I found the spit-spewing challenges invigorating, but feared that others would find them juvenile. So four years ago, when I first walked through Johnson Gate dutifully clutching a red folder, I promised myself that no Harvard student would ever learn of my dark, spandex secret. I did quite well for a year, sticking to pseudo-intellectual subjects—Kant’s probable interpretation of globalization, Derrida’s take on postmodernism. Give me a black beret, and the image would have been complete.
My secret was safe until one fateful day in Sociology 153, “Media and the American Mind.” That week in class, we were discussing social class and its relation to taste, the subtle gradations of “high-brow” and “low-brow” entertainment. Our case study: trashy romance novels and the women who love them. Considering that the section met at 10 a.m., class participation was off the charts: everyone had a literate and informed opinion as to what disastrous effects Nora Roberts and Danielle Steele were wreaking upon modern society. But when the TF asked what the “purely hypothetical” reader might gain from such a novel, the 15-person section abruptly fell silent. Ten audible ticks of the second-hand later, one of the bolder sophomores admitted, “Well, they’re titillating.”
To make such a confession in William James Hall—one of Harvard’s many literal Ivory Towers—was a brazen act. I was not inclined to be quite as honest. And as an awkward silence filled the room, I offered a textbook answer to the TF’s question.
“We, and by ‘we’ I mean those of us gathered around this table, assume that movies and books must be ‘challenging’ in some way to justify their existence. But low-brow entertainment isn’t wholly devoid of value.” The class put on their Serious Thinker faces and nodded in that faux-contemplative way that shows neither agreement nor disagreement.
“Take professional wrestling, for instance.” I could have stopped, but I continued on, in a potentially incriminating vein. “While one viewer might watch WWE and see nothing more than a bunch of steroid-addled actors with gender issues, another person could witness the spectacle and see a modern-day burlesque. There’s melodrama, slapstick humor, sexual ambiguity…frankly, Commedia dell’Arte incorporates most of the same elements.”
After class, two junior boys approached me. “So, who is your favorite wrestler?” they opened, thereby shattering any hope I had that my “other person” reference didn’t scream “me me ME.” At the time, Raven was supposedly in the hospital recovering from an ill-advised Triple Threat Match with the Hardy Boys, so I told them that I liked the Undertaker. One of the boys agreed that he was, indeed, “hard-core.” Outside the confines of WJH, we launched into one of the most animated and honest conversations I had had in months. Subsequent sections afforded little time for banter, but we always nodded to each other and exchanged a word or two about Chris Benoit and the Rock’s unlikely alliance, or another such pressing matter.
What are the odds that out of a 15-student section, three students were professional wrestling fans? The truth is, Harvard’s student body is rife with low-brow aficionados, but the sad fact is that most of us—myself included—try to rationalize or justify our guilty pleasures. I’ve been invited to movie nights whose stated purpose was to view a B-movie “ironically.” Students typically use this type of defense for enjoying Keanu Reeves flicks and Xena re-runs. Alternately, some pretend that their vices are part of a larger ethical stance, including my Populist friend who assures me that his preference for sauce-slathered ribs over foie gras is purely due to his desire to be one with The People. (I’ve also heard this argument from a Social Studies concentrator, who claimed that watching “The OC” every week was crucial to her understanding of the American psyche.) Or, one can over-intellectualize the matter, like I did with professional wrestling.
Why do we depend on these crutches to excuse a perfectly valid form of entertainment? We overextend ourselves with classes, job hunts, and term time work; it’s unsurprising that so many of us enjoy simple entertainment options. There’s nothing wrong with reaching for Rowlings instead of Rabelais in your few minutes of downtime, and there’s nothing wrong with discussing Hermione and Ron’s flirtations at breakfast the next day either. Lighten up, Harvard. I know I did as soon as the Raven was back in the ring.
Diana E. Garvin ’06 is a Romance Languages and Literatures concentrator in Quincy House. She also finds trashy romance novels “titillating.”