The Common Language of Pop References

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Yesterday a friend of mine off-handedly mentioned the phenomenon in which someone will make a pop culture reference and use their audience’s reaction to judge the people who are listening. You got my obscure Firefly reference? You’re awesome and a good human being. You didn’t? Well…you might not be worth my time.
I suspect that we’re all guilty of doing this sometimes, and I know I’ve felt that burst of connection when someone else knows my favorite book, so I couldn’t stop thinking about whether this was pointless judging or whether it might serve some purpose. And then I read this absolutely lovely article about a pair of sisters who found a way to communicate through Supernatural. The show gave them templates and referents through which to talk about their relationship. It seemed that sometimes coming at the problem head on was too scary or direction, but the shared media gave them a common foundation on which to build their emotional understandings of each other.
Suddenly it all came into place: we all do this. When we reference things, we’re using a different language that holds much more content because it assumes the shared experiences of the media we love. Instead of trying to explain a complex, semi-abusive relationship, you can just say “it’s like Spike and Buffy”, and someone will have a full emotional picture of what’s going on.
So when we make references to some pop culture thing we love and someone responds positively, we suddenly have an entirely new shared language of referents and emotions and relationships to draw from. It can be incredibly liberating to find that you don’t have to explain yourself but can use a reference to immediately instill a certain emotion or understanding in your listener. There’s a certain safety in having those shared understandings of the world, in knowing that no matter how differently you perceive the world, you have this touchstone with which to communciate and connect. These kinds of shorthands aren’t simply an easy, quick way of communicating, but they’re also a way to signal that you understand and care about the person you’re interacting with. If I respond positively to a reference, it means I want to engage with the person who has made it. I am interested in understanding what is going on in their brain and I’m willing to search my memory for a reference in order to do so. If the reference comes easily, it means that we don’t have to struggle to understand each other as much as we might have otherwise.
Of course there are in-group elements to references, and of course the references we make and the ways we value references have a great deal to do with the way we assign value as consumers, but somewhere in the practice of making references we find that pop culture names, quotes, and places become symbols for feelings or plot arcs or ideas that are far more complex. Just as Biblical scholars have an entire lexicon of symbols that hold a different kind of meaning than they would to anyone else, so fangirls of Supernatural have a shared lexicon. Carry On My Wayward Son isn’t just a song, it’s an anthem of family, heartache, long journeys, impossible tasks, and endlessly broken hearts. Where you come down on the Spuffy/Bangel split will tell me immediately whether we’ll get along (protip: Bangel sucks). The reason I get excited when I see someone making a reference that I understand is that I suddenly have an entirely new window into this person, a new lens through which to view them, an entire set of experiences that we had together about which I can get their reaction. It’s not quite the same as the trust you gain from firsthand seeing how someone reacts to new situations, but it is a helpful simulation.
Especially for a reference that is uncommon or that few people would recognize, it’s like a special shared moment you get with another person. It’s as if you’ve found another kilt-wearing unicycle enthusiast: you thought you were the only one, but now you can find someone who resonates with those feelings and reactions you had. Now nothing about this implies that making judgments about others based on their pop culture references is a brilliant and ethically sound decision. In all likelihood you’ll be misjudging a fair number of people. But there are useful things about making references, and the better we understand those uses the more effective we can be in our communication.  It’s being able to say that you’re the Marshmallow to my Lilypad and not having to explain any further, and that’s a kind of connection that is kind of beautiful.