Popular Culture as Politics,
Politics as Popular Culture
By Henry Jenkins
The following article is based on remarks presented at American University in December 2018
on the occasion of NTC's presentation of the Jesse McCanse Award to Mr. Jenkins.
“We all—adults and children—have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is individuals can change the world over and over. Individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different… Political movements, personal movements, all begin with people imagining another way of existing.” —Neil Gaiman (2013)
Host: As you look around at the world now, what makes you despair and what gives you hope?
Nathan Schneider: The sense of despair I feel comes from the stories. When people tell each other stories in which they have no agency. When we tell each other stories where someone else has to do it for us. And for me, the experiences of hope are often the stories I am grasping to be able to tell but that we see in the world, where people are living that agency and building the kinds of communities that we need to resist the injustice that has sunk so deeply into our world. I hope that we can learn to tell those stories better. I hope that we can learn to see that dignity that is in all of us, that divinity that comes when we organize together, when we meet each other face to face and even sometimes through a chat room. How to tell those stories, how to hold up those moments where we find our agency and our ability to make a change, that’s what I am looking for and hope more than anything to contribute. -- Nathan Schneider (2016)
“The forces Trump represents have always had to suppress those other, older, and self-evidently true stories, so that theirs could dominate against so much intuition and evidence….Which is why part of our work now—a key part—is not just resistance, not just saying no….We also need to fiercely protect some space to dream and plan for a better world.” –Naomi Klein (2017)
Neil Gaiman is a fantasy writer best known for American Gods and The Sandman, speaking here about the importance of public libraries. Nathan Schneider is a journalist who covers the role of religion in American culture, discussing the spiritual life of millennial and post-millennial youth on a podcast. And Naomi Klein is an activist, best known for her ongoing critique of corporate capitalism, branding, and globalization. For the most part, they offer different perspectives on contemporary social and cultural developments, but they arrive at some of the same conclusions here, stressing the importance of the stories we create, circulate, and consume to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. In particular, they stress imagination as a resource through which we may weather what many see as a civic and political crisis. They each stress the need for us to collectively and individually “dream up” better futures if we are going to find a way out of this partisan impasse. Following a similar logic, this essay will provide a fuller account of what my research team and I call the Civic Imagination and how it might relate to an expanded understanding of media literacy.
Also from Henry & Co
Excerpted from Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, and Gabriel Peters-Lozaro (eds.) Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: A Casebook (New York: New York University Press, Forthcoming)
Central to this discussion will be the relationship between popular culture and politics -- a relationship that is often understood as problematic but which contains rich potentials for new forms of political expression and collective imagining. As I walk through this argument, I am going to introduce some core vocabulary educators might deploy in discussing contemporary developments with their students. Too often, current discussions of “fake news” or “alternative facts” pull us towards the negative (focusing on what we are fighting against rather than what we are fighting for), towards the literal (as if finding the right facts would -- in and of itself -- set us free). Instead, I make the case for the value of the unfettered imagination -- for the fanciful rather than the literal, the utopian rather than the dystopian -- as a means of inspiring a more democratic culture.
Portrait of the Author as a Young Quack
This photograph depicts the author in Seventh Grade -- just a hair before my Thirteenth birthday. Others of my generation might have grown up playing “cowboys and Indians” or “spacemen and aliens”. But, here, I am playing at being a professor, and in particular at being a professor speaking about violence in children’s literature. We try out many identities in our childhood, some of them stick and some do not. Only retrospectively can we look at a moment like this one as representing a stepping stone towards our adult life. I adopted this professor persona for a stand up comedy routine at my elementary school talent show. My inspiration came from Ludwig Von Drake, who introduced and narrated documentary segments for the Disneyland/Wonderful World of Disney television program in the early 1960s.
Inspired by the German rocket scientist Werner Von Braun, the character helped us to make sense of the “space age,” but quickly Von Drake’s expertise soon encompassed a broad array of other topics. Von Drake proclaimed himself an authority on every possible subject, the very model of a very modern scholar who rejects disciplinary boundaries.
I did not have direct role models in my life -- at least in seventh grade -- for what an academic looked like or how they might act. I would be the first person in either side of my family to go to graduate school and earn an advanced degree. Rather, my understanding of an intellectual emerged from popular culture -- not just Von Drake but also the Professor on Gilligan’s Island who knew everything about everything except how to get off the damn island.
Initially, Von Drake was a persona I consciously imitated, but over time it became a part of my own self-presentation, shaping how I saw myself and ultimately how I understood my professional identity. Today, when I look in the mirror, I see myself becoming more ducky with each passing year.
My students look at me through other lens, seeing me as Yoda or Dumbledore, both references that have cropped up on more than one teaching evaluation, reflecting their own understanding of expertise, mentorship, and intellectual life. We use these images from popular culture to process real world experiences. Sometimes, they are aspirational, representing who we would like to be, and sometimes, they are comical, affectionately acknowledging our shortcomings.
