Bye Bye Betty. “So long, and thank you for the fish” (ahem, dissertation)

Today’s top story, at least until Obama takes the stage for his first State of the Union Address, is the unveiling of Apple’s iPad, an unfortunate name choice, but it’s Apple, so who cares! Still, I will remember January 27, 2010 as the day when ABC finally canceled Ugly Betty. Yup… it happened. I had been expecting it for months, ever since they moved it to Fridays and then switched it to Thursdays. And the thing is that even though I’m writing my dissertation about Ugly Betty, I’m not sad at all. I mean, maybe I should be, because Betty and I have been through a lot, but I’m not.

The show started off big. It was the most watched new comedy of the 06-07 season. I got drawn into it because it brought together topics I’m really interested in: immigration and its myths, identity construction, and the political economy of television.

By studying Betty, I’ve learned about myths. In fact, I’ve spent too much time familiarizing myself with the myths of American immigration, getting some historical perspective, and becoming, let’s say, a little more philosophical. Now, it has come to the point where, to explain my views about Betty as, essentially, a reproduction of the myth of the melting pot, I feel the need to quote Machiavelli, Barthes, Levi-Strauss, Cassirer, and even Plato. And I’ve been asked “what does any of that have to do with Ugly Betty?” All I can say is that, in my mind, it does. In my mind, I see Betty as the little immigrant girl that could because she assimilated, and isn’t that what immigrants are told to do? Isn’t that what Emma Lazarus hoped for? Even Frederick Jackson Turner, who is not someone you think about when you ponder American immigration, believed that immigrants had to assimilate, to go through a crucible of sorts, before they emerged on the other side as full-fledged Americans.

But that was only the first season. After that, the myth faded away. It was better to focus on Betty’s love life, or lack-thereof. Romance fit the schedule a lot better. After all, Betty was opening for Meredith and McDreamy, and block programming is all about keeping it consistent.

When that happened, Betty lost me as a fan. She still had me as a researcher, but my loyalties went elsewhere, to Fringe, and to NCIS, where at least I didn’t feel sold out as much. I still watched, reluctantly, until I just could not stomach it anymore.

Now ABC is saying it wants to give fans a proper send off. They’ll probably have her marry. That’s how original Betty La Fea ended, after all, and it would be fitting for the American Betty to follow suit.

So long Betty, and thank you for the dissertation.



The Changing Face of Fandom

I am a fan of Henry Jenkins. I follow him on twitter, and I read his blog. I own several of his books, and I have quoted him repeatedly in my work. However, since Henry Jenkins is not a singer, or an actor, my fandom is a respectable activity. In fact, my activities would not be described as fandom at all. As Joli Jenson would say,  I’m an “aficionado,” or even “an expert.” This paradox shows how the word fan has been tainted, and turned into a pathology. Understandably, academics, as Jenson states, are not too eager to describe themselves as fans of other academics:

Would I defend my ‘team,’ the pragmatists, against the attacks on them by, say, Hegelians, neo-Marxist and/or post-structuralists? You bet. Would I do so in a rowdy, rambunctious or violent way? Of course not. I would respond instead with respectable rowdiness (acerbic asides in scholarly articles) and acceptable violence (the controlled, intellectual aggression often witnessed in conference presentations (Jenson, 22).

Jenson’s essay, Fandom as Pathology, really made me think of how we, and by extension the media (in a chicken ‘n egg way), use language to disparage specific activities and individuals. We create others, by making them seem dangerous, and in the process, we reassure ourselves that we are normal. With fans, this has usually meant characterizing them as either “obsessed loners” or “frenzied crowds” (Jenson, 14). Trekkies are a perfect example of this.
In Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Henry Jenkins starts chapter 1 with a discussion of William Shatner’s appearance as host of Saturday Night Live. Jenkins described how the skit used popular stereotypes about trekkies to disparage these fans. This is Jenkins’ analysis in full:
Trekkies are:
  • Brainless consumers who will buy anything associated with the program or its cast (DeForest Kelly albums);
  • devote their lives to the cultivation of worthless knowledge (the combination to Kirk’s safe, the number of Yeoman Rand’s cabin, the numerical order of the program episodes);
  • place inappropriate importance on devalued cultural material (“It’s just a television show”).
  • are social misfits who have become so obsessed with the show that it forecloses other types of social experience (“Get a Life”).;
  • are feminized and/or desexualized through their intimate engagement with mass culture (“Have you ever kissed a girl?”);
  • are infantile, emotionally and intellectually immature (the suggestion that they should move out of their parents basement, their pouting and befuddle responses to Shatner’s criticism, the mixture of small children and overweight adults);
  • are unable to separate fantasy from reality (“Are you saying we should pay more attention to the movies?”)
    (Jenkins, 1992, p. 10)
  • Jenkins’ point, and Jenson’s as well, is to show how such stereotypes are produced through selective representations. Interestingly enough, though, the same media that has stigmatized trekkies for decades, is now scrambling for fans (maybe not trekkies, but fans altogether). Changes in the media landscape make it increasingly difficult to reach a mass audience.

