On January 3, 2017, Kim Kardashian West posted a picture to Instagram featuring her husband, rapper Kanye West, and her two children Saint and North, standing outside doing nothing. The caption read simply “family.” Fans flocked to the unremarkable photo, which rapidly amassed more than four million likes. A friend texted me: “Kim’s back on IG.” It was the reality TV star’s first post in almost three months. After Kardashian was tied up and robbed by jewel thieves during Paris Fashion Week in October 2016, she was scolded for her bling-ridden Instagram account by none other than Karl Lagerfeld, who at a press conference following his Chanel show suggested that Kardashian had brought the harrowing assault upon herself: “You cannot display your wealth and then be surprised that some people want to share it with you.” Lagerfeld wasn’t the only one. From the Paris police to social media users, people were blaming the star for being extremely rich and extremely online at the same time. Kardashian’s Instagram went dark for months.
When she resumed posting, her pictures were different. They were blurry and dim. They looked old and damaged, like Polaroids that had been stored in a damp basement. Instead of depicting herself in her usual luxurious surroundings, Kardashian appeared in places that seemed broken-down, drab, almost dirty. One picture was of Kim in a dank, empty room with a white floor that looks like linoleum. In a post captioned “AFTER AFTER MET,” sent following the Met Gala in New York, the star wears a white outfit while sitting on a white couch. The poor picture quality makes it hard to tell where Kim ends and the furniture begins. An oversize, menacing gray cherub statue looms behind her. In the background, a window shows city lights at night, but not a skyline—an acknowledgment of urbanity without any high-rise glitz. The hazy picture, the disorienting surroundings, and the suggestion of a big bad city out the window all signaled a new seriousness, a renewed commitment to the things that matter, not the diamond grill and Lorraine Schwartz ring seen in her last Instagram post before the robbery. This was the real, pared-down, authentic Kim. This was Kim Kardashian’s gritty reboot.
Naturally, the world began to wonder: what filter was she using? Buzzfeed hypothesized that her social team used several, starting with the “grain” function of the VSCO photo editing app. “It looks to me like they were shot with a Polaroid camera and afterward re-photographed with the phone,” LA-based photographer Donato Sardella told the Hollywood Reporter. “These 10 Apps Will Make Your Photos Look Like Shit, In a Good Way,” the online magazine Galore promised, detailing ways to add light leaks, oversaturate and de-saturate colors, and otherwise give phone photos the grit and grain of Kardashian’s. One poorly lit photograph at a time, Kim proved herself yet again fully in command of our contemporary visual language, recognizing that earnestness could easily be conveyed with bad lighting and ill-defined edges.
The words “gritty,” “authentic,” and “realism” have become almost interchangeable in our aesthetic judgments. An interview with the cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino can carry a title like “How the ‘Ozark’ DP Created a ‘Gritty, Authentic Vibe’ with Consistent Color Temps and Practical Lighting” without irony. The academic website Public Seminar, noting the popularity of shows like HBO’s “The Deuce” and Jeremiah Moss’s book Vanishing New York, remarked “Nostalgia for ‘gritty’ New York is so strong, it’s surprising that someone hasn’t started selling cans of ‘authentic NYC grit’ in Times Square.” These verbal formulations signal the various associations that authenticity carries now: dark cinematography, orange dust storms, psychologically scarred antiheroes, urban blight, oral sex, radiation sickness, and so on. When some combination of these elements is present in a work, it’s a piece of gritty realism. The word “gritty” has become ubiquitous in both popular and vernacular criticism, appearing alongside words like “authentic,” “edgy,” “dark,” and “uncompromising.” That last word suggests an anxiety that, in the twenty-first century, realism has been compromised. But by what?
“Gritty” is what literary theorist Sianne Ngai calls an everyday aesthetic category. It belongs to the critical lexicon we employ when discussing a film or TV show with a friend over drinks or in the back of an Uber. Here, for the sake of convenience, I’ll use gritty as a noun, as Ngai does with the primary objects of her study: cute, zany, and interesting. Words like these, Ngai writes, are “part of the texture of everyday social life, central at once to our vocabulary for sharing and confirming our aesthetic experiences with others.”¹ Yet that very ordinariness is why words like these remain undertheorized, slipping through the cracks of critical investigation.
