Why We Should Be Paying Closer Attention to Pop Culture

16/06/2023     12 min read     By Ahlem Khattab

Nathalie Weidhase (© University of Surrey)

A conversation with British researcher Nathalie Weidhase on gender in popular culture and media, and what role journalism plays in how women see themselves.

It’s a subject that remains overlooked and easily discarded. Seen by most journalists as just something to please the public, grab its attention or even distract it from the “important” things. But popular culture is information. It’s packed with social, economic and political messages. Popular culture is the product of societies and has an influencing power that not one media form can achieve on its own. Popular culture is an ecosystem of different media that interact with each other at all times. And whether we like it or not, mainstream news media and journalism are part of that ecosystem. 

As Nathalie Weidhase sees it, “they function as a sort of filter and show us what these news organisations or these culture sections or these cover pages think is worth covering.” The British researcher has extensively studied popular culture, media and news coverage in the United Kingdom. She has published work on political leadership (Brexit, the royal family), women in pop music, and celebrity culture. Most recently, she has been diving into subjects at the intersections of populism and gender in pop culture and media.

In the following conversation, we go over what popular culture is about in 2023, how celebrity culture discriminates, and how news coverage of pop culture affects the lives of women and girls.

Let’s start with the basics. What do we mean when we say “pop culture”? 

Nathalie Weidhase — I’d say pop culture is the culture that is liked and consumed by a lot of people. Pop culture is often constructed as opposite in quality to high art and high culture, but I firmly believe these boundaries are very arbitrary and are drawn around gendered, raced, classed lines. Pop culture tends to be associated with the “common people,” but we’re all common people.

Lots of pop culture is made with what could be considered mass appeal because it functions in an entertainment industry that needs to make money. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have artistic merit or value. I think it has quite a lot of artistic merit and value in perhaps more accessible ways than high art and high culture.

Historically speaking, pop culture has always been key to people’s lives. For instance Shakespeare used to be considered pop culture. I think there’s more awareness and willingness to engage with it critically and take it seriously now. You see lots of podcasts dedicated to unpicking pop culture, and you see culture sections of respectable newspapers dedicating plenty of space to reviews of TV shows from what we consider quality television to reality TV.

What is generating buzz in pop culture in 2023?

There’s Taylor Swift, obviously, currently because of her private life and how that sort of seeps into how we read her artistic work. Also, obviously, because her dating life currently relates to another person who’s just very visible in pop culture. We’ve got Beyoncé, because she’s touring. We wouldn’t be able to think about 2023 without Beyoncé. Ted Lasso, final season. Lots of debate and discussion around that. The Kardashians still pop up, sort of. Then I would say, in the UK context, lots of celebrity news, anything related to the royal family, particularly Meghan Markle who is one of the key figures in pop culture this year.

“ There’s very little change in the way we talk about women in the spotlight. It’s still quite violent and objectifying.”

TikTok is also key to popular culture in 2023. Both in the sense of how we engage with what’s happening in the world, pop culture and the news, but also of the celebrities and themes that we talk about emerging from TikTok.

It feels like we’ve been hearing this a lot everywhere the last few years: there is a problem with the way that women are represented in media contents and popular culture. And it’s not just about the number of women we see, but how they are portrayed. Where are we at today? 

The paparazzi culture, which we thought we’d left behind in the early 2000s, like what we’ve seen with Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, and the public fascination with these women falling apart in front of us and becoming these objects of constant criticism — we haven’t really had that in a while. But then you hear about this car chase of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry… And they weren’t interested in Prince Harry. They were interested in Meghan Markle.

So while there was a dip in some of that intense paparazzi culture, what hasn’t stopped is putting women in the public eye under incredible levels of scrutiny. And we see in the current media landscape that it is particularly intensified for women of colour, for queer women, for trans women, for working-class women, for disabled women. There’s very little change in the way we talk about women in the spotlight. It’s still quite violent and objectifying. Women’s bodies become like public properties. There’s the idea that we’ve got some sort of right to seeing every aspect of their lives, knowing when they’re doing what, and becoming part of their lives.

We see celebrity culture with men, too. How is it different for women and for men?

There’s less of a continued spectacle around men. I mean, you look at #MeToo. We have lots of men behaving really, really horribly and momentarily having some sort of taking away of public affection, but it very quickly returns to “business as usual.”

There’s little long-lasting impact on men behaving really horribly, committing crimes, harassing women, etc. You look at men with all kinds of sustained accusations of sexual harassment, sexual violence, and they continue to make films, they continue to produce music, they continue to make lots of money.

Speaking of #MeToo, it’s been more than five years now since that spark. How much of a role do you think it played as a “moment” in culture in changing women’s representation in media at a global scale?

I mean, #MeToo was one of those big, big, big moments in popular culture, and a lot of really important conversations were started. To some degree, it has had an impact. Things like intimacy coordinators are a thing now that people are aware of, that people talk about, that are part of the filming process for some productions. Not all.

But at the same time, you also still hear stories of really horrible working conditions for women on set. When you hear that, you can expect that the audiovisual content that’s produced is not going to have better politics than what’s happening in the workplace. 

So I think there was a moment of more awareness, but I don’t think representation itself has necessarily changed. I think there’s a bit more emphasis on female filmmakers and writers, in television as well. So people like Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Michaela Coel in the UK, they’ve got that sort of author status, and they produce really interesting work when it comes to representations of women, because you get complex characters who are not necessarily good people. But you know, women don’t always have to be good people.

As a wider landscape, I’m not necessarily sure #MeToo had the big impact that it could have had or that people had hoped for. But there is more awareness so it gives us more of a vocabulary to critique representations when they are being problematic.

