Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture
Connecting Social Problems and
Popular Culture SECOND EDITION
WHY MEDIA IS NOT THE ANSWER
Karen Sternheimer University of Southern California
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Sternheimer, Karen. Connecting social problems and popular culture : why media is not the answer / Karen Sternheimer. —2nd ed. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-8133-4724-0 (e-book) 1. Mass media—Moral and ethical aspects—United States. 2. Popular culture—Moral and ethical aspects—United States. 3. Mass media and culture—United States. 4. Social problems—United States. I. Title. HN90.M3S75 2013 302.2301—dc23
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For Frieda Fettner, whose wisdom and encouragement
will be with me always
1 Media Phobia: Why Blaming Pop Culture for Social Problems Is a Problem
2 Is Popular Culture Really Ruining Childhood?
3 Does Social Networking Kill? Cyberbullying, Homophobia, and Suicide
4 What’s Dumbing Down America: Media Zombies or Educational Disparities?
5 From Screen to Crime Scene: Media Violence and Real Violence
6 Pop Culture Promiscuity: Sexualized Images and Reality
7 Changing Families: As Seen on TV?
8 Media Health Hazards? Beauty Image, Obesity, and Eating Disorders
9 Does Pop Culture Promote Smoking, Toking, and Drinking?
10 Consumption and Materialism: A New Generation of Greed?
11 Beyond Popular Culture: Why Inequality Is the Problem
Selected Bibliography Index
Rather than viewing popular culture as “guilty” or “innocent,” the central theme running through Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture is that various media and the popular culture they promote and produce are reflections of deeper structural conditions—such as poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia—and economic disparities woven into major social institutions. While discussions of sexism in various forms of media, for instance, are often lively and provocative, the representations themselves are not the core reason that gender inequality continues to exist. Media images bring it to our attention and may further normalize sexism for us, but our examination of our society should not end with media.
In order to understand social problems, we need to look beyond media as a prime causal factor. Media may be a good entry point for thinking about how social problems have a basis beyond the sole individual. But while that premise can open the discussion, this book aims to help students and other readers take the next step in understanding social problems. We must look deeper than popular culture—we need to look at the structural roots to understand issues such as bullying, violence, suicide, teen sex and pregnancy, divorce, substance use, materialism, and educational failure.
Neither media nor popular culture stands still for very long—making the study of both a never-ending endeavor. In this second edition of Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture, I include a new chapter on fears about social networking and electronic harassment. With concerns about bullying and “sexting” leading to suicide after news accounts of high-profile cases, it is important to uncover what we know about the role that new media play in such incidents. Perhaps not surprisingly, social networking is less of a culprit than an attention getter. Additionally, each chapter has been updated to incorporate, where applicable, new research and trend data on crime, pregnancy, birth- and divorce rates, substance use, and other social issues for which popular culture is so often blamed.
The “link” between video games and actual violence is always a topic of interest for readers and lay theorists of social problems. In 2011 the US Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that states cannot limit the purchase of violent video games. In handing down this major decision, the Supreme Court decided that California had not proven how actual harm came from playing video games. I address this ruling in greater detail in Chapter 5 on media and violence.
Because popular culture is so ubiquitous—and, frankly, fun—it is a great window for students in a variety of courses to look through as they begin exploring social issues. Students in introductory sociology and media studies courses and social problems and social issues classes, as well as those studying inequality, will be able to make connections between the material and the many common beliefs about media’s effects on society that this book addresses.
By challenging the conventional wisdom about what the media “does” to its consumers—especially those considered less capable than their critics—readers can begin to think critically about the ways in which social issues are framed and how sensationalized news accounts help shape our thinking about the causes of societal problems. Beyond simply debunking common beliefs, this second edition stresses the importance of social structure and provides an introduction to structural explanations for the issues commonly blamed on popular culture. By digging deeper beyond simple cultural arguments, readers learn how policy decisions and economic shifts are important explanatory factors for many issues blamed on media.
Each chapter begins with examples from pop culture that many readers will already be familiar with, taken from celebrity gossip and controversial television shows like Teen Mom, high-profile news stories, and other easily accessible accounts. Additionally, each chapter introduces findings from recent research, often breaking down the components of the sampling and methods for readers to better understand how research is conducted and how to think critically about the results presented in the press. Where applicable, each chapter includes supporting data— and in some cases graphs—from federal sources, such as the census, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to provide evidence of long-term trends, often challenging misperceptions about particular issues. Because these sources are easily accessed online (and URLs are included in notes at the end of chapters), readers can learn to spot-check popular claims about these issues on their own in the future.
The evolution of this book, across its editions, has truly been a team effort. Thanks to Alex Masulis, my first editor at Westview Press, to Evan Carver who, early on, championed the second edition, and to Leanne Silverman, who helped bring the book in your hands to print.
