Movies and Pop Culture in Writing

Since moving in with my in-laws, one of my father-in-law’s new favorite things to say to me is, “You haven’t seen [insert movie title here]? Oh man, you have GOT to see it!”

The truth is I don’t really get excited about film or television. It’s rare that my husband and I will see an advertisement for an upcoming attraction and I say, “Ooo! We have got to see that!” More usually I say, “That looks interesting, but let’s wait for it to come out on video.” When it comes out on video, I wait in the hold line at the library to get it for free, then return it after a week, unwatched. And I’m just as selective with my television shows. The only show I regularly watch is Mythbusters and my husband and I have a subscription to MLS live so we can watch football till our eyes bleed (though studies show that watching copious amounts of football, aka soccer, can lower your cholesterol and help prevent cognitive decline.*).

This makes me entirely out of touch with current pop culture, which isn’t really a terrible thing most of the time. It only hurts me when people bring up movies in conversation or tell me that Mr. Hottie McHot is hot and I don’t know who they’re talking about. Trends are transient in nature so, most of what’s in vogue today will be tomorrow’s look of confusion and scorn while your children roll there eyes and say, “Gosh you’re so old!”

I recently read a book that spoke to me that way. It made me feel old, out of touch, or maybe even from another planet. On the whole, I enjoyed the book quite a bit. I walked into it not expecting to agree with everything she said (and I didn’t), but her voice and writing style were fun and quirky. She had a cute, sarcastic sense of humor that made me chuckle rather frequently. The biggest thing I disliked about her writing style was the copious amount of pop culture allusions I had to slog my way through. I looked up a few then just sighed and rolled with it. It wasn’t until I shut the book at the end that I got to thinking…was that really a good idea on her part.

It fit her voice, absolutely without a doubt. She was cool and fun and tuned into what I assumed to be her target audience, but if I already felt lost in the bombardment of TV allusions, one after another after another, then what of the next generation of readers. All the poignancy of her writing could be lost in the years to come. She dated her work. That’s not the end of the world, but when I look at a picture of my mother or father from when they were teens, I usually have to snort back a raucous laugh. They thought they looked cool then. They probably did look cool then. But the photos don’t need to be yellowing around the edges for us to know that they’re old. Their style dates them.

In the classic “Elements of Style”, E. B. White said this:

“Youths invariably speak to other youths in a tongue of their own devising: they renovate the language with a wild vigor, as they would a basement apartment. By the time this paragraph sees print, psyched, nerd, ripoff, dude, geek, and funky will be the words of yesteryear, and we will be fielding more recent ones that have come bouncing into our speech…Most are, at least in their infancy, more appropriate to conversation than composition.”

A few paragraph’s later, he says:

“The language is perpetually in flux: it is a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries, losing old forms in the backwaters of time. To suggest that a young writer not swim in the main stream of this turbulence would be foolish indeed, and such is not the intent of these cautionary remarks.”

It would be a shame to cut all current allusions and lingo from our writing. Not only would that put limitations on our art (which should by definition be limitless), but it would also hinder our voices from being unique and make future generations miss out on all the nuances of life and language as we live it now. I think caution is key here. We need to be careful how much and how little we include so that we don’t make our writing as obsolete as…you know that guy who played so and so in that show I watched when I was 15 that they cancelled in the middle of season 2.


* Results may vary. Author of this blogpost is not responsible for the varyingness of said results. The studies mentioned were conducted mostly on badgers**.

** No badgers were injured in the making of this blogpost.

Author: Rachel Svendsen

Rachel is a poet and writer from Pennsylvania, where she lives with her husband and children. Her short story "Filling the Silence" received an honorable mention in the 2019 Story Embers short story competition.

4 thoughts on “Movies and Pop Culture in Writing”

  1. Allusions are a short cut. They can bring a wide range of imagery and attitudes by simply mentioning a name. However if person, song, movie or book was just a flash in the pan, then 50 years later, these same allusions don’t seem outdated; they really don’t make sense to the reader. Having to look up all the allusions slows down the reader. It’s a reason that many students think that writers from past centuries, like Shakespeare, were writing for literary snobs when they were actually writing popular works for ordinary audiences. Without a modern annotated version most people do no get the majority of jokes in Shakespeare’s comedies (there area lot sexual references). When a writer included a specific culture or time frame reference it should be woven into the story well enough that the reference makes sense.

