Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Popular Culture Conundrum

I've been ruminating about this for a while now, so prepare yourselves for an onslaught on pop culture-ness. Sound the klaxxons!

For the most part, I think everyone, excluding the stark raving anti-TV/movie types, or anyone simply sheltered enough from the world who might say "vus es D-V-D?" has had some exposure to the popular culture around us, in some form or another. Continuing along that train of thought, most people probably have an interest in a specific TV show, movie, book series, musical artist, sports team or something of that nature. I would also venture to presume that some, though maybe not all, people have a very vested interest in one of these bits of entertainment that is very dear to their heart.

But where does one draw the line between, "Oh that's cute, I can live with that," and "When are you going to grow up already?"

In other words: with regard to a shidduch candidate, when is an interest in an element of pop culture "permissible," and when does it become too much to bear?

Disclaimer: The examples I'm going to use do not necessarily reflect any personal interest of mine, but are rather things I am aware of, to one degree or another, in the great big world of pop culture. So don't point at me and ask where my pocket protector is or what color my suspenders are - especially since I own neither. Also, as much as I may attempt to keep this as gender neutral as possible, I will probably speak more about the guy than the girl, and will use male pronouns, since guys seem (from my perspective) to have more of an issue with this than the girls do.

Let's start with a stark contrast. What's the difference between someone who is devoted to a more mainstream TV series like "Lost" and someone who is an X-Files devotee? Both are fairly popular among the masses, but if your shidduch prospect believes "The Truth Is Out There" as a fundamental personal aphorism - is that a stigma on his/her head?

A lot of people have a hobby to collect an item of some sort. What's the distinction between your crazy aunt Ethel who collects salt and pepper shakers of all different variations and a potential shidduch who has a few shelves full of Transformers robot action figures?

It would seem to me that most people would brush off tanta Ethel as having an odd, but respectable hobby, whereas the shidduch prospect would be castigated as never having graduated the 5th grade.

But is it right to do that? If the guy goes to minyan three times a day without fail, has a set, regular chevrusa, dresses and acts like a mentsch, is observant of every aspect of halacha in a serious fashion, but is a "Lord of the Rings" fanatic - which includes the movie-authentic Elven armor that he made and wears to the occasional comic convention - does he then have a pgam (blemish) against him?

A lot of people often have some sort of novelty toy or little pop-icon tsochke sitting on their desk at work (or home). The "typical" person has something like a little squishy stress relief ball with some inspiring catchphrase scrawled on it. Would it make a difference if he had a Power Ranger action figure instead? What if he had two or three different action figures on his desk/shelf?

What if he's into comic books? Some may say, "that's kind of cool, I like Bat-Man too. After all, The Dark Knight was a great film!" But what if he has 800 individual issues of DC comics bagged and stored in boxes his attic that he has been collecting since he was 11 and never stopped?

I have a friend who is a HUGE comic book fanatic. Aside from a collection of comic books of a size that I can't even begin to guesstimate, he actually interned at Marvel Comics as a script editor for a summer job. Even post Shana Bet, he had a small book shelf in his dorm room that held trade paperback collections of his favorite story arcs from Spider-Man and other series. He also has an incredible passionate spiritual side, is very talented in learning, gives an amazing shiur, and happens to be happily married to a someone, who I am fairly certain, has probably never read an issue of Captain America in her life. So how did he manage that?

If you happen to okay with someone who can recite Weird Al Yankovic's "The Sage Begins" by heart, when is such geekdom considered too much? Let's say that every year for Purim he creates a fantastically detailed costume from one of the Star Trek series. Is it then okay for him to regularly attend Trekkie conventions? Assuming you come to really like the guy, would you ever accompany him to such an event? Perhaps even wear (egad!) a costume with him? Even if you wouldn't go that far, would you let him go off with his best buddy to experience the geek-fest together - or is the whole premise enough to make your skin crawl?

Is there a tolerable level of fanboy-ness, and is that tolerance based on what the interest is? In think there are different areas of pop culture/fandom that have become mainstream "guy stuff" enough to be written off without a second thought. I my view, the gold standard of such female-to-male toleration is the ever popular realm of sports. The typical guy has his team (or teams), and heaven help you if he misses a game, especially if they made it to the play-offs or championship. From my own experience, even wives/significant others who don't even have a passing interest in football will join in on the excitement of a Superbowl party.

Why is this guy's "obsession" any more readily acceptable than say, a guy who is an "otaku" - and is really into Japanese comics and cartoons (AKA Anime and Manga). A show like "Naruto Shippuden" has a storyline more compelling, characters far more engrossing, cerebral thematic elements, moral lessens, cinematic value and high-level action that outshines most every mainstream American live-action (meaning human actors as opposed to animated) show on TV. Yet, the typical shidduch dater would dismiss a guy who enjoyed that show as being immature for watching "cartoons." Someone who watches "Family Guy" or "The Simpsons" is probably okay for the most part, whereas our anime-loving example guy would be pushed aside as having childish interests. Those two shows feature far more offensive and downright unfunny/juvenile humor, so why are they acceptable? There is a clear difference between American children's cartoons and the far more stimulating and interesting Japanese Anime that are out there (presuming he stays away from any shows with inappropriate/untzniyus content).

