The Prince of Twisted Words
I’m big with words. As a child, one of my favorite books was entitled The Prince of Twisted Words and my mom used to call me that all the time. The book told the story of a prince from a foreign land where words which sounded similar were constantly interchanged, creating all sorts of pun-based concepts which I found hilarious. [Side note: it is hard for me to give examples because the book has never been published in English but let’s just say they would be eating in the dying-room and count from run to pen. You get the gist.] Little did my mother then know how I would strive to live up to the title she’d only jokingly bestowed on me by actually getting a degree in Linguistics. I say “only jokingly” but, considering that my mother cannot participate in a conversation about child-rearing without stating that “the life of every child writes itself before the age of six” (she clearly must have read it in one of the many post-Françoise Dolto how-to-make-sure-your-offspring-grows-into-a-left-leaning-intellectual books she owns), I suspect she had a little more agency in my becoming obsessed with language than she’s willing to admit. And credit must be given where it is due: thank God she did, or else neither you nor I would be reading these lines.
I don’t think I bear earth-shattering news when I say that words are important in order to comprehend what goes on in the world. Since the survival of humanity relies rather heavily on interaction, everyone is dependent on language in order to communicate with one another (#duh). It’s not uncommon to hear people —and I reject the popular opinion that this only concerns “older” generations— criticize how no one uses “proper” language anymore, and how it’s all a shame because “good” grammar is disappearing. [Side note: if you think English-speakers have it bad, just bear in mind that I come from a country where this type of conversation is not limited to people writing “you’re*” in Facebook comments but actually takes place in very official locales among a group of 80-year-old White males who decide how people should speak and write, and GOD FORBID anything English-sounding crept its way from the actual language used by actual French-speakers into the dictionary.] We could discuss for hours on end the extent to which this belief is justified, if at all, but I really don’t think this would bring us any further than an agree-to-disagree middle ground along the lines of “Everyone has their pet peeves, I guess (but for realz, mine makes way more sense)” —also, to speak truthfully, there are only so many times one can have that conversation and I personally reached my breaking point circa sophomore year of college.
What is interesting is not really how we should or should not speak but rather why we are obsessed with defining and preserving language as “good”, “proper” or “correct”, especially at a time when literacy is alarmingly low and barely any funding goes into the Humanities —let alone this obscure but-really-is-it-science-or-Scrabble research area called Linguistics. Seriously, if salaries were indexed to the sense of entitlement with which other people make random claims about your field, I’d be bathing in cash à la American Beauty. [Side note: I’m being a little unfair, because a large amount of people with a degree in Linguistics make a more-than-decent living but since most of them work for Apple, I have an inkling they, unlike yours truly, had the understandable instinct of sticking to whatever you need to major in to enable Siri to sass you out —although I must say I could have excelled at that, had I sat through Semantics I & II instead of Gender in American Culture. While I acknowledge that this takes skills, I’m not sure the linguists of the Silicon Valley are very invested in understanding the sociocultural implications of language in the construction of gender in pop culture.]
But I’m digressing.
The reason why words are important is that they’re not merely terms used to make sense of reality, they are also agents in our individual and collective construction of it. In The Prince of Twisted Words, they don’t just say “dying-room“, they actually eat in a room where people die (dye?) And to cite another one of my mother’s catchphrases of wisdom: “Things only exist insofar as we give them a name.” Not to say that objects magically emerge ex nihilo as one randomly comes up with neologisms (See: Gretchen Wieners trying to make “fetch” happen. It’s not going to happen), but as society evolves and gets more and more diverse, it is understandable that speakers get tired of circumlocution and therefore find new terms to designate things that have become common to them —for instance, while the term “Blasian” would not have been overly useful in pre-Reconstruction America, it makes Tiger Woods and Kimora Lee Simmons WAY easier to guess in the Post-It Note Game. By the same token, once a term is created, we start understanding it in our own individual ways and it is often in its popular representations that we, as members of a culture, attempt (not always successfully) to find consensus on what it means. Just look at how much fire films and television shows come under for misrepresenting certain “populations” because our understandings of the words Black, gay, American, etc., don’t always conflate. At the end of the day, my being gay and Cameron Tucker’s being gay need not be identical for me to identify each and both of us as gay people, just as Lena Dunham and Rihanna are both young women (which is what I assume they mean by “girls” in Girls) in my book, regardless of their race; and yet, I don’t use the gay card to justify blatant racism towards Latinos, and African-American female New Yorkers have yet to make an appearance on Girls. [Side note: there is more on both shows to come, I promise.]
The thing with pop culture is: you can’t expect works of fiction to be the animated dictionary entry to their titles; otherwise, The Big Bang Theory would probably be the biggest fraud in the history of entertainment. Writers constantly fall victim to the irony of sticking to what they know in fear of being criticized for misrepresenting what they don’t, only to be called out on not depicting the world in its diversity. This is why I feel bad for Lena Dunham; I doubt she is fully oblivious to the fact that there are non-Caucasian women in New York considering she is ACTUALLY from Brooklyn, but she decided on the title Girls and, apparently, that meant she was supposed to represent all the girls in all the land. Of course, this isn’t to say that I don’t wish there were women of color on the show —seriously, two seasons in, and all we got was the Photoshop-savvy Asian in the Pilot— or that I don’t resent the fact that most White critics have defended the show by saying that television tends to be racist anyway —please, by all means, stick with the status quo— but I’d frankly rather have an honest depiction of 20-something White women in New York City than the token sassy Black friend you see pretty much everywhere else.[Side note: I understand there are excellent multi-racial shows out there and I really want to address that, but I’ll probably dedicate a full article about the issue instead of two lines in this one.]
To go back to the topic at hand: words, and not least of fiction, are treacherous in pop culture. Twisted, if you will. Just as the Prince in the story lives in a reality created by his own homophonic understanding of concepts whose meaning we often take for granted, language in pop culture is representational and motivational. It should therefore be used carefully, especially when it is advertised as drawing from authentic experiences; although, just because the title of a story might be misleading does not make the tale any less authentic. That being said, words coming from a genuine place can also be uttered by pretty unoriginal characters and therein lies the problem. Just as I find our obsession with “proper” language more relevant and interesting than what it means to speak and write properly, it seems to me that, instead of focusing our attention on whether the depiction of a social category in pop culture (as per the words in the title of the work) is accurate, we probably should try and be more critical of characters themselves and not always the world in which they navigate. Hannah Horvath, White as she may be, is a fairly developed character with depth and intricacies to her psyche and, speaking of accurate depictions of race issues in New York hipster circles, I actually found her “I never thought about the fact that you were Black” shpeel rather perfect in all of its affected post-racial overcorrection.
As a child, I wanted to become the Prince of Twisted Words and I don’t think my endeavor is that different now that I try to make sense of popular entertainment and its sociocultural meaning. But, at the end of the day, I will always remember what my friend Maddie once wrote me: “Fuck words. Give me explosions and two-dimensional characters.”