Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “James Twitchell

Not Just for Suckers

Queen Mab, faerie queen from Season 4 of True Blood

As I’ve grown older, I have to increasingly come to appreciate the ways in which I have managed to pursue an academic discipline that affords me the ability to watch copious amounts of television. Who would have thought that I could go to school to watch vampires on TV? And yet here I am.

But as much as I watch television for fun, I also constantly find myself turning a critical eye to the subject at hand. A long-time fan of mythology and the power of narrative, I often think about how characters and tropes in television shows reflect, articulate, and create new aspects of culture. Very much in alignment with Stuart Hall’s notion of decoding/encoding, I believe that television is dissected by viewers and the pieces are shuffled around to enact new forms of meaning.

As such, I’m quite intrigued by the viewers of shows like True Blood (HBO, 2008-present). Over the years, vampires have been theorized to embody issues of gender (e.g., Nina Auerbach’s Our Vampires, Ourselves), sexuality (Camilla and the lesbian vampire or James Twitchell’s work on the fears of male heterosexuality), and medicine and the body (Ludmilla Jordanova’s Sexual Visions:  Images of Gender and Medicine and Science between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries). And while these themes are still relevant to contemporary culture, I think that it would be interesting to investigate issues of authenticity and representation in a show like True Blood.[1]

Sookie as a Faerie, Season 4 of True Blood

Although this past season featured a number of references to illusion, appearance, and authenticity (ranging from introduction of faeries—long known to be notorious visual tricksters—to politicians and amnesia), the series itself has also wrestled with “realness” over its run. Whether it is vampires struggling with their “true nature,” the duplicity of organized religion, or relationships wherein one is cruel to be kind, I’m curious to examine how viewers interpret themes of authenticity and employ these incidents as references or models of behavior. How, for example, do viewers navigate the multiple layers of reality that exist on the show? How do stereotypes (i.e., “this is what you say I am) meld with religious themes (with an underlying current of “this body/life is not all that I am) and the lingering accusation of “Are you now or have you ever been a vampire?” Are the contemporary interpretations of vampires consistent with previous ways of thinking? Who watches the show and with whom? Do viewers watch a show multiple times (and does their understanding of the show evolve)?

Admittedly, one might be able to develop a rich body of work as a result of conducting a media ethnography on a show like True Blood but one should also be mindful of who is left out of this type of investigation, namely that one might miss the effects that a particular program has outside of its primary viewership. Obviously researchers must eventually decide who to examine in the process of ethnography as resources are not unlimited; this reality does not, however, excuse researchers from clearly labeling the bounds of their inquiry and articulating the limitations of their work. But, if we follow the argument that media can constitute culture, we can see how individuals may interact with a particular property at the level of culture without ever viewing the source material.

True Blood (top)/True Mud (below)

Take, for example, the Sesame Street short “True Mud,” which is roughly based on HBO’s True Blood. Here we see the potential for a wonderfully rich and complex set of meanings as Sesame Street appropriates a popular (and very adult) television show in order to wink at parents who might have seen True Blood. Although a portion of parents watching the “True Mud” skit might think back to an episode of True Blood, there are also assuredly parents who understand the reference but have never seen the show or parents who have no idea that “True Mud” is a parody of anything. These parents would most likely not consider themselves viewers of True Blood but their voices might tell researchers something about how True Blood fits into a larger media ecology.

Watching the clip, one immediately begins to develop a host of questions. What is the importance of the Southern setting and what does such an environment evoke for viewers of “True Mud” and True Blood? How does this contrast in setting relate to the environment of Sesame Street, which is urban? What is the demographic makeup of audiences for “True Mud” and True Blood and how does this constitution affect the way that the South is understood in relation to the property? How and why does the concept of a vampire map onto a grouch from Sesame Street? How does this presentation of a grouch differ from Oscar?

Ultimately, interviewing viewers of a property allows researchers to develop a complex understanding of the ways in which a piece of media might influence individuals but we must also recognize that the impact of media does not just stop with those who watch it directly. References made in pop culture, interpersonal interactions, or even children’s shows indicate that media can exhibit echoes as it permeates our lives.


[1] As a side note, this theme has been something that has been building up steam for a couple of years as I am curious about the seeming need for characters who can see through the veil or otherwise ascertain a measure of “objective” truth. We’ve seen shows like The Mentalist and Psych that feature incredibly observant individuals; Lie to Me, which concerned itself with Paul Ekman’s micro-expressions and truth telling, Ringer and The Vampire Diaries, which both feature doppelgängers, and Once Upon a Time and Grimm that both prominently feature a character who can see things that others can’t.

Advertisements

Mutable Masses?

It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Notably, however, the fears associated with the masses have not been limited to one particular decade in American history:  across cultures and times, we can witness examples akin to tulip mania where unruly mobs exhibited relatively irrational behavior. Given the reoccurring nature of this phenomenon, which receives additional credence from psychological studies exploring groupthink and conformity (Janis, 1972; Asch, 1956), we might choose to examine how, if at all, the cultural critiques of the 1950s apply to contemporary society.

Recast, the criticisms of mass culture presumably resonate today in a context where popular culture holds sway over a generally uncritical public; we might convincingly argue that media saturation has served to develop a modern society in which celebrities run wild while evidencing sexual exploits like badges of honor, traditional communities have collapsed, and the proverbial apocalypse appears closer than ever. Moreover, having lost sight of our moral center while further solidifying our position as a culture of consumption since the 1950s, the masses have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to flash a credit card in response to advertising campaigns and to purchase unnecessary goods hawked by celebrity spokespeople in a process that demonstrates a marked fixation on appearance and the image in a process reminiscent of critiques drawn from A Face in the Crowd (Hoberman, 2008a; Ecksel, 2008). Primarily concerned with the melding of politics, news, and entertainment, which harkens back to Kierkegaard-inspiried critiques of mass culture, current critics charge that the public has at long last become what we most feared:  a mindless audience with sworn allegiances born out of fielty to the all-mighty image (Hoberman, 2008a).

Arguably the most striking (or memorable) recent expression of image, and subsequent comingling bewteen politics and entertainment, centered around Sarah Palin’s campaign for office in 2008. Indeed, much of the disucssion regarding Palin centered around her image and colloquisims rather than focusing solely on her abilities. [1] Throughout her run, Palin positioned herself as an everyman figure, summoning figures such as “Joe Six-Pack” and employing terms such as “hockey mom” in order to covey her relatability to her constituents.[2] In a piece on then-Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, columnist Jon Meacham questions this practice by writing:  “Do we want leaders who are everyday folks, or do we want leaders who understand everyday folks?” (2008). Palin, it seemed to Meacham, represented much more of the former than the latter; this position then  leads to the important suggestion that Palin was placed on the political bill in order to connect with voters (2008). Suddenly, a correlary between Palin and Lonesome Rhodes from A Face in the Crowd becomes almost self-evident.

At our most cynical, we could argue that Palin is a Lonesome-type figure, cleverly manipulating her image in order to connect with the disenfranchised and disenchanted. More realistically, however, we might consider how Palin could understand her strength in terms of her relatability instead of her political acumen; she swims against the current as a candidate of the people (in perhaps the truest sense of the term) and provides hope that she will represent the voice of the common man, in the process challenging the status quo in a government that has seemingly lost touch with its base. In some ways, this argument continues to hold valence in post-election actions that demonstrate increasing support of the Tea Party movement.

However, regardless of our personal political stances, the larger pertinent issue raised by A Face in the Crowd is the continued existence of an audience whose decision-making process remains heavily influenced by image—we actually need to exert effort in order to extract our opinion of Sarah Palin the politician from the overall persona of Sarah Palin. Although admittedly powerful, author Mark Rowlands argues that a focus on image—and the reliance on the underlying ethereal quality described by Daniel Boorstin as being “well known for [one’s] well-knownness” (Boorstin, 1962, p. 221)—is ultimately damning as the public’s inability to distinguish between items of quality leads them to focus on the wrong questions (and, perhaps worse, to not even realize that we are asking the wrong questions) in ways that have very real consequences. Extrapolating from Rowlands, we might argue that, as a culture that is obsessed with image and reputation, we have, in some ways, forgotten how to judge the things that really matter because we have lost a sense of what our standards should be.

Ever the Same?

