Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Popular Discrimination, Culture, and the Power of the Reader

        Within Fisk’s article, “Popular Discrimination,” he states that in popular culture, the relevance and functionalism of art is what matters, not the aesthetics. He bases his argument that popular culture is independent of high art where the value and appreciation of art arose from wealth, education, and upper class superiority. The focus on aesthetics, and the value placed on aesthetic quality, defines critical discrimination. Whereas, popular discrimination, separate from the upper class or educated academic world, has to do with the relevance of art, “between a text and the immediate social situation of its readers” (216) and the functional role it plays: “reminders of holidays, or family histories, or they help one make sense of, and thus cope with, one’s subordination in society” (217). Fisk argues these two elements “pluralize the meanings, pleasures, and uses of the text” because they serve different functions for different readers, again, dependent on social situation (217). 
This idea that within popular discrimination the capacity for multiple meanings for one text [text used as term for piece of art, whether it be written, painted, created, etc.] is acknowledged leads to the understanding that there is no one reading for a text or a preferred reading because there is no set way to read a text. Reader-response theory, found in both Communication and Literature studies, argues this point. Stanley Fish, a prominent theorist in the subject, explains that meaning is created by the reader through the reading process. The author loses power of their text the moment it is given to the reader. The text itself has limited input to the meaning of itself because it is an artifact. The reader is in control of the message, the meaning, and the discussion of the message. This perspective than changes the way texts are created because now the author must create for the reader(s) because it impossible to ignore the power of the reader. 
In his novel titled Lost in the Funhouse, John Barth acknowledges the power of the reader and within the text attempts to directly engage with the reader, as the author. He also fights against aestheticism by challenging the traditional reading process and author-reader relationship. An example of this is the first chapter in the book “Frame-tale” where the reader is instructed to cut out part of the page, twist it, and attach the ends. This creates an infinity loop of sorts that reads “Once upon a time, there was a story that began.” My reading of this portion of the text is that is challenges the traditional frame or structure of a story. There does not need to be a specific beginning, middle, or end. In fact, the reading process itself is representative of this text as it is cyclic and self-begetting. One reads and then starts over, reading again, to get a meaning from a text. 









"Frame-Tale"
Lost in the Funhouse











Barth illustrates the power of the reader as he, the author, and as the protagonist in the text struggle to remain in control. They in fact both lose control and end up lost, in the funhouse.


    As someone with a background in literature, I really enjoyed Fisk's discussion of popular discrimination because of its ties with lit theory. My favorite part of his article was his explanation of the role of popular culture critics: “The role of the academic critic of popular culture is social as much as, if not more than, textual. As well as tracing the play of meanings within the text, he or she also traces which meanings are generated and put into circulation in which social formation, and how this social play of meanings relates to the social structure at large, in particular its differential distribution of power.”  (217) My understanding of this definition ties in with Reader-response theory. To successfully critique and analyze popular culture, you must be aware of the reader and the power they have over the messages they consume. This also requires acknowledging that artists/authors/creators are extremely aware and sensitive to the readers/consumers and are producing for them. Reader's create meaning by using their experiences, knowledge, social setting, etc..To understand the distribution of power it is necessary to recognize who holds the power. As we discussed in class, there is controversy over who truly hold the power, consumers or producers (artists/companies/gov't). Reader-response theory is on the side of the reader/consumer arguing because reader's create meaning, they have the power. They ultimately have the purchasing power, the power to give review, and the power to assimilate a text into popular culture. 

     


Monday, January 26, 2015

On Wednesdays, We Wear ______.


In the readings this week, Adorno had some interesting insights on popular music. He said that music becomes standardized: when someone finds something successful, that same idea is repeated over and over again so that everyone can experience the success. He also said that music can function as a type of "social cement" because everyone is involved in it and it ties them together.

Although these ideas come from 1941, I still feel like it is applicable to today's pop culture artifacts. For instance, remember that Flo Rida song that came out a few years ago, "Good Feeling"?


It's a pretty catchy song, and then it busts out in that cool techno part. "Good Feeling" is the first rap song to incorporate techno (without being remixed) that I remember. Then all of a sudden, a bunch of songs started to have some techno elements in them.

