[1:3] The Value of Popular Culture

Dawn Durante's picture

A post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.


In Feeding the Elephant’s [1:3] series, we pose 1 question to a librarian, a publisher, and a scholar—the 3 main stakeholders in the scholarly communications ecosystem—to get each perspective on a particular issue. Here, we posed the question: 

What is the value of popular culture to scholarly discussions?

In these answers, we hear from a scholarly collective that makes clear the legitimacy of popular culture to rigorous discussions, a librarian who follows the threads of pop culture the way one follows threads of research, and an editor who talks about just how pervasively pop culture influences scholarship in many disciplines.

 

Kacey Calahane, Jessica Millward, and Max Speare, Historians on Housewives

Our answer is simple: it is priceless. The past is in the present while the present charts the course for new pasts. Making popular culture a regular fixture in scholarly discussions can create accessible interdisciplinary conversations while making scholarly research legible beyond the academy.

In Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes, “We are never as steeped in history as when we pretend not to be, but if we stop pretending we may gain in understanding what we lose in false innocence” (xxiii). In many ways this claim is a foundational premise of the Historians on Housewives project. Too many people scoff at the phenomenon that is reality television, and especially The Real Housewives franchises on Bravo TV, as devoid of substance and lacking historical merit. However, this dismissal as “low-brow” or “low art” programming replicates the structural gatekeeping that all too often shapes academic spaces, separating the ivory tower from those we supposedly seek to engage beyond our walls. Rather, pop culture offers an opening to meet people outside of academia where they are, but it also serves as an excellent, even humanizing icebreaker between colleagues providing a social bond beyond the narrowing confines of our work.

The project that Historians on Housewives pursues in analyzing The Real Housewives and other reality shows explores questions pertaining to US and world history and interdisciplinary approaches. Luckily for us, this type of pop culture assessment as a vital part of historical research has deep roots in scholarship. Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization used pop culture from the 1880s to 1917 to examine a history of gender and race, where both fictive and real people represented the stakes for consuming and performing whiteness and masculinity within the US empire. Perhaps other classic examples are Joanne Meyerowitz’s Not June Cleaver, which deconstructed the stereotype of the 1950s pop culture housewife icon, June Cleaver, from Leave it to Beaver, demonstrating the multitude of ways that women challenged the postwar domestic ideal, and Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound, which wielded pop culture to demonstrate the parallels between the containment culture endemic to the Cold War period and the domestic containment of white women to the home in the 1950s. Truly, our examples in scholarship could be never-ending! 

Lest we forget, Betty Friedan’s famed Feminine Mystique was at one point the zenith of pop culture. Perhaps the aversion scholars have to embracing pop culture now is that it lacks prestige (yet, again, this is dependent on who is making the judgment), or that it seems too mindless. In response, we will refer you to Trouillot’s point. Do not wait for pop culture to be history before treating it as such. The cheap amusements of the now are just as meaningful as those we look to in the past when centering our subjects’ manifest desires, dreams, and societal criticisms. Pop culture captures the ever-making and remaking of racial, gendered, sexual, and class dynamics in real time. Keeping our finger on its pulse can help us imagine futures not yet seen and pasts yet to be fully explored. 

 

Courtney Becks, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Whether for scholarly purposes or not, popular culture has the power to spark our curiosity. For example, I have been listening to indie Lebanese band Mashrou3 Leila’s song “Asnam (Idols)” over and over again the past few weeks. Poet Kaveh Akbar writes: “The first poems I ever knew, ever loved, were written in a language I didn’t (and still don’t) understand.” I don’t understand Arabic either, but Mashrou3 Leila’s lead singer’s voice is, um...a lingua franca that can reduce me to weeping. Hamed Sinno’s baritone is highly textured, their falsetto quite often sexy and fun. I’m a bit unsettled by how much the 2019 song “Radio Romance” is precisely what I want to hear from this band: an anthem anchored by Sinno’s unmistakable voice that would be well received slithering over a humid floor full of dancing bodies in any of the planet’s major cities. Head swimming with thoughts of embodiment, Arabic phonetics, and the poetics of music, I seek out more information.

Hamed Sinno is endlessly fascinating. Out, queer, and agender, in interviews and their own writings, in conversation with the theories and discourses people use to understand and shape their own lives. In one podcast interview, they talked about abjectness and the erotics of singing in male choirs past. Yes, please!

