There’s a kind of fatigue on display in social media these days, at least among the circles that I follow, that suggests people are tired of parsing the deeper meanings and dangerous discourses of popular culture, and it’s manifested in a malaise and backlash to the criticism surrounding Kanye West and Brooklyn Nine-Nine specifically. In the maelstrom, meanwhile, I think some basic premises are being lost. I’m going to enumerate them here, briefly, not because I’m invested in either Kanye or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but because I think the moment can remind us about what we find valuable about cultural criticism, cultural studies, and other disciplines and methodologies that teach media literacy.
1. It’s ok to like popular culture.
Being a critic doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy popular culture. Roxane Gay reminded us when discussing the new Roseanne reboot that it’s fine to enjoy entertainment that might be nevertheless “problematic.” Critics and scholars exist to start conversation, to open our eyes to new and different ideas, and in terms of poststructuralism and queer theory, to lay bare the ways in which power works through media, and specifically, the way it reveals how that which is understood as normal is in fact contingent, and rooted in histories of chance, opportunity, inequality, and domination.
You can understand all that and still enjoy Avengers movies, I promise. In fact, to suggest that we can’t do so is to posit that there exists a perfect form of popular culture that reflects an ideal form of human, such as that posed by a liberal humanist episteme. To the contrary, I think the posthuman idea that we are always, necessarily, in the process of becoming-with, as Donna Haraway might say—that there is no pre-ordained human form or historical telos—is to allow for the inevitability of “problematic” popular culture, and that for us to engage with it means to engage with the inevitable discovery of one’s self through discourse—whether that discourse is popular culture or not.
2. There’s a difference between a critique based around conjuncture and discourse, and one that simply seeks to say “you’re doing it wrong.”
This second point is just an extension of the prior one, but I think it’s important to emphasize. That when we write about the norms that are being performed and recirculated in popular culture, we’re not blaming the creators of those cultural works. At least not always and primarily.
This is tricky stuff, and I’m aware that other might disagree. In my own opinion, it’s one thing, for example, to blame the makers of Disney’s Song of the South, the 1946 feature film that included overt stereotypes of American Americans and blunted the history and legacy of chattel slavery, because there is ample evidence that the producers of the film knew about the matter, were challenged by progressive voices, and refused to listen to them as the film was being conceived and produced.
It’s another thing to analyze something like the aforementioned Avengers movie, or the TV show Cake Boss, and to do so with an eye towards how these shows or movies mostly unwittingly reveal and reproduce the hegemonic narratives that popular culture recirculates and promotes unceasingly if unconsciously.
If a scholar is on twitter saying we should simply ignore all these conversations and controversies over things like Kanye and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, that’s fine. We should recognize that they are simply not engaged in the scholarship or project of cultural studies. But the alternative isn’t pelting the Cake Boss guy with rocks, and I try hard in my own writing to make this point explicit.
The alternative is talking about how narratives and symbols overlap in discursive conjunctures. This is a fancy way of saying that Brooklyn Nine-Nine would have a very different meaning if we lived in a world with no police. Animated Disney movies would be under little scrutiny for the way that they have historically treated the ambitions of their female characters if there was no glass ceiling, no wage gap, and no difference in how men and women were represented in various industries and economic segments.
Maybe what this means is that if it is okay to take creators to task for their blind spots—and I do believe that this is important—it also means that we hold a mirror to the expectations that culture creates, and sees reflected back to it by its audience. Perhaps in poststructural and antihumanist theory, there is no one without blame. Ideally, we use it to foster an approach to media literacy that asks us all to examine Geertz’s webs of meaning in which we are all suspended, with due attention to the interconnectedness that this task reveals.
(For me, this is an important and insufficiently explored distinction, one that I see as the key difference between a criticism rooted in a liberal episteme and one rooted in a post-liberal one. I simply don’t think you can do justice to media theory with the former.)
3. “Representation matters” means taking other symbols, myths, and narratives seriously too.
Finally, I think we can take the understanding, so common in public discourse now, that “representation matters,” and expand and build on it. Representation does matter, in terms of seeing an array of individuals on screens, because to the degree to which those screens don’t represent those that actually constitute America or the world, they normalize a narrow definition of who or what constitutes the American or global citizen. (More materially, we can also note that under-representation also excludes people from industry occupations for reasons that have nothing to do with their abilities or potential to make contributions, as problematic as those bases are themselves!)
But there is a certain kind of hypocrisy to saying that racial, ethnic, gender, LGBTQIA, and ability representation matters, but then to turn around and say that cultural critics are getting too hung up in the meanings that pop culture puts forth when it comes to matters that extend beyond liberal conceptions of identity politics. Here we see the problem with representation as it is conceived as the ultimate culmination of a liberal political project.
I’m reminded of this Black Panther essay that contrasts the project of representation, which the author notes has rightly been “the bedrock of radical Black artistry,” with an unrealized project of “decoloniz[ation],” and of seeing how “whatever fascism imprints white America does Black America, too.”
(This also reminds me of a radical black comic book writer that I read about a few months ago, and damn if I cannot for the life of me find his name or figure out where I read it. But this writer was invested in the idea that simply having black superheroes reproduced ideas about criminal justice and violence that were unproductive regardless of the hero’s skin color. He wanted to use the form not to simply replace white characters with black characters, but to tell stories that were radical in both content and representation.)
In the case of Brooklyn Nine-Nine then—which, don’t forget, you are free to enjoy!!—a show with a diverse cast nonetheless recirculates the norms around which the police are a central community institution, one that has the potential to fulfill the liberal promise of a rich American tapestry and have fun doing it. Me, I’ve barely ever watched the show, and whether you fall on #teamBrooklyn99 or not is inconsequential to me. But if you were my student or my reader, which I guess you are, I’d want you see how the above recognition makes it so we can get past judging the show, in order to examine how ideas about the police show up in weird and complicated ways, and how those ideas are both born from us and work to in turn shape us. (Next week’s lesson: The Wire?)
I hope that what our best cultural studies scholars and cultural critics have done, and continue to do, is to open up the possibilities for our conversations to go beyond simply hammering a piece of work for being insufficiently woke, to go beyond focussing on the important issues of representation at the cost of having more complicated conversations about liberal norms, and to go beyond imposing some kind of burden on writers and consumers of cultural criticism that would make enjoying entertainment impossible. (And for the record, I thought Black Panther was great.)