I’m sitting at a communal table in an inner-Melbourne cafe; from the back of the laptop opposite, a row of cryptic-looking cartoon characters—all heads, no bodies—are grimacing and mugging at me with odd-shaped mouths. A woman at the next table says ‘winter is coming’ and her companions laugh, because they are in on the joke. Out on the street, a child waiting for a tram is rendered a mere stick figure under his/her oversized, fluffy head-dress: yellow with big black eyes and rosy cheeks, instantly recognisable as Pikachu the Pokemon.
And I wonder: what does it all mean, this ocean of pop culture in which we’re drowning? With a view to DIY lifeboat construction, I stowed away on the good ship POPCAANZ19, aka the Popular Culture Association of Australia and New Zealand’s tenth annual conference, at RMIT University last week.
There were more than 75 academic papers presented at the conference—not quite as overwhelming as your pop-culture media options on an average Tuesday night, but too many to make a considered decision. So I went with my first impulse, which took me to a presentation on why female superheroes are suddenly everywhere.
It turns out the reason—in a theft I’ll call ‘adaptation’ because adaptation is all the rage in pop culture studies right now—is because a) women and men like them and b) women are finally getting to write and direct comics, TV series and movies.
It’s as simple as that: we like them. They’re fun, powerful, interesting and they (along with a new sub-wave of gay and trans heroes) reflect us back to ourselves. And what we like, we’ll pay for; what we’ll pay for, the studios will make more of.
Behind that simple virtuous circle, of course, is a complex array of social mechanisms and ‘semiotic bubbles’ bouncing up against each other inside what Russian theorist called the semiosphere. I stole that, and all the rest of this female-superhero stuff, from Angela Ndalianis, Research Professor in Media and Entertainment at Swinburne University, who gave the keynote at POPCAANZ19.
The change seems sudden, but has been brewing for decades; Ndalianis points to the decline of female-unfriendly ‘comic dungeon’ bookstores in favour of online sources; the new public challenges to sexist attitudes, casting and creative lineups; the surprising fact that ‘men actually would go to the movies to see a superhero movie directed by a woman’, as proven by the unexpected mega-success of the Wonder Woman film.
I’m thinking of the superhero flavour of the character Bo Peep in the latest Toy Story—she sheds her long skirt, dons a cape more Batman than Red Riding Hood, and zooms around the place in a mechanical skunk-mobile—but Ndalianis has a darker vision. (This wouldn’t be pop culture without plot spoilers, so if you haven’t finished watching Game of Thrones, skip the next three paragraphs.)
She screens a video clip showing a bar packed with people staring in naked horror and apprehension at something just to the left of the camera. The tension mounts; no one moves. Then, in a single moment, every person screams with joy; they punch the air, whoop, raise their hands to their mouths. Their hero has saved them.
The clip shows an audience seeing, for the first time, Arya Stark killing the Night King and thereby saving pretty much every human alive from joining his zombie army. Arya has a classic superhero origin story—‘a path of revenge to rid the world of the evil that tore her world apart’ and the murderous skills to back it up. And, as Ndalianis says, ‘the fact that she’s a girl didn’t dissuade a single male in that clip from going apeshit over what she did’.
Arya Stark and the can-do female superhero are ‘sticking a knife into the gut of the traditional (male) hero’. A female Pakistani-America Muslim superhero, Ms Marvel, is one of Marvel comic’s most popular characters.
‘The shift began on a grassroots level and is filtering up,’ Ndalianis says. Female fans are close to 50 per cent of many audiences, and one study of Facebook comic fans found girls are the majority of fans aged under 18. These are not the sort of women to take sexist depictions quietly: a young female illustrator created The Hawkeye Initiative, which re-draws images of bizarrely posed and scantily dressed female heroes, replacing them with male heroes in the same positions and outfits. It’s hilarious.
In short, the comics and superhero industry has finally caught up with its audience and ‘in cynical terms … dollars signs are driving this’, Ndalianis says. But as those semiotic bubbles push up against each other, it’s only a matter of time before the new wave becomes the new norm.
The academic study of pop culture, like pop culture itself, is a recursive maze of references, ideas and high and low culture masquerading as each other. ‘The new norm’ sneaks up on us behind a stalking screen composed of game shows, favourite characters, rewrites of old, old old stories; think The Odyssey, set in deep space. Pop culture academics are here to understand the process for us, and while they’re at it, to make us feel less guilty about binge-watching The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
For three days, POPCAANZ19 conference wrenched participants out of everyday life into a parallel world of methodology, pedagogical interventions and thinking about Derrida before lunchtime. The paradox of popular culture academia is that the more popular, even humdrum, the cultural phenomenon under study, the more abstruse the theoretical approach seems to need to be.