So while the criticisms of critics from the Frankfurt School might appear to hold true today, we also need to realize that modern audiences exist in a world that is, in some ways, starkly different from that of the 1950s. To be sure, the mainstream media continues to exist in a slightly expanded form but new commentary on the state of American culture must account for the myriad ways in which current audiences interact with the world around them. For instance, work published after Theodor Adorno’s time has argued against the passive nature of audiences, recognizing the agency of individual actors (Mattson, 2003; Shudson, 1984).[3] Moreover, the new activity on the part of audiences has done much to comingle the once distinctly separate areas of high and low culture in a process that would have likely confounded members of the Frankfurt School. The current cultural landscape encompasses remix efforts such as Auto-Tune the News along with displays of street art in museum galleries; projects once firmly rooted in folk or pop art have transcended definitional boundaries to become more accepted—and even valued—in the lives of all citizens. While Adorno might be tempted to cite this as evidence of high culture’s debasement, we might instead argue that these new manifestations have challenged the long-held elitism surrounding the relative worth of particular forms of art.

Additionally, examples like Auto-Tune the News suggest that advances in technology have also had a large impact on the cultural landscape of America over the past half century, with exponential growth occurring after the widespread deployment of the Internet and the resulting World Wide Web. While the Internet certainly provided increased access to information, it also created the scaffolding for social media products that allowed new modes of participation for users. Viewed in the context of image, technology has helped to construct a world in which reputations are made and broken in an instant and we have more information circulating in the system than ever before; the appearance of technology, then, has not only increased the velocity of the system but has also amplified it.

Although the media often showcases deleterious qualities of the masses’ relationship with these processes (the suicide of a student at Rutgers University being a recent and poignant example), we are not often exposed to the incredible pro-social benefits of a platform like Twitter or Facebook. While we might be tempted to associate such pursuits with online predators (a valid concern, to be sure) or, at best, unproductive in regard to civic engagement (Gladwell, 2010), to do so would to ignore the powerfully positive uses of this technology (Burnett, 2010; Lehrer, 2010; Johnston, 2010). Indeed, we need only look at a newer generation of activist groups who have built upon Howard Rheingold’s concept of “smart mobs” in order to leverage online technologies to their benefit (2002)—a recent example can be found in the efforts of groups like The Harry Potter Alliance, Invisible Children, and the Kristin Brooks Hope Center to win money in the Chase Community Giving competition (Business Wire, 2010). Clearly, if the masses can self-organize and contribute to society, the critiques of mass culture as nothing more than passive receptors of media messages need to be revised.

Reconsidering the Masses

If we accept the argument that audiences can play an active part in their relationship with media, we then need to look for a framework that begin to address media’s role in individuals’ lives and to examine the motivations and intentions that underlie media consumption. Although we might still find that media is a corrosive force in society, we must also realize that, while potentially exploiting an existing flaw, it does not necessarily create the initial problem (MacGregor, 2000).

A fundamental building block in the understanding of media’s potential impact is the increased propensity for individuals (particularly youth) to focus on external indicators of self-worth, with the current cultural climate of consumerism causing individuals to focus on their inadequacies as they begin to concentrate on what they do not have (e.g., physical features, talent, clothes, etc.) as opposed to their strengths. Simultaneously both an exacerbation of this problem and an entity proffering solutions, constructs like advertising provide an easy way for youth to compensate for their feelings of anxiety by instilling brands as a substitute for value:  the right label can confer a superficial layer of prestige and esteem upon individuals, which can act as a temporary shield against criticism and self-doubt. In essence, one might argue that if people aren’t good at anything, they can still be associated with the right brands and be okay. Although we might be tempted to blame advertising for this situation, it actually merely serves to exploit our general unease about our relationship to the world, a process also reminiscent of narcissism (Lasch, 1979).

Historian Christopher Lasch goes on to argue that, once anchored by institutions such as religion, we have become generally disconnected from our traditional anchors and thus have come to substitute media messages and morality tales for actual ethical and spiritual education (1979). The overlapping role of religion and advertising is noted by James Twitchell, who contends that, “Like religion, which has little to do with the actual delivery of salvation in the next world but everything to do with the ordering of life in this one, commercial speech has little to do with material objects per se but everything to do with how we perceive them” (1996, 110). Thus, we might classify religion, advertising, entertainment, and celebrity as examples of belief systems (i.e., a certain way of seeing the world complete with their own set of values) and use these paradigms to begin to understand their respective (and ultimately somewhat similar!) effects on the masses.

A Higher Power

Ideologies such as those found in popular culture, religion, or advertising tell believers, in their own ways, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchell refers to as “magic” (1996, 29). Each manifestation also professes a particular point of view and attempts to integrate itself into everyday life, drawing on our desire to become part of something (e.g., an idea, a concept, or a movement) that is larger than ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, the forces of advertising, entertainment, religion, and art (as associated with high/pop/folk culture) play on this desire in order to allow humans to give their lives meaning and worth, in terms of the external:  God, works of art, and name brands all serve as tools of classification. While cynics might note that this stance bears some similarities to the carnival sideshows of P. T. Barnum—it does not matter what is behind the curtain as long as there is a line out front (Gamson, 1994; Lasch, 1979)—the terms survive because they continue to speak to a deep desire for structure; the myth of advertising works for the same reasons that we believe in high art, higher education, and higher powers. Twitchell supports this idea by mentioning that “the real force of [the culture of advertising] is felt where we least expect it:  in our nervous system, in our shared myths, in our concepts of self, and in our marking of time” (1996, 124). Constructs like advertising or entertainment, it seems, not only allow us to assemble a framework through which we understand our world, but also continually informs us about who we are (or who we should be) as a collection of narratives that serves to influence the greater perceptions of individuals in a manner reminiscent of the role of television in Cultivation Theory (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). The process of ordering and imbuing value ultimately demonstrates how overarching ideologies can not only create culture but also act to shape it, a process evidenced by the ability of the aforementioned concepts to consume and/or reference previously shared cultural knowledge while simultaneously contributing to the cultural milieu.

Given our reconsideration of mid-century cultural critiques, it follows that we should necessarily reevaluate proposed solutions to the adverse issues present within mass culture. We recall the advice of A Face in the Crowd’s Mel Miller (i.e., “We get wise to them”) and reject its elitist overtones while remaining mindful of its core belief. We recognize that priding ourselves on being smart enough to see through the illusions present in mass culture, while pitying those who have yet to understand how they are being herded like so many sheep, makes us guilty of the narcissism we once ascribed to the masses—and perhaps even more dangerous than the uneducated because we are convinced that we know better. We see that aspects of mass culture address deeply embedded desires and that our best hope for improving culture is to satisfy these needs while educating audiences so that they can better understand how and why media affects them. Our job as critics is to encourage critical thinking on the part of audiences, dissecting media and presenting it to individuals so that they can make informed choices about their consumption patterns; our challenge is to convincingly demonstrate that engagement with media is a crucial and fundamental part of the process. If we ascribe to these principles, we can preserve the masses’ autonomy and not merely replace one dominant ideology with another.


[1] Certainly being a female did not help this as American women are typically subject to a “halo effect” wherein their attractiveness (i.e., appearance) affects their perception (Kaplan, 1978)

[2] Palin has continued the trend, currently employing the term “mama grizzlies,” a call-to-arms that hopes to rally the willingness of women to fight in order to protect things that they believe in. Interestingly, a term that reaffirms the traditional role of women as nurturing matriarchs has been linked to feminist movements, a move that seems to confuse the empowerment of women with a socially conservative construct of their role in American life (Dannenfelser, 2010).

[3] We can also see much work conducted in the realm of fan studies that supports the practice of subversive readings or “textual poaching,” a term coined by Henry Jenkins (1992), in order to discuss contemporary methods of meaning making and resistance by fans.


Consumption: A Modern Affliction

There was, for conspicuous consumption, perhaps no time quite as memorable as the 1980s in the history of the United States. In particular, the ideology codified by Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho encapsulated past transgressions while simultaneously heralding the arrival of a new trend in domestic identities. Patrick Bateman, the book’s protagonist, continually relates to his environment through image and demonstrates an adept understanding of social structures, using the language of branding to translate goods into value. For Bateman, manufactured products play an integral role in defining the nature of interpersonal relationships and his emotional state is often linked to the relative worth of his possessions as compared to the property of others (Ellis 1991). The brand holds such incredible power for Bateman and his peers that Patrick is not surprised at a colleague mistaking him for Marcus Halberstam, another character in the book—Bateman reasons that the two men share a number of similar traits, noting that Marcus “also has a penchant for Valentino suits and clear prescription glasses,” thus cementing, for Bateman at least, the connection between definition of self-identity and consumer goods (Ellis, 89). In the view of individuals like Patrick Bateman, the clothes literally make the man.

While the example of American Psycho might appear dated to some, one only needs to update the novel’s objects in order to glimpse a striking similarity between the pervasive consumer-oriented culture of the 1980s and that of modern youth. Apple’s iPod has replaced the Walkman, caffeine has become the generally accepted drug of choice, and an obsession with social networking profiles has supplanted a preoccupation with business cards. To be sure, Ellis’ depiction does not map precisely on modern teenage culture as some elements of society have changed over the years (and Ellis describes a world of professional twenty-somethings who participate in a setting somewhat alien to most contemporary high school students), but one can argue that the core theme of identification with branding creates a common link between the world of Ellis’ 1980s Manhattan and the space inhabited by current college applicants.

