Everyone wants to see themselves in the media they consume. Few things can match that amazing feeling, so instantly recognizable yet near impossible to verbalize, of seeing your life and experiences reflected in film, TV and so on. Doing so is like putting on a pair of glasses you didn’t know you needed and finally seeing the world as it is. It creates a mirror that allows you to gaze at your surroundings in a brighter, more distinct manner. Sometimes, it can be the validation you sorely needed, that confirmation that yes, you have worth. Those emotions are one of the reasons we get so darn protective of the media we love. It can feel far too personal for someone to take on that film or character or story that means the world to you. When so little of your identity is depicted in pop culture, especially along lines of gender, race, sexuality, disability, class, and so on - you latch onto the dregs you’re offered. Progress on that front has been slow and irregular, but when it happens in a big way - think Black Panther or Wonder Woman - the impact can be felt for generations.
As an avid consumer of pop culture from the earliest of memories, my relationship to the stories I love has shifted dramatically over the years. When you’re a kid, you just devour whatever is put in front of you, but once you start to have distinct tastes, you hunt for something you can’t quite put your finger on. My favourites were shows that made me laugh, because that was the best emotion ever and I wanted to experience it as frequently as possible. By the time I was in primary school and reading everything I could get my hands on, I craved variety. I wanted thrills, scares, a few tears if nobody was looking. J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan was the primary catalyst, but then there was Roald Dahl, and then the phenomenon of Harry Potter. That trio made me realize that stories could do more than create reactions in me: They could inspire and influence and feel oddly familiar.
I think a huge portion of girls my age felt that kinship with Hermione Granger: Gawky and loyal and a total know-it-all. She was mocked by her classmates but treasured by those who saw so much of themselves in her. There were geeky girls before Hermione, with story-lines that reflected hers from that familiar mould of the old-school adventure tales, but she came around for me at exactly the right time. Discovering her before my classmates - and yes, I took fierce pride and smugness in being the first person in my school to read the Harry Potter books - meant something. It was like she was mine, if only for a little while. Once she got past the awkward puberty phase, had her teeth fixed and became interesting to boys, my passion dropped off somewhat.
Pop culture frequently operates in extremes. Girls aren’t just girls in movies: They’re bitches or shrews or sluts or sex objects or something equally easy to categorize. As a working-class kid, my knowledge of how the world saw us was through kitchen-sink dramas, bleak soap operas and that one time my grandmother let me watch Trainspotting when I was 9. Working-class life meant endless misery and judgment from the masses. Either you suffered nobly, or you risked buying into every nasty stereotype spewed about you in the pages of The Sun. I never saw families like mine - clearly working-class, occasionally struggling but not on the edge of danger, and acutely aware of those divisions. I’m now 27 and I’m still looking for that. British working-class pop cultural depictions tend to be whiter than linen, so I can’t imagine how much tougher it is for people of colour.
Nowadays, I look less for myself in pop culture than those whose lives differ from my own. I learn more from seeing stories about people who couldn’t be more different than myself, and I tend to find the work more interesting as well. Now and then, I sense something in a character or story that just clicks on that primal level, but my hunger has been sated. I’m 28 in two months, and I’ve come to the realization that no character in pop culture or piece of entertainment will resonate with me as keenly as Lisa Simpson and Daria Morgendorffer.
If Hermione was the scrappy heroine who could, Lisa and Daria are the more grounded duo who realize their intellect has more societal downsides than the world will ever admit to them. They worked hard to be themselves, even when it actively sucked to do so. Both built up shields to keep the world out, but one had more willingness to let the sunshine in than the other. Crucially, both had strong beliefs in how things should be, and even when they couldn’t always live up to their own lofty standards, they stood by them in the face of push-back. I spent a lot of my adolescence, smothered by my own awkwardness, wishing I could let the bullshit roll off my back with the appropriate quip like Daria. Hell, I’d still kill for that talent.
So, what piece of pop culture, be it a story or character or series, best reflects your life? Does such a thing even exist for you? Let us know in the comments.