Yet the researchers gathered in the endlessly disorienting confines of RMIT University’s Building 80 (a structure seemingly designed by a crazed crystallographer) all came to their subjects by earthly routes. One paper, on how graphic designers relate to their clients, had its genesis in a dramatic complaint—‘I’ve just been screamed at by a client’. When the researcher, himself a designer, heard the same words, delivered the same way years later on the opposite side of the world, he didn’t just marvel at the similarity. Instead, he saw something so ‘performative’ and scripted that he spent months interviewing designers about their feelings, then had those feelings ‘acted out’ by real actors as part of the project.
To pop culture academics, what washes over us, what we’re drowning in, is not water. It’s a complex chemical compound to be captured, distilled, and put under the microscope. A passion for the fashion in the TV show The Crown becomes an investigation into how royal clothing is portrayed on screen. Turns out, the Brits are more likely to hew closely to the strict yet expressive dress codes of the Family Firm; the Americans represent the royal circus more like Dynasty and Dallas.
There is no in-group so microscopic that it can’t teach us something about ourselves.
One Phd-wielding academic from the University of Western Australia is researching the way AFOLs—Adult Fans Of Lego—play together online and offline. During her presentation, she distributes Lego pieces for us to noodle with, and afterwards collects them in order to incorporate them in her research. She explains that she’s going to re-create the seminar room in Lego, as part of her report back to the community she’s researching. For no longer can ethnographers simply observe—they should include, consult, and ‘give back to’ the groups from which they’re sucking up data.
At which I feel a tiny twinge of journalistic guilt, in that I’m merrily scribbling down the juiciest quotes and weirdest facts from paper after paper: observing, but not joining in their culture. Sitting at the back of a postmodernist-shaped seminar room (no centre; no defined front or back; windows of irregular dimensions, set on strange angles), it occurs to me that these ‘popular culture’ investigations are the kind of research projects that the ‘popular press’ ridicule, and that politicians from time to time ostentatiously de-fund to show how in-touch they are with the real Australia.
But what could be more Australian than Skippy the Bush Kangaroo? In the same seminar room, I record this quote: there is a dearth of scholarship on Skippy because ‘no one takes a crime fighting, problem solving marsupial seriously.’ This academic does, for one. He points out that not only was Skippy the most widely watched Australian TV show of its time (screened across America and Europe, and seen by more people than saw Neighbours), it also—however problematically—broke ground in representing Indigenous Australians on the small screen, even broaching issues like the Aboriginal right to the land way back in the early 70s. While we sit in our fractured ivory tower discussing just how racist, exactly, Skippy was, I glance at my phone and find that Twitter is discussing—almost rioting over—whether a fictional mermaid may or may not be played by a woman of colour.
Someone, I think, has to take this stuff seriously, or it will take us over. Someone has to put it in perspective, even if they do it while carrying a Star Wars tote bag and wearing Hello Kitty barettes in their hair.
The problem is, when it comes to studying popular culture, there are too many options: too many phenomena, too many theoretical frameworks. At this conference alone, there’s the thriving Kolkota, India, beatmaking scene, which serves as a crucial archive for disappearing analogue records and tapes from a lost golden age of Bollywood; there’s the key role propaganda about women served in cementing China’s cultural revolution, and then in re-starting consumerist economy afterwards. There’s the growing disquiet about how reality TV chews up participants—one researcher has coined the term ‘identity trauma’ for the post-show disorder participants suffer, because of the disconnect between who they are and who the show claims them to be. There’s the deep psychology of fan fiction; our need to incorporate the stories we live with in our own narratives, and the sheer pleasure of power over the characters. And there’s Sabrina —a teenage fantasy drama that is an extraordinary mashup of the 17th century Salem witch trials, modern feminist thought and all the previous Sabrina shows and comics for the past seven decades.
Too many channels; too much to choose from.
By the time it’s over, I have a list of female superheroes to watch, an insight into the power of dressing like a queen when you’re only a princess, and, inevitably, several new, fully footnoted, points to make next time Star Trek comes up in conversation. I boldly go out onto Swanston Street, ready to explore strange new worlds.