My wife and I recently gave a presentation at that served as an introduction to pop culture studies for students who may have never thought critically about the field. As we brainstormed ideas, gathered sources, and picked TV clips that illustrate the best parts of our chosen field, we realized that our presentation had to answer a single question:
Why study popular culture?
It seems like a pretty basic question with a pretty basic answer—to understand it better. But the more we thought about it, and the more we discussed it with people outside of our safe little pop culture-loving bubble, we realized just how loaded the question really was. Soon, we realized there is a second, unasked question that tags along with it:
Does it really matter?
My answer is unequivocally “yes.” It matters. A lot. In fact, I would go as far to say that pop culture studies is one of the most important fields liberal arts majors can be in today, that pop culture studies comes with one of the greatest responsibilities in academe.
Responsibility? Say What?
I mean it. I think that pop culture scholars (not just the film and TV kind, either) have one of the highest levels of responsibility among scholars today.
Think about it: what other field gets to pick and choose what is included in the canon for future generations? Who decided that Shakespeare was the head honcho? Why not Marlowe or Milton? What about Chaucer? And just who was it that decided we should be reading Ulysses? Who told us to still read Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and The Thousand and One Nights?
People who read them and studied them, that’s who. Someone who took it upon themselves to spend their lives scouring archives and theaters and libraries and estate sales for whatever pieces of literature have the most merit.
It was that kind of elite literary gatekeeper that developed the English canon. It was that kind of scholar who told us that reading Beowulf is worthwhile, but that reading something else probably isn’t.
But how did they know? How did they know the difference?
Because they read and studied everything and that study functioned as a sieve that filtered out the garbage. They subjected themselves to the dregs of literature so that we, the future generations, wouldn’t have to.
Therefore it is not simply the pop culture scholar’s responsibility to determine what gets carried along for future generations, but it is their responsibility to determine what is not.
Separating The Good…
I love what I do. Not because I get to sit in front of a TV for hours and call it research (that doesn’t hurt), but because I get to do something I love. I love TV and movies. It’s fun for me to just sit and watch, but it’s also fun to dig into a show, excavating whatever nuggets of awesomeness are under the surface so I can share those with my friends, family, and students.
By studying TV and movies (and books!) that I love, I can tell someone what is worthwhile to watch. People who aren’t trained as scholars do this, too, and it’s no less important. When was the last time you recommended a TV show or movie to someone, or lent a friend or family member a DVD set because they just had to watch it ASAP?
That’s all a pop culture scholar does; we just couch it in the form of research papers and conference presentations. We get to watch the things we love, work out why we love it, and pass it on for other people to love and think about.
Hopefully, my love of LOST will one day allow me to study it and contribute to it being canonized as not only a pop culture phenomenon, but legitimate literature. I have plans to focus on it for my doctoral dissertation, and even now, I extol its virtues to anyone who will listen. I tell my non-scholar friends about how smart and deep and emotionally resonant it is in an attempt to share something I love with them, and I am mulling ideas around in my head for how the series uses genre to redefine the Campbellian monomyth, which will allow me to bridge the academic gap with people who may not understand or care about the show, but like the theories I intend to use to analyze it.
It’s that kind of sharing that helps determine what the great pieces of literature will be. Texts tend to be given the analysis they deserve by those most passionate about the subject. Other people see how passionate those scholars are, read their work and check out the text, and in a few years, as more people follow that same path, a contemporary or pop culture text is canonized.
Because someone cared about it enough to study it in the first place.
…From The Bad
On the other hand, sometimes scholars can see people who are incredibly passionate about a text, and that natural curiosity that works in the positive for some texts (such as LOST if I have my way) backfires. Sometimes the work that is done on a subject does not elevate it to greatness, but denigrates it enough that those gatekeepers see little to no worth in it, and the work is thereafter ignored and lost to history as a fad, or worse, a period piece that interests such a small concentration of academics that it might as well be forgotten.
In this case, the pop culture scholar as still fulfilled his or her responsibility to maintain the canon for future generations. By providing preliminary scholarship, all avenues of analysis may be exhausted, leaving nothing of importance for new scholars to explore. And that happens all the time, but the important part is that the work is studied at all.
It’s important to study that type of literature because it allows us to realize what we do not want in the canon. For example, I’m very glad that there is a concentration of scholars diligently studying Twilight because I have no doubt that they will come to the conclusion that the series brings nothing new to the table.
Once that discovery is made and adopted as the general consensus, the OMG VAMPIRES fad will be over and the literary canon will be safe. In the realm of bad literature, there is nothing more dangerous than the question “what if?” Well, what if we missed something? It was popular for a reason after all. What if we just look at it like this or this or this or this?
If pop culture scholars do that now, while we’re still immersed in the society that created the literature, then classrooms a few generations from now won’t be wasting their time trying to find lasting literary worth in something that has already been determined to have none.
By studying everything and looking at it in depth, pop culture scholars can determine with the best eye what’s worthwhile because they have experience with studying the worst, too. Who would be better to tell us what the afterlife is like, the person spending a little time in heaven or the one who has been to both heaven and hell, finding out what each offers then reporting back?
To Infinity…and Beyond!
To some people, pop culture studies will always be of a lower order. But to those people, I point out Shakespeare. He was considered vulgar and low brow in his day, and now he’s the standard by which we measure everything else. If someone hadn’t seen the good in him and his texts, how much poorer would all our lives be?
Pop culture studies may not be for everyone, but the one core tenet of the field is this: it’s fun. It’s a field for people who love what they do and want to share it. It’s a field for people who want to look at the world around them and understand why things are the way they are, why people like the things they like. And sometimes that passion and curiosity aligns just right with the gatekeepers and a new work is adopted into the canon. And other times, we function as preliminary gatekeepers, keeping out works that just shouldn’t be bothered with. But if we don’t study it in the first place, we’ll never know which is which.