Does Pop Culture Have A Responsibility to Educate?

A question I get asked a lot as someone who talks about pop culture from the perspective of a critic who roots my work in social issues, namely: does pop culture (and television in particular) have a responsibility to educate the audience?

Mar 25, 2013 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

So apparently “Girls” is catching some heat for its depiction (or lack thereof) of safe(r) sex, with Gothamist asking why the show doesn’t depict more use of condoms and birth control. After all, it’s about young women living in the city and being sexual, so surely these things should appear, right? And doesn’t it have...a responsibility?...to show viewers safe(r) sex?

This ties into a question I get asked a lot as someone who talks about pop culture from the perspective of a critic who roots my work in social issues, namely: does pop culture (and television in particular) have a responsibility to educate the audience?

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my work is the consumption and criticism of pop culture, particularly television and books. I love seeing what people are interacting with and how they’re reacting to it, analyzing what the attitudes embedded in pop culture say about society, and exploring the larger meaning of scenes on television, of literary phenomena, and more.

Pop culture, in other words, is very much my jam. I mainline it at every opportunity and I love smart, sharp, insightful critics like Alyssa Rosenberg over at ThinkProgress, who walks an elegant tightrope when it comes to blending critique, straight reviews, discussion, and thinkpieces about the state of pop culture today. The more criticism and discussion, the better, because fascinating discussions sprawl out of pop culture criticism and spill over into the larger world.

So what I’m saying here is that I think about pop culture a lot, but I actually don’t have to think very hard at all about the above question before answering it.

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Photo credit: velvettangerine.

Does pop culture have a responsibility to educate?

No.

That answer might surprise some people -- many seem to have a very specific image of who I am and the kind of work that I do, and the kind of person they seem to think I am is constantly riding a high horse when it comes to issues like this. But the truth is that pop culture doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and it can’t be held up in a vacuum either.

The framing of a piece of pop culture is an important factor in how I’m going to interact with it and interpret it, because pop culture is context-dependent, like everything else in society. To pretend otherwise is patently ridiculous; people generally don’t turn on their televisions to be educated (unless they’re tuning in to PBS), and the producers of, say, “Larry King Live,” aren’t out there with an educational mission in mind. Both things are works of pop culture, but they’re coming from different places, and they have to be treated that way.

Context, as Marianne and I often say in emails to each other, is everything.

Where people seem to get confused is that not having a mission to educate doesn’t exempt pop culture from critical discussion, and that good critical discussion (in my mind) includes both aesthetic and social commentary, because the two things are tied together. I got into a brisk argument with a dude on Twitter recently in which he was trying to argue that the aesthetics of something were the most important thing and overrode any social concerns, and he seemed to be missing the larger point: social concerns are aesthetic concerns.

The insistence on focusing solely on what a piece of pop culture looks like, reads like, and sounds like without any acknowledgment of the attitudes in the piece, and the views the piece rejects, is too narrow. Pop culture must be viewed through a wider lens because most audiences aren’t sitting around talking about the amazing camera angle or the brilliantly crafted metaphor on page 367. They’re taking in the work as a whole, not just the intriguing use of costuming, but also the people in the costumes and what they’re saying, how they’re acting, who they’re interacting with.

I like talking specifically about the aesthetics and craft of pop culture; “Six Feet Under,” for example, is a brilliant television series artistically. It has absolutely smashing set and costume design, lighting, and camerawork. The aesthetics don’t take away from the larger show itself, instead complementing it, with the setting becoming almost like another character.

It’s a work of art, and outstanding art at that, and that’s part of what makes the show such a success. But it also has amazing commentary about sexuality, death, and more, which intertwines inextricably; the show succeeds on aesthetic and cultural grounds. Those quiet, stark sets and that understated use of music aren’t hanging out alone in the universe.

Likewise, I love the writing in “The Night Circus.” It’s lush, rich, complex, and beautiful. I want to roll around in it and never surface again. The novel is also structured and crafted in a brilliant way that contributes to the highly atmospheric setting and dramatic tension. At the same time, “The Night Circus” says some interesting things about society, love, how we interact with one another, the culture of the circus community. These two things wrap around each other and contribute to each other; the quality of the writing and structure is itself a commentary.

