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Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture


Connecting Social Problems and

Popular Culture SECOND EDITION


Karen Sternheimer University of Southern California

A Member of the Perseus Books Group


Westview Press was founded in 1975 in Boulder, Colorado, by notable publisher and intellectual Fred Praeger. Westview Press continues to publish scholarly titles and high- quality undergraduate- and graduate-level textbooks in core social science disciplines. With books developed, written, and edited with the needs of serious nonfiction readers, professors, and students in mind, Westview Press honors its long history of publishing books that matter.

Copyright © 2013 by Karen Sternheimer

Published by Westview Press, A Member of the Perseus Books Group

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, address Westview Press, 2465 Central Avenue, Boulder, CO 80301.

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Westview Press books are available at special discounts for bulk purchases in the United States by corporations, institutions, and other organizations. For more information, please contact the Special Markets Department at the Perseus Books Group, 2300 Chestnut Street, Suite 200, Philadelphia, PA 19103, or call (800) 810-4145, ext. 5000, or e-mail special.markets@perseusbooks.com.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Sternheimer, Karen. Connecting social problems and popular culture : why media is not the answer / Karen Sternheimer. —2nd ed. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-8133-4724-0 (e-book) 1. Mass media—Moral and ethical aspects—United States. 2. Popular culture—Moral and ethical aspects—United States. 3. Mass media and culture—United States. 4. Social problems—United States. I. Title. HN90.M3S75 2013 302.2301—dc23


10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


For Frieda Fettner, whose wisdom and encouragement

will be with me always




1 Media Phobia: Why Blaming Pop Culture for Social Problems Is a Problem

2 Is Popular Culture Really Ruining Childhood?

3 Does Social Networking Kill? Cyberbullying, Homophobia, and Suicide

4 What’s Dumbing Down America: Media Zombies or Educational Disparities?

5 From Screen to Crime Scene: Media Violence and Real Violence

6 Pop Culture Promiscuity: Sexualized Images and Reality

7 Changing Families: As Seen on TV?

8 Media Health Hazards? Beauty Image, Obesity, and Eating Disorders

9 Does Pop Culture Promote Smoking, Toking, and Drinking?

10 Consumption and Materialism: A New Generation of Greed?

11 Beyond Popular Culture: Why Inequality Is the Problem

Selected Bibliography Index



Rather than viewing popular culture as “guilty” or “innocent,” the central theme running through Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture is that various media and the popular culture they promote and produce are reflections of deeper structural conditions—such as poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia—and economic disparities woven into major social institutions. While discussions of sexism in various forms of media, for instance, are often lively and provocative, the representations themselves are not the core reason that gender inequality continues to exist. Media images bring it to our attention and may further normalize sexism for us, but our examination of our society should not end with media.

In order to understand social problems, we need to look beyond media as a prime causal factor. Media may be a good entry point for thinking about how social problems have a basis beyond the sole individual. But while that premise can open the discussion, this book aims to help students and other readers take the next step in understanding social problems. We must look deeper than popular culture—we need to look at the structural roots to understand issues such as bullying, violence, suicide, teen sex and pregnancy, divorce, substance use, materialism, and educational failure.

Neither media nor popular culture stands still for very long—making the study of both a never-ending endeavor. In this second edition of Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture, I include a new chapter on fears about social networking and electronic harassment. With concerns about bullying and “sexting” leading to suicide after news accounts of high-profile cases, it is important to uncover what we know about the role that new media play in such incidents. Perhaps not surprisingly, social networking is less of a culprit than an attention getter. Additionally, each chapter has been updated to incorporate, where applicable, new research and trend data on crime, pregnancy, birth- and divorce rates, substance use, and other social issues for which popular culture is so often blamed.

The “link” between video games and actual violence is always a topic of interest for readers and lay theorists of social problems. In 2011 the US Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that states cannot limit the purchase of violent video games. In handing down this major decision, the Supreme Court decided that California had not proven how actual harm came from playing video games. I address this ruling in greater detail in Chapter 5 on media and violence.


Because popular culture is so ubiquitous—and, frankly, fun—it is a great window for students in a variety of courses to look through as they begin exploring social issues. Students in introductory sociology and media studies courses and social problems and social issues classes, as well as those studying inequality, will be able to make connections between the material and the many common beliefs about media’s effects on society that this book addresses.

