Every December, I head up to Northern California to see family and friends, and mostly I love catching up with everybody, and feasting, and singing, and other holiday things, but I also have to brace myself for a particular type of interaction: “How’s Los Angeles?” “You haven’t become an LA native, have you?” “They haven’t converted you, have they?” And then when they notice some small aspect of Southern Californian culture in my mannerisms, there’s uproar. One time, I made the mistake of calling Interstate 880 “the 880,” and I didn’t hear the end of it for days. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind being teased. Teasing is an integral part of how I relate to other people. But in this case, there’s something much more sinister under the surface.
If you were listening in on my holiday conversations, you might think that Northern California and Southern California have a sort of friendly rivalry—we poke fun at aspects of each other’s cultures; we argue about which part of California is better; Northern Californians call Southern Californians mainstream, and Southern Californians call Northern Californians dirty hippies. This rivalry, however, is one directional. Southern Californians are in general completely oblivious to its existence. And what’s more, it’s not actually friendly. I grew up in Northern California; adults know how to hide their bigotry under a facade of humor, but kids are more sincere. Northern Californians actually just hate Los Angeles.
People in Los Angeles are shallow. They’re vain. They’re materialistic. And it’s not just Northern Californians who feel this way. A friend in New York told me that his peers sometimes talk about how fake Angelenos are. And I’ve seen the same sentiment echoed in online spaces. Some of my favorite internet personalities have mentioned their disdain for Los Angeles culture, in an offhand sort of way, as if LA’s shallowness is an obvious fact, it doesn’t merit discussion.
So, here’s a question: None of these people have spent much time in Southern California. Why do they think they know what Angeleno culture is?
I. Why do people think they know what they think they know about Los Angeles?
Look. I’m not innocent here. As I said, I grew up in Northern California. I grew up hating on LA. I moved to Southern California for Caltech, not for Los Angeles, and I remained skeptical of Los Angeles as a city for an embarrassingly long time.
So why did I think I knew what I thought I knew about Los Angeles?
A huge number of movies and TV shows take place in or near Los Angeles, and these movies tend to be paint the city in certain inaccurate ways.
II. How do movies depict Los Angeles?
II.1 Los Angeles equals Hollywood
First, and least nefarious, a lot of the media that takes place in Los Angeles is about people who work in (or who want to work in) entertainment. Of course, this tendency is only natural— movies and TV are, at least in part, a tool for self expression by the creators, so the characters will inevitably reflect the real people who writers and directors interact with on a day to day basis. There’s nothing inherently wrong with depicting actors and their struggles; I like well-crafted films about the interpersonal drama that arises when strong personalities get together to put on a show (Birdman is amazing) (I also like novels with lonely nerdy protagonists who find solace in books); but it’s not an accurate depiction of Los Angeles.
In reality, only about 5% of private sector workers in Los Angeles work in the entertainment industry (and most of those jobs are less glamorous roles less likely to be depicted in the movies), compared to, for example, 10% of the New York City workforce works in finance. The entertainment industry is economically important in Los Angeles, and of course it’s culturally relevant, just like finance in culturally relevant to New York, but it’s far from culturally central.
Thinking back, before moving here I must have known (or at least I would have realized if I thought about it) that entertainment couldn’t be all that central to Los Angeles culture: I had seen movies that showed footage of the Los Angeles urban sprawl. I knew that Los Angeles was a big metropolis, and that the entertainment industry must be small by comparison.
But that kind of rational assessment of the relative size of city and entertainment industry isn’t how people interact with stories. I saw Los Angeles depicted in media, and the Los Angeles I saw was full of movie-stars and aspiring actors and failed actors and washed up entertainers. And it was only natural that this bled into my conception of what Los Angeles was. Los Angeles, I learned, was full of people who are constantly competing for clout and fame.
II.2 Beauty and related concepts
People like to look at pretty things. People like to look at pretty things, so it only makes sense that actors are significantly more good-looking than the average person. And in addition to actors’ generally symmetrical faces and their facial features that correspond to current beauty standards, studios also employ professional stylists and make up artists, so that the people we see on our screens are always clean, well-groomed, and a picture of perfect health.
And this prettiness and cleanliness extends beyond the characters. Interior spaces are often very attractive, and usually, if not tidy, at least physically very clean. And again, this makes sense. People prefer looking at attractive and clean spaces. I don’t watch TV for a perfect recreation of reality. I don’t need to see the grime that accumulates in actual living spaces. I’m happy watching characters interact in an immaculate kitchen.