In order to further understand the effects that consumer culture might have on modern youth, this paper will first explore a brief history of branding in the United States throughout the 20th Century in order to develop a context and precedent for the argument that the current generation of students applying to college has developed in a society that is saturated with branding, marketing, and advertising; this environment has, in turn, allowed youth to conceptualize themselves as brands and to think of their projected image in terms of brand management. During the course of this article, discussion will also mention the history of the term “teenager” to demonstrate that it was closely linked with marketing since the descriptor’s creation and that this sentiment has impacted the manner in which American society has conceptualized the demographic. By reviewing the modern history of branding, I hope to demonstrate that although the consequences of a consumer culture might manifest uniquely in today’s youth, the oft-lamented incident is not merely a product of our times.

This paper will also attempt to address the commoditization of the college applicant by examining the confluence between branding culture, youth culture, and the admission process in order to show that students are not the only ones whose perspectives are shaped by the influences of consumerism. After a proposal of how and why branding affects modern culture, I suggest that we, as admission officers, can unconsciously encourage students’ dependence on the paradigm of branding (and its associated vocabulary) as we come to rely on the ability of the framework created by branding culture to activate networks of associations that, in turn, further aid us in readily understanding and conceptualizing applicants. To this end, the cognitive organizational function of branding as a type of narrative structure will be explored. Further supporting this position, an argument will be made that latent biases in the college application process may also help to reinforce the high/low culture dichotomy by privileging particular kinds of actions and experiences over others. A trickle-down effect then encourages youth applying to college to adopt the language of branding in order to present themselves as an ideal candidate for a particular institution, thus consecrating the importance of branding in the bidirectional relationship between the individual and the institution.

Living in America at the End of the Millennium

The history of consumer culture in the United States provides an important context for understanding the actions and attitudes of contemporary applicants. In fact, to discuss the history of the American teenager is to recount, in part, past socio-cultural effects of marketing. Exploring the roots of consumerism in the 1960s,[i] the following account will attempt to, with broad strokes, relay key points regarding the integration of branding and marketing into youth culture.

The 1960s marked a particular period of unrest in America as Baby Boomers began to clash with the G.I. Generation. Perhaps most significantly, the focus of discourse at this time shifted toward issues of youth culture with deep-seeded frustrations beginning to turn into anger as young adults struggled to define and express their individuality; the anti-establishment movement desperately wanted to break free from the control exuded by the State and corporations, eventually maturing a countercultural sentiment started by the Beat Generation into a milieu that gave birth to hippies and war protests. Baby Boomers, as a demographic group, also occupied a rather unique place in American history, coming into young adulthood during a time of post-war prosperity and the solidification of the middle-class. Suddenly, upward social movement became increasingly possible for a generation that enjoyed increased amounts of leisure time and disposable income. This period simultaneously saw the birth of the Cultural Studies movement, which began to recognize that individuals were not merely passive consumers but people who possessed a sense of agency (Arvidsson 2006). Although formal study would not flourish until the 1970s, the creation of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies would prove to be a pivotal milestone in the understanding of branding and youth, for social scientists now had a systematic way to investigate the phenomenon brewing in the hearts and minds of the Baby Boomers.

Cultural observers also quickly noticed the shifting economic trend and began to express their findings in prominent publications of the time; Dwight MacDonald labeled the American teenager as a “merchandising frontier,” a comment that would not go unnoticed by marketing companies looking to capitalize on this new trend (1958). In fact, although the term “teenager” had only recently emerged in literature, companies such as Hires Root Beer had already begun peer-to-peer campaigns among youth in order to promote a product, thus demonstrating recognition of the teenager as a potential consumer (Quart 2003a). The understanding of the teenager as a marketing demographic would prove to be a label that would continue to influence youth through the rest of the century. The development of the teenage market, along with the corresponding rise of teen-oriented culture and identity, caries through to the present:  seeds sown by Beatlemania have helped to develop an environment that permits fervor for teen idols like Justin Bieber. Perhaps more disconcerting is the relatively recent extension of this phenomenon, with marketers aiming at the “tween” audience (loosely conceptualized as 8-12 years of age) using children’s programming media such as animation and Radio Disney as their chosen vehicles (Donahue and Cobo 2009; McDonald 2007). However, irrespective of their status as tween or teen, American youth can arguably be understood to exist in an aspirational culture that highlights the benefits of consumption.

Before proceeding further, it should be noted that the connection between youth and products is a rather neutral manifestation despite its current negative connotation. We can, for example, consider how individuals in the 1970s appropriated products in forms of resistance and how the movement of Punk essentially imbued recycled products with new and innovative meanings in the creation of a powerful subculture. The current generation of students has also matured in a culture of new media, whose hallmark is that consumers are simultaneously producers. Many are most likely aware of the possibilities of these new platforms—from Twitter, to Facebook, to YouTube—on some level, but the extent of production may elude those who are not actively involved; even individuals wholly enmeshed in this environment might not consider how mainstays like the creation of Internet memes (e.g., LOLcats), the various “Cons” (e.g., ROFLCon, VidCon, Comic-Con, etc.), and a culture of remix serve to position individuals squarely in a setting defined by its consumptive and productive practices. The challenge is, however, that the current generation’s products have become less tangible and more abstract:  products now consist of things like data, intellectual property, and Negroponte’s “bits” (1995). Ultimately, it is the focus on individuals’ relationship to consumerism, often embodied, but not necessarily caused, by a connection with products, that results in observed negative aspects.

The most readily salient effect of this consumerist culture mixed with the cult of celebrity—and, if recent documentaries like Race to Nowhere are to believed, an overemphasis on achievement—is that children start to focus on their inadequacies as they begin to concentrate on what they don’t have (e.g., physical features, talent, clothes, etc.) rather than on their strengths. Brands, however, provide an easy way for youth to compensate for their feelings of anxiety by acting as a substitute for value:  the right label can confer a superficial layer of prestige and esteem upon teens, which can act as a temporary shield against criticism and self-doubt. In essence, one might argue that if teens aren’t good at anything, they can still be rich and be okay (Quart 2003b). For some, this reliance on branding might explain a relative lack of substance amongst the teenage population, but the ramifications of a culture dominated by consumerism extend much further.

Brands can also be understood in the context of their ability to create and foster communities, prominently demonstrated by users’ sworn allegiance to Macintosh computers and Apple.[ii] The concept of a brand (or even a logo) can provide many of the benefits that come with membership to a group and, as such, also serve to define adopters’ identities. Conceptualizing brand as a community is a particularly powerful thought when considering teenagers, an age group comprised of individuals who are arguably searching for a sense of belonging. Indeed, the very act of consumption can be thought of as a practice whereby individuals work to construct their self-identities and a common social world through products and the shared sets of meaning that those goods embody (Kates 2002; Belk 1988). In a manner that mirrors the underlying theme of American Psycho we thus begin to see that manufactured items start to possess a value beyond their utilitarian function through a process that seems natural and inherent; it is only when we begin to privilege particular commodities—and communities by extension—that we being to understand the negative role that branding can play for teenagers.

Further complicating the relationship, branding culture also exerts an influence on youth through lifestyle. Although the basis of this connection can be seen in the relationship between consumer culture and branding, brands can affect the process in more indirect ways. A number of factors, for example, from the media emphasis on teen culture to increased pressure surrounding college admission, might be forcing adolescents to classify themselves earlier than ever. Emphasis placed on entrance to selective universities provides an excellent demonstration of the drastic changes that young people have had to undergo in the early part of their lives; for many students aspiring to elite schools, college acceptance (and attendance) confers a particular type of status and failure to achieve this goal by the age of 18 represents an extremely large disappointment.  In order to secure this dream, young people might begin to package themselves—a “successful applicant” is no longer a student who did his best, but rather one who meets a specific set of criteria—turning their lives into a product, which they hope to sell to colleges and universities.

Branding associated with college admission showcases how marketing has developed into the promotion of a particular lifestyle, as opposed to a means of distinguishing and differentiating products (or, perhaps more cynically, as an extension of this process). In many areas, the mystique of the brand has become the important factor for consideration; the actual quality of an item does not seem to be as important as its perceived value.

The Rise of the Ad (Captandum)

When considering the state of modern youth, however, one might not see the packaging process associated with college admission as much of an anomaly. Children growing up in recent decades have been exposed to large amounts of media and advertising, which has served to cultivate a latent affinity with embedded narrative forms. The term “Adcult,” coined by University of Florida professor James Twitchell, depicts contemporary American society as an arena saturated with the lingering influences of commercialism (1996). Although the phrase results from a combination of “advertising” and “culture,” one can easily imagine Twitchell describing a group whose ideology revolves around concepts of marketing through a play on the word “cult.”