By challenging the conventional wisdom about what the media “does” to its consumers—especially those considered less capable than their critics—readers can begin to think critically about the ways in which social issues are framed and how sensationalized news accounts help shape our thinking about the causes of societal problems. Beyond simply debunking common beliefs, this second edition stresses the importance of social structure and provides an introduction to structural explanations for the issues commonly blamed on popular culture. By digging deeper beyond simple cultural arguments, readers learn how policy decisions and economic shifts are important explanatory factors for many issues blamed on media.

Each chapter begins with examples from pop culture that many readers will already be familiar with, taken from celebrity gossip and controversial television shows like Teen Mom, high-profile news stories, and other easily accessible accounts. Additionally, each chapter introduces findings from recent research, often breaking down the components of the sampling and methods for readers to better understand how research is conducted and how to think critically about the results presented in the press. Where applicable, each chapter includes supporting data— and in some cases graphs—from federal sources, such as the census, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to provide evidence of long-term trends, often challenging misperceptions about particular issues. Because these sources are easily accessed online (and URLs are included in notes at the end of chapters), readers can learn to spot-check popular claims about these issues on their own in the future.

The evolution of this book, across its editions, has truly been a team effort. Thanks to Alex Masulis, my first editor at Westview Press, to Evan Carver who, early on, championed the second edition, and to Leanne Silverman, who helped bring the book in your hands to print.

I am also very thankful for my student researchers who helped find articles for this book. William Rice, Jessica Sackman, and Mishirika Scott assisted with the first edition, and Kimberly Blears helped with the revised edition. They and many other undergraduate students at the University of Southern California have been a pleasure to work with; their input in my classes helps keep me grounded in youth culture as time takes me further away from being anywhere near pop culture’s


cutting edge. Several anonymous reviewers provided useful comments and suggestions, and I thank them for helping make this book stronger. For their helpful criticisms and invaluable suggestions, I also want to thank David Briscoe, Joshua Gamson, Kelly James, Marcia Maurycy, Janet McMullen, and Markella Rutherford.

The Department of Sociology at the University of Southern California has been my professional home for many years, and I could not have written this book without years of the department’s enthusiastic support. I am grateful for the many graduate and undergraduate students with whom I have shared countless hours of thought-provoking discussions. Special thanks to Mike Messner, Barry Glassner, Sally Raskoff, Elaine Bell Kaplan, Karl Bakeman, and Eileen Connell for their continued support of me and my work. And most of all, thanks to my family, without whom none of this would be possible. A special thanks to my parents and sisters for their continued support, and for Eli and Julian, who are introducing me to a new generation’s pop culture.




Media Phobia Why Blaming Pop Culture for Social Problems Is a Problem

“They’re here!” Carol Anne exclaims in the 1982 film Poltergeist. “Who’s here?” her mother asks. “The TV people!” answers the wide-eyed blonde girl, mesmerized by the “snow” on the family’s television set. What follows is a family’s sci-fi nightmare: Carol Anne is taken away by the angry spirits terrorizing their home. Her only means of communication to her family is through the television set.

This film’s plot serves as a powerful example of American anxieties about media culture. The angelic child is helpless against its pull and is ultimately stolen, absorbed into its vast netherworld. She is the family’s most vulnerable victim, and as such is drawn into evil without recognizing its danger. Carol Anne’s fate highlights the fear of what television in particular and popular culture more generally may “do to” children: take them someplace dangerous and beyond their parents’ reach. Ultimately, Carol Anne is saved with the help of a medium, but the imagery in the film reflects the terror that children are somehow prey to outsiders who come into unsuspecting homes via the TV set.

Thirty years later, media culture has expanded well beyond television; unlike in Carol Anne’s day, kids today use social networking, smartphones, iPods, the Internet, video games, and other technology that their parents may not even know how to use. Cable television was in its infancy in 1982: MTV was one year old, CNN was two. Today there are hundreds of channels, with thousands more programs available on demand at any time. Unlike in 1982, television stations no longer sign off at night. Our media culture does not rest. What does this mean for young people today, and our future?