The boy in that photograph was growing up in a segregated neighborhood -- Atlanta in the mid-1960's at the peak of the civil rights era. He went to segregated schools and worshiped at a segregated church. The only people of color who entered my world were laborers who worked for my father’s construction company and maids who helped my mother with the housework. That I ended up with a deep commitment to social justice advocacy was shaped by two key influences on my imagination during those years. On the one hand there was Star Trek, and on the other there was Martin Luther King. Both entered my world through television. Star Trek offered me a big, brightly colored, vision of what a better world might look like -- one where humans had overcome many of those factors that divided us and learned to work together as part of community that was not only multiracial and multicultural but also multi-planetary and multi-species. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech articulated his vision for what a better society might look like -- one where white kids and black kids would break bread together on the grounds of Stone Mountain, then the annual meeting place for the KKK. Martin Luther King would tell Nichelle Nichols that the simple fact that a black woman was there -- on the Enterprise bridge, in the chain of command of a starship -- embodied the hope that his dream of a more just society had been achieved.
In many ways, Star Trek helped me and many others of my generation to reimagine the world we saw outside our window, inspiring us to push towards a vision of a more inclusive society. So many of the core commitments that inspire my scholarship and my pedagogy came from that juxtaposition between Star Trek and the Civil Rights movement. These formative experiences shaped how I think about the relationship between popular culture and the civic imagination.
Popular Culture As Resource
In his essay, “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular,” Stuart Hall, a key figure in the British Cultural Studies tradition, reminds us of two potential meanings of the concept -- first, popular culture as that which originates from “the people,” the culture that constitutes everyday life of a particular community, and second, popular culture as identified by its commercial success (the highest grossing films, the top selling records, the most viewed television series, etc.) In practice, though, Hall and others who followed him, including my own mentor John Fiske, concluded that popular culture at the contemporary moment is best understood as operating at the intersection between the two. Popular culture emerges as we pull resources from mass culture into the realm of our everyday life. Mass culture is culture that is mass produced, mass marketed, mass distributed, and mass consumed; popular culture emerges when these materials enter our life world, when we make them our own as we make meaning through, with, and of commercially produced content, as occurs when I model my professorial identity on a Disney character or base my hopes for the future, at least in part, on Star Trek.
Some media literacy education starts from the premise that we need to critically engage with mass culture materials in order to guard against their potentially negative influences upon us -- often described in terms of media effects, a term which often assumes that this process occurs below our consciousness. Yet, the cultural studies tradition documents the many ways people already critically and creatively engage with mass media content. One spectacular illustration of this process at work would be what happens as a Hollywood franchise -- Star Wars for example -- gets introduced into a global marketplace and people in different cultures fit it into their own local traditions. So, Star Wars inspires shadow puppet performances in Indonesia and Malaysia, sand sculptures along the Rio beaches, nesting dolls in Moscow, piñatas in Mexico, and street art in the Middle East, to cite just a few examples. In most cases, these reproductions -- and reimaginings -- of Hollywood iconography are unauthorized and sold on the black market, suggesting the ways that “the street” profits from American cultural imperialism. The word appropriation has gotten a bad name in contemporary discourse because of anger regarding a history of white exploitation (but also marginalization, trivialization, and exotification) of cultural expressions by people of color, but these examples of transnational artists and entrepreneurs remixing Hollywood content also represent bottom-up forms of appropriation. Indeed, cultural studies suggests that all culture emerges from appropriation and remixing, as we build upon local resources, as culture begets culture. Certainly, we need to be conscious of the power-relations shaping who appropriates what from whom, but the idea that we remake existing cultural materials as a means of expressing our identities should not in and of itself be viewed as negative. Below is a video produced for my research team by hit(REC)ord to spark classroom discussions around the politics of remixing. Educators might also want to read a fuller discussion of appropriation and media literacy in our book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the Literature Classroom (2013).
These various media practices close the gap between the culture of everyday life (as experienced in different cultures around the world) and the shared narratives that enter our lives through corporate media. Folk traditions operate as grassroots mechanisms of localization within a transnational media marketplace (I use the term transnational here because these stories are not evenly distributed or understood across the planet, even as they are moving between different countries).
Our relationship to such narratives may be personal and idiosyncratic. I don’t know anyone else who formed such an intense personal connection with Ludwig Von Drake, who is largely a forgotten duck today. But in many cases, the mass circulation and consumption of such narratives mean they are shared cultural capital amongst larger groups -- many in my generation shared my experience of Star Trek as introducing a more accepting perspective on cultural differences and for many, the inclusion of a Black communications officer and a Japanese-American helmsman offered them a sense of agency and inclusion not found elsewhere on the American television of the era. Because we share those cultural experiences and identifications, these stories become reference points we use to talk with each other about things that matter to us. In that sense, they may strengthen civic ties.