    And changes have been dramatic. Just consider this: in 2005, 41% of American homes received 100 or more television channels, but viewers tend to watch between fifteen and twenty of these. This is a far cry from the time in which only three networks ruled the airwaves. In addition to more choice, technologies such as the DVR, online streaming, DVD’s, Youtube and the ITunes store have revolutionized how people watch television shows (Jenkins, 2006a; Lotz, 2007). As a consequence of fragmentation, advertisers need to make greater efforts to reach the same number of eyeballs that was once readily available because the average audience size is much smaller (Webster, 2005; Lotz, 2007). In fact, according to Webster (2005), ABC, NBC and CBS combined only reached 29% of the audience during the 2002-2003 season. This is very significant, considering that those three networks commanded almost 70% of the audience in 1985 (p. 368).

    So what does this mean in terms of fandom? According to Henry Jenkins, the Internet may be re-deeming the fans; they might be the future of the television industry in particular (Jenkins, 2007). Fans are desirable users because their degree of engagement and loyalty to television shows is greater than that of the casual viewer. In other words, they will watch, and also actively seek out content, thus creating multiple opportunities for exposure to advertising (Ha & Chan-Olmsted, 2004).

    Yet, in order to tap into fandom, the media industries need to re-conceptualize two things. First, as Jenkins suggests, they need to re-think strategies to build brand loyalty and fan engagement. Second, they need to re-think the language used to describe fans.

    The re-conceptualization of marketing strategies is well underway. Approaches such as “affective economics” (Jenkins, 2007) attempt to increase our level of involvement with a brand, by understanding the emotional connections between consumers and brands, and to harness these  to guide purchasing decisions. A key approach in affective economics is the “brand community,” which is defined as “a specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relationships among admirers of a brand” (Muniz & O’Guinn, 2001, p. 412).

    For Muniz and O’Guinn (2001), brand communities are signs of the times. They reflect the conditions of industrialized societies in which branded commodities are everywhere. However, these authors warn against dismissing members of a branded community as indoctrinated drones, or obsessive fans. On the contrary, these individuals are fully aware of the commercial nature of brand. Furthermore, they “do not wish to be confused with indiscriminate zealots who are “weird nuts” occupying marginal positions” (p. 418). Because absolute devotion is not required for membership, these communities are open to anyone seeking more information about the brand. That some casual visitors can eventually become fans is not unexpected (Andersen, 2005).

    They “do not wish to be confused with indiscriminate zealots who are “weird nuts”? What a telling statement. However, I think we can take it further. The conflation between fandom and pathology, without a doubt, works against fans. Yet it also works against the industries that are vying for their attention. This seems to be forcing a change of the language used by the media to talk about fans. Here are some examples of the fandom as pathology discourse described by Jenson:

    • An obsessed fan arrived at Warner Brothers studios with a 1.5m-high teddy bear for an actress who was shot dead a year later, a security guard told a court yesterday. Prosecutors allege that the fan, Robert Bardo, 21, tracked Rebecca Schaeffer to her home, rang the door bell and killed her with a single gunshot when she opened the door (The Courier Mail, Sept 27, 1989).
    • AN apparently deranged fan of ice skater Katarina Witt is being held in custody over fears that he was stalking the Olympic champion (The Sunday Mail, December 29, 1991).
    • David Letterman’s most dogged fan showed up again in his neighborhood, after telling authorities she’d leave him alone. Margaret Ray, a 39-year-old from Crawford, Colo., who has been arrested six times on charges of breaking into Letterman’s house, tried to get a taxi driver to take her to the late- night comedian’s estate. Police later found her near Letterman’s home and put her on a train back to New York City. Ray was released from a Connecticut mental hospital last spring (USA Today, March 26, 1992).

