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Pop Culture is ‘Boring as F!@#’: A Playboy Conversation with Monica Byrne

Pop Culture is ‘Boring as F!@#’: A Playboy Conversation with Monica Byrne: Photo via Monica Byrne

Photo via Monica Byrne

Monica Byrne thought she had a column at Wired, and then she didn’t.

Byrne, a novelist, playwright and cultural critic, wrote a piece for Wired about the sad lack of diversity in both science fiction and literary fiction. Wired liked the piece so much it reached out to her about doing a column. Byrne was thrilled at the chance to try to “change the conversation around what’s considered newsworthy art.”

Typical cultural coverage, she told her editors, assumes that the same generally white, generally male-oriented pop culture—*Boyhood *or the latest, greatest superhero movie — is what matters to everyone. She wanted instead to “point to alternatives, until the alternatives become a new mainstream that reflects the actual world.”

After Byrne sent some pitch ideas, the editor backed off on the column offer, told her, in Byrne’s words, that "we only cover pop culture,” and then stopped returning her emails.

It’s impossible to know what happened exactly (editors do get busy.) And Wired has covered some of the kinds of non-mainstream work that Byrne hoped to write about — such as the films Tangerine and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. But, for whatever reason, Byrne’s hope to show the readers of Wired some other alternatives had evaporated. There is perhaps a limit on how far afield you can go at a mainstream site, which has to be committed to a certain amount of Game of Thrones and Avengers coverage, just like everyone else (a state of affairs I discussed, with reference to Byrne’s piece, at The New Republic.)

The Internet, though, offers other options than mainstream sites these days. When she couldn’t get the column on Wired, Byrne decided to try crowd-funding. She ran a successful campaign on Patreon (to which I contributed) and her column, New Suns, is now slated to be hosted on Electric Literature. I talked to Byrne about her hopes for the column, and for changing the conversation around culture and culture writing.

Is the Internet a good thing or a bad thing for diversity of pop culture coverage?
It’s a good thing. But popular usage of the Internet is only 20 years old, so we’ve just begun to learn how to use it. So far, we’re mostly just recreating the old power structures, like a dog that keeps paddling when taken out of water and doesn’t understand she can run.

What made me mad about my interaction with Wired was the apparent resignation to those power structures. “We only do pop culture,” without interrogating what pop culture is, how it gets made or who gets to decide what it is. When to my mind, they’re exactly the ones in a position to decide.

But I’m probably wrong. The magazine business is slammed, and the safest route is to offer no resistance to the cycle that’s already in motion. Change has to come from the outside. And it’s coming from people who are tired of watching their talents and their friends’ talents go to waste and don’t want to wait any longer.

Is your hope to change mainstream sites like Wired? Or would the ideal new mainstream have different institutions and magazines and sites, rather than altering old ones?
I don’t care what Wired does or doesn’t do at this point. Or the Academy or Broadway or other monolithic institutions. They’ll have to change, or they’ll die.

For those of us who remain, it’s possible that the attachment to a single “mainstream culture” is, itself, the problem. But even if one remains, here’s what I want: to drive its equilibration with the actual human race. Not “diversification.”

The word “diversify” centers white experience as the permanent default, but whiteness is actually very rare and exotic, statistically speaking. “Equilibration” implies—if you’ll permit me to get scientific for a second—a natural process of diffusion across all boundaries. In other words, “equilibration” implies that the array of art that gets made will finally reflect the array of people who live under its influence.

Comedian Aamer Rahman and writer Ayesha Siddiqi recently talked about how “pop culture is basically the normalization of fantasy.” And my fantasy—what I get off on, as an artist, a writer, a lover, a human being—is the sheer infinity of things. Like, lying down in the grass and looking up at the stars and going through the Drake Equation and thinking how many trillions of civilizations there are out there, how many beings, how many stories, how many kinds of art, how many ways to sculpt meaning from the universe. Let alone how many ways there are, just on Earth.