The Civic and the Political
Often, the words, “civic” and “political” are used as if they are interchangeable. But the words have distinctive meanings within the model I am introducing here. The word, “civic”, describes a set of social and cultural relationships between “neighbors” or “fellow Americans” or “fellow members of the human race”. The Civic refers to a shared set of norms, values, commitments, we make to each other as members of a particular community. The Civic is the foundation upon which we resolve disagreements. The Civic embodies a capacity to work together towards common goals and shared interests. Many accounts of civic engagement discuss shared cultural practices (such as Robert Putnam’s focus on bowling leagues) or spaces (such as Habermas’s coffee houses, the place of barber shops and beauty parlors in Black culture, etc.) where people come together, form common bonds, and engage everyday issues and concerns. Robert Putnam’s choice of bowling in his book, Bowling Alone, is no accident: bowling is a boring game, or at least a game when any given player spends a fair amount of time waiting her turn to roll the ball. As a consequence, the people waiting and watching converse about a broader range of topics, forming relationships over time. Such banal interactions strengthen civic ties, Putnam worries that the breakdown of civic associations, such as bowling leagues, endanger the social bonds at the heart of democratic culture.
The Political, on the other hand, emerges from struggles over the distribution of power and resources, taking shape through the formation of law and policy. The Political, especially at the current moment, is much more partisan than the Civic, expressing those factors which divide us rather than those which bring us together. If the Civic is best understood in terms of informal, everyday spaces of conversation and interaction, the Political is most often associated with formal institutions, such as governments, and mechanisms, such as voting and petitioning, though it may also refer to other struggles, such as those between labor and management or between producers and consumers.
Political struggles often bear civic costs and consequences, and overtime, they may fray the shared commitments which make it possible for us to live and work together. The Civic was historically what mandated compromises in the political process as partisan fights for power had to be resolved by leaders who saw themselves as working on behalf of all citizens. While we did not necessarily support the same parties or candidates, we supported the infrastructure by which elections were resolved and the peaceful transfer of power occurred. And in the end, Joe was still our plumber even if he sometimes voted for the other party. But as American politics have become more divisive, little effort is put towards healing those divides between election cycles. Increasingly, political rhetoric has sought to de-legitimize key values and practices associated with American democratic life, depicting the press not as the Fourth Estate but as ”the enemy of the people,” seeking to repress voter participation rather than trying to encourage all citizens to participate, and for that matter, there is an unwillingness to allow new immigrants to achieve their dreams of American citizenship.
At the same time, many institutions and practices that historically supported civic engagement have broken down. For example, at a time when most or at least many American men did military service (for example, during the Second World War), those shared experiences provided the foundation for mutual trust, which is one reason why so many of the political leaders for that generation were veterans. Something similar surrounded public education and we might be brought together around something as basic as rooting for the same baseball team. Popular narratives (such as World War II dramas) reinforced these same civic values, depicting diverse groups of people (each representing a distinct class or ethnic identity) brought together on the battlefield. Such stories helped us to recognize each person’s contributions. Today, many Americans do not know anyone serving in the military with the majority of service people being working class and minority and many of them living in red states. Our identification with sports teams is increasingly optional, less reliant on living in a particular geographic area. We may elect to support a team from someplace we used to live or for that matter, some place we never lived, if we feel that it expresses a particular attitude we identify with.
Of course, there was no golden age of civics, since the consensus which brought many Americans together in the 1950s, say, was achieved through racial segregation, the suppression of women, and the closeting of LGBTQ people. We should always be attentive to who is being excluded as well as who is being included in our notions of the Civic. Increasingly, we tend to choose where to live based on the ideological identifications of our neighbors, thus cementing the conception of Red and Blue America. Our engagements online similarly restrict our contacts to people who share core ideological perspectives and we become less flexible in dealing with those who support the other party or share a different perspective. As a result, there is an enormous need to refresh and revitalize the civic imagination if American democratic culture is going to persist throughout the 21st century.
Consider, for example, how popular medical shows, such as The Good Doctor, New Amsterdam, True Genius, etc., have helped us to reimagine healthcare in the midst of debates about Obamacare. Such stories depict caregivers from diverse economic, cultural, and racial backgrounds working together to insure the well being of similarly diverse patients drawn into the medical system. Dramatic requirements mean that such programs depict a single doctor or team as advocates on behalf of their patients, pooling knowledge, fighting through bureaucracy, seeking to better understand the social context and emotional dynamics which impact the patient’s health, and pushing to do everything possible to save their life and limb. Such depictions of health care contrast sharply with the medical system many of us experience, representing an utopian alternative that we all see as desirable but often do not believe that current institutions can deliver. Such programs render this alternative tangible, linking them to characters and situations we care about. Such shows provide us with shared stories we might use to advocate for something different.
