Changing Pop-Culture to Change Ourselves [Understanding Popular Culture, Part 4]

In the opening of this series, I talked about how popular culture influenced us because it’s all around us. I talked about how it becomes the elephant in the room because of that. But what I didn’t talk about was how popular culture fits into our battle to change harmful cultural paradigms. And, really, that’s a glaring oversight that I intend to correct right now.

You see, I came across a post today (… oy. by Julia) that gave me one of those headsmacking, “OH!” moments. Not because I agree with her — far from it, I’m about to spend this entire post rebutting the points that she made — but because I finally understand the basis for the argument that [x] concern needs to be shelved so [y] and [z] concern can be taken care of first.

I. Chicken or the Egg Syndrome

So much of what happens in comics seems to be based on predispositions of society. The sexualization won’t really change until society changes and doesn’t, as a whole, view it as being so acceptable.

I’m not going to dispute Julia’s assertion that “much of what happens in comics seems to be based on predispositions of society,” because, well, I agree. Popular culture draws its themes, plots, dialogue, stereotypes, and all that other good stuff from our existing culture. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and it would be naive to pretend that the treatment of women in comics/movies/etc. is self-contained.

But, at the same time, nothing exists in a vacuum. Popular culture doesn’t just draw from society, it is part of what shapes it. Popular culture has been around as long as societies have existed — being inspired by, reinforcing, and ultimately shaping society. Because of this, presenting the problem as linear — “culture –> popular culture” — is misleading. The reality is that the relationship is a circle, with popular culture influencing society and society in turn influencing popular culture.

II. Debunking the “Cause-Effect” Theory

Simply stated, my issue is with the cause and not the effect, because the effect will not dissipate until the cause is eliminated. I would truly like to see things change! But in order for that to happen the root of the problem has to be attacked, and that root is so large that it will take decades, probably, even with all the troops called in (and hopefully behaving themselves).

Bearing in mind what I said in Section I, I’d like to now turn to Julia’s argument that her “issue is with the cause and not the effect, because the effect will not dissipate until the cause is eliminated.” Well, it should come as no surprise that I disagree with the way in which she chose to frame the issue. Here again, I have to say that the “cause-effect” relationship she sets up is misleading because it oversimplifies the issue.

What root of which problem? The sexualization of women? Well, that’s just one facet of the oppression that women face. The patriarchy? Two problems there: 1) it’s an abstract concept, not a concrete problem to be solved, and 2) it supposes that gender inequity is the root of all oppression. Even if you use the word as I sometimes do, as a feminist shorthand for the oppressive institutions that legitimize hierarchies of power, “fighting oppression” is a starting point, not a path to success.

There is no concrete “root” because the problem of oppression intersects all kinds of different cultures. And, frankly, the group who we often think of as our feminist foremothers didn’t just fail to solve the problem of oppression because they didn’t have enough time, but because their idea of what the “root of all oppression” was too narrow. You can’t solve oppression by telling everyone to adopt your particular brand of tunnel vision.

III. The Importance of Recognizing Intersectionality

Let me clarify about the “particular brand of tunnel vision” thing. I don’t think having tunnel vision is a bad thing. We all have our pet topics and that’s cool. Some of us are more focused than others. Studying popular culture is probably my main focus, but since I love cross-sections I also keep abreast of other topics such as feminist issues,
human sexuality, and general oppression work. I don’t think that this is inherently better or worse than someone who chooses one topic, or even a smaller subset of topics, to focus on.

In fact, I’d go one step farther to say that the only way I think we’ll ever have a chance at winning the battle against oppression (as much as one can “win” such a thing) is if we wage this war on multiple levels. I believe that every fight we fight — whether it be against domestic violence or raising our voices against the overabundance of “sexy girls who kick ass” in popular media — is a valuable one. I believe every stride we make, however small and however flawed, should be appreciated.

That doesn’t mean that we have no right to critique it, but rather that the critique shouldn’t be done from a “our time could be spent better elsewhere.” Maybe your time could be spent better elsewhere, but you do not speak for me. If what speaks to you is fighting sexism on a societal level and shelving popular culture, then that’s wonderful! I, for one, am glad that there are activist out there who tackle issues that I don’t have the time and/or energy for.

