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Simpsons College Course: Television and the Culture Industry

While perusing an essay about wiki and authorship, I came across a wild-looking college syllabus about an honors literature class devoted to the Simpsons TV show. And who said being a humanities scholar was tough?

This includes a fascinating breakdown of themes and conflicts: struggles between individuals, Blind Faith, Consumerism and Marriage (plus many others).

The Commodification Of Culture And Its Implications For The Television Industry: An Examination Of The Culture Industry Thesis by Brian Grant discusses mass media/pop culture in terms of the Frankfurt School (a weak spot in my intellectual background, btw). Curiously, much of the ideas from the Frankfurt school seemed to have an influence on Benkler’s book (especially Chapter 5 and Chapter 8). Benkler asserts that in the 20th century, cultural products (DVDs, books, CD’s) are produced and distributed by the “industrial model” whereas in the 21th century, the “folk art” model will prevail. (Here’s a generous excerpt about culture industries by Adorno) Enough of Benkler; now for the Brian Grant excerpt:

This sets up a contradiction. Television is a cheap and readily available means of dissemination and propagation, at least in the Western World, and one characterized as necessary by most of its users. The range of channels and programmes and the wealth of information that is transmissible should guarantee a broad-based output, and such an output should cater, in some degree, for an audience as various as the population itself.

Homogeneity in broadcasting is quite understandable where commercial television is concerned. Commercial television is largely supported by advertising, and therefore requires popularity; consistently the most popular shows are those aimed at a passive and uncritical audience. This state of affairs tallies with the pervasiveness of the capitalist ideology. Those aspects of the society’s culture here represented are familiar interpretations either of reality or of real issues. The programmes are soap operas, chat shows, gameshows, most sports events, sitcoms, certain films, TV films or dramas, and most children’s television. It is reasonable that representations of pop culture will be popular with audiences and advertisers alike.

In many senses the television, more so than other media, has the viewer as a cultural tourist. Technology has made possible the penetration of many varieties of culture into the mainstream, in concert with financial and cultural demands necessitating the importation of much of a channel’s schedule; there is undeniable closeness of cultures available at any time. We supplement our imports with evidence we obtain ourselves. In keeping with the broadcaster’s rationale, such information will be transmitted as pre-interpreted (or, for some, “pre-digested”), which is fundamental for popular acceptance. This induces preconceptions. Primarily, we are encouraged to judge other cultures on the terms of our interpreters, who must balance the expectations of the mini-capitalisms who support them with their own experience, and, more importantly, the evidence captured on camera. In effect we exalt ourselves. It is a triumph for our society to be able to report from outside itself and to comment on what it sees. Politically, such reportage represents the logical progression of broadcasting’s origins in militarism: television is a tool of the society used in pursuit of its own ideals. It is difficult to imagine it otherwise.

Apparently Brian Grant has gathered a series of essays related to pop culture here. Here’s a fascinating essay by Louise Wood of how the concept of female beauty has evolved over the century:

For the first two decades of the 20th century, many of the attitudes towards beauty associated with the 19th century remained. In Victorian society, it was considered a woman’s duty to make herself beautiful. In the early 20th century, this was coupled with the idea of “self-presentation” as enjoyable, expressive and creative. However, some of the more bizarre and painful “beauty aids” of the Victorian age continued to be marketed well into the 1920s. A particularly unpleasant example is “M.Trielty’s Nose Shaper”, described as a “metal object … held over the nose by straps buckled round the head and adjusted with screws.”

One of the main elements of this century’s perception of beauty that sets it apart from the 19th century is the polarity of cosmetics. In the last century, cosmetics were frowned upon in society as the mark of a prostitute. The cosmetics industry grew from the roots of the manufacturing of theatre make-up by Helena Rubenstein and Max Factor, who adapted their products for everyday use.

The cosmetics and fashion industries are interdependent with the medium of advertising. Cynthia White points out that the turnabout in opinions on cosmetics is women’s magazines in the 1920s coincided with the increase of cosmetics advertising in the same publications. Advertising is often presumed to have little cultural value, but is a powerful way in which attitudes towards women and beauty are reinforced. The 20th century fascination with celebrities is a tool expertly used in the advertising industry. If a beautiful model, or more effectively a beautiful celebrity is used in an advertisement, the qualities associated with that person are transferred onto the product.

Another major influence on this century’s attitudes towards beauty was the growth of the film industry. For the first half of the century, all the major beauty icons were film actresses. It was a medium that allowed women who would have previously been overlooked to shine. For instance, the 19th century aversion to redheads was still in place as late as the 20s. It was that black-and-white medium that allowed Clara Bow to be the exception. However, stars such as Bette Davis and Katherine Turner who could not be described as “conventionally beautiful” invariably came from middle or upper class backgrounds. Beauty was an essential attribute for a working class woman to become successful in Hollywood. This period was also the beginning of the ties between the film and fashion industries, which would continue for decades to come.

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