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The Commodification of Quirk: How TV Characters Have Influenced Consumer Culture

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCT chapter.

Picture this: you’re walking through a thrift market, iced-oat-milk-latte in hand with a tattooed guy rocking a mullet and carpenter jeans. You’re niche, you’re environmentally conscious (plant-based is the new normal), and you’re progressive. You’re also like every other middle-class 20-something-year-old who grew up watching Friends and discovered Bell Hooks in university. Not that it’s a bad thing! Gen Z is already showing signs of greater tolerance and heightened awareness that give hope for a better future, but I’m arguing it’s a cultural phenomenon. More specifically, a pop culture-induced phenomenon.

Gen Z is defined as someone born between the years of 1997 – 2012, meaning that the majority of us grew up consuming that elusive and idealized early 2000s media – which turned us into the hipster generation we are now. Especially considering the onslaught of technological advances and streaming sites that allowed us access to ’90s content. Don’t believe me? Take a look at Phoebe Buffay from Friends (1994 – 2004), with her eclectic outfits and odd-ball spirituality. Now click on the fashion trends inspired by her, as seen on Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar online guides and everyone’s all-year-round obsession with crystals. Observe Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted (1999), and try not to see the similarities to the return of emo, so prominent even Vice wrote an article on it. How about the term ‘manic pixie dream girl’? Does Jess Day from New Girl (2011 – 2018) ring any bells with her awkward, indecisive charm? Or even Sex and the City’s (1998 – 2004) Carrie Bradshaw, with her honest sexuality and (sometimes cringe-worthy) dating fumbles. We’ve seen a surge in ‘girly pop’ behaviour as Mean Girls (2004)and Barbie (2023) have been turned into a nostalgic gateway to the reclamation of femininity, play, and the colour pink.

Many of these television shows and films were breaking ground with the feature of more complex, quirky female characters; sexual freedom and comedy were not commonplace in television when Carrie first met Mister Big, and Phoebe was more easily recognized as a weirdo in the 90s than the icon she is today. But who could have predicted the influence it would have on the next generation, aka us? The writing of more diverse and funny female characters may have shaped our generation’s ideology – resulting in booms around previously counter-culture movements like thrifting, veganism, or punk rock, to mention a few. However, this is a double-edged sword.

I must ask, at what point does influence become commodification? When does hipsterism become gentrification, and where is the line between predictable and cookie-cutter?

A good example of this is the gentrification of the Bo-Kaap. Or the fact that many thrift store prices are just as high as the fast-fashion stores they shun. The reason? Supply and demand. Corporations see a well-meaning trend, and they capitalize on it. Suddenly your oat milk is breaking the bank.

But there is a silver lining! With quirk comes freedom, and that freedom can help us to choose what we actively participate in and support. Hell, yes, go support local stores and slow fashion- just do your research first. Eat plant-based and help save the planet but be aware of what a privilege it is to eat healthy. Visit all the cute lil coffee shops and art galleries your heart desires, but make sure it’s not at the cost of the neighbourhood. Try out spirituality, but with respect, and cut all the mullets you want, but don’t make it your entire personality.

The moral of the story is that it’s all about balance. Quirk will always exist – it’s about how you decide to play with it. Let’s all make Phoebe Buffay proud and spread some more wacky love in the world – responsibly.

I am 20 years old, and currently doing a BA with majors in English and French Literature. I write poetry and short stories. I am passionate about connecting people and producing authentic, raw, and thought-provoking work, while exploring Gen Z culture. My personal interest include anything ocean related, as well as running and yoga. I enjoy taking photographs (especially when it ties in with my written work). I am also an avid traveler. I have a strong belief in the kindness, art, and potential of our generation when we are giving the tools and space to create - and I aim to participate and contribute to that space.