This week’s question comes from A.V. Club assistant editor Alex McLevy:
What bad habit did you pick up or learn from pop culture?
One of the first movies that really made an impression on me as a kid was the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live-action film from 1990. And it wasn’t just because it was maybe the first time I had seem some fight scenes that actually looked like they had real choreography behind them. (Seriously, give a re-watch.) No, it’s because the film is one of the only times the “bad kids’ gang” from a movie felt believably cool, like something you’d really want to be a part of. From the arcade game and skateboard park-laden headquarters to the ninja training, it all looked enticing as hell. Which is why it made me want to smoke. In the opening minutes, Sam Rockwell (I know!) is the bad-kid leader, showing off the facilities to a couple of newbies. “Got any smokes?” one of them asks. Rockwell smiles and holds up two cartons: “Regular or menthol?” And with that moment of Rockwell-aided coolness, a desire to smoke was born. I uttered the phrase “regular or menthol?” in both grade-school and middle-school social situations long past when it should’ve been embarrassing. I didn’t end up an actual smoker, but it’s no thanks to the awesome allure given it by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
This is less a bad habit than a shitty affectation, but John Hodgman got me hooked on Malört for a couple of years. For those unfamiliar with the distinctively bitter Chicago staple, it’s an herbal liqueur that exists largely so you can make other people drink it, allowing you to happily revel in the fact that you’re not the person currently wrestling with the taste of what its distiller used to call the first “shock-glass” of the initially vile stuff. For reasons of bizarre metropolitan elitism, Malört is only sold in Chicago, and Hodgman’s live-readings in the city traditionally see him pass a bottle around the audience, on the theory that no shared backwash diseases can survive a healthy dose of its antiseptic flavor. (I remember cartoonist and TV host David Rees taking a swig of the stuff, then loudly declaring “It tastes like Pine-Sol and burning!”) For a few years after that first taste, I’ll confess that I went everywhere with a bottle of the stuff in tow. To be fair, it really does start to taste better after those first few swigs, but if I’m being honest, I was far more interested in the self-loathing exclusivity it offered me in my endless, fruitless quest to seem cool.
If it’s acceptable to slightly nudge “insufferable” to “bad,” my high school years were a verdant field of ridiculous behaviors gleaned from pop culture. Thanks to Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard, I cultivated a vocal preference for drinking bitter, floral Earl Grey tea. Rob Roy somehow instilled in me such an obsession with Scottish culture I practiced a warbling abomination of a highland accent in as many conversations as I could manage without getting punched. As an adult, I’m slightly less susceptible to cribbing tastes or behaviors from my pop culture wholesale, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m highly suggestible. Lacking anything that resembles willpower, any onscreen depiction of a delicious food will elicit a mumbled “That looks good…” before I go to the kitchen to replicate the experience as closely as I can with whatever we have on hand. All of which is to say, I drank way too much watching Mad Men. There are only so many times you can endure the incessant Pavlovian response of Canadian Club on the rocks rattling in a lowball glass before you go and prepare yourself a Manhattan.
I’m not sure if I should blame genetics or pop culture, but I am, after three decades on the planet, still unreasonably amused by the sound of my own burps. I have gotten slightly better about it over the years, but my gut impulse whenever I feel a belch brewing is to open wide, singing the songs of my digestive tract loud enough for all to hear. Most people probably let loose in the privacy of their own car, but I’ve pushed way beyond that, finding myself unleashing massive, Barney Gumble-style blasts in mixed company and at quiet gatherings and receiving only furrowed brows in reply. I know this is not cool or mature. But deep down, I am still amused every time I see some boorish lout let one rip on TV or film, thus validating my most obnoxious habit.
As a woman, my answer is something so plain and ubiquitous as to nearly go without mentioning, yet here we are: The worst habit I’ve picked up from pop culture, TV and film in particular, is worrying too much about how I look. Lead actresses of the big and little screens have traditionally been thin and gorgeous. If not, they are often painted as undesirable or sexless, their appearances frequently used as the butts of jokes. What’s more, a woman worrying over her appearance is a timeworn plot point, whether it’s getting a makeover (glasses off = new desirable woman!) or choosing the perfect dress to attract the object of her desire. While there’s more and more diversity in women appearing onscreen today, there’s no denying that coming of age observing thin, traditionally gorgeous women held up as the paragon of beauty has had a negative effect on me (and countless others—these stars are also predominantly white). While my preoccupation doesn’t always translate to action, thoughts alone can be exhausting. You can read all the Laura Mulvey essays you want; the male gaze doesn’t disappear once you become aware of it. It just gives a name to something.