    Stalking and violence against celebrities is nothing new. However, I have noticed  that there is a catchphrase used to describe obsessive fans. They are celebrity stalkers, and unlike your run-of-the-mill fan, or your infantile trekkie, stalkers are pathological and deranged.

    With this catchy label of celebrity stalker, media coverage can really point out a further distinction between obsessives and regular fans. The word fan, then, can begin to be untangled from its negative connotation, and used to signal “positive” behaviors. Fans, then, can become more respectable. However, what kinds of behaviors would make for respectability?  Facebook is one site where the language of respectable fan activity plays out very clearly. Facebook allows us to proclaim our loyalties by becoming fans.

    Picture 1
    Picture 4
    Picture 5
    Picture 7

    On Facebook, you can  become fans of almost anything. A country, a television show, a consumer product, or a cause, seem acceptable objects of fandom. However, you cannot become a fan of the KKK or the Nazis, because that would be against the Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. You can, however, become a fan of Hating the Nazis.

    Picture 8

    With the internet, entrepreneurs have found ways to put a positive spin behaviors that could be construed as stalking. When they’re successful, such behaviors can harnessed for profit. And this is just what Gawker Media has done. Gawker Media, which is the parent company of Gawker, describes itself as a site in which traditional publishing meets audience engagement, which, in this case seems to mean gossip. What bizarre twist in affective economics.

    But maybe it is not so bizarre after all. According to Jenknis, gossip is an important facet of how online fan communities emerge and operate. Gossip provides us with a “common ground […], as those who exchange information assure one another of what they share” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 84). Gawker illustrates this point well, especially through one of its most popular, albeit controversial, features:  Gawker Stalker. Gawker stalker allows people to post celebrity sightings by sending an email to the editors of Gawker. The site also includes a map, although this feature is not updated in real time.

    Gawker receives about 3 million UVAs (Unique views) per month on its celebrity gossip site Gawker.  According to their about us page 66% of the traffic is people between the ages of 18-34, which are a very coveted demographic for advertisers.

    I would say that Gawker exemplifies the next trend in audience research, that is, the move from and impression-based logic of advertisement, to an expression-based logic. Impressions refer to the number of “eyeballs” that can view a media product at a given time. Expressions, on the other hand, reflect what people do with the product. According to Jenkins, expressions are a form of personal investment which recognizes that “consumers not only watch media; they also share media with one another, whether this consists of wearing a T-shirt proclaiming their passion for a particular product, posting a message on a discussion list recommending a product to a friend, or creating a parody of a commercial that circulates on the internet” (Jenkins, 2007, p. 68).

    It is also an example of new ways of re-framing the image of the fan. By using the word fan repeatedly, as in Facebook, or by making the distinction between fans and stalkers, companies can further tap into what people are passionate about. However, they must first begin by setting the limits of what behaviors are acceptable, and what is still considered eccentric or crazy.

    Sorry Trekkies!

    • Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture.
    • Star fan on kill charge. (1989, September 27). The Courier-Mail.

    Hegemonic masculinity

    Tim Tebow is a demi god. He is the quintessential sports hero, the chosen one who reminds us that not all athletes are like Michael Vick, that American youth has a role model to emulate.

    Now, I have to say that I’ve never watched Tim Tebow play. I don’t usually watch college sports, but I’m fascinated by the language of sports writers. As Nick Trujillo suggests, sports writers have the tendency to extol masculine virtues. The hegemonic masculine virtues, that is (Trujillo, 1991). The press lauded Nolan Ryan in the 1990s for his heroic endurance on the mound, his wholesome life outside the diamond, and his success. Nowadays, the press praises Tebow using much of the same language. In doing so, media shape representations of gender, which is, in itself, socially constructed (Lemish, 2008).