I think this idea of latching on to a successful idea carries over into other genres other than music. For instance, 10 years ago, Mean Girls came out and one of it's most quotable lines is, "On Wednesdays, we wear pink."


I've liked Orange is the New Black on Facebook. On Wednesdays, they wear orange. They post pictures like this:
American Horror Story: Coven chooses to wear black on Wednesdays:

These color spin-offs got me thinking. Wearing pink on Wednesdays is wildly popular, and I knew of two other groups that specifically wore a different color on Wednesdays right off the top of my head. What other groups of people choose to wear a certain color on Wednesdays, and why? So I did some research and here's what I found.


  • United Automobile Workers (UAW) wear RED to remind everyone of their constitutional right to join a union
  • Boston University students wear YELLOW to bring attention to suicide prevention
  • Yahoo! and the LGBT community choose to wear PURPLE to prevent hate
  • The University of Utah gymnastics team wears WHITE to raise team spirit
  • PopSugar, a beauty and fashion website encourages wearing BROWN lipstick on Wednesdays
  • A group of Indonesian school teachers wear BLUE

I only looked for those colors for a very short time, and I know that most of them aren't widely known groups like AHS and OITNB, but the point is that so many groups are choosing to wear a certain color on a certain day. All because of one little movie that got a lot of attention. See how something like that can create a "social cement" like Adorno was talking about?

What other groups or colors did I miss?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Consumerism vs. Minimalists




Analyzing texts using the Neo-Marxist perspective relates perceptions of materialism and consumerism in the popular culture. It’s popular culture where power is maintained as “people’s material social experience constantly remind them of the disadvantages” in the media. Sellnow mentions how MasterCard’s comes to our rescue with its “priceless” commercial.


After reading this, my thoughts went to my life of living beyond my means and racking up the “priceless” life of consumer debt. Something that I believe is worse than the hegemony discussed in this week’s reading. In my opinion, debt is more oppressive and limiting than social class domination.

I have since rid my finances of debt. Woohoo! Although I take full responsibility for the situation I found myself in, I wondered if pop culture promotes consumerism, would the gate keepers allow a revival of a simple life…a life void of a plethora of impractical, unimportant and dust-collecting stuff?

Is it possible to shed ourselves of materialism and live simply? Or are we destined to live a life of buying things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like. Well, there does seem to be a small movement that is gaining momentum. I have found several things from blogs, Facebook pages to TV series. Here is what is out there.
In its third season titled, Tiny House Nation: A tour of minimalist living. It profiles several tiny house owners and this lifestyle. Here is a clip from one of the episodes.


I also found a TEDX talk given in 2014 about a new movement called: The Minimalist. This is about 15 minutes in length, but very worth the time.



If you go to its website (theminimalist.com), it has a 30-day challenge to make room for “health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution”.

In addition, if you Google simple living or minimalist a wide selection of options will come up.

So here is my final question. Can simplifying your life and getting rid of stuff really bring peace of mind and happiness? Or does it really take a MasterCard to find life’s “priceless” moments?


Predictability

Predictability. Interestingly enough this is one of the “key features” that The Franfurt School addresses in the article for this week’s reading. Often arguments will be made within the rhetoric that is so easily and readily available on the internet accusing people of not being original, and/or “hopping on the band wagon” to which many who affiliate with the term “hipster” feel frustrated because of said lack of originality. Yet as we look at popular culture and simply determine what is popular and why, we can’t help but stumble across the existence of monotonous predictability. Amongst the many questions and thoughts that were provoked in the reading I feel that one large question that continues to plague my mind is do we, as the public, as critical consumers, really know what we want?
            The question posed here could be expounded on in many ways such as; can the public actually determine one way or another specific answers as to why things are the way they are. One will respond, I don’t enjoy predictability and will avoid all media that is predictable because it simply does not stimulate. Whereas in an entirely different conversation, to which the rhetor has established a contextualized scenario of his or her own will say, I couldn’t enjoy the movie because it just didn’t relate to me, I wasn’t sure how to take it, or it was so different. Both conversations, one as the audience of the two speakers, might nod and agree only to then enter the next conversation a new day and similarly nod and agree with the second. Whether or not I am able in the next couple of paragraphs articulate why this is a phenomena, the truth of the matter is popular culture will continue on its course circulating through new media going from widely viewed to un-existent.
            The Frankfurt School continues “the Frankfurt School see only ‘conformity’: a situation in which ‘the deceived masses’ are caught in a ‘circle of manipulation and retroactive need in which the unity of the system grows even stronger’” speaking of popular culture and its maintenance of social authority. The argument being made here is that it is because of homogeneity and especially predictability that allows for the masses to get caught up in some form of culture. If this argument could resound with just some truth, that would entail that no matter how one might convince themselves or others of the need for originality or any other derivation of the idea, there is significant value to recognizing the next part from what was seen first. 