Damn those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Their first cinematic adventure encouraged Alex to smoke, and their Italianate subterranean diet arguably contributed to the fact that—even as I become more familiar with my failing metabolism and a wide variety of antacids—I’m never going to stop eating pizza. Did I eat pizza before the Turtles and their marketing machine consumed my pre-elementary school life? Surely: I hail from the part of the United States that gave us two of the country’s worst mass-market pies and one of its finest regional styles, so I couldn’t have avoided it. But the heroes in the half shell made pizza more than an occasional treat—it was an ethos, the thing that fueled their coolness and courageousness. Though I never acquired Michelangelo’s eccentric taste for toppings, pizza became my favorite food at the height of my Turtles fandom, and its status has never truly been threatened since. My parents used to fret about me imitating my reptilian idol’s martial arts moves and snarky attitudes, but it turns out the franchise’s biggest impact would pose a much slower, artery-clogging threat to my health. Cowabunga, and please pass the Tums.
Blame it on How I Met Your Mother—no, not my propensity for writing an ending that undoes the nine seasons of TV that came before it. But, um, I adopted Robin Scherbatsky’s signature segue phrase after watching “Jenkins” a couple of times. There’s just something about the way Cobie Smulders strings together that word and sound. It used to be just “but” or “um,” for me, but um, I think I might have subconsciously realized how musical the two sound together. Not sure you could get loaded while keeping an ear out for “Buttums” in conversation with me, but interview transcripts prove they’re definitely there.
This may not qualify as bad habit so much as psychological affliction, but I think the worst trait I’ve picked up is looking at the world as though it’s a movie or TV show. I think there’s a fine line between full-on depersonalization disorder (or the more extreme “Truman Show delusion”) and the sort of mental recontextualizing I’m talking about; I don’t believe there’s an imaginary audience watching my every move, for one thing. But movies and TV have definitely instilled in me certain, subconsciously expressed expectations that the real world can’t possibly live up to: a tidy narrative arc; extemporaneous, wittily sparkling dialogue; the secret belief that every situation or chance encounter, no matter how banal, has the potential to suddenly spin off into romance or adventure (even though I’m happily married with kids, and I really want only to watch shows on my DVR until I fall asleep). I don’t think it’s just me; this is why we seem unable to process real-life horrors except in terms of “disaster movies,” for one thing. And other than an occasionally hurtful compulsion to make snarky, sitcom-ready quips at every opportunity, regardless of the room, or a tendency to brood a little too “cinematically” whenever certain songs hit my earbuds, I don’t think it manifests itself too severely or damagingly. Nevertheless, there’s a small part of me that’s perpetually watching my life unfold like it’s a story, and I have to actively fight against it—to remind myself to live in the moment, to stop trying to script its direction, and to accept that there’s not going to be some satisfying third-act resolution to it all. I feel like that’s a pretty modern, distinctly pop culture-derived existential dilemma, and it’s one I don’t know that I can permanently cure. Not without some second-act quest sparked by a mysterious stranger, anyway.
I was a big Bad News Bears fan as I kid, so I credit it for indoctrinating me into the helpful vocabulary of swearing, even as a child. That movie has unfortunately aged badly, due to a racial-slur-filled rant by shortstop Tanner Boyle, but I was down for all the other profanities delivered by the underage ballplayers. I loathed my Catholic grade school, so taking the Lord’s name in vain was gratifying on a number of levels. And this particular habit of mine has never lessened: I once got fired from a temp job when I was caught cussing out a jammed printer (after hours, but still). Fortunately, I work here now, where swearing is comfortably prevalent among the in-office staff. I’m pretty sure the only other job I could ever get would be as a sailor or some sort of dockworker, due to my salty vocabulary. I try to keep my profanities under wraps at home, suggesting to my kids that I adopt the Kimmy Schmidt “sun on a beach, what the fudge?” brand of swearing. But they immediately scoffed, “Mom, you’ve already used the F-word three times. This morning.”
I let pop culture at large influence the types of experiences I want to have, and that is bad. Case in point: I recently attended my high school 10-year reunion, and let me tell you, that was solely because of the pop culture I’ve consumed on the topic. I even knew that, too, when I looked at it rationally, but it didn’t matter. It’s an event that’s perfect fodder for TV and film, an easy device to put a bunch of people with grudges in a room together and let the manufactured drama unfold. My desire to attend the reunion brought out my basest, most petty nature, as I thought I’d have at least one conversation with someone who bullied me (or at least was kind of a douche, even if just in my general direction) where I’d come off as far more successful than that person. But, just like actual high school, everyone hung out in cliques all night and didn’t really intermix. And I was surprised to talk with several people I was genuinely excited to catch up with. The reunion was nothing like the stories I’d seen about it, which is something that I could have told myself would happen, but that damn pop culture pull is too strong.