To get the obvious out of the way, the lyrics for “WAP” and the music video for the track are among the filthiest things I’ve ever seen in mainstream American popular culture. But at a moment when movies, music and even some TV are increasingly younged-down, and when changes in the law and an unprecedented economic environment could accelerate the homogenization of entertainment, there’s something bracing about Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s vulgarity. “WAP” is decidedly not for kids, nor for all adults.
And honestly, we could use more culture that isn’t appropriate for everyone.
It’s no secret that young people are the target audience for much of pop culture. And yet, it’s still a little startling to realize the extent to which people of all ages are expected to enjoy the same things.
While the majority of the movies rated between 1968 and 2017 received R ratings, between 1995 and 2020, PG-13 movies earned 47.53 percent of American ticket revenue, compared with 26.79 percent for R-rated movies, even though there were 2,193 more R-rated movies than PG-13 movies released in that period. No matter what industry luminaries say on Oscar night, the Hollywood ideal isn’t Westerns or screwball romances. It’s so-called four-quadrant films that can relax adults without making them feel condescended to, and that can excite children without shocking them (or their parents).
Given the Trump administration’s decision to unwind the legal decree preventing studios from buying theaters, this drive toward conformity could intensify. A world in which Disney snaps up the distressed AMC theater chain and starts showing nothing but Marvel movies all across America ought to be a depressing prospect for anyone who likes even a little variety along with their popcorn.
There’s no good reason for this timidity, other than the entertainment industry’s convenience. Life is sprawling and specific, and the stories we tell about it should be, too.
Sure, I enjoy the butt-kicking and banter in superhero movies, but as I move into my late 30s, I’m craving stories about parenthood and changing friendships that are more likely to populate novels than other mass media. Kids shouldn’t necessarily be watching Cardi B videos not just because of the subject material, but because they deserve great music and movies and television about the specific challenges of being 10 or 13 or 18. And mothers who happen to also be hot-and-bothered 20-somethings — as Cardi B herself is — deserve both stories about postpartum depression and bangers about how great good sex feels.
The mistake conservatives who attack raunchy or violent pop culture always make is to argue that culture should be smaller rather than more expansive. People who wait until marriage to have sex deserve on-screen romances that reflect the kinds of courtships they pursue. Devout families who see their places of worship as the absolute center of their lives deserve stories rooted in those sorts of settings, like OWN’s “Greenleaf.” That depictions of conservative Americans or stories rooted in these values have so often been limited to reality television or to low-budget productions is yet another failure of the entertainment industry’s supposed creativity. But attacking the culture you don’t like rather than imagining and fighting for stories you’d love is an expression of pessimism and timidity.
I sympathize with parents who feel exasperated or frightened by the way the Internet has torn down the walls that once separated “Dora the Explorer” from the enterprising strippers of Starz’s “P-Valley,” not to mention QAnon conspiracy theories, Islamic State execution videos and actual pornography. But the fact that modern parenthood is a constant race to keep parental control settings current and to stay ahead of the almighty algorithms isn’t an argument for making pop culture itself more tame and generic.
By all means, demand that YouTube and Facebook sort out content moderation and give you the tools to build a walled garden for your kids that matches your values. Put pressure on Hollywood to tell stories that represent everyone, so you both can get a glimpse of lives that aren’t your own and see yourself represented on screen. But calm down about Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. You never know when you might find yourself in need of a little riling up.