The Importance Of Being Earnest
I’m drinking post-work cocktails with my friend Jake when he asks what’s new in my life. I know my answer—in fact, I’ve been struggling not to bring it up since I joined him at this swanky hotel bar. There is something new in my life, something big and important that I want to scream from the rooftops. “Oh,” I say, staring into the depths of my overpriced gin drink. “I’ve been really into ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.’”
This is an understatement. I have been consumed by “Drag Race.” Jake and I have been friends since our college journalism days, so by now he knows my codes: “Really into” translates to “totally unhinged.” When I fall for a piece of media, it’s more of a belly flop—a graceless descent that sends waves crashing into every other aspect of my life. A book, a movie, a band, a reality TV show. Last summer, I went insane over One Direction. (Cut to my sincere screams at their Chicago stadium show.) Before that, I kept missing my bus stop because I was thinking too hard about “Doctor Who.”
An incomplete list of my obsessive phases: Beanie Babies, Pokémon, the video game Harvest Moon, Elijah Wood (those eyes!), My Chemical Romance, “Queer As Folk,” 1990’s Club Kids, “The X-Files,” Hunger Games, Lynda Barry comics, a whole bevvy of BBC sci-fi shows, and Neopets.com. Since 1998, I’ve spent a few minutes of every day thinking about Harry Potter.
My obsessions can range from a few weeks to a span of years, but each time feels unique and enormous. A lot of my phases center on something lowbrow, a so-called “guilty pleasure.” You’re allowed to appreciate things like pop music or pulpy young adult books as a joke, but to admit you hold them in high esteem is to admit you have bad taste. The rules are clear: You have to always know the distinction between pop culture and high culture, and to make excuses if you dare to cross the line.
We learn the difference between cool and uncool when we’re very young. As a kid, I never had the right clothes. My mom taught me the fine art of thrifting, and in 6th grade I found a purple tie-dyed T-shirt, worn to the perfect softness, with cap sleeves like the shirts popular girls bought at Abercrombie. I wore it to school the next day. “Where’d you get that shirt?” a girl at lunch sneered. “Salvation Army?”
I hadn’t known secondhand clothing was supposed to be a secret. Somehow, my own ignorance was the most embarrassing thing of all. I had to start paying closer attention. I told her I bought it at K-Mart.
In high school, I gave up my Abercrombie aspirations and built my wardrobe around old man cardigans and kitschy shirts. When I got to college, thrifting was in vogue with the liberal arts hipsters I longed to join. By then, I’d learned an invaluable secret: if you act like something is cool, people mostly follow your lead.
Still, I can’t help but track the things I’m supposed to brag about and the things I’m supposed to hide. Of course I know that I’m supposed to define myself through literary “it” books or experimental folk music or trendy platform sandals or whatever else is “cool.” I’m supposed to keep a mental library of what’s hip and what’s not, and eschew anything that doesn’t fall into those narrow lines. No one wants to be the kid on the playground with the lame brand of sneakers. There’s this unspoken demand that I recognize my passions are stupid, to fess up that they’re somehow lesser.
Of course that’s bullshit. If something makes you happy, it has worth, case closed. Calling something a guilty pleasure broadcasts your shame, the way you admit a McDouble is bad for you just before you devour it. As I get older, I’m letting go of this idea of guilt. It’s annoying, adding caveats to things I genuinely enjoy.
When I’m obsessed with something, it’s mostly involuntary. It appeals to some deep part of myself: a part of me full of sincerity, free of cynicism. Sometimes I get embarrassed about the things I love, and I think maybe I should stop dropping references in casual conversation or ordering merch on eBay late at night. But the truth is, I really like the side of myself that loves so deeply and shamelessly. I don’t love these things because they make me cooler. I just love them.
The things I love shape who I am. By that logic, when I stick up for a particular piece of media, I’m actually sticking up for myself. Irony is easy: a spiny set of armor that deflects all judgement. Being earnest is frightening, because it means telling the truth.
I have to remind myself that, too, I love hearing other people explain their obsessions, even if it’s something I could care less about. I have a friend who loves the video game Dragon Age, and always tells me about the fanfiction she’s reading. Another friend carries a Weezer fan club card on his person at all times. I don’t love these things myself, but I love hearing my friends talk about them. They exude this energy that makes me feel a fraction of their excitement. It’s an honor to hear people talk about what brings them joy.
These days, I try to remember that enthusiasm draws people in more than it pushes them away. Instead of making excuses for the things I love, I’m going to be honest—with myself and others. Engaging with things ironically is never very fun. Better to come at it earnestly; to own your happiness, no matter what the cause. The trick is surrounding yourself with people who feel the same way.
Back at the bar, I show Jake my new phone background: my favorite drag queen, Alaska, in a ratty wig with an American flag draped over her shoulders. “She looks so cool,” I say wistfully. “I’m thinking of dying my hair blonde…” I stare at the melting ice in my glass. How long have I been talking? “I’m sorry,” I turn to him sheepishly. “You should probably change the subject.”
“That’s alright,” he says. “I like hearing about it.”
Megan Kirby writes all over the Internet. You can follow her at @megankirb.