Debate Club: can pop culture be a force for feminist good?

Debate: Lauren Rosewarne and Helen Razer /
Crikey /
March 08, 2018 /
Click here to view original /

Debate Club is a new series in which we give writers space to tussle with big ideas, and put their arguments forward in big disagreements. 

In this inaugural installment (edited from a full transcript), Helen Razer and academic and broadcaster Lauren Rosewarne debate the question: what is the role of pop culture in feminism in 2018?

Helen Razer: Lauren, maybe you go first? Selfishly, I am more entertaining when I have something to disagree with.

Lauren Rosewarne: More important than pop culture’s capacity for entertaining or politicking is its capacity to make money: it’s art, sure, but of the distinctly commercial variety where the bottom line is always more important than feminist social engineering.

Pop culture rarely delivers us completely new ideas or new politics. Rather, it reflects — often with a lag-time — cultural changes already bubbling. The mainstreaming of feminist ideas — be it in the telling of women’s stories or depictions being elevated beyond eye candy — are increasingly present in our pop culture even if there is a long way to go before presentations look truly fair or diverse.

This works in a culture where — even if “feminism” still sits uncomfortably in some mouths — lots of people nonetheless value fairer depictions of women.

HR: Sure. Loads of people “value” “fairer” depictions of women. However, I and many others value “scare quotes”. This is no good argument for their over-representation in the (ever-more-monetised) human sciences or in the effing newspaper every day.

I mean, sure, ladies. Knock yourselves out. Demand a “fairer” representation of your gender, perhaps pausing occasionally to think that not all persons of all genders can ever be fairly represented by a for-profit representation factory. But, sheesh. This liberal feminist faith in the power of representation is, at the time of writing, really the only fight in town.

LR: If we approach pop culture from a radical perspective, there’s no capacity for any kind of feminist victory: it’s an industry that is a product of capitalism — that would not exist without the lubricant of money — and every attempt to tinker could only ever be flaccidly incremental.

I do agree though, that the capacity for feminism to impact and alter popular culture is limited: money and the remit to entertain the masses means that the capacity for victories — for any kind of revolution — is small. That said, if we’re to assess feminism’s impact, representation is a central metric. For me, I’ll be looking at measures like character development, screen-time, quantity of dialogue, relevancy of their nudity etc as markers of progress.

HR: So, here, you accept (part of) my claim that any commodity, including the cultural kind, will be necessarily shaped by profit. But I do not accept implication that the appetite of “the masses” is also to blame. That appetite is itself shaped by a broader set of relations. The thing that is the easiest to make is often the thing made by broadcasters. It’s path dependence, like you get in any org.

I think we have a fundamental disagreement about the mechanism of “change” and perhaps even one about the nature of feminism. Can we explore that?

LR: I agree with you that I don’t think audiences are wholly to blame for the pop culture they get, but to pretend that they don’t help shape what is produced is folly. The presumption that audiences just watch reality TV, zombie-like, simply because it’s produced overestimates the powers of producers and the passivity of audiences.

As for “change”: I’m defining this as improvement based upon my understanding that in the realm of pop culture, change will only ever be incremental. I think this is partly because in practice radical feminism has few successes, and partly because the majority don’t actually want wholesale change to their entertainment media.

For me, improvement will — and, to a small degree has already — been detected through the kind of stories being told and the roles women occupy. Is this enough? Of course not. But is it naive to expect pop culture to do the heavy lifting of a political movement?

HR: Yes, it’s “naïve” to think of mass culture as a place where real-world progress begins. But, why do so many believe it? Why is idealism (as in: opposite of materialism) the big new thing? There are entire government projects funded to monitor and improve media, thereby the society. It’s an obsession. My question is: why?

LR: The question of the “why” of media is a fascinating one. Every new media has led people to chime that it is a source of tremendous good and, simultaneously, fear that it’s a great corrupter. In reality, media is, at most, only one influence on us. But collectively we want to believe it more powerful than it is.

HR: I say you underestimate the role of profit in media production. So, let’s just go with your presumptions. These are: distribution is equal and all consumers are capable of freely choosing from a wide range of goods. The Market Will Decide.

Let’s get back on track by believing all this and you can state clearly just this: what are you measuring in a film like, for example, Wonder Woman? I am supposing you think this film is “good” and not “bad” in a feminist way? Why and how? Let’s keep to that.

