For some time, I have been interested in the relationship between popular culture and Social Justice. As an Educator, of course I recognize the benefits of structured learning, curriculum, and pedagogy. As an Educator in Student Affairs, however, my conversations with students often do not surround academic course work but more so their lives outside of the classroom. We talk about music, movies, books, comic books…popular culture. According to George Kuh’s book Cultural Perspectives in Student Affairs Work, popular culture (or pop-culture) is, “the collective, mutually shaping patterns of [institutional structures] which guide behavior of individuals and groups”. It is both fascinating and frightening how strong of an influence popular culture is on students; from what to wear, how to talk, what to buy and even how to think – popular culture is an influence too powerful to be ignored.
I do not claim to be an expert on popular culture or on the influence it can have on our students. But I am an expert on student culture, as most educators are. And because of my interest in pop-culture, I have noticed the increasing trends of colleges and universities relying on pop-culture as an educational tool. There are many examples from accredited institutions of higher learning which are incorporating pop-culture into their curriculum.
The University of Cincinnati hosted a Conference on Social Justice in Pop Culture. Lehigh University recently published on its homepage plans to host Social Justice and Pop-Culture seminars throughout the semester. Alta Thornton, the Director of Multicultural Affairs at LeHigh wonders, “What kind of opinions about acceptable social behavior are we sending through our pop culture”? She and other staff from LeHigh offer programs on such issues as Immigration, the role of the Christian Right in politics, and the appropriateness of language, all from a pop-culture context. “So many Americans are pop-culture addicts,” Thornton says. “We crave the juicy gossip about celebrities. What we’re trying to do is channel some of that interest into a year-long exploration about popular culture to help us analyze events and contemporary issues through the prism of various cultural perspectives.” Wesleyan University offers a course titled “Popular Culture and Social Justice”. And The University of California – Irvine is offering a new course this fall. As reported by the Huffington Post, UC Irvine is offering an on-line course entitled, “Society, Science, and Survival: Lessons from AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead’”.
Whether or not pop-culture based learning experiences are actually educational is still debatable. What is not debatable, is that pop-culture is influencing our students and our world in unexpected ways. But therein lies the problem; students reside in a classroom of pop-culture messages without a faculty member to guide them. And pop-culture most often gets the messages wrong. In the Talking Stick article “Bringing ‘The Hills’ to the Halls: Incorporating Pop Culture Into Residential Education”(February 2008), the authors write, “Evaluating the broad spectrum of available references, educators must recognize which aspects of the general culture are overlooked by pop culture (i.e., is the gay perspective present, or is the LGBTQ community banished to the status of a counter culture?)”. Popular culture can perpetuate stereotypes, devalue difference, and maintain the status quo.
The authors also make the point that many examples of pop-culture, particularly on television, focus on the extreme and the sensational so when students use these examples to “gauge social situations, pop culture does not always offer the most realistic examples”. My experiences in my high school glee club was nothing like the television show Glee. Similarly, most ‘housewives’ do not share the experiences of any of the “Real Housewives”. The programs are meant to entertain and shock, not represent reality which can be a challenging road to navigate for young viewers. Popular culture is everywhere and students who do not seek the academic guidance to question norms demonstrated by popular culture could be left with nothing to challenge or support their ideals.
Another example of a growing pop-culture trend is the tween/young adult novel sensation. I really saw this trend spike with the publication of Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. Never before in my 30+ year memory had a book become such a facet in American culture. The initial book spawned three sequels, movies, a graphic novel, merchandise, and even influence our language (Twi-hards? Team Jacob?). Twilight was sort of an unstoppable force and even though I tried to refrain, I found myself engrossed in the stories and the movies as much as college students and children half my age. I can’t say that I’m necessarily proud of my reaction to Twilight. As an educated woman and feminist, my only defense is that Twilight overwhelmed pop-culture for years. What started as my desire to relate to students became a desire to be “in the know” and then…my defense stops. But the difference between myself and the students who became obsessed with Twilight is that I am able to critically examine Twilight and understand it for what it is. I do not aspire to be Bella Swan nor do I believe her relationship with vampire Edward is healthy. My worry is that for many Twilight fans, Twilight represented the ideal and that ideal was extremely flawed from many aspects and especially from a Social Justice lens.
Another powerful influence in pop culture is music. Music has been an influence for generations; it has been an outlet to cry out against war, poverty, and racism. There are many classic songs that present powerful messages, like Bruce Springsteen’s “41 Shots” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”. DJ Kool Herc explains in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” A History of the Hip-Hop Generation” (Change, 2005) that music, “has given young people a way to understand their world, whether they are from the suburbs or the city or whatever”. Hip hop especially has, “bridged the culture gap. It brings white kids together with Black kids…they all have something in common that they love. It gets past stereotypes and people hating each other because of those stereotypes” (xi).
Recently, two songs were released with similar goals – to spread a message of love, tolerance, and inclusion. What is fascinating is that two songs with the same apparent intentions can be so different, with one song missing the mark completely. The two songs to which I am referring are “Same Love” by Macklemore and “Accidental Racist” by Brad Paisley and LL Cool J. Full lyrics to these songs can be found at these web addresses: http://rapgenius.com/Macklemore-and-ryan-lewis-same-love-lyrics and http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/bradpaisley/accidentalracist.html . If you’re not familiar with the songs at all, here are small verses from each.
“Same Love” by Macklemore
If I was gay I would think hip-hop hates me
Have you read the YouTube comments lately?
“Man, that’s gay” gets dropped on the daily
We’ve become so numb to what we’re saying
Our culture founded from oppression
Yet we don’t have acceptance for ’em
Call each other faggots
Behind the keys of a message board
A word rooted in hate
Yet our genre still ignores it
“Gay” is synonymous with the lesser
It’s the same hate that’s caused wars from religion
Gender to skin color, the complexion of your pigment.
The same fight that led people to walk-outs and sit-ins
It’s human rights for everybody, there is no difference
Live on! And be yourself!
“Accidental Racist”by Brad Paisley feat. LL Cool J
I’m just a white man comin’ to you from the southland
Tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me can re-write history
Our generation didn’t start this nation
We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday
And caught between southern pride and southern blame
These two songs are solid examples of the challenges of popular culture and endorse the argument to provide academically grounded means of discussing popular culture within an educational setting. Students listening to these two contemporary songs get very different messages and without a means of sifting through the nonsense, how are they to learn?
With the influx of technology – where it is possible to watch movies and television anywhere, where 50 books can fit in your pocket, and where reality television is showing no signs of going away anytime soon, educators, particularly those who are Social Justice minded need to take time to investigate the messages young Americans are being exposed to. From watching The Walking Dead, students can have conversations about access to health care. From reading The Hunger Games series, students can discuss the role of the government. But without a critical eye these two examples can just be about zombies and archery.
Ali Martin Scoufield is the Director of Residential Communities at La Salle University. She has a BA in History from Western New England University, a M.S. in College Student Personnel from Miami University (Ohio), and a M.L.S. in Human Rights and Social Justice from Southern Methodist University. Ali lives with her partner and two children in Philadelphia. Her research interests include student activism, service learning, and first-generation college students. She can be contacted at email@example.com.