More Random Pop Culture Stuff

The more times I teach this American Pop Culture course, the more I begin to find other ways it could be taught. One way I’m thinking is that I could simply take seminal films — The Godfather,  Annie, Tootsie, Do the Right Thing, King Kong — and then explore all the various cultural dimensions that wouldn’t be apparent to students coming at them from outside Western culture. But I like the way I’m teaching it now, with lots of readings and so on. I have a very interesting observation on one of the books I’m reading for the course, but I’ll save it for another post.

As for stuff garnered from the stack of essays:

  • I don’t remember Canadian students being quite so ardent in their efforts to turn other countries and cultures monolithic, but I’m constantly writing, “American culture isn’t as monolithic as you suggest here” in my typed feedback comments to students.” Which isn’t surprising given how monolithically Korean society is  presented to me, and I suspect how (frustratingly, for some) monolithic it ends up looking to a lot of Koreans too, but it really does drive home how distorting having a monolithic view is.To some degree, I feel like one can validly say, in cultural studies, that of this list: 1. a monolithic view; 2. insight; and 3. critical angle, it seems as if one is unable to have all three –at best, you get to pick two. And the one I’m asking students to notpick is monolithic view. 
  • Having just read a student paper on Annie, I wandered off to Wikipedia to read more and discovered not only that the original cartoon was around during the Great Depression, but also that the Raggedy Ann dolls and Little Orphan Annie were inspired by the same source. Also, and I knew this before, but it’s interesting how much less popular Dickens is in Korea –of course he is — yet there was a pop song in Korean, at some point, about Oliver Twist. No, seriously — but I can’t seem to find it anywhere online. But it seems it wasn’t apparent to at least one student how Annie (ie. Little Orphan Annie) is, in some sense, a kind of American, rags-to-riches remix of Oliver Twist. Not so surprising, but it makes me wonder whether I shouldn’t use Annie in a class, and bring this up. (Since so much of American pop culture seems to be a remix of older British pop culture, a theme worth bringing up.)
  • Sometimes, the one who plagiarizes is the last you’d expect. It pays, in such cases, not to have any expectations at all. It’s especially frustrating when you know the person who plagiarized could have gotten an A+ on his or her own merits, but decided to cheat anyway. Argh.
  • I remain unconvinced of the greatness of Andy Warhol.
  • It’s interesting how a little detail that most Westerners would simply realize and take for granted — like, say, the fact that Stephen Spielberg is Jewish-American — must be discovered by my students only through research. Also: what the hell is going on in Schindler’s List, by the way? It’s a movie about the Holocaust, but one seen through the eyes of a sympathetic German who does his little bit to help long after complacently sitting by and watching horror emerge. It’s a weird, weird movie. I didn’t realize that in the theater when I saw it, of course — my blind spots being what they were, and in some ways still are — but in the years since, it’s struck me as a very odd film.
  • It’s funny how a figure like Madonna can strike someone as interesting even when she is received without any clear sense  of the society and pop-culture tradition from which she emerged; to me, Madonna is interesting as a late, white reiteration of Josephine Baker, as a remix of Marilyn Monroe, but also as a product of and reaction to disputes over what feminism was and ought to be and mean and do in America. But for a student who gives no hint of any of that context, Madonna as a figure seems to fascinate as well. Which raises the question of whether what Madonna transgresses against, and the tensions and anxieties she manipulated in her early career at least, are something more fundamental and widespread in, say, modern cultures.
  • Tootsie. It’s another one of those weird films, and I found myself connecting it to Avatar in that it’s all about how a man makes a better consciousness-raised feminist than a woman, and thus a man in drag, experiencing sexism for the first time in his life, can serve as a role model and inspiration for women who somehow, despite having lived in a sexist world all their lives, and despite some of  them having been active feminists and so on, really truly need a man to dress up as a woman so he can understand sexism and then teach them how to overcome it. And yet, objectionable as all of this is, I have to wonder whether the film was, for some men, not a consciousness raising experience (sort of like how in China, many viewers seem to have skipped the racist Noble Savage stuff and gone straight to the ostensibly anti-imperialist message, and then applied it to their own society). It’s all quite decidedly odd.
  • I loved how one student pointed out that Brokeback Mountain seems functionally different from recent Korean films like The King and the Clown and A Frozen Flower in that its depiction of homosexuality seems tied, through its use of different characters and familes as exemplars of progressive and conservative politics, to the real political status of sexuality in America. (However problematically.) The student noted that in popular Korean cinematic treatments of homosexuality, the issue is treated more like something fantastical, rather than something related to real people living out a rather marginalized existence in Korean society. She noted that however romanticized homosexuality is in these films, Koreans don’t seem to be any more sympathetic to homosexuality once they step outside movie theaters. To this, I’d add that in fact, in both the Korean films mentioned, the “gay” character is a king, and somewhat villainous. (Usually, he uses his political power to extract sexual favors from his subjects, even when they may, or manifestly do, prefer to have sex with women.) In both these films, the clearest bad-guy around is the homosexual king. I’m not sure what to make of it, but it’s an iteresting pattern to watch out for, especially when the next gay-king film hits  the silver screen.
  • It’s interesting how young people’s sense of history seems to begin, these days, with the Korean war. I waded through a long discussion of the influence of American popular culture on Korean, and it was curiously devoid of any comment or gesture towards the role of Japanese popular culture as a precursor (surely Japanese enka prepared the road for American rock and folk music here), or a mediator (a lot of “American” fashion here seems to have diffused first via Japan; hairstyles seem still to do so). Of course, this is also easier for someone to do when one is invested in the task of chastising Korea for giving up its “pure” and “unique” original culture in the face of foreign influence. For anyone looking for an ideological fascination that is sure to hobble sensible academic analysis of pretty  much everything, racial and cultural purism should be at the top of the list of usefully crippling notions.
  • I knew this before, but wow are vampires culturally specific things. That is to say, the  underlying mythos of vampires postulates a very specific metaphysical reality, one that has religious components, racial ones, sexual normativity components, as well as notions of power, reproduction, and more. And yet, it appeals worldwide. No matter where you go, people who are at least a little in touch with Western media know of and get a kick out of vampire movies. This suggests that at the core, vampires are like a lot of religious ideas in that, fundamentally, they operate as a trope in ways that human brains are configured such that they are conceptually intelligible.  I think there must be a paper in there, probably heavily citing Pascal Boyer’s wonderful book Religion Explained. (I’ve said the same thing about zombies as well.)
  • One student did a really outstanding analysis. It was of the film Brave One, and she argued essentially it is the  quintessential post-9/11 film in that it is constructed so as to embody the American trauma and reaction to the falling of the Twin Towers. She didn’t go quite so far as to point out that the film essentially justifies the violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, such horrors as the torture in Abu Ghraib and the long-term imprisonment of people at Guantanamo Bay, and that indeed the film suggests recovery from trauma is simply impossible, but she did pull up the parallel and critique it to some degree.

