Is pop culture democratic?

Before diving into the topic, I believe we should establish what pop culture actually is. Pop culture englobes all things familiar, popular, and dominant in our society, ranging from objects, to practices and beliefs. Given this wide definition, many things will probably come to mind. Today I wanted to discuss what power we, as the audience, have to change the narrative in popular culture.

In my years in university, I’ve come across several theories that discredit the myth that says, “we absorb what media says like sponges”. Alternatively, a bit more accurate but totally unscholarly metaphor we could use to describe this assimilation process is more along the lines “we absorb what the media says like porous rocks”. So, to speak plainly, some general messages are assimilated, and other specific details are not. Furthermore, the Glasgow Media Group claims that the audience can interact with this content and can reject or accept the implied messages in media. Obviously, we cannot treat the audience as a homogeneous group as factors like class, gender, political views, identification and knowledge of the subject will modify the way one interacts with different media content.

With this idea in mind, I want to explore one of the examples of pop culture which, due to its great popularity, can elicit all types of responses and obviously wields a great (economic) power. I’m talking about the Marvel franchise. As I’m not a Marvel fan (sorry!) I’ll limit my observations to what I know. The Marvel franchise (owned by Disney) has been releasing movies with more diverse main characters such as Captain Marvel, Black Panther and of late, Sang-Chi and Eternals. While appeasing this need of more diversity (which could still, with the eyes of a cynical, be seen as a well-played strategy to maintain their non-white audience’s interest), they still spout military propaganda in every single movie that uses US military equipment (spoiler: most, if not all, of them). The US military, in exchange of lending their expensive guns and machinery, can censor the scripts (and obviously make sure that their image, in the end, is held to a certain level of respect). So, who has the upper hand here? Corporation which produces and writes endless Marvel military-friendly movies or audience which can be empowered by seeing themselves represented on screen? The answer is more complicated than it seems.

On the other hand, when talking about pop culture and the possibility that it could be authentically democratic, my mind goes immediately to memes. By their own definition (as defined by Merriam-Webster) “a meme is an idea, behaviour, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture”. Memes are the core of the Internet, they are found everywhere, travel at a dazing speed and belong to no one. What is more democratic than that? But let’s not be fooled by idealism. Memes can also be co-opted and appropriated by corporations. Most brands are on TikTok by now, trying to follow the trends and become viral, approachable, and visible. There are also theories on how some memes are pre-fabricated and to be honest, they’re easily identifiable as they don’t become as viral as organic memes (yeah, it’s also because they have been created by Boomers who don’t understand newer generations’ humour, but that’s another story).

To conclude, I would like to answer the question: are we in control of the narrative? Again, I won’t be straightforward. Much of this pop culture is produce symbiotically, meaning that the audience becomes the creator (like with memes, reaction videos, etc.) so yes! In that aspect we are in control. Also, creative people who want to go further than what the original authors of media give us will always find fandom spaces to develop alternative endings, more characters and different plot-twists to the media that already exists. So, as I stated before, corporations can co-opt and redirect the narrative, but at the end of the day, the power is still ours. We can still rewrite everything, over and over.

[Eva López- López]

[Photo credits: Erik Mclean]

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