Sociology 129: Popular Culture
Professor J. Bettie
Copyright © 2000 B. Collie Collier
For our final exam the class was given a list of questions to chose from. We also had a two page, double-spaced limit on each of our answers. The readings mentioned herein are listed at the bottom of this web page, and these are the questions I chose to explore. Incidentally, I got an "EXCELLENT on both" from the professor, which was quite gratifying!
Drawing upon the readings by Ferrell and Hebdige explain how "subcultural style" is a form of cultural politics. Use specific answer to support your answer from the articles by Rose (women rappers), White (riot grrrls), or Cosgrove (zoot suiters). What does it mean to say that subcultural style is simultaneously the garb of the persecutor and the persecuted? As discussed in lecture, Gottdiener and Willis are both skeptical of subcultural style as an effective form of politics. Why?
The women in Radway's study (Reading the Romance) said they read romance novels to "escape." They meant two things by this term. What were they? Related, why was Radway's book so important methodologically? Finally, Radway explains that the Smithton women were engaged in "coping strategies." What does she mean by this?
In Subculture: the Meaning of Style, Hebdige maintains that members of different social groups resist dominant hegemonic pressures with style, their expression of resistance. Power and ideological domination is never complete; there is always resistance. Consequently, although the dominant society delegitimizes, marginalizes, and sometimes criminalizes subcultures, offering them few viable choices, style allows them to obtain pleasure from what the cultural system offers -- it is perhaps a subcultural coping strategy as well as an expression of group politics. Meaning is endlessly negotiated; despite whatever encoding the creator may have originally intended for a cultural text, the viewer decodes it using a variety of cultural competencies and knowledges derived from gender, race, and class communities. Style is the physical expression of this. As Ferrell notes,
[S]tyle defines the social categories within which people live, and the communities of which they are a part. ... ethnicity and social class reside less with skin color or dollars than they do with participation in various collective styles; ...style becomes the medium through which social categories take on meaning (p 174-5)."
This is what Ferrell and Hebdige mean when they refer to subcultural style as a form of cultural politics. Marginalized groups structured into unequal social relationships within mainstream society use subcultural style not only to express identity and community, but also to symbolize resistance to the categorization (and sometimes criminalization) forced upon them by social authorities.
Gottdiener questions this view of subcultural style as cultural politics, noting a lack of viability of this form of resistance in actually changing hegemonic society. He notes that in capitalist culture the logic of commodification appropriates and co-opts 'style as resistance,' selling it back to both subculture and mass market as significance-laden commodity. Because there is no inherent meaning in an object, the initial user's meaning of counter-hegemonic, subversive resistance is invariably lost through the producer's commercial exploitation, complete with new, purposefully distorted or manipulated meaning. This is what is meant by the statement "subcultural style is simultaneously the garb of the persecutor and the persecuted" -- hegemonically subversive style (as expressed by a resisting and self [re]defining subculture) is always appropriated and exploited by mainstream capitalist culture; commodified, rendered both comprehensible and symbolically defused, and ultimately establishing new sets of conventions. More significantly, nothing has actually changed in the status quo -- the afflicted subculture is still marginalized and possibly criminalized by mainstream culture.
Willis, in his book Learning to Labor, about working class English "lads," also questions the value of subcultural style. He notes the working class style in question, "taught" in school, actively participated in not just resistance to societal figures of authority, but also ironically kept the young working class boys from ever being able to escape their current class status -- in their very act of resistance they forced themselves into societally subordinate positions. They not only lacked the necessary cultural capital to change their roles, but through stylistic resistance they ended up refusing it entirely. Thus Gottdiener and Willis both express their doubts that subcultural style can function as an effective form of politics, since not only can it act as a means of constituting and sustaining camaraderie and community, but it can also become actively harmful to its participative members, locking them into marginalized, subordinate societal roles.
