What’s The Big Deal With Pop Culture?

Content note: This post is the result of a collaboration between a group of FWD contributors, abby jean, Annaham, Anna, and s.e. smith, which is why it is credited to ‘Staff.’ This is part one in a two part series.

One thing has been clearly established: Something guaranteed to attract absurd amounts of traffic is a post on pop culture. Whether you’re writing about Evelyn Evelyn, Glee, Lost, Lady Gaga, Harry Potter…people pay attention. If you think your bandwidth limit might not be in danger of being exceeded this month, pop up a post about the representations of disability in some book, or show, or song, and fear no more!

People pay more attention to pop culture critique than anything else on this site, and it’s something that puzzles us. We certainly enjoy critiquing pop culture and think that it is an important part of our work, but we also enjoy the structural critiques, the stories that we tell, features on art by disabled artists, curating Recommend Reading, trashing bad advice columns, and the myriad other things we do here.

So, what’s the big deal with pop culture? What is so compelling about pop culture posts that they attract extreme levels of ire which sometimes cross the line into outright abuse? And not just here at FWD, but elsewhere on the Internet; commentaries on pop culture attract the most scrutiny and the most violent responses whether they are written by anti-racist pop culture bloggers, feminists exploring the feminist implications of pop culture, or trans women examining transphobia and transmisogyny in pop culture.

One theory is that pop culture is something which everyone has opinions about. As consumers of pop culture, many of us also feel that we are authorities on it, which makes it comfortable ground for discussion. Fewer people have opinions on structural issues which do not immediately affect them because they are not engaging with them on a personal level. Or they feel that they are unqualified because of social attitudes about who is allowed to speak in structural settings.

Pop culture is,  by nature, something which is supposed to be accessible to the masses, and thus, the masses respond to it. There are some interesting social attitudes bound up in this, along with ideas about what makes ‘art’ distinct from ‘pop’ and where these concepts intersect, and who gets to talk about it. We feel like we own pop culture in a way that we don’t own things like policy and other structures that contribute to the world around us.

Pop culture also builds and creates communities. Communities of fans are rich and complex organisms, just like the feminist blogging community, the political blogging community, and so forth. Communities sometimes grow defensive about discussions and critiques which they perceive as coming from outsiders; even though some of us here at FWD are actually quite active fans of the work we talk about and often explicitly say so, our writings here are still perceived as coming from the outside because of where they are being published. When communities feel threatened, they tend to become defensive, and sometimes that manifests in extreme ugliness.

Pop culture is also something which many people feel very strongly about. We are, in a word, attached to our stories. Anna is an ardent Doctor Who fan. Annaham has a soft spot for musician Jesse Sykes. s.e. eagerly awaits every new episode of Lost, while woe betide the person who interrupts abby jean while she’s watching 90210.

We feel an intense and personal attachment to these things. They speak to us and to our experiences. When someone views something from a different perspective and a different experience, it’s sometimes jarring and unsettling. The first response is often defensive and angry, because the critique is a form of challenge.

Some of us are able to engage with these differing perspectives, to look at critiques of works we love and say ‘ah, you know, you have something there,’ or ‘I’ve kind of been thinking that too, you are articulating this very well,’ or ‘well, actually, I kind of disagree, and here’s why,’ or even ‘I don’t really care what you have to say, I’m too busy having my own thoughts.’ We approach this from a place of mutual fandom; we are talking about these things because we love them, and we are excited about them, and we want to explore them more. Connecting with other fans is a huge part of the excitement of consuming pop culture.

Some of us are…not. Some people respond to critiques of pop culture in a way which is meant to invalidate the critiquer. The critique is disliked, these words are unpleasant to hear, so obviously the thing to do is to shut the critiquer in a box so that the actual points made do not have to be addressed.

Part two of this series delves into some of the ways in which  backlash against pop culture critiques manifests, and why we keep talking about it anyway.

17 Comments

  1. My posts that still get the most hits remain the ones on So You Think You Can Dance, and that thing with Wendy Harmer. *Shrug*

  2. I’ve found the same thing – my posts about pop music (Lady Gaga, Lily Allen, Britney Spears) are usually the ones that get the most ‘likes’, ‘links’ and reblogs. And posts about sex. They do well, too.

    For a while there, I thought it was that perhaps pop culture and sex were the issues I was most adept at writing about. Then I realised, no: people just like to read about celebrity and sex, whether they’re on a tabloid news site, or a niche feminism/philosophy site.

    That doesn’t mean, of course, that there aren’t useful things to say about those topics, or that those interests can’t be used as a hook to talk about bigger, more interesting things.

  3. our writings here are still perceived as coming from the outside because of where they are being published. When communities feel threatened, they tend to become defensive, and sometimes that manifests in extreme ugliness.

    While I think the appearance of being an outsider certainly exacerbates the issue, exactly the same dynamic plays out *inside* fan communities – some of the debates about “aca-fen” have been really nasty! There’s a perceived division between “aca(demic) fen” who criticise and thus don’t really love the show/book/star in question and “real fans” who unquestioningly love the source material. It’s a false binary with the added spice of anti-intellectualism and promotion of a one-way creator/s->fan relationship.