Advertising and branding, largely products of consumer culture, have a rather obvious economic impact; while one can certainly debate the mechanism(s) behind this process, one need only compare similar products with and without marketing schemes to ascertain that advertising can have an impact on manufactured goods. Rooted in the economic sphere, the development and presence of advertising is closely linked to surpluses in products—excess space in media, radio parts, and merchandise have all forwarded the need for, or existence of, advertising—and thusly can be understood in terms of monetary systems. As a pertinent example, compare the presence and impact of advertising on culture before and after the Industrial Revolution, when machinery allowed for the development of excess amounts of merchandise.

Staying solely within the framework of Economics, consider that advertising can help individuals to organize knowledge and to make informed choices about the world. In some ways, advertising tells consumers how their money can be best spent or utilized, given that currency is a limited resource. Yet, while arguably functional, anyone who has experienced a good piece of advertising knows that the reach of marketing exceeds the limits of economics—exemplary ads have the power to make us feel something. Although informal research can support the idea that memorable advertisements often influence us on an emotional level, a study by Stayman and Batra suggests that affective states resulting from advertising exposure can be stored and retrieved for later recall (1991). While the authors freely admit that they did not ascertain the exact mechanism for this process, one might posit that emotional responses to ads could result from the way that advertisements interact with our established belief systems and identity structures.

Continuing in the same vein, Twitchell contends that, “like religion, which has little to do with the actual delivery of salvation in the next world but everything to do with the ordering of life in this one, commercial speech has little to do with material objects per se but everything to do with how we perceive them” (1996, 110). While some might object to the mixing of influences in areas such as Advertising, Religion, Education, or Art, (interestingly some overlap is acceptable but the issue remains murky) a certain amount of comingling is inevitable if we classify each entity as a belief system—a certain way of seeing the world complete with its own set of values—and understand that individuals might incorporate multiple elements into their particular worldview. Ideologies such as Religion or Advertising tell believers, in their own ways, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchell refers to as “magic” (1996, 29). Each characteristic also professes a particular point of view and attempts to integrate itself into everyday life, drawing on our desire to become part of something (e.g., an idea, a concept, or a movement) that is larger than ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, the forces of Advertising, Religion, Education, and Art play on this desire in order to allow humans to give their lives meaning and worth, with a common thread being that followers can classify themselves in terms of the external:  God, works of art, name brands, etc. Cynics might note that this phenomenon is not unlike the practice of carnival sideshows mentioned in Twitchell’s Adcult—it does not matter what is behind the curtain as long as there is a line out front (1996). Although the attraction may assume different forms, it survives because it continues to speak to a deep desire for structure—the myth of advertising works for the same reasons that we believe in high art, higher education, and higher powers. The process of ordering and imbuing value ultimately demonstrates how advertising can not only create culture but also act to shape it, a process also evidenced by marketing techniques’ ability to consume and/or reference previously shared cultural knowledge while simultaneously contributing to the cultural milieu.[iii]

Despite the intricate and multi-faceted nature of its impact, we can use the narrative characteristics of advertising as framework for understanding its influence. On a basic level, the format of advertising typically takes the form of a loose narrative, complete with implied back-story—television spots, in particular, provide a salient example of this. Yet, the messages present in advertising can also cause us to question our sense of self as we evaluate our belief systems and values as previously mentioned. Consider how personal identities can result from narrative or actually be narrative; sentences containing “to be” verbs can be unpacked to reveal a larger narrative structure that can help us to “cope with new situations in terms of our past experience and gives us tools to plan for the future” (Sfard and Prusak 2005, 16). Twitchell supports this idea by mentioning that “the real force of Adcult is felt where we least expect it:  in our nervous system, in our shared myths, in our concepts of self, and in our marking of time” (1996, 124). Advertising, it seems, not only allows us to construct a framework through which we understand our world, but also continually informs us about who we are (or who we should be) as a collection of narratives that serves to influence the greater perceptions of youth in a manner reminiscent of the role of television in Cultivation Theory (Gerbner and Gross 1976).

The Medium Is the Message

Understanding the process by which the framework of branding affects contemporary society enables modern scholars to conceptualize how consumer culture can shift (or even create) paradigmatic structures that have far-reaching effects for college applicants. Recasting branding and advertising as manifestations of modern myths proves crucial to understanding how the messages, as narrative, help to convey complex ideas in a relatable format, making sense out of a potentially overwhelming wave of information. Consider how the first iterations of narrative, myths and legends, informed the populace about the rules of a world (e.g., why the sun rose or how humans had come to be) in a process that mirrors one of the previously discussed functions of advertising; although many have now come to accept scientific explanations in lieu of (or possibly in conjunction with) these tales, the fact remains that stories can serve to develop cognitive scaffolding as we evaluate foreign concepts. Narrative structure provides a guide for people to follow as they absorb additional information, easing the progression of learning (Perlich and Whitt 2010). This educational element, similar to the one existent in the concept of play, allows individuals to learn and internalize intricate lessons without any overt effort. However, when considering this process, it is important to realize that narrative, in choosing which facts to highlight, also chooses which facts to exclude from a story, which might be just as significant.

For some, the process of inclusion and exclusion might seem oddly similar to the creation (or recording) of history; certain facts become relevant and serve to shape our perception of an event while others fade into obscurity. If we were to take a second, however, and think about this notion, we would realize that narratives often served as the first oral histories for a given population. Individuals entrusted with this position in these societies were the “keepers of information,” whose ability to recount narrative shaped their community’s collective memory, and, thus, a key part of the community’s combined sense of identity (Eyerman 2004; Williams 2001). Performing a similar role as the oral historians of the past, modern society’s sense of shared knowledge can be understood to be influenced by the commercial storytelling that is branding (Twitchell 2004). The ramification of branding’s ability to affect American culture in this manner is profound:  with its capacity to color perceptions, branding can influence the communal pool that forms the basis for social norms and cultural capital.

The notion of narrative’s impact on the sense of self is an interesting one to consider, particularly in youth-oriented marketing, as it affects individuals who are in the process of forming their identities (as opposed to adults whose self-concepts might be, one might argue, more static); in a process analogous to branding, adolescents try on different personalities like clothes, looking to see what fits. While not entirely insidious, teen marketing can exploit this natural process by providing shortcuts to identity through the power of branding. Altering perceptions, branding can activate particular sets of associations that have been engrained by marketing into adolescents and therefore act as a value heuristic for youth. For teenagers navigating the social circles of their peer groups, labels can make an enormous difference.

Tricks are for Kids?

            Young people, however, are not the only ones prone to mental shortcuts; adults—including those who make evaluative judgments—have also been conditioned to rely on heuristics as guidelines, using experience to help them determine which rules to keep (Dhami 2003; McGraw, Hasecke and Conger 2003). While heuristics generally provide users with an accurate conclusion, they are notoriously fallible and consistently exploitable.[iv] The question then becomes:  if adults are subject to heuristics in decision-making processes and these heuristics are sometimes faulty, what heuristic(s) might be active during the evaluation of candidates for admission and how might this affect our method?

Even if we grant that the particular nuances of the application review will differ by individual institution, we can still examine the admission process in terms of branding culture. File evaluation partially rests upon our ability to sort, organize, and simplify massive amounts of information in order to gain perspective on our applicant pool. While reading the application, we filter the information through our own unique lenses—the networked set of thoughts, associations, and biases that we bring to the table—as we attempt to develop a context for the student represented by the file in front of us. Buzzwords (e.g., “President,” “Scout,” “Legacy,” “2400,” “Minority”) in the application, acting like puzzle pieces, instantly activate particular collections of neural pathways as we begin to ascribe value; buzzwords, then, can be understood to function in a manner similar to brands and advertising.

Harkening back to the continuum of high culture and low culture, we can also think about how some key terms are privileged over others. How, for example, does the president of a school club differ from the president of an online guild? Knowing nothing else, I believe that many of my colleagues would favor the established activity over the unknown. For these individuals, I would argue that past experiences with students had most likely factored into the development of a heuristic regarding student desirability, resulting in a series of mental leaps that, over time, would grow into instinct. While good readers learn to continually challenge themselves and check their biases, there might be a systematic devaluation of particular identities in the admission process—an opinion piece by Ross Douthat in the New York Times suggests that lower-class whites might just be such a demographic (2010)—not out of active bigotry but simply because the brand does not resonate with any of our pre-set associations regarding a successful student. Worse, perhaps, we unwittingly privilege individuals with large amounts of social capital (and its inherent advantages), favoring those who know to participate in the “right” activities.

