I originally wrote on this issue for the now defunct Shrub.com 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:
- Questionable pop-culture media makes people do bad things.
- 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.[From Watching shows featuring Gay/Lesbian characters could lessen homophobic prejudices by Pseudo-Adrienne]
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.