Take the new trailer for the Avengers. Marvel is greatly known for the typical super-hero story that seems to be becoming more and more predictable, even with the slight variation of the plots, and new twists in characters. Yet these movies, with their abundance of slow motion shots, loud explosions, and very little dialogue are some of the top grossing movies of each year. Why? Because they not only are fulfilling with many purposes set out by narrative and entertainment concepts but are allowing for the audience to feel that they are playing some part in the production. Just before the climax of many of these types of movies, the mystery or shadow is slightly uncovered or given light. Following almost a specific pattern these producers give away so much of the story just by the predictability. Cliché, some would say, and yet the movies soar to the top of sales.
            I do not attempt to criticize the fact that this phenomena exists, or intend to create some change, in fact I stand to support the fact that predictability does exist in our popular culture and that that is ok. Like in narrative, people enjoy connecting to the protagonist, finding relevance, rooting for the one trying to get something done (not always the hero). If I could offer one piece of food for thought it would be, do we really want to get rid of the “instructions to build” from the Lego Movie, are we certain that we don’t subconsciously yearn for some predictability in a world that is so far from it, do we really know what we want?

< Mass Media Can Be A Weapon of North Korean Hegemony forever? >


As I said in the class today, I worked as a public elementary school teacher in Seoul, South Korea, and I am on leave of absence now. It has been 2 years since I left the school, but my biggest interests are still children and education. In the last week, we discussed about Marxism and hegemony. Then, I reminded some of my students. They are North Korean refugee children.



In my school, there were some children who escaped from North Korea through China, Thailand, and so on. Even the students who came to South Korea several years ago could not easily say the names, “Kim Jong Un” or “Kim Jong Il.” Although the defected students were oppressed and starved in North Korea, the students still considered the North Korean leader as god and had difficult time to change their life habbit that worship and fear North Korean government. The privileging of the government lead by Kim Jong Un family is much stronger than people imagine, and one of the most important means to support the hegemony is mass media.


All of North Korean media is belonged to government, so every content for the news, movie, drama and music are supervised and controlled to fit the purpose of government. As Shawn said in his post “North Korea and the Supreme culture”, North Korea has only one channel on television called State TV. There are three metropolitan newspapers, but two of them are not allowed to read for the public, and another one is used thoroughly to propagate the good image of North Korea. Even the journalist and reporter are defined as people who support government and leader politically. They are selected through rigid background investigation and ideology review, and they get constant retraining. Movie and music are not exceptions. Most of them convey the blatant message to people so that empowered groups in North Korea maintain their power.

<The movie “The Schoolgirl’s Diary”>

           Here is a North Korean movie that I want to introduce to you. Kim Jong Il regarding the scenario and filming directed “The Schoolgirl’s Diary”. The movie was seen by one-third of the North Korean covering a six-month period after release. This movie received good response because it does not show blatant ideology of North Korea in contrast with the existing movies.

 In the movie, Su-ryeon is a high school student who lives with her grandmother, mom, and sister. She hopes to move to apartment, but her father does not care about money and family to concentrate on his work as a scientist. Because of her father’s life, Su-ryeon hesitates to go to college of engineering even though she has talent on math. However, father succeeds his project after the continuous endeavors. Then, it moves her to decide to go to college of engineering to be a scientist like her father.


