Does Pop Culture Have Social Responsibility?

Discussions about pop culture that touch upon oppressive content are often countered with the argument that pop culture is ‘just’ entertainment, and has no actual obligation to be responsible. The social role of creators of pop culture is to make art that people enjoy, and find fun, and consume with pleasure, not to provide social object lessons, not to lecture people on ethics, not to raise consciousness about social issues. This argument, neatly used to debunk criticism, ignores two important things:

1. The first is that criticism of works of pop culture is a valid activity, and that critics may approach pop culture from a number of different perspectives. In some cases, that perspective includes evaluating representations, and discussing where works of art fall short, or excel. Just as other critics may focus on pure aesthetics, like the lighting and staging of a movie, or the plotting, and whether the storyline holds up over the course of the piece. Critical evaluations of representations are just as valid as other forms of criticism and they add to the overall body of work surrounding pop culture, the wide range of discussions that enrich our enjoyment of media and indirectly contribute to shifts in the media.

2. The second is that, well, no, pop culture in general does not actually have an obligation to be socially responsible. But, it often positions itself in a way that suggests it is making an important social commentary, is contributing to ethical discussion, is attempting to cultivate responsibility among viewers. When creators of pop culture do this, it leaves them wide open to criticism; just as a filmmaker who claims to be upending traditional views on narrative style is now open to critical evaluation from a narrative perspective. When a creator says ‘I am sending social messages with my show/book/painting/etc.,’ then critics are most certainly going to talk about the messages being sent. Indeed, critics would be abrogating their responsibilities if they didn’t engage with the messages in the work.

The ‘no obligation to be socially responsible’ argument is extremely boring and tired, and it’s usually utilized when people don’t actually want to engage with the content and substance of the discussion at all. They can avoid any responsibility as viewers and fans to consider the critique, simply by declaring the entire critique invalid and not of interest. It’s one of the tell-tale signs I look for in responses to criticisms, because of the embedded ideas presented in it.

And it’s notable, too, that many people who use this argument are the same people heralding work as socially progressive. You cannot have it both ways. People cannot claim that Glee is a show with positive messaging and important lessons about the world and then turn around and attempt to silence critics who disagree with the messages the show sends. Joss Whedon fans can’t claim his work is feminist and then smack down any feminists (or others) who interrogate his work from that perspective, who grapple with the subjects he discusses and talk about where his handling perhaps falls short of the stated ideas and goals.

Because many creators of pop culture seem to believe, despite what their fans say, that they do have a social obligation. No all, not universally, not across the board, and some are very explicit about just wanting to entertain people. Many works, though, do come with an embedded social agenda and a commentary. They are intended to be evocative and though provoking, they are intended to spark conversation, they are intended to challenge consumers about the way they think. When this is a stated intent, when the creator is deliberately setting out to embed commentary in works of pop culture, then critics are absolutely entitled to respond to that intent, and to challenge it, if necessary.

The other thing that people seem to miss when they’re busy dismissing criticisms of their favourite pop culture is that most critics engage with work because they are care about it, possibly think it is interesting, and may even really enjoy it. There are, of course, a few exceptions—I am quite open about hatewatching Glee for example. But those cases are pretty rare. It’s easy to take pot shots at pop culture you don’t like. It’s harder to delve into works you really love to probe them and ask whether they are working not just as works of art, but also as works of messaging. It is one of the greatest acts of fanlove, to challenge the work you adore.

I read pop culture differently when creators explicitly say that they are using it for messaging. And I am harder on works of pop culture that are messaging, because they need to be accountable. I watch Revenge on ABC, a show which most certainly has made some missteps with regard to social issues. I could talk about those, except that the show isn’t trying to send a message. It’s entertaining viewers. There are some very obvious criticisms to be leveled at the show, but that’s not what it’s about, and I don’t see the need to hold the creators to a standard they themselves have not set.

When creators, right from the gate, are either explicitly saying they want to send messages with their work, or are effectively doing so in the presentation of the work itself, they should be prepared for viewers to call them on it. Because while pop culture in general has no social responsibilities, when people do claim to be doing something more with their work, they have created responsibilities for themselves. If they aren’t living up to those responsibilities, if they aren’t actually doing what they are claiming to do, if they are actively harming people with the kind of material they present, then, yes, people are going to be talking about it.