On May 18, former White House speechwriter Jon Lovett gave the commencement address to the graduating class of Pitzer College in California. Interspersed with bits of life advice was this observation:
We see it across our culture, with not only popularity but hunger for the intellectual honesty of Jon Stewart or the raw sincerity of performers like Louis CK and Lena Dunham. You can even add the rise of dark, brooding, “authentic” superheroes in our blockbuster movies. We see … a rejection of the processed as inauthentic.
Whether he intended it or not, Lovett’s choices of pop culture examples hit on an intriguing idea: that things are most “honest,” “sincere,” and “authentic” if their view of the world is relatively dark.
Louie has moments of absolute joy, like a demented sing-along in the car on the way to the suburbs, or a duckling stowing away in Louis CK’s luggage on a USO trip to Afghanistan. But at the heart of the show is the idea that the character of Louie is coming to grips with frightening and ugly emotions: his limitations as a comedian, the fact that fatherhood involves pain and rejection, the mismatch between his sexual drives and his dating prospects. Similarly, Girls, in response to criticisms of its first season, seemed to torture its characters in the second, inflicting OCD on Hannah, a professional breakdown on Marnie, a divorce on Jessa, and a breakup on Shoshanna. All those devices brought out the worst in the characters, and the show seemed to take on the attitude blurted out by Shoshanna in the season 1 finale that “everyone’s a stupid whore.” Even the superheroes Lovett mentions have to be tortured to earn their greatness: Captain America’s sincerity and optimism make him look a little goofy in this crowd of agonized hunks. Pop culture keeps telling us that the world is a difficult place to live in, people behave badly in it, and anyone who says otherwise is either deluding himself or attempting to put one over on us.
But while it may take more fortitude to write tales of misery (it certainly takes more to sit through them), authenticity doesn’t always have to test our endurance. Happiness isn’t, by definition, a put-on, or generated through lies and self-deception. Lovett’s speech to the Pitzer graduates ended with a reminder to use the drive for authenticity as a force for good in the world. Perhaps pop culture could also embrace that message of optimism, or at least concede that pain isn’t the only thing that’s real.