What We Watch

I’ve gotten a number of requests to comment on the New York Times nifty Netflix-rental tracker app.  I played around with it a bit in Washington, DC, and I have to say, I’m not particularly stunned by any of the patterns.  It’s not incredibly surprising to me that, say, Slumdog Millionaire would be a higher rental priority for folks in whiter Northwest Washington than in blacker Southeast, or that the reverse would be true for Seven Pounds, a recent Will Smith weepie.  I suppose I’m surprised by Doubt‘s persistence across the region, since it’s neither a super-fun thing to watch on a weekend nor something that was so critically-acclaimed it seemed like a must-watch (I saw it in New York with Cherry Jones in the title role, and didn’t feel the need to see it on film, no matter how much I love Meryl).  I Love You, Man is popular near Andrews Air Force Base, as is Role Models (curiously, Transformers looks less popular than either of those two movies in that area).  Both Frost/Nixon and State of Play are frequently rented in Northwest and the ‘burbs where a lot of politically-oriented folks live.

Look, as all of you know, I’m a huge proponent of the idea that the popular culture we consume says a great deal about us.  I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, but where we spend our money and our time is a significant indicator of our priorities, and damn do we spend a lot of money watching giant robots fight people and Channing Tatum flaunt his abs.  But as with a lot of societal indicators, sometimes things are just obvious: people with less money and without insurance probably aren’t going to be as healthy as people with access to both.  People are going to watch movies about people who look like them and professions that they’re involved with.  I’m most interested in the cultural phenomena that dredge up something from our collective subconscious, or seem to.  Does Twilight‘s popularity mean that a couple of generations of American women want submissive, obsessive relationships?  What does Transformers or G.I. Joe say about what we wished the American military looked like in terms of an ability to project forward basically without casualties, despite our queasy feelings as expressed in opinion polling about Iraq and Afghanistan?

In other words, I think this Netflix map is a nice aggregation of data.  But it’s really a couple of steps behind where I would like the conversation about what we like to be.