    When we say that gender is socially constructed, we mean that there are “behaviors, expectations, perceptions, and subjectivities that define what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man” (Lemish, 2008, para 1). Furthermore, these expectations are linked to biology, even though they are established by the culture (see Women in American popular culture). Hegemonic masculinity is one of the ways in which Western cultures construct gender.

    Hegemonic masculinity, as summarized by Trujillo, is characterized by five elements: “(1) physical force and control, (2) occupational achievement, (3) familial patriarchy, (4) frontiersmanship, and (5) heterosexuality” (p. 291). Trujillo uses newspaper coverage of Nolan Ryan to illustrate how the media help perpetuate hegemonic masculinity. However, can we say the same about Tim Tebow? What are the parallels between Tebow and Ryan?

    1. Physical strength: Nolan Ryan played through injuries; “Tebow’s entire role-model persona doesn’t work unless he can convey that, fundamentally, he’s better than you: stronger, more capable, more at peace, just basically happier” (Fagone).
    2. Occupational achievement: Media describes the achievements of Nolan Ryan and Tim Tebow using a barrage of statistics. Ryan’s 300 victories and 5000 strikeouts are proof of his success. Tebow’s Heismann Trophy, national championship, TDs, equally show that he is a very successful athlete.
    3. Familial patriarchy: Nolan Ryan is the head of his household; he is protective of his wife, and he provides for her. She, on the other hand, is absolutely dependent. Patriarchy does not appear to be the focus of the Tebow coverage; however, his family is a traditional patriarchal unit. The father, a preacher, works outside the home. We can’t be certain of what the mother does.
    4. Frontiersmanship: Nolan Ryan’s exploits as a cowboy re-enact frontier mythology. In Tebow’s case, his family’s missionary work took him, as a boy, to a different frontier (The Philippines). Tebow’s father, furthermore, talks about the dangers of the mission (as in “If he were killed while preaching, it would be “the best thing that could ever happen.””).
    5. Heterosexual: Both athletes are “coded” as heterosexual. Tebow’s religious faith, in fact, obscures any questions (as in, deeply religious people are not ever gay?).

    There are some additional parallels. Tebow, for example, is the regular guy, which is a theme also associated with Nolan Ryan. Tebow is religious, which according to the protestant work ethic, results in blessings and success. Ryan is successful, hence, the opposite logic applies.

    Is hegemonic masculinity absolute?

    No, in fact, as any form of public discourse, hegemonic masculinity is challenged by different groups. This has led to the argument that, rather than talking about one form of masculinity, we should acknowledge different “masculinities,” or ways of “doing” masculinity” (Beynon, 2008). Furthermore, when we consider today’s media landscape, consumers have a bounty of options. This has led to increasing media fragmentation and specialization, which has opened the door to different forms of media representation.



    • Benyon, J. (2008). Masculinity and the Media. The international encyclopedia of communication.
    • Lemish, D. (2008). Gender: Representation in the Media. The international encyclopedia of communication. Retrieved (2009, October 6) from
    • Trujillo, N. (1991). Hegemonic masculinity on the mound: media representations of Nolan Ryan and American sports culture. Critical Studies in Mass Communications, 8, 290-308.
    • Fagone, J. (2009, August). Does God have a Tim Tebow complex?. GQ, Retrieved from



    The USA: Melting pot, Transnational America, or something else?

    From: The Melting Pot
    “There she lies the great Melting Pot listen Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling There gapes her mouth, the harbour where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight Ah what a stirring and a seething Celt and Latin Slav and Teuton Greek and Syrian black and yellow […]. Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God […]. What is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem where all nations and races come to worship and look back compared with the glory of America where all races and nations come to labour and look forward!”
    Israel Zangwill, 1908.

    The New Colossus

    Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
    With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
    Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
    A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
    Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
    Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
    Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

    The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
    “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
    With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses  yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

    Emma Lazarus, 1883.

