I was listening to a call-in episode of one of my favourite podcasts recently, Who? Weekly, when I heard my own voice.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise because I had called in and left them a voice message, but it was. If you haven’t heard it, Who? Weekly is a celebrity and pop culture podcast hosted by ex-entertainment journalists and writers Bobby Finger and Lindsey Weber, where they delve into the world of C and D and E and F list celebrities, labelled “Whos”.
My call, played on the show, was regarding Ashley Tisdale, who you may recognise from the Disney Channel in the 2000s or Sharpay from High School Musical. Or you may not. She’s a “Who?”
Having my call played on Who? Weekly was an achievement and I immediately messaged friends who I knew would be excited. Afterwards, I realised that everyone I had contacted about Tisdale, or who had messaged me about Tisdale, was someone you may not expect.
They are accomplished authors and journalists and TV writers. Comedians, public servants and lawyers. The Who? Weekly Facebook group is full of people with jobs I thought only really existed in movies – staff writers at the New Yorker, architects and archeologists and historians and the like. A couple of weeks ago a lawyer called in to give some facts about Olivia Wilde receiving papers from Jason Sudeikis while on stage.
You might wonder what all of these smart, politically engaged people are doing listening to a podcast that does deep dives on reality stars and the precise movements of Rita Ora, but it’s not just this podcast.
The audience for another of my faves, Bitch Sesh, a Real Housewives recap podcast, is a similar demographic. Hosted by comedy actors and writers (and technically Whos) Casey Wilson and Danielle Schneider, they get into the nuances of each Real Housewives franchise along with guests such as the incredibly bright comedian Ziwe, and writer and professor Roxane Gay.
These are smart people, who instead of (or as well as) reading sonnets and listening to opera (or whatever you people do), allow themselves to not only enjoy trash – but get invested in it. They are what I’ve decided to call “raccoons”. Smart yet obsessed with scrabbling into trash with their little paws, looking for a yummy treat. I consider myself among the raccoons, with a strong reminder that “smart” is a spectrum.
It’s something to connect over, to laugh about
Who? Weekly focuses on what the celebs are up to but the scaffolding of the show is about celebrity culture. It’s talking about reality stars and TikTok stars and the machinations of how these people gain their fame and desperately try to keep it. It encourages us to think about the changing landscape of celebrity, which shifts dramatically and often. Bitch Sesh opens up discussions about race, class and misogyny.
It’s not dumbed down, and it works because all of the hosts and guests are switched on, funny and engaged. The smart in all of this is important, because it prevents things from tipping into the dark and ruinous parts of celebrity parasocial culture. But don’t get it twisted, we aren’t there as undercover smart people pretending to have fun while secretly learning.
We aren’t opposite-Elle Woods. We are happily listening to funny dissections of a Real Housewives reunion episode, or a long discussion about if Sliding Doors the concept is more famous than Sliding Doors the movie.
This, of course, is not just restricted to these two podcasts. Whether it’s Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang on Las Culturistas counting down a list of their favourite songs in “The 300 Songs Of The Great Global Songbook” (Fergie’s M.I.L.F. $ is number 18), or someone on TikTok predicting celebrity births using clues from tabloids – smart and trashy (and fun) is everywhere.
That is another one of the important factors needed to make a raccoon. Part of having fun in this way is allowing yourself to stop caring about seeming smart or seeming cool, and to get genuinely invested. Raccoons don’t feel the need to avoid things other people (definitely some of you reading) might look down their noses at because it isn’t sophisticated enough. And we will never judge you for whatever trashy thing you might hold up to us in your paws.
I can’t speak as to why all of the other raccoons have ended up in the trash with me, but I do think it feels good (and better and better) to focus energy and have fun and use your brain to think about current events that aren’t deeply depressing.
On one of her recent TV episodes, the aforementioned Ziwe says: “Sometimes I don’t like to think about things, and then I don’t feel bad at all.” A sentiment that goes close, I think, to explaining some of this. But it’s also about community, it’s something to connect over, to laugh about.
Importantly, raccooning is not being done ironically or cynically.
My friend with a high-powered corporate job who threw a Taylor Swift party for the rerelease of Red? She loves Taylor Swift, as does everyone who went (including a section editor at this very news outlet) screaming along to songs without fear of judgment. No haters allowed.
On one side we have the internet, where everyone is cynical, and earnestness is mocked and derided, and if you like something you will find 10,000 people to say why you shouldn’t. On the other side we have the old-fashioned, the people who moan that the death of society is being caused by the Kardashians.
Us raccoons? We meet in the middle, near the bins – and we’re having a great time.
• Rebecca Shaw is a writer based in Sydney