There are also areas that seem to be changing and evolving to become more female friendly, yet still retaining its essential "guy thing" nature. Case in point: video games. I don't think the typical girl "in the parsha" would think that a guy who spends hours plopped on the couch in front of an XBOX 360 blasting his friends to pieces in Halo is a suitable marriage candidate. But what if his console of choice was the Nintento Wii, which has revolutionized how people of all ages approach video games? No longer is the typical video gamer the 14-30 year-old male - females of all ages (even grandmothers) are getting into the Wii-craze.

I actually had a date once at a now defunct arcade-type place where you could rent video game systems by the hour. We rented a Wii and played the Wii Sports game, which has a number of different sporting events that are controlled by the ever-nifty Wii-mote. While I was better at baseball and bowling, she annihilated me in boxing. Yes, BOXING. We had a blast, and I wish the venue was still open so that I could take other dates there.

So are video games totally taboo anymore?

I presume that most serious YU guys have very little time for consistent, prolonged gaming (unless they either don't take their learning seriously, or their secular studies, or both). Just as a reminder, I am also not referring to the yeshivish guys who sit in the beis medrish 24/7. But is it so wrong if he has an occasional gaming session, especially if he's being social and playing against/with a friend or two?

What if he retains an active interest in some pop culture element from his childhood, say "Fraggle Rock," or "GI Joe?" Is it wrong to still find "The Muppets"charmingly hilarious even after passing the two decade mark into the adult world?

Serious bonus points to anyone who recognizes/can name most of/all the characters that appear in the above Muppet video.

What about all the people who are "Harry Potter" fanatics? Or the current fad, the Twilight series of books and movies (which admittedly have a heckuva lot less tzniyus content than the "snogging" of the Potter novels). I think the pop culture thing can work both ways, since I tend to find that girls are more interested in these two series than guys. I don't think I have a right to be judgmental about a potential shidduch who happens to be in love with reading each new "Twilight" release (objectionable content aside).

I know there are girls out there that have mutual interests in these areas, as commenter Moshe on Bad For Shidduchim has mentioned that his own wife shares similar "geeky" interests. Yosef, another commenter there, has a wife who indulges his more guy-type pop culture interests (Star Wars), while they reach a mid-point of sorts and "bond" over things such as "Harry Potter" and The Princess Bride.

So I guess there is hope out there for us slightly geekier (or fully geekified) guys out there. Now I just need to find my own princess whom I can call "your worshipfullness."


  1. Yep, you're right. There's totally geekified girls (and I suppose I'm one of them : I'm a total otaku and I speak elvish fluently). The only matter is that with the shidduch system, there are few chances for geek guys and girls to meet. I've tried once telling a shadchan that I spend a lot of time watching manga, wasn't a real success ... And I suppose none of my friends would ever tell a potential match that I'm a geek even if I ask them to do so !!! So maybe the best option would be to create a world of warcraft shidduch guild. Who's in ?

  2. Coralie - just for the record, manga is read, while anime is watched. I don't mean to offend or out-geek you, just setting the facts straight. You commented fairly early this morning, so I'll presume you were still a bit sleepy.

    I think a WoW shidduch guild would be a bit much. I don't think that such a concept would be applicable to every frum geek guy/girl out there. Now, a sort of comic/anime convention-style event, on the other hand, would have a much broader appeal. Or even a get-together of sorts at the New York or Baltimore Comic-Cons.

  3. I think one massive difference between Aunt Ethel and a Trekkie is the amount of time she can spend at events, in online forums, etc, and the reach that her hobby can make into her life - she won't own costumes, paperweights, pencils, doormats, etc all dedicated to shakers.

    Also, obsessions are usually grounded in something. Sports, for eg, could suggest a lack of personal victories that must be compensated for through a sports team. Girls who are obsessed with P&P usually have a crush on Mr. Darcy. So, I think an important part of it is why they like whatever they like.

  4. Au Contraire, Bad4. I have an relative that is obsessed with paraphernalia related to a certain breed of dog, the dachshund. Not only has she owned several of the actual animals as pets over the years, she has door mats, salt/pepper shakers, little figurines in glass, metal and other materials, stuffed animals, artistic renderings, and even cake cutter/server that is in the shape of a dachshund (the lengthy nose is the blade and the body is the handle). I don't think she is the type to scour eBay or collectible shows (for lack of time and technical computer expertise), but any time the opportunity arises to add a new item to her rather extensive collection, she takes advantage of it. She even bestows dachshund themed presents on relatives.

    I still would make a distinction between someone who is a very big fan of something, where it has become a significant hobby (and not just the occasional book or movie) and someone who literally DEVOTES their lives to the interest.

    A guy who buys two or three issues of comic books a month and owns a handful of action figures is very clearly different from someone like the crazy ninja turtle girl (see the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=070axV2ydnE). I totally agree that things like that are sad and over the top. I do not think that a moderate, rationally controlled, personal investment in some aspect of appropriate (again, not untzinyus or full of nivel peh, etc) pop culture is something to view as a detracting factor.