I’m now finished that stack of essays, and I think I’ll move on to a pile of shorter assignments that aren’t needing more than cursory comments. (The approximately 16,000 words of comments I’ve written in response to this one stack of essays over the last 3 days has taken a lot out of me, but I have a lot more grading to get done by Tuesday… so much that I’m actually missing a homebrewers’ party down in south of Seoul. Grrr.)

3 thoughts on “More Random Pop Culture Stuff

  1. “I remain unconvinced of the greatness of Andy Warhol.”

    You and me both.

    As for Madonna: a week or so ago, the TV series “Glee,” which is a musical comedy about a high school glee club, did an episode devoted to Madonna. Worth watching, though it might help to research the show so as to understand the humor in its proper context.

    If you’re able to access, you can look the show up (“The Power of Madonna”).

  2. I’d be very interested to hear a treatment of the way zombies function in different cultures, and have that compared to the ways vampires function, particularly because Vampires are a lot older, and I’d say, have a more impressive literature than film heritage, while (the voodoo zombie excepted) zombies are much more recent, and almost completely the province of film.

  3. Kevin,

    I can’t get at Hulu, but there might be other ways. Glee? Is that the show about the young people singing cover versions of songs? I think that airs here, or in Indonesia. I saw some white, obviously-privileged guy singing what I think was the most famous song from Tracy Chapman’s first album, and I was all, “Huh?”


    Ah, well, I don’t know how much has been done with “Western-style” zombies (as opposed to other local forms of undead reanimated corpses) in non-Western cinema. Indonesian film has lots of zombie-like beings, but they have much more in common with revenge-seeking revenants than with zombies in American cinema.

    That said, vampires aren’t so old… really, everything we have dates back only a half-century and a bit beyond the first zombies in Western film. (To Stoker.)

    I do have an article in Korean, though, in one of the copies of the Korean SF magazine “Fantasia” that discussed the use of the term zombies during the demonstrations of summer 2008. It seems people on both sides were using zombies metaphorically to embody their arguments: people who feared BSE-tainted beef apparently metaphorized this feared risk as the danger of a zombie plague; on the other side, conservative-leaning comemntators compared the crowds marching in the streets to hordes of shambling zombies. It’s something I mentioned in passing in my article at Clarkesworld about SFnal tropes in the context of the demonstrations, but I’ve said more here about it than I ever did there.

    On a side note, Koreans seem to have used more ghosts in their horror than anything else. There’s a small sub-strain of (what I can only think of as) Japanese-SF/horror/manga-influenced stuff in the really wild, hardcore films of Gee-woong Nam, like Killing Machine but that’s the sort of thing only a tiny number of people have ever seen, in Korea or abroad. (And for good reason, though I do have a copy of course…)

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