Much of the anxiety surrounding popular culture focuses on children, who are often perceived as easily influenced by media images. The fear that popular culture leads young people to engage in problematic behavior, culminating in large-scale social problems, sometimes leads the general public to blame media for a host of troubling conditions.

For many people, this explosion of media over the past decades brings worry that, for instance, kids are so distracted by new technology that they don’t study as much. Are they crueler to one another now, thanks to social networking? Does our entertainment culture mean kids expect constant entertainment? Do kids know too much about sex, thanks to the Internet? Does violent content in video games, movies, and television make kids violent? Promiscuous? Materialistic? Overweight? Anorexic? More likely to smoke, drink, or take drugs?


This book seeks to address these questions, first by examining the research that attempts to connect these issues to popular culture. Despite the commonsense view that media must be at least partly to blame for these issues, the evidence suggests that there are many more important factors that create serious problems in the United States today. Popular culture gets a lot of attention, but it is rarely a central causal factor. Throughout the book, we will also take a step back and think about exactly why it is that so many people fear the effects of popular culture.

You might have noticed that all of the questions posed above focus on young people’s relationship with media and leave most adults out of the equation. As we will see, a great deal of our concern about media and media’s potential effects on kids has more to do with uncertainty about the future and the changing experiences of childhood and adolescence. In addition to considering why we are concerned about the impact of popular culture, this book also explores why many researchers and politicians encourage us to remain afraid of media culture and of kids themselves. Of course, popular culture has an impact on everyone’s life, regardless of age. But this impact is less central in causing problems than factors like inequality, which we will explore throughout the book.

The Big Picture: Poverty, Not Pop Culture

Blaming media for changes in childhood and for causing social problems has shifted the public conversation away from addressing the biggest issues that impact children’s lives. The most pressing crisis American children face today is not media culture but poverty. In 2011—the most recent year for which data are available—more than 16 million children (just under 22 percent of Americans under eighteen) lived in poverty, a rate two to three times higher than that in other industrialized nations. Reduced funding for families in poverty has only exacerbated this problem, as we now see the effects of the 1996 welfare reform legislation that has gradually taken away the safety net from children. Additionally, our two-tiered health care system often prevents poor children from receiving basic health care, as just over 9 percent of American children had no health insurance in 2011.1 These are often children with parents who work at jobs that offer no benefits.

These same children are admonished to stay in school to break the cycle of poverty, yet many of them attend schools without enough books or basic school supplies. Schools in high-poverty areas are more likely to have uncertified teachers; for instance, 70 percent of seventh through twelfth graders in such schools are taught science by teachers without science backgrounds.2 We worry about kids being in danger at school but forget that the most perilous place, statistically speaking, is in their own homes. In 2010, for instance, 915 children were killed by


their parents, compared with 17 killed at school during the 2009–2010 school year.3 By continually hyping the fear of media-made child killers, we forget that the biggest threats to childhood are adults and the policies adults create.

As we will see throughout this book, many of the problems that we tend to lay at the feet of popular culture have more mundane causes. At the root of the most serious challenges American children face, problems like lack of a quality education, violent victimization, early pregnancies, single parenthood, and obesity, poverty plays a starring role; popular culture is a bit player at best. And other issues that this book addresses, such as materialism, substance use, racism, sexism, and homophobia, might be highly visible in popular culture, but it is the adults around young people, as well as the way in which American society is structured, that contribute the most to these issues. These issues are made most visible in popular culture, but their causes are more complex. We will examine these causes in the chapters that follow.

The media have come to symbolize society and provide glimpses of both social changes and social problems. Changes in media culture and media technologies are easier to see than the complex host of economic, political, and social changes Americans have experienced in the past few decades. Graphic video games are easier to see than changes in public policies, which we hear little about, even though they better explain why violence happens and where it happens. We may criticize celebrity single mothers because it is difficult to explore the real and complex situations that impact people’s choices and behavior. What lies behind our fear of media culture is anxiety about an uncertain future. This fear has been deflected onto children, symbolic of the future, and onto media, symbolic of contemporary society.

