Pop Culture: Useful tool or frivolous entertainment?
Posted by lisagbrown on October 13, 2007
Is it possible to use theory and intellect to draw deeply complicated conclusions about silly, simple pop culture art? I faced this question in the writing of my Master’s thesis, in which I used such illustrious examples of animal imagery as Mr. Winkle (see photo, right). For many reasons, my answer to this question is a resounding yes, but it is difficult to convince scholars that there is academic and cultural value in guilty pleasures.
I’m raising this point because of a Very Special Episode of Grey’s Anatomy the other week, in which one of the doctors (an MD for humans) saves a deer. The episode addresses the issue of childhood attachment to animals. It can potentially be read for its commentary on the legitimacy of adult empathy for nonhumans. However, in discussing the episode with my husband, I realized that the more interesting issue at hand was expressed in a question I posed: Would people stop taking me seriously as a writer and animal advocate if I wrote about a trashy soap-opera like Grey’s Anatomy? It seemed to me that the answer, yet again, was a resounding yes.
So here is the dilemma: latent and explicit meanings embedded in pop culture can reveal societal paradigms in their purest form, yet pop culture is often viewed as mindless entertainment that is devoid of greater worth. How can these intertwined and opposing viewpoints be resolved? To start with, by establishing why pop culture is worthwhile.
In the book From Art to Politics: How Artistic Creations Shape Political Conceptions (1995), author Murray Edelman explains how and why art and popular culture can provide insight into every day life. Edelman says that “part of the meaning of artistic talent is the ability to sense feelings, ideas, and beliefs that are widespread in society in some latent form, perhaps as deep structures or perhaps as unconscious feelings, and to objectify them in a compelling way (p 52).” If art synthesizes basic beliefs, then scholars ought to be able to learn a great deal from studying art.
The study of popular culture (kitsch in particular) suffers from an unusual problem. A lot of pop culture art — not all, but a lot — lacks quality. It is not often that a field of study is generated from lackluster product. In the study of popular culture, scholars ask their audience to accept the intellectual rigor of their research, even though the topic of their study may have none. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many critics, the scholar’s ranking as a legitimate academic is only justified by the quality of his subject of study. For instance, an academic who writes about the Sopranos might be warmly received because of the artistic merit of the TV show, whereas an academic who writes about Grey’s Anatomy would get the cold shoulder because the show’s ambitions go no further than entertainment. And yet, there might be as much useful commentary generated from fluff about Meredith and McDreamy as there is from Tony and his gang. Again, it’s the integrity of the analysis, not the quality of the art being viewed, that ought to determine academic worth.
Steve Baker, author of Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity and Representation (2001) offers a perspective that compliments Edelman’s theories about pop culture. Baker asserts, “much of our understanding of human identity and our thinking about the living animal reflects — and may even be the rather direct result of — the diverse uses to which the concept of the animal is put in popular culture, regardless of how bizarre or banal some of those uses may seem (p. 4).” Like Edelman, Baker places value in even the most frivolous imagery of popular culture representations. Using a butter TV commercial and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as examples, he explains that any understanding of animals is reliant on our understanding of their cultural representations. Baker explains that animal imagery is purely a human construction and is not an accessible reality. Thus, understanding greater cultural mentality about animals will come from exploring the meaning, both latent and explicit, in these manufactured representations.
To return to the question with which I began this essay: Is it possible to use theory and intellect to draw deeply complicated conclusions about silly, simply pop culture art? I’ll reiterate again, yes. I’ve outlined here some of the many reasons why. But finally, let’s return to the question that began my thoughts on this subject: Would people stop taking me seriously as a writer and animal advocate if I wrote about a trashy soap-opera like Grey’s Anatomy? Unfortunately, I think the answer is still yes, but perhaps with room for change.
Baker, S. (2001). Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity and Representation. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Edelman, M.J. (1995) From Art to Politics: How Artistic Creations Shape Political Conceptions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Regan, L.J. (2001). What is Mr. Winkle? New York: Random House.