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  2. I see the pros and cons of pop culture references. On one hand, yes, pop culture references can date something and confuse a reader who doesn’t get the reference. On the other hand, for some readers, references may end up being puzzles to solve and may expand their view of pop culture history.

    For example, one of my favorite TV shows to watch was Gilmore Girls. Each episode contained pop culture references, most that I didn’t get… until I looked them up. When I saw episodes again, not only did I get it, but I felt like I was in on the joke, like I was a part of a club that “gets it.”

    While pop culture references can make people feel excluded, they can also make people feel included, special in a way, and also encourage some people to want to know about the reference. Personally, I had no idea who Paul Anka was until Lorelai Gilmore named her dog Paul Anka. Once I knew, I smiled every time I heard her call her dog. I felt like it was a quirky thing, and so Lorelai Gilmore. So I think all of the pop culture references really added to her character. Take those references away and she’s not Lorelai Gilmore.

    So I think pop culture references can work, but it just depends on using them in a way that benefits and adds to your writing. It’s an element not unlike ‘the fourth wall.’ Used well, it brings flavor to the story; used poorly, it can cause you to lose your audience.

    For another example, I recently saw an independent, post-apocalyptic film called Turbo Kid. It tried to do pop culture references, but inserted them so badly that they felt tacked on and completely out of place. If you compare that (not that I’m suggesting you watch Turbo Kid because it’s really a waste of time) with a short film I wrote a piece on called Kung Fury, you’ll see a huge difference between writing that uses pop culture references ineffectively versus writing that uses them in a way that adds greatly to the film.

    So there are pros and cons, but I don’t believe that a con of using them would be dating your work. For as long as it’s been around, I’m not sure there will ever be a time when I say, “I am your father!” and people won’t know I’m referencing Darth Vader. I think that has something to do with the strength of the material being referenced, though. There are certain pop culture phenomena that a sizable number of people will know because their parents introduced them to it. I can say the name Legolas and people will know who I’m referring to. On the literary side, I can reference Dr. Seuss and people will know. There are certain historical pieces of entertainment that still thrive today. It just depends on if the audience you’re writing for will recognize them; no different from NFL American football fans knowing historical figures such as Terry Bradshaw, Ken Stabler, “Mean Joe” Greene, and Bubba Smith while people who don’t care to watch football won’t know who the heck those people are.

    Also, period pieces are, by their very nature, dated and yet I don’t think I’ll ever hear anyone complain about the language in Gone with the Wind. Popular 80’s movies like Predator, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Spaceballs, and The Breakfast Club are also films that, even today, new generations of film fans watch and enjoy; and those films are all dated by their language and their music. When it comes down to it, I feel like audiences are drawn more to the themes of what they’re watching, and as long as they can connect with those themes and the characters, the different language, different music, and different styles of clothing are something that is simply absorbed into the knowledge that the movie being viewed does come from a different era. The Breakfast Club is still relevant with teenagers today, you just won’t see a single cell phone in the movie.

    Ultimately, though, I think it’s up to the writer to decide if the consequences and/or risk are worth the price of admission. Speaking for myself only, I love pop culture references, the feeling of being in on the joke, and being compelled to look up what I don’t know. But I understand why writers wouldn’t want to include them and why writers warn against dating your work. However, simply by living in the time you live in and not knowing what words will be entrenched in the language of future generations, you really can’t help but to write something that will inevitably be dated, either by the references you insert into your writing or simply by the words you use. So, for me, I’ll just throw something out there and if people get it, they get it; if they don’t, they don’t. If I can encourage even one person to look up the reference and maybe find an interest in it, then I’m helping to keep whatever I’m referencing from being forgotten, passing it on to another generation. And I really don’t see a downside in that. 🙂


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