Not long ago, I was in a local Costco and saw a picture book about famous Washington State residents. Not all of them had been born here, and not all of them had lived their whole productive lives here, but they were people who were important to our state’s history. And I felt a small, petty pleasure that they actually put Pearl Jam in the book instead of Nirvana, despite the fact that Eddie Vedder was born in Illinois and spent much of his life in San Diego while Kurt Cobain was born and raised in Aberdeen, Washington. Because I’ve always been far more a Pearl Jam person than a Nirvana person, you see.
We do that. There was a poll in the Dissolve Facebook group the other day about whether you liked Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly better. You find any subject, there will be a “which one do you like better?” discussion somewhere. Cat person or dog person? Star Wars or Star Trek? Marvel or DC? We like dividing these things up, and even though I myself don’t like dogs, in most other discussions, I’m firmly on the side of “it can be two things!” I’ve always loved Batman, but I’m more broadly about Marvel, for example.
Many, many years ago now, I was in an academic competition for which I had to write a speech. Mine was about gay rights, and while doing my research, I discovered a fact about how chimpanzees, as I recall it was, teach their offspring xenophobia, and projected that particular trait onto humans. I was forbidden from using that detail in my speech, as my coach acerbically pointed out that it was basically calling the judges chimps if they didn’t agree with me. And while I like chimps, that’s hardly a way to win someone to your side. But I can’t help wondering if our determination to “two kinds of people” everything is left over from that aspect of our primate nature.
We want to know where we stand. And if you’re a Beatles person, you know the difference between yourself and Rolling Stones people. It’s all very clear. I can imagine playgoers four hundred-odd years ago arguing Shakespeare versus Marlowe the same way. It’s what we do, and as long as you’ve got the energy to care about these things at all, you’ve probably got the energy to distinguish yourself from your fellow people with interest in the thing.
Because of course even beyond the “two things” side, there’s my mother’s “but I like Elvis” version—my mom’s too old by about five or ten years to have been involved in the Beatles versus Rolling Stones debate. I’m sure there are sports versions of this discussion that I’m not mentioning because I don’t care enough about sports to know what they are. So it’s two levels of gatekeeping in one, if you think about it. Not only are you separating yourself into a group by whether you prefer Charlie or Emilio, you’re limiting yourself into the group of people who care which of Martin’s boys is better.
And my goodness but can your answer change, as that one exemplifies most clearly for me—when I was in eighth grade and having that argument, we couldn’t possibly have known how terrible Charlie would become over the years, and how accomplished a director Emilio would turn out to be. So you’re also kind of locking yourself into a specific place, and often, people won’t be willing to not change their identity as a Sean Connery Bond fan when it turns out that Sean Connery himself is kind of a misogynist or that later Bonds also gave good performances. They don’t do it because they don’t care but because they’ve settled themselves into a Connery Is The Best Bond place. I’m not saying everyone does it, but you’ve got to be able to think of an example yourself.
And, okay, I’m still a Gene Kelly person even though I now know he was kind of a jerk, because I will never not enjoy watching his pure joy in dancing. Fred Astaire is equally skilled, but his dancing seems more precise to me and less delighted. At least I can acknowledge the places Gene Kelly wasn’t great as a person, I suppose. But more importantly, even if watching Fred Astaire isn’t as pleasurable to me, I can still see his ability. Just as I can still hear the quality of Nirvana’s music, even if I still mentally accuse Kurt of lying every time he sings that he doesn’t have a gun.