I am also very thankful for my student researchers who helped find articles for this book. William Rice, Jessica Sackman, and Mishirika Scott assisted with the first edition, and Kimberly Blears helped with the revised edition. They and many other undergraduate students at the University of Southern California have been a pleasure to work with; their input in my classes helps keep me grounded in youth culture as time takes me further away from being anywhere near pop culture’s
cutting edge. Several anonymous reviewers provided useful comments and suggestions, and I thank them for helping make this book stronger. For their helpful criticisms and invaluable suggestions, I also want to thank David Briscoe, Joshua Gamson, Kelly James, Marcia Maurycy, Janet McMullen, and Markella Rutherford.
The Department of Sociology at the University of Southern California has been my professional home for many years, and I could not have written this book without years of the department’s enthusiastic support. I am grateful for the many graduate and undergraduate students with whom I have shared countless hours of thought-provoking discussions. Special thanks to Mike Messner, Barry Glassner, Sally Raskoff, Elaine Bell Kaplan, Karl Bakeman, and Eileen Connell for their continued support of me and my work. And most of all, thanks to my family, without whom none of this would be possible. A special thanks to my parents and sisters for their continued support, and for Eli and Julian, who are introducing me to a new generation’s pop culture.
Media Phobia Why Blaming Pop Culture for Social Problems Is a Problem
“They’re here!” Carol Anne exclaims in the 1982 film Poltergeist. “Who’s here?” her mother asks. “The TV people!” answers the wide-eyed blonde girl, mesmerized by the “snow” on the family’s television set. What follows is a family’s sci-fi nightmare: Carol Anne is taken away by the angry spirits terrorizing their home. Her only means of communication to her family is through the television set.
This film’s plot serves as a powerful example of American anxieties about media culture. The angelic child is helpless against its pull and is ultimately stolen, absorbed into its vast netherworld. She is the family’s most vulnerable victim, and as such is drawn into evil without recognizing its danger. Carol Anne’s fate highlights the fear of what television in particular and popular culture more generally may “do to” children: take them someplace dangerous and beyond their parents’ reach. Ultimately, Carol Anne is saved with the help of a medium, but the imagery in the film reflects the terror that children are somehow prey to outsiders who come into unsuspecting homes via the TV set.
Thirty years later, media culture has expanded well beyond television; unlike in Carol Anne’s day, kids today use social networking, smartphones, iPods, the Internet, video games, and other technology that their parents may not even know how to use. Cable television was in its infancy in 1982: MTV was one year old, CNN was two. Today there are hundreds of channels, with thousands more programs available on demand at any time. Unlike in 1982, television stations no longer sign off at night. Our media culture does not rest. What does this mean for young people today, and our future?
Much of the anxiety surrounding popular culture focuses on children, who are often perceived as easily influenced by media images. The fear that popular culture leads young people to engage in problematic behavior, culminating in large-scale social problems, sometimes leads the general public to blame media for a host of troubling conditions.
For many people, this explosion of media over the past decades brings worry that, for instance, kids are so distracted by new technology that they don’t study as much. Are they crueler to one another now, thanks to social networking? Does our entertainment culture mean kids expect constant entertainment? Do kids know too much about sex, thanks to the Internet? Does violent content in video games, movies, and television make kids violent? Promiscuous? Materialistic? Overweight? Anorexic? More likely to smoke, drink, or take drugs?
This book seeks to address these questions, first by examining the research that attempts to connect these issues to popular culture. Despite the commonsense view that media must be at least partly to blame for these issues, the evidence suggests that there are many more important factors that create serious problems in the United States today. Popular culture gets a lot of attention, but it is rarely a central causal factor. Throughout the book, we will also take a step back and think about exactly why it is that so many people fear the effects of popular culture.
You might have noticed that all of the questions posed above focus on young people’s relationship with media and leave most adults out of the equation. As we will see, a great deal of our concern about media and media’s potential effects on kids has more to do with uncertainty about the future and the changing experiences of childhood and adolescence. In addition to considering why we are concerned about the impact of popular culture, this book also explores why many researchers and politicians encourage us to remain afraid of media culture and of kids themselves. Of course, popular culture has an impact on everyone’s life, regardless of age. But this impact is less central in causing problems than factors like inequality, which we will explore throughout the book.
The Big Picture: Poverty, Not Pop Culture
Blaming media for changes in childhood and for causing social problems has shifted the public conversation away from addressing the biggest issues that impact children’s lives. The most pressing crisis American children face today is not media culture but poverty. In 2011—the most recent year for which data are available—more than 16 million children (just under 22 percent of Americans under eighteen) lived in poverty, a rate two to three times higher than that in other industrialized nations. Reduced funding for families in poverty has only exacerbated this problem, as we now see the effects of the 1996 welfare reform legislation that has gradually taken away the safety net from children. Additionally, our two-tiered health care system often prevents poor children from receiving basic health care, as just over 9 percent of American children had no health insurance in 2011.1 These are often children with parents who work at jobs that offer no benefits.