          It seems to be a story of a high school girl, but there are messages under the surface. In the movie, Su-ryeon’s father is a character who devotes his life to his job. He does not want economic compensation symbolized by an apartment, and does not obsessed with high position in the work. The movie depicts the father heroically as a desirable human character. On the other hand, Su-ryeon who is interested in reward is described as an immature human. From the figurative point of view, Su-ryeon’s father who is a leader of family community symbolizes nation or North Korean leader. Also, the family who sacrifices for the father’s success means people of North Korea. It ultimately gives the message that sacrifice of the public is necessary for the great cause of country. While the people receive the messages unconsciously from the movie, people become to think the existing power structure as normal and messages that challenge the status quo as abnormal or wrong. Consequently, this movie is operating a role as a preferred reading that allows already empowered group maintain their power.


         In North Korea, contacting the culture of South Korea has been strongly prohibited, because the government knows the power of mass media. Seeing a movie or listening to music can cause public execution or forced expulsion to prison camps. Nevertheless, South Korean culture, such as soap drama, songs, and movies, is being introduced recently to North Korea, and it will be more and more. So far, North Korea has kept their power through the mass media. However, I believe mass media will be the strongest enemy to North Korea to keep their system, because people’s desire to know and curiosity for new cultures cannot be blocked forever by anything.

Q) Freedom House is a U.S.-based non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights. According to the research regarding freedom of the press in May 2014, North Korea was ranked the last, 197th, and it categorized to “not free”.  On the other hand, America was ranked 46th with the score 23 which is categorized to “free”. Do you think the result is appropriate?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Selling Out: The Indie Mainstream

How does something become popular? We have been wrestling with this question since day one and there will not be a clear definite answer by the end of the semester. One of the ideas presented by Adorno and Horkheimer suggests that mass consumption drives the production and is the backbone of the industry. Do the executives produce films and music to please the needs of the audience or do the audience simply watch/listen to what is forced upon them?

Music is vast and there is something out there to please everyone, unless you are just not interested in music. I find music interesting because, at least in my life, it has been ever changing. I’m constantly listening to a variety of different things from classical to hip-hop to acoustic to pop punk. It varies with my mood but I’ve just sort of assumed everyone else does the same. Turns out I was wrong. Apparently some people only listen to music on the radio when they are driving.

I do not listen to radio, other than when I am in a friend’s car and most of the time I will make some sort of comment as to what is playing. I couldn’t imagine a life where the only music I listened to was what played on the radio. I want total control as to what I am listening to. I’m not saying music that plays on the radio is bad, I just prefer to listen to what I want to listen to at my own discretion.
The funny part about not listening to the radio is that I will be stoked about a song and will listen to it all the time and have no idea that it has become popular. I don’t necessarily have obscure music tastes, but in the past I have been known to be a little ahead of the curve. In other words, “I liked them before they were big,” or my favorite, “their first two albums were great, but I’m not a fan of their newer stuff.”

I remember about ten years ago in middle school and early high school music was a huge thing for my friends and I. Back then I was listening to what would be considered “emo” or pop punk bands. It was this genre of music that seemed to be popular, at least all of my friends listened to the same artists, but if they made it to the mainstream, it was a huge deal because they were “sellouts” and it wasn’t cool if everyone else liked them too.

This seemed to be a large issue for My Chemical Romance at the time. They got pretty big with their second album Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge and their songs “I’m Not Okay” and “Helena.” They gained even more attention with The Black Parade and suddenly it was a problem with fans that My Chemical Romance had songs playing on the Top 40 radio.

Why are people so possessive over art? My reasoning was that if loved something so much, I wanted to share it with everyone so they could enjoy it as well. Why is it when something does become mainstream, the original following seems to disappear? Some say their “sound” was different, which I’ll agree with, but it sounded like an excuse to me. Bands evolve; why would someone want all of their music to sound the same?

So in this instance, can what becomes mainstream, emerge from a relatively smaller following? What happens after a band “sells out” or enters Top 40 radio? In the instance of My Chemical Romance, they released another album that was nowhere as near popular as The Black Parade and then four years following that they announced their decision to put an end to the band. Did the mainstream kill this band that so many original followers turned their backs on? When there is more pressure put on bands by their record companies to sell more albums and reach higher on the charts, does it end up hurting them?


