Netflix rental patterns: Is taste a luxury good?

Netflix rental frequency of "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" in the New York metropolitan area. Redder areas indicate greater popularity; note the near total absence of "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" from the richest little island in America.

The New York Times issued a compelling argument that web pages are better than newspapers yesterday, when they published this interactive graphic of the most popular Netflix movies in major US cities. Fascinating trends abound, from the predictable—the distribution of Obsessed turns out to be a handy map of where black people live—to the predictable-in-retrospect: the Reneé Zellweger vehicle New In Town, about a big-city girl who moves to Minnesota for some reason, is fantastically popular in Minneapolis and nowhere else. (For those of you who find the slider irritating, as I do, New In Town is just to the right of the second hash mark. Things that are not related by quantitative induction, where each element n cannot be said to have an n+1, should not be arranged on a slider. Leviticus 14:5.) At right, you will see the map for Paul Blart: Mall Cop, a movie that I did not see but which I am going to assume, based on the preview, was not exactly Citizen Kane. Those of you wondering where the line is between upper Manhattan and the South Bronx need look no further than the sharp red-white delineation between highways 9 and 1. Also, if you’re wondering which parts of Brooklyn are nice now, there you go. Hint: not Gravesend.

So here’s a fun question: Why do poor people like Paul Blart: Mall Cop? It’s probably not their love of malls and cops, nor is it because the film is such an acerbic indictment of same.* Perhaps the question is better understood the other way around: why don’t you like Paul Blart: Mall Cop? If you’re having a hard time remembering, here’s the trailer. Besides maybe setting a record for the total amount of screen time the protagonist spends lying on the ground, it conveys the following information: guy from King of Queens, fat, plot of Die Hard only in a comedy, or at least in a thing that tries way harder to be funny. If you are a real cineaste, you may also have noticed the Happy Madison production credit, which is a movie abbreviation for “did you remember to buy pot?” In short, you and I do not like Paul Blart: Mall Cop because it appears to be dumb.

This reaction to Paul Blart: Mall Cop is probably universal among your friends. Moreover, if you went on a date with someone and he or she insisted you see Paul Blart: Mall Cop and then laughed uproariously all the way through, you would probably not go on date number two. I daresay that if you met someone at a party, and he held forth rapturously on the hilarity and all-around excellence of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, you would make several judgments about him person immediately. That’s because you are a snob.

Despite everyone you know thinking that wanting to see Paul Blart: Mall Cop might be a symptom of a closed-head injury, the film was number one at the box office for the first three weeks of its run. Between that and DVD sales, PB:MC has made $227 million. That’s not counting rentals, which brings us back to our map of New York. The red places are where people who like Paul Blart: Mall Cop live. They are also the places where people live who are less likely to go to college, more likely to get pregnant before they finish high school, less likely to own their own homes, more likely to be fat—poor people. Of course, you would never write someone off because they mentioned growing up in East Orange or Flint, Michigan. That’s what the very crappiest of rich people do, and you are neither crappy nor rich. But what about someone who loves Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Mariah Carey? Then it’s just a matter of personal taste. It’s certainly not a class thing.

The relationship between taste and class in America is particularly interesting because it doesn’t necessarily correlate to how much money you have. Back when I lived in zip code 11221—where PB:MC has only recently been pushed aside by Burn After Reading—I liked early sixties ska and Antonin Artaud. I was absurdly poor—my share of the rent was $275 a month—yet my neighbors all regarded me as rich. It’s because I was. On the J train home at night, I was the one reading a book. I was not the one with two children who would eventually go the high school that I had also recently started going to. Good taste is such a reliable indicator of class in part because you don’t have to be rich to have it; you only need to have been rich at one time. Ironically, the anti-materialist lifestyle advocated by aesthetic sophistication, radical philosophy, and the bohemian tradition is pretty much only accessible to the middle class and above. And when certain sons of the middle class, for example, sell all their possessions and live out of a pickup truck while wearing the same jeans for possibly three consecutive weeks, now, the bourgeois tastes remain. Class mobility may have destroyed what little snobbery the United States inherited, but taste mobility remains virtually impossible.

Let us not forget that the poor people we’re talking about have identified themselves by renting Paul Blart: Mall Cop. They’re not exactly the cast of Oliver!; at the very least, they have Netflix memberships and DVD players. The United States is a place where the poorest among us have consumer electronics and subscription-based film rental services, maybe because they don’t have access to more satisfying opportunities, but still. Is it surprising that taste is a more reliable indicator of class than money? Movie tickets cost the same no matter what you’re seeing, after all, and generally speaking a bunch of Belle & Sebastian albums are cheaper than a big car. As luxury goods like DVDs become nigh-universally available, those of us who were born into comfort need to find better ways to distinguish ourselves from the mob. In a society where having diamonds in your teeth is considered trashy, a copy of Rachel Getting Married is the equivalent of a purebred white horse.

