What does pop culture say about who we are as people?

My grandma has been married to my grandpa for 40 years. Her best marriage advice to me is, “When you get bank accounts, follow the philosophy: what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine”. Although my grandpa is old and decrepit, my grandma keeps a separate divorce account JUST in case. You see, she grew up in the post-Great Depression era, the oldest of nine brothers and sisters. When she divorced her first husband, she said she was so poor that she had to collect pop bottles to turn in for recycling to feed my mom and her sister. My grandma is my inspiration to be independent, a self-starter, and driven.

So, it did not come as any surprise to me when we were sitting at the pool last week, discussing our favorite literature, when my grandma said, “I really like books with strong female characters”. I laughed out loud, because OF COURSE that would be her favorite–she can relate to the characters!

That got me thinking about myself, what the books I enjoy reading say about me, and on a larger scope, what popular books say about our society in general.

For example, I finished White Oleander a few weeks ago. If you have not read it, it is about a girl whose mother murderers her ex-boyfriend, gets sent to prison, and the novel tracks the girl through different foster care. It is actually quite depressing. At the end of the novel, you want the girl to overcome her background, and although she doesn’t necessarily NOT do that, she also doesn’t do anything too extraordinary.

A similar trend can be seen with other popular/best selling novels (aka stories about people who have downright shitty lives): A Boy Called It, The Bluest Eye, The Bean Trees, Looking for Alaska, Catcher in the Rye, Harry Potter, just to name a few. All of these stories are rooted in the idea that the main character is suffering and yet, we as Americans are captivated and divulge into the stories. Instead of focusing on travel, or religion, or politics, we want to see the innermost aspects and psychology of someone else’s life.

I discuss a similar idea with my students: What does pop culture say about us? When you think about it, pop culture has shifted it’s focus to reality television shows, just as Real Housewives, Jersey Shore, The Bachelor, The Kardashians, Biggest Loser (although this one can be quite inspirational). And why do we continue to watch these shows? In my classes, we come to the conclusion that we watch these reality shows and follow the tabloids because they make us feel better about ourselves. So, when I am stumbling drunk down the street, I can just tell myself, “I am not as bad as Snookie was when she was at that club in Italy”. When I think about my cheating boyfriend, I can at least tell myself, “Oh, well at least he isn’t going to the “fantasy suite” with three other girls like the bachelor does”. And, when I am stuffing my face and skipping my work out, I can tell myself, “Well, at least I am not as fat at that contestant”. It is simple cognitive dissonance. Watching reality television makes my life seem not that tragic.

So, this leads me to another perplexity: What about the popular book Fifty Shades of Grey? Everywhere you go, people are talking about it. And, everyone has the exact same reaction: “I am embarrassed that someone is seeing me read it so I just cover it up or put it on my Kindle”. I, for one, am not mature enough to read the story so the only evidence I have is heresy from other people. So, it is a story about submission and domination and sexual escapades (I use the term ‘story’ loosely in this context).

The fact that Fifty Shades of Grey continues to appear in social circles and the NY Times Best Seller list means something important about our culture and our values. Is this phenomenon saying that we, as women, have an unconscious desire to be controlled? That there is something appealing about this character in the story that has things done to her without her needing to think and lead? Is it saying that we have unspoken needs that we are too embarrassed to bring into the open and therefore must be manages through other modes? Or, is it saying that we as Americans are unhappy in our marriages and feel stuck, so our only escape is to live through someone else’s stories?

I suppose in order to answer these ponderings, I would need to read the book myself but, as I said before, my maturity level would inhibit this search..

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