The Civic Imagination
Speaking at the Harvard Graduation in 2008, J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter book series, shared: “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared…. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.” We might understand her last line in two distinct but interconnected ways: first, we can do a better job imagining, putting more energy into empathetic engagement with others and thinking through alternatives to the current structures and second, we can imagine better worlds, worlds which are more just, more democratic, more participatory in their distribution of power and resources. Her call to “imagine better” has empowered a generation of young activists to think more deeply about the role of imagination in civic and political life.
Rowling’s works, for example, inspired the creation of the Harry Potter Alliance, a highly documented example of fan activism, which brought together young people in collective action on behalf of a range of human rights struggles (Jenkins, 2012, 2017a). More recently, fans of color have used fan fiction, fan art, and cosplay to imagine characters such as Hermione and even Harry, himself, as mixed race allowing them to more fully express their own identification with this beloved fictional world (Jenkins, 2017b). Such struggles over representation need to be understood as themselves struggle over whose stories get told and whose images get included in the most mainstream forms of commercial culture.
Shared stories were also central to the civic ties and the political visions of previous generations of Americans. Consider, for example, Horatio Greenough’s statue of George Washington, currently in the National Museum of American History in Washington DC.
Created in 1841, long after Washington’s death, the statue borrows heavily from the classical Greek tradition, including depicting the founding father wearing a toga. I jokingly call this statue “Cosplay George,” since it maps an imagined identity (and most likely an imagined body) onto the founding father. As far as we know, George Washington never actually wore a toga -- perhaps at a fraternity party at the College of William and Mary? But the artist uses the toga (and other imagery which linked Washington with Apollo) to depict the new American nation as reconstructing classical democracy, an analogy that spoke to those whose liberal arts educations were grounded in classical traditions. Others of Washington’s generation took their pen names from Greek orators and Roman heroes.
Similarly, the leaders of the black civil rights movement in the 1950s grounded their rhetoric in the Biblical story of Moses and the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Martin Luther King spoke of “the promised land”, “the mountain top,” “the River Jordan,” and so forth. Such Biblical stories would have been known amongst the congregations and ministers of black churches from which so many of the leaders and supporters for the civil rights movement came. In both cases, shared stories reinforced the civic bonds between a particular group of people, inspiring them to take collective action, and providing them with an alternative vision for an ideal society.
When my research team was preparing our book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism (2016), we interviewed more than 200 young activists, seeking to understand the “paths” which lead them towards political participation. Again and again, they told us that they felt the language of American politics was busted and the inherited narratives did not work for this generation. On the one hand, they felt that policy wonkish language did not offer points of entry for first time participants in the electoral process, offering no real explanations for core references or background on ongoing debates. And on the other hand, the existing narratives were divisive and exclusive, shaped by partisan bickering and political horse-races, which do not allow citizens to come together around shared interests. These young activists were acutely aware of the fraying of the civic. Many were turning towards popular entertainment franchises, such as Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Star Wars, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for stories that spoke in powerful ways to their generation. For them, superheroes and wizards offered them a language to discuss power and responsibility much as classical mythology or Biblical narratives provided the shared stories of previous generations of political activists (Jenkins et al, 2016).
As they do so, these young activists move beyond a fact-based or purely rational conception of political change: before we can build a better world, we must be capable of “imagining better”. This often requires a leap of faith, a willingness to suspend disbelief and embrace potentials which are foreclosed when we become mired in what Stephen Duncombe (2012) has called “the tyranny of the possible.” We confront this problem when we say to ourselves, “that would be wonderful, but we can never pay for it, Congress will never support it, its advocates would never get elected, or we are too busy dealing with other, more urgent problems now.” These are rational responses to a world in crisis, but such an immediate or short term focus often means giving up the possibility of exploring more meaningful alternatives. To move beyond the tyranny of the possible, we need to embrace the civic imagination.
As the quotations that open this essay suggests, there is a growing interest in the potential links between storytelling/imagination and civic/political life, etc. For example, Gianpaolo Baiocchi and his colleagues (2014) write, “Civic Imaginations are people’s theories of civic life. They are cognitive roadmaps, moral compasses and guides that shape participation and motivate action” (55). For them, the civic imagination takes shape as communities work together, “identifying problems and solutions, envisioning better societies and environments, and developing a plan to make those visions of a better future into a reality” (55). This account of the civic imagination is at heart realist, seeking to understand the world as it currently exists, even as it encourages us to anticipate what a process of change might look like. In our own research, we acknowledge a value in taking a more fanciful or speculative approach, identifying allegories that enable us to express things we can not yet model in real life. And for that reason, among others, we are especially interested in how popular fantasies might stimulate the civic imagination, freeing us from self-imposed constraints based around what is currently “possible” in favor of proposing long-term visions for where we would like to see our society go.
