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Why Does Pop Culture Matter?

Updated on January 7, 2017

When Miley Cyrus twerked on the stage of the VMAs the press got right on the subject and many people complained about the excessive coverage. People who were unhappy about it said that there are more important things (possibly referring to Syria) to be reported and that they expected more from whatever publication mentioned the performance. There was a general consensus that pop culture news is dumb and useless.

But this view is completely narrow-minded and mostly expressed by those who are privileged enough not to be directly affected by what Miley's performance and song means. By this I mean men and white people who don't recognize the extremely pejorative image Miley is representing of the female gender and in particular of black women.

I have always defended that pop culture has a huge daily impact on our society and I want to take Miley's twerking event as an example of this. I also want to defend the press for covering it so avidly - isn't the media supposed to cover things that affect society? Well, this affects you me and everyone else.

There are people who really struggle to see how pop culture affects society and, more specifically, the oppressed because most pop culture glorifies the oppressors, ie. people who are in no way affected by the stereotypes pop culture perpetuates.

What's pop culture anyway?

Popular culture is "the entirety of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, memes, images, and other phenomena that are within the mainstream of a given culture". These ideas, etc reflect and permeate public opinion and affect us in everyday life.

However pop culture is usually seen as something dumb and irrelevant to today's culture but that is a huge mistake: pop culture can affect our ideas about nearly everything. It can perpetuate racism, rape culture, xenophobia and many other ideas that exist in our society today. It can also be said that pop culture reflects society and vice versa and it usually refers to Western culture.

Some religious groups think that pop culture is shallow, consumerist, sensationalist and corrupted. These worries pretty much prove that pop culture is something that affects our society deeply, perhaps even more strongly than religion does.

Underestimating pop culture isn't something that should be done. You're surrounded by it and I can guarantee you that you think about something to do with it at least once a day.

Pop culture in costumes

But I think the life of celebrities isn't relevant to my life, and knowing about it is completely beneath me

You're right, the personal lives of celebrities have zero relevance to you life. However they can be the ones that represent what's going on in the general population of Western countries or they can set trends and new ideas into society as well.

How does that affect you? Taking Miley's twerking malarkey as an example, her performance was extremely pejorative to women, and particularly black women. I wrote about this on my personal blog a few weeks ago.

"It is wrong to shame a woman for being sexual and having control of her own body, but this isn’t what Miley was doing at all. As opposed to taking control, empowering her body, it looked as though she was giving her body away to the patriarchy." - Miley's Warped Logic, Words by Nicole Froio.

Jameela Jamil makes an even more important point in her blog post Sexpression:

"But the moment you use a man, who is fully dressed, as something to pole dance on… you are making him the focus of attention. You are there to please HIM. If she wanted to do something really radical, she would have demanded Robin Thicke also wear latex pants, and he could drop it to the floor once or twice for her perhaps… That’s fair." - Sexpression, by Jameela Jamil.

And another more important point to make is that black women are portrayed in an extremely hurtful way. Black women have suffered much more than white women trying to take control of their bodies. For centuries they were told they were there to please men and nothing else.

"Here’s the thing: historically, black women have had very little agency over their bodies. From being raped by white slave masters to the ever-enduring stereotype that black women can’t be raped, black women have been told over and over and over again, that their bodies are not their own. By bringing these “homegirls with the big butts” out onto the stage with her and engaging in a one-sided interaction with her ass, (not even her actual person!) Miley has contributed to that rhetoric. She made that woman’s body a literal spectacle to be enjoyed by her legions of loyal fans.” - Solidarity is for Miley, Face Down Asgard Up.

Everything Miley did on stage that night and in her video for the video "We Can't Stop" expressed and perpetuated everything that keeps women, black and white, stuck in a music industry and society dominated by men.

So pop culture really doesn't have much to do with celebrities' personal lives. There are some exceptions (Rihanna and Chris Brown's relationship for example) but you shouldn't dismiss pop culture altogether because of them.

Plus pop culture isn't just about celebrities, it's about pretty much anything that turns viral, offends or is considered beneficial. It's ideas, fashion, celebrities, role models, TV, video games - it's everything that affects our daily lives.

Pop culture in music

Why does the media cover this stuff?

There's one simple answer: because it's relevant to do so. Like it or not the VMAs is broadcast internationally and Miley has a lot of young girls who look up to her. It is relevant to women in general but also to mothers and daughters.

One of the interesting points brought up by this song and video is that Miley is going through a kind of odd sexual liberation and there are two school of thoughts on that. Is shaming Miley for being sexual shaming every young girl trying to find themselves sexually? Or is the fact that she is giving power to a man and that she is representing black woman in a hurtful way necessary points to make so that young girls understand sexual and racial dynamics better?

In any case, the event deserves coverage.

And because the internet is such a huge place and all, the media now has space to cover the serious news AND pop culture news. It's not like when someone writes a review for a movie a death of a soldier goes untold. That's not how it works - and most newspapers/news blogs have Lifestyle and/or Entertainment sections that need to be filled.

So not covering this stuff would be completely stupid, as it is obviously relevant and important to people in the Western World.

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Fine, but I have no control over this stuff

Of course you do! If pop culture affects society everyday of your life, it affects you everyday as well. You have the right (and I'd say the duty) of pointing to things you like and dislike. You have the responsibility to correct yourself if pop culture shows you that your attitude is a bad one.

You have control over your actions but it is collective actions that create pop culture. It is collective actions and attitudes that create rape culture, racism, xenophobia, etc. So it's up to you to change your own actions and set an example. It won't change the world but it will change you.

Still don't get it? Maybe this will help...

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      Carol Miers 4 years ago

      I was not going to write about the debate about Cyrus Miley but how not to, in fact I had to turn off the first video I watched 'We can't stop' after one minute. I couldn't watch it.

      Of course to begin, being beautiful and young, when making video's which are sexually graphic, women might think it is without any cost and is just fun-loving but yes, there is a cost. Of course someone might think Miley Cyrus is like some kind of cute cartoon figure that is caricaturing sex but...

      To deconstruct a little, the video " We can't stop," with "It's our body we can do what we want," opening with a man's voice. It is said to be Miley Cyrus's song but immediately this gives the message that this man can do whatever he wants with his body, to women. This is a man's message, from the start this song belongs to men, the man is saying he can do what he wants, screw who he wants, kiss who he wants, and the first sound is of a knife which evokes an image of violence, against women. The filmed image throughout this introduction is of Miley Cyrus so the implication is that the man can do whatever he wants to her.

      So it is just one more video feeding a distorted male fantasy.

      The point about a photographic porn image in general is that in it a woman is suppliant, giving the impression of availability to men, feeding a certain fantasy.

      It is an upsetting of the natural sensuality of the body and movement.

      With the knife cutting the hand, it made me think of a parody of Campion's film the Piano where Ada's finger is cut off to prevent her playing the piano.

      Women in this society are always getting caught in images of ourselves, projected onto us, whether that of the pure Virgin, the angel, the powerhouse, sex object, these guises get dressed up in different ways and so we fall for it again.

      That's what seeing Cyrus Miley perform brings to mind, this time the message that seduced her to saying it is okay could have been thinking she is in control, as though it is being brave or different and liberating. Of course Cyrus Miley is not in control of who watches it.

      It is just the same story used in a different way, another trap, another mirage of freedom, that inevitably exploits and objectifies for other's consumption, not for Cryrus Miley or other women's benefit. The video belongs not to her, but to the viewer and who is the viewer? As Sinead O'Conner said it is sending dangerous messages to young women, true, but I think, more dangerous are the messages to young men.