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Clark and USC Professors Discuss Understanding Politics Through Pop Culture

Oscar Kim Bauman, Scarlet Staff

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In a February 7th event at the Traina Center’s Razzo Hall, Clark Screen Studies Professor Roxanne Samer hosted University of Southern California Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Art and Education Henry Jenkins in a conversation on the nature of fandom.

Their conversation set out to address the ways in which people engage with popular culture and use it as a medium for political dialogue and personal expression. The event was co-sponsored by Clark’s Higgins School of Humanities and the Media, Culture, and the Arts and Screen Studies departments.

The conversation began with an effort by Jenkins to define the meaning of popular culture. He referred to the theory put forward by Raymond Williams that “culture is ordinary.”, Although the humanities have often held an elitist view of culture, Williams believes that popular culture produced and enjoyed by ordinary people is meaningful and worthy of study.

Jenkins says that the reason popular culture is so important is because it touches every aspect of our lives. We express ourselves through pop culture references, and while we’re all fans of things, some of us take it as far as to join fandoms, communities which bring together people across the world in their shared enjoyment of a piece of pop culture. Beyond simply enjoying pop culture, Jenkins states it can offer us models for political resistance and civic imagination.

According to Jenkins, the imagination can help us make sense of politics. American politics has always framed itself through the lens of popular stories and mythology, from the statue in the Smithsonian museum depicting George Washington as the Greek God Apollo, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s references to the biblical story of Moses. Popular culture, as a form of modern mythology, presents common ground through which common people may more easily understand politics.

While young people may have trouble understanding politics, pop cultural references can make these issues more understandable. One example cited by Jenkins is the Harry Potter Alliance, an international human rights group which uses imagery from the aforementioned franchise to frame its issues.

Another example comes from the use of Superman as an icon for immigrants; particularly young DACA recipients. Superman’s experience mirrors that of many real-world immigrants:  he was sent to the United States as an infant, arrived without legal status, growing up to become a pillar of American society that looks out for the people in his adoptive country.

           Pop culture references are frequently used by political advocates on all sides. Some examples, as highlighted by Samer in her presentation, include signs at the Women’s March featuring Beyonce lyrics, as well as parallels drawn both by opponents and supporters of the Trump administration between the president’s proposed border wall and the the wall from Game of Thrones.  

           Jenkins also highlighted the cultural history of a particular form of fan engagement with pop culture: the remix video. Beginning in the 1980s, fans using VHS tapes would dub popular songs over clips from their favorite shows and movies. Often, the choice of song would be a commentary on the themes present in the clips.

           Such videos were frequently created by female fans, who would use the act of remixing to reframe male-created shows to reflect their own identities and experiences. At early fan conventions, fans would share these videos, copying them from VCR to VCR, indicating a hunger for new perspectives in pop culture.

           Jenkins compared the practice of video remixing to a modern form of quiltmaking: taking scraps of other things, and combining them into something of your own. People may be able to find a sense of empowerment in reclaiming mass media to tell their own stories.

           Pop culture may also play an important part in shaping what Jenkins calls the civic imagination. Through the civic imagination, citizens of a country envision a path towards a better future, and through pop culture and fictional societies, we have numerous examples of what a different society could look like, for the better and for the worse. Through stories of revolution like The Hunger Games or visions of utopian societies like Black Panther’s Wakanda, we use pop culture to envision political change.

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Clark and USC Professors Discuss Understanding Politics Through Pop Culture