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You’re Winsome, You Lose Some

I donned my cranky pants to write this op-ed about the gooey sentimentality of whimsical culture. It appeared in The Age on Monday, 20 April, 2009.

I have had just about enough of whimsy. That is, I can’t stand the way that supposedly discerning people are so quick to laud films, music, TV, comedy and books that sentimentalise the everyday lives of self-consciously free-spirited oddballs.

Cinematic whimsy appears in European quirkfests such as Amélie, or Richard Curtis’ excursions into British foibles, but American independent cinema saw it congeal into a treacly formula in which eccentric yet adorable protagonists find love or reconnect with family. Whimsical literature has largely pilfered its arch tone from McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the satirical journal founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers. McSweeney’s is a true cult publication in that its fans idolise Eggers and ape his writing style … to varying degrees of success. Its website, Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, is best known for its lists of quotidian observations and pop-culture detritus.

As for whimsy in music, don’t get me started! Singer-songwriters who sound like cats miaowing. Incompetent “outsider” musicians. Wacky poncers in face paint and costumes. Lo-fi beardies yodelling away in home recording studios.

I ought to like this stuff, given that I invent stupid ditties to serenade my cat, and am telling you all this while wearing a cardigan, 1950s nerd spectacles and a T-shirt that says “I Heart Sydney”.

Yet rare is the whimsy that escapes my wrath. Last week I got in a tedious online stoush over the cuddlesome trailer for the forthcoming film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. And just yesterday, I almost lost my lunch upon reading that American gourmet supermarket chain Trader Joe’s doesn’t have a mere catalogue, but a “culinary compendium” so that people may “shop savvily, adventurously and value-ably”. BLEHHHHH!

Like my nausea, anti-whimsy backlashes come in waves. Critics uncap fresh bottles of haterade every time a new and even more egregiously quirky text emerges. Whimsy-hating has now become so widespread that apologists for whimsy call the backlash “lazy” “cynical”, “unimaginative” or “uninformed”. This irritates me further, because I put plenty of effort, passion, imagination and research into hating whimsical culture.

My fundamental beef with whimsy is that it sets such low standards for its audiences — and for makers of culture in general. When whimsy becomes shorthand for “originality” or “wit”, people start to believe that a self-conscious performance of oddness is all that’s required to be creative.

Worse, they begin to view whimsy’s auteurs as self-evident geniuses incapable of making a creative misstep. This uncritical adoration really galls me.

Why do smart, cultured people find whimsy so attractive? Here is my theory: most people who are into whimsical culture are in their 20s and 30s. They may be having that disheartening revelation that they may not change the world after all, that their lives will be ordinary and unremarkable.

Whimsy banishes such grim thoughts because it finds magic in the mundane. It makes people feel that life can be amazing and special if serious situations are viewed lightheartedly and trivial things taken seriously. And given it deliberately evokes a child’s wide-eyed way of being in the world, whimsy is refreshing because it promises a reprieve from the dullness of adulthood.

Whimsy also reassures audiences that the lives of little people matter. It emphasises that everyone, no matter how eccentric, shares a precious humanity. And if incompetent poseurs can get record deals, it just shows you don’t have to achieve much to be admired for what you do.

These are legitimate consolations, and people deserve to get them from a better class of pop culture than whimsy. It’s possible to rediscover joy without letting irony colonise your everyday life or reducing your personality to a collection of quirks.

Mike Leigh’s 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky is an instructive contrast. Its protagonist, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), is a zany London schoolteacher with a compulsion to make other people happy. Poppy could have been a whimsical pixie who transforms the lives of everyone she encounters. But Happy-Go-Lucky is set in the real world, where quips don’t solve problems and Poppy’s contentment makes people suspicious or jealous.

Unlike indie musicians yearning for catharsis, Poppy doesn’t need an angst-ridden “journey” to ignite her zest for life. And her story was funny without needing to wink at the audience. Even my hatred-wizened little heart swelled with hope. Isn’t that odd?