I’ve examined the corners where gritty lurks, and found that the word has come to indicate its opposite: the promise of safety rather than the possibility of danger. Gritty has become bound up in a fantasy of authentic experience. It is the desire of our society’s most protected, its whitest, its richest, its straightest for a kind of danger tourism, a chance to descend into depths while knowing the rope around your waist can bring you back to the surface at any time. People who can call the cops, people who can always hail a cab—these are gritty realism’s most enthusiastic consumers.
The real, it seems, requires constant reinvention: neorealism, dirty realism, kitchen sink realism, magical realism, social realism, socialist realism. At the heart of all these movements is a sense that realism on its own is not real enough, or the wrong kind of real; often, but not always, the call is for something rougher and poorer. Italian neorealist directors, for instance, reacted to the telefoni bianchi (white telephone) films of the 1930s that portrayed wealthy protagonists lounging in luxurious settings by making movies that showed the dirt and decay of a postwar Italy devastated by bombing and poverty.
Such grit has a remarkable allure. Ingrid Bergman wanted it, and she got it: her romance with the married Roberto Rossellini tarnished her sparkling reputation. I remember seeing a still from Stromboli (1950), the first film they worked on together, in which Bergman faces the camera to avoid making eye contact with three nuns who are looking at her as if she were filthy. It seemed to inscribe the disgrace of her off-camera affair on the screen. But this tense image does not convey the gritty of today, which is about seeing this sin and wanting it for yourself, envying it, thinking of ways to re-create it in pictures on a trip to southern Italy without the risk of being, like Bergman, banned by Hollywood and denounced on the Senate floor.
Movements like Italian neorealism were true attempts to grapple with the brutal realities of capitalism. Gritty realism is not a movement; no auteurs claim it. It is largely a spontaneous appellation attached to commercial projects. Ingeniously, however, it cloaks itself in earlier, authentically gritty visual vocabularies. It wants us to think that it, too, shines a light on the underbelly of society, but this is disingenuous. Just look at how much money is in it.
Film critics often date the beginning of the era of gritty reboots to Batman Begins (2005), the first installment of director Christopher Nolan’s trilogy about the comic book superhero. Kwame Opam writes in The Verge that Batman Begins “taught Hollywood that digging up old stories and repainting them with a darker palette could make a whole generation of moviegoers fill theater seats.” After the nippled bat suits of Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997), Nolan gave us a darker, manlier, grittier vision. He achieved the effect by relying heavily on nighttime scenes, giving Bruce Wayne brunette love interests, and casting Christian Bale—whose breakout role was serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (2000)—as the caped crusader. In the fifteen years since the release of Batman Begins, we have had gritty reboots of the Power Rangers, Superman, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and the Archie comics. Last fall, “Saturday Night Live” spoofed the gritty reboot with a fake trailer of a film about Oscar the Grouch. Amid cuts to a graffiti-ridden Sesame Street and Count von Count counting pills in a dank alley, a voiceover promises “the next gritty anti-hero origin story.” Gritty realism likes misunderstood villains. Indeed, it would seem a key component of the gritty cinematic aesthetic that it asks us to see violent white men as traumatized and misunderstood; gritty is Freudian and yet quintessentially American.
The gritty of our time is almost always fake. It is a filter meant to evoke the spirit of #nofilter if not the appearance of it. Even Batman himself, the progenitor of our era’s gritty relaunch, eventually gets called on his bullshit. When Bane comes to the Batcave in The Dark Knight Rises, Batman shuts down the lights, hoping to disorient his enemy. But Bane scoffs: “Ah, you think darkness is your ally? You merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, molded by it.” Batman, Bane says, in a rare moment of Hollywood franchise self-reflection, can take gritty on and off. It is a style, a costume. As Batman, Bruce Wayne lives out the privileged class’s fantasy of enjoying sporadic forays into the underworld with a getaway car at the ready.
