Deborah Yaffe

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Pop v. popular

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 11 2019 03:07PM

Jane Austen is popular, but is she pop?


This pressing question presented itself irresistibly when, just in time for Valentine’s Day, I happened across a gift-recommendation listicle on the women’s-magazine-ish site SheKnows.com.


The piece -- “15 Galentine’s Day Gifts for Your Pop Culture-Loving Crew” – offers a corrective to the relationship-focused view of the holiday, suggesting that you spend February 14 appreciating family and platonic friends, instead of significant others. The list, author Samantha Puc promises, offers great choices for “your pop-culture savvy besties . . . . some of the best pop culture-related gifts money can buy.”


The choices include books, DVDs, jewelry, and assorted decorative or semi-useful accessories and appurtenances. Most are themed to a you-go-girl canon: female-centric television shows (Friends, Gilmore Girls, Sex and the City), female-centric blockbuster movies (Wonder Woman), progressive female political figures (Elizabeth Warren, Michelle Obama).


Smack in the middle of the list – right after the Gertrude Stein beer mug and the Frida Kahlo candle, and just ahead of the Mad Men desk doodad -- is Jane Austen bath soap, which Puc recommends as “the perfect accompaniment to a pop culture-themed night of self-care.”


As someone who wrote a whole book about Jane Austen’s curious dual life as both classic author and ubiquitous brand, I’m used to seeing Austen merchandise lumped in with Leslie Knope greeting cards and Carrie Fisher tote bags. All those beloved Austen movies and mini-series have spawned a generation of consumers who met Our Jane first (or only) on a screen.


And yet I still find it a bit startling to see Austen described as primarily -- even solely -- a pop-culture figure. Unlike Lorelei Gilmore or Peggy Olson, Austen also means something outside the world of TV shows and social media memes. If you were organizing an Eng.Lit.-themed night of self-care, her scented soap would be at home there too, along with the Shakespeare bath oils (“for the Ophelia in your life”), the Emily Bronte heather-mixture potpourri, and the Sylvia Plath cookie sheets. (I made all those up, by the way, so don’t waste your time Googling.)


I’m not complaining, exactly – just looking on with a certain measure of bemusement as a literary giant who became a pop icon is transmuted, through the magic of the Internet, into a pop icon who maybe also wrote some books.


Although, frankly, it’s not as if Jane Austen is the oddest of the oddballs in this supposed pop-culture brew. I mean, I ask you – Gertrude Stein? Talk about no there there! When did her movie come out?


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