Power of pop culture

Jun 18, 2014 at 5:00 am

I’ve devoted most of my columns to musings about social and political issues, but as anyone who knows me well can tell you, my most favorite thing to write and talk about is popular culture. I think of myself as a pop culture connoisseur, and I pride myself on staying informed of the latest Hollywood happenings, celebrity gossip and trending topics.

Pop culture, for me, is equal parts guilty pleasure and academic endeavor. Even when I’m just watching some trashy TV show for fun, I can’t help examining what I’m seeing through a critical lens, informed largely by those other social and political issues I write about. While serious intellectual discourse about pop culture might seem oxymoronic, it’s my approach that politics, pop culture and social attitudes (no matter how liberal or conservative) are frequently interconnected, and it’s often hard to tell which is the more powerful in shaping the others.

I’d argue that whoever controls pop culture controls the world — or at least the brains, disposable income and voting power of those who refuse to inform their moral or political opinions from anywhere other than the TV screen or the church pulpit. Perhaps there’s no better example of pop culture and media influence than D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film “Birth of a Nation,” a racist movie depicting black men (really white men in blackface) as brainless sexual brutes out to attack white women, while portraying the Klan as a heroic force of savior for the white race. The movie birthed a resurgence of the KKK in Georgia and was the first movie to be screened at the White House. Despite its overt racism, “Birth” is considered one of the greatest American films of all time. The power of pop culture.

More recently, college campuses everywhere provide accredited courses on pop culture ideas from Gaga feminism to house ball culture. Rutgers University even offers “Politicizing Beyoncé,” a class that uses Mrs. Carter’s music to analyze gender, race and sexuality in America. Pop culture leads respected intellectual entities like HuffPost Live and scholars like bell hooks to host legit debates about whether Beyoncé is a feminist or a terrorist.

Pop culture is Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, but it is also “The Affluenza Defense,” by which a wealthy Texas teen beat a murder charge for driving drunk because the judge ruled his riches and spoils meant he never learned right from wrong. We see more of Rob Ford on TMZ than they see of him as mayor of Toronto. Kimye make the cover of Vogue. Forty-five years after Stonewall and it takes a Netflix show to land a transwoman on the cover of Time magazine. Pro sports teams draft mediocre gay players and their jerseys sell as well as Shaquille O’Neal’s. That’s the power of pop culture.

A recent musing I’ve had is why nearly every out black gay celebrity I can think of is coupled with a white person? Think about it: Michael Sam, Jason Collins, Orlando Cruz, Derrick Gordon, Don Lemon, Robin Roberts, Wanda Sykes, and even the late Bayard Rustin and Nell Carter, all partnered with white lovers.

Conversely, all of America’s best-known white gays are coupled up with other white folks: Ellen, Elton, Neil Patrick Harris, Lance Bass, Johnny Weir and the lot.

Research suggests LGBT folks are more likely to cross any number of racial, religious and socio-political boundaries in our dating lives, so why does out Hollywood only seem to reflect one side of this coin? One of the problems with only seeing out black folks in relationships with white people is that it further perpetuates the untrue notion that a queer sexuality is something that only happens to black folks through a connection with white people.

I am not against interracial relationships, but I am against the eroticizing and exoticizing of people of color by some white folks and the belief by some black folks, especially those who have “made it,” that there are no quality people of color to consider as lovers. To be sure, as Marlon Riggs noted in his 1989 documentary film “Tongues Untied,” black men loving black men is still a revolutionary act.

On a final note, I’m sorry to hear that the community organizers and network builders at NC3 will close their doors next month. Mad props for the work they have done to improve lives and build power. Also, shout out and #solidarity to the mostly black workers at Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) fighting for treatment and pay comparable to their mostly white counterparts at the Louisville Water Company.