    When it comes to immigration, the words of Israel Zangwill and Emma Lazarus are  the most recognizable symbols of the ideal of the melting pot in the United States. Zangwill, who was a successful British writer, popularized the term by using it as the title of a play about immigrants coming to America. In similar vein, Lazarus wrote the New Colossus to support the building of a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, which was one of the first things immigrants would see as they sailed into New York. Today, Lazarus’ words are inscribed on that very same pedestal. Furthermore, Irving Berlin composed music inspired by her famous poem:

    Conventional wisdom  tells us that the United States is a land of immigrants, but I’m always uncomfortable with conventional wisdom. What can I say? I’ve read way too much critical theory. Way too much Barthes. Therefore, I consider the melting pot as fair game for critical analysis. First of all, like the frontier thesis, the melting pot is a myth; it reduces a very complicated historical process to a slogan, which can be a very effective way of shutting down discussion. Very few people will argue against common sense (why would you?).

    However, Randolph Bourne is an exception. In 1916, barely about 8 years after Zangwill’s  The Melting Pot premiered in Washington D.C., Bourne published Transnational America, one of his most influential essays. In it, he argued that the ideal of the melting pot had failed. Immigrants were not melting, as expected, but this was not Bourne’s main criticism. He believed that the melting pot was terminally flawed because it imposed an arbitrary, and rigid, model for Americanization:

    Surely we cannot be certain of our spiritual democracy, when, claiming to melt the nations within us to a comprehension of our free and democratic institutions, we fly into panic at the first sign of their own will and tendency. We act as if we wanted Americanization to take place in our own terms, and not by the consent of the governed (Bourne, Transnational America).

    The problem, as Bourne saw it, was to claim that  assimilating meant adopting Anglo-Saxon ways of being. This attitude failed to recognize how new arrivals contributed to society. Bourne thought that they were, in fact, re-vitalizing the nation. Furthermore, it was imposition of Anglo-conformity and conservatism, and nothing could come from it but stagnation, mediocrity, and uniformity.

    What fascinates me about Bourne is that he struggles with the meaning of Americanism. When Transnational America was published — and I would add, to this day — this is not an unimportant question. Bourne wrote for an audience at the brink of war. It was a divided nation, wrestling between neutrality and an entanglement in WWI. For many Americans, the European immigrant groups who still maintained their customs and culture were a serious risk: they would either drag the nation to war, or betray the nation if it did go to war. Hyphenated Americans — especially German-Americans — became suspect of divided loyalties. This is precisely what Bourne was so incensed about. Divided loyalties? to what? to an English ideal imposed by a ruling class? Bourne found the contention laughable, if not hypocritical:

    The truth is that no more tenacious cultural allegiance to the mother country has been shown by any alien nation than by the ruling Anglo-Saxon descendants in these American States. English snobberies, English religion, English literary styles, English literary reverences and canons, English ethics, English superiorities, have been the cultural food that we have drunk in from our mothers’ breasts […]. The unpopular and dreaded German-American of the present day is a beginning amateur in comparison with those foolish Anglophiles of Boston and New York and Philadelphia (Bourne, Transnational America, I).

    To counter the melting pot, Bourne proposes a cosmopolitan ideal. He argues that national culture should not privilege one group over another; it should acknowledge that what makes Americans American comes from within, from the experience of colonizing the nation.

    Expanding Bourne’s vision

    If Bourne  sounds like Frederick Jackson Turner, I don’t think it is coincidental. Like Turner, Bourne believed that American traditions were a product of a distinctly American experience, which owes its character to the pioneers. Furthermore, Bourne also believed that European immigrants were new blood that America needed to remain vital. Hence, he never mentions anyone else. I do not believe, however, that this diminishes his argument against “Anglo-Saxonizing” (Transnational America), as it is still the predominant model of assimilation. Proponents of this view believe that contemporary American culture is the result of the Anglo-Saxon traditions of the Puritans (Huntington, 2001). This implies that American culture has a static core, that remains pure no matter how much contact it has with outsiders.

    The problem with this argument is that cultures are very fluid, and American culture is not an exception. Consequently, the idea of a fixed culture negates how “ever since its infancy, the American society has been mutating and evolving at a pace that is readily observable” (Zelinsky, 2001, p. 128).  Aside from the dramatic political and social changes that the country has experienced over time — i.e. abolition of slavery, the 19th amendment, civil rights, and immigration reform –, there is another  force pushing towards cultural transformation: Cultures tend to hybridize through contact, that is, they borrow from each other, changing constantly in the process.