In addition to geopolitical changes, we have experienced economic shifts over the past few decades, such as the increased necessity for two incomes to sustain middle-class status, which has reshaped family life. Increased opportunities for women have created greater independence, making marriage less of a necessity for economic survival. Deindustrialization and the rise of an information-based economy have left the poorest and least-skilled workers behind and eroded job security for many members of the middle class. Ultimately, these economic changes have made supervision of children more of a challenge for adults, who are now working longer hours.

Since the Industrial Revolution, our economy has become more complex, and adults and children have increasingly spent their days separated from one another. From a time when adults and children worked together on family farms to the development of institutions specifically for children, like age-segregated schools, day care, and organized after-school activities, daily interaction in American society has become more separated by age. Popular culture is another experience that kids may enjoy beyond adult supervision. An increase of youth autonomy has


created fear within adults, who worry that violence, promiscuity, and other forms of “adult” behavior will emerge from these shifts and that parents will have a declining level of influence on their children. Kids spend more time with friends than with their parents as they get older, and more time with popular culture, too. These changes explain in large part why children’s experiences are different now than in the past, but are not just the result of changes in popular culture.

A Brief History of Media Fears

Fear that popular culture has a negative impact on youth is nothing new: it is a recurring theme in history. Whereas in the past, fears about youth were largely confined to children of the working class, immigrants, or racial minorities, fear of young people now appears to be a more generalized fear of the future, which explains why we have brought middle-class and affluent youth into the spectrum of worry. Like our predecessors, we are afraid of change, of popular culture we don’t like or understand, and of a shifting world that at times feels out of control.

Fears about media and children date back at least to Plato, who was concerned about the effects that the classic Greek tragedies had on children.4 Historian John Springhall describes how penny theaters and cheap novels in early-nineteenth- century England were thought to create moral decay among working-class boys.5 Attending the theater or reading a book would hardly raise an eyebrow today, but Springhall explains that the concern emerged following an increase in working- class youths’ leisure time.

As in contemporary times, commentators blamed youth for a rise in crime and considered any gathering place of working-class youth threatening. Young people could afford admission only to penny theaters, which featured entertainment geared toward a working-class audience, rather than the “respectable” theaters catering to middle- or upper-class patrons. Complaints about the performances were very similar to those today: youngsters would learn the wrong values and possibly become criminals. Penny and later dime novels garnered similar reaction, accused of being tawdry in content and filled with slang that kids might imitate. Springhall concludes that the concern had less to do with actual content and more to do with the growing literacy of the working class, shifting the balance of power from elites to the masses and threatening the status quo.

Examining the social context enables us to understand what creates underlying anxieties about media. Fear of comic books in the 1940s and 1950s, for instance, took place in the McCarthy era, when the control over culture was high on the national agenda. Like the dime novels before, comic books were cheap, were based on adventurous tales, and appealed to the masses. Colorful and graphic depictions of violence riled critics, who lobbied Congress unsuccessfully to place restrictions


on comics’ sale and production.6 Psychiatrist and author Frederic Wertham wrote in 1953 that “chronic stimulation … by comic books [is a] contributing [factor] to many children’s maladjustment.”7 He and others believed that comics were a major cause of violent behavior, ignoring the possibility that violence in postwar suburban America could be caused by anything but the reading material of choice for many young boys. Others considered pinball machines a bad influence; the city of New York even banned pinball from 1942 to 1976 as a game of chance that allegedly encouraged youth gambling.

During the middle of the twentieth century, music routinely appeared on the public-enemy list. Historian Grace Palladino recounts concerns about swing music in the early 1940s. Adults feared that kids wasted so much time listening to it that they could never become decent soldiers in World War II (sixty years later Tom Brokaw dubbed these same would-be delinquents “the greatest generation”).8 Palladino contends that adult anxieties stemmed from the growing separation between “teenagers,” a term market researchers coined in 1941, and the older generation in both leisure time and cultural tastes. Just a few years later, similar concerns arose when Elvis Presley brought traditionally African American music to white middle America. His hips weren’t really the problem; it was the threat of bringing traditionally black music to white middle-class teens during a time of enforced and de facto segregation.

