Recently, Janet Mock, a writer, cultural commentator, and transwoman, opened up on her blog about claiming a feminist identity. What sparked Mock’s recent claim to and stake in feminism was Beyonce’s 16-minute performance at the 2014 MTV VMAs where Beyonce boldly proclaimed herself a feminist in giant, lit-up letters while she stood in the foreground. Prior to this, Mock had never felt feminism was hers to claim. Considering that certain forms and representations of feminism are still mired in racism and transphobia, a black trans woman not feeling feminism was ever “created for or by” her is not all that shocking.
What made Beyonce’s performance resonate was the experience of having grown up with Beyonce and Destiny’s Child, and these pop culture forces played a significant role in shaping Mock’s adolescent identity. She succinctly puts it: “Pop culture may be dismissed as lowbrow, but to me it is the culture that matters most. Popular culture helped raised me.”
This got me to thinking – we spend a lot of time writing about and analyzing pop culture on WWAC specifically through “geek” culture. This often requires us to go up against the “reading too into it,” etc. Yet, if we recognize that pop culture has a significant impact on our identities then it should warrant critique. We got together to discuss what is pop culture, how it raised us, and how it influenced our identities, sexualities, and feminism [if we choose to claim it].
First off, I feel it often helps to start off with personal definitions. How do you define pop culture? What is it and what makes it “lowbrow”?
This question is incredibly hard. I don’t know! It’s something you feel (like the Force, which is def. a piece of pop culture). Pop culture, possibly, is easily-accessible media that doesn’t necessitate explanation? Not that it can’t be better for the discussion and dissection, but stories and time-passers that don’t require it before you could explain it to a friend.
Hmmm. I think there’s still some division in pop culture, although Claire’s right about it being easily accessible. I just don’t think that it means popular to everyone. Books, TV, and movies that are commentary on current social issues and concerns, as opposed to, say, philosophical questions of the ages. At least on the surface. I think a lot of media actually has a lot to say, but they sneak it in behind satire and a wink.
Pop culture is directed mostly at younger generations. I am reminded of an article published back in February about the increasing median age of TV watchers. Basically for the first time ever networks are trying to figure out how to work with an older audience. So, pop culture seems to be this pervasive force (television, magazines, radio, billboards, what have you) that is speaking mostly to young people, if not the youngest people. I worked as a daycare teacher for a while and it is mind-boggling how much of media is made specifically for children aged infancy to pre-k.
It is seen as lowbrow possibly because it is so accessible, as Sarah and Claire have pointed out. It is mass culture, but it is not “cultured,” in the sense that it’s not within a framework of education and etiquette. That’s not to say that you can’t find “smart” tv, or classy magazines, but those are not the norm. What you normally see pulled off the magazine racks.
I like what Al said about how it is not seen as “cultured” because it is not within a framework of education and etiquette, however I disagree that smart is or isn’t the norm so much as smart is something that emerges sometimes by the actual creators, but in particular by the fandoms that surround it.
I think something important too in this act of definition is that pop culture is widely accessible because that means more money. Making money is it’s purpose – which doesn’t mean it can’t be intellectual or even subversive, but generating money, and lots of it, is a big part of it.
How did pop culture raise you?
I read books more than watched TV, so I can’t say TV raised me, although I definitely have some TV shows and movies I associate with growing up. There are songs I hear that instantly transport me back to an awkward teen. So awkward.
Pop culture taught me about topics that I otherwise would not have learned about as a kid. I asked my mom what a period was when I was 8 and she said she’d tell me when I was older, so instead I learned about it from Roseanne. Duckie from Pretty in Pink taught me that lots of people harbored crushes as intense as mine for Matt Whats-His-Face. Nancy Drew books taught me that being a good friend means always being there to help each other. And countless other books taught me about acceptance and tolerance. I would not be the person I am today without tv, movies, and books.
I don’t know if pop culture raised me so much as it helped my parents raise me. My mom and I are both into SFF; all of the Tolkien books in our house growing up were hers, and she made me see Star Wars: The Special Edition when it hit theaters. I didn’t really want to go at first, but she kept insisting – “You can’t imagine how amazing it was! No one had ever seen anything like it!” – so I gave in. When we came out of the movie, of course, I was raving about how amazing it was, too. And thus began my entry into Star Wars fandom. My mom bought all the books for me and read them herself as soon as I was done. When I got into Dragonlance, she did the same thing. We were (and still are) very close, but our relationship was Joy-Luck-Club-fraught at times. When we were bonding over Star Wars or Dragonlance, though, everything was fine.
My dad wasn’t and isn’t really into SFF, so in our house pop culture nerdery was an exclusively female pursuit. Longtime readers of WWAC may have seen the excerpt from the furious email my mom sent about the last season of Sherlock as proof that nerd rage also runs in the family. Since my close friends growing up were almost all girls, my social pop culture-based bonding was also a “girl thing”. That, coupled with my parents’ relatively egalitarian approach to raising a girl (me), probably prepared me to enter stereotypically masculine social spheres such as comics fandom and academia.
I was very attracted to traditionally girly things – I loved My Little Pony, Lisa Frank, Rainbow Brite, anything pegasus-related, but I was also raised in a family of these Texas women who handled horses, built barns, carried guns, etc. So I often had this kind of mismatch between the two, and I even felt ashamed for being so girly sometimes. She-ra helped though, she was a warrior and wore pink.
What did pop culture mean to your coming-of-age?
