Women in Popular Culture (entry for Encyclopedia of Women’s Folklore and Folklife)

Mary Magoulick, Georgia College & State University                                    Revised 2006

            Popular culture is the term for artistic expressions of the people, at least half of whom are women.  Its academic definition overlaps substantially with that of folklore as both involve the broad study of creative expression in context.  Sometimes women’s popular culture subverts the status quo; sometimes it reflects women’s lives, including prejudices they face.  Whether a popular form celebrates women, demeans them, or interpretably or alternatively does both, understanding it teaches us much about women’s culture and folklore generally. 

            Some scholars argue that popular culture is a post-industrial phenomenon beginning late in the nineteenth century, and link it exclusively to mass media phenomena (Russell Nye 1970, Herbert Gans 1974).  Others trace it farther back, considering it the “expressive materials of any group, large or small, pre-industrial or post-industrial” (Ladurie 1979; David 1977; Burke 1978; “Popular Culture: A Background”).  Most folklorists and feminists use the phrase in this second sense of the aesthetics and pastimes of everyday life.  “Popular” means “of the people.”  Popular culture thus usually connotes creative expressions of ordinary people as opposed to those of a society’s elite or educated classes (typically literature, visual art, and music).  The term “culture” has many layers of meaning.  Today, it is most often understood as those processes of learned behavior and creative expression that can be interpreted at some level as symbolic.

            Popular culture encompasses a wide variety of genres: television programs, films, popular (pulp) fiction, graphic novels, cartoons, music, fashion, entertainments including circuses, gambling, festivals, beauty pageants, and rodeos, games, parks, food, sports, toys, religions, fads, celebrity icons, bumper stickers, and graffiti.  This is a suggestive rather than a comprehensive list.  What often separates the field of popular culture studies from that of cultural studies is the extent to which the context (worldviews, attitudes, thoughts, opinions, and lifestyles) of art makers and audiences are taken into consideration in studying or evaluating it.  Like folklorists, scholars of popular culture consider interactions between the art itself (the lore or the culture) and the people who make and/or use the art (the population, populace, or folk).

            Its detractors consider popular culture to be of poorer quality or less worthy of academic study than high art because it lacks cultivation or confirmation from elite critics of its aesthetic worth or complexity.  Feminist folklorists however, recognize the political implications of this view.  Patriarchal perspectives consider men and their artistic works as more advanced than others. Critics of this notion of popular culture suggest that, too often, because Euro North Americans, whose popular culture is disseminated on a grand scale throughout the world, assume the privilege and entitlement of White men under patriarchy; Euro North Americans anticipate and readily celebrate their own cultural productions much more quickly and easily than they do art made by people of color, by persons of non-European-origin cultures, and by women. 

            Feminist folklorists advocate working to understand popular culture in its own terms, articulating presumptions about culture, and recognizing how privilege may influence aesthetic interpretation.  They note that, like all human expressions, popular culture reflects a wide range of talent, depth, and complexity.  Just as folklore studies have recognized and admired the skills and aesthetics of the traditional arts―Turkish rugs, Pueblo pottery, Irish fairy tales―so popular culture scholars identify and respect the aesthetics of popular culture forms―free-style rap, comic book art, television programs, local food contests, celebrity fandom, science fiction.  They assert that all such genres have endless potential and contain profoundly rich, symbolic art.  While some examples of pop culture may be shallow or short-lived, others are likely to perplex, challenge, delight, stimulate, horrify, pacify, anger, soothe, humor, delight, and provoke audiences and critics alike for centuries to come.

            Women’s connections to popular culture both enhance and complicate conceptions and discussions of its forms and aesthetics.  A society’s popular culture can reflect the lives of its disenfranchised members.  It can include non-canonical expressions (those outside the body of generally acclaimed and approved great works of art).  Popular culture, then, is an ideal site for locating sympathies and connections to women and women’s studies, since women are often disenfranchised and rarely canonized.  But since popular culture reflects the standards, beliefs, and practices of an entire society, discrimination against and negative attitudes about women and girls surface in it as often as in elite-origin cultural forms.  Of course, popular culture, like any art form, can be both mainstream and subversive at the same time—which is what makes it so interesting.

            Women, like any underclass, have a better chance of maintaining control over their own artistic expressions in spontaneous and grassroots situations than they do in forms with high profiles and/or profit potentials.  Popular forms made by or for women however, remain controversial even in academic popular culture studies; they are sometimes mocked, sometimes elevated.  For example, early popular culture theorist Jürgen Habermas (1962) suggested that pulp fiction in general, and romance novels for women in particular, were the quintessence of false consciousness, alienated thinking, and commodity capitalism.  That women are interested in reading such rubbish only showed how deluded they are, claimed Habermas.  In contrast, feminist Janice Radway (1987) looks not only at the romance novel industry and its women-focused marketing practices, but also the ways in which women read resistantly to find escape from their lives, but also for practice in imagining less oppressive possibilities. 