We define civic imagination as the capacity to imagine alternatives to current cultural, social, political, or economic conditions. The civic imagination requires the ability to imagine a better world, to map the process of change, to see one’s self as a civic agent capable of making change, to feel solidarity with others whose perspectives and experiences are different than one’s own, to join a larger collective with shared interests, and to bring imaginative dimensions to real world spaces and places. (See sidebar for an illustration of how a popular narrative -- in this case, Black Panther -- may offer resources in support of these various functions of the civic imagination.)
To function in the service of civic renewal, the imagination must become inter-subjective -- that is, its contents must be shareable -- and that’s why the expressive resources available to us help determine which civic ideas can be easily expressed, widely circulated, and ultimately, understood well enough to act upon in the real world. An expanded conception of media literacy, one which incorporates this model of the civic imagination, might stress our collective and individual capacities to critically and creatively engage with popular narratives, to recognize their potentials for expressing a shareable vision for political change and civic revitalization, and to transform them into resources for grassroots expression. This last goal brings us back to the notion that stories become popular culture when the content of mass culture is appropriated and remixed at a grassroots level -- when we make them our own.
Political Speech in a Participatory Culture
More than a decade ago, I challenged media literacy educators to take account of the expanded communicative capacities that young people enjoyed in an era of what I called participatory culture (2009). I mapped out a set of social skills and cultural competencies that were essential to meaningful participation in the new and emerging media landscape and that could be meaningfully incorporated into pedagogical practice. Through the work of my research groups (the New Media Literacies Project and Participatory Learning and You), we modeled how to translate these skills into classroom activities that could be used in the service of traditional school content. At the time, I argued that a growing number of young people were acquiring communicative capacities through their play with popular culture and that they would soon be applying those skills towards more “serious” tasks, such as those associated with work, politics, religion, and education (Jenkins, 2006). Today, we can see clear evidence that those stepping stones towards political participation, for example, are being realized as record numbers of young people are taking civic actions (through protest and through voting) and that they are using popular culture as a path towards greater political engagement. (For more recent reflections on how thinking about participatory culture has evolved over time, see Jenkins, boyd, and Ito, 2015).
A few concrete examples may help us to see this process at work. Consider the case of college student Rachel Rostad, a spoken word poet, whose performance “To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang” was widely circulated in 2013, sparking heated debates about how the Harry Potter books represented their Asian characters. Though Rostad’s text displays a fannish knowledge of the particulars of how Cho Chang was depicted across the book series, she also clearly was using the character, and the fandom around it, to encourage critical thinking about racial stereotypes in culture more generally with the understanding that doing so matters because such representational practices have consequences in the real life experiences of Asian and Asian-American people. Spreading this video online meant that her thoughts could reach a wider audience, but it also created a context where others could respond, including questioning some of the assumptions underlying her analysis -- in some cases, producing their own videos in response. And, as Diana Lee (forthcoming) notes, Rostad responded, in turn, with her own video, in which she took ownership of the limits in her own thinking, modeling ways that one can accept and engage with one’s critics in a constructive way. In this video, JayJay, an Asian-American student who was inspired by Rostad’s poem, performs her own interpretation. The entire cycle is a beautiful illustration of how the expanded communicative capacities available to young people today allow them to question dominant representations, circulate their own texts to a wider public, and discuss issues such as a systemic racism.
