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Should pop culture be a site for political debate?

What are the consequences of making the doings of celebrities a major terrain for our ideological and political arguments?


During a recent panel discussion a reporter asked Lena Dunham of Girls to explain the show’s nudity (something he apparently found baffling). This event has quickly crystallised into something of a notable feminist incident, which in turn illuminates something so pervasive in our society as to be almost unnoticeable: the elevation of pop and celebrity culture to a site for political debate.

Sites such as Jezebel have paved the way for a successful, though arguably problematic, blend of frivolity and progressive commentary: the bitter political pill is coated in sugary celebrity gossip. It has been suggested (somewhat patronisingly) that this is the best way to introduce young people to progressivism: consciousness-raising made clickworthy, fun and profitable.

Indeed, a newly arrived extraterrestrial visitor could be forgiven for concluding that the key preoccupations of left wing political movements were debating the feminist credentials and outfits of pop stars, dissecting song lyrics; condemning (forgive the turgid phrase) the post-baby-body-shaming of the Duchess of Cambridge; and calling out racism and homophobia within the celebrity arena. While none of these are necessarily unimportant in and of themselves, the general impression given is that progressive politics centres on one’s intellectual and emotional responses to movies, music and the doings of famous people, rather than on proposals for transformative change.

In some ways, this approach is an obvious development. We live in a market capitalist society saturated with things to be bought and sold, and the celebrity world becomes part of our shared background noise. Pop culture is by no means so trivial as to be unworthy of analysis: critically examining what we consume each day is preferable to absorbing it unthinkingly or pretending it doesn’t exist. Such endeavours are nothing new either

– to give one example, in 1940 George Orwell wrote an essay exploring schoolboys’ comic books, concluding:

In England, popular imaginative literature is a field that left-wing thought has never begun to enter…boys' fiction above all, the blood-and-thunder stuff which nearly every boy devours at some time or other, is sodden in the worst illusions of 1910. The fact is only unimportant if one believes that what is read in childhood leaves no impression behind.

Nevertheless, at several points last year it seemed that the world would end not only ravaged by climate change but deluged beneath a flood of Miley Cyrus thinkpieces. This is not to suggest all such articles were without merit – some (particularly those which focused on the troubling racial implications of Cyrus’ performances) were excellent. The thought reoccurs, though: regardless of how well they are written, do we really need so many in-depth analyses of the political implications of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, the lyrics of Taylor Swift, or occasional ridiculous Hollywood happenings?

Late last year, Benjamin Pearson wrote a provocative piece damning “offense criticism”, in which he posited that he, and many others, had spent 2013 not “worrying about the state of the real world” but “obsessed with online debates about the media’s representations of it”. What are the consequences of making the doings of celebrities a major terrain for our ideological arguments? Does the sugar coating fundamentally change the nature of the pill?

Something vital is arguably lost in the focus on a parallel celebrity world that exists at some distance from our own. In her sharp, perceptive book No Logo (first published in 1999), Naomi Klein argued that “the slogan ‘the personal is political’ [had come] to replace the economic as political and, in the end, the political as political as well”. I’ve also previously criticised this slogan on the basis that the left should leave the cult of the individual to libertarians and focus on the collective as well as the self. However, at least a concern with the personal is rooted in the reality of everyday life, concerning experiences largely absent from our popular culture: work, scarcity, stress, illness, poverty.

In other words, politics-as-the-personal at least stands a chance of reflecting the texture of ordinary people’s lives; politics-as-entertainment is for instance unlikely (other than via criticism of Honey Boo-Boo et al) to consider issues of class and material inequality, which intersect with race and gender and which have long been the central focus of left wing political movements. Viewing politics through the prism of celebrity is inevitably distorting.

It is easy to forget that politics is about power, not just performance; it's about who exercises power, over whom and to what ends. The pop culture analyses will continue to flow; at their best they make us to re-evaluate our assumptions or introduce us to new ideas.

Let’s not forget, though, that the realm of the political extends far beyond both the personal and the popular.