John Bohn: The uses and drawbacks of popular culture

By John Bohn, Daily Community Culture Columnist
Published October 3, 2013

Those who read The New Inquiry’s repost of the 2012 essay “Walter White Supremacy” during that anxious week-long wait before the “Breaking Bad” finale, may have, like me, realized that their ability to identify systems of oppression at work was more poorly cultivated than they thought. Upon reading that article, I began to wonder what value a show like “Breaking Bad” has for a community. Becoming emotionally invested in a product of popular culture is a vulnerable position to be in. It brings people together, but around what? Around whom?

Of course, feel free to challenge the articles claims — after you’ve read it. Malcolm Harris, the author, encourages us to employ a critical lens to popular culture that can “pay attention to our attention, to look at how it’s being held, on what, and how someone’s making money on it.” And many people are making money off of “Breaking Bad” — a hell of a lot of money off of it. The Huffington Post reported that AMC sold 30-second ad space for upwards of $400,000 during the finale. And companies paid.

This is a show about a meth kingpin. Why would any brand be interested in associating themselves with such sport? As Harris argues, “Breaking Bad” has essentially whitewashed the drug economy and made it palatable for companies like Chrysler who defend their product placement in the show as “the right fit in terms of the plot line and the character.”

Harris emphasizes the fact that the drug economy wouldn’t operate as we see it in “Breaking Bad.” The notion of “paying more for a better product” is a more familiar practice of middle-class consumer ethics than the reality of profit-through-dilution in the drug trade. And in a scenario where that sort of trust and collaboration between producer and distributer doesn’t operate, Walter and Jesse would need to work closer with the actual meth users to make sure the product’s purity and value isn’t lost during distribution. The wider visibility of such a demographic, whom we only catch so little of in actual “Breaking Bad” — early minor characters such as Spooge, Wendy or the kid who kills Combo — might not be the most appropriate association for (insert any product ever).

Then there is “Breaking Bad” ’s representation of the drug cartels. Harris argues that “Breaking Bad” is another story of the “Mighty Whitey.” When Jesse Pinkman out-cooks a cartel’s top scientist, the message is clear. For all their seemingly endless resources and skill, the cartel of “Breaking Bad” just can’t beat the white man.

By the end of the series, Harris continues, Walter, the white “underdog” in an “openly racialized conflict,” is so “successful” — or should we say “supreme” — that there are no people of color competing by series end.

After reading this article, I wasn’t sure how I could then go on to say, “but I really love this show.” This was the first serial production I had become invested in as it was being produced. Until “Breaking Bad,” I hadn’t really experienced the high excitement and anxiousness of waiting for the next chapter in a series I loved. My investment in this program, too, was corroborated by its function as a communal bringing-together of my friends. At least for the second half of season five, Sunday night at 9 p.m. was a weekly event. Sometimes upwards of 20 people would be gathered. And it was un-quantifiably important to me that we were able to do that amid our hectic schedules.

While “Breaking Bad” had generated debate among my friends and I, we generally gave Vince Gilligan the benefit of the doubt. If “Breaking Bad” was a commentary on the logic of capitalism (which we’ve amended time and time again), it was consciously and intelligently mediated as such. After reading Anna Gunn’s now famous article “I Have a Character Issue” or Emily Nussbaum’s piece in The New Yorker about the controversial phone call of “Ozymandias,” the discussion — disgusted by the culture of hate surrounding Skyler White — gave credit to the writing behind “Breaking Bad” as attempting to subvert common stereotypes of women’s representation in media.

You can still have a hero at that point. However, during that final stretch, when reading about the ways in which “Breaking Bad” plays cleanly into corporate pockets by whitewashing drug markets and reinforcing racial otherness, I was in a different state of mind. I was skeptical of what all these relations and communions with others had been built on. Not only had I let myself get lost in the plot, I had let my critical lens slip.

Obviously, this happens time and time again throughout the history of popular culture. Our seemingly most advanced cultural productions, even in this new “Golden Age of Television,” have their issues. What, then, are demographics participating in the popular media experience to do with these potential sources of communal togetherness? How can we derive communal pleasure without participating in the obfuscation of social realities? There is clearly a lot of work to be done in our community. With all the micro-aggression, marginalization, misogyny and silence that permeates our campus, how can we transform these broken works of popular culture into the source of communities and publics that are not predicated on these asymmetries? Perhaps I’m asking too much of these works. In fact, I most certainly am. But for a hot second, I enjoyed the thrill of the investment, and I enjoyed the connectedness with those around me. What is to be done?