            Some genres of popular culture, like the romance novel, completely dominated by and focused on women, may actually subscribe to the dominant cultural philosophy, stereotyping women as dependent on men for fulfillment.  Despite the fact that romance novels are devoted, at least on one level, to the very outcomes patriarchy expects (seeing women happily married and ready to produce children), these works are generally belittled and despised, especially by powerful men. Many men, and many feminists as well, may nonetheless mock those women who find in romances ways to take charge, artistically explore, and possibly even enjoy the sensual possibilities of their historically assigned functions.  Many romance readers and writers, however, subvert the genre with readings that move them beyond the novel’s assigned roles.

            Religion provides another way through which women take control of their lives and participate in creatively expressive communities.  Women who find the dogma and rituals of their religious organizations too oppressive and/or too male-centered often begin popular religious groups.  Those groups are sometimes still connected to the dominant father institution but allow for more fulfilling creative outlets and communal experiences (e.g., Sawain 2004).  Joan of Arc is one of the more popular examples of this phenomenon, as is the lesser known and probably fictive medieval Pope Joan (Johanna).  Women’s groups may also form sub-cultures within their churches, mosques, temples, or synagogues.  There are also as many new religions and spiritual communities sprouting up now in North America as have arisen ever in its history (see for example Sarah Pike, Earthy Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community, 2001; Elaine Lawless, Holy Women, Wholly Women: Sharing Ministries Through Life Stories and Reciprocal Ethnography, 1993; and Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in American Today, 1979).  Some of these are female-centered, like Wicca and Neopaganism, wherein women are venerated figures, functionaries, and officials, and play significant roles as adherents. 

            But even in the most traditional worship communities, women may come together to form their own symbolically communicative groups.  In Roman Catholicism, for example, women are disallowed from becoming priests, and many feel frustrated at being locked out of such opportunities to fully express their most profound spiritual experiences.  Yet, since the earliest days of Christianity, women have founded spiritual societies that allowed them expressive outlets.  Although many female medieval mystics had little power or prestige in their own day, they nonetheless wrote music and poetry that is now enjoying popular renewal.  The eleventh century Hildegard of Bingen, for example, though limited in education, headed a convent, composed music, and wrote treatises on natural history and visionary works of religious literature.  Her accomplishments reflect a continuing tradition of ways in which women have enlisted and enjoyed popular expressive modes, regardless of social status.  Recently, all-women musical groups such as Sequoia (1994) and Anonymous 4 (2005) have produced mass-marketed CDs that interpret Hildegard’s music using a pop aesthetic that appeals to contemporary tastes.  Music such as Hildegard’s, now 900 years old, continues to provide inspiration to some groups of women religious who play it at gatherings; following her example, they also devise and lead their own creative versions of liturgical celebrations. 

            While the official culture of the Catholic Church maintains male-centered control over the Sacrament of the Mass, dictating how people may worship and express themselves within it, at the more informal level of individual churches women can build sub-cultures of their own, rich in symbolism, history, and significance.  Some particularly active groups in the Unitarian and Episcopal traditions, for example, have succeeded in changing church policies to allow for the ordination of female and queer priests and ministers, in changing liturgical language to less sexist forms, and in recovering submerged and/or invisible women from earlier texts and interpretations.  In Judaism, there have been women rabbis and cantors in Reform and Conservative Judaism since the last quarter of the twentieth century, the consequence of the women’s movement and a reinvention and/or recovery of Shechinah (the feminine side of God), the matriarchs (Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, and Leah), and the role of women in the liturgy.  In many cases, women involved in popular religious communities produce tangible products that reflect the processes of their cultures, e.g., they may trace the significance of women in the Bible, record music, create or decorate sacred spaces, prepare elaborate meals, or design and sew special clothing.