When I criticize pop culture, any pop culture, regardless as to how it’s framed, I’m going to talk about it on aesthetic, cultural, and social grounds, because that’s the context it’s being viewed in. That means that I have no problem with noting the problems with a piece of pop culture that may be aesthetically fantastic -- I love the visuals of “True Blood,” for example, and must give a nod to the incredible production crew on the show and how they use visuals and music to create a specific mood and atmosphere, but that doesn’t mean it gets a pass on issues like rampant racism.

Criticizing society and culture as part of a work of pop culture is not placing an undue burden on the piece. Not every critic has to do that -- though I wish more did -- but those who do aren’t being unreasonable. It’s not ridiculous to look at what pop culture is doing well, and what it’s doing poorly, and, what’s more, to demand better. Requesting better depictions isn’t a demand that pop culture be educational, but a demand for basic decency, like, hey, could be not have blatant racism on TV?

Challenging critics who don’t consider social and cultural issues also isn’t unreasonable. When a critic claims that something should or shouldn’t have been done for the sake of the story, and the issue hinges around a larger social problem, I’m going to talk about that. Someone who says, for example, that disability should be tragedized to make characters more accessible is going to get a sharp word from me.

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Photo credit: Gage Skidmore.

Because pop culture is larger than “what serves the plot.” That doesn’t mean it has to serve society, but it does mean that when it doesn’t, people are going to talk about it, and that’s going to become part of the larger body of work around that particular piece of pop culture. I understand, for example, why Joss Whedon made some of the decisions he did with “Buffy” on aesthetic grounds, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to talk about their cultural impact.

That said, though, I do hold pop culture to a higher standard when it purports to be educational. “Girls” does not. It’s clearly meant to be entertainment, and that’s how the show has framed itself, and how it’s been framed by creators and members of the show’s team. This is a show about a group of privileged women in New York City, a depiction of a very narrow band of lives. That’s its goal, as a piece of pop culture and a work of art. In that, a lot of critics seem to agree that it’s succeeding, though it has made some notable social missteps as well, for which it has been rightly criticized.

Contrast that with “Glee,” which claims to be providing special lessons to audiences, to be combating bullying, to be “inspiring” viewers with its content. Ryan Murphy has been quite explicit about this, and thus I have no problem calling the show out on the carpet to criticize its handling of a number of social issues -- not just because the show’s handling of these issues bothers me, but because the show is claiming to do something that it isn’t actually doing. And it’s winning awards for that.

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Photo credit: Gage Skidmore.

In fact, it’s actively doing the opposite of helping, by perpetuating harmful social attitudes and dubious lessons about minority groups and cultures. “Glee” didn’t have an obligation to educate until Ryan Murphy said that’s what the show was going to do, and now that he’s gone there, I’m going there too.

I don’t expect “Girls” to teach me about safer sex any more than I look to “Bones” for insights into forensic science, or watch “Revenge” for valuable lessons about being a better member of society. I didn’t read “The Fault in Our Stars” for educational reasons, or pick up “Ash” with the expectation of coming away with a deeper understanding of the queer community. I consume these things to be entertained, enriched, delighted, but not educated.

Truth be told, I actually avoid a lot of “educational” pop culture, from Very Special Episodes to Issue Books, because I don’t find it very interesting. It’s often heavy-handed, it’s frequently wrong, and it’s frustrating for me as an audience member. I’d much rather see pop culture silently embodying key social values than presenting them in an educational framework; I’ll take Starbuck being one of the best pilots without comment on “Battlestar Galactica” over a heavyhanded “ladies can do stuff too!” plot any day. To me, the best “educational” pop culture is actually that which doesn’t set out to be, and doesn’t frame itself as such.

I love pop culture, and I shred the things I love. Picking it apart brings me great joy; the more ferocious the savaging, the more into a given piece of pop culture I am. For me, engaging with pop culture is like being Loki with his favorite octopus toy. I won’t stop until it’s in tatters and there’s catnip everywhere, all the guts exposed, all the threads pulled apart and sprawled across the rug of setting, context, and framing..

And I wouldn’t be doing pop culture justice if I didn’t take it to task for everything -- but I’m aware of what pop culture owes the audience (nothing, unless explicitly stated otherwise) versus what I want to talk about as an audience member engaging with it and critiquing it.