IV. If the Goal is Unattainable, Why Bother?

And we can’t just snap our fingers and change society. Nor will a small group of people have that large of an impact on the world, in this case. It’s a monumental, impractical and impossible task to attempt, that at this point in time will lead to failure, and then disappointment, resentment and anger over that failure.

No matter how many times I read this quote, all I can think of is, “Oh, come on. Let’s be serious here.” The same can be said of feminism, or civil rights activism, or, really, any cause where people struggle against the way society is. It’s an uphill battle with few victories, and if you’re fighting for the glory you’d just as soon be better off cheering from the sidelines because it ain’t gonna happen.

But, faliure as a reason why we shouldn’t fight for our pet projects? Faliure? I mean, sure, there are some days when I look at what we do to each other and feel that the cause is hopeless. My blogging doesn’t stop the misogynists. It doesn’t stop the feminist infighting. It doesn’t stop the sexualization of women, inside or outside of comics. And if that’s a goal I expect to attain then, yeah, I’m going to fail.

When I, and I suspect many other people who fight oppression in whatever form they like best, say things like “ending the sexualization of women in comic books” is a goal of mine, I don’t mean that it’s my expectation that I, personally, will lead the crusade that once and for all eradicates the way women are used and abused in comics. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Girl Wonder thinks either. That kind of goal is known as a “long term goal” — which means that it’s the ideal that we strive for with our activism. It gives us a common goal from which to form a community.

Maybe one day this community will be big enough to make an impact. Maybe it won’t. But it’s stupid to just give up on fighting for what you believe in because you might not be around to see the main goal come to fruition. And, really, if everyone thought like that then the goal wouldn’t come to fruition! Fighting oppression starts with education — education of ourselves and spreading the awareness to others. If even one person becomes more informed on the issue, and therefore less likely to unthinkingly endorse it, then haven’t we already won?

V. Conclusion

There is no one way to fight for what we believe in. There’s no one topic, no magic button to press to get where we want. We all push our way through life doing the best we can. And, yeah, we’ll make mistakes. We’ll let our anger get the better of us and we’ll hurt each other. And it should be talked about and it should be discussed.

Because, really, discussion is what we all need. We’re not always going to agree, and we’re not always going to understand why another person does something else. And, you know what? That’s perfectly fine. It’s not all thinking the same way that’s the goal, it’s learning to understand our differences and change ourselves so we can change society.

Can We Only Win for Losing? [Understanding Popular Culture, Part 3]

One thing that will invariably come up when discussing popular culture, especially where advertising is concerned, is that it’s stupid to talk about it because that’s what advertisers want. Take, for instance, the Burger King commercial that was talked about over at RMAN and on this blog, too. After some random LJ-er linked us to poke fun at how we got “upset” over the “humour” (cue me rolling my eyes), we both got a few negative comments on our sites. One over at Luke’s place really stuck with me, though.

Well, you guys are talking about the commercial, so I suppose it is doing its job. You noticed it didnt you?

Comments like those are far from atypical. The message is clear: if you do nothing, the message perpetuated by popular culture remains unchallenged, but if you critique the problematic product, then all you’re doing is spreading the message. It seems like a lose-lose situation, right? Sometimes I do wonder.

Is it true, though? Is it better to say nothing, then to spread the message through critique?

I. Value in Silence?

This one is hard for me to think seriously about. I have never been one to be quiet on an important matter, no matter what it costs me. Why else would one blog, anyway? But, what, if anything, is the value of saying nothing? The immediate answer here is that it mitigates the exposure of the product. Using the Burger King example again, if Luke hadn’t posted about it, likely I would have never seen it. I would barely have known about its existence, as I scrolled past the thread on the feminist LJ about it. By talking about it, we have made more people aware of it.