From this example, having the audience choose what becomes popular can be beneficial and having culture forced upon them can be unsuccessful. This is just one instance that does not look at the overall music industry and is in no way comprehensive. The process of writing, producing, and selecting singles that end up at the top of the charts is far more complicated that what I can go into detail here. 

Punk Rock Culture and Commodification

Today, during our class discussion, you may remember me talking about punk rock music and how it may be well on its way — if not already — down the very road punk culture set out upon to fight and stop.

In our reading of Storey’s, “Cultural Theory and Popular Culture,” we learn about the different ways authentic culture may become jeopardized. In this example, I’m talking specifically about commodification.

Storey writes, “Commodification … devalues ‘authentic’ culture, making it too accessible by turning it into yet another saleable commodity.” Now, in the case of punk rock culture and values, this is a very real argument that takes place quite often; both between those who identify as punk and their critics, as well as between punks themselves.

Now, as a consumer (funny, I'm a "consumer" of a relatively "anti-consumer" art form) and member of this culture, I often find myself on the fence within this argument. On one hand, you have those that will argue in favor of the growing reach of punk rock within popular circles.

These people will state that because punk rock is anti-consumer and nonconforming in nature, the very fact that punk rock songs have, in recent years, been featured in commercial adds just goes to show how the scene’s core values have deteriorated.

At first glance, punk rock seems to have “sold-out” — and not in the good way — by handing over the prime weapon to be used against “the man” and does exactly what Storey’s writings indicate. In our readings, we use the example of Bach as background music in a kitchen. Well…I don’t have Bach in a kitchen, but what I do have is a bunch of Diet Pepsi cans dancing to “The Ramones” in a supermarket.

Okay, I gotta admit, that was pretty funny and kind of cool. I did like hearing a popular song from one of the bands that fathered a culture that I have come to love so much being featured and forced upon the masses (MUWAHAHAHAHA). However, let's analyze what just happened. A "kid" accidentally left his music on after he exited the supermarket. All the beverages in the freezer are upset and complaining. Who does that sound like to you? That's right, adults, grown ups, your angry neighbors, anyone who has ever told you to quiet down. They are even given voices to sound like adults.

But wait, never fear, Diet Pepsi is here! They are featured as fun, bubbly, lively and young. Just like the market they are trying to appeal to. Heck, they are even dancing about and engaging in property destruction. That's punk rock right? In the eyes of many critics, not really, it's the exact opposite.

However, punk rock, to some, may be considered different than your typical art form. Punk rock is not just a catchy song — although you all know that song is stuck in your head now — or a mowhawk or how you dress. Punk rock is a stance and revolutionary idea. The concept of rebelling is engrained into every bit of punk rock there is. Punk rock is indestructible, and who cares if your favorite band's songs are on the radio or in a commercial. Yea it may not be 100 percent punk, but it's getting the message out there, whether it seems like it or not. 
Henry Rollins has this to say about punk music in commercials:
Warning. Strong language used. Please do not click play if swearing offends you. (Totally not punk rock) 


Okay, so where does this leave us? We have two seemingly well-based arguments here. In my honest opinion, I tend to side more with Rollins, but I do agree with what some of the critics against the use of punk in commercials have to say. Does this make me a sell-out? Maybe. I myself have recorded albums and sold many a song on iTunes and would kill for the chance to have my work featured in a massive way like the Ramones did in the above example.

In the end, that is the main question I have for you all. It may seem pretty broad, but bear with me.
Do you agree that the commercialization of "authentic culture" takes away its value, turning it into yet another a clever marketing campaign; or do you side more with Rollins and think that the use of authentic culture in mass media only helps to promote that specific art form more to the masses, and is therefore a positive thing?

Or, if you want to put it simply, am I a sell-out or not?  

Feeding the Beast

Once upon a time in undergrad, this question was posed to all students in one of my broadcasting classes: does the media give us what we want to hear? Or are we hearing only what the media wants us to hear? This can be restated to say: does the culture industry give us what we need? Or does the culture industry give us only what it wants us to have?

In the paper, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment of Mass Deception, an answer is stated to a similar dilemma. Adorno and Horkneimer say the attitude of the public favors the system of the culture industry; the public is a part of the system, and not an excuse for it. Meaning the culture industry only gives the public what the culture industry wants the public to have.