Consider “Winter is Trumping,” an anonymously circulated video posted in February 2016, and situating then candidate Donald Trump in the world depicted on Game of Thrones (Jenkins, Ballard, et al, 2018). Trump rejects Daenerys and her carrivan of refugees in the name of drawing a line against “radical Islam,” solicits the Night Watch in his efforts to build a massive wall to keep out “illegal aliens” and discusses his plans to waterboard and torture terrorist suspects with “Littlefinger,” Tyrion Lannister, and Lord Varys. This video not only remixes footage from the HBO fantasy series, but also digitally inserts Trump into iconic sequences to comic effect. But the video is good for more than a few laughs, offering a concise summary of Trump’s “medieval” positions at a time when the nation was first getting to know where he stood as a candidate. This video uses public interest in Game of Thrones to encourage people to pay attention to real world politics, deploying the series, which already deals with power and its abuses, as a framework for thinking through the ethical dimensions of immigration policies. The choice of source material for this remix video seems prescient since Trump has repeatedly circulated and displayed other memes which repurpose Game of Thrones content towards more conservative perspectives -- a real “Battle of the Bastards” as the program might describe it (Insert picture). In my essay, “Is It Appropriate to Appropriate?,” (Jenkins et al, 2013) I set some criteria for what constitutes a meaningful remix: “An allusion is good when it is generative, when it extends the original work’s potential meaningfulness, when it taps the power of the original source to add new depth to your emotional experience of the current work. The same claim would hold true for other kinds of remix practices: As a general rule, a remix is valuable if it is generative and meaningful rather than arbitrary and superficial.” (109)
Our third example centers around Gritty, who was introduced as the new mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, in the fall of 2018. Gritty is an orange, furry, googly eyed, monster, designed in the tradition of the Muppets. The character was quickly embraced by sports fans and almost as quickly took on a life of its own as an internet meme, often represented as a champion of the working class, and adopted by the Anti-Fascist movement (VanDerWerff, 2018). For many, Gritty represents a force for “chaotic good,” a disruptive figure showing no respect for entrenched power. This video provides a meta-commentary on the whole Gritty phenomenon, juxtaposing the Communist International Anthem, with a range of remixed and appropriated images of the mascot. Here, we see participatory culture at its most generative as the free circulation of grassroots cultural expressions inspires imitation, as different subcultures learn from and build upon each other because these images (and their affiliated meanings) can be so widely and speedily dispersed (Jenkins, Ford and Green, 2013). As with the other examples, Gritty provides a point of entry into larger conversations -- in this case, concerning wealth inequality, labor struggles, and the rise of the Alt Right. Remarkably, Gritty achieved this iconic status in a matter of weeks, suggesting how quickly culture changes and circulates via networked communications.
In our forthcoming book, Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: A Casebook (Jenkins, Shresthova, and Peters-Lozaro), my research team compiled short essays considering the ways social movements around the world have drawn on popular culture references in their efforts to serve one or more of the functions of the civic imagination. And, new examples are surfacing everyday reflecting the growing capacity of young people to impact the political and cultural agenda of their society. We might understand these deployments of the civic imagination via video sharing and social media as illustrating what researchers are calling participatory politics.
Coalescing in response to a deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that claimed the lives of seventeen students and teaching staff, #NeverAgain is a rising social movement advocating for stricter gun control and challenging the role of big money and big media in driving the national agenda. (For a fuller discussion of the #NeverAgain movement, see Jenkins and Lopez, 2019). Young activists, such as Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, have emerged as leaders and spokespeople for this growing movement. Consider the degree of media literacy -- not to mention sheer courage -- necessary for these young activists to move, in a few weeks, from speaking at high school assemblies to addressing the masses from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. David and Lauren Hogg (2018) stress the quality of government, public speaking, theater and media instruction they received at their elite private high school as helping to prepare them for the challenges they would confront as they brought their stories and perspectives into the public debate about game violence: “We are growing up in a time when technology gives us the confidence to assume that we can do things and figure out the world in ways that it hadn’t been figured out before. No permission necessary. Stoneman Douglas is a big piece, too, because the teachers there put such a huge emphasis on studying real problems in the world today.” (20-21)
Watching how adeptly they handle interviews on national news programs or televised meetings with the President, one might forget that many of the movement’s leaders are still in high school. Their appearances across mass media often showcase moments of possibility as these young people, beholden to no political parties, deep-pocketed contributors, or sponsors, ask direct questions, challenge authorities, and dismiss established wisdom. Their use of social media and video-sharing has allowed them to recruit young supporters all across the country, forming alliances with others who have also experienced gun violence in their lives (such as those in Ferguson or Standing Rock), and coordinating student walkouts and protests. Some of their most effective resources embody their concerns -- from Emma Gonzalez’s iconic green bomber jacket, covered with patches, buttons and pins to reflect her intersectional identities to the use of t-shirts with QR codes that can be scanned to connect young people directly to information about how and where they may register to vote. Their high visibility as spokespeople for a new movement against gun violence left these high school students vulnerable to attacks from conservative and mainstream media, which sought to discredit them, but they also knew how to deploy Twitter to call boycotts against sponsors, which quickly forced Laura Ingraham to apologize for some of her attacks.
These media tactics represent what researchers in the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network called participatory politics, “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern” (Cohen and Kahne, 2012). Many young people at Parkland and elsewhere found their voice through online practices (in some cases before they were legally able to vote), often deploying skills they had developed through their recreational lives towards participation in a social movement. Such practices allow them to investigate social issues, deliberate on and shape public opinion, build alliances across geographic, cultural, and racial divides, and reach more loosely affiliated participants when needed for immediate collective action. Traditional politics often places young people in subordinate roles (“stuffing envelopes”), whereas participatory politics builds youth voice and capacity. Through the #NeverAgain movement, young people are helping to define the national agenda and bring fresh perspectives that advance long-standing debates about gun violence.