And, really, I get that. A large part of the success or failure of advertising is measured by exposure. In that case, the Burger King commercial is the “winner” in the situation. Would my silence on the matter have made it a “loser”, though? Well, let’s examine my possible courses for action that wouldn’t perpetuate the commercial:

  1. Engage in a Personal Boycott:
    Well, this one is a failure already. I haven’t eaten a BK product in 6 years, due to health concerns and being uncomfortable with the business practices of fast food restaurants. In general, though, I’d argue that a single person boycott isn’t all that effective. Also, trying to explain to others the reasoning behind your bocott without being specific about the objectionable media kind of diminishes the effectiveness of the explanation.
  2. Be Vague About the Issue:
    Since the problem with the commercial is a problem of culture, it’s entirely possible to address the issue without actually referencing the commercial. This is not a terrible tactic, but it removes the important link between cultural problems and popular culture.
  3. Just Contact the Company:
    This is another option that isn’t a bad choice. Part of activism does hinge upon people making their voices known to the company. Sometimes the company makes a change, sometimes it doesn’t. However, this option is made much less effective if one cannot engage with the material in trying to spread the word about the issues.

As is probably obvious from my explanations, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with any of those actions, but I don’t think that they’re enough. What, then, is so important that it’s worth the risk of making a bad piece of popular culture even more popular?

II. Risking It All For… What?

As you are probably starting to realize, popular culture is an important issue to me. Talking about popular culture is important to me. Criticizing popular culture… well, that’s the bread and butter of this blog. In my previous posts, I’ve made cases here and there for why popular culture is important, and why it’s not as frivolous as we might think. Now I’m going to talk about why I think it’s worth the risk heightened exposure.

Every time I critique a product, I am aware that it will bring at least one commenter who is like, “Nya-nyah, your post made me want to buy the product! Good job!” Generally the tone of the post is condescending, and since they are dismissing the subject I’m talking about (both of which are violations of this blog’s discussion rules), I ban them and move on. For the other people who disagree with me — you know, the ones who read and abide by the rules of polite discussion — I must say that have gotten into some interesting conversations about popular culture. And, even though our original opinoins weren’t changed, I think the act of debating the subject was valuable in of itself.

Going back to the Burger King example… honestly, how many people would read a post like the one I made and buy a burger there just to spite me, or just because they saw a funny commercial? Let’s be honest here; those people would be buying the burgers there anyway. Hell, I’m not even necessarily advocating a boycott here! What I want is awarenes on the issues that are raised in the commerical. And even those who are spiteful about the issue have been made aware about it, even if they disagree.

III. Conclusion

What it boils down to, I think, is that when I critique popular culture, it’s not to hurt the companies exploiting the stereotypes or cultural norms. What one, or a dozen, or even a hundred bloggers say about an issue doesn’t have a significant impact on a multi-national company. Even if we gathered enough people to get the commercial pulled, what does BK lose? It got its commercial out, it got a reaction, and it would get press from the boycott issue. Big loss there.

No, I talk about this issues because I want to spread awareness on the ways in which those stereotypes and norms come to be accepted by most people. And, hopefully, to help people challenge those views, and to be more aware of what’s being communicated to them in other kinds of popular media. Maybe I’ll reach one person. Or maybe none. But, really, I’m of the mind that awareness is never a bad thing. A hard thing to live with sometimes, but never a bad thing.

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.

Introduction [Understanding Popular Culture, Part 1]

I originally wrote on this issue for the now defunct articles, but instead of simply reposting it like I did with the other articles I wrote, I thought it deserved a full out rewrite. Predictably, in my revising and expanding efforts, it grew longer than any sane post should be. So, please enjoy the first part of my open series on popular culture.

Popular culture is a pet topic of mine, especially when it comes to how it influences the way that we interact with the world. We are all immersed in it — from advertising that becomes more invasive as the years go by to whatever hobbies we choose to get into. Yet, despite how widespread the phenomenon is, most people are convinced that these things have absolutely no impact on our lives. To the extent that the study of popular culture — whether in a formalized academic setting, or just people examining their own hobbies — is seen as “frivolous”. It is my belief that labels like those stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of popular culture and how it works. In this series, I would like to explore all the facets of pop-culture in an effort to promote better understanding of what it is and why it’s valuable.

I. What is Popular Culture?

Before I can begin a discussion on the effects of pop-culture, I need to make sure that we’re all on the same page regarding what it actually is.

