Debunking the Myth of Frivolity [Understanding Popular Culture, Part 2]

“It’s just a(n) [insert medium here]!” “It doesn’t restrict what I do or say, so lay off!” “Why don’t you focus on a real problem like [enter “real” topic here].” The list could go on. They’re all different takes on the same idea – popular culture just isn’t important enough to study or critique. That’s all I seem to hear from anyone who doesn’t have the same interest in looking at pop-culture and its intersections that I do. So often, in fact, that I’m beginning to think that most people find the critique of whatever medium is being discussed is so heinous that the mere discussion of it must be stopped immediately or they think they’ll spontaneously combust.

In my introduction, I addressed the general concern of frivolity; namely I said that it wasn’t, indeed, a frivolous topic, but rather one that has immediate relevancy in our lives. In this installment, I would like to examine and debunk the common myths that make up the claim of popular culture being less important a field than traditional ones.

I. It’s Fiction, Not Real Life!

The claim that “it’s only a game/TV show/movie/whatever!” is possibly the number one argument that I hear against critiquing popular culture. It is said as if, because it’s considered to be “entertainment,” no messages can be, or even are meant to be, gained from it. So, while pop-culture is not always real in the tangible sense (a video game world is not 100% the same as ours, for instance), it is as involved in persuading people as this article, or a book, or any other “acceptable” medium is. And, like with any other medium, those who produce popular media use varying tactics — both subtle and obvious — to get their message out. Those messages, whether we want to admit it or not, do have some sort of impact on the way we view ourselves and others.More realistic?

When you have a story — in a novel, a video game, or what have you — the correlation to, and therefore the impact on, real life is probably the most clear. Take Lara Croft, for instance. In an effort to promote realism, she’s gone through a redesign that is meant to make her more accessible (or perhaps take the wind out of the sails of naysayers who think that she helps encourage the objectification of women).

On the one hand, a step towards a more realistic design can be seen as a good thing. When the players, both men and women, are exposed to women like Lara Croft who have a body shape no woman could ever have, it has a good chance of skewing their view of actual women; suddenly normal proportions are seen as “small” or “weird” or even “ugly”. But, making her more realistic — and therefore attainable — comes with its own set of problems.

As a gaming woman, I don’t find Lara Croft’s new proportions especially empowering or representative of me. It’s another message of how I ought to look so I can be sexy, confident, and poised. The consensus was that Croft was ridiculous, even from those who found her aesthetically pleasing. Now, she’s “realistic.” I could, theoretically, look like the new Lara Croft; she’s become within the realm of possibility existing.

[From A Lara Croft I Can Be by Lake Desire]

Lara Croft isn’t real. She’s pixels, vertices, skins… what amounts to an image on your computer or TV screen. But her impact on the minds of those who are exposed to her image, whether for good or ill, is real. And that impact is exactly what is, and what needs to be, addressed when we look at popular culture as a valid body of study.

II. What Makes a “Real” Problem?

Another favourite from the pop-culture bingo board is to make the argument that one should be focusing on real problems instead of this. You know, I’d really love to find the mythical quality that makes something “real” because it seems that everyone has their own opinion on what qualifies as a topic to be discussed. Women’s issues? Try again. Racism, that’s got to be “real”! Not unless it’s obvious. Oh, wait, I know, I know! Men’s issues. If they aren’t real, nothing is! That would be another negatory.

What I’m trying to say is that when you label an issue as “not real” in an attempt to dismiss the person speaking about it, the word “real” loses all meaning. It becomes shorthand for “things I believe in,” but, guess what? Just because you believe that one thing is more important than another doesn’t invalidate the subject at hand. Novel concept, I’m sure! You don’t think pop culture is important? Great, there’s the back button. Hit it and find a subject that does interest you.

Furthermore, this “I get to define what’s real and what’s not” argument is often used in place of actual criticism — dismissing the premise of the original argument means that the points made in it can continue to go unaddressed. Let’s take the controversial White Wolf game that spawned the original version of this post, Pimp the Backhanding. When it was brought to their attention, many feminist White Wolf fans e-mailed the company with their concerns.

The canned response that all of them got is simply shameful:

I’d recommend people that want to do something about actual abuse of women, as opposed to assaulting people because they are mocking the criminals that engage in illegal prostitution, check out this link, and go do something about it:

Or is it maybe too difficult to attack real world problems, so you would prefer to attack fictional ones?

