What’s the Big Deal With Pop Culture? (And Why Do You Keep Talking About it?)

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 two in a two part series.

What happens when you, as a blogger, delve into pop culture? A lot of unpleasant things, as it turns out.

Annaham got rape threats. s.e. has been called a ‘stupid fat bitch’ for daring to critique Joss Whedon (‘rarely has one person gotten something so wrong, so verbosely’ is s.e.’s current favourite review from a fellow Whedon fan). Anna’s received anonymous comments calling her r#tarded.

Such intense levels of vitriol obviously come from a very personal place. What’s curious is that while the critique also comes from a personal place, it’s not an attack on people—the fans or those who create pop culture. It’s a discussion of structures and tropes, a conversation about narratives, which is read by people who don’t agree as an attack levied at them personally. Some of these people seem to feel that they need to defend the creators of pop culture from the mean disabled feminists, while others seem to genuinely feel that they are being accused of being bad people for missing the problematic aspects of the work they enjoy so much, or choosing to like work even though it has problematic components—so they lash out.

Often, this is done with ‘it’s just pop culture’ and ‘you are reading too much into it‘ and ‘why can’t you just relax and enjoy it’ and ‘you’re just looking for something to get offended about’ and ‘you’re thinking too much‘ and ‘watch your tone‘ and, of course, the ‘I disagree with your reading, so obviously you are wrong’ arguments. These arguments act to trivialise pop culture itself, ignoring the profound impact pop culture has on society, and to silence the critic. Some people seem to want to have it both ways and simultaneously insist that pop culture has a profound impact on society while dismissing critiques based on pop culture’s social impact; they want us to celebrate ‘feminist auteurs,’ for example, without ever talking about the things those people do which are not feminist, or the fact that they can’t even be bothered to create a main character who identifies as feminist.

This is also paired with ‘don’t you have more important things to do?’ Because, obviously, you can only do one thing or explore one set of issues at once. So while you’re writing that post about Glee in California, disabled children are being tipped from wheelchairs in Berlin, and you are somehow personally responsible for that. Why aren’t you writing about that? Don’t you have something more important to do?

Because this argument comes up so much, it’s worth briefly addressing. Starting with here at FWD, where you can see numerous examples of other things we write about and have written about. And on our personal websites, where we write about much more. And in our personal lives, off the Internet, where we are engaged in all sorts of activities, a lot of which you don’t read about because we don’t write about everything we do. So, if the question is ‘don’t you have something more important to do,’ maybe you should check and see if your target is doing anything else first.

For those who manage not to tell us that we have something more important to do, there’s the ‘well why are you upset about this, and not that?’ argument. We’ve noted that some folks who stop in on a drive-by because we’ve attacked their favourite pop culture icon seem to have trouble grasping the fact that we have site archives. When a particularly controversial pop culture post goes up, people demand to know why we haven’t written about [this] or [that]. Often, we have and it’s in our archives, it’s on one of our personal sites, or it’s on another site we’ve written for. Sometimes we even link to it in the very post under discussion!

We are simultaneously expected to address every single instance of pop culture ever, while also doing more important things, while also not writing about pop culture at all ever because it’s just pop culture why do you have to go dragging your FEMINISM into it, while also being reminded that if we don’t like every single aspect of something we just shouldn’t watch it or engage with it (because why would you be so ANGRY about it if you liked it?!), while also just shutting up really because no one likes to hear us talk or cares about what we have to say.

Pop culture writing is accessible because there’s a common frame of reference. Structural critiques appear to be less so because that frame of reference is not present. Yet, it goes beyond this. Discussions about issues like disability, race, and gender in pop culture sometimes evoke very violent responses, including concerted attempts to drive the critiquer off the Internet. Sometimes even the creators of the pop culture become involved in the attack, raising some serious questions about power dynamics. When a noted and well-loved artist is encouraging fans to attack someone, how can that person, lacking a dedicated fan base of thousands, hope to respond?

The question is, why does pop culture get all the attention? How come no one leaps forward to defend the government of California when abby jean criticises the administration of In Home Support Services? Why is it that Anna’s posts about accessibility issues at universities are not read as personal attacks on those institutions? When s.e. writes about occupational health and safety, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of outrage about workers who are injured, disabled, and killed on the job. Annaham’s discussion of sit/lie laws in San Francisco didn’t attract enraged San Franciscans to FWD. Yet, all of these posts were about very important social and policy issues.

Why is it that many of the detailed and highly focused structural critiques we do are ignored in favour of pop culture posts? A post with a promotional still from Glee will get far more attention than a heavily researched and sourced post on disability in Haiti. Both posts are important and both posts serve a function, but people only choose to engage with one.

Is it just that people feel more comfortable in the pop culture zone than anywhere else, and that they feel personally about the critiques they encounter? And that structural things can be abstracted, so criticizing structural issues is not read in the same way that critiquing pop culture is? Or are they bothered about the critiquer coming in to ruin their fun?

Racialicious recently put up a post discussing some of the challenges involved in curating a space specifically for people of colour to discuss race and pop culture. The pushback we experience as people with disabilities talking about pop culture is similar to that documented in the Racialicious post; some people really do not like to see people critiquing pop culture from a social justice perspective and carving out spaces to do that. People don’t just feel challenged by such critiques, they feel personally threatened by them and they resist the very idea of spaces dedicated to these kinds of discussions.