Whether that’s moral is another matter entirely. It’s probably even more distasteful to hold yourself above poor people based on your Netflix cue than on the size of your house, but what’s the alternative. I mean, have you been to a movie theater in Bushwick? No, because there are no movie theaters in Bushwick, because no one will stop yelling, but even if there were you wouldn’t like them. The beauty of being a snob about Paul Blart: Mall Cop is that you can’t help it. That movie is terrible, and no amount of liberal guilt is going to make it funny. That this should separate you from the unwashed masses probably means that you are a bad person, but it also means that the unwashed masses are living pretty well. And that, my rich, educated, snobby, paradoxically cash-strapped little friends, is a very good thing.

Combat! blog is free. Why not share it?
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Reddit


  1. I was just thinking about this sort of phemomena…I make more money than 90% of the people I ride the train to and from West Philly with, but I would guess that 80% of those people eat fast food on a regular basis that I consider too expensive.

    There are certain things that poor people are convinced poor people do that are more expensive than early 30’s professional people do. If I determined that I had spent hundreds of dollars in a month on McDonalds and Tastykakes I would be disgusted with myself. More for the quantity than the quality. The cost of such things and my regard for them as “luxury” prevents me from consuming them to the point of excess. The same could be said for shitty movies. Spending $12.50 on Transformers to let my mind wander for 2 and a half hours is indeed a luxury, where spending that same amount of money to see There Will Be Blood is more like a basic staple. It’s part status, but also healthy respect for both myself and those I esteem that compels me to consume what it considered to be ‘art’ or whatever.

  2. I, unfortunately, have seen PB:MC (at least in passing). I took my son on a Cub Scout campout at the minor league baseball stadium in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and it was played on the jumbotron while we set up tents on the field after the game.
    Since all the loudspeakers in a stadium point toward the stands, not the outfield, the sound was atrocious. The movie was worse. The Scouts were much more interested in running around the field than the dreck on the screen.
    Thankfully, I was able to shut my eyes, tune out the muffled bleatings of the guy from King of Queens , and savor the environment: the smells of cordite from the post-game fireworks and of fresh cut grass*, the taste of hot dog belches, and the sounds of kids running amok and of crickets tryin’ to get lucky.
    As Tim M points out, the American dream has been realized and now everyone can consume. (I think that’s what the “pursuit of happiness” clause was about all along. It’s a pursuit, not a guarantee.) Look at any art’s “golden age”, and see that it was in a time of class inequality, when only the wealthy were consumers of art. Therefore, the only money to be made was in pleasing the educated. (Film doesn’t completely follow this paradigm, only somewhat, as it is a modern construction to begin with).
    Once any art reaches its “modern age”, mass consumption dooms it to the lowest common denominator. Subcultures/movements are created to re-start this cycle on a smaller scale, trading mass appeal for integrity/authenticity.
    Outliers exist to this generalization, of course. However, good art seems to require some degree of originality. The only remaining methods to avoid repeating what has been done before are 1) to be completely outside the system, i.e. Aboriginal art, or 2) to know what has been done before and react to it, which requires education. I believe education (in the holistic sense) is the most important variable here, not social class. Of course, each greatly affects the other.
    While a decent public education is available to all, great disparities exist, and the student’s atmosphere matters a great deal. Surrounded by un- or under-educated people, with practical life problems of money, family, food, culture, etc., some students don’t take advantage of the educational opportunities they have. Whereas, someone we would consider “educated” was generally surrounded by people who valued education, and had a relatively stable home life (by comparison). These situations don’t necessarily follow social class, though they often do.
    Also, some people refute bourgeois tastes regardless of their social class. If they didn’t, the GOP would probably have no voting bloc. As you well know, many middle-class, “educated” Americans (including many Iowans) prefer the simplistic, lowbrow, meat-and-potatoes mainstream. And many lower-class young people try to push the boundaries, sometimes stumbling upon taste.
    And all this means what, exactly? Pretty much what you said. The tasteless, huddled masses can still have their heart’s desires. Even if those desires are decidedly gauche.

    * The wind was just about right that night in the “City of Five Smells”, and I don’t remember smelling the river, the Quaker plant, or the ethanol plant. Or, I’ve just grown accustomed to the rich, malty reek of CR.

  3. I think you’ve failed to identify the cause and effect. The poor don’t like PB:MC because they’re poor and it’s a cultural signifier. People with lowered capacities for following dramatic and comedic repartee enjoy the film because it’s easier, and if you’re that stupid, it’s also more statistically likely that capitalism is going to screw you into being or staying poor.

    As I read this entry, I couldn’t help recalling Dan’s absolute love for Jackass The Movie when that came out (same fat, falling down as PB:MC, but requires viewer to have stunted emotional center and disconnect from others experiencing severe pain). Alas, I enjoyed Jackass too.

  4. Mose-

    To me (a huge jackass fan) the difference is simple. Jackass is a bunch of guys purposely performing idiotic ‘stunts’ and endangering their lives for our entertainment.

    Paul Blart on the other hand, is Die Hard for Children.

Leave a Comment.