Friday, March 13, 2015

Why popular culture is not always a girl’s best friend

I don’t really know where my slight fascination with pop culture comes from. It is not as I had great exposure to it as a child and it is not even as if I see people like me represented in any positive way the mainstream.
Maybe there was an element of voyeurism where I observed the mainstream from the sidelines.

But as I grew up, the interest in voyeurism decreased as I stopped being so captivated by the media’s portrayal of what was considered ‘normal’ and my attention shifted to more specific areas of popular culture.

Perhaps it had something to do with growing up and becoming more comfortable in my own skin and I became ok with not fitting in. Maybe it was when I realised that the media’s concept of “normal” did seen a little bland, shallow and boring. Perhaps it was when I saw pop culture offering up images and “standards” that are unrealistic and understood that they should not considered universal.

I learnt that I could still have a fulfilling life if I didn’t look like the girls in the magazines or have exactly the same life as the guys and gals on Home and Away. 

Things changed though I was in my first year at university and took Introduction to Cultural Studies with a super amazing lecturer who blew my 21year old mind and from that moment I was hooked!!

I soon became aware of the nuances of popular culture and developed a fascination into what was being said and portrayed and what wasn’t. I soon began to appreciate the media’s role in perpetuating cultural paradigms and how it frames the debates in our society. I also began to understand how pop culture has influences people’s lives, including how it creates communities as well as a window on how we view ourselves and each other. 

I also started being interested in the representation of women in the media, including the internalisation of the male gaze and the objectification/representation of women.

You can imagine my excitement when I stumbled on a book called Feminism and Popular Culture by Andi Zeisler (2008) as it discussed many of these issues and reminded me that pop culture isn’t always a girl’s best friend. The aim of the book is to see how pop culture influenced feminism and also how it depicted it. It showed me that pop culture is more than entertainment but a narrative of hopes, dreams, fears and often conflicting values played out in front of us.

Below are some of aspects of Zeisler’s book that I found particularly interesting.   

The power of the male gaze

Zeisler describes liberating Pop Culture from the power of the male gaze as one of feminism’s unfinished projects.

The media seems to be universally white and male. What we see in mainstream entertainment and films seems to be contracted around white, middle-class male values. Not forgetting news reporting and current affairs; all issues and their importance (or unimportance) seems to be viewed through the lens of male values.

As this process is so common and continues to be unquestioned, women tend to internalise the male gaze and view things from a man’s perspective. We almost see ourselves in third person - judge our bodies and choices in a way a man might. As Zeisler states, ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’.             

Women on TV

Zeisler argues that TV was the first place that women saw themselves and ‘for a long time they didn’t see much besides loving wives, dutiful daughters, gossiping girlfriends, fashion plates and the occasional dowdy maid, nanny or granny’.

Women on TV have had quite an interesting progression (it would make a really interesting PhD topic) as each decade has seen them portrayed in a different way. 

The 1970s saw women as more than just housewives and going out and participating in the public sphere which included work, getting divorced and owning property. It was during this decade that the famous talk show that led to women’s issues even if they were topics and solutions were totally mainstream.

Zeisler states that the 1980s saw ‘TV characters who seemed to be striving for feminist ideals, but for the most of them – as it was for women in the real world – it was almost impossible to be feminist super women in a world that was still stubbornly unequal.’  Zeisler also describes the ‘80s where women took on more powerful roles that challenged previously held stereotypes as well as a decade where feminism was a work in progress’.

This continued into the 1990s where Zeisler feels that ‘music was a primary site in which women were challenging the roles that the industry had contracted for them’. The late ‘90s saw the birth of very popular Sex and the City which showed for different women who were economically independent and weren’t reliant on men for anything except sex. Sex became a consumable and disposable.   

Women as consumers

Zeisler argues that ‘Pop culture has always been about commerce, and feminism and pop culture will always be uneasy bed fellows in a larger culture that remains conflicted (to say the very least) about how much power, agency, and autonomy women should have’.    

While advertising and products have changed overtime, a constant has been that it has reminded women of society’s expectations of them. As Zeisler asserts, ‘a significant chunk of the advertising industry has always been devoted to reaching women, and in most cases its message have instructed women to be on guard, lest they comprise their most important quality: their looks’. There is that male gaze again; can we ever get out from under its spell?         

There was one seminal period at the beginning of WWII where for the first time it wasn’t about a new face cream but encouraging women to go out and work as part of the war effort. Unfortunately when the war was over and the boys came home, women were, once more, relegated to the domestic sphere under the spell of the male gaze.

This is a brief look at the many issues that this book looks at. It covers many important aspects of contemporary life and gives you a good historical understanding of popular culture and feminism while changing how you consume pop culture now. On a practical level, it is short, easy to get through and well worth to read.  

There are might be more important things to overcome (such as domestic violence and the gender pay gap) than the representation of women in the media but I think that the value of discussing such issues as well as pop culture as a tool for social change is under appreciated.

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