In a similar vein, my research at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism hopes to provoke discussion in this area by attempting to look at the trajectory between popular culture and civic engagement; in essence my colleagues and I hope to discover how seemingly innocuous activities in the realm of pop might actually allow students to develop skills that allow them to participate meaningfully in their communities. We believe that popular culture can act as a training ground for young people, allowing them to cultivate skills in the areas of rhetoric, agency, and self-efficacy before applying their talents in the “real” world. We recognize that the actions and experiences undergone in the world of pop culture can be ambiguous and difficult to understand; we also argue, though, that these traits are no less valuable to youth because they are not easily comprehendible. For us, some of the most amazing things happen in fandoms related to the iconic world of Harry Potter, YouTube communities of Living Room Rock Gods, and political statements in World of Warcraft (From Participatory Culture to Public Participation 2010). Ultimately, we hope to challenge public perceptions regarding participation in fan communities, demonstrating that popular culture fills a uniquely productive role in the lives of its participants.

 

The Next Big Thing

In our attempts to do good, we preach admission tips at college fairs and workshops telling students how they can develop their applications and stand out from their peers without coming across as packaged. We tell applicants to cultivate a point of view, or an image, or a passion—yet, how is this, ultimately, different from asking a student to define and market a brand? Are we subtly encouraging our youth to turn themselves into products with the additional askance that they not seem like man-made fabrications? What is our ethical responsibility in responding to a college culture infused with lovemarks and their concept of loyalty beyond reason (Roberts 2005)? Does the structure of our applications cause students to begin to consider themselves in terms of taglines and talking points as they scramble to mold themselves into the image of the ideal student? This is not our intent, but I fear that it is our future. If we, as professionals in Higher Education, do not understand the possible implications of branding culture upon ourselves, our students, and our occupation, we cannot hope to begin to address the commoditization of college applicants.


NOTES

[i] A more complete history would begin with the post-war economic boom of the 1950s, but mention of this is omitted in the interest of space as it is not directly relevant to the youth population. There are, however, interesting examples in this decade of branding’s movement away from mere signification to a means of differentiating the self in a culture dominated by norms of conformity. More information on the phenomenon of conformity and avoidance of ostentatious display can be found in William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956).

[ii] It should be noted that Apple seemed to grasp this concept fairly early on and developed a successful series of ad campaigns around the idea of community, most notably the “Think Different” slogan and the recent rash of “Mac vs. PC” television spots. The “Think Different” campaign, in particular, positioned users of Macs as a group in league with great thinkers of the modern era and also invoked the principle of psychological reactance in order to further strengthen the inter-community bonds.

[iii] The concurrent horizontal and vertical spread of advertising is reminiscent of memes, a concept created by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. According to Dawkins, memes represent discrete units of cultural knowledge that propagate in a particular society (analogous to genes) through a number of transmission methods (1976). While the concept of memetics certainly spans across areas other than advertising, Dawkins notably included, as examples of memes, catch phrases (i.e., slogans), melodies (i.e., jingles), and fads. Consequentially, although advertising inevitably forms a new type of culture in societies, ads also serve to broaden exposure to, or strengthen the connections of, existing aspects of culture for those subjected to it as they burrow deep into our collective society.

[iv] There are many volumes written on this subject from the perspectives of both Social Psychology and Advertising. As a brief example, I will mention that a fairly common heuristic positions cost as directly proportional to value. The foundation for this equation lies in the belief that more expensive items tend to be better quality, more exclusive, or somehow desired. For a more comprehensive review of heuristics in the realm of persuasion, please see Influence:  The Psychology of Persuasion (Cialdini 1984).


A Light in the Dark

The sound is both unmistakable and unforgettable. Equal parts siren call, banshee cry, and woeful lament, the anguished scream of the female horror victim is a primal utterance that instantly evokes unsolicited dread from somewhere deep within.

This noise, often accompanied by a stabbing pantomime reminiscent of Psycho, is the typical response that greets me whenever I mention my research interests in horror. Many of my peers, in speaking about their brushes with the genre, mention how media has instilled a perpetual sense of fear in them:  to this day, friends will trace a hatred of clowns back to It or apprehension about blind dates to Audition. Those around me see horror as the representation of a force that serves to limit action, crafting a clear binary that contrasts the safe and acceptable with the foreign and dangerous.

To be sure, there is a certain amount of truth to what my friends believe; to live in a post-9/11 world is to be familiar with fear. As an American, I have been engaged in a “War on Terror” for my entire adult life, warned that illicit drugs fuel cartels, told to fear invasion, and have heard that everything under (and including) the sun will give me cancer. Fear has become a modern lingua franca, facilitating discussion that ranges across economic recession, immigration, religion, and moral politics. Perhaps worse, I internalized fear as I struggled to get the best grades and test scores in an unforgiving educational system, desperate to find meaning in my college acceptances and hoping for validation in achievement—growing up, there were so many ways to fail and only one way to succeed. Whole parts of my identity have been defined by my fears instead of my hopes and although I rebel, I realize that fear continues to have a haunting effect on my life:  I continue to quell the fears that I will not live up to expectations, that I will become frail, and that I will one day forget what I am worth.

And I don’t think I’m alone.

As a genre, horror touches on our collective desire to explore fear along with other states of liminality, pushing the boundaries as we attempt to expand the extent of the known. We find fascination in Gothic figures of vampires and zombies as transgressions of the norm or discover exhilaration in horror’s potent blend of sex and violence as a means of violating cultural standards without suffering the real life repercussions. Underneath oft-cited morality pleas (“Good girls don’t!”) we negotiate themes of power, gender, and sanctity of life in a rich field ripe for exploration. As one example, torture/survival films, which most definitely assume a different meaning in a post-9/11 world, potentially facilitate an exploration of humanity at its extremes:  both assailant and victim are at limits—albeit very different ones—of the human condition and provide us with a vicarious experience of dominance and helplessness.

Despite my interest in the various mediated manifestations of horror, television holds a special place in my heart as a representation of shared cultural space that serially engages with its audience. Not being an active churchgoer, I find that television is my religion—I set aside time every week and pay rapt attention, in turn receiving moral messages that reflect and challenge my vision of the world. Building off of this connection, I have begun working with Diane Winston in order to understand how lived religion in television programming can convey community, values, rituals, and meaning making in a function analogous to that of institutional religion. Admittedly not a theologian by training, I hope to extract themes from religion (e.g., the enactment of religion through bodies and the alignment of religious belief with practice) that will provide additional perspectives on my central interests of horror, myth, and narrative. I have begun to realize that religion, like horror, prompts individuals to contemplate the mystic and the infinite; although they employ different approaches—religion concerns itself with the path toward while horror obsesses over the inescapable nature of the great abyss—both frameworks ask, “What lies in the void?” Auditing “Religion, Media and Hollywood” has cultivated a solid foundation in the shifting concepts of sacred/secular and re-enchantment, which in turn have provided additional theoretical support for an understanding of how narrative structures are propagated, transmitted, and interpreted by individuals and groups. Prompted by Dr. Winston, I have learned that “good” television has the ability to assume varied meanings for its audiences, providing multiple narratives (and thus entry points), and lends itself to a reworking by viewers whose productions then become a part of a larger cultural context. Through television, I have learned that “my story” is really “our story.” Or, more accurately, “my stories” overlap with “our stories.”

Vanquishing Demons

Growing out of a childhood filled with the fantasy of Piers Anthony along with a healthy appreciation for classical mythology (and an unhealthy one for Stephen King), my head became filled with stories of wondrous alternate places. Enraptured as a young teen, it was only later that I began to understand exactly how much these fictions had allowed me to explore alternate expressions of self, causing me, on some level, to consider existential questions like what it meant to be human, how I defined justice and morality, and why I valued life.

In 2004, during a memorable viewing of Saw—which I soon realized was a spectacularly poor choice for a date movie—my head spun as I fought off a surge of terror, contemplating questions I had long avoided:  What gave my life meaning? What would I do to survive?

My stomach shrank as I felt something inside of me break. While the gore was not exceptionally appealing (the fear of suffering before dying was firmly placed in my mind after an ill-advised viewing of Misery in my younger days), the sinking feeling that I experienced came from the realization that, if this scenario were real, I would be a target of the Jigsaw killer for I didn’t appreciate my life. Long after the movie had finished, I remained terrified that I would be abducted and end up in a basement chained to a wall. “After all,” I thought to myself, “Didn’t I deserve what was coming to me? Just a little bit?

After a week of sleepless nights, I finally realized that the solution to my problem was actually rather simple:  start living my life in a way that was meaningful and fulfilling. Instead of being terrified, I chose to work through my fears and be empowered; I challenged myself to start taking risks and to do things that scared me.