Participatory politics expands the realm of the political, as young people may be just as apt to direct their efforts towards shifting corporate policies as changing laws, as young people may be as likely to seek change through cultural and educational mechanisms as through institutional practices, such as voting. But participatory politics does not necessarily advance at the cost of institutional politics. In the case of the #NeverAgain movement, these activists have made a concerted effort to register young people to vote and to ensure that they turned out for the midterm elections. While some argue that the political climate in Washington has made it impossible to shift federal gun control policies, the #NeverAgain movement has been credited with helping to pass 55 new laws across 26 states so far this year, the National Rifle Association, for the first time, is facing sharp declines in its funding and membership, more candidates than in recent memory have embraced gun regulation as a central plank in their platforms, and the movement has been credited with helping to inspire a significant spike in youth voting during the midterm election.
Media literacy educators should ask themselves whether they have prepared their students to seize the opportunities and confront the challenges that these high school activists have faced in their efforts to reduce gun violence (Jenkins, Al Shief, Gee, 2018). Would they recognize the potentials of diverse digital media platforms as vehicles for their message? Would they understand the pressure points through which they could take on politicians, national media figures, and lobbying groups who might seek to disrupt their communications? Would they understand how to frame their messages effectively in a range of different media contexts and for diverse different kinds of audiences? Would they be comfortable enough in their own skins, in front of cameras and microphones, to be as fearless as these young people have become? Asking ourselves these kinds of questions is where the rubber meets the road, where our ideas about the value of media literacy get tested through real world practice.
Is Donald Trump Amusing Us to Death?
Some critics express concern that entertainment values are corrupting the political process, repeating Neil Postman’s 1985 warning that Americans are “amusing themselves to death.” My approach reaches different conclusions, starting from the premise that our relationships with popular culture are meaningful: as we have seen, they are central to the production and circulation of meanings within our culture. We use popular narratives to think through our identities, our place in the world, and, for that matter, what kind of world we want to live in. Certainly, the content of popular culture matters deeply, which is why struggles over representation and inclusion, such as those surrounding Asian characters in Harry Potter or the Afro-Futuristic fantasies in Black Panther, are worth fighting. That said, popular culture is just as likely to provide reactionary as progressive narratives; its resources are just as apt to be used in anti-social as in prosocial ways. We need to be as alert and critical about the content of popular culture today as ever before, but we should make meaningful distinctions between different forms of mass culture and different deployments of its content. If popular culture is what happens when we transform mass culture content into resources for making sense of and acting upon the world, then we should scrutinize each step of that process -- the commercial contexts within which mass culture takes shape, the social contexts where we construct our own relationship with its content, and the various ways we appropriate, remix, and circulate it towards our own political ends.
Consider the case of Donald Trump, who many have described as America’s first “reality television” president, a phrase which implies condescension towards reality television as a destructive force in contemporary culture. We might better understand the current moment if we dig a bit deeper into the forms of popular culture which contributed to Trump’s status as a public figure. Let’s start with reality television. In some ways, he does tap the language of reality television -- for example, transforming meetings that might once have taken place behind closed doors into televisual spectacles, such as his confrontation with Democratic leaders about the pending government shutdown and his demand for a border wall in December 2018. Yet, as John Hartley (2007) notes, much of reality television models democratic processes at work with mechanisms such as voting and jury deliberation playing central roles in determining the outcomes. But Trump’s series, The Apprentice, had an autocratic as opposed to democratic orientation: contestants competed to meet demands posed by “the Donald’ and then were brought back to the boardroom, where their conflicts were poked and prodded, they were encouraged to throw each other under the bus, and in the end, Trump had the sole authority to determine who should be fired that week. The Apprentice helped to construct the perception -- at least among his base -- that Trump is an all-American success story. Trump has tapped that iconic gesture -- “you’re fired” -- more than once on the campaign trail and from the White House, often at moments designed to celebrate the power of a strong executive.
Of course, reality television was only one popular realm within which Trump’s public persona took shape. He was also a regular performer in World Wrestling Entertainment, where he learned the art of “generating heat,” a term referring to the ways that controversy drives viewership (Ford, forthcoming). Professional wrestling also creates a realm where no one can tell where fiction ends and reality begins, building fictional personas around performer’s real world attributes, staging simplified versions of real world conflicts.
Trump also rose to fame as a recurring visitor to “shock jock” programs such as the Howard Stern Show, where he made outrageous statements, especially directed towards women, and bragged about his wealth, power, and sexual prowess.
Put these three strands together and one has a pretty good approximation of why Trump remains such a divisive figure and why he sees being controversial as a key factor in sustaining his base. The Alt-Right, from which many of Trump supporters came, has itself been deeply invested in popular culture as it seeks to play upon ideological faultlines and cultural divides in order to recruit discontented, angry (some would say deplorable) young white men as the foot soldiers for its cause. Online feuds within gamers (such as #gamergate, a debate about women and minorities in gaming culture) or fans (say, those around gender and racial inclusion in the Star Wars franchises) were sparked by alt-right “trolls”, often with the goal of identifying and targeting people who they might recruit towards more active engagement with their white supremacist and patriarchal politics.