I see this most when talking with my relatives. My touchstones for growing up wasn’t the same as theirs. So stuff like Legend, The Dark Crystal, and The Last Unicorn mean something to me that they don’t to people both younger and older than me. There’s a touch of darkness, of acknowledging that sometimes bad things still happen despite heroes being on the way, that comes from those movies and colors my thinking a bit. Sure, the unicorns in The Last Unicorn are saved in the end, but the main character will always know regret, making her different from the other unicorns. Lily was now aware of her capacity for darkness even after the unicorns in Legend are restored, and Jen’s race had been wiped out, even if he did make the Dark Crystal whole.
Pop culture was my first exposure to anti-establishment ideas. My upbringing was pretty ideologically conservative – I grew up attending an evangelical church, and my parents are on the older side – so I was discouraged from consuming media that could have been perceived as anti-Christian. The flip side of this approach to pop culture was that the adults around me were pretty unaware of what was out there, which is how I was able to read Transmetropolitan in high school without my parents knowing that I was filling my head with ideas about organized authority often being super corrupt and the rantings of a smoking, drugged-up futuristic outlaw journalist. (I also hid the TPBs and issues in my room so they wouldn’t find them.)
I also got into Vampire: the Masquerade with my goth friends in high school. Admittedly, I was more into reading the clan books than playing the game. We all had our vampire alter egos – not that we actually thought we were vampires; they were characters we’d created whom we also used to refer to ourselves as. Full disclosure: I was a Camarilla Lasombra (they do exist!) called Aida Valdez, and I am embarrassed just typing that.
These characters were a great way of dealing with teenage insecurity. They allowed me to pretend to be something more powerful than I was: someone with supernatural abilities and literal immortality who also had great fashion sense, as all contemporary vampires do. And since I knew it was more or less just a game, I could assume or discard that persona at will.
On a more serious note, Strangers in Paradise, which I began reading in my last year of high school, helped me to be accepting of LGBTQAI people. I had been taught that “love the sinner, hate the sin” was the correct approach to anyone not 100% heterosexual, but as I got deeper into Strangers in Paradise, I just wanted these two women who were in love with each other to be happy. Besides, how could I say I cared about them if I wanted them to be apart forever? That got me thinking about my attitude towards LGBTQAI people in real life, and made me realize that part of loving people is recognizing their right to happiness, no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity (or lack thereof) may be.
I think back to so many of those shows and books I loved which espoused very feminist things like generosity and acceptance – My Little Pony was so about that. But those values seemed disconnected with what I encountered in real life – racism and homophobia from people I know and loved. I rejected Christianity at a pretty young age because the way I saw it enacted didn’t seem to match my own developing values. That’s where sci-fi, fantasy, and horror really grabbed a hold of my imagination. While certainly not unproblematic, these genres offered the alternatives that I desperately needed.
That being said, what are some things you would have liked to see in the pop culture of your youth that you think would have helped your coming-of-age?
I would have loved more women doing stuff rather than being rescued or focusing on their love life. Especially that. For example, even the most powerful women in the first Dragonlance series of books were primarily defined and/or motivated by their romantic relationships with men. The men got to have all kinds of motivations, but for the women it almost always went back to who they loved. Except for Kitiara, who lived for both her family and her ambition, which of course made her the bad one. And my favorite.
More Asians, definitely. Specifically, Asian women who weren’t fetishized and Asian men who were just regular guys rather than martial artists/Triad/yakuza/old sexless sages. I watched a lot of California Dreams because it was the only TV show I was aware of that featured an Asian female character who wasn’t a total stereotype. But when it came to comics, my only choices were Jubilee (nice person, but I could not identify with her at all) and Psylocke (sexy ninja in butt floss). So while I felt relatively validated as a girl, I was aware that there weren’t a whole lot of role model options for Asian girls.
I think a lot of pop culture targeted to females offers smart and spunky characters to identify with, but then they meet a dude, and the dynamics of their relationship with said dude are such bullshit. Like Belle from Beauty and the Beast – smart, bookworm, refuses to marry the gross Gaston – meets the Beast and bam, Stockholm Syndrome. Ariel – rebellious and defiant, sees a dude and suddenly her sole interest in the human world revolves around getting married. I always feel kind of cheated when I get an interesting heroine who winds up only caring about her love life.
And just because I want to get our nostalgic fangirl going, what particular pop culture products of your youth hold that sort of unrepentant nostalgia and why?
You want me to talk about unicorns some more, don’t you? I knew it. OMG old school My Little Ponies and Lisa Frank and posters of unicorns drinking from a moonlit lake or prancing together as the moon rose behind them or the movies I mentioned. You know, if I had Lisa Frank stickers right now I’d happily put them on my sketchbook.
My Little Ponies had a special place in my heart, though. I had a ton, because everyone would buy them for my birthday and Christmas. I think I liked them because they were ponies but better, with multicolored hair and glittery cutie marks and horns and wings. And they were sooo much cooler than Barbie (yep, I went there). I didn’t need anything else to play with them, so that’s what I’ll go with.
Comics from the 90s – the 90s-er the better. I picked up an issue of JLX (the Amalgam Universe crossover between the JLA and the X-Men), which features “Darkclaw”: a synthesis of Wolverine and Angry Brooding Batman. In other words, one of the 90sest characters to ever swipe at bad guys.
Anything where Superman, Dick Grayson, Magneto et al. have ponytails also falls into this category.
I am with Sarah on the unicorns. What about unicorns with 90s ponytails?