A Light in the Dark

My personal history with the genre is part of the reason that I am excited to explore the opportunities present within horror, which spans across such seemingly disparate areas as the occult, Gothic, science fiction, slasher films. The seeds planted by the relatively simple pop culture themes of my childhood have now turned into my academic focuses:  aliens have become an interest in exploring the Other, witches have given me insight into alternate forms of female power, Greek myths have caused me to question the presence of gods (or God) in our lives, vampires cause me to consider an obsession with eternal life, and zombies raise notions of decay and paranoia. An interest in horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction has sparked a quest to understand the structuring role of narratives, replete with a questioning of not just how the world is but how the world could be and should be. And the world could be—and should be—better.

In contrast to conventional notions, full of frozen faces and cowering victims, I see the field of horror as an incredible space to explore some of the concepts that most challenge society. While it may be true that storytellers working in the genre aspire to scare us, they do so as a means to a larger goal:   fright is used as a provocation that forces us to consider why we are terrified in the first place. Whether we realize it or not, exposure to horror allows us to understand the mechanisms of fear and, in the process, realize that the unknown is becoming the known. Although not necessarily therapeutic, areas like horror can be enlightening and potentially empowering. When we choose to experience a work of horror, we make a concession that the content could (and probably will) frighten us—an acquiescence that gives media the freedom to explore psychically stressful issues. I focus on horror because I am fascinated by the genre’s potential for self-exploration, but I choose to study media and culture because I am more broadly fascinated by the ways that stories intersect with identity:  we continually create narratives and are, in turn, shaped by them.

More than a mere research interest, I fight to study mediated narrative and popular culture because I see them as spaces for the negotiation and development of voice for youth. From Buffy in “Hush,” to Disney’s Ariel, to Echo (both the Active and the nymph), the media we experience and love often deals with issues of voice and my hope is to use these mediated representations to begin a dialogue with young people about their voices and the power contained therein. Inspired by scholars such as Carol Clover, Nina Auerbach, Judith Halberstam, and James Twitchell, I endeavor to recast the minority voice, transforming it from one of terror to one of triumph. Realizing that I was lucky enough to have discovered my voice early in life, I am compelled to help others find theirs. From my work with the non-profit 826LA, which helps to build writing skills in youth, to my involvement with the Norman Lear Center, USC’s Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, and Asian Pacific American Student Services, I am racing to build my skills in new media literacy and cultural studies so that I can empower young people to think critically about the world around them and to reclaim their voices. Driven by my desire to advocate for youth, I see a responsibility to leverage my education as a Ph.D. student into meaningful change, helping other students understand the impact of popular media and to realize that they can be incredibly powerful if they only let themselves be.


Love Me or Hate Me, Still an Obsession

Reacting to atrocities witnessed throughout the course of World War II, Americans in the 1950s became obsessed with notions of power and control, fearing that they would be subsumed by the invisible hand of a totalitarian regime. In particular, the relatively young medium of television became suspect as it represented a major broadcast system that seemed to have an almost hypnotic pull on its audience, leaving viewers entranced by its images. And images, according to author and historian Daniel Boorstin, were becoming increasingly prominent throughout the 19th century as part of the Graphic Revolution replete with the power to disassociate the real from its representation (1962). For cultural critics still reeling from the aftereffects of Fascism and totalitarianism, this was a dangerous proposition indeed.

Although these underlying anxieties of mid-century American society could be examined via a wide range of anthropological lenses and frameworks, visual media has historically provided a particularly vivid manifestation of the fears latent in the people of the United States (Haskell, 2004). This is, of course, not to imply that visual media is necessarily the best or only means by which we can understand prevailing ideologies in the years after World War II, but merely one of the most visible. However, as a critical examination of the entire media landscape of the 1950s would be beyond the scope of a single paper of this magnitude, discussion shall be primarily concentrated around Elia Kazan’s 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd with particular attention paid to the contrasting channels of cinema and television.[1] This paper will seek to briefly position A Face in the Crowd in the larger context of paranoia-driven cinema of the 1950s before using the film as an entryway to discuss critiques of mass culture. Given the film’s apparent sustained resonance as indicated by its relatively recent mention (Vallis, 2008; Hoberman, 2008b; Franklin, 2009), the arguments of Critical Theory will then be applied to modern American culture in an attempt to ascertain their continued validity. Finally, an argument will be made that acknowledges the potential dangers facing mass culture in the 21st century but also attempts to understand the processes that underlie these pitfalls and provides a suggestion for recourse in the form of cultural and media literacy.

 

Paranoia, Paranoia, Everyone’s Coming to Get Me

The post-war prosperity of the 1950s caused rapid changes in America, literally altering the landscape as families began to flood into the newly-formed suburbs. With the dream and promise of upward social mobility firmly ensconced in their heads, families rushed to claim their piece of the American dream, replete with the now-iconic front yard and white picket fence. And yet, ironically, a new set of worries began to fester underneath the idyllic façade of the suburbs as the troubles of the city were merely traded for fears of paranoia and invasion; the very act of flight led to entrapment by an ethos that subtly precluded the possibility of escape.

As with many other major cultural shifts, the rapid change in the years following World War II caused Americans to muse over the direction in which they were now headed; despite a strong current of optimism that bolstered dreams of a not-far-off utopia, there remained a stubborn fear that the quickly shifting nature of society might have had unanticipated and unforeseen effects (Murphy, 2009). Life in the suburbs, it seemed, was too good to be true and inhabitants felt a constant tension as they imagined challenges to their newly rediscovered safety:  from threats of invasion to worries about conformity, and from dystopian futures to a current reality that could now be obliterated with nuclear weapons, people of the 1950s continually felt the weight of being a society under siege. An overwhelming sense of doubt, and more specifically, paranoia, characterized the age and latent fears manifested in media as the public began to struggle with the realization that the suburbs did not fully represent the picturesque spaces that they had been conceived to be. In fact, inhabitants were assaulted on a variety of levels as they became disenchanted with authority figures, feared assimilation and mind control (particularly through science and/or technology), began to distrust their neighbors (who could easily turn out to be Communists, spies, or even aliens!), and felt haunted by their pasts, all of which filled the movie screens of the decade (Jensen, 1971; Murphy, 2009; Wolfe, 2002).[2] Following solidly in this tradition, Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd picks up on some of the latent strains of paranoia in American culture while simultaneously serving as a platform for a set of critiques regarding mass culture.

 

Somewhere, a Star Is Made

The storyline of A Face in the Crowd is rather straightforward and yet deceptively complex in its undertones:  on the surface, we experience a rather heavy-handed morality tale in the form of country bumpkin Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a relative nobody who is plucked from obscurity and made (and subsequently broken) through powers associated with television. Yet, it is only when we begin to connect the movie to a larger societal context that we begin to understand the ramifications of the film’s message; a careful examination of A Face in the Crowd reveals striking suspicions regarding the role that media plays (in this case, primarily television and cinema) in shaping American culture. Stars, director Elia Kazan argues, are not so much born as made, a distinction that portends dire consequences.

It is worth noting that Kazan’s film was made during a time when the concept of the “celebrity” was being renegotiated by America; for a large part of its history, the United States, firmly grounded in a Puritan work ethic, had honored heroes who exemplified ideals associated with a culture of production and was struggling to reconcile these notions in the presence of an environment whose emphasis was now focused on consumption. Although modern audiences might initially find this shift difficult to appreciate, one need only consider that the premium placed on production is so central to American ideology that it continues to linger today:  in a culture that exhibits rampant consumerism, we still value the “self-made man” and sell the myth of America as a place where anyone can achieve success through hard work. To abandon these ideas would necessitate that we reinterpret the very meaning of “America.” Thus, we become more sympathetic to the critics of the day who lamented the loss of the greatness of man and bristled against the notion that fame or celebrity could be manufactured—such a system could would only result in individuals who were lacking and unworthy of their status (Gamson, 1994; Benjamin, 1973)

Such is the case it seems, with Larry Rhodes, who is discovered by roving reporter Marcia Jeffries in an Arkansas jail. Although it cannot be denied that Rhodes has some modicum of talent and a certain charisma that comes from being unafraid to speak one’s mind, Marcia ushers Rhodes onto the path of greatness by dubbing him “Lonesome” and thus creates a character that transforms Rhodes from a despondent drunk to a winsome drifter. This scene—the first major one in the movie—thusly introduces the important notion that those involved in the media can be implicitly involved in the manipulation of the information that travels over the airwaves. Subtly adding to the insidious nature of the media, A Face in the Crowd portrays Marcia as a character that seems likable enough, but also a person who is, in a way, exploiting the people in jail as she rushes in with her tape recorder intent on prying the stories from the characters she finds (or creates!) and does not exhibit much concern in truly understanding why these men are imprisoned in the first place. Taken to an extreme, we later come across the character of The General, who further perverts the connection between media and power as he conspires with Lonesome to remake the image of Senator Worthington Fuller as the congressman runs for President.

