RESPONDING TO POPULAR CULTURE – Material adapted from Fiske: Understanding Popular Culture

 In Additional Qualifications, Blog, Elementary, Lessons and Ideas, Secondary
Material adapted from John Fiske:  Understanding Popular Culture and Reading the Popular, (Unwin Hyman, 1989)

Culture is a constant site of struggle between those with and those without power.

One can look on the process of making popular culture, therefore, as the opposition that develops between the class in power (corporation; powerful classes) and the people (the ‘audience’; the ‘consumer’; the ‘worker’).

True popular culture (not necessarily the mainstream, commercial products that call themselves ‘pop culture’) is made from within and below, not imposed from within or above.  It is always a culture of conflict and resistance, involving the struggle to make social meanings that are in the interests of the subordinate (ie, those without power).  The victories, however limited, in this struggle produce popular pleasure.

Resistance to dominant culture takes various forms that differ in their social visibility, in their social positioning, and in their activity. Pleasures are found, for example, in the carnival aspects of WWF. All of these texts allow for a kind of exaggerated, liberating fun that turns social norms around and momentarily disrupts their power.

According to media critic Stuart Hall, there are three different ways that people read/respond to/participate in any media text (a film, a poster, TV program, Barbie Doll, a fad and so on):
  • a dominant,
  • a negotiated, and
  • an oppositional reading
The key question to ask is:  How do I position myself in relationship to the text?

1) A dominant reading of a media text is produced by a viewer situated to agree and accept the dominant ideology and values that are communicated.

Examples:  (I like Rambo – his rugged/macho/muscular looks, his convictions about American individualism and the heroic tactics he uses to accomplish his goals:  get the missing POW’s out of Vietnam at all costs)

(I get off on ______  groups like ________, or   _______________.  They’re great, especially when they play with anti-authoritarian ideas. Sometimes their values are not politically correct, for example anti-feminist, but I can deal with that.
2)  A negotiated reading is one produced by a viewer who fits into the dominant ideology in general, but who needs to bend it to take account of his or her social position.  Because there are some areas of conflict, there will be elements of resistance.  A television drama can only be popular if it is open enough to admit a range of negotiated readings through which various social groups can find meaningful expressions of their own relationship to the dominant ideology.

Examples: TV shows often use several different kinds of characters on the team, in the group, or organization such as, ________________________ .

Each one will affect you in different ways according to your special needs. (For example, young females may negotiate a certain meaning of feminism or if the character does not produce this, they will just avoid the issue.

It is not surprising, then, that a successful television program must be able to produce a good range of meanings.  (In this regard, the hero-team is a significant ideological formation as it provides for a greater openness than the single hero.  Its greater variety of opportunities for identification enables people to negotiate points of entry into the dominant ideology.)

3) Readings that are entirely opposed to the dominant ideology are oppositional.  A feminist would see such shows as WWF as sexist, an obvious display of male chauvinism.  The reading would evoke not pleasure but annoyance.  Many left wing critics delighted in doing radical critiques of popular culture texts. The Cosby Show, for example, came in for some harsh criticism due to its celebration of material values, and avoidance of very controversial, but important, racial and social issues.

The ways we read our popular culture texts are crucial to understanding how we create meaning and literally make popular culture “our own”.

Example: When the old TV show Charlie’s Angels was popular, some women saw the Angels in a positive, non-sexist way.  In order to do this, they would frequently ignore or turn off the set when Charlie would give his orders or make his comments to the women near the end of the show. [‘How have the new movie versions given the show a feminist “reading”?’

Other examples:  The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, Ugly Betty, America’s Next Top Model- how can these be ‘read’ in order to avoid an oppositional reading?

Log response:   Choose one or more of the following and show how you (or your friends, or youth you know of)) have constructed meaning from the following – made popular culture your own, made it personal – through what you did, said, thought or fantasized:

1) Pop paraphernalia in your room or in student’s lockers – pop posters, fan letters, fanzines, photographs, souvenir books, buttons, advertising, ‘altering’ clothing, especially popular or mainstream brands
2)  rituals and behavior communicated at a rock concert; at sports events
3)  video games:  the how and the why they are played (if applicable)
4)  how you respond to a specific popular culture trend and/or displays of current fashions
5)  a television drama, a game show, a popular song

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