Later, concerns about satanic messages allegedly heard when listeners played vinyl albums backward and panic over Prince’s “1999” lyrics about masturbation in the 1980s led to the formation of Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center, Senate hearings, and parental warning labels. Both stem from parents’ discomfort with their children’s cultural preferences and the desire to increase their ability to control what their children know. Today, fears of media culture stem from the decreased ability to control content and consumption. While attending the theater or reading newspapers or novels elicits little public concern today, fears have shifted to newer forms of cultural expression like smart-phones, social media, video games, and the Internet. Throughout the twentieth century, popular culture became something increasingly consumed privately. Before the invention of radio and television, popular culture was more public, and controlling the information young people were exposed to was somewhat easier. Fears surrounding newer media have largely been based on the reduced ability of adults to control children’s access. Smartphones and near-constant Internet access make it practically impossible for adults to seal off the walls of childhood from the rest of society.

These recurring concerns about popular culture are examples of what sociologist Stanley Cohen refers to as “moral panics,” fears that are very real but also out of proportion to their actual threat.9 Underneath the fear lies the belief that our way of life is at stake, threatened by evildoers—often cast as popular culture or


its young consumers—who must be controlled. The rhetoric typically takes on a shrill and angry tone, joined by people nominated as experts to attest to the danger of what might happen unless we rein in the troublemakers. Cohen calls those blamed for the crisis “folk devils,” the people or things that seem to embody everything that is wrong with society today. Typically, moral panics attempt to redefine the public’s understanding of deviance, recasting the folk devils as threats in need of restraint.

Moral panics typically have a triggering event that gathers signifi-cant media attention, much like the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado, did in 1999. The tragic murder of twelve students and a teacher shocked the nation, who could view nonstop live coverage of the event on a variety of news networks. Drawing on previous concerns about youth violence and popular culture, a panic began surrounding video games, music, and the use of the Internet to post threats and gather information about carrying out similar attacks. In the aftermath, commentators linked the perpetrators’ pop culture preferences to their actions, suggesting that it was highly predictable that violent music and video games would lead to actual violence. This panic cast both teens and violent media as folk devils, claiming that both were a threat to public safety.

Panics about popular culture often mask attempts to condemn the tastes and cultural preferences of less powerful social groups. Popular culture has always been viewed as less valuable than “high culture,” the stuff that is supposed to make you more refined, like going to the ballet, the opera, or the symphony. Throughout history people have been ready to believe the worst about the “low culture” of the common folk, just as bowling, wrestling, and monster truck rallies often bear the brunt of put-downs today. It’s more socially acceptable to make fun of something working-class people might enjoy than to appear snobby and insensitive by criticizing people for their economic status.

The same is true of criticizing rap music rather than African Americans directly. Sociologist Bethany Bryson analyzed data from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative random household survey, and found strong associations between musical intolerance and racial intolerance. She notes that “people use cultural taste to reinforce symbolic boundaries between themselves and categories of people they dislike. Thus, music is used as a symbolic dividing line that aligns people with some and apart from others.” Bryson also observed a correlation between dislike of certain groups and the music associated with that group.10 So for many people, rap becomes a polite proxy for criticizing African Americans without appearing overtly racist.

Africana studies professor Tricia Rose writes that the discourse surrounding rap is a way to further construct African Americans “as a dangerous internal element in urban America—an element that if allowed to roam about freely will threaten the


social order.”11 She goes on to describe how rap concerts have been portrayed as bastions of violence in order to justify greater restrictions on black youth from public spaces. Likewise, sociologist Amy Binder studied more than one hundred news stories about gangsta rap and found that heavy metal is feared for being potentially dangerous for individual listeners, but rap’s critics have focused on its alleged danger to society as a whole.12

Popular culture often creates power struggles. Every new medium creates new freedom for some, more desire to control for others. For instance, although the printing press was regarded as one of the greatest inventions of the second millennium, it also destabilized the power of the church when literacy became more widespread and people could read the Bible themselves. Later, the availability of cheap newspapers and novels reduced the ability of the upper class to control popular culture created specifically for the working class. Fears of media today reflect a similar power struggle, although now the elites are adults who fear losing control of what their children know, what their children like, and who their children are.

