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.