The public can only search for so much information. The only information that can be found is that which the culture industry has allotted to them. Adorno and Horkneimer said that the man with leisure has to accept what the culture manufacturers offer him. The public is limited by the knowledge of the culture industry.



Currently, the whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry. Whenever the public goes to see a movie, they are being subjected to the point of view of that culture. Once the public tunes into a radio station, automatically that station turns all participants of that station into passive listeners. Once the public tunes into any culture industry, whether it be art or mass media, they become subject to the ideals of that industry.

With this being the case, the public has lost its freedom to choose. The choices are already made for them. If a person inside the public decides not to take a side, or to make a decision that isn’t already there, that person starts to fade away. Adorno and Horkneimer say that anyone who resists the culture industry can only survive by fitting in.



Fitting in then is not so difficult when from all sides of the culture industry the public is being bombarded by what the public needs. The public is always being shown things that they need, and of course, all of those needs can be fulfilled because the public is given just enough enticement, just enough information to make themselves believe that they are making the decisions.


The culture industry wants the public to feel like it has the freedom to choose, when, in actuality, the publics’ needs are so predetermined that the public is an eternal customer to the culture industry. Even though, the culture industry would not exist without the object of their business, the public.

Music on Repeat


Adorno’s (2009) essay, on popular music made three specific claims that I found interesting. First claim that music is “standardized”. Second, is that popular music promotes passive listening. Third, that popular music operates as “social cement”. As I was reading this I kept thinking about the music I listen to and if what I was reading applied to me.

I asked myself what was the last song I heard and it was Black Space by Taylor Swift and if you have not listened to it….well you must be living under a rock. Here is the music video don’t worry or just turn on the radio, because it is bound to be played at least 15 times within the hour.


I actually am a fan of Taylor Swift (don’t judge me) but when the media over plays it I become annoyed. I liked Blank Space back in October when her album first came out now three months later everyone is obsessed.



Standardized is defined by causing something to conform to a stand. Has Taylor Swift done this by leaving country behind? I believe that Taylor had to switch over to pop music because it is more standardized and has a bigger audience. When I first showed Blank Space to one of my friends I had asked them to guess who sang it. The guesses included Selena Gomez, Katy Perry, and Demi Lovato because they all sound the same. Now Taylor Swift has become another standardized artist with music that tells the same story in another similar beat.

Passive listening has happened to me on many occasions especially when the radio is on because it’s better than silence. It’s a background noise and you often drift off and think about something else. I am conforming to the popular music that is being played. Often the first time I hear a song and I say “I hate this” then by the tenth time I hear it I end up liking it! Why is that? Adorno makes it sound like the hopeless ritual of a heronin addict and maybe he is right.

I agree that music operates as “social cement” among our society. On many occasions I have asked, “who sings this?” and do I get a look of disappointment. Not only am I left out of the conversation because I have no clue what they are talking about but also I feel like an idiot for not knowing. What others are listening to has an affect on me without even knowing it.

Why do we keep listening to bad music? Is there a way to end this cycle that we have become a part of? And who's Taylor Swifts PR/ Publicist because they have been doing an awesome job?!






Pop Culture Desensitization of Social Classes

Whether it is widely noticed by the general public or not, the culture we live in places specific ideas about social class into our minds. We are generally accepting of the notion that certain people are more deserving than others because of their money, or as will be discussed here, their intelligence or education.  This can also be expanded into the thinking that certain people don’t “deserve” to have nicer things because they aren’t “fit” for them.  These philosophies become a significant problem when people start regarding select people over others—where the value of one human’s life becomes more valuable than another’s.  People who work hard, actually are smart, and do great things deserve success; others don’t. It is important to note that in reality, people who are in the middle and lower classes can have just as fulfilling and rewarding lives, or even more satisfying lives than those in the higher classes.  Popular culture, however, can often lead us to believe that the higher class life is the best way and that only certain favored people are privileged to enjoy greatness.