Constructing Media Phobia

Ironically, we are encouraged to fear media by the news media itself, because doomsday warnings sell papers, attract viewers, and keep us so scared we stay glued to the news for updates. “TV is leading children down a moral sewer!” the late entertainer Steve Allen claimed in several full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times. Other headlines seem to concur: “Teens’ Web Is a Wild West,” warned the Orange County Register. The New York Times wrote of the dangers of “video games and the depressed teenager.” “Health Groups Link Hollywood Fare to Youth Violence,” announced the front page of the Los Angeles Times.13 These and hundreds of other stories nationwide imply that the media are a threat to children and, more ominously, that children are subsequently a threat to the rest of us.

The news media are central within American public thought, maybe not telling us what to think, but, to borrow a popular phrase, focusing our attention on what to think about. Known as agenda-setting theory, this idea suggests that the repetition of issues in the news shapes what the public believes is most important.14 The abundance of news stories similar to the ones listed above directs us to think about entertainment as public enemy number one for kids in particular. Whether the stories are about popular culture causing young people to commit acts of violence or to become sexually active, depressed, or addicted, stories about the alleged danger of popular culture help us make seemingly easy connections between media and social problems. Although not everyone who hears about these stories agrees


that there is a cause-effect relationship, the repeated focus on media effects keeps the debate alive and the attention away from other potential causes of troubling conditions.

Problems do not emerge fully formed; they need to be created in order to claim the status as important and worthy of our attention and concern. In their 1977 book, Constructing Social Problems, sociologists John Kitsuse and Malcolm Spector argue that social problems are the result of the work of claims makers, people who actively work to raise awareness and define an issue as a significant problem. This is not to suggest that problems don’t really exist, only that to rise to the level of a social problem, issues need to have people who lobby for greater attention to any given topic.

The constructionist approach to social problems requires us to look closely not just at the issue of concern, but also at how we have come to think of it as a problem and—equally important—who wants us to view it as such. The popular culture problem is one example, created by a variety of people, including academics who do research testing only for negative effects and provide commentary attesting to its alleged harm; activist groups that seek to raise public awareness about pop culture’s supposed threat; and, as noted earlier, the news organizations that report on these claims. Politicians also campaign against popular culture, hold hearings, and propose legislation to appear to be doing something about the pop culture problem. Author Cynthia Cooper analyzed nearly thirty congressional hearings held on this issue, finding them to be little more than an exercise in public relations for the elected officials, yet hearings add to the appearance of a weighty problem in need of federal intervention. These claims makers do not simply raise awareness in response to a problem; their actions help create our sense that problems exist in the first place. Claims makers also shape the way we think about an issue and frequently “distort the nature of a problem,” as sociologist Joel Best details in his analysis of crime news.15 He acknowledges that claims makers might not do this on purpose and often have good intentions. After all, if people see what they believe to be a serious problem, raising awareness makes sense.

For example, consider the surgeon general’s report on youth violence, released in January 2001. This report indicated that poverty and family violence are the best predictors of youth violence. Nonetheless, the report concludes, “Exposure to violent media plays an important causal role,” based on research that is highly criticized by many media studies scholars.16 Newspapers capitalized on this single statement, running stories with the headlines “Surgeon General Links TV, Real Violence” and “Media Dodges Violence Bullet.”17 Even when studies point to other central causal factors, media violence often dominates the story—even in Hollywood.


You might be wondering what the harm could be in conducting research, holding hearings, and reporting on this issue. After all, media culture is very pervasive, and if it could be even a minor issue, shouldn’t we pay attention to it?

There is danger, however, in taking our attention away from other potentially more serious issues. The pop culture answer diverts us from delving into the other questions. Focusing on the media only in a cause-and-effect manner fails to help us understand the connection between media culture as a form of commerce created in a particular economic context. The quest to get the biggest box-office opening or Nielsen ratings leads to lowest-common-denominator storytelling, which explains the overuse of sex and violence as plot devices. Profit, not critical acclaim, equals success in Hollywood (and on Wall Street). Sex and violence create fascination and are sold in popular culture like commodities to attract our attention, if only for a little while.

Most ominously, the effects question crowds out other vital issues affecting the well-being and future of young people. These issues play out more quietly on a daily basis and lie hidden underneath the more dramatic fear-factor-type headlines. Sociologist Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear, refers to this as social sleight of hand, a magician’s trick that keeps us focused on one hand while the other actually does the work, encouraging us to think of a trick as real magic. He warns that these diversions encourage us to fear the wrong things, while the real roots of problems go unexamined and often don’t rise in public awareness.

