Samantha Della Fera: In pop culture we trust

Wednesday, August 7, 2019 - 3:42pm

It’s been a pretty hectic summer. Twenty Democrats have debated each other on stage twice in the lead up to what might be America’s most important election. The nation has seen divisive language coming to a nasty head. And Hannah B. ended her season of “The Bachelorette” by picking lying Jed, who she later dumped, instead of picture-perfect Tyler. America has been through a lot.

I’ve spent this summer trying to make sense of it all in the best way I know how — finding a center in pop culture. Pop culture is often mocked, the people who follow it ridiculed. If you can name every “Real Housewife” or every song on today’s Top 40, you’re viewed as less intelligent and less in touch with important societal events. I’ve found the very opposite to be true. 

The status of a society is often reflected in its culture. I don’t think anything speaks more to the majority’s rejection of Trump than the fact that a country/rap song by a gay Black man is now the longest running Billboard No. 1 ever. Today’s pop culture looks a lot different from the media and music of 10 years ago. There are teenage gay couples on Disney, superheroes that little girls can become and an overall rise in the representation of people of color on TV. While there is still a long way to go before our media truly represents the lives and faces of the American people, the change in who we watch on TV or listen to on Spotify is reflected in our government. Of the top five Democratic presidential candidates, two are women and one — Senator Kamala Harris — is a Black woman who is the daughter of immigrants. Another top five candidate is an openly gay man. Public conversation on progressive policies are being driven by a young Latina woman. Politics is moving into the direction of true representation — but pop culture did it first.

Pop culture has seen female presidents, a feat our own country has yet to achieve. Pop culture put a committed gay couple on screen six years before their marriage would be legal. From “Orange is the New Black” to “Hamilton,” pop culture has released visions and ideas into the world that one would not see if they merely read the first two pages of The New York Times without flipping to section C.

This isn’t a new development. Mass media and culture has long been seen as a liberal realm, one that will show the controversial material, albeit if for ratings, and get a conversation started. Pop culture is where kids turn when they want to find ideas different than those spoiled by their parents, to discover if they disagree or not. So why should it be such a bad thing to turn to? Representation is important on so many levels. For the people being represented, it allows them to actually feel recognized, to see that their story is worth telling. On the other hand, it teaches those who may have grown up in a bubble and who were never exposed to stories other than those similar to their own. 

The face of the government doesn’t change unless the people want it to, and the people won’t want it to change unless they are accustomed to and accepting of a diversity that reflects the United States. Pop culture and media are great ways to provide such exposure. Yes, people will get angry, but society has slowly shifted towards broader representation, and what we see in media now is a lot different than what was shown fifty years ago.

This isn’t to say pop culture is the end all, be all of representation or progress. Pop culture still has plenty of issues with its portrayal of body image, race, gender, etc. I don’t believe pop culture is healthy when it is the center of your life, the sun around which you orbit. But being completely blind to it or scoffing at the notion of caring about it is lazy and pretentious. Politics, especially now, have just as much drama, ridiculous figures and toxic traits as an MTV reality show. It is in the harmony between these two toxic, exhausting industries that we find reason, and maybe a sliver of sense in this senseless world. 

If you spend every morning listening to The Daily podcast, then NPR News Now, then throw in a couple episodes of Lovett or Leave It, that’s great. But your worldview is more limited than you may think, and a huge problem with politics is the exclusivity associated with it by those who dedicate their lives to it. If you’re on the other end, and can list the past 10 winners of Best Picture faster than the best 10 presidents, impressive. But the exclusivity of politics lives in part because few people make an effort to break it down. It may be silly to compare pop culture to politics, some may say it's like comparing apples to oranges. But with a reality TV star as president and Broadway plays about former presidents, we have moved far past the blurring of the lines. It’s time to accept it, instead of reject it — you might be surprised by the things you learn.

Samantha Della Fera can be reached at samdf@umich.edu.