LR: I say that consumers are partly to blame for the media we receive: “bad” or “good” are subjective assessments. Audiences wouldn’t keep tuning in however, unless they wanted to (want not existing in a vacuum, but consumption being an active choice nonetheless). Reality TV, incidentally, is perhaps one of the clearest examples of female presentations being generally appalling.

As for Wonder Woman, I think it’s a good example of media producers trying to do something a little different and discovering that audiences consumed it heartily. Do I think the film is a feminist film? I think that’s less obvious than Hollywood tapping into the zeitgeist and giving audiences what they have already hinted at being ready for. The content of Wonder Woman of course is open to debate, but representation matters. It’s not everything, but it’s something

HR: Many of us hear the declaration “representation matters”. A few of us are quite interested to learn exactly how. You have also said that representation “matters” largely because it is, in your view, a measure of how well a society is doing? Leaving aside my objections to your assumptions (is everyone really that thick and suggestible that they copy telly they’re only half watching?), please be very clear about how it matters.

Re: Wonder Woman. The character has superpowers. Once, only men had superpowers. Men used to fight wars. Now, ladies can, too! How does this “matter”?

The parallel in [Wonder Woman star] Gal Gadot’s own life should also be noted. As a scholar of the culture industry, you would likely agree that a character and a star are often conflated in the popular imagination, right? So Gadot’s former role as an enlisted IDF combat trainer is no secret. It is no secret that she remains an ardent supporter of Israel. She has been photographed, as has been the IDF habit, as a sexy killer. Awesome! Now women get to endorse and enable the slaughter of an occupied people, too. If this is progress, I guess I am conservative.

LR: “Matters” can be defined in innumerable ways. I’m simply using the term as “better than it was”. I think having audiences see a greater diversity in characters, having producers make a greater range of films, are both good things. How are they good? People having different sources of aspiration, getting to hear a broader range of stories and voices, and potentially even seeing themselves (or versions there of) as figures of reverence are all good things.

Do I think “bad” portrayals of women matter? Yes, I think they do. Our media contributes — it does not dictate, but it contributes — to our values. It helps us shape an idea of gender roles, sexual scripts, beauty standards and aspirations. Having a wider range of all of these things portrayed on screen are good things: they become another source of less-negative information in our cultural understanding of what it means to be human — using pop culture as a vehicle that showcases that.

HR: I really want to understand this “Ideas and Representation Are So Important” stuff.

I just don’t see an adequate model to describe how media reconstitutes identity or forms patterns in your thinking yet. In my view, one cannot be all relativist and vague when making a case that such-and-such a thing “matters” without explaining how.

Me? I think most popular media exists to reinforce already existing views. I don’t think women in the IDF is “progress”. I think this is just an orthodoxy getting the appearance of being new. Ditto, Wonder Woman. I agree that it is interesting to look at media and I often do this sort of popular criticism to draw out the assumptions of a particular media thing. But, I do it like a sort of bad archaeologist. I say “look at this thing, what can it tell us about the conditions of its production?”

You seem to say that the thing also produces conditions. “It matters”. You say.

LR:  Values — what we consider important, worth prioritising, worth aspiring to etc — is socially constructed. If media didn’t influence us, we wouldn’t have advertising. I do however, think — as I’ve previously stated — that the influence is overstated, but it’s not meaningless. And in a world where it’s not meaningless, it’s worth wanting better portrayals of women.

The most consistent source of our learning on all those topics that we don’t learn about at school is our popular culture: it’s the place where we get an informal education on a very regular basis. Our contact with pop culture is almost constant: we have to care about the messages it’s delivering.

HR:  I am actually late for my Marxism 2018 meeting. Which you may feel free to find funny… But this “media works because advertising” argument is just not a good one.

I hear people in advertising claim this often. These turds actually believe they can shape the world. Yes, you can probably set my preference to Colgate. No, you cannot alter a world view significantly. Selling a can of cola is not at all like the transfer of meaning that sustains a person. Pop culture reinforces a value that the ruling class would prefer us to have (this occurs unconsciously) but “progress”?

I would say pop culture is a place where “education” is simply reinforced. I would say that the media perpetually makes the promises of a society that perpetually refuses to deliver.

I would say that Bad Lady Role Models on TV is something we all must learn to care less about. Not more. I say it is a concern that in a time of true crisis, we are still banging on about Wonder Woman. I get that this now seems axiomatic: media has effects. But, if we cannot say what the effects that do not prompt progress, what then?

I think we need to explain our suspicion of media effects… Especially when folks are broke.