    Happy Trails into the Melting Pot?

    As I mentioned before, Bourne’s remarks only considered European immigration. But what about non-Europeans? Are they a part of Transnational America? This is another complicated question because you can’t consider non-European immigration without talking about race and prejudice. Though Bourne addressed prejudice in a broad sense, he did not take racial prejudice into account. Nevertheless, Euro-centric ideals about what is good, proper, and normal have always complicated American views about immigration. Let’s look, for example, at the case of Latinos

    In Frances Negron-Muntaner’s article, she focuses on the significance of Jennifer Lopez as a Latina icon. Lopez played the lead in Gregory Nava’s movie Selena, which is the story of a young Tejana singer who died before her time. Selena’s story is about achieving the American dream:

    Selena has passed on to sainthood: not only for dying young, but for dying on the way to another, better place; the immigrant fantasies of the seamless plot known as the American dream (Negron-Muntaner, 1997, p. 181).

    This is a very common theme in stories about immigrants. They’re stories of upward mobility that re-state limitless opportunity. Nevertheless, Negron-Muntaner suggests it’s not that simple (is anything?). Latinos(as), being very different from the European-American ideal immigrant, contend with racial prejudices that privilege whiteness:

    A big culo does not only upset hegemonic (white) notions of beauty and good taste, it is a sign for the dark, incomprehensible excess of “Latino” and other African diaspora cultures. Excess of food (unrestrained), excess of shitting (dirty), and excess of sex (heathen) are its three vital signs. Like hegemonic white perceptions of Latinos, big butts are impractical and dangerous. A big Latin rear end is an invitation to pleasures construed as illicit by puritan ideologies, heteronormativity, and the medical establishment through the three deadly vectors of miscegenation, sodomy, and a high-fat diet (Negron-Muntaner, 1997, p. 189).

    John Higham, in his book Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, argues that Americans have always struggled between two traditions when it comes to immigration. The first tradition is nativism, which constantly denounces immigrants as a danger to American society. The second tradition is cosmopolitanism, which proclaims that immigrants benefit society. The nativist tradition also proclaims that there is only one way to be an American, that is, that there is a fixed identity, or a model, that every immigrant needs to follow (or else!). The cosmopolitan tradition, however, wavers between those who feel that assimilation is about adopting American customs and negating those of the old country, and those who feel that the nation is multicultural. Negron’s argument about culos is an indictment of full assimilation.

    Negron-Muntaner is about hegemony. Hegemony, as a concept, is linked to Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci defined it as “the winning of consent to unequal class relations, which dominant groups make appear to be natural and fair” (Prono, 2008). Hegemony, in other words, is the imposition of an ideology or a system of beliefs. Hegemony can be exercised through force, or through persuasion. However, in Gramsci’s view, it is far more effective to persuade and collude, than to coerce. Hegemonic ideology is a very widely used concept in the field of critical cultural studies.

    So, how does hegemonic ideology work in this case? Negron-Muntaner suggests the dominant concept of beauty as an example. Selena Quintanilla was too curvy, and would have only achieved cross-over success with plastic surgery.

    We’ll never know. Selena died several years ago, just as she was about to release her first full length album in English. Jennifer Lopez is another matter. She has achieved cross-over success. And she usually records in English and Spanish.

    Where do we stand in terms of immigration?

    The melting pot is an enduring American belief, but it is very simplistic. Like a good myth, to borrow from Barthes, it explains the national experience as a generalization. On the other hand, Bourne’s cosmopolitan ideal is equally fraught with contradictions. Bourne was not including the issue of race, class, or economics, and these are important considerations. In fact, such considerations fuel contemporary debates about immigration.



    • Bourne, R. (1916). Transnational America
    • Negron-Muntaner, F. (1997). Jennifer’s Butt. Aztlan, 22(2), pp. 181-194.
    • Prono, L. (2008) “Hegemony”   The Oxford Encyclopedia of Modern World.Ed Peter N. Stearns. Oxford University Press, Retrieved 24 September 2009,  from
    • Zelinsky, W. (2001). The enigma of ethnicity. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.


    What is popular culture?

