July 30, 2010

Why pop culture matters

Blogger Jenn Fang offers an excellent analysis of Why Pop Culture Matters to Race Bloggers. First she explains why the naysayers are wrong:Often, you'll also attract the first-time readers who stumbled upon your site because they googled the movie (or television show, or actor) in question and found an unexpected critical analysis of identity politics (rather than a post consisting entirely of l33tspeak, summarized as "i <3 jake gyllenhaal omg hes so sexy in prince of persia rotflmao!!!1!!!!1!!!!1!!"). Many such readers will proceed to write lengthy comments telling you in excruciating detail how they wasted the last 10 minutes reading your post. The gist of these comments is always the same: pop culture is only entertainment and isn't meant to be serious, so racial issues in these media don't matter. It's only a movie (or television show, or video game, or comic book)! Lighten up!

It's this flavor of comments that really get my goat—not because they are particularly insulting (although they can be), but because they reveal a fundamental lack of understanding about the significance of pop culture.

Popular culture (or "pop culture") is not something created in a vacuum. Nor do the stories it presents emerge out of thin air. Whether we're talking about musicians or movies, pop culture ultimately reflects the values of its time. Take, for example, The Birth of a Nation, which was released in 1915 and quickly became the highest-grossing movie of the silent film era. In Birth of a Nation, black men are depicted as violent and hypersexualized aggressors who victimize white women. White Klansmen are painted as heroes who rescue white women from such predators. The popularity of this film reflects the popularity of such sentiments about race and politics of the time.
And:Pop culture doesn't just reflect popular trends and ideas, it also helps create them. For example, the average person who grew up in the 80s with limited exposure to Asian-Americans might develop a stereotypical view of Asians being as meek and exotic—a view influenced by films like Karate Kid, in which Mr. Miyagi fuels the stereotype that paints Asians as exotic martial artists. Over time, not only do such pop culture phenomenons help create stereotypes, they're recycled and later reinforced in future pop incarnations.

It's an especially damaging trend because people of color are so underrepresented in pop culture. In fact, over the last several years, Asian Americans have represented less than 1% of primetime television regular or leading roles—despite the fact that we are nearly 5% of the national population. Asian-American kids growing up in the 80s share a common tale of woe: in the playground, we were inevitably referred to as Mr. Miyagi or Long Duk Dong, because these archetypes of the sensai and the dorky buffoon were the sole reference many Americans had to define their perception of Asian people.
Comment:  These Asian examples are a good corrective for the idiots who think stereotypes come from old paintings and Wild West shows but not from the modern entertainment media. If they were right, kids would be calling Asians a generic term such as "coolies" rather than Mr. Miyagi or Long Duk Dong.

Similarly, Native girls get called "Pocahontas" occasionally. That comes from the Disney movie, obviously, not from some history book or documentary on a 400-year-old incident.

The media is what propagates and perpetuates stereotypes, people. If you're still in denial about this, get over it.

For more on the subject, see "Public" Causes Stereotypes? and Valenti:  Movies Are Merely Movies.

Below:  What people today "know" about Indians...from a 19th-century Wild West show?!

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