“There Can Be Only One”: The ‘Highlander’ Theory of Pop Culture Death Matches

In 1986, Highlander, a seamy little B-picture featuring Sean Connery and a cast of unknowns in ’80s noir New York, was unleashed upon the world with this tagline: “There can be only one.” In the complicated mythos of Highlander — which would go on to spawn five sequels, a television series, novels, animated series, and a rumors of a reboot starting in 2008 — “there can be only one” referred to the fact that we lived in a world where there were Immortals, a special class of people who live forever unless a fellow Immortal beheads them. The last Immortal standing got all the power.

That’s the short version. But even though Highlander was a cheesy bit of entertainment, I think about it far more often than I should — and that’s because in the world of pop culture, celebrity is its own form of being an Immortal, and more often than not, artists, entertainment, and products are pitted against each other in a fight to the death.

It’s a case of language, much of the time: as parodied in Josie and the Pussycats, X is the new Y is par for the course for the media. Orange is the new black. Tretorns are the new Adidas. Health goth is the new normcore. But where this language gets tricky is when they talk about actual people, as reliable as the change in seasons: crowning a new “It girl” when Sundance comes around, or an awards show, or slightly colder weather.

Part of it is a need for context. You can get people to click on and to read about, say, Desiree Akhavan if you call her “the next Lena Dunham,” and you compare her debut film Appropriate Behavior to Dunham’s HBO show Girls. You can get people to read about Broad City as the next Girls or the anti-Girls, depending on your taste. But it’s tiring. As Grantland pointed out in its Broad City feature, “One of the boxes that both creators are tired of is being lumped together with Girls. ‘Lena [Dunham] is a fucking genius,’ [Ilana Glazer says], ‘but why group us all together?’”

It’s quick shorthand as writing and it’s lazy. Where it’s frustrating is the way in which it pits people against each other; and much of the time, those people are minorities and women. I wrote a moderately satirical piece awhile ago about how Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch were both posh British men up for the Oscars after playing similar genius roles: Redmayne, the younger, cuter actor, was replacing Cumberbatch, who was on our radar a mere second ago.

The point was that on the whole, there weren’t really any articles that treated the two men as being in competition with each other (although look at their Oscar seasons of engagements, marriages, and pregnancies: they were one-upping each other each month); yet I have no doubt that if they were women, it would’ve been a much different story. As Glazer put it: “This comparison happens to anyone who isn’t male or white.”

In the realm of film and TV, women and minorities are pitted against each other constantly. It’s fame as bloodsport. “Who wore it better?” tabloids ask. “When we meet other women who seem happier, more successful, and more confident than we are, it’s all too easy to hate them for it. It means there’s less for us,” wrote The Cut columnist Ann Friedman in her viral “Shine Theory” piece. “X is the new Y” isn’t just a headline formula, it’s a way of saying that the new Lena Dunham, the new Jennifer Lawrence, the new “It girl” of this year’s festival means that these established women are horses that should be taken out behind the shed.

It’s why, despite the canny posturing that accompanies any sort of Taylor Swift and her new gaggle of pals tabloid feature, there’s also something weirdly comforting about it. It’s the narrative of a girl once known, primarily, for writing songs about her exes now living a fuller life and surrounding herself with friendship, even if it is strategic as hell. It says something different about Swift, that she’s interested in bringing people up with her at this point in her life — at least through the tabloids. Her recent new best friends, the rock group Haim, have clearly benefitted from their Swift-social media appearances. They’re joining her on the 1989 tour later this year and they’ve gone beyond just being a cool kid-approved band.

But the thing about pop culture looking at artists and their output through Highlander eyes, saying “there can be only one,” is that it’s limiting. It’s a world of scarcity, a world where we are in The Hunger Games and it’s a zero sum game, saying I win if you lose. It is also a boring world that fails to give people very long careers in the arts and limits the opportunity for comebacks and rebirths.

At the end of the day, the way to deal with pop culture’s incessant Highlander-ing of artists is to notice the limitations of language. Notice the competition that is being created artificially. Build up a network of friendships and bonafides that could rival Swift’s Tribeca parties. Try to use your very own version of Friedman’s “Shine Theory” and shout out some of your favorite work done by artists who are much more than a flavor of the month. Even if the Highlander theory is thrust upon us all the time, even if pop culture wants us to look at females and minorities as competition, we know more than they do: they’re our teammates. We can respond to the Highlander theory: we can identify it as bullshit, and then we can ignore it. Try it for a minute. The results could be very powerful.