    I found this video through Danielle Stern, who linked it from amplifyme (formerly Project Think Different). She’s right; it is a good place to start our conversations about pop culture. Just like the video does, we need to define what we mean when we use terms like culture, popular culture, and popular.

    Here are some definitions of culture:

    • Matthew Arnold: “Culture is a study of perfection” (Arnold, 1869, p. 8). and “the great men of culture are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the knowledge, the best ideas of their time” (p. 49)
    • Edward Tylor: “Culture, or civilization … is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Tylor 1871, p. 1)
    • Dwight Macdonald: culture [better yet high culture] “is chronicled in the textbooks” (1962, p. 3).
    • Wikipedia: Of course they have an entry on it, but it is too long to excerpt. However, among one of the common usages of the word is to equate culture with “excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities, also known as high culture.” If you notice, this is exactly how Macdonald uses the term culture

    Dwight Macdonald‘s arguments:

    • There are differences between high culture and popular culture (which he calls masscult). (1) Masscult is mass produced, whereas “Culture” is produced by individuals; (2) masscult is commercial, repetitive, and unoriginal, whereas “culture” is unique, creative, and original; (3) masscult appeals to the masses (and they don’t know what’s culture anyway), whereas “culture” appeals to the higher intellects and sensitivities; (4) masscult is devoid of any standards; yet culture has standards; (5) masscult dehumanizes you, and teaches nothing; but culture elevates your spirits, and makes you a better person.

    But who makes those decisions about “taste”, “originality”, or “value.” ? Who, in other words, empowered Matthew Arnold, or Dwigth Macdonald as the arbiters of culture? This is not a simple question, and it is not an idle question. Furthermore, as with the definitions of culture, it has multiple answers. For example, Marx and Engels would tell you that these matters are settled by “the ruling class” (because at all points of history, the ideals of the ruling class are the ruling ideals.” Control of the means of production and distribution give the ruling class (whoever they are) dominance. Althusser, much in the same vein, would add that it’s all about the control of the Ideological State Apparatuses (like institutions, schools, religion), through which ideas are disseminated. And Bourdieu, similarly, would point out that there is absolutely nothing natural about taste: it is something we learn, and it is socially-constructed.

    Here are some structures in our society that support distinctions between high culture and popular culture:

    • The Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences. They give out the Oscars and some of the nominated films not box office hits. Hence, they’re judged based on standards of quality that separate them from other films.
    • Schools: I’m not very familiar with the American school system, but in Nicaragua we study art, we don’t study pop art. Art is serious business.
    • Art galleries and museums, though the lines are sometimes sketchy. Still, an established community makes the argument that Andy Warhol’s “Campbell Soup Cans” are art.

    Who decides what will be popular?

    Jacques Barzun doubts the existence of a popular culture because the people are not involved in its production. It’s all mass-produced. Hence, can it really reflect a society’s “life and soul” (2001, p. 3)? In Barzun, we find the concern with authenticity, which is also echoed by those who wonder about the values that are transmitted through popular culture. Does gangsta rap represent an authentic African American experience? Does reggeaton represent the Nuyorican community? Shouldn’t we be saying: enough already? Give us “our” culture (or whatever) back?

    Not according to Chuck Klosterman. Here’s a quote from his essay:

    If you feel betrayed by culture, it’s not because you’re right and the universe is wrong; it’s only because you’re not like most other people. But this should make you happy, because — in all — likelihood — you hate those other people anyway. You are being betrayed by a culture that has no relationship to who you are or how you live.

    Now, this does not really answer the question of who decides what will become popular. According to Macdonald, it’s an evil  cabala of the “Lords of Masscult,” and Barzun states that it is the industries (media industries, that is). Klosterman doesn’t address this question at all, but it’s clear that he doesn’t think it’s you or I.

    But more on that later… when we read Malcolm Gladwell, we’ll revisit this point.



    • Arnold. M. (1869). Culture and anarchy: An essay in political and social criticism. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
    • Barzun, J. (2002). The tenth muse. In S.J. Gould & R. Atwan (Eds.). Best American Essays. pp. 1-12. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
    • Klosterman, C. (2004, December 31). Culture got you down? Esquire. Retrieved July 20, 2007 from
    • Macdonald, D. (1962). Masscult and Midcult. Against the American grain. New York: Random House.