Double standards in cultural judgements

Double standards in cultural judgements – Media Watch

Alan McKee

I TEACH TELEVISION AND FILM FROM A CULTURAL STUDIES PERSPECTIVE. This means that one of my projects in teaching is to try to persuade students to give up snobbery when they judge culture. I find that most students enter the university with a series of middle-class value judgements very strongly in place. They have learned these from wider culture before they ever reach the classroom, and they seem like commonsense. They still know (contra postmodernism) that commercial culture (popular culture/commodified culture/mass culture) is bad, while non-commercial culture (art/public service broadcasting/high culture) is good.

I would not go so far as to call these ‘dominant discourses’ in our culture: contradictory discourses about egalitarianism, anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism and tall poppies are perhaps even more common and powerful. But these snobbish value judgements are, at the very least, familiar in the wider culture: and every student knows that, at university, they expect to parade and refine such snobbery. So for example, when I had a class of 160 students in my ‘Television and popular culture’ course complete the sentence ‘Television is …’ in the first lecture, I didn’t get a single positive response. Rather, the sentences they wrote suggested that ‘Television is … full of trash … for people who don’t have a life … what the masses watch’ … and so on.

I try to get my students to give up these prejudices. This doesn’t mean that I require them to give up their own taste regimes. They don’t have to leave my classes loving Jerry Springer and hating Foreign Correspondent. But I do want them to give up the double standards by which they judge those two programmes differently simply because of the conditions of their production and the class status of their demographic. I would like them to recognize that in wider culture–and also, sadly in much academic writing–a snobbery exists whereby commercial culture can do nothing right: whatever kinds of texts it produces, writers will always search for ways to decry it.

A single example, given only to illustrate the point, comes in a ‘Cultural Studies’ (1) account of the teenage girls magazine Smash Hits. The author condemns Smash Hits for its presentation of traditional gender roles, and then goes on to attack its heteronormativity. He acknowledges that, in fact, when Stephen Gately of boyband Boyzone came out publicly in 1999, Smash Hits ran a ‘lengthy and very supportive interview. It also presented a photograph of Gately’s partner and referred to the letters and messages of support Gately had received not only from fellow pop artists but also, in great quantities, from fans’. (2) Having described this strongly anti-heteronormative behaviour, the author goes on with his charge. ‘One might think, though it would be churlish to do so [in which case, why mention it?] that Smash Hits was forced to react the way it did since the knowledge was public and Boyzone was not a band it could afford to turn its back on’. (3) In his conclusion, he returns to the case: ‘teen pop itself could be said to embody the suppression of evasion of problems, and I do not believe that the suddenly enforced accommodation of Stephen Gately does much to suggest the opposite’. (4) If popular culture ignores an issue, it is ‘suppressing’ or evading contradictions; if it includes it, in detail and in a tolerant way, it is ‘enforced accommodation’. In short, if Smash Hits didn’t interview Gately, the author would have condemned it. Because it does interview Gately, the author condemns it. Is there anything that popular culture could do that would not result in an insult? It’s no wonder that so many people working in the media are extremely suspicious of academics who write about culture. Whatever they do, they’re going to get Insulted.

This, then is the everyday binary I wish to challenge in my teaching: commercial culture is (automatically) bad; while non-commodified culture is (automatically) good. The way I try to persuade the students to think about cultural value differently is not simply to assert that ‘commercial culture can be just as good as high culture’. I don’t think that this is persuasive as a pedagogical approach. Indeed, value judgements are largely outside of persuasive argument. Innate value is an ideal, an essence. Either one believes that it exists, or one doesn’t. As with the existence of God, it is unlikely that an atheist will convince a Christian to change their belief, or vice versa. As a colleague recently put it to me: ‘But Shakespeare just is better than the Spice Girls’. How can you argue with that?

But other teaching strategies are available: we can draw attention to the ways in which discourses of value function in public discussion–and in particular to their hypocrisy.

For example, when a group of singers who have never even met each other are auditioned and brought together to sing, we call them ‘a manufactured pop band’, Or at least, we do if it is popular culture we’re talking about. It’s a terrible thing, we know, that these people haven’t written their own music; that they weren’t really friends when they were at school. This is the lowest form of culture.

But what if these singers–who have never even met each other before they are auditioned, who are then brought together in an artificial group to sing–what if they are part of high culture? What if they are singing opera? We should still condemn them, logically. Opera singers don’t write their own music. They don’t form their own groups. Opera casts are completely manufactured. But for some reason–because this is high culture–that doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter that these people haven’t written their own music, or didn’t meet when they were at school. It’s all fine, so long as it’s done in the service of ‘art’. But if it is popular culture, done in the service of making a profit, then suddenly these things become of vital importance and we use them to insult what might otherwise be regarded as very good culture (such as the Spice Girls).

The same action, or property of a text, is judged in different ways depending on whether it is associated with high culture or popular culture. We have familiar phrases at our fingertips to perpetuate this hypocrisy (like the meaningless ‘manufactured band’). Language makes it easy for us to continue to be snobbish, by offering contradictory resources for judging similar aspects of reality. Because we already know that high culture is good, we seek the description that supports that perspective; because we already know that popular culture is bad, we look for the words that will let us express that attitude as we describe the object of our distaste. As the familiar example goes: he is mad; you are eccentric. I, of course, am a genius.

