It’s easy to be cynical about pop culture references in dialogue. It’s easy, and often enough, it’s fair. I don’t much need to explain why. What I do want to consider is an example of the opposite, when a pop culture reference in a piece of written dialogue becomes intensely concentrated communication, contextually useful and practically characterful. Let me set the scene.
In another My Guy story, Dummy Run, two girls, at sixth form college*, begin discussing the boys they met whilst drinking and partying on Saturday. One has been asked out by “Alan,” but she can’t remember which one Alan was. Her friend can give no help beyond agreeing that if Alan was the fit one, great, but if he was the other one, gross. So our heroine, or, I should say, our initial protagonist, hatches a plan: she’ll fix a date with Alan and send along a meeker, less sophisticated girl they know as a sort of beefeater**. Should he be Fit Alan, she’ll step back in and take her fill. Should he be Unappealing Alan, no harm done, in her opinion.
We meet our Beefeater in an exchange based around a pop culture reference:
For the uninitiated, I’ll explain it.
Thunderbirds was a Century 21 Productions television programme, often better known as “a Gerry Anderson show”—an adventure-action serial made “in supermarionation,” which has nothing to do with Super Mario. (It means “made with puppets and miniatures.”) Thunderbirds, like Supercar and Stingray before it and Captain Scarlet after, was a cultural phenomenon when it first aired in the mid sixties, and it never really stopped being one. It was aired again several times following, and during my own childhood in the nineties, when this My Guy issue was published, Thunderbirds was having such a renaissance that Blue Peter spent several weeks showing child-viewers how to make their very own Tracy Island at home. What that means, my international darlings, is that the model island base, full of hidden rocket launchpads, belonging to the family who ran International Rescue—the Tracys, a.k.a. the Thunderbirds— was carefully formed by thousands of youths out of loo rolls, washing-up bottles, papier-mâché, and paint, to month-long instruction on the most popular after-school television programme of the day—what’s now the longest-running children’s series of all time.
Thunderbirds wasn’t just on TV in its own successful slot; it was hosted by proxy in the other popular slots too. My Guy was for older readers than Blue Peter viewers, but that’s a bit of a false truth: people too old for Blue Peter watched and watch Blue Peter. And besides—everybody knew about Thunderbirds. It wasn’t “pop culture” meaning any old purchasable fiction, accessible pulp that nobody might read; it was the popular culture of the day.
It was, in point of fact, a common enough subject to be as meaningful and taken for granted to any given English youth as tomato ketchup (that’s a condiment) or Aston Villa (that’s a football team). Thunderbirds, in their success, became colloquial. My Guy starts here: at choosing a point of reference any reader is likely, reliably, to recognise. My Guy could do this because My Guy was a British magazine for British readers; it could monitor, with some accuracy, what was on television and in adverts and in other magazines. It could be fluent in the mainstream culture of the day, because there was only so much of it. My friend, cartoonist John Troutman, described this Thunderbirds exchange as “almost aggressively British.” Yes, it was, in terms of what it required from immigrants, for example. But no, it wasn’t, not in quite the way that he meant, because My Guy was never supposed to be read by Americans so it simply didn’t worry about being understood by them. There’s no aggression—only a complete lack of concern. It wasn’t for them. It was for us, and so it spoke to us like it was of us. It could do, because it was.
My Guy was also shipped to Australia—but so was Thunderbirds, so was a lot of our magazine culture. And Thunderbirds remained as popular a broadcast choice there as it was here. Australian readers almost certainly understood this scenario as easily as British ones, but this is a gamble that a reference takes; Savage Dragon #1’s invocation of “Fred Mertz” knocked me a cropper, because I don’t know who Fred Mertz is and I’ve never watched I Love Lucy. Nowadays, anyone can Google anything. But do they want to? Pop culture references can’t work their same localised magic for international audiences, outside of the rarest examples. Yuri!!! on Ice’s OP played at the Olympics, and plenty of people got it. But plenty of people didn’t; it was a secret handshake of a reference, and that’s fine, that’s not in service to a narrative and it’s not necessary for buy-in comprehension. Within the telling of a story, though, a reference needs to do more.
The construction of this Thunderbirds reference dialogue places colloquial use of a children’s series within the social balances of teenaged Coolness hierarchy: it takes something that will be understood by default—“what Thunderbirds is”—and uses that to set the walls of the conversation on fire. Both girls and their reader know that Thunderbirds is a children’s programme—an old children’s programme (and retro wasn’t quite cool yet). They are teenagers, not children: they “should” have outgrown these children’s things. Beefeater is referring to Thunderbirds with detail and accuracy; easily verifiable, probably knowledge shared by the other participant and believably by the reader, but nevertheless this girl is not only mentioning Thunderbirds, she’s publicly claiming scholarship: marking herself as a bit of a saddo, a teenaged girl who doesn’t know how to look acceptably aloof, who’s socially foolish enough to reveal her own weakness.