“Gritty” used to mean what it meant. In Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places (2009), sociologist Sharon Zukin writes about the transformation of the term from signifier of urban decay to shorthand for postindustrial chic, or what Zukin calls “nouveau grit.” In the 1940s and ’50s, she explains, the grittiness of urban life was often evoked in film noir to refer to the problems facing American cities in the wake of suburbanization. “Gritty was the word for what they,” those urbanites fleeing cities for the comforts of cul-de-sac life, “left behind: crowded streets, rising crime rates, and blue collar lives.” But beginning in the 1980s, Zukin says, one can detect the early signs of a shift. As people were increasingly priced out of the wealthier areas of cities like New York and San Francisco, the fringes somehow had to become attractive. Seemingly out of nowhere, restaurant critics, developers, and publicists began to use “gritty” to mean something closer to “ripe.” They described “gritty warehouses, ungentrified neighborhood bars, and century-old cast-iron buildings” as the trappings of cool, as the backdrop of life for people who were in the know, as housing markets on the verge of being expensive. “Gritty’s appeal,” Zukin writes, lay “in the symbolic economy’s ability to synthesize dirt and danger into new cultural commodities.”²
Gritty today is danger as a style, not a lived social reality. Gritty is part of what makes gentrification possible—the promise of real-life encounters with “diverse people” and their mores. In 2019 the food website Eater surveyed Yelp reviews and found that ratings for non-European restaurants were tied up with customers’ desire to have an “authentic” dining experience, which in the case of so-called ethnic cuisine meant “dirt floors, plastic stools, and other patrons who are non-white.” In 2017 Becca Brennan, a former corporate tax attorney, opened a bar called Summerhill in the predominantly Black Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, site of infamous race riots in 1991. A press release boasted about the real bullet holes in the wall (which a report by Eater revealed to be fake) and giddily mentioned a rumor that the space used to be an illegal gun shop. The bar sold rosé in 40-ounce bottles and said their racist marketing strategy was intended as “cheeky.” The self-described “boozy sandwich shop,” considered emblematic of all the problems with gentrification, was met with neighborhood protests and widespread condemnation on social media. People who lived through gang wars did not, it turned out, need to overpay for the experience. At one demonstration, a protester held a sign that said “We’re a community, not your aesthetic.”
In 2018 Philadelphia’s hockey team, the Flyers, announced that something had been unearthed in the midst of recent renovations at their team stadium, the Wells Fargo Center. A creature that had been subsisting on nothing but hot dogs had its secret hideout disturbed by the construction work. From the rubble, it emerged: Gritty, the team’s new mascot. The night of his debut on the ice, Gritty fell on his ass. He threatened the Pittsburgh Penguin on Twitter: “Sleep with one eye open tonight, bird.” To newcomers, to people who had visited Philly on occasion, he seemed the perfect emblem of this dirty, working-class, down-on-its-luck city. This city, however, is disappearing. A 2019 study found that Philadelphia is the fourth most rapidly gentrifying metropolitan area in the country; brokers are looking to package the city as an affordable, homey, real-America alternative to New York. Real estate agent Christopher Plant created a website called movetophilly.com that caters to Brooklynites looking for cheaper housing. ”Philadelphia is the new Brooklyn,” the site reads, “the Brooklyn that allows you to live the way you want to live.” The Flyers’ new mascot felt like the apex of the city’s newly commodified grittiness. Last year, the Wells Fargo Center opened a Gritty C.O.M.M.A.N.D. Center, where fans could “get grittified” with orange face paint and hair glitter; there were also novelties for sale, including a gravy boat with two straws.