It’s not surprising that we have a difficult time looking beyond popular culture as an explanation for social problems. As a nation rooted in the ethos of individualism, Americans tend to understand troubling conditions as the result of poor personal choices. Certainly, these choices play a role, but we often fail to understand the contexts in which people make such choices.

Social structure is the sociological concept that gives us information about these contexts. For instance, social structure encourages us to look in depth at the big picture to understand what factors may shape people’s choices. Looking carefully at patterns of arrangements within our economic system, at inequality in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status, will help us understand why, for instance, some people might be more prone to bully, to commit violence, to become pregnant as a teen, or to drop out of school.

For example, many critics of rap music have argued that some of the lyrics are extremely misogynistic, encouraging young listeners to devalue women. While disturbing lyrics get our attention, sociologists Terri M. Adams and Douglas B. Fuller argue that rap is just a continuation of a long history of demonizing women, particularly black women. The “Jezebel” myth (the modern-day “ho”) of the hypersexual woman who uses her wiles to manipulate men dates back to slavery and served as an excuse for white men to violate African American women. Similarly, the “Mammy” myth (today’s “bitch”) also has roots in slavery as the


bossy woman who orders black men around while serving her white masters. In more contemporary times, politicians have used these characterizations to

blame women for urban poverty: Ronald Reagan’s 1980s-era “welfare queen” who allegedly can’t stop having babies and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s emasculating matriarch of the 1960s, supposedly destroying the African American family with her strength.18 Whereas politicians may use more genteel language, the outcome of reduced funding for children in poverty carries far more potential destructiveness than the prolific use of profanity in rap. In fact, part of the insidiousness of sexism lies in the use of language to cover and obfuscate its continued importance in American life. The realities of discrimination and violence against women are less sensational than rap’s in-your-face lyrics, but they are still with us.

For example, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), a nationally representative survey conducted by the Department of Justice each year, stated in 2010 that 169,370 American women and girls over twelve reported being raped or sexually assaulted, a rate of .7 per 1,000. Intimate-partner violence accounted for 22 percent of nonfatal violence against women.19 This is partly because females are generally less likely to be victims of violence than males are, but it also highlights the dangers women often face from those closest to them.

Structural factors are often difficult to see for those not trained to think sociologically. It is often difficult to see how policies enacted decades ago might shape patterns of violence or school failure today, but they do. Social structure involves connecting the dots between the past and present, between large-scale social institutions and individual choices. One of the central goals of this book is to help readers understand that there are many structural factors that can help us understand the many problems that popular culture is often blamed for causing.

Not only is this an issue that politicians can use to connect with middle-class voters, but researchers can get funding from a host of sources to continue to seek negative media effects. David L. Altheide, sociologist and author of Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis, suggests that fear-based news helps support the status quo, justifies further social control, and encourages us to look for punitive solutions to perceived problems. Meanwhile, more significant causes of American social problems fall by the wayside.

Deconstructing Media Phobia

This book uses the constructionist approach to understand how claims makers blame popular culture for causing social problems. This does not mean that all problems are just invented crises, nor does it mean that popular culture is all benign entertainment and should not be crucially analyzed. Within each chapter, we


will examine the structural roots of the various issues that tend not to attract the massive attention or news coverage that popular culture does. Issues such as the persistence of poverty, unequal access to quality education, reduced information about birth control, overall disparities in opportunity, and the continued presence of racial and gender inequality explain many of the problems we hear blamed on popular culture.

Understanding moral panics about popular culture involves both addressing how the fear is constructed as well as why the fear is out of proportion, requiring us to include objective evidence. Throughout this book, we will examine data and trends within each chapter to see that many of the problems attributed to popular culture are not necessarily getting worse. Sometimes the problems are very serious (such as violence and educational disparities), and an emphasis on media serves to trivialize them. Studies purporting to find evidence of media culpability are often profoundly flawed or overstate their findings. Since research methodology can be complex and dry, the public almost never hears how researchers actually conducted the studies that are discussed in the news. We will do that here, and in the process you will see that some of the research we hear so much about has serious shortcomings.

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