Of course, this strategy for making hypocrisy visible doesn’t always work. Some of my students get angry at me for being intolerant of their point of view. But no teaching strategy is perfect; and at least some students do enter into a dialogue about the topic.

Here are some of the double standards that I draw on in order to try to persuade the students (see chart on previous page)

As I suggested above, I am not attempting simply to reverse cultural hierarchies and force my students to believe that whatever is commercial is good; or that whatever is non-commercial is bad. Rather, there are two ambitions to this teaching. Firstly, I would hope that they would choose to stop using the simplistic and one-dimensional measurement of texts as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Secondly, I hope to convince them that reducing texts to the conditions of their production isn’t a useful way to account for the differences between them. Today Tonight, for example, is a very different kind of text from Blue Heelers even though both are commercial, and both are made by Channel Seven. The first encourages hatred, intolerance and self-righteousness; the latter encourages open mindedness, a ‘social’ understanding of problems, and a different kind of self-righteousness. Similarly, there is a lot of difference between the proudly arrogant cultural judgements of The Movie Show; and the terrifyingly open-minded leftism of CNNNN, despite both being produced by public service broadcasting. Finally I would hope that the students will see that the discursive resources by which cultural hierarchies are maintained–so commonsense in our public spheres–bear little relation to textual elements in the cultures judged, and much more to prejudicial (literally pre-judging) decisions which have already decided that everything commercial must be bad; everything non-commercial must have the potential to be better. I want students to make explicit the criteria by which they are judging texts; and then to see how texts measure up against those criteria, irrespective of the degree to which their producers were oriented towards profit.

ACTION OR PROPERTY IF IT’S ‘NON- IF IT’S ‘COMMER-

COMMERCIAL’ CUL- CIAL’ CULTURE, WE

TURE, WE SAY: SAY:

A group of people A cast (opera) A manufactured

who don’t know group (pop music)

each other are

brought together

to sing

People sing music Irrelevant; they Again, a manufac-

that they did not are judged on tured group/singer

write themselves their singing

The person who Director; maestro ‘Svengali’

brings together a

group of people to

sing

Creator keeps Consistency in Repetition. Lack

making texts on thematic concerns; of ideas.

the same topic exploring an area

in detail;

resonance; increa-

sing depth and

richness across

the oeuvre.

Lots of information Complex Pandering to short

is presented in a attention spans

compressed way

Similar material Fugue-like Repetitious

is repeated at

different paints

in a text

Slow moving Taking the time to Boring

explore material;

not pandering to

short attention

spans

Short To the point, Trivializing,

well-crafted glossing over,

pandering to short

attention spans

Consuming the same A connoisseur Addicted

text many times

Consuming lots of An expert, magis- Couch potato

texts terial knowledge,

well read

Pleasures offered Spectacular; gor- Mindless; spectacle

by a text are geous; sumptuous over plot or

primarily visual character

Uses the plot of a Continuing tra- Copying. Mark of a

previous text dition; evidence paucity of ideas

of education (e.g.

Shakespeare)

Concerned with A haunting study Trivial, banal

everyday life and of interpersonal

intimate relation- relationships

ships

Full of tits and Transgressive, Sleazy, pandering

bums challenging bour- to the lowest

geois morality common denominator,

objectifying women

Performances are Non-naturalistic, Melodramatic,

over the top, challenging realist stereotyped, cari-

characters are modes of repre- catured

broadly drawn sentation

Resolution to Open-ended; Badly constructed;

story is unclear refusing to offer poorly plotted

easy answers

Providing infor- A valuable insight Gossip; obsession

mation about the into the life of with celebrities

lives of cultural … Fascinating

creators information about

the mind that pro-

duced the art …

Deals with a diff- Challenging; daring Accommodating;

icult social issue innoculating

Accessible to diff- Universal appeal Dumbing down/lowest

erent demographic common denominator

groups

Providing informa- A valuable insight Gossip; obsession

tion about the into the life of with celebrities

lives of cultural … Fascinating

creators information about

the mind that pro

duced the art …

Deals with a diff- Challenging; daring Accommodating;

icult social issue innoculating

Accessible to diff- Universal appeal Dumbing down/lowest

erent demographic common denominator

groups

Drawing on ele- Cosmopolitan, Globalized, bland

ments from diff- educated

erent national

cultures

Strongly imbued Resisting globa- Nationalistic,

with, and oriented lization, local parochial

toward, a parti-

cular national

culture

Studying textual Discovering the Reading too much

features in depth deep meanings into it

in order to produce hidden in the text

unlikely inter-

pretations

Food is made with Politically Junk Food

lots of fat and incorrect; joyous;

salt embracing life

(as with the Two

Fat Ladies)

Endnotes

(1) Peter Bennett, ‘Teen pop and teenage identity in Britain’, in Hans-Jurgen Diller, Erwin Otto and Gerd Stratmann, eds., Youth Identities: teens and twens in British culture, Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag C. Winter, 2000, p. 70.

(2) ibid., p. 76.

(3) ibid.

(4) ibid., p. 77.

Alan McKee is a jack of all trades, including presiding over the Cultural Studies Association of Australia, editing Continuum: The Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, teaching film, TV and Cultural Studies and writing articles on gay pornography.

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