Monday, January 03, 2011

8 Invalid Arguments Regarding Pop Culture

This version was originally published at Opine Season

This is a re-worked version of an older piece; with the recent controversy over Miss Saigon at the Ordway, the continued pressure on the Washington NFL team to change its name, and the various Miley/Macklemore/Thicke fiascos, I thought it’d be a good time to update it.

Part of being passionate about art and culture is getting into arguments about art and culture. I’ve had my share, especially when it comes to the intersection of social justice and pop culture. What follows are eight rhetorical devices I’ve encountered in these arguments and why I don’t buy them.

1. “It’s just a (movie/song/book/commercial/etc.)”
Culture informs society. To dismiss pop culture as pure escapism or background noise is naïve. No, hearing Eminem say “stab you in the head/ whether you’re a fag or lez” isn’t going to instantly turn every listener into a violent homophobe, but to say that there isn’t any impact at all is just intellectually dishonest. Offensive images and words, over time, do help shape the world, especially when those images or words correspond with institutions that systematically oppress people. Even seemingly innocuous archetypes like “the sassy Black friend” or the “wise old Asian man” in movies become harmful because of the prevalence of the images and the lack of alternative images.

2. “You’re just being over-sensitive. Lighten up.”
When someone is offended, that emotional and intellectual response is real. It’s unbelievably arrogant to simply write that off. Maybe the person really is misinterpreting something, but the least you can do is take a second to try to understand where they’re coming from and consider the specific points they’re making. If someone thinks that the movie “Avatar” co-opts and distorts indigenous struggles, and you disagree, talk about why you disagree; don’t just dismiss them as whiny babies. Better yet, suppress the impulse to immediately debate them and just listen.

It’s also worth noting that finding something offensive isn’t always about “hurt feelings.” It’s often also about recognizing the connections between offensive words or images and dangerous, oppressive systems and institutions. The “this isn’t a big deal” attitude reveals a fundamental naïveté about how culture informs society; see point #1.

3. “I’m also (Asian/lesbian/blind/etc.) and I wasn’t offended by that” or “I have a friend who is (Asian/lesbian/blind/etc.) and they weren’t offended by that.”
You and/or your friend are not the absolute authority on all things (Asian/lesbian/blind/etc.). If other people are offended, that reaction is real; see point #2. Asian-American actors from “Miss Saigon” have defended the play; their support, however, doesn’t make other people’s critiques invalid.

4. “At least it’s better than everything else out there.”
Eating light bulbs is better for you than drinking bleach; that doesn’t mean eating light bulbs is a good thing. The current state of pop culture is pretty awful when it comes to representation and social justice. Being “a little bit better” isn’t good enough to exempt anyone from criticism. It’s great that Joss Whedon writes strong female characters; we can still criticize him, however, for his treatment of characters of color.

5. “Sure it was offensive, but they didn’t mean to do it. They weren’t trying to be (racist/sexist/homophobic/etc). They just didn’t know any better.”
Impact trumps intent; if you accidentally offend someone, you might not be a bad person, but it does not magically absolve you of responsibility. Saying something stupid out of ignorance is only marginally better than saying something stupid out of malice, and the effect on people is exactly the same. Katy Perry may not have anything against the LGBTQ community, but the song “Ur So Gay” still reinforces hurtful stereotypes.

6. “They’re not saying that ALL (female/gay/Black/etc.) people are like that, just these specific ones.”
This is also known as the “but some women ARE bitches” argument. An artist cannot control how people ingest his or her art. Interpretations differ. Characters and images in pop culture are always symbols for larger communities, whether or not the creator of that character meant it to be that way. Sure, Long Duk Dong from “16 Candles” is just one specific character. But in a movie (and corresponding cultural landscape) that has no other Asian characters, he becomes a vessel for Asian-ness and Otherness, both of which are characterized negatively. See point #5.

7. Anything involving the phrase “politically correct.”
As much as people try to characterize those who are offended as oversensitive whiners, phrases like “PC police” and “I don’t believe in political correctness” absolutely reek of “boo hoo I actually have to think about what I’m saying and consider other people’s feelings; I’m so oppressed!” Political correctness doesn’t mean that you can’t be honest. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be offensive, if that offensive language is making a larger, important point. It just means “don’t be a jackass.” The “PC police” defense is a blanket rhetorical device that allows thoughtless people to dodge criticism. If you are going to say/do something offensive, it should serve a greater purpose, and you should take whatever criticism you have coming openly and honestly.

