‘I Liked It First’: The Gatekeeping of Pop Culture

We’ve all been there. You’ve seen the latest Marvel show, and you head to Twitter to ask a question or to engage in the #discourse, only to be met by a solid wall of ‘original’ fans who are angry at your casual fandom because they’ve been into Marvel since forever.

It’s a simplified version, but in a nutshell, gatekeeping is about controlling or limiting someone’s access to something. In terms of pop culture, it can best be spelled out as ‘you can’t like this thing, because I like this thing’.

Gatekeeping is hardly a new concept – and it’s not a problem solely inherent in social media, either – but social media has become a way for people to declare psychological ownership over a property, concept, or creative work.

This isn’t to say I am immune from this phenomenon. When Taylor Swift first announced her collaboration with Aaron Dessner of The National fame, my first reaction was joy. My second: despair. Because now the whole world would know about The National. They were my band. They can’t be my band if everyone likes them! Of course, The National are a well-respected band in their own right, selling over 850,000 records in the USA alone. I hadn’t stumbled upon them singing in a pub. But still, it felt strange somehow, that something I loved so dearly would be opened up to the world to love, too.

In the perfect blend of social media gatekeeping and real-life examples, TikTok user Lubalin went viral late last year for singing parody videos based on real Facebook comments. In the second instalment, affectionately called ‘Wake up, Doris 🥦’, Lubalin sings about Helen’s Facebook post, which claims that her friend Caroline ‘stole [her] broccoli casserole recipe eight years ago and claimed it was hers’.

I’m not advocating for taking credit for someone’s hard work, but part of the humour of Lubalin’s videos comes from the absurdity and petulance of the argument. Does anything really happen if Caroline stole Helen’s recipe? Does the world become a worse place?

At the risk of polarising my readers, I want to talk about The Boss Baby. Yes, the 2017 family film most notably mocked for its casting of Alec Baldwin as a – wait for it – boss baby. Sure, the film has a baffling premise: seven-year-old Tim becomes jealous of his new baby brother, who moonlights as a mid-level manager. But people immediately dismissive of the film due to this premise are missing out on the film’s central theme: that love shared doesn’t mean love halved. Tim thinks that because his parents love the new baby, there won’t be any love left for him. Ultimately, he learns that it is possible to love many people, and loving one thing doesn’t mean you can’t love another, too. (If you want to hear more gushing about The Boss Baby, you can check out my podcast review of the film here.)

Whether we like it or not, the pop culture we latch onto helps form part of our identity. And perhaps it’s this very notion of identity that causes us to gatekeep in the first place. Maybe the fear is that if someone else knows how we obtain the things we use to forge our identity, we are no longer individual. Helen is no longer the one with the amazing casserole recipe that she whips out at parties; The National is no longer a band saved solely for an indie-rock audience; Marvel’s comics are no longer only interesting to a teenage nerd. But these don’t have to be bad things. Someone liking a property you also like doesn’t take away your love for it. Take a leaf out of The Boss Baby’s book: there’s plenty of love to go around.

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