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When viewers are mentioned in the UCLA study, they are typically characterized as unwitting dupes. In a discussion of "Misleading Titles," for instance, the report focuses on two made-for-TV movies, Falling For You and Gramps. Falling For You featured a serial killer with a taste for defenestration, while Gramps told the story of "an outwardly charming but psychotic grandfather" who murders his daughter-in-law and tries to kill a number of children.
"Ironically, while some films with violent titles were relatively non-violent, two of the most violent television movies of the season had seriously misleading titles promising innocent family fare," says the report. "Falling for You and Gramps promised content very different from what was delivered. This is a particular problem given the fact that these shows lacked advisories. Had there been advisories, viewers would have learned that the misleadingly titled movies...contained intense acts of violence. Starring likable celebrities Jenny Garth and Andy Griffith and lacking advisories, these stories appear to be about falling in love and a kindly old grandfather."
One wonders what the authors would make of, say, Of Mice and Men ("Contrary to the title, rodents were of minimal importance to the plot, which contained a good deal of sex and violence...") or The Neverending Story ("Oddly, the film's running time was only two hours and 10 minutes..."). They dismiss out of hand the idea that viewers would understand, let alone enjoy, the irony inherent in titles like Falling For You and Gramps. Would it be better if Gramps had been called something like My Old Man Is An Outwardly Charming But Psychotic Grandfather? (Curiously, the authors criticize "ominous and threatening titles that imply the show will be violent," such as Bonanza: Under Attack, Deadline for Murder, Dangerous Intentions, and With Hostile Intent, even when such titles are accurate.)
The authors imply viewers lack virtually any critical faculties or knowledge independent of what program producers feed them. For starters, they assume we determine what we watch based solely--or largely, at least--on titles. In fact, that decision is based on a variety of information--promos, capsule summaries, reviews--some within industry control, some not. And when a performer steps out of character, that very fact is usually stressed in the publicity build-up as a marketing point. Similarly, although certain stars are identified with certain types of characters (Andy Griffith=Sheriff Andy Taylor=Matlock=Good Family Fun), few people respond with Pavlovian certainty to any given actor or actress's efforts--the nature of the particular product matters greatly.
The notion of TV viewers and consumers of pop culture as intellectual couch potatoes closely parallels longstanding conventional scholarly analyses of how popular culture works. As with the political consensus, the intellectual indictment crosses traditional right/left boundaries. Critics usually charge that pop culture, in seeking the broadest audience possible, appeals to the lowest common denominator and thereby cheapens and coarsens society. Most critics take the argument a step further and claim that, even as pop culture gives the people what they want, it destroys consumers' critical faculties, effectively infantalizing them.
Consider, for instance, conservative Allan Bloom's commentary on rock music. In The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Bloom writes, "[R]ock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire--not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored....My concern here is not with the moral effects of this music--whether it leads to sex, violence, or drugs. The issue here is its effect on education, and I believe it ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education."
Television can lay claim to the status of most-favored punching bag and academic attacks on the small screen are representative of broader indictments of pop culture. Watching the idiot box, goes the argument, turns viewers into idiots. As their titles suggest, books such as The Plug-In Drug, Media: The Second God, The Glass Teat (and its sequel, The Other Glass Teat), and Telegarbage attempt to detail just how horrible and intellectually enervating the medium actually is.
Boxed In: The Culture of TV (1988), by Mark Crispin Miller, a left-leaning media critic and professor at Johns Hopkins University, provides a good example. "Those who have grown up watching television are not, because of all that gaping, now automatically adept at visual interpretation. That spectatorial `experience' is passive, mesmeric, undiscriminating, and therefore not conducive to the refinement of the critical faculties," writes Miller.
From politicians and intellectuals alike, mass culture stands charged with and convicted of sexing us up, predisposing us toward violence, and dumbing us down.
But if we are neither robotic stooges programmed by the shows we watch nor trained dogs drooling every time certain bells are rung, just how do we interact with popular culture? Not surprisingly, most regulation-minded pols and intellectual critics discuss pop in terms that mirror what they know best: A podium from which a leader or professor lectures to audiences who (they assume) pay rapt attention to every uttered pearl of wisdom. But the operative principle in popular culture (as in the best politics and teaching) is dialogue, as opposed to monologue.
Newer models of the consumption of popular culture have a lot in common with a show such as Comedy Central's Mystery Science Theatre 3000, in which wise-cracking characters watch B movies and provide running commentary. The characters in MST3K represent what's known in literary studies as "resisting readers." They don't merely soak up what they see, they actively process information, spin it to their own purposes, and critique it. The same goes for Beavis and Butt-head, the animated whipping boys of would-be censors. Even they don't watch videos the way they're "supposed" to.
Think of the choices you make--consciously--while, say, watching TV. You turn it on, you change the channels. Maybe you talk back to the screen (not quite the sign of insanity it once was). If you are with friends, you explicate what's on screen, hash out interpretations, or perhaps start talking about something completely unrelated. Maybe you call someone to discuss what you're watching. If you're online, you might post your comments on an appropriate bulletin board. But the point is that you react, and not always in ways the producer wants (sometimes you turn off the set altogether). In this sense, media have always been interactive.
Such critical engagement with pop culture texts is perhaps most clearly visible in the various fan "communities" that spring up around TV shows, film stars, and bands. "Fan critics pull characters and narrative issues from the margins; they focus on details that are excessive or peripheral to the primary plots but gain significance within the fans' own conceptions," writes Henry Jenkins, a professor of literature at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture (1992).
Jenkins has studied fan communities based around TV shows such as Star Trek, Twin Peaks, Beauty and the Beast, The Avengers, Remington Steele, and Dr. Who. (Although fan communities have developed around any and all manner of shows, Jenkins notes that science fiction-oriented groups seem to predominate. He chalks this up to "the utopian possibilities always embedded within" the genre; that is, science fiction explicitly attempts to create and explore new worlds and social possibilities.) Some of these groups are quite formal, holding regular meetings, circulating newsletters, and staging conventions, while others are less structured.
Central to Jenkins's "reading" of fan activity are notions of rereading and appropriation. Among other fan-generated artifacts, Jenkins describes fans who create music videos by splicing together shots from their favorite shows in new sequences and adding a soundtrack. Sometimes, the process is quite simple and humorous, as in a video that weds the song "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" with footage from the Star Wars movies. Others are more ambitious: Using "Hungarian Rhapsody" for music, a video art group known as "the California Crew" created a 189-shot montage that included footage from Remington Steele, Magnum P.I., Riptide, Moonlighting, Hunter, Simon and Simon, and other shows. The video's "plot" is itself a sly commentary on intertextuality: The various characters assemble at the Universal Sheraton Hotel, a location at which each series had filmed, to attend a detectives convention and then try to solve the "murder" of TV producer Stephen J. Cannell (who once had a cameo on a Magnum, P.I. episode). "Working entirely from `found footage,' California Crew constructs a compelling and coherent crossover," writes Jenkins.