The readings point out “Good Will Hunting” many times, and it is easy to make the connection between “smart people” and perceived privilege. Will is a middle-class worker who is allowed to ascend in and beyond his social class because of how smart he is.  There are themes promoting the idea that he deserves to enjoy a different, higher level of life than his dumber, lower class friends who fit the “lesser” life that they are living and therefore don’t need to go up in social class.  It depicts the higher class lifestyle as the best way, and that those who are in it deserve to be there.

Embedded image permalinkInterestingly, this week’s cover story in “The Economist” is about the very issue of academic privilege and class.  In the article they say, “It is odd that a country founded on the principle of hostility to inherited status should be so tolerant of dynasties. Because America never had kings or lords, it sometimes seems less inclined to worry about signs that its elite is calcifying.”  There are large gaps between the rich and the poor.  Those who are well educated get the best jobs, marry others like them, and send their children to the best schools—starting the “privileged/entitled” cycle all over again. The article’s suggested answer isn’t to punish the rich and their children, but to see every child as a worthy, valuable individual. They say, “The solution is not to discourage rich people from investing in their children, but to do a lot more to help clever kids who failed to pick posh parents.”  We must keep this idea in mind when consuming pop culture.  Though certain people may seem like they deserve to be elevated, everyone actually deserves a fair chance to at achieving their goals in life.  Not to be hindered by their social class.

The article “Intelligence and Class” also addresses these class ideas once again pointing out that our culture often depicts those who deserve to ascend from the middle-class as the “exceptions” due to their intelligence.  It is portrayed that the rest of the middle-class people are deserving of what they get, because they just aren’t as “smart” as the upper-classes.  America doesn’t seem to have a problem with this, in part, because of the pop culture that we continually consume.  We see it in the movies and the television we watch daily.  It is so common that we have become desensitized to the potential negative effects of thinking this way.

A perfect example of this is the TV series “Suits.” Those who aren’t extremely smart aren’t “worthy” to be accepted into one of the best law firms in America.  They only will take Harvard Law students into their firm. The main character Mike is a middle-class kid who is a genius. He is depicted as not fitting in with his middle-class lifestyle and friends and needs to be elevated.  In the show he leaves his middle-class friends (who are depicted as dumb, liars, and selfish) to join the prestigious law firm. His friends don’t deserve to be friends with the most powerful people in the world like he does.  It is really easy to start to see the world through this lens.  These people are high class people who deserve the best, while the others around them (who wear dimmer colors, and not as nice clothes in the show) deserve the average life that they have.



I noticed myself thinking about how the only way that I can really enjoy life is to become one of the “elite” like they are.  It briefly made me believe that their style of life is better, and that they deserve it because of how smart they are.  These thoughts had a negative effect on me.  It made me start to feel like I am somehow less valuable as a human being than someone who attended Harvard Law.  This isn’t a good way to think about one’s value.  It is important to remember that each life is valuable, and to recognize that pop culture has a specific lens through which it shows the world.  But despite what is portrayed, it is still within our power to choose to believe it or not.


In what ways has pop culture made you think differently about what you deserve because of the class level you fall into?

Empowerment at the Movies

Sellnow, talking about Marxist perspectives states that “messages that challenge the status quo in terms of power are perceived as abnormal.”  However, when it comes to popular culture, it seems as though messages that challenge the status quo are much more widely acceptable and people enjoy them as forms of entertainment.  While they may not actively be trying to challenge or change the status quo, movies that highlight people who belong to disempowered groups but overcome their disadvantages (at least to some degree) are widely viewed and talked about.  Movies like 12 Years a Slave tell how a free black man was sold into slavery and twelve years later found freedom again, or Soul Surfer which tells the story of professional surfer Bethany Hamilton who lost her arm in a shark attack and two years later became a national surfing champion or Milk which tells the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California among many others all focus on disadvantaged people who challenged the norms and came out on top. 
And while the vast majority of American film does mainly focus on the empowered people, people watch and like movies about disempowered people just as much when it comes to box office revenues.  Perhaps Americans are more willing to embrace change and loosen the oppression they place on out groups as long as the messages are presented in entertaining ways because it certainly would not seem as though most people see these movies as “abnormal,” in fact they are quite commonplace and many of them receive numerous award nominations.  Or, is it possible that this is simply an extension of the privilege that the powerful have?  As they seek to maintain their power, do they intentionally show people that the majority of people who belong to minority groups will always be disempowered but a small number will lose some of their oppression? Do they give the disadvantaged hope that maybe they can have that same freedom too one day when in reality they likely won’t in order to maintain their power?  After all, of the three movies mentioned above only one has a happy ending and her story isn’t over yet.  (Spoiler: Milk was assassinated and Solomon Northup, the focus of 12 Years a Slave, seemed to have just disappeared and some speculate that he was again sold into slavery.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Pop Culture, Marxism, and Tyranny of the Majority



