View Masters

The audience's power over media's message

(Page 3 of 3)

Other fan-generated texts are decidedly more outrageous. In an essay included in Technoculture, a 1991 collection she co-edited, Constance Penley, the UC-Santa Barbara professor, analyzed the phenomenon of Star Trek "K/S" or "slash" fandom. "Slash" revolves around the creation of fan-generated homosexual pornography involving the characters of Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock. (The term slash refers to the slash between K and S and serves as a code to those purchasing fanzines through the mail.)

While slash fandom--largely made up of heterosexual women--may strike even diehard Trekkies as strange, Penley convincingly argues that the phenomenon demonstrates how people interact with popular culture "texts." Slash fans, says Penley, also use Star Trek as a way of creating a community of like-minded people. More important, writes Penley, "Slash fans do more than `make do'; they make. Not only have they remade the Star Trek fictional universe to their own desiring ends, they have achieved it by enthusiastically mimicking the technologies of mass-market cultural production, and by constantly debating their own relation, as women, to those technologies."

Although Penley refrains from generalizing from the activity of slash fans--for one thing, they actually produce literal texts of their own--she says that "slash is suggestive of various ways people react to mass or popular culture." And, especially in light of the current debate over popular culture, says Penley, it is important to realize all viewers or consumers have "agency": They process what they see or hear--they do not merely lap it up. On the other hand, Penley says, "Politicians, producers, and advertisers want to believe that everything they say is accepted as intended."

MIT's Jenkins agrees that producers and regulators of popular culture share a common goal: control of an audience that is inherently beyond control. Although they obviously benefit from pleasing consumers, producers of popular culture have an ambivalent relationship with their audience, says Jenkins. That's because fans don't merely accept what they are given--they actively appropriate or reshape things to their own liking. Such activity can take any number of forms, from letter-writing campaigns, to producing "unauthorized" novels, stories, and song cycles, to recutting videotaped footage into "new" episodes. In an age where photocopying