Conrad Hubbard
White Wolf Publishing
Sword & Sorcery
“Promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” – U.S. Constitution

Violence against women? Never!Mr. Hubbard envokes our “go focus on a real issue” argument here. He first of all makes the usual mistake of assuming that speaking out on one issue means that the person therefore cannot, and does not, involve themselves in other issues. Or “mistake,” I should say. I’m fairly sure that in Hubbard’s case, as well as many others, it’s a calcuated move aimed at making the activist look silly while painting the attacker as someone who is truly interested in the root of the issue. Too bad for Mr. Hubbard, it’s quite obvious that he chose the first relevant-looking news article he could find — revealing his argument to be the slap in the face it really is. (Pun intended.)

By utilizing his condescending “more real than thou” rhetoric, Hubbard was able to avoid a real discussion on the potential impact of Pimp on the audience that played it. The real life correlations — language of the game, the treatment of women, the gendered and racialized depictions of the characters, etc. — were swept under the rug as if they don’t, and can never, exist. But, I’m going to go one step farther here. I’m going to suggest that his assumption that he can define what a “real” problem is and is not is tied into his privilege.

In this case, privilege acts as a bubble, insulating a person from the fallout of culture. The problem isn’t “real” to him because he doesn’t have to see that the game feeds the very culture it draws from — nor does he have to see the real harm that the culture does. Racism, sexism, sex trafficking, violence against women… all of these are real issues, and all of them are utilized as themes in the game. And dismissing the way those real issues interact with society and culture because they’re contained in a game that is fictional is in no way, shape, or form a useful thing to do.

III. Jeez, Can’t You Take a Joke?

Continuing on with the Pimp the Backhanding example, I’d like to point to a disclaimer on the site:

Arthaus Games does not condone or support the illegal sex trade industry. Pimp is a fictional game about the humorous stereotypes created by television and film and is in no way representational of the true horrors of the sex trade.

I’d also like to revisit the part of Mr. Hubbard’s response where he argues that White Wolf is “mocking the criminals that engage in illegal prostitution.” The humour defense is quite common and is based on the assumption that if something is supposed to be “funny” it is therefore exempt from any criticism that may be levied on it. Don’t get me wrong, I think that humour and especially sarcasm can be an effective tool to combat oppression, but saying something offensive as if it’s funny isn’t a “get out of jail” free card for being offensive.

I think the game is “mocking” something all right, but I’m not so sure it’s the “criminals who engage in illegal prostitution.” Take, for instance, how they explain the dynamics between the “Macking Phase” and the “Backhanding Phase” on the website:

Each pimp in your posse can be used only once each round, either to mack a ho or to backhand one of the harlots an opponent tries to take home.

So, by normalizing gendered slurs against women (“ho” and “harlot”, both of which are currently used not only to deride prostitutes, but all women), including violence against said women as a desireable game element (“backhanding… the harlots and opponent tries to take home.”), and glorifying pimps while mocking prostitutes is “mocking the criminals who engage in illegal prostitution.” Right.Racism is funny!

Not to mention that I fail to see how a game that uncritically exploits the harmful, sexist, racist, and classist “humorous stereotypes created by television and film” in a way that makes it seem cool is “mocking” the “criminals.” But it’s really obvious how it mocks the “true horrors of the sex trade” that it’s clearly not representing.

IV. Conclusion

Even after reading all this if you think that popular culture is “frivolous” then that’s your business. I’m not asking every person to give up the causes they’re attached to and study pop-culture. Sure, I’d like people to be aware of and care about it, but at this point I’d settle for those not interested in it to just go elsewhere. I’m really sick of the “omg get over it it’s a…” comments that are obviously meant to shame me. Well, I’m not ashamed, because I know that this shit is important. And if I can help one person see the way popular culture influences their life, then it’s worth it.

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21 Responses to Debunking the Myth of Frivolity [Understanding Popular Culture, Part 2]

  1. Lady Aster says:

    Speaking as a feminist gamer (AD&D2E and Shadowrun) who is also a sex worker, I would like to point out that I find *both* this game *and* the disclaimer involved very offensive. Marketing a misogynistic a game based on crude stereotypes of the sex industry is bad enough; ‘defending’ such bigotry by bowing down to the altar of a patriarchal moralism which currently persecutes American sex workers is a second and worse slap in the face. This is to disclaim an insult by adding injury.

    This is my first post, so let me say I’ve been reading and appreciating this page for the last few weeks. My thanks!

    Aster {)(*)(}

  2. Dora says:

    He first of all makes the usual mistake of assuming that speaking out on one issue means that the person therefore cannot, and does not, involve themselves in other issues.

    I’m going to suggest that his assumption that he can define what a “real” problem is and is not is tied into his privilege.

    I think that humour and especially sarcasm can be an effective tool to combat oppression, but saying something offensive as if it’s funny isn’t a “get out of jail” free card for being offensive.

    You hit it in these three sentences. These should be in an automated response to anyone who tries to pull the “it’s just a _____!” line in a comment.