And this beauty and cleanliness can also extend into the personal lives of the characters. Of course many films and TV shows tackle very serious themes, but the most widely marketable entertainment is less challenging. People like to watch TV to relax. We don’t always want our shows to address financial problems, or trauma, or mundane health issues. Sometimes we want intrigue and petty interpersonal drama. We want a beautified, more exciting, and easier version of life.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of beautification. I don’t always want to interact with art that challenges and deeply moves me; that would be exhausting. But when a huge amount of beautified media depicts a particular city, it can rub off on our impressions of that city. For a more naive (less cynical) person, this kind of media might create the sense that Los Angeles is a place where no one has real problems, and where everything is easy. I was a Smart Critical Thinker, so I knew that such perfect places couldn’t exist—instead of leaving me with a positive impression, this beautification created a sense of artifice (of course, it’s fiction; it’s literally artificial), which in turn imbued my impression of Angeleno culture with that same sense of artifice: People in Los Angeles are fake, I learned. They care deeply about surface level appearances and avoid real emotional expression.
II.3 Actual bigotry
Los Angeles is an ethnically diverse city, but the people depicted in movies and on TV tend to be white. Los Angeles has a large number of Latinx communites, some of which have been in the area since before California was part of the United States, but you would never get a sense of that history from TV. Los Angeles also has a huge Armenian American community (as of the 1990 census, Los Angeles was home to the largest population of Armenians anywhere in the world outside of Armenia), and this Armenian American population is very visible to anyone who lives in Los Angeles, but again you wouldn’t know about it if you only learned about Los Angeles from the movies.
(Film critic Thom Andersen in his 2003 video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself points out that many movies ostensibly take place in specific Los Angeles majority-minority neighborhoods, but these movies tend to be filmed in upper-middle class majority white neighborhoods, and tend to have a mostly white cast. I can’t personally speak to how widespread this phenomenon is, and I don’t know to what extent it has continued into 21st century media, but I can say that I know what it’s like to find piece of media that depicts a boring white-bread community with your diverse hometown’s name slapped onto it, and it’s infuriating.)
One thing that the entertainment industry gets right about Los Angeles (and maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy) is that the city is a destination for disaffected youth who for whatever reason feel the need to leave home and seek acceptance or fame or artistic fulfillment in the City of Angels. What the movies generally don’t show you is that these youths are very often either gay or transgender (or both). Los Angeles is not as gay as San Francisco, but it has large gay and transgender populations, and these populations are visible to anyone actually interacting with the city. The queerness of Los Angeles should not be surprising if we stop to think about it—of course gay and transgender teenagers are much more likely to have serious problems in their home-lives that push them to seek community elsewhere—but for me, entering Los Angeles with preconceptions shaped by the media, it was unexpected.
This white-washing and straight-washing of Los Angeles is what gets me actually upset about the media’s depiction of the city. I can roll my eyes at people who say that Angelenos are fake or clout-obsessed, but the expectation that Angelenos are homogeneous and boring—the erasure of diverse and vibrant communities—is actually harmful. I don’t really want to get into a discussion of exactly why representation matters, let’s just accept that representation matters. Representation is a pathway to political empowerment and change, and the real people of Los Angeles need that kind of empowerment just as much as ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities need it in any other city.
III. What is Los Angeles actually like?
Look, I can’t tell you what Los Angeles is like. A full description of a multifaceted city is beyond the scope of single blog post. And I’m also not really an expert on Los Angeles. I live here, but I still feel culturally like an outsider. I don’t have deep roots in any Los Angeles communities. But here’s what I can say:
Even more so than in most cities, a single unified view of Los Angeles is necessarily short sighted. There is no single city center that forms the cultural or commercial heart of the city. But don’t mistake this lack of center for a lack of community. The sprawled nature of the city means that it’s more a collection of overgrown overlapping towns than a single unified entity, and accordingly Los Angeles is a network of smaller cultural hubs.
So with this limitation in mind, it’s not going to be possible for any one piece of media to definitively capture Los Angeles as a whole. I’m sure that there are lots of films that attempt to depict some of the many unseen faces of Los Angeles. I’m not a film buff, so I can’t give much of a list, but I will say that Tangerine, which tells the stories of two transgender prostitutes and an Armenian taxi driver, feels like a much more accurate portrait of the city that I personally interact with than anything else I’ve seen.