What does ‘gritty’ even mean, anyway?

gritty (adj.)
1590s, “resembling or containing sand or grit,” from grit (n.) + -y (2). In sense of “unpleasant” (of literature, etc.), from 1882, in reference to the sensation of eating gritty bread. Meaning “plucky, spirited, courageous and resolute” is from 1847. Related: Grittily; grittiness.

The new hotness in adult pop culture right now is ‘grittiness,’ a trait that some have difficulty pinning down — you know it when you see it but you can’t define it unless you have it in front of you. As with other trends in pop culture, it may be easier to identify after it’s gone and we can evaluate the totality of the body of work produced, but in contemporary evaluations of pop culture it’s critical to be able to distinguish grit from other types of media which may be dark and complicated in their own ways, but still don’t really fall into this category.

Obviously, fans of gritty books, films, and television aren’t enjoying the sweet sensation of sandy goodness, so the term is being used in other ways — almost as though English is an evolving language, which as we know is a ludicrous proposition. To my eye, looking at what’s positioned as ‘gritty’ and the appeal of such media, such content has a raw, rough feel — shaky cameras, grainy film, a sense of being unpolished — as well as a dark one. We have moved beyond the antihero and into truly shady leading characters who often aren’t terribly sympathetic, though not necessarily.

In a way, the trend towards the gritty echoes noir films of the 1930s and 1940s, which is not a coincidence. There are some key social commonalities between now and the noir era that might explain our current passion for darker work. But where noir is sleek and sophisticated, though dark and sometimes savage, grit is messy. Noir is filet, grit is ribs. Noir arose in the Great Depression, in the midst of a culture living in times too dark for fluffy productions of the 1920s to feel adequate — consumers wanted something that spoke to their experiences, not something that seemed to mock them. The stark elegance of the era reflected cultural values in a society that had lost a great deal, but had an abiding love for the beautiful, the Art Deco, the Art Nouveau. The 1930s brought about some of the most stunning public art and architecture in the United States, and much of it appears to brilliant effect in noir productions, whether on film or in lush descriptions in books or on stunning murals that have withstood the test of time.

Grit reflects some of the same aesthetic ideals, emerging as it does from another dark economic time characterised by growing class inequality and the sense that some people managed to escape the inevitable crash while leaving everyone else holding the bag. Unlike noir, it doesn’t maintain the pretense of sleek beauty, though, reflecting the social distance between an era in which aesthetics often won out over function and a time when the brutal lines of cold modern architecture dominate the landscape. Grit reflects a dirty, fast-moving world — one that is almost gritty in a literal sense in urban regions, where particulates fill the air and oppress residents with smog.

It’s still a journey into the darker parts of human beings, though, and notably, many of the best examples of grit also pay homage to noir, something creators freely admit. Hannibal is pure noir updated for a modern aesthetic — the body horror of the show never would have flown in 1930, but today, it comes more naturally. Breaking Bad, frequently cited as one of the quintessential examples of the gritty genre, on the other hand, is a reflection of the more modern face of grit. But, like noir, it maintains the elements of incredibly meticulous composition, crafty uses of light and shadow, deliberate care with each and every single scene — the costumes, the lighting, and the staging are all impeccable and an important part of the drama for viewers and creators alike.

In the film realm, texts like the more recent entries in the Batman franchise upend notions of superheroes and bring viewers a more nuanced, dark depiction of characters they think they know, set in equally carefully composed settings. Every element of staging and creation is meticulously considered, revealing something about the characters and the story for those who read closely, creating subtext and narrative layers for those with an interest in seeking them out. British film has been gritty for much longer than its US counterpart, with entries like Trainspotting and This is England — and in the US, Tarantino has been an early leader in the genre with his devastatingly artistic violence and messy, demanding storytelling. Films like Sin City have brought the story full circle, incorporating the noir genre and the modern gritty into one seamless enterprise.

Grit isn’t about creepiness or horror — though I do see films like Se7en rightfully included in compilations of the genre. And it’s also not necessarily about drama, as illustrated by Trainspotting, or, for that matter, SLC Punk. Even romance and grit aren’t mutually exclusive — as with noir, in fact, some of the starkest and most striking grit revolves around romance, usually in an either unrequited or tragic form, though not necessarily — Bill and Lorena on True Blood, for example, represent a gritty romance characterised by their mutual love of extreme and horrific violence during their time together.

The genre grows at risk of being watered down if it’s not clearly defined and defended, which would be a pity. Consumers of media and pop culture deserve something that speaks to the world they’re living in, not a sanitised version of what people wish the world could be.

Image: the milkman’s dilemma, Jes, Flickr