I feel the same way about lowbrow taste as I do about cooties: I’m not sure that it exists, but I’m also far too old to care if you think I have it. You can call it middle American, or white-bread, or basic, and it’s a way of dismissing accessible or popular culture. I guess I know a thing or two about it: I listen to Top 40 music and have enjoyed several Target Book Club picks. Experimental theater is great but I really liked Rent. I have been as moved by some performances on So You Think You Can Dance as I have by the real-live ballet. I tuned into CBS every week to see if Ted and The Mother would stop playing umbrella tag and meet already. And as a lowbrow 7-year-old, I pored over my mom’s 40-year-old copies of the Middle American favorite, Nancy Drew.
Popular culture is popular for a reason. Sure, today it’s market researched to achieve maximum returns but it goes beyond that; people still have to like it. It’s popular because somewhere in it there’s a truth that people can relate to.
I’m suspicious of anyone who automatically dismisses all of popular culture. That reaction is usually tied to classism, often with a heaping side-order of regionalism (thing these people probably also profess to hate: heaping side orders). If you think everything popular is beneath you, you’ve risen above the masses. You’re better educated, higher class, smarter, more cultured. And it’s tied to regionalism because people often equate these tastes with suburbia, or the Midwest, or the rust belt, or… really, any of the “belts.” People live in these places for any number of reasons. They’re not idiots, and I’m confused by anyone from the coasts who rips on the cultural savvy of the “flyover states.” Guys. We’re all reading the same internet.
Okay. I had to get all of that out of the way to clarify what I’m NOT saying. I’m not saying that CBS is questionable because their shows appeal to “Middle America,” wherever and whoever that is. The problem is that CBS doesn’t have any faith in their “lowbrow,” “Middle American” audience. They underestimate “white bread” America as much as the lit snob giving side-eye to the woman on the train reading Danielle Steel. The proof: CBS passed on a pilot not because it was bad, but because it “skewed too female” – as though the average audience will turn, horrified, to NBC if a man isn’t helping to solve the crime; as though half of the audience isn’t female itself.
The pilot, by the way? A modernization of Nancy Drew. Twenty years ago, those yellow hardcover books brought me on the journey to uncover the mystery of the old clock – and the old attic, and the old stagecoach, and the old album – with a cool, competent teenage girl who was smarter and quicker than the sneaky or bumbling (usually) adult men she faced off with. But now we’re at the final chapter of Nancy Drew and the Mystery Of The Old Network Executive, and I don’t think she’s going to win this time.
I would have given Nancy Drew a try. So would Baby Boomers who grew up knowing that Nancy Drew was always the smartest person in the room, even if she was underestimated. Nancy Drew might have been just another CBS procedural, but maybe it would have brought to life the savvy sleuth I idolized when I was a skinny, freckle-nosed second grader. Heck. Maybe Bess and George would have finally gotten together.
Your average American audience isn’t afraid of a show where a girl solves the crimes (have we forgotten Veronica Mars?), and they weren’t afraid of the concept over eighty years ago – 80! – when the first Nancy Drew book came out. The problem isn’t that the consumers of popular culture don’t want women’s stories. It’s that the gatekeepers of popular culture won’t tell them. If a network lineup consisted, 50%, of shows about a female protagonist with well-developed female secondary characters, people wouldn’t stop watching TV. At least I don’t think so: I guess I’ll tell you if it ever happens.
As for CBS, thinking typical tv viewers are too close-minded or stupid or narrow to accept Nancy Drew following The Big Bang Theory? That’s the worst kind of snobbery there is.