  4. I think this is an important analysis. People feel most proprietary about pop culture and anything they’re fannish about; you only have to spend time as a fan to see how fans take on the things we love and make them part of our own identities.

    So when we critique culture from a social justice perspective, a whole lot of people read, “I’m angry about Harry Potter/Evelyn Evelyn/Lady Gaga”, but feel “That person is angry with me!”

    And thinking about it, there sometimes IS implied criticism of the consumers of problematic examples of pop culture in our critiques of that culture. But I believe, and hope, that it’s not a blunt, ‘OMG who reads this awful stuff?’, but rather a ‘I know you love this book/show/singer, and so do I, but I want you to see the underlying message in the work, which I don’t have the luxury of unseeing because it affects me personally…’

  5. Ooh, I’m really looking forward to part two of this. 🙂 I really like this post.

  6. The topic that incites the most controversy when I blog about it tends to be the topic of ableism among parents or family members of disabled people. And the reason it’s so controversial seems to be the ableism of feeling as if parenting a disabled child makes you absolutely central (as opposed to disabled people being central) to disability experiences, and feeling as if any criticism of ableism is telling you you’re a terrible parent. Along with this weird thing where… parents are used to professionals saying “we know more about disability than you do”, and when disabled people say the same thing, parents often react as if that statement is coming from above them in a power hierarchy rather than from below them. So I get way more crap for that than I get on my pop culture posts.
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Kowalski and SBWG close their blogs due to cyberbullying. =-.

  7. This comment is not usually something I say publicly. I feel like a lot of the reality of my life (that I don’t control), as well as the decisions I make or how I describe my disabilities, is anathema to many DR activists. But I have found FWD to be truly open to all aspects of the disability world/experience, so I feel safe saying it here, even if others don’t agree.

    Many of my PWD friends and I live in isolation most or all of the time. I’m speaking for myself in the particulars below, but I know that aspects of this are true for many others in my life.

    For various disability-related reasons, I can’t read newspapers/magazines, watch TV, go to public spaces, etc., and I have brain damage/cognitive issues that make it hard for me to take in or remember a lot of news/facts. Like many PWDs, the internet is my biggest source of social contact and news. However, due to limits of energy and function, and the fact that I experience a certain amount of social and sensory deprivation, struggle with physical and emotional pain on a basically full-time basis, I rely heavily on escapism, which takes two forms.

    The first is that I pretty much avoid “news.” Most of the time I have no idea what’s going on politically or socially outside my small, rural community or the activist communities I’m a member of. There is so much in my life I am powerless over, and that I have worked so hard to gain control and independence around, that when I’m confronted with all the horrors of oppression and environmental degradation in the rest of the country and the world, I can’t handle it. I experience sensory and emotional overload and shutdown.

    The other escapism is what I do choose to expose myself to — blogs, fiction books on tape (often very “lite” fare), and fashion!. The fashion piece is so bizarre because I can only wear very comfortable organic clothes (t-shirts and leggings), which all become holey and stained, and almost never leave the house (and often, bed). It’s an event if I put on shoes! Yet, Project Runway is the only reason we have TV, and I’ll scroll through dozens of pics of stars I don’t know to see what they’re wearing! When I’m having a very tough emotional time and/or very sick or in pain, I listen to Harry Potter over and over, sometimes almost nonstop for weeks.

    So, when there is a disability-oriented blog about HP or something else in my limited pop sphere, it’s exciting, because it’s my two little safe worlds comingling. (LOVED the post about Belatrix Lestrange.)

  8. Our biggest traffic posts (other than those that get picked up by a mainstream site, like when CNN linked to us once) tend to include the phrase “Sarah Palin.” I’ve only written three or four of those, max, but it always drives the clicks our way when I do.

    (It’s funny, I don’t keep the radio news or TV on in the daytime, so I sometimes find out about breaking stories because the blog’s traffic is suddenly increased and focused on a particular post, like recently when Wilma Mankiller died, or when Amy Palmiero-Winters made the US Track team.)

  9. Ang, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head for why these are so popular.

    “So when we critique culture from a social justice perspective, a whole lot of people read, “I’m angry about Harry Potter/Evelyn Evelyn/Lady Gaga”, but feel “That person is angry with me!” ”

    It’s like if there was a post about the portrayal of disability in the X-files, and it said “that was terrible”

    Transitive property from math – “The X-files representation of PWD is terrible” = “You can’t like the show and care about PWDs at the same time.”

    It’s not rational at all, but that’s how I feel when I read negative reviews about movies I truly adore and not for camp factor. But a movie I truly love, I don’t want the negative reviews. I like it, and if a review says “only a [derogatory term insulting people with mental illnesses] would like this”, it hurts. So critiques fall into the same category.

    And we want to post, we want to defend the piece because we want to defend our tastes and our likes, we want to convince ourselves it’s okay to continue loving it.