You can be victimised or dismissed for knowing too much about what Americans call nerdy things and what I think we were still calling naff, especially by people who are demonstrably cool, and therefore aspirational, enough to get drunk and meet boys at weekends. If you do things that everyone knows can open you to victimisation, people will blame you for that victimisation (this is a self-perpetuating logic problem). Alan, the Thunderbird Three pilot, is Beefeater’s wobbly legs at the back of the herd. This is why she’s identified as a girl who can be used as a decoy to weed out unattractive boys from someone else’s dating pool. It’s made exceptionally plain. She is an available victim, and she is an unsympathetic one. It’s the perfect girl-on-girl crime.
Green Jacket’s mild rebuke, “Yes, well I shouldn’t mention Thunderbirds [on a date],” emphasises their respective positions in that teen girl coolness hierarchy. She’s the one who meets boys and organises scams; she’s the one who knows enough to not mention children’s stories, freeing herself from a juvenile image and achieving the implicit self-direction of adulthood. She claims authority by advising her alleged friend about how to stay unnoticed by the kraken of uncoolness and she claims superiority by using this girl as a social firewall, having her go on a date with a boy just in case he’s ugly, a status-diminisher. The dialogue repeats the structure of the friendship laid to page. Both girls manage, within three pages of a five page story (the fourteenth and fifteenth panels of thirty-one, so exactly at the end of the story’s first half), to tell us just who they are, how they see themselves, and how they control or don’t control their status. They are types, not individuals, but they’re played by individual actresses and their dialogue is natural enough for these girls to seem like people we barely know—people, in an interesting situation. This is impressive, but what’s more impressive is how this exchange is transformed and perfected by the completion of the story.
The rest of the third page is given over to Green Jacket explaining the details of her plan to her less tragic friend, just in case the beefeater element of her social shortcut had missed the reader in passing. Pages four and five take place the next Monday, after Beefeater has been on her proxy date. She tells Green Jacket about how it went—great, she says, really well. She describes the boy she was with enough that Green Jacket can identify him as the potential Alan she didn’t like, and, great! A bad date escaped, thinks GJ. But Beefeater insists that it was a good date, actually, a really good date. Good enough to go all the way . . . even though Alan still thought she was Maria, which is Green Jacket’s name (revealed at last). Maria is horrified! Everyone’s going to think she has sex with gross boys, and on the first date! Her sense of control and superiority shatters, because she’s not as free as she pretends: she’s the one who hemmed Beefeater in, linguistically, she’s the one who’s too afraid to let herself bring up a children’s TV show if one comes to mind. She’s the one who follows the rules, and the rules say, even for girls who get drunk and play pranks, that slags*** exist and they’re bad. The anxiety of coolness and the authoritarianism of teenaged social scenes are poked holes in and fun at while the predator feels hunted; My Guy let girls be spiteful but never kept a story on the same foot the whole way through.
Our Beefeater, a smart little thing, gets the two final panels to herself: too savvy to fall for Maria’s casual vindictiveness, she’s pranked the pranker. She wasn’t who Alan wanted to meet so the date went nowhere at all; she told Maria the story details that she correctly guessed would embarrass her, internally, as Maria humiliated her beefeater; if you recognise what someone is doing as they set you up for an awkward weekend out of laziness and vanity you can’t help but feel hurt at the knowledge. This is vindictive but it’s vindictive in kind, it’s a lesson, and it’s exactly the sort that girls subject each other to, in earnest and in exasperation. Beefeater isn’t a fawn who doesn’t know how to protect herself against the great predators of TeenTown; she’s an improviser, able to roll with the circumstances. Thunderbird Three came to mind, so she mentioned him. Maria tried to set her up, so she volleyed. Beefeater doesn’t mind Maria or their other peer thinking she slept with a boy they find ugly, or that she might sleep with someone on the first date, and she doesn’t mind people knowing that she knows about Thunderbirds. Why would she mind either? Everybody knows the Thunderbirds. And she didn’t really sleep with him at all. Beefeater prizes self-knowledge and flexibility over reputation and rules . . . and that’s why she wins. I don’t know if this could have been better illustrated for a nineties-girl audience without the pop culture reference.
As a Thunderbirds-mentioner myself, of course, I have to admit a certain level of bias. But ain’t that good dialogue writing? A throwaway weekly photocomic for teenagers, about twenty-five years old, and here I am in the next century, a grown adult, thinking yeah. Know thyself and triumph, lil Beefeater. FAB****.
A list of terms my American editor flagged, in a beautiful example of irony:
* An educational, often but not necessarily vocational institution for those aged sixteen to eighteen.
** An individual employed to eat the King’s beef (etc.), just in case anyone should have poisoned it. Very good outfits; friend to ravens.
*** Like sluts, only perhaps more generally aggressive? A slur for the sexually inclined female, anyhow. And indeed a name of a Transformer, until UK linguistic problems put paid to that.
**** The Thunderbirds said this. It meant “OK, good.”