These same children are admonished to stay in school to break the cycle of poverty, yet many of them attend schools without enough books or basic school supplies. Schools in high-poverty areas are more likely to have uncertified teachers; for instance, 70 percent of seventh through twelfth graders in such schools are taught science by teachers without science backgrounds.2 We worry about kids being in danger at school but forget that the most perilous place, statistically speaking, is in their own homes. In 2010, for instance, 915 children were killed by
their parents, compared with 17 killed at school during the 2009–2010 school year.3 By continually hyping the fear of media-made child killers, we forget that the biggest threats to childhood are adults and the policies adults create.
As we will see throughout this book, many of the problems that we tend to lay at the feet of popular culture have more mundane causes. At the root of the most serious challenges American children face, problems like lack of a quality education, violent victimization, early pregnancies, single parenthood, and obesity, poverty plays a starring role; popular culture is a bit player at best. And other issues that this book addresses, such as materialism, substance use, racism, sexism, and homophobia, might be highly visible in popular culture, but it is the adults around young people, as well as the way in which American society is structured, that contribute the most to these issues. These issues are made most visible in popular culture, but their causes are more complex. We will examine these causes in the chapters that follow.
The media have come to symbolize society and provide glimpses of both social changes and social problems. Changes in media culture and media technologies are easier to see than the complex host of economic, political, and social changes Americans have experienced in the past few decades. Graphic video games are easier to see than changes in public policies, which we hear little about, even though they better explain why violence happens and where it happens. We may criticize celebrity single mothers because it is difficult to explore the real and complex situations that impact people’s choices and behavior. What lies behind our fear of media culture is anxiety about an uncertain future. This fear has been deflected onto children, symbolic of the future, and onto media, symbolic of contemporary society.
In addition to geopolitical changes, we have experienced economic shifts over the past few decades, such as the increased necessity for two incomes to sustain middle-class status, which has reshaped family life. Increased opportunities for women have created greater independence, making marriage less of a necessity for economic survival. Deindustrialization and the rise of an information-based economy have left the poorest and least-skilled workers behind and eroded job security for many members of the middle class. Ultimately, these economic changes have made supervision of children more of a challenge for adults, who are now working longer hours.
Since the Industrial Revolution, our economy has become more complex, and adults and children have increasingly spent their days separated from one another. From a time when adults and children worked together on family farms to the development of institutions specifically for children, like age-segregated schools, day care, and organized after-school activities, daily interaction in American society has become more separated by age. Popular culture is another experience that kids may enjoy beyond adult supervision. An increase of youth autonomy has
created fear within adults, who worry that violence, promiscuity, and other forms of “adult” behavior will emerge from these shifts and that parents will have a declining level of influence on their children. Kids spend more time with friends than with their parents as they get older, and more time with popular culture, too. These changes explain in large part why children’s experiences are different now than in the past, but are not just the result of changes in popular culture.
A Brief History of Media Fears
Fear that popular culture has a negative impact on youth is nothing new: it is a recurring theme in history. Whereas in the past, fears about youth were largely confined to children of the working class, immigrants, or racial minorities, fear of young people now appears to be a more generalized fear of the future, which explains why we have brought middle-class and affluent youth into the spectrum of worry. Like our predecessors, we are afraid of change, of popular culture we don’t like or understand, and of a shifting world that at times feels out of control.
Fears about media and children date back at least to Plato, who was concerned about the effects that the classic Greek tragedies had on children.4 Historian John Springhall describes how penny theaters and cheap novels in early-nineteenth- century England were thought to create moral decay among working-class boys.5 Attending the theater or reading a book would hardly raise an eyebrow today, but Springhall explains that the concern emerged following an increase in working- class youths’ leisure time.
As in contemporary times, commentators blamed youth for a rise in crime and considered any gathering place of working-class youth threatening. Young people could afford admission only to penny theaters, which featured entertainment geared toward a working-class audience, rather than the “respectable” theaters catering to middle- or upper-class patrons. Complaints about the performances were very similar to those today: youngsters would learn the wrong values and possibly become criminals. Penny and later dime novels garnered similar reaction, accused of being tawdry in content and filled with slang that kids might imitate. Springhall concludes that the concern had less to do with actual content and more to do with the growing literacy of the working class, shifting the balance of power from elites to the masses and threatening the status quo.
Examining the social context enables us to understand what creates underlying anxieties about media. Fear of comic books in the 1940s and 1950s, for instance, took place in the McCarthy era, when the control over culture was high on the national agenda. Like the dime novels before, comic books were cheap, were based on adventurous tales, and appealed to the masses. Colorful and graphic depictions of violence riled critics, who lobbied Congress unsuccessfully to place restrictions