Yet, as Lonesome Rhodes grows in his role as a media personality, he quickly demonstrates that the power to manipulate does not lie solely with those who sit behind the cameras. In Memphis, Rhodes incites a riot against the Luffler mattress company and also solicits donations in order to help a Black woman rebuild her house. In light of this, we can see that while Kazan focuses on the negative implications of television and celebrity, that the relative good or bad that comes from these actions is not necessarily the point—instead, the one constant in all of the depicted scenarios is a public who is manipulated into performing actions on the behalf of others. Although the characters of Lonesome and The General are vilified throughout the film, it is the masses for which Kazan demonstrates true disdain.

 

Extraordinary Popular Delusions

Perhaps nowhere is this contempt more apparent than at the end of the film where, in an attempt to offer a small moment of solace to Marcia after her unmasking of Lonesome, writer Mel Miller notes, “We get wise to them, that’s our strength” (Kazan, 1957). And Miller is not wrong:  Western tradition has long recognized the correlation between knowledge and power and Miller’s assertion touches upon the revelatory clout inherent in the realignment of perception and reality as noted by public relations guru Howard Bragman (2008). A more critical examination of the film’s closing scene, however, raises an important question:  Who is Miller’s “we”? Although one might be tempted to read this line as indicative of an egalitarian philosophical view, it is important to note that the only two characters in the shot represent the film’s arguably upper-middle class, and pointedly Eastern-educated, elite—nowhere to be seen are representatives of the small Arkansas town from the film’s opening or denizens of Memphis, both of whom serve to characterize the majority of Lonesome’s devoted viewers.[3] In fact, if we take time to reflect upon the movie, we realize that the majority of the audience was only alerted to Lonesome’s dual nature after Marcia flipped a control room switch and revealed the underlying deterioration; the masses oscillated from one position to the next without understanding how or why and once again adopted a passive stance in their relationship with media. Moreover, as Courtney Maloney points out, Kazan’s depiction of the agency of the masses is actually limited in scope:  despite a montage of audience members vehemently phoning in, sponsors are simultaneously shown to be acting independently as they withdraw their association with Lonesome (1999). Moreover, the subtext of the scene distances the rational decision-making of the truly powerful from the impassioned beseeching of the masses, likening the power of the latter to that of a mob. Knowledge and its associated authority, clearly, are afforded to a select group.

This idea, that the world can be divided between those who “get wise” and those who do not, serves to develop a rather sharp classist criticism against the medium of television and those who would watch it:  moviegoers, by virtue of witnessing Kazan’s work, find themselves elevated in status and privy to “the man behind the curtain” (to borrow a phrase). In contrast, the malleable masses were considered to be pacified and placated by idealistic portrayals of life in the 1950s in the form of television programs like Leave It to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Clearly, Kazan creates a dichotomy imbued with a value judgment descended from the thoughts of prominent thinkers in the Frankfurt School who, as far as aesthetics were concerned, preferred the high culture of cinema to the conformity and manipulated tastes of television (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002; Adorno, 1985; Quart, 1989). This distinction between high and low culture would be a crucial supporting idea for critics as a prominent fear of mass culture was that it portended a collapse between concepts (e.g., fame, celebrity, or intellectual value) of objectively different quality, essentially rendering all manifestations the same and therefore all equally mundane (Boorstin, 1962; Hoberman, 2008b; Kierkegaard, 1962).  Even worse for critics, perhaps, was the perception of the masses’ refusal to grow out of its immature interests, a behavior that was characterized as both childlike and stubborn (Adorno, 1985).

And the fears of such theorists, all of whom were reacting to recent and rapid advances in broadcast technology, were not unfounded. Consider, for example, that radio had been popularized a scant fifty years prior and had vastly altered critics’ understanding of media’s potential impact, creating a precedent as it proliferated across the country and began to develop a platform for solidarity and nationalism. Yet, while the effects of radio were decidedly pro-social, due in part to its propagation of orchestral music and transmission of fireside chats, television was viewed as a corrosive force on society that spurred on the destruction of culture instead of enriching it.[4] For the critics of the Frankfurt School, television was indicative of an entrenched sentiment that regarded mass-produced culture as formulaic and perfectly suitable for a generation of passive consumers who sat enraptured in front of the glowing set. Associating the potential dissemination of propagandist ideology with television as a form of mass broadcast, cultural theorists evoked notions of totalitarian regimes akin to Hitler and Stalin in an effort to illustrate the potential subjugation of individual thought (Mattson, 2003). These simmering fears, aggrandized by their concurrence with the rising threat of Communism and collectivist cultures, found fertile soil in the already present anxiety-ridden ethos of the United States during the 1950s.

 

It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Notably, however, the fears associated with the masses have not been limited to one particular decade in American history:  across cultures and times, we can witness examples akin to tulip mania where unruly mobs exhibited relatively irrational behavior. Given the reoccurring nature of this phenomenon, which receives additional credence from psychological studies exploring groupthink and conformity (Janis, 1972; Asch, 1956), we might choose to examine how, if at all, the cultural critiques of the 1950s apply to contemporary society.

Recast, the criticisms of mass culture presumably resonate today in a context where popular culture holds sway over a generally uncritical public; we might convincingly argue that media saturation has served to develop a modern society in which celebrities run wild while evidencing sexual exploits like badges of honor, traditional communities have collapsed, and the proverbial apocalypse appears closer than ever. Moreover, having lost sight of our moral center while further solidifying our position as a culture of consumption since the 1950s, the masses have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to flash a credit card in response to advertising campaigns and to purchase unnecessary goods hawked by celebrity spokespeople in a process that demonstrates a marked fixation on appearance and the image in a process reminiscent of critiques drawn from A Face in the Crowd (Hoberman, 2008a; Ecksel, 2008). Primarily concerned with the melding of politics, news, and entertainment, which harkens back to Kierkegaard-inspiried critiques of mass culture, current critics charge that the public has at long last become what we most feared:  a mindless audience with sworn allegiances born out of fielty to the all-mighty image (Hoberman, 2008a).

Arguably the most striking (or memorable) recent expression of image, and subsequent comingling bewteen politics and entertainment, centered around Sarah Palin’s campaign for office in 2008. Indeed, much of the disucssion regarding Palin centered around her image and colloquisims rather than focusing solely on her abilities. [5] Throughout her run, Palin positioned herself as an everyman figure, summoning figures such as “Joe Six-Pack” and employing terms such as “hockey mom” in order to covey her relatability to her constituents.[6] In a piece on then-Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, columnist Jon Meacham questions this practice by writing:  “Do we want leaders who are everyday folks, or do we want leaders who understand everyday folks?” (2008). Palin, it seemed to Meacham, represented much more of the former than the latter; this position then  leads to the important suggestion that Palin was placed on the political bill in order to connect with voters (2008). Suddenly, a correlary between Palin and Lonesome Rhodes from A Face in the Crowd becomes almost self-evident.

At our most cynical, we could argue that Palin is a Lonesome-type figure, cleverly manipulating her image in order to connect with the disenfranchised and disenchanted. More realistically, however, we might consider how Palin could understand her strength in terms of her relatability instead of her political acumen; she swims against the current as a candidate of the people (in perhaps the truest sense of the term) and provides hope that she will represent the voice of the common man, in the process challenging the status quo in a government that has seemingly lost touch with its base. In some ways, this argument continues to hold valence in post-election actions that demonstrate increasing support of the Tea Party movement.

However, regardless of our personal political stances, the larger pertinent issue raised by A Face in the Crowd is the continued existence of an audience whose decision-making process remains heavily influenced by image—we actually need to exert effort in order to extract our opinion of Sarah Palin the politician from the overall persona of Sarah Palin. Although admittedly powerful, author Mark Rowlands argues that a focus on image—and the reliance on the underlying ethereal quality described by Daniel Boorstin as being “well known for [one’s] well-knownness” (Boorstin, 1962, p. 221)—is ultimately damning as the public’s inability to distinguish between items of quality leads them to focus on the wrong questions (and, perhaps worse, to not even realize that we are asking the wrong questions) in ways that have very real consequences. Extrapolating from Rowlands, we might argue that, as a culture that is obsessed with image and reputation, we have, in some ways, forgotten how to judge the things that really matter because we have lost a sense of what our standards should be.

 

Ever the Same?