  5. Sorry for ignoring your second comment. Yes, the WHY is significant as well. If the person is clearly obsessed with an element of childhood that they simply never grew out of, that's a problem. If they still find something interesting and appreciate it on a deeper, more mature level, based on content, messages, artistic value, etc. that's something else.

    As for the girls who are obsessed with "Pride and Prejudice" - there's always this version that a guy would be interested in reading, "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" - http://www.amazon.com/Pride-Prejudice-Zombies-Classic-Ultraviolent/dp/1594743347/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1260912100&sr=8-1 I have yet to read this version, although I have read the original...

  6. I know this is an old post, but I was irresponsibly browsing your old posts in the wee hours of the morning and this one caught my eye.

    First off - thank you, ShadesofGrey. You have given me hope that there will be a guy out there somewhere who is compatible with my (to use your phrasing) "geekiness".

    Second - It's ironic that I found this now (probably more like hashgacha) because this is a topic that I have been thinking about a lot lately. I am having my own personal debate regarding my opinion about movie watching (where; what is acceptable; how much, etc.), and then asking the big question: If I'm OK with this for me, should I be OK with it for a guy I want to marry? Is this something I would want in my home?
    It's interesting that you (a guy) bring it up, and I really enjoyed reading it from your perspective. And I think you may be right that it's more of an issue for guys, especially because you have to take into account things like bitul zman, hirhurim, whatever (I'm sure you know better than I do). It's less problematic for girls. And at the same time, it's still a real concern. What is acceptable and what is not... it's purely subjective (even though there is probably some standard level that the "yeshivish right-wing YU" community expects).

    Thirdly - You've read P&P? Wow!

  7. Feel free to comment on any post you'd like - I don't think this one is so old per se (it's not like you resurrected a post from 2 years ago, for example). People read archival postings on blogs at any rate, and I, as the writer, would want comments whenever someone discovers a piece that they like/want to discuss.

    I'm glad to have given you some hope in this area (and in return you've given me hope that such girls exist out there as well).

    Regarding TV/Movies: I have found that since my time in Israel, my own views have become much more nuanced than they were when I first returned from my yeshiva there. I certainly recognize the many ills that regular, dedicated TV viewing/movie going can bring. Having said that, in every area of popular culture there are positive and negative aspects, and as part of a general Torah Umada philosphy, engaging in the creative productions of mankind can be a very positive thing. The notion of benefitting from an insight or other viewpoint, even if not inherently religious in its expression (and probably better if it were more neutral in nature anyway) is something worth striving for. However, caution must be exercised in this area, as in most arenas in life, to properly filter what is appropriate and what isn't. And that is the difficult part of living in the less insular YU world (the Rav writes about this a good bit, not that I claim to be an expert in his writings).

    I don't know if it is as less of a problem for girls as you might imagine. True, the chiyuv of talmud Torah and bittul zman is not quite the same, but negative influences can still infiltrate into anyone's mind and habits, regardless of gender. That's one of the reasons I have consistently turned down requests on YUConnects where the suggested shidduch makes clear that TV and Movies are an intrinsic part of her life. I don't want that as a model for my children. Enjoying the occasional movie, or following one particular TV show (all with content that is no objectionable of course) is a creative outlet and means for relaxation. I don't intend to spend a dedicated portion of my evenings during Shana Rishona (and beyond) on the couch in front of a TV, though. So that's where my personal view stands at the moment.

    Yes, I've read Pride and Prejudice - it was part of my AP English curriculum (I forget if it was junior or senior year in high school). I'm not such a fan of Austen in general though (I think we read a few of her other works as well).

  8. Happy Medium - I forgot to mention two things.

    1) welcome to college life, "irresponsible" late night blog binges are quite typical (at least for me...)

    2) Rav Goldvicht mentioned at this annual shiur that a guy should not look down upon a shidduch candidate because she has a passing interest in TV. If she wants to go out to the occasional movie with friends, then that's fine and you shouldn't think ill of her. I also recall hearing him mention at some other shiur (maybe the dating shiur from year's past) that he himself has driven his wife and her friends to a movie before, and sat in the car learning while they were in the theater - though my memory may be a little fuzzy on exactly how he said that.

  9. Movie authentic Elven armor? I don't speak Elvish, like your first poster does, but even I find that cool.

    I can only answer for myself on this topic so here's what I've got:

    I personally don't have a problem with Geekiness in a guy, as long as it doesn't affect them in ways that matter. Of course, I'm a bit of a geek myself, so I'm probably going to be more tolerant of geekiness than other women, but even I have my limits.

    When a guy is more interested in his memorabilia collection than in his family: that's a bad sign.

    When a guy spends so much time on WoW that he forgets to bathe: that's a really bad sign.

    In short, if a guy knows plotlines and characters and wants to watch\read the latest in his favorite series, that's fine - as long as his real life (RL, as we geeks call it,) is still his priority. Does he have a job? Does he learn? Does he want a family? Will he put his family before his fandoms? Is he interested in anything BESIDES his fandoms?

    The real truth is that Hashem has a plan for all of us. He'll make sure we know when it's the right ONE, geek or not.


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