“There’s this concept of ‘guilty pleasures’ to unpack. Like we have these students, female students, feeling guilty about what they enjoy consuming.”

What’s a recent “big event” involving women in pop culture that marked you in some way because of how it was handled by mainstream news media? Either positive or negative. We can do both actually.

Positive, I can’t think of anything in mainstream media. In what we would potentially call alternative media, I think there’s a lot of podcasting that’s really great, that has women talking about pop culture and women of colour and marginalised women in general. Mainstream media, I’m more cynical. Probably because of my research direction. 

So I think Meghan Markle — and as in the British context, I always have to make clear that I’m not for or against any of these people in these arguments — has been just a really horrible example of how unwilling mainstream media in the UK are of thinking beyond the class and race politics that are embedded in that industry. It’s a very white-dominated, posh, upper-class industry that has certain attachments to institutions like the royal family. And you know, if you go to school with people of a similar class status, that impacts how you report on things.

And it was just really disturbing to see how Meghan Markle was covered in comparison to other royal women. Royal women in general, when they’re outsiders and they come into the family, they tend to get a raw deal. Like Kate Middleton also did not have a great time… until Meghan Markle came in, and they found a woman of colour to really zoom in on. The racially-coded language that was used, how it was exoticising her in ways that were really bizarre. Like talking about her “exotic DNA.” Or that Daily Mail headline, “(Almost) Straight Outta Compton,” because she grew up somewhere in LA, immediately associated her in a really negative way with hip hop culture — which in itself, obviously, is quite a racist association, but also… Meghan Markle went to private school. She did an internship in the Argentinean embassy. She’s quite posh, too. But the British media had to put her into these very specific categories that they associated with black women. That’s how they made sense of her.

When news media talk about what’s happening in pop culture and all these other different media, whether it’s cinema, television, literature, video games… How does that coverage impact the culture itself?

In relation to pop culture in particular, news media or mainstream news media work as a form of gatekeeping, in a way, because there’s so much pop culture, all the time. So they function as a sort of filter and show us what these news organisations or these culture sections or these cover pages think is worth covering. Either in the sort of “this is a valuable piece of work,” like you think about awards coverage, film festival coverage, etc. Or in sort of negative ways, news media can also jump into perpetuating or reinforcing negative stereotypes that already exist towards specific people who are in the public eye or specific cultural texts.

How do you think that actually influences women’s lives? Women who aren’t in the spotlight.

It’s always really interesting when I talk to my students about what sort of culture is devalued, and that’s often popular culture we associate with women and young female audiences. So romantic comedies, we don’t take seriously as a genre. Anything romance-related, because we think it’s for women or for young girls. Pop [music] we don’t take seriously because it’s for little girls. And news organizations and journalism in general, often in that gatekeeping function, perpetuate these ideas of what’s worth consuming.

And there’s this concept of “guilty pleasures” to unpack. Like we have these students, female students, feeling guilty about what they enjoy consuming. And I say in my classroom, “there are no guilty pleasures; there’s only fun to be had with pop culture.” Because it’s so gendered, raced and classed what we consider acceptable. So it often can instill a real sense of shame in a way, and making their own enjoyment and what they care about as people smaller. And I think that’s quite dehumanizing. If you’re always told what you enjoy is worthless, that sort of makes you wonder how, you know, are you not able to make better decisions?

So I think in that sense, it can have a real impact on women, on how they feel about what they consume. But also, as with all forms of representations, if women don’t see themselves taken seriously, and young girls in particular, that can have a real impact on how they see themselves, their version of the future, what they can envision for their lives.

But obviously, I wouldn’t want to put all of the fault here on the media, because the media reflect on what’s going on in society broadly. So it’s about education and access to all kinds of spaces and resources to make art and culture. And these industries are also very male-dominated, having similar beliefs or preconceptions or stereotypes around what an artist looks like, what’s worth consuming, what’s worth producing, as well. 

What are some things you wish to see more news media and journalists do when talking about women in pop culture?

I would like to see more diverse voices talking and writing about art and popular culture because I think that would have a real impact. I would like to see fewer men, more women. I would like to see news organizations hiring more women of colour. Because I think white women often also perpetuate quite similar harmful stereotypes. I would like to see — and I’m talking from a specific UK context where there’s just so much class politics — more people with working-class backgrounds for example.

That will lead to much more interesting coverage. Like the Guardian, for example, in the UK, has a pop culture podcast led by a black woman. You literally hear more diverse voices. And interestingly, the podcast medium, because of the original, quite DIY ethos, seems to be a medium where you get more interesting readings, analysis and criticism.

And I suppose generally I would like to see some more self-awareness. I think it’s very difficult for journalists to recognize that they play a role in perpetuating sexism, racism, classism, etc. 

And for journalists who are reading this interview, what would you want to leave them with? Because there are a lot of journalists who want and try to do better at representing women more fairly in the news.

I think it takes a lot of work, but it’s important to broaden their own consumption of both pop culture texts, but also of what women and people of colour write about, and to make an active search to find those experts. Like the amount of times I’ve been asked to speak about black women… Do you really need to hear another white woman talking about that?

And you don’t always have to be the expert in something, but you can find other people who are and give them a platform, obviously in non-exploitative ways. Find some money to pay them for their expertise if it’s possible, because I think there can also be quite a lot of fatigue. So it’s important to broaden your knowledge base so that you’re not always reaching out to the same three black women who have no time left because they’re approached for everything. 

That takes a lot of legwork, but I think if you see it not as a task you have to do but rather opening up yourself for a world of different perspectives, it will have a positive impact on how you write about things in the end.

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