Why Study Popular Culture?

Feb 10, 2013 by

Why Study Popular Culture?

Karen Larsen, editor of the Journal of Fandom Studies, speaks about scholarship that starts from the moment of justification—that we as academics engaged in the study of popular culture, of fans and fandom, feel the need to justify our object of study in a way those who study high culture or the sciences do not. In answering the question about why a journal on fan studies, Larsen explains that she wants us to move past that question of “why study this” and on toward answering the many other questions that could and should be posed about the area. In other words, we need to move past the justification for scholarship and delve only into the scholarship itself.

I agree with her. However, much of the world does not, yet. Those outside of the academy, or inside who have yet to be persuaded, often decry our work, writing insulting comments about our choices, our lives and our intellects as they deliberately misconstrue what we are doing. We must not be very smart if we are studying television shows. I’m a writer, an actress, a blogger, a lawyer, a teacher, a fangirl, a geek and a derby girl – small minded criticism doesn’t make me question my choices or my work. What I say here won’t persuade the small-minded, who fail to grasp the very nature of scholastic undertakings and the intellectual work involved in cultural and textual criticism.

At the heart of the hostility, I believe, lies an outraged suspicion that cultural studies and media scholars have made ‘work’ into ‘play’, and vice versa…Popular culture is ‘leisure’; it’s what you do outside work. To make it into your work is a kind of cheating. It isn’t fair. It doesn’t seem right. It’s too good to be true, and so there must be something wrong with it, somehow. Either it must be easy, or it’s pointless, or, more generously, anyone in that field must simply be very lucky, studying things that other people watch or read for pleasure. – Will Brooker “Studying Popular Culture”


That sort of bitter judgmental cynicism isn’t something one blog post is going to conquer. Perhaps Larsen is wrong, and we do still need to justify ourselves until the world catches up, but given that many in the world think studying Shakespeare is a waste of time, and liberal arts majors will never make any money, anyway, it doesn’t seem a battle worth fighting. Better to, as Larsen suggest, just get on with the work we do.

That said, then, this isn’t another derivative addition to the “why popular culture?” discussion underway in academies, journals, forums and comment section. This post isn’t meant to defend the study of the popular to the skeptics and detractors. Perhaps it echoes some of those; perhaps it reflects back to them; perhaps it will question them. That is my reader’s judgments to make. What it is, for me, is an answer to a more personal question, the one I find myself faced with from friends and family and asking myself: Why do I study popular culture? After all, smart women know their why.

I’ll start my answer with another question (that’s one thing they modeled for us in law school—the Socratic method remains eminently useful for generating deeper dialogue): why study high culture? More specifically, since it is the field in which I was first trained: why study literature?

We study literature for a myriad of reasons:

  • To broaden our horizons.
  • To learn to think critically about our society, our world and ourselves.
  • To learn about how nature and language work.
  • To find the universal in the particulars.
  • To gain empathy.
  • To recognize ourselves in the Other.
  • To lead richer, more engaged, more imaginative lives.
  • To deepen our insights.

I’m certain there are many others that you can come up with. We study art because art reflects life. It teaches us things that are below the surface, helps us see the deeper truths about life. Beyond our own world, art of the past gives us windows into the those worlds, their lives, their beliefs. It allows us to question, to critique, to learn from attitudes and judgments that ours grew from. We can learn to be better.

We read literature of the past and are capable of seeing the issues surrounding gender, race, repression, colonialism, constructions of nationalism and heroism and more. These issues are not trivial. They make up the fabric of what it means to be human and living in a Western society—indeed, it is through art and literature that most of us are ever exposed to cultures not our own, and in the face of those cultures we must, if we are critical thinkers, then question our own.

If all of this is true, if all of this is valuable—how much more valuable, then, is the culture of our own time, our own era, our own society for understanding who we are, what we believe, where we are going and what we still need to change? If the cultural artifacts of the past provide a window into the heart of people of the past, then the culture of our day must surely do the same into our own.

How are we represented in the mass media? What do depictions of women in the popular culture of the fifties compared to those today say about the changing roles and concepts of womanhood? Have they changed as much as we think? When we joke about the “token black guy” or the “token gay” or “token woman” on a popular show or represented in a position of power in a popular movie…what are we saying?

Our beliefs, our values, our decisions are not only revealed in our popular culture, they can also be shaped by it. As we shape it, it shapes us. If we allow the transaction to pass unquestioned, unexamined, then we truly do become slaves to the status quo, the concepts portrayed to us through television, books, music, news, advertising, and everything else that bombards us daily.

I study popular culture because I believe that it, as much as any literature of the past, reveals critical truths about what it means to be human in the world. More than “high” culture of today, which is barely acknowledged by most people, popular culture has insight into people who are represented in it and who consume it.

A lot of academics engaged in the study of popular culture have insisted that, “If it isn’t popular, it isn’t culture.” When we consider that which we now consider high culture from the past, we have to acknowledge the truth of that. Shakespeare’s works were pop culture in his day. Dickens has been called the first pop culture celebrity. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the first American novel to sell more than a million copies, breaking all sales records. In the United States, it was the second best selling book, after the Bible. If that is not “popular,” in a country of 31 million people, what is? In fact, obscure authors from the past are rarely studied—their work simply does not survive if it is not of some note.

Those who decry popular culture may find that frightening—to wonder what will be left behind for those who come after us to study in 100 years, or 500. What will they study? What will they learn from what they study? The issue of “quality” is a subjective one. I won’t say that it does not interest me, but I will contend that it is something that is eminently debatable with no way to ever extract a “true” answer. The proverb “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” has never been so true as when applied to the popular culture of anyone’s day (Alexander Pope, for instance, thought Daniel Defoe’s work exhibited the spirit of Dulness, as evidenced in his Dunciad).

But what we can learn from our own popular culture—quality or not—remains just as true as it ever was, as well. It reflects who we are. It forces us to see our short comings. It can serve as a criticism of our world, or in studying it, we can create that criticism. But it can’t be done without a study of the products of popular culture. We cannot make an argument for a more progressive, or more fair, or more real, or whatever value you espouse, representation of ourselves in the media if we have not studied and acknowledged what is there.

Popular culture reflects back the heart and soul of our society:  how can we name that, identify that, criticize that, change that or nurture that, if we have not taken the time to examine it, first?

[Photo credit: Tru_Vinci]



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  1. Hi there, I read your blogs on a regular basis.
    Your writing style is witty, keep up the good work!

  2. A motivating discussion is definitely worth comment. I do think that you need to publish more on this issue, it may not be a taboo matter but generally people don’t talk about these topics.
    To the next! Kind regards!!

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