I view pop culture criticism as a vehicle to talk about structural issues. And so, it seems, do a lot of feminists. A lot of discussions about pop culture in feminist spaces bring up the fact that the messages in our media can be harmful. People internalize what they use as entertainment. When a song contains misogynist lyrics, for example, it’s not just upsetting because the content is personally offensive. It’s indicative of a social problem.
This is one reason why anti-feminists really don’t like feminist critiques of pop culture; because they challenge social structures and the attitudes that reinforce them. People who don’t view rape as a bad thing are naturally going to resist critiques addressing depictions of rape in pop culture, for example. People who think that abortion should be banned are going to kick and scream when feminists evaluate shows that discuss reproductive rights issues. And so forth.
One of the things that comes up again and again in response to pop culture critiques written through other lenses, examining art with an eye to how it treats race, disability, class, and other issues, is the idea that people are simply personally offended by the work. People who respond to such critiques will even freely admit that people have good reason to be offended, that the content under discussion does give one room for pause, but that it’s primarily about the personal offense that the critiquer is experiencing.
But people don’t take the additional step and acknowledge that content as indicative of a structural issue. And I think that may lie at the root of a lot of resistance to our analyses of pop culture. Feminist critiques are recognized as being valuable because they fight sexism and misogyny, but other critiques are just about being offended, or are about ‘lesser’ issues, and yes, I have been told that criticizing the depiction of disability is not as important as talking about sexism in pop culture.
It’s patently ludicrous to say that feminist critiques are addressing structural issues, while all other critiques are simply about being personally offended.
When a trans person talks about yet another iteration of the men in dresses stereotype, for example, the problem isn’t that the depiction is offensive. Oh, it is, for some of us it really personally hurts to see that. But the problem is what it reinforces. The social attitudes that it plays off of. Stereotypes matter because they speak to very real beliefs about other people and they are used to justify actions and attitudes that hurt people in the real world.
The insistence on treating some critiques as valuable for structural reasons which ignoring others serves to devalue these differing perspectives. And, intriguingly, backlash in feminist spaces to intersectional critiques of pop culture often resembles the same kind of backlash feminists encounter from the general public when they talk about pop culture.
‘You’re just looking for something to get offended about.’ ‘It’s supposed to be parody.’ ‘If you knew the history of the work, you’d get it.’ (Ignoring the fact that the person writing the critique may have been familiar with the work and the creator from the start.) ‘You have to see it in person, it comes off in the wrong light on a recording.’ ‘But, think about the intent!’ ‘It’s just a TV series/book/song, what’s the big deal?’
These dismissals act to erase the structural critiques in these pop culture discussions.
There’s an important reason to embed structural critiques into pop culture analysis. Many people are very reluctant to engage with discussions about social problems and structural issues. They feel on more secure ground with personal stories and pop culture because they feel like no special requirements are needed to explore these things.
Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to think that you need to know your theory backwards and forwards to plunge into a structural discussion. That when someone writes about an issue like prison rape, there’s nothing to say if you aren’t familiar with the issue, if you aren’t well versed on discussions about prison reform and abuse of power. I happen to think this isn’t true.
I think that well written structural discussions present the material in a way that makes it accessible to everyone, whether or not they read theory, whether or not they are familiar with the history behind an issue. I try to approach discussions about social issues in a way that will make people feel comfortable, and so do a lot of other people writing and talking about these things.
Alas, despite our efforts, the chasm between what people think they are ‘qualified’ to talk about and what they are not still persists. And that means that, for some issues, talking about pop culture is the only way to get people to think about them. I can write until I am blue in the fingers about discrimination against people with disabilities in society and the many ways in which it manifests, but what people will pay attention to is a post about Glee. And while they might not recognize the full structural implications of the criticism, my hope is that it plants some seeds, and that eventually such critiques will be accepted on equal footing as those discussing sexism and misogyny, that people will recognize the social attitudes behind problematic depictions of nonwhite people, people with disabilities, older adults, trans people, people in the lower classes, people of color, people in marginalized religions, teens, queer, gay, and bisexual folks.