            The U. S. television industry significantly intersects with women’s issues in the domain of popular culture, an arena in which it holds undisputed global sway.  Men overwhelmingly dominate the television industry as executives, producers, directors, writers, editors, and staff who determine the types and content of the programs they broadcast.  For decades, girls and women on television have been stereotyped according to male images, expectations, and desires, stereotypes that, in general, reflect socio-economic patterns.  In an economy dependant upon continuous growth, women are expected to ensure that their children will become (re)producers and consumers.  Within North America’s systems of corporate capitalism, the expansion of consumption thus remains women’s primary life-goal, resulting in images of women on television that are overwhelmingly either sexualized or domesticated.  Classical television moms―like June Cleaver of Leave It To Beaver, at home all day in her wide-skirted dress, endlessly cooking, cleaning house, and seeing to the children’s every need―are no longer the only option portrayed, though.  Some critics argue that newer, less domesticated images of female sexuality in television roles are evidence that women are no longer stereotyped as reproducers and consumers; instead they are allowed a wide range of social roles and responsibilities.  Others, however, insist that today’s hypersexualization of women playing the roles of educators, lawyers, doctors, police, politicians, and so on is equally demeaning.  Today’s television images still portray women as almost exclusively White, middle-class, and heterosexual.  Even when lesbians and women of color do appear in prime time, it is generally to serve as foils, victims, deviants, or objects of male desire, not as role models in their own right.  And despite the widely acknowledged commercial success of Rosanne, few mainstream television programs have depicted working-class women as primary characters since its run ended in 1997.

            Susan Faludi’s 1991 Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women suggests that television programs and films vilify truly independent women―making them awful human beings like Glenn Close’s character Alex in Fatal Attraction (1987) or very unhappy ones like the single women on the series Thirtysomething (1987-1991).  Numerous “reality shows” like The Bachelorette, Joe Millionaire, Married by America, Race to the Altar, and others emphasize women as desperate to get married—to anyone who seems prosperous and handsome—much in the mold of fairy tales from hundreds of years ago (Orenstein, 2003).   Independent married women are no less “desperate” as seen in the first season of Desperate Housewives (2004-2005).  In general, women in television still break very few molds, and even those who win out over hostile forces must face them over and over again on a weekly basis.  Most television programming that features women as developed characters still ultimately portrays them as wives and mothers, as striving to become wives and mothers, or as otherwise seeking to attach themselves to men.      Exceptional television women like Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards (1970-1977), The Bionic Woman (1976-1978), Murphy Brown (1988-1998), and more recently, female action heroes like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), La Femme Nikita (1997-2001), and New Zealand’s Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001), represent the possibility of greater female independence compared with most women on television.  But too often, even they do not stray too far from convention.  Mary Richards, television’s first reasonably well-adjusted single woman, searches throughout her series for the perfect man and relies extensively upon her male boss and colleagues.  More recently Sex and the City (1998-2004) is applauded for showing single women as strong, honest, independent, and happy, albeit also hypersexualized.  But that series features many episodes in which the women lament their inability to find the right (male) partner, and ends with each attaching herself to a man in a long-term relationship (either married and starting a family or on the road to marriage and “security”). 

Female superheroes on television like Jamie Summers (The Bionic Woman) and all the more contemporary women warriors (Sydney on Alias, Xena, Nikita, and Buffy included) remain closely bound to men, who guide them, may determine their fates, help them in battles, or even fight against them.  But one can argue that the men are also tied to the women, who do the same for them.  Most disturbingly, all these women also get into intensely violent physical and emotional battles, not only with their enemies, but with their love partners, family, and friends. They live in constant torment, face slews of monsters, demons, and/or terrorists, while routinely lamenting their hellish fates.  While many feminists view Joss Whedon’s Buffy as a successfully realized icon of liberal feminism’s goals concerning “the joy of female power: getting it, using it, sharing it” (Whedon 2004), these television dramas can also function as projections of hostility toward strong and independent women.

             North American feminists have long realized the subversive power of popular culture.  When the dominant society disenfranchises or oppresses us, we will find ways to express ourselves in informal popular culture.  In 1989, for example, the Guerilla Girls plastered New York City with broadsides noting that the Metropolitan Museum of Art displayed a large number of female nudes but only a tiny percentage of works by female artists; was female nudity a requirement for admission?  Eve Enlser’s The Vaginia Monologues uses humor, wit, and some fieldwork-based performance techniques to bring new perspectives on women’s lives to theaters and even to television’s Home Box Office (HBO 2002).  And the National Women’s Music Festival and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival offer venues for women’s music that may not find mainstream appeal. 

            Like popular culture itself, many women’s groups, writers, and activities find themselves labeled and treated as second-rate.  Such marginalization can, however, confer on some women and girls a level of autonomy that allows them free, unfettered creative expression; since their work and practice is dismissed as less serious, they can do what they want.  Some of us turn to quilting or gardening, as Alice Walker’s foremothers did.  Others get together for coffee klatches, potlucks, and book clubs that strengthen individual and community ties.  We speculate about gender and society in popular fiction, as do science fiction writers Ursula K. LeGuin, Joanna Russ, and Sherri S. Tepper.  Others of us commit political acts advocating for peace and justice, like making bumper stickers or wrapping a ribbon around the Pentagon (Pershing and Yocom 1996).


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