fluid clothing, geometric statement jewelry, and slathered-on red lipstick as if to say I’d just stepped out of Area or PS 122—because this was the world I aspired to belong in.
My proclivity as a soap fan and my newfound identity as a New York City art student were difficult to reconcile. There was the down-to-earth, New England–raised, no-shit-taking “home” me and the aspiring avant-garde auteur I wanted to be. At the time, I felt it was more important to reach far beyond the socioeconomic confines of my roots and toward a world where my creativity might be celebrated and where my more expansive liberal ideas and values would resonate. As the formative incident I described earlier taught me, I felt this meant I could never, ever, admit aloud to being a soap fan.
Snobbery is bullshit as old as time. When considering what happens subconsciously that leads us to the intersection of guilt and pleasure, it goes to show all it can take is a single careless classist comment to infuse something that makes us feel good with feelings of shame. Instead of giving societal expectations the metaphorical flick by merging and owning both the high- and lowbrow sides of myself, I bought into the idea that my mom’s cultural predilection and means of assimilation weren’t as sophisticated or as valuable in the cultural landscape as the tastemakers dictated.
Of course, the idea of taste is completely subjective—one person’s idea of class is another person’s idea of trash. The invisible fence that divides highbrow and lowbrow is largely imposed by money, those we admire, and our own social conditioning, and we relegate ourselves to scaling a tightrope over those confines. We all react to where, how, and who raised us—be it for what we feel makes us better or worse.
When we begin to separate from our upbringing and establish our own identity, we tend to lunge toward ideas and ideals that underline how we’d prefer to be seen in the world. For example: If you were raised by intellectuals, you may value intellect and take a cerebral approach to your life, allowing your rationale to dictate your moves and outcomes. But you may also harbor curiosities about more emotionally driven, primal pleasures. Teenage rebellion might be about flinging yourself into what your parents considered to be lowbrow. Whether you work that out through sex with the pool boy, tawdry encounters with street drugs, a predilection for death metal, or anything else is entirely up to you.
This is precisely why even the loftiest thinker has a guilty pleasure (or two) they feel compelled to keep on the down low. Beneath the carefully curated veneer of every NPR tote bag–sporting intellectual is a human being who discreetly nurses an obsession with their favorite Real Housewives franchise, the latest Harry Styles single, WWE wrestling, or Hallmark Christmas movies. These sublimated passions lurk beneath the surface of how we move through our daily lives, helping us to self-soothe with a few fleeting stolen moments of self-indulgence—like a furtive nibble of chocolate when you’re on a diet. You know partaking is against everything you’ve decided would look good on you, but you can’t resist and do it anyway.
My proclivity as a soap fan and my newfound identity as a New York City art student were difficult to reconcile.
Now, I realize the shame I felt around loving soaps in certain circles was actually the shame I felt about where I came from. The urgent need my mom and I had to distract ourselves from the drudgery, disappointments, and conflict in our daily lives is exactly why I believe many of us reach for our phones (albeit subconsciously) to buy our brains time to process whatever may eat at us. During conflict, I’ve been known to retreat to the nearest bathroom to close the door and scroll, slack-jawed, through images of other people’s lives, for a brief time-out from coping with the people, places, issues, and obligations that demand something from me. Everyone I know does this; our phones are the remote controls we use to press pause or play in our lives.
Instead of relying solely on our outfits and our physical presence to attract like minds, we are capable of cultivating multifaceted digital personas that sustain us through ether across the globe. The equivalent of your band T-shirt is now your “personal brand.” But here’s the good news: Within these worlds of our own making, for better or worse, we have free reign to invent and reinvent ourselves. As such, it’s much easier to reconcile the disparate parts of ourselves and revel in the interests that give us pleasure without subjecting ourselves to shame and judgment. Our mental motherboards can process our passions for high art and the Real Housewives franchise with equal aplomb, because we now can see how they hold the same weighted cultural value in serving the very same purpose: providing an immersive escape from our pervasive stress. In these times, that is nothing to feel guilty about.
Vivian Manning-Schaffel is a journalist and essayist who writes about entertainment and the intersection of pop culture and psychology. Her work has been published on Shondaland, NBC News, The Cut, Forge/Medium, and many other publications. Hang out with her on Twitter: @SoapboxDirty.