White's article "Revolution Girl Style Now" nicely exemplifies the benefits and shortcomings of style. She discusses contradiction as both style and powerful feminist tool, describing singers who deliberately manipulate imagery in "sweet" dresses screaming obscenities, who feel their whole lives are contradictory struggles to create identity in a society that denies female agency. Riot girls address social oppression through their fanzines and their music, by stigmatizing sexual abusers, or reinterpreting patriarchal images of femininity. Their confessional style is propaganda, a political tool to situate revolution about bodily freedom. However, she also notes their racial and economic isolation in their efforts to distance themselves from corporate patriarchal society. Finally, there is the strong possibility that due to excessive commodification, the Riot Grrrl movement is now considered passe.
In her book Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, Janice A. Radway explores the apparent fascination of romantic fiction for many women, and examines the needs this literary genre fulfills for its readers. A common reason for reading romances given by many of the women surveyed was that of "escape." There are two meanings for this word, according to Radway's interpretation of the explanations given by the women surveyed. One, through reading they escape from the boring, tedious parts of everyday life. As middle class housewives often there are in their lives a multitude of repetitive tasks, a lack of intellectual stimulation, and a lack of appreciation; reading the romances allows them a temporary respite.
The second definition Radway gives is that by reading they escape from their societally prescribed roles as nurturers and renewers of families. In quotidian life these women profess to be happily married wives and mothers, the care-takers of their families and the reproducers of the next generation. Ordinarily men do not take on these responsibilities -- society has determined different roles for them. However, these societal constraints mean women are frequently isolated, and have no one to nurture and/or re-produce them. In the romance novels the heroines are frequently nurtured by men during plot development, even if by story's end the usual societal expectations are being fulfilled. Thus vicariously the Smithton women were being re-created and nurtured, by identifying with the heroines of the romance novels -- they escaped their demanding societally prescribed roles. However, this renewal is but temporary; repeated reading is needed to sustain it.
Reading romances is a coping strategy for the Smithton women. The Smithton women have a contradictory consciousness; they are aware of the many deficiencies in their lives and social realities, but are still buying into the patriarchal ideologies espoused by the status quo and culturally consumed by them in the form of the romance novels. Furthermore many of them note the lack of viable alternatives or options in their lives. Their reading is based in deprivation, and resistance to hegemonic ideology, even if the novels themselves reaffirm the societal ideals of the status quo. This reading they do is oppositional to their pre-determined social roles, and allows them to temporarily refuse their gender reality. The romance novels become for them defiance, escape, and renewal, all at once. Thus even though their life experience and native subculture teaches them that women nurture but are not nurtured, through reading they can transcend that reality, can learn to be "feisty" like their heroines, and can refuse these cultural expectations, however temporarily.
Unfortunately, any growing oppositional thought by the readers concerning the intolerable reality of their socially determined gender roles is then acceptably (at least by the strictures of society) channeled and neutralized by the romance novels, defusing any anger or growing desire to actually alter their current social situations. The strictures of the ruling class, as exemplified in romance novels, are accepted as the normative default by the romance readers, and any oppositional thoughts (as expressed by reading the novels) are guided into reaffirming the status quo. To sum up: the Smithton women are aware of their own subordination. However, faced with a lack of viable choices, reading romance novels is the coping strategy they use to defuse the societally-determined exigencies of their existence.
Radway's book was methodologically important because it was one of the first reception studies. It reviewed not just how producers or distributors, but also consumers interpreted consumer good consumption. In this respect Radway repudiates the Frankfurt School of thought, which hypothesizes that identity is determinatively created by popular culture and that people are passive consumers. Instead, through her study on audience analysis she suggests the participant consumer can interpret popular culture resistantly, refusing a hegemonic interpretation for one more meaningful and personally relevant to the audience members. This is a Gramsciian attitude; Radway recognizes the audience takes an active role in negotiating meaning within this subculture. Reading the Romance documented that semiotic analysis alone doesn't demonstrate how an audience consumes a cultural product, and audience analysis alone doesn't examine the consumed cultural text.
Readings for Class
Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, by Janice Radway, 1991.
"Revolution Girl Style Now," by Emily White in Rock She Wrote, edited by McDonnell & Powers, 1995.
"Style Matters: Criminal Identity and Social Control," by Jeff Ferrell from Cultural Criminology, edited by Ferrell & Sanders, 1995.
Subculture: the Meaning of Style, by Dick Hebdige, 1979.
Last Updated: Thu Mar 22 2000