FWD isn’t a pop culture blog, although we do discuss pop culture frequently. And it’s the pop culture which attracts the most attention, the most outrage, and the most ire, so it’s not surprising that people sometimes think we are a pop culture site. It’s the pop culture which sometimes makes some of us want to turn comments off and hide on a remote island somewhere far, far away.

But it’s also the pop culture which serves as an introduction to social justice issues for so many people. People who feel like they ‘aren’t qualified’ to understand structural critiques or who think that they need to read a bookshelf worth of theory to talk about feminism can and do engage with pop culture discussions and not a week goes by that one of us doesn’t get at least one email from someone reading along the lines of: ‘I never thought about this issue until you brought it up in the context of [show] and now I’m really interested and exploring theory and thank you!’

And that’s probably the most important reason to keep writing about it, and to keep creating and maintaining spaces to have conversations about pop culture from a social justice perspective.

9 thoughts on “What’s the Big Deal With Pop Culture? (And Why Do You Keep Talking About it?)

  1. Because people feel like pop culture, at least the bits they watch/read/listen to, is something they know about, whether or not they can see the sexism/ableism/racism/etc. in it. Whereas government policies that affect women and disabled people are often something they know nothing about, so they might just have nothing to say about it, or they might take your word for how it affects people, or they might not care, because even if you succeed in changing it it doesn’t really affect them. But if you critique their pop culture you are affecting them and threatening them with change.

    This breaks down a bit when it’s people that are generally allies complaining that you are critiquing their pop culture, not that there’s any excuse.

  2. Why did I hit submit? “not that there’s any excuse.” should be “not that there’s any excuse for allies failing to see the damage that pop culture can do.” or something along those lines.

  3. This is a great post.

    I rarely comment on posts about international issues, for instance, because I usually don’t have any particular knowledge of the issue so I could only say “Isn’t that awful!” or something, but pretty much everybody has an opinion about pop culture. I think that’s a big reason for the difference in level of response.

    I’m sorry you get so many nasty comments.

  4. Susan’s probably hit a big part of the nail on the head, there. We get excited about pop culture because it’s ours collectively.

    Also: we don’t usually invite lawmakers and medical policy makers or educational theorists into our homes (unless we’re part of those circles, ourselves). But we all invite pop culture into our homes: We buy the music, we watch the TV.

    And so maybe that’s why people get so personal and nasty when you critique their favorite stuff — you’re saying bad, uncomfortable, things about their friends.

  5. My first contact with social justice blogging was through discussions of pop culture. I followed a link to an lj-community on books by PoC, which was created as a direct result of racefail09. So I started reading up on racefail. And kept reading.

    It’s not that I wasn’t raised to be concious of social issues, and to firmly believe in all kinds of equality-movements. It’s just that, since I live a very privileged live, there are a lot of things I had never had to learn about. And unfortunately, the various forms of privilege bestowed on some people by the kyrarchie are not something that is really examined in general discussion or at school.

    So all these amazing texts were eye-opening for me, if sometimes very uncomfortable to read. But I have learned so much over the last year, and I continue to learn from all the amazing authors on the net (and trying to pass as much as possible on to my friends ad family). If people didn’t do critical analyses of pop culture, I might have never found my way here, because a year ago, the internet was still very much “for fun” for me.

    I am so glad that I stumbled over these posts, that there were so many amazing ones, and that people continue to take part in these essential discussions. I wouldn’t want to miss everything I have been taught in such a short time, or miss out on everything else I am going to learn.

    So, thank you for doing this harrowing work. Sometimes, it really does reach people.

  6. It was pretty cool to see Zack Weinstein on the latest episode of Glee (Laryngitis). His acting was good, and his singing wasn’t bad, especially considering that it wasn’t pre-taped. However, I didn’t much like the actual scenes he was in. I wonder what others thought of it?

  7. It’s probably better to bring up discussions of Glee or other t.v. shows in the Chatterday threads, Lila. This post isn’t really about people’s opinions of individual episodes or even shows, but about people’s response to critiques of pop culture.

  8. People who feel like they ‘aren’t qualified’ to understand structural critiques or who think that they need to read a bookshelf worth of theory to talk about feminism can and do engage with pop culture discussions and not a week goes by that one of us doesn’t get at least one email from someone reading along the lines of: ‘I never thought about this issue until you brought it up in the context of [show] and now I’m really interested and exploring theory and thank you!’

    YES, THIS.

    I like to hear you talk and I want to hear what you have to say. FWD is invaluable, and though I may not always comment (because keysmashes of rage aren’t helpful) I am always reading.

  9. Pop culture is also a good forum in that its generally realatable. I don’t really watch Glee, but I have a general idea of the characters and their roles- enough to have an intelligent conversation. Your typically 27 year old off the street cannot do this with world politics- at least intelligently. There is research involved.

    I do have an issue with disability in pop culture though- probably not the place for it, but hey- what about those of us with disabilites that affect our lives in major ways, but that cannot be seen with the naked eye? IE- I have a severe seizure disorder, I guess similar to epilesy, but different triggers. I cannot drive, or have children. I am heavily medicated which cause me to lose my train of thought, slurr my speech and shake like a person with MS at times. I get vertigo and asphasia, amongst a million ohter nasty side effects. Can you see these things if you are not looking for them? Not really. Where is my representation in pop culture? Why always a person in a wheelchair? My life is affected in serious ways, and I still fight- why can’t I have a character on Glee?

    I will stop whining now.

Comments are closed.