8. Why would you expect something better? They’re just trying to make money and most people don’t care about this stuff.
Of course this is true. But to simply internalize it is defeatism. We can fight back, make noise, start conversations, engage in boycotts, write articles, create better art, and make the connections between pop culture and society that need to be made.

Further Reading:

“Thanks for the Severed Head; You’ve Proved My Point” (at Native Appropriations)

“Why Tonto Matters” (also at Native Appropriations; you should probably just bookmark that site)

“What’s the Big Deal with Pop Culture, and Why Do You Keep Talking About It?” (at Feminists with Disabilities for a Way Forward)


Elenore said...

I just got linked to this blog through a friend, and I want to shout a loud chorus of "Yes yes yes" your way. I, for one, LOVE pop culture, but that doesn't mean I am a mindless consumer of it, and I think if we all opened our minds to viewing and discussing pop culture through a critical lens, we can change the face of it. Also, I'd say that some moments, scenes, lyrics, whatever, can be problematic inside of an overall good whole, and it's still okay to enjoy the whole, while remaining aware and vocal about your displeasure with those moments.

I just got off work and am a little beat, so excuse me if this didn't make sense, so I'll just say great job again.

Crystal said...

That's what's up. I really appreciate it because people say all of those things to me on more than one occasion. I even sometimes write MYSELF off as being too oversensitive or PC because I'm used to that response/defense from others. I also like that you included actions to go with what you had to say. We don't have to sit there and be the consumers of culture... we can be the creators of culture!

Guante said...

Definitely. I agree with the idea that you can't really control what you enjoy. It's possible to love UGK (just as an example) as a rap group with good beats and nice flows but hate their lyrics. There's no all-or-nothing.

Where it gets interesting is the line between "liking" something and "supporting" something. One can enjoy a movie but refuse to pay for it, for example. Or nod along to a song when it comes on the radio but not put it on a mix that others will hear. And so on.

At the same time, culture is like food, in the sense that it gets inside you and changes you whether you like it or not, so you have to be careful walking that line. It's something I struggle with.

Anonymous said...

I knew you were a beast when I met you @ our open mic with Tish. Keep doing you man the world will change. A constant dropping on water will wear down a mountain. Thanks.

JRS said...

I LOVE, LOVE, LOVED your post so much that I posted it on my blog with a link back to you. Thank you for such an awesome point of view.

Amy said...

I started to argue with #3 a bit (on the account that I do not let pop culture stereotypes define me), but I realized it does matter. I may not react as others do and may not always agree with them, but I do my best to at least see why they do react in more outward ways. In the end, it does affect us all.

As already mentioned, it is important to be aware of all art and culture, but it's what and how you internalize it all that matters. I will jam out to crappy music with fun beats, but when I want to feed my soul, I go deep into the real stuff.

Great post, Kyle!

Elizabeth Sowden said...

How about "But he's on our side!" Just because someone identifies as left wing does not make him or her a saint. Example: Immortal Technique. He hates women. No one can convince me otherwise. He has one or two lyrics that sound feminist but these are vastly outweighed by all of the examples of slut shaming, objectification, and jokes about rape that ooze from his songs. And what really frustrates me is that people gloss over this and talk about how great and progressive he is. I even read a blog post by a (male) blogger that interpreted the song "No Me Importa" as feminist (!?). I hate that song--because it's nothing but slut shaming. The gist of the song is him telling a girl she's a slut for having casual sex, and then says "Yeah, we can fuck, but you have to go after manana." Do I really have to explain why this is sexist? But, Immortal Technique gets away with it because he's perceived as "fighting the good fight", and besides, who cares about women, anyway. He brings up important points in tracks like "The Poverty of Philosophy" but undermines his message with his misogyny, because it alienates female listeners. But instead of addressing this, he brushes it aside by saying "I'm not misogynist." I think, at the end of the day, he doesn't care about women in his audience, because to him, women are not human beings.

Sorry, I don't mean to rant and I'm not trying to hijack this thread--I just think it's important that people who espouse left wing values get the same scrutiny as everyone else, because too often we let people slide because we think they're on our side.

Molly said...

Can I hug you? Or high five you? This post has been in my browser for about a week now and I just keep looking at it and nodding.

I find myself SO frustrated. I recently had to end things with a guy I was seeing because he was using the words "gay" and "retarded" left and right, even after I spoke to him about it. His reasoning? "Well I'm not talking about the kids you work with. Just people who know better and do dumb things" and "my gay friends say it"

Thank you for this post!

Anonymous said...

Found this linked on Jezebel. This has frustrated me for some time. Thank you thank you thank you thank you