But perhaps the popular communication platform most associated with Trump today is Twitter. Trump’s colorful Tweets allow him to express his views directly to his supporters, even as those same messages get amplified and drive the larger political agenda as they are pulled into mainstream news coverage. Trump tags his critics with colorful insults, which he repeats often, as a means of shaping public perceptions, and he brags that he “punches back” (or some would say bullies) whenever he feels belittled. From conspiracy theories to internet memes and remix videos, Trump shares whatever he finds “interesting” without checking out its accuracy or origins and without taking any responsibility for the effects of his repeated public outbursts. He signals his affiliations with others through tapping into symbols, gestures, and concepts associated with conspiracy theories, such as QAnon. His understanding of how and why to generate “heat” makes such tactics effective at separating his supporters from those who oppose his agenda and mobilizing his base behind his policies.
Contrary to Postman and his more contemporary counterparts, popular culture does not simply distract us from the political realm. Deployed effectively, popular culture can provide a pathway into civic engagement and political participation for many who would otherwise feel excluded from or repulsed by the current state of political rhetoric. Trump’s relationships with popular culture reflect a particular set of choices, logics, and strategies, which many feel is doing damage to civic discourse, but are not the only possible choices. To go back to reality television, for example, there are many fan forums, blogs, and podcasts where regular viewers come together to critically engage with the ethical and social dimensions of reality television. The same is true for professional wrestling, whose politics are more accurately described as populist rather than reactionary and which sometimes models friendships and partnerships between people of different economic and ethnic backgrounds, not unlike the World War II dramas discussed earlier. And these images can, in any case, be remixed and recontextualized to make alternative political statements, just as we saw Game of Thrones used to criticize Trump’s immigration policies. Rather than seeing popular media as degrading civic discourse, as Postman might argue, we might rather see ourselves as involved in a struggle over civic life in which these resources are deployed in ways that can degrade or enhance our ties with each other.
Implications for Media Literacy: Final Thoughts
Historically, media literacy education focused on critical consumption skills, encouraging young people to be more skeptical (though never cynical) about the media images and narratives that entered their lives, becoming more aware of the economic, cultural, and ideological contexts from which they emerged, the motives shaping their production and circulation, and so forth. I am now advocating that we might also encourage young people to look towards popular media as providing shared resources through which they might shape their own messages as they start to find their own civic voices and engage in larger conversations about the future of their society. And that brings us to the second core theme that has historically informed media literacy education -- the goal of teaching young people critical production practices, so that they might generate their own media and think through the ethics of their own representational practices. Many everyday practices that young people deploy through social media blur the lines between consumption and production as they create memes to respond to the programs they are watching on television. Here, we might think of media literacy education as providing the foundations for critical and ethical participation within a world where more and more we communicate by appropriating and remixing existing media content towards our own expressive purposes.
The public (especially young people) can play an active role in shaping the contents of our culture through the choices they make about what media narratives they incorporate into their civic imagination. Young people, in particular, are drawn towards expressive forms of politics (participatory politics) rather than purely institutional form. If we are going to rebuild the civic as the foundation upon which our politics are conducted, we need for all participants to take ownership over what they create and circulate. This means taking responsibility for the accuracy of the information we share, the ways our expression contributes to or harms the quality of life within our communities (whether defined on a local, national, global, or subcultural level). In that sense, Trump’s use of Twitter models many of the antisocial behaviors we want our students to learn to avoid -- writing insulting and abusive posts, spreading information without insuring its accuracy, circulating rumors and conspiracy theories without regard to their effects, or sharing memes without determining their sources. Such practices damage the shared understandings and social connections which constitute the civic, even if they generate short term political gains. Contemporary rhetoric about “fake news” places the public once again in the passive role of someone who is acted upon -- in this case, mislead -- by the media, even as research consistently shows that young people in particular acquire much of their information about the world through posts shared by their friends on social media. That means, not simply being mislead by the producers of “fake news,” we are misleading each other because we are not making the effort to find out what is true (as opposed to what is “interesting”) before circulating that information to others. And the civic imagination model invites us to move beyond a focus on good and bad facts to consider the mythic implications of the media content we help to circulate.
Any contemporary approach to media literacy education should start from the premise that we are the media, that our choices and practices have social consequences, and that with great power should come great responsibility. The civic depends on trust, mutual respect, empathy, the very things which are undermined when we use Twitter to generate “heat” rather than to facilitate meaningful exchanges across our differences.
Let’s all imagine better.
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