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?