    Or maybe it’s just me.

  10. Also, it’s fascinating to look at something from pop culture, something ubiquitous, from an angle you’ve never thought of before. That could be another reason for the popularity.

  11. You know, I’m actually really interested in critiques of media/pop culture. Have been ever since I discovered Gloria Steinem. But a lot of the pop culture critiques I’ve read, on here or linked to here, have struck me as very much saying

    1) if you like this show you are ableist/sexist/heterosexist/racist etc.

    2) if you disagree with our interpretations of xyz event you are ableist/sexist/heterosexist/racist etc.

    3) since something could conceivably be interpreted in an ableist/etc way, it must have been intended that way and WILL be interpreted by the masses as such.

    4) the masses are/society is not responsible for their own interpretations of media

    In other words, I have not found this to be a place where dissent and differing interpretations are welcome. I have not found this to be a place where critiques and subsequent discussion come from a place of mutual fandom or intellectual and philosophical curiosity, but from a place of utilitarian, top-down disgust with, for example, Glee.

    What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that I love pop culture/media criticism. But I don’t like people misrepresenting what they are doing, and I don’t like seeing what I consider to be misrepresentations and misinterpretations of various media being held up as reality. I don’t like my objections to that being framed as an inability to deal with criticism of something I enjoy. I don’t like being told that I am defensive, feel threatened, or can’t deal with analyzing my entertainment, especially when none of that is true.

    I am perfectly willing to concede that none of the writers here actually intend for me to interpret their writing the way I do, and I am also aware that they can write and think whatever they please. I’d just like the same consideration in return. I’d like my motives as a dissenter to be my own, not assigned to me by the poster with whom I disagree–perhaps even assumed to be as positive as theirs! And maybe it would help if, on pop-culture critique posts, it were made clear if disagreement in interpretation and representation were allowed in the comments or not.

    So I guess you could just say I have mixed feelings about this upcoming series, and whether it will just be more of the same, and whether or not dissent about generalizations and specific examples will be allowed.

  12. almandite, I was with you(meaning I could see your point though I didn’t necessarily feel the same way) up until you said “…and I don’t like seeing what I consider to be misrepresentations and misinterpretations of various media being held up as reality. ”

    That is an incredibly problematic statement for many, many different reasons. Actually, I find it ironic that you included it in your comment at all.

    If the fostering and discussion of opinions that dissent from FWD’s staff is what you’re looking for (which, honestly, I think is healthy), then you’re going to have to accept that one person’s “misrepresentation” or “misinterpretation” is another person’s “reality”. If you’re not willing to acknowledge that fact, aren’t you essentially doing the same thing you admonish FWD for doing?

  13. @ Kef,

    What I was trying to articulate is that there are always multiple ways to interpret a given media (for example, my comment). To have one way, particularly a way which assumes that xyz media is other-ist, held up as the ultimate reality of the show, with no room for disagreement, and to talk about it as if this is the ultimate reality of the show and everyone agrees that it is, forbidding dissent, is a misrepresentation of that piece of media and the dialog surrounding it, as is refusing to state that this is only one *possible* interpretation, or to consider this particular interpretation in context with others.

    And yes, I do think that it is possible to interpret media in ways that the writers, actors, etc. never intended and in ways which explicitly go against the stated purpose of the media piece, and I would consider those misinterpretations, or at the very least very controversial ones with a fallacious basis.

  14. So you’re saying (creator) intent trumps personal/subjective perceptions? Still incredibly problematic, but I understand the desire to defend the creators of pop culture items that mean a lot to you.

  15. Okay, this is why I should have kept my mouth shut. Criticizing someone’s criticism always devolves into “you just like the show too much and want to defend it!”. Stop putting words in my mouth and assigning me intents I have explicitly objected to. Ironic that this is even happening in this discussion!

    I am saying that if a creator says “xyz is an episode about 123” and then someone says that “the creators of the show clearly are saying that xyz is about abc”, then that is problematic.

    I understand that things can be interpreted multiple ways. I thought I made that explicit. I get troubled when the discussion becomes centered around the creator’s *intent*, particularly when that intent is cast as negative, and even more so when it contradicts the public record. Good pop-culture critique doesn’t do that. For example, I read a critique here of “The Lightning Thief” which I believe stayed far away from any such ground.

    That is all I meant by “misrepresentations”. Are we good now?

  16. I think this thread has gotten a bit off the rails. I understand that there are people who don’t like the way we talk about pop culture here, which is fine. We were more hoping to discuss with this why posting pop culture critique in general is guaranteed to get such a high hit count, as opposed to structural critiques or discussions about poverty & disability, or elections & disability, etc.

  17. i wonder if the derail is actually connected to the larger question – perhaps people feel more comfortable or confident presenting or arguing their interpretations of pop culture issues than structural ones? something like, we can all watch an episode of glee and decide how we personally feel about it, but digging into structural issues may require digging into issues and sources with which people are less familiar?