In gritty, reverse white flight has found its aesthetic category, even if it means the word has had to become divested of its original meaning. One could not have picked a worse moment. Looking dirty used to be easy. Before the shift to digital photography, we had the possibility of what scholar Lucas Hilderbrand calls “bootleg aesthetics.” Bootleg, he writes, is “a generational deterioration specific to analog recording,” born of the era of VCRs and the unauthorized copies made on them. Bootleg films “lost resolution from multiple generations of duplication so that the color looks washed out and the audio sounds distorted.”3
This natural distortion and deterioration disappeared with the advent of digital recording. In the film industry, this was mourned as the loss of film grain by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, who still refuses to shoot in digital. His collaborator Robert Rodriguez, however, has found a workaround. When asked by Wired how he achieved a “gritty, dirty” look for Grindhouse (2007), Rodriguez replied, “We want the movie to look like it’s been out on the circuit for a couple of years, all scratched and deteriorated, lots of wear and tear—basically, we’re trying to fake a relic. We were able to do all of that digitally . . . using technology to emulate an old camera system.” Gritty puts the poor in poor picture quality; it re-creates bootleg aesthetics for people who can afford a ticket to the show.
Gritty is commodified danger for people who do not feel they are in any actual danger, so perhaps it is no surprise that gritty aesthetics function differently in the Black visual imaginary and in feminist photography. Grainy and pixelated videos from dashcams, bodycams, surveillance cameras, and cell phones have driven the Black Lives Matter movement. Some thought racial justice would require an escape from gritty aesthetics. It was hoped that clearer images, less grainy video, higher definition, could reinstate fairness through literal transparency. In 2014, after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Barack Obama announced he would request $263 million from Congress to purchase police body cameras. A decade earlier, the Hawk-Eye camera system was adopted in tennis tournaments in response to umpire Mariana Alves’s atrocious officiation of Serena Williams’s match against Jennifer Capriati at the 2004 US Open. Poet Claudia Rankine writes about the moment in Citizen (2014): “Though no one was saying anything explicitly about Serena’s black body, you are not the only viewer who thought it was getting in the way of Alves’s sight line.”
Yet Williams continues to be surveilled, overjudged, robbed. Police body cameras have yielded little more than clearer images of blatant injustice. Perhaps the answer lies in being so grainy that we become un-seeable. In the Poetics of Relation (1990), Martinican writer Édouard Glissant expressed his exasperation with demands that postcolonial writers make themselves understandable to Western readers. Glissant called instead for inscrutability, for “the right to opacity.”
The feminist painter and photographer Marilyn Minter also troubles the contemporary commercialization of the gritty aesthetic. She often portrays women at once bejeweled and dirty, too covered in grime to be traditional sex objects—filthy in the wrong way. In Wave (2006), Minter shows a woman’s impeccably pedicured foot, in open-toed turquoise snakeskin high heels, stepping into a puddle of dirty water. By intermingling makeup and luxury goods with images of women in distress, forced into constrained and physically painful situations for the sake of beauty, Minter does not give fashion photography a gritty reboot. Instead, she shows the true grittiness of being a woman, in an unsettling close-up. In contrast, even when Kardashian took a grainy turn, she never looked unkempt or unclean. Glamour appeared faded, but never corrupted.
Gritty realism may have met its match in the COVID-19 pandemic. Even Gritty the mascot is doing ads for the Philadelphia Health Department, encouraging people to wash their hands. Lysol, Clorox, and Purell products are generally sold out or on back order. We are eager to disinfect and sanitize. Warnings have gone out not to drink bleach. People are fleeing cities for the clean air of the Catskills. Danger is no longer something anyone needs to seek out or manufacture. N95 is the filter we all want. For her part, Kardashian has been busy promoting Skims, her shaping and loungewear line. “I wake up, workout and change into fresh pajamas every day LOL, so I had to make the best, most comfy pajamas and loungewear w/@skims.” The ease with which the privileged classes can escape danger is laid bare as they Instagram from their cloistered coziness, working from home. In the meantime, overcrowded cities, dirty surfaces, and rule breakers have regained their status as legitimate dangers. Gritty is returning to its origins. In the parlance of our times, nature is healing.
1 Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2015, p. 29.
2 Sharon Zukin, Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, New York, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 51–52.
3 Lucas Hilderbrand, Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright, Durham, N.C., 2009, p. 175.
This article appears under the title “False Grit” in the September 2020 issue, pp. 60–63.