Pop Culture: A Weapon and a Tool

Let’s talk about Miley Cyrus. No? How about the new Fifty Shades of Gray movie? Amanda Bynes’ twitter? Erm…

Have you tuned out yet? Please, don’t! Pop culture events are happening, and you’re not immune. In fact, you’re a part of it. You just can’t help it. Don’t feel bad, though—between social media sites, Netflix, billboards, TV, the news, and general water cooler gossip, so is everyone and everything else, at least in the U.S.

Feminists, anti-feminists and everyone in between may find it easy to write off pop culture as trivial. Is it? Perhaps. Is it sensationalist? Almost certainly. But does this make it unimportant? Absolutely not. Whether we like it or not (and no matter how sick we are of hearing about baby bumps), pop culture surrounds and affects us. Eric Weiner put it one way: it is “the sea we swim in—so pervasive, so all-consuming, that we fail to notice its existence until we step out of it.”

And, usually, we don’t step out of it. We put faux distance between ourselves and the “trashy” mass culture that is somehow “below” us. We could talk about the possibly classist and/or racist elitism inherent in dismissing certain things as “trashy pop culture” and holding others up as “high culture” (and who decides which is what in the first place but those in power?) but the problem extends beyond that. Dismissing pop culture as vapid and somehow below other forms of art, invention, or political expression excuses it and allows it to exact its sociocultural damage without resistance.

This makes pop culture a weapon. And especially for those who think they don’t participate in its consumption it’s a secret weapon. Unless you’re a hermit or Henry David Thoreau, it is literally impossible to avoid popular culture almost by its very definition (oh, and by the way, the only reason you understood what I meant when I said “Henry David Thoreau” is because of pop culture). Mass culture is everywhere: billboards, magazines, TVs, the latest fashions, politics, world and local news, music, et cetera. It is intended for mass consumption.

When we consume it without being aware of the messages we’re absorbing, we can unknowingly and unintentionally become channels for maintaining an oppressive status quo.

But we are not just passive consumers: we are also creators of mass culture. This makes pop culture events, and their audience’s reactions to them, a lens through which we can see where our priorities and values lie as a society. Why do we care about Taylor Swift’s love life? Why are trans* characters always played by cisgendered actors? Why was Katniss (of The Hunger Games) played by a white woman when in the books she’s olive-skinned? Is Beyoncé a feminist? Can I acknowledge the grooviness of Justin Timberlake’s “20/20 Experience” while also leveling with those who find the “Tunnel Vision” video problematic? And the question that’s been weighing most heavily on my mind lately: Is finding “the answer” more important than simply having these conversations?

People who might not otherwise “tune in” to a conversation about feminist issues may engage when the issues are presented in the context of pop culture topics that they identify with. Along the same lines, if we, as feminists, “tune out” from the things we have in common with those who haven’t read The Essential Feminist Theory & Philosophy Reader, there may not be a conversation. In this case, the “conversation” can be something as simple as questioning things that usually go unchallenged in everyday life. In doing so, systems of privilege and oppression can be uncovered and pulled out of the woodwork to be addressed for what they are.

Enjoying pop culture doesn’t have to be a “guilty pleasure” (for those of us who consider ourselves academic, or feminist, or just “above it all”) and pop culture itself doesn’t have to be an excuse for the ignorance of “this country” or “this generation.” It can, in fact, be a forum for activism. Engaging with pop culture opens avenues for conversation about slut-shaming, sexism, racial oppression, class issues, stereotyping or typecasting with that one family member you only run into at Thanksgiving, or that suitemate you might never see again, or your best friend. You may even realize you have more in common than you thought.

It’s not a crime or a waste to pay attention to pop culture. It is, after all, the sea we all swim in, and a metric of social life. The next time you’re tempted to dismiss pop culture as meaningless, don’t miss out on a great opportunity to start a dialogue. Social connection through shared experience is a part of what it means to be human. As feminists, we may as well use it to share and advocate for gender liberation!

Mary Koenig is a senior majoring in Psychology and minoring in Sexuality Studies and Social & Economic Justice.
Twitter: @maryekoenig