But whiteness rules this planet now. The “freedom” I experience is fake and conditional, and every white person knows that, on some level. Some wake up to its unnaturalness and work to dismantle the damage it does. Others repress it, and it metastasizes into fear, blame and paranoia. So the recent terrorism at Mother Emanuel AME? That. And European Islamophobic satirical cartoons? That. Systemic police brutality? Boyhood up for an Oscar and not Selma? White girls with bindhis and dreadlocks? All of those are the result of white supremacy.

Whiteness fast-tracks the art that serves it and blocks art that doesn’t. And so, millions of lives go to waste, and we end up with a pop culture that’s not only deeply unnatural, but—speaking as an artist—boring as fuck.

That makes me mad, both on a moral level and an aesthetic one. I want everyone to be free. And I want better art.

Cultural criticism is often seen as a parasitic or secondary form. Why do you think cultural writing is worth your time or an important thing for you to be doing?
Part of it is pure pleasure. Good art is rare. When I see it, I can’t shut up about it. I want to run out into the street and grab people by the lapels and shake them until they promise to see the thing I just saw. It’s kind of scary.

Another of it is a kind of vigilante justice. I see brilliant work get ignored on the regular, and I know it’s because of gender and race. I want a platform to say, this art is important because I say it is, and for the following reasons.

But I also want to set a precedent. Whiteness is part of the reason I have this platform in the first place, and I rarely see white writers accounting for that in their work. For example, my fantasy about “the sheer infinity of things” could just be another face of white consumerism, which regards all other cultures as products to be obtained. Is it? I don’t know. But I do know that we’re never asked to qualify ourselves or our position the way people of color are.

I know your own novel was science-fiction. But your column isn’t specifically focused on sci-fi, alone. How does sci-fi relate to the desire to create a new mainstream?
I have to first credit Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown for crystallizing this idea so perfectly in their recent writing, but here it is in my own words:

All art translates an artist’s inner world into the “real” world. But science fiction is uniquely oriented toward the future, and so, is inherently political: a hope or a warning, or most often, a complicated mix of the two.

As Imarisha and brown have said, social organizing is science fiction: imagining new futures. So while other genres reflect what is, or what has been, science fiction projects the directions in which to go. When I read Octavia Butler’s epigram:

There’s nothing new
under the sun,
but there are new suns.

…to me, it means there are ways of being human that no one has even thought of yet. Science fiction is the art that specifically allows us to imagine them.

I know you expressed some reservations about Playboy when I approached you to do this interview. How does Playboy does fit into your vision of a new mainstream, or how doesn’t it?
Yeah! I was like, whaaa? To me, Playboy was a symbol of the patriarchy. I’m pro-porn and pro-sex worker and pro-hedonism, for sure, but anti-patriarchy.

After research, I found out that the story was more complicated. It’s true that I deal with the fallout of images like the ones in Playboy on a daily basis. Like the idea that my gender is actually a subhuman object, which means street harassment, mansplaining, my novel not being taken seriously, and so on.

But is it fair to hold Playboy responsible for that, and not, say, Vogue or Maxim? Or for that matter, The New Yorker, which flunks the VIDA Count [tabulating numbers of women who write in or have their books reviewed in publications] every year and offers no comment? I think that form of sexism is way more insidious. I mean, damn, I’d rather deal with the magazine that wants to listen than the magazine that’s convinced itself it doesn’t have to.

As for Playboy in the future, it seems to me that the essential nature of Playboy isn’t airbrushed visuals, but its celebration of pleasure. Honestly? I’m all for that shit. In another hundred years, I’d love to see Playboy still celebrating pleasure, but in society where the expression of pleasure isn’t rooted in power dynamics that hurt the majority of humankind in the real world on a daily basis. I don’t know what it’ll look like. All I know for sure is the infinite ingenuity of human beings.

Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.

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