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Popular/izing anthropology

25 September, 2007

Strong over at Savage Minds recently noted that anthropology and anthropologists are appearing quite a bit in popular culture of late. The film rendition of The Nanny Diaries has the main character as a recent graduate of anthropology with an essentially useless degree who regards her experience working for the Upper East Side elite with some of the analytic eye of an anthropologically trained participant-observer. Coincidentally (or not?), another recent release, Fierce People, follows a teenage boy who had planned to go live with his anthropologist dad in the Amazon but who instead gets stuck spending the summer with the ridiculously wealthy in New Jersey. He decides to regard it as fieldwork and carefully takes notes on the manners and customs of this exotic tribe. In an interview, Dirk Wittenborn (who wrote the novel on which the movie was based) elaborates: “I’ve always thought of the very wealthy as a tribe. They have unspoken rules they don’t tell you, so the rest of us have to play by rules we don’t understand. It’s like a Martian bridge game.”

I’ve seen neither film, but it is worth noting that the best-selling book version of the Nanny Diaries did not style the main character as an aspiring anthropologist (whoops, did I just confess to having read it?). So the device of the anthropologist protagonist does seem to be a Hollywood strategy for signaling the cultural distance between “us” (? — I guess the non-wealthy, non-elite movie-going public) and “them” within our own society. Or, as Strong puts it more eloquently, the use of the anthropologist figure “play[s] on the conceit of reflexive defamiliarization or ironic self-otherization.”

In some circuits, though, the popular face of anthropology remains Margaret Mead, nearly 80 years after Coming of Age in Samoa was published, and even though Clifford Geertz was, before his death last year, on many lists of top 100 world intellectuals. In Slate.com, Alan Greenspan was recently described as “Margaret Mead in a pinstripe suit” to make some point about Greenspan acknowledging the human (by which they mean ‘irrational’) side of the economy. Is it just a generational thing that gives us a clue about the journalist’s (or perhaps the headline-writer’s) age? How long will Mead remain the public face of anthropology?

L.L. Wynn

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Greg Downey permalink
    1 October, 2007 11:48 pm

    You’d also have to add a number of other recent pop culture anthropologists. I was thinking of the protagonist of Mean Girls played by Lindsay Lohan, who was supposed to be the child of anthropologists but was also encouraged to treat a high school clique of mean girls as a kind of ethnographic subject. Echoes the fact that Dora the Explorer’s mom is supposedly an anthropologist (yes, I know she’s a cartoon character).

    But the other obvious one is the proliferation of forensic anthropolgists, such as the star of the TV series Bones, which I know I’ve seen at least once. It may be a rip off of CSI, but at least we get some sort of name recognition boost.

    I think our generation’s impression of what an anthropologist is actually doesn’t include Margaret Mead very prominently. I think it’s more likely that Indiana Jones is the major point of reference (even if it’s inaccurate for the non-archaeological among us). But I do like your suggestion about the reason that anthropologist figures might be used in relation to class differences in US media. Ironically, at the same time that ‘reality TV’ has made celebrity life all the more well known, the sense of distance and alien-ness grows so the anthropologist as mediator to know the alien within our own society makes a lot of sense. But it’s late, and I’m still working on a lecture…

  2. 2 October, 2007 11:52 am

    Ah, thanks for expanding the list of pop culture anthropologists, Greg! I haven’t had a TV in years so I’ve turned into a sort of pop culture idiot.

    And good point about the proliferation of pop culture forensic anthropologists. There’s good evidence from my everyday life that forensic anthropologists are now the popular face of anthropology, because I meet someone new and they ask me what I do and I say that I’m an anthropologist, about half the time they say, “What’s that?” and the other half of the time they say, “You mean bones and stuff?”

    Funny that you mention Indiana Jones because much of my fieldwork in Egypt took place on the Giza Plateau in the offices of Dr. Zahi Hawass, who at that time was the head of all Giza Egyptology (now head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities). Dr. Hawass is famous amongst his friends for wearing what his friends jokingly call his “Indiana Jones hat.” He has achieved fame as an archaeologist because he’s done such a good job of popularizing his research with appearances on Fox Television and National Geographic, where he is always opening a new tomb live or unwrapping some mummy. Even if what they find in the new tomb is some really mundane find, i.e. the remains of some Old Kingdom priest or scribe, at the end of each show, he speculates that maybe the *next* tomb they open will hold the secrets of lost civilizations.

    In effect, Hawass appeals to the Indiana Jones imagination of archaeology as a colonial treasure hunt, even while doing very normal and relatively unspectacular archaeological research.

    So I wonder what sort of character the aspiring popular anthropologist might model herself after? I think you’re right that Margaret Mead is little known in this generation. So… Lindsay Lohan?

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