So while the criticisms of critics from the Frankfurt School might appear to hold true today, we also need to realize that modern audiences exist in a world that is, in some ways, starkly different from that of the 1950s. To be sure, the mainstream media continues to exist in a slightly expanded form but new commentary on the state of American culture must account for the myriad ways in which current audiences interact with the world around them. For instance, work published after Theodor Adorno’s time has argued against the passive nature of audiences, recognizing the agency of individual actors (Mattson, 2003; Shudson, 1984).[7] Moreover, the new activity on the part of audiences has done much to comingle the once distinctly separate areas of high and low culture in a process that would have likely confounded members of the Frankfurt School. The current cultural landscape encompasses remix efforts such as Auto-Tune the News along with displays of street art in museum galleries; projects once firmly rooted in folk or pop art have transcended definitional boundaries to become more accepted—and even valued—in the lives of all citizens. While Adorno might be tempted to cite this as evidence of high culture’s debasement, we might instead argue that these new manifestations have challenged the long-held elitism surrounding the relative worth of particular forms of art.

Additionally, examples like Auto-Tune the News suggest that advances in technology have also had a large impact on the cultural landscape of America over the past half century, with exponential growth occurring after the widespread deployment of the Internet and the resulting World Wide Web. While the Internet certainly provided increased access to information, it also created the scaffolding for social media products that allowed new modes of participation for users. Viewed in the context of image, technology has helped to construct a world in which reputations are made and broken in an instant and we have more information circulating in the system than ever before; the appearance of technology, then, has not only increased the velocity of the system but has also amplified it.

Although the media often showcases deleterious qualities of the masses’ relationship with these processes (the suicide of a student at Rutgers University being a recent and poignant example), we are not often exposed to the incredible pro-social benefits of a platform like Twitter or Facebook. While we might be tempted to associate such pursuits with online predators (a valid concern, to be sure) or, at best, unproductive in regard to civic engagement (Gladwell, 2010), to do so would to ignore the powerfully positive uses of this technology (Burnett, 2010; Lehrer, 2010; Johnston, 2010). Indeed, we need only look at a newer generation of activist groups who have built upon Howard Rheingold’s concept of “smart mobs” in order to leverage online technologies to their benefit (2002)—a recent example can be found in the efforts of groups like The Harry Potter Alliance, Invisible Children, and the Kristin Brooks Hope Center to win money in the Chase Community Giving competition (Business Wire, 2010). Clearly, if the masses can self-organize and contribute to society, the critiques of mass culture as nothing more than passive receptors of media messages need to be revised.

 

Reconsidering the Masses

If we accept the argument that audiences can play an active part in their relationship with media, we then need to look for a framework that begin to address media’s role in individuals’ lives and to examine the motivations and intentions that underlie media consumption. Although we might still find that media is a corrosive force in society, we must also realize that, while potentially exploiting an existing flaw, it does not necessarily create the initial problem (MacGregor, 2000).

A fundamental building block in the understanding of media’s potential impact is the increased propensity for individuals (particularly youth) to focus on external indicators of self-worth, with the current cultural climate of consumerism causing individuals to focus on their inadequacies as they begin to concentrate on what they do not have (e.g., physical features, talent, clothes, etc.) as opposed to their strengths. Simultaneously both an exacerbation of this problem and an entity proffering solutions, constructs like advertising provide an easy way for youth to compensate for their feelings of anxiety by instilling brands as a substitute for value:  the right label can confer a superficial layer of prestige and esteem upon individuals, which can act as a temporary shield against criticism and self-doubt. In essence, one might argue that if people aren’t good at anything, they can still be associated with the right brands and be okay. Although we might be tempted to blame advertising for this situation, it actually merely serves to exploit our general unease about our relationship to the world, a process also reminiscent of narcissism (Lasch, 1979).

Historian Christopher Lasch goes on to argue that, once anchored by institutions such as religion, we have become generally disconnected from our traditional anchors and thus have come to substitute media messages and morality tales for actual ethical and spiritual education (1979). The overlapping role of religion and advertising is noted by James Twitchell, who contends that, “Like religion, which has little to do with the actual delivery of salvation in the next world but everything to do with the ordering of life in this one, commercial speech has little to do with material objects per se but everything to do with how we perceive them” (1996, 110). Thus, we might classify religion, advertising, entertainment, and celebrity as examples of belief systems (i.e., a certain way of seeing the world complete with their own set of values) and use these paradigms to begin to understand their respective (and ultimately somewhat similar!) effects on the masses.

 

A Higher Power

Ideologies such as those found in popular culture, religion, or advertising tell believers, in their own ways, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchell refers to as “magic” (1996, 29). Each manifestation also professes a particular point of view and attempts to integrate itself into everyday life, drawing on our desire to become part of something (e.g., an idea, a concept, or a movement) that is larger than ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, the forces of advertising, entertainment, religion, and art (as associated with high/pop/folk culture) play on this desire in order to allow humans to give their lives meaning and worth, in terms of the external:  God, works of art, and name brands all serve as tools of classification. While cynics might note that this stance bears some similarities to the carnival sideshows of P. T. Barnum—it does not matter what is behind the curtain as long as there is a line out front (Gamson, 1994; Lasch, 1979)—the terms survive because they continue to speak to a deep desire for structure; the myth of advertising works for the same reasons that we believe in high art, higher education, and higher powers. Twitchell supports this idea by mentioning that “the real force of [the culture of advertising] is felt where we least expect it:  in our nervous system, in our shared myths, in our concepts of self, and in our marking of time” (1996, 124). Constructs like advertising or entertainment, it seems, not only allow us to assemble a framework through which we understand our world, but also continually informs us about who we are (or who we should be) as a collection of narratives that serves to influence the greater perceptions of individuals in a manner reminiscent of the role of television in Cultivation Theory (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). The process of ordering and imbuing value ultimately demonstrates how overarching ideologies can not only create culture but also act to shape it, a process evidenced by the ability of the aforementioned concepts to consume and/or reference previously shared cultural knowledge while simultaneously contributing to the cultural milieu.

Given our reconsideration of mid-century cultural critiques, it follows that we should necessarily reevaluate proposed solutions to the adverse issues present within mass culture. We recall the advice of A Face in the Crowd’s Mel Miller (i.e., “We get wise to them”) and reject its elitist overtones while remaining mindful of its core belief. We recognize that priding ourselves on being smart enough to see through the illusions present in mass culture, while pitying those who have yet to understand how they are being herded like so many sheep, makes us guilty of the narcissism we once ascribed to the masses—and perhaps even more dangerous than the uneducated because we are convinced that we know better. We see that aspects of mass culture address deeply embedded desires and that our best hope for improving culture is to satisfy these needs while educating audiences so that they can better understand how and why media affects them. Our job as critics is to encourage critical thinking on the part of audiences, dissecting media and presenting it to individuals so that they can make informed choices about their consumption patterns; our challenge is to convincingly demonstrate that engagement with media is a crucial and fundamental part of the process. If we ascribe to these principles, we can preserve the masses’ autonomy and not merely replace one dominant ideology with another.


[1] It should be noted, however, that the comics of this time—those that belong to the end of the Golden Age and beginning of the Silver Age—also provide an additional understanding of the ways in which Americans indirectly wrestled with their fears.

[2] For a more exhaustive list of movies that support this point, see Wolfe, 2002.

[3] Let us also not forget the fact that Lonesome exhibits a rather patronizing attitude toward his audience in his later career, instituting the Cracker Barrel show with its manufactured country lackeys (Yates, 1974). In contrast to his first stint in Memphis, Lonesome has begun to embrace his country image as a means (if an inauthentic one) to connect with his audience, a point of contention to which we will return.

[4] Curiously, however, we see that this relationship between presidential addresses (like the aforementioned fireside chats) and mass media did not elicit notable complaints from critics who were generally wary of the merging of politics and entertainment (Quart, 1989; Benjamin, 1973). Although a larger discussion is warranted regarding the subtleties of this distinction, I would suggest that part of the differentiation stems from a high-low culture dichotomy. Although critics linked the negative presence of television with corporate advertising, James Twitchell suggests that there has always been a rather intimate relationship between arts and commerce, most saliently exhibited by wealthy citizens or entities who act as patrons (Twitchell, 1996).

[5] Certainly being a female did not help this as American women are typically subject to a “halo effect” wherein their attractiveness (i.e., appearance) affects their perception (Kaplan, 1978)

[6] Palin has continued the trend, currently employing the term “mama grizzlies,” a call-to-arms that hopes to rally the willingness of women to fight in order to protect things that they believe in. Interestingly, a term that reaffirms the traditional role of women as nurturing matriarchs has been linked to feminist movements, a move that seems to confuse the empowerment of women with a socially conservative construct of their role in American life (Dannenfelser, 2010).

[7] We can also see much work conducted in the realm of fan studies that supports the practice of subversive readings or “textual poaching,” a term coined by Henry Jenkins (1992), in order to discuss contemporary methods of meaning making and resistance by fans.