            In the neo-Marxist perspective “[P]opular culture texts function rhetorically to simultaneously empower and disempower people and groups based on materialism and economic practices” (Sellnow). Though he wasn’t a Marxist, John Stuart Mill identified a main effect of popular culture in his essay On Liberty: “the struggle between liberty and authority is the most conspicuous feature in [history].” Mill stated that popular culture had potential to be a form of tyranny, that which we often call “majority rule”. Mill explains: “The ‘people’ who exercise the power are not always the same people over whom it is exercised.” Rather, the self-government with which we are familiar “is not government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest.” This couldn’t be clearer than in poplar James Cameron films. Especially Avatar and Titanic! Because it’s such a long-running conflict in our culture though, it goes way back to older media like Dances with Wolves, 1984, Frederick Douglass, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and of course many political scholar papers (Hobbes, Marx, Hitler, etc.)

There are several examples of empowerment in the United States given by Sellnow, including these groups of people: the wealthy, Caucasians, native-born Americans, men, heterosexuals, and the able-bodied. If we were to take some of the characters from the show Modern Family (no spoilers below, but you may need to have seen the show to fully understand) as an example of how each one of these groups is presented as desirable in pop culture, we could look at the different ways the hardships are given for each character: Gloria’s difficulties are often related to not being a native-born American, but her redeeming qualities are often her able-body/beauty, and her wealth/materialism (because she married well). Her husband Jay has attained wealth/materialism, is Caucasian, native-born, a man, and heterosexual, but is limited by his older/disabled body. His challenges are often related to his age, which is exaggerated by his young age. Mitch and Cam, while they enjoy the other privileges afforded by their other statuses, are often depicted as struggling with heteronormativity in the wider-culture. Mitch and Claire’s mother doesn’t work, but instead is seen as a drifting in and out of relationships with no real base of her own. She is often depicted as a contrasting character to the stability of the wealthy and status of the other characters. And don’t forget other shows about America’s elite (mentioned in my last post): Gossip Girl, New Girl, and How I Met Your Mother. What do these shows have in common? The characters fit into almost all of the categories of empowered peoples in our culture!

While these struggles are often highlighted and are somewhat cliché in these shows, they demonstrate that people who don’t fit into the categories of empowerment (wealthy, white, male, heterosexual, etc.) aren’t necessarily envied; instead, they demonstrate that these characters struggle compared to the more mainstream characters. Films or shows about the underdogs or underprivileged in our culture are filled with stories of characters succeeding in one empowered group where they couldn’t succeed in another. Whether it’s a story based on reality, like The Blind Side, where a ‘disadvantaged’ black man can be a better ‘man’ than the rest of the white football team when given a chance, or more fictional stories like The Walking Dead where the leaders of each larger group always seem to be white males but there is the occasional woman leader or black leader of a smaller group. Where smaller groups are concerned, or even group leaders like the council in the prison were concerned, each group eventually dissolves and the privileged end up back in charge.

A more everyday example of popular culture’s effect on an individual can be unwarranted government intrusion into private life (back to Mill's argument about the struggle between liberty and authority). Consider prohibitions of “sinning” on the Sabbath, which are commonly referred to as “blue-laws.” As we all well know, as residents of the great state of Utah, these types of restrictions may prohibit the operation of public buildings, the sale of goods, including alcohol and cold medicines, and other things common throughout the rest of the week. Popular culture in Utah, as well as in other states, dictates these norms all the way to the legislature. These dynamics affect how we individuals relate to and communicate with each other, down to the missed connection of cashier and alcohol-consumer on Sundays.