  3. Luke says:

    Daaaaamn. This is a great post. and very timely hammer-drop especially to a lot of the trolls who have been defending the BK commercial among other media images. i’ve got one troll on my blog who keeps posting “It’s sooo funny, i love this commercial!”

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  5. tekanji says:

    Yeah, well that’s what got me off my ass to finish this post. I actually have Part 3 pretty much ready to go and it’s aaaaaaaaall about the BK reaction. Maybe I’ll get it out before I go…

  6. tekanji says:

    Oh, also, happy first comment Lady Aster :) I hope you become a regular face around these parts. ^_^

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  9. NancyP says:

    As I am sure real gamers know (I am not a gamer), the U.S. Armed Forces has been using free war-theme computer games as a recruiting tool to gain the interest of younger pre-signup-age teens. Apparently the Army etc consider that popular culture can have an effect on real life.

  10. Jeremy says:

    Certainly pop-culture entertainment has an effect on society, but with this acknowledgement, I ask what is being ultimately proposed from the author to solve the problem that comes from this kind of negative expression? Though I realize the current discussion is centered on a media company’s refusal to acknowledge the reality of what their products are capable of, it all leads to ‘what is to be done’ about the negative impact.

    The reason company’s like White Wolf are resistant to acknowledging that their product has an effect is out of fear of externally imposed censorship, which, in a Liberty-based society, is ALWAYS wrong. If you’re trying to argue that entertainment media companies should not be aloud to make products that groups of people find offensive, simply because they find them offensive, or because they have a potentially negative psychological impact on society, I will vehemently disagree with you. If, however, you argue that the solution is through education and discussion I will agree in kind.

    Taking offense at somebody’s speech or product is not grounds for legal action or legistlative recourse, the typical path that these situations tend to take. It is, however, grounds for discussion until an opinion prevails. That is all that can be done. That is the price of living in a Liberty-based society: tolerance of ideas that offend. But while you have to tolerate it, you by no means have to accept it.

    Liberty first.


  11. tekanji says:

    Jeremy: This is Part II of a series; I highly recommend that you read all of it to get a better idea of my opinions on this matter.

    While I don’t agree with the idea that “in a Liberty-based society, [externally imposed censorship] is ALWAYS wrong,” (I think there are instances in which it’s needed to equalize an inequal situation), I think that most times externally imposed censorship not only doesn’t solve the problem, but is often done for the wrong reasons. Because that (and probably some other reasons), I believe that the best way to fix these problems is through education and discussion.

    I thought I had addressed that directly in another part of hte series, but looking through it I couldn’t find a concrete point where I said that. It looks like you’ve helped me to come up with the next installment of this series :)

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  13. Oso says:

    while i dont defend the practices of anyone at WW. I also do not believe it is their job to educate people. IF you dont like the game dont buy it. Whats hard about that? I dont like strip clubs, because I think it degrades women,but I dont openly attack anyone, because they are exotic dancers, nor do I put up giant bulletins that anyone going into such an establishment is going to hell. Simply put if you dont like it dont buy it. I understand you are offended by the game, but negative energy begats negative energy. If you dont want your kids to play it, fine, dont let them play it, you dont want to play it fine dont play it, But you may as well want to boycott every other product in the united states because at some point in time if you dig long enough, somone got offended because of the buisness practices, that arent going to lose any buisness because you got offended.

    Martin Luther King had a peacful protest and boycotted, and many buisness lost hard, you dont like it dont buy it. But thats really not going to do anything important, they are still one of the leading RPG houses in the country.


  14. arielladrake says:

    Oso, the simple explanation is that criticism isn’t attacking people. Critical analysis of media and media messages isn’t an attack. Assuming that it’s not WW’s job to educate people, I really don’t see how someone else taking up the role of providing information about how the product perpetuates misogyny and racism is an attack. It’s only an attack if one takes the idea that criticism of any form is an attack. Strangely enough, that charge gets laid at the feet of feminists and other anti-oppression activists all the time. Yeah, people are free to produce what they wish within the law, particularly in countries with protected free speech. However, speech that engages critically with other free speech is *also* protected as … wait for it … free speech.

    The other simple explanation is, okay, so you don’t think voicing criticisms to WW is a valid response. Guess what? You aren’t the authority on what is and isn’t valid.

    And, to finish with a genuine question – Since you’re such an advocate of ‘if you don’t like it, don’t engage with it’, what exactly are you doing commenting here?

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  21. Jen says:

    As far as I can tell the New Lara Croft has had a nose job and a boob job, her nose is IMPOSSIBLY small for her face and her boobs are disproportionate to her waist. Although she is rendered with more polygons, her proportions look like a reflection in a funhouse mirror.

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