The band is, in fact, part of the discourse. Their work shows the value of scholarship—or intellectual inquiry—to popular culture. In an article published in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Nadine El-Nabli writes about “how Mashrou3 Leila (re)imagines identity and cultural belonging through their use of history, language and popular culture artefacts to resist the erasure, exclusion and oppression of certain abject bodies within predominantly postcolonial Arabic-speaking societies.”

Mashrou3 Leila, of course, does not solely consist of the lead singer. Violinist Haig Papazian, drummer Carl Gerges, and multi-instrumentalist/backup singer Firas Abou Fakher were all trained as architects. Gerges is a practicing architect in Lebanon. Abou Fakher and Papazian are booked and busy with creative projects. Here I’ll admit I’m kind of being a dirtbag: in videos, Mashrou3 Leila is all tight trousers and pretty eyelashes.

There is an obvious relationship between popular culture and scholarship. After all, where does one’s life begin and one’s research end? Last week I ordered a long overdue copy of Said’s Orientalism, which I tried (and failed) to read after returning from Israel-Palestine in 2013. One of the books I’m reading right now is Beauty in Arabic Culture. Listening to Mashrou3 Leila, I recall that connecting with art from that part of the world makes me feel happy.

People are going to think about what they see and feel. People are oceans.

For me, it is most productive or generative to think in terms of: How are people living their lives? What makes them meaningful, gives them substance?  How does one’s work affect others? Does it make a difference in a reader’s (or listener’s) life or nah?

 

Jim Burr, Senior Editor, University of Texas Press

Many years ago, I, as a film and media studies editor, brought before our faculty board a project that looked at ways in which fan culture interacted with a popular science-fiction television show of the time. One of the faculty members, a professor in the business school, was openly dismissive of the project, asking what would be next, a study of the board game Monopoly? Immediately both I and my editor-in-chief chimed in about what a fascinating book that could be, looking at what the game said about the culture at the time it was created, or what role board games more broadly played in the American family over the years.

Pop culture permeates our society, through books and music, movies and TV shows, comic books and video games, Tik Tok and Instagram, and in numerous other forms. Punk rock infiltrates Milan fashion, comic-inspired art is hung on museum walls, and music from Doctor Who inspires symphonies attended by England’s Royal Family. In the United States, Congressional hearings have been held regularly over the supposed dangers of comic books, or rock and roll, or video games. Programs such as Will & Grace and Ellen are given credit for helping to change America’s views on gay people and same-sex marriage. The list of the effects of pop culture on global society and history—whether positive, negative, mixed, or still to be determined—could be endless.

Clearly, the value of popular culture to scholarly discussions is likewise boundless. Whatever the subject within human culture, whatever country or society or people, whatever time period, it is likely that pop culture can inform its study. What is current among the general populace helps to explain its ethos and its politics. Was a revolution fomented with the help of satirical songs or skits? Were the actions of a leader or government affected by editorial cartoons and bawdy jokes targeting them? Did a stage play or television program illuminate the injustices faced by a segment of the population, leading to societal change or at least a conversation about the problem?

Popular culture can further be used as a touchstone to help understand or explain a subject from a different time or culture. A modern-day student might better understand the fanaticism of ancient Romans for a given chariot-racing team through comparisons with modern-day football clubs. The role of song in Sufism might be made comprehensible to a Christian audience through the lens of gospel music. Explaining the changing portrayals of Hercules within ancient mythology might benefit from a comparison with the myriad approaches to Superman or Spider-Man. Again, the list could be endless.

Scholarly presses exist to help cultivate and disseminate knowledge, and popular culture can have a role in that, whether a publisher has an “official” pop culture list or not. Practically any study of human society can incorporate the role that “low culture” has had (assuming the distinction between “high” and “low” culture even means anything any more), either as an integral part of its examination or as just a point of comparison or contrast to help illuminate the topic for its audience. And due to the ever-changing nature of pop culture and the various media through which it spreads, there will be endless examples to continue studying.


Historians on Housewives brings together scholars from interdisciplinary backgrounds to explain The Housewives phenomenon and to explore how issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality can better shape understandings of American and world history. You can follow them on Twitter and Instagram @HistoriansH.

Courtney Becks is the Librarian for African American Studies and Jewish Studies Bibliographer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

Jim Burr is a Senior Editor at the University of Texas Press, where he acquires in film/media/popular culture studies, Middle Eastern studies, and Classics. His pop culture obsessions include, but are not limited to, DC and Marvel comics, Doctor Who, and Disney. He is currently trying to read a sampling of the history of science fiction and has just reached the 1920s.