If you came of age in the early 2000s, like I did, pop culture was strange—strangely plastic, that is. Britney Spears had the hottest body on earth, but she married a skeezebag and shaved her head. Paris Hilton had a sex tape, then a TV show and then everyone wanted to be her best friend. Hugh Hefner‘s bunny-girlfriends got their own show and then two of them spun off and started shows of their own.
All the way up to 2007, things were looking weird, when “Gossip Girl” debuted and Blake Lively‘s cleavage co-starred in every scene. Yes, indeed, the 2000s were the decade to be conventionally pretty, blonde, silicone, slick, PR-laden, lawyered up, and above all, fake.
Yes, 2009 sucked and we’re all glad that it’s over. But in 2009, pop culture had mercy on our souls. It couldn’t run on fumes anymore. People, one hopes, got bored. And so, against all odds, 2009 became the Year Of The Real Girl.Real Girls didn’t appear until the summer, but they arrived with a commanding presence: Gabby Sidibe, the Golden Globe-nominated star of “Precious.”
As a large, dark-skinned black woman plucked from obscurity for the film, Sidibe didn’t look like anyone else on the big screen. And she didn’t sound like anyone, either! Sidibe is self-deprecating and funny, and most refreshingly, unaffected by Hollywood. She’s an N’Sync fan whose dorky fandom is adorable. Sidibe even told New York magazine, of all publications, “Precious” did not suddenly, magically make her cool. We were as relieved as we were charmed; we felt like we knew this girl.
Then, just a month ago, the world met Snooki. Born Nicole Polizzi, if “Jersey Shore” has a breakout star, she is it. If it’s wrong for the anointed ambassador of Italian-American culture to call herself a “guidette” looking for “juice head,” well, that just ruins the fun. I, for one, love Snooki just for being her goofy, pickle-eating herself. Snooki doesn’t look like anyone else on TV: she’s less than five feet tall with chipmunk cheeks and a “pouf” in her hair. She’s an ex-gymnast who does backflips. She went to a near-empty bar with her best friend and tore up the dance floor, even though people laughed. She got wasted and puked her first night in the Shore house. She’s sweet and she’s nice and those are not qualities reality TV casting directors usually like.
By the time the holidays rolled around, another Real Girl had appeared: Tavi Gevinson, a 13-year-old girl who writes a blog on fashion called Style Rookie. Tavi, who began her blog in 2008, had already gained fashion industry notoriety and visited a few fashion week shows. But when she became the promotional face of the Rodarte for Target line, Tavi was suddenly on TV everywhere. Gimmicky? Of course. But goddamn, Tavi looks as dorky as I did in my glasses during 8th grade. What’s not to love about a teen girl who calls herself on Style Rookie, a “tiny 13-year-old dork that sits inside all day … rather cynical and cute as a drained rat. In a sewer. Farting. And spitting out guts.”
There were other Real Girls in 2009, too—Malia Obama, in her tween-y awkward phase, comes to mind, and Kat Von D of “L.A. Ink,” which actually debuted in ’07—and we can only hope there’ll be more in 2010. There will always be the stage-managed Sarah Palins and Tyra Banks’, but if you can’t beat them, the next best thing you can do is push their antidote into the mainstream. Maybe the next decade will be kinder to the actresses, bloggers, and reality TV stars who just want to be real.