October 03, 2011

Popular Culture Meets Reality

ksternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

As I have previously blogged, social science has paid a lot of attention to the question of the influence media has on individual behavior. But what about the influence of real life events on media? How might major events and social changes influence fictional popular culture?

Media studies professor Barna William Donovan examines this question in his book, Conspiracy Films: A Tour of Dark Places in American Consciousness. He explores how movies and television shows that delve into alleged conspiracies have flourished in the last fifty years. Rather than just entertainment, clip_image002conspiracy media content reflects larger social issues, which he identifies as concerns about the government, big business, and the supernatural.

As the space race began during the Cold War, aliens became a popular subject in pop culture. Likewise, anxieties about the power of government or corporations create an interest in movies that depict the dark side of these forces.

Donovan details how such themes resonate with audiences across the political spectrum. Wars, economic instability, and political upheavals create anxieties which conspiracies seem to explain. “At their core, all conspiracy theories try to account for all that is wrong with society,” he writes, adding that “conspiracy theories provide a great deal of psychological comfort to their believers.” The alternative, he suggests, “is to acknowledge frightening chaos, dangerous, threatening complexity, a total lack of order, a lack of purpose, absolutely no value or no cause for fortune and misfortune, pain and suffering.” (p.7)

Throughout his book, Donovan catalogues the relationship between hundreds of conspiracy-themed films and television shows and their social context. For instance, many films from the 1970s reflect the mistrust in government created by the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. One of the eeriest films I have seen, The Parallax View (1974), reflects the belief that a shadowy conspiracy led to numerous assassinations, and the government panel charged with the investigation is also part of the conspiracy.

More recently, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have led to movies and television shows that contain conspiracy-based themes. Donovan links action-adventure fare like the X- Men franchise and other films derived from comic book heroes with an “undercurrent of conspiratorial paranoia.” He also explores the fascination with The DaVinci Code and its element of religious conspiracy, and he observes that is perhaps not a coincidence that the popularity of the novel coincided with concerns about the Catholic Church’s cover up of sexual abuse.

And yet popular culture is not a perfect mirror of society; while it may reflect various themes and concerns, there is often a difference between how the public might tend to view an issued and its representation in popular culture.

A study recently released by the University of Southern California (described in the video below) found that while television shows depicting the war on drugs and war on terror typically avoided stereotypes of villains, they often left out important elements of the criminal justice system in their coverage.

Interestingly, the crimes themselves were likely to be featured in the episodes, but the traditional courtroom drama so common in pre-9/11 entertainment was largely absent. Perhaps this represents the deep ambivalence Americans have about dealing with such suspects through the justice system rather than the battlefield.

Not only can we use our sociological imaginations while we are watching individual television shows, movies, while we listen to music or other forms of entertainment, the sociological imagination can help us understand why certain genres are more popular at some times rather than others.

This is easier to do in retrospect, when we are clearer about the broader social, economic, and political contexts that shaped passed events. But Donovan makes a prediction about the future: that conspiracy-based entertainment is here to stay. “They are a natural byproduct of an ever more complex, bureaucratic, and often overwhelming modern world.” (p. 250)


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In this weeks chapter, we talked about things like television and media affecting teenagers behavior and delinquency. It is however extremely difficult to solely blame teenage crime on the things that they see on television and hear in the media. There are too many other factors that have to be taken into account. Television and media does affect the actions taken by teenagers, but it is difficult to say other things do not have there affects as well. This article was helpful, thanks!

I have a written a book with a component that shows a major "Power Elite" establishment as the 'SOCIAL'Architects of our reality that compares to the Architect in the movie The Matrix. The group is called the Bilderburg Group and they have ruled, started wars, caused economic devastation globally since 1954. For more info check with Bill Clinton's former Georgetown professor, Carroll Quigley and "Tragedy and Hope".
Maurice Ramos, and The Hip-Pop/Rap Matrix over Black & White Culture.

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