The Real Deal
Grad's documentary aims to change the pop culture conversation
by Kelly Knufken

Lydia Stirling ’03 isn’t afraid to be provocative. And what could be more challenging to the status quo than bucking the stereotype that young people are about as deep as the latest hot song download?

In Stirling’s first documentary film, Pop+Culture, she takes aim at the notion that today’s youth are all about MTV and image. What’s even more scandalous is that she made the quest for meaning, purpose and religion a central theme of the project.

“You can talk about sex all day long,” she says with emphasis. “But the second you try to say you believe in Jesus or whoever you believe in, it’s like (gasp) ‘Why did you just say that?’ I don’t get that at all.”

Pop+Culture — which explores the media’s influence on issues like image, success and love — was a natural project for Stirling, whose Canadian family owns NTV, the last independent television station in North America.

“I just wanted to put out something positive and something real,” she says. “I think there’s a lack of realness out there.”

The film features some biting media criticism by a series of Stirling’s peers, including USD alums. They talk about how consuming appearance can be and how the pop culture media blitz can pollute our ideas about love. Many of those featured have had epiphanies that left them less obsessed with appearance than they used to be; one girl admits she probably was anorexic for a time. Modern-day references and video clips are interspersed throughout. For Stirling, who credits USD communications courses with helping her learn to challenge typical pop culture voices, the media are a means “to say what I feel in my heart.”

The manifestation of those feelings is reflected in Stirling’s bright, infectious personality. She’s endlessly energetic, bubbling over with ideas about not just her last film, but the projects she’s following it up with: a documentary on alternative healing, an exercise video and a pilot for a fun but substantive travel television show aimed at youth culture. “You have to dream big,” says Stirling, whose own dreams include having a film play at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and an Oscar nomination.

Like so many of her peers, Stirling is bombarded with media messages that focus on image. But unlike most, she digs beneath the surface of that constant onslaught, rather than just taking it on faith that appearances are what’s most important. “Being a woman, I relate to this concept as all women do, in some sort of a struggle,” Stirling says. “Thin, glamorous, gothic, grunge; your identity is in many ways expressed externally. Like many things, there is a balance. Growing up in Southern California, I’ve experienced such a unique obsession with image.”

The experience of making Pop+Culture was the first step on Stirling’s journey toward realizing her dreams. She says that making the film was like attending a four-year film school, since she played every role — from interviewer to cinematographer to editor to lighting coordinator.

When she rented out a La Jolla auditorium earlier this year and put on a premiere, it was the culmination of this particular dream.

“I knew I had a message

I wanted to say, and I knew there was a voice missing. But the moment I saw it on the big screen, with all these people in the theater, I was just hooked.” She laughs, her doe eyes gleaming. “I thought, ‘This is what I’m meant to do.’”

For more information on Pop+Culture and Stirling, go to