Popular culture, or pop culture, is the vernacular (people’s) culture that prevails in any given society. The content of popular culture is determined by the daily interactions, needs and desires, and cultural ‘moments’ that make up the everyday lives of the mainstream. It can include any number of practices, including those pertaining to cooking, clothing, mass media and the many facets of entertainment such as sports and literature.

[From Wikipedia’s entry on Popular Culture]

So, popular culture is really the culture of our current society. It’s what we do every day from watching TV to playing video games to what we cook and beyond. It’s what we like to do, what others like to do, what others would like us to do. It’s All Your Base and O RLY. Buffy and American Idol. Comics and manga; anime and cartoons. It was even Kabuki, once upon a time. And Wikipedia, the source of all the links? That’s pop-culture, too.

II. Why bother studying this stuff?

The bottom line is that pop-culture is in everywhere. It’s everything new and current. We can no more escape it than Oedipus could escape killing his father and marrying his mother. Because of this, not studying this topic makes it into the elephant in the room.

And, indeed, while we’ve been so busy ignoring the elephant in the room, a dangerous dichotomy has formed regarding the impact of pop-culture on people. They can be summed up as such:

  1. Questionable pop-culture media makes people do bad things.
  2. There is no evidence that proves that pop-culture makes people do things, so obviously it has no affect on us at all!

Over and over again, you see these two factions duking it out, sometimes to the point of muddying the meaning of words in their quest to make it “us” versus “them”. But, you know what? The problem is much more complex than a 100% argument either way can ever hope to encompass. And if people weren’t so busy telling us not to study popular culture for whichever of the two reasons they prefer, then maybe they could see that it does not have direct control over people, but neither does it have absolutely no affect on us at all.

Another problem with the two opposing factions, besides them being overly simplistic, is that they are arguing from the basis of causation rather than correlation. If pop-culture media did, indeed, have the power to make people do things, then a causational argument (either for or against) would be valid. But, it’s not a causational relationship in question here, but a correlational one. And correlation does not equal causation.

What does this mean? In short, popular culture will influence the way we think (correlation) but it cannot compel us to believe something we don’t want to believe or act a certain way (causation). And, indeed, studies that are starting to be done on this subject are finding that very thing.

Still, television and Pop-Culture have made significant strides in portraying the people of the LGBTQ Community in a positive and non-homophobic fashion.

For the viewers, this could have positive affects as well. Simply seeing more and more Gay men and Lesbian women in television, certainly in shows that happen to be the audiences’ favorites, could possibly reduce and perhaps even squash any anti-LGBTQ prejudices they could harbor. According to this newsbyte from G.L.A.A.D., a study done by the University of Minnesota found this to be true…

It could be argued that this is quite similar to when more African-Americans were featured in television and movies in the early seventies and how it affected White people’s view of that particular community. Or even women featured in more positive and progressive roles. The more one views a group of people in entertainment and Popular Culture with positive and progressive depictions, the more likely they are to develop an open-minded opinion of this group. It’s probably one of the best ways a society could rid itself of bigotry against those who have historically been at a disadvantage, especially when it came to culture and the entertainment world. With it becoming more and more common place to see people of the LGBTQ Community in television and movies, the possibility of ending cultural and hopefully legal discrimination against them seem to be greater. It’s about damn time.

So, why is it useful to study popular culture? In a nutshell, it is too large a part of our lives to go unstudied, by not studying it we open ourselves up to misunderstandings about its potential impact on us, and by studying it we can learn strategies to fight bigotry and hatred.

III. Where to go from here?

This introduction is intended to serve as a springboard to more deeply explore the importance of popular culture, the arguments made against studying it, and the attitudes that hinder it from being taken seriously not only in academic critique, but also in our daily lives.

While I have a few posts lined up, I don’t really know where this series will go. Since popular culture is a pet topic of mine, I often come across issues that I feel need to be explored further. I’m also writing this so I can have an easy reference to point people in when they play “pop-culture bingo” (meaning that they use the stereotypical arguments against examining pop-culture). Much more easy than typing it out over and over again, wouldn’t you agree? But, I guess, ultimately I’m writing this because I think popular culture matters. And I think it’s important for people to recognize that, even if they themselves aren’t interested in examining the impact it has on their lives.