This month, we celebrate twenty years at the Gutter–fierce, gleeful, proud years during when we have dwelt richly on works that fall under the admittedly subjective rubric of disreputable media. I was a fan a long time before I was a contributor. But why was I a fan in the first place? What did the Cultural Gutter mean to me then, and does it still mean the same to me, or to you?
I show my age when I contrast disreputable against reputable media, I think, because my first inclination is to equate reputability with acceptance with access. Reputable art makes money and reputable art fills seats, whereas disreputable art must be sought, hunted, won. And so disreputable art must be championed if it will be seen at all, much less appreciated or understood.
This is not, and I don’t think it has ever been, strictly true. For one thing, there have always been well-esteemed books and films that nevertheless were difficult to see or obtain or even learn about because they were censored or deemed uncommercial. Nevertheless, my own fairly privileged experience of disreputable art was first characterized by the consciousness of scarcity, and to some extent, I think this mentality still informs gatekeeping in certain fandoms, certain platforms. The exclusivity of disreputable media–see also cult classics–belongs to an era when Blockbuster Videos roamed the earth. (The artificial scarcity of art and entertainment in the Golden Age of Streaming, while very much a thing, is an altogether different and perhaps more insidious beast, as it is shockingly easy to drop entire series down the memory hole now with fewer routes to physical media publishing than in the Analog Age. We simply do not “circulate the tapes.” There’s too much to watch as it is anyway.)
Gather ‘round, kids, as Gramma Angela remembers scouring for works that were, at the time, hastily kicked into the closet or under the bed by cultural gatekeepers for numberless reasons–perceived vulgarity, niche appeal, foreign language, genre, politics, centering marginalized groups, simply being a musical, a cartoon, a puppet show. I loved Doctor Who and Star Trek and Star Wars and monster movies of all kinds, and absolutely no one else I knew did. I had to special order Lovecraft stories, discovered Sandman entirely by accident, and fell out on the floor of a Boston bookstore upon discovering copies of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. Whenever I hear someone complain about the glut of Marvel movies or Star Wars shows and how boring they are, I am privately amazed–not because I’m a fan, but how much the idea of Marvel or Star Wars or anything else too genre to play in Peoria has changed in my lifetime. The very thought that everyone with a Netflix subscription is watching Sandman. Die a cult classic or live long enough to see yourself mainstream, I guess.
But I digress. The issues of availability and acceptability are not the same, though they travel together for practical reasons. Measuring in terms of availability, now is unquestionably the greatest time to be a fan of any niche art or genre entertainment. There are so many offerings! Things that I would have had to move heaven and earth even to see, much less to see on my own terms, or to own and to share with virtually anyone. Who made The Walking Dead appointment television for years? It wasn’t horror nerds, it wasn’t comic book fans. It was everyone. It was your mom. Technology removed a key barrier to access, that question of scarcity, and suddenly you no longer needed to have a fandom for a personality in order to see the new Doctor Who. You can watch anime anywhere. The biggest movies and shows are the kinds of things that often simply couldn’t get made a generation previous. And that is different. It opens up worlds and it knocks down gates. #notallgates, of course. Just read a comment section under any trailer for The Marvels. But then again, The Marvels exists. Do you understand? The Marvels exists. Black Panther exists. Yellowjackets exists. Ahsoka exists. Rachel Weisz’s Dead Ringers exists. And they thrive. They are heavily promoted and merchandised. They are mainstream.
So what is disreputable then? What challenges the norm? What media is driven to the margins?
Why, the thoughtful analysis itself, kids.
The ubiquity of genre entertainment, closely aligned with the rise of traditionally maligned and marginalized voices, enabled by the technological wonders of the Golden Age of Streaming, has turned every person’s TV, computer, or phone into a prism of all possible human experience, real and imagined. And yet, ubiquity without appreciation, without reflection, is as good as invisibility. There is more genre entertainment. There is more quality genre entertainment, driven by queer, female, BIPOC creators. There is more discourse about genre entertainment. Does it follow then that there is more quality criticism of genre entertainment? Or is it drowned out by two screen experiences, carefully stage-managed by production companies to protect and package their IP? Is discourse simply another genre of entertainment now, useful for selling audiences political polarization? I am asking more questions than I am answering, but think about it.
True criticism means parsing out the problematic as well as elevating the subject, and such practice may not yield many unimpeachable conclusions about the material being discussed. Virtues may be muddy, and the problematic may be too intersectional, too interesting in and of itself to arrive at unconflicting appraisals. Yet as the acceptance of genre opens up general audiences to shows, books, movies, fellow human beings that would have been exiled to the fringe a generation ago, popular criticism has meanwhile narrowed to a binary yes/no response–a virtue signal–that serves to market to a predetermined audience. For a generation at least, the identification of a trope has broadly served as the mic drop end of analysis when it is, in fact, barely the beginning. And it is the absence of meaningful analysis, in opposition to curated cheerleading or reflexive condemnation, that robs us of the greatest share of evolution in all of these boundary-busting pieces of entertainment and works of art. This is the superficiality that is the aid of the censor as well as the capitalist in grooming a diverse, complicated marketplace of ideas for their own ends.
There is a meme that says “in a world of performative cruelty, kindness is punk as fuck.” When I consider the cultural gutter and the Cultural Gutter, I come away with a similar feeling about what we do and what I like about what we do, what I have always liked about what the Gutter does. The strange and seamy works traditionally pushed to the margins of our culture may no longer be so marginal, but honest engagement with them has not risen on the same tide. That is where the punk as fuck in our culture dwells, where one still, in this time of ridiculous plenty, must seek, hunt, win. It is where gatekeepers would still lock us out if they could. The ethos of disreputable culture has always required independence from mainstream curation, and in that sense, nothing has changed. Thinking is, as ever, punk as fuck. And as ever, if you want to visit the depths, you’re going to have to join us in the gutter.
Angela cannot believe she has been writing for the Gutter for seven entire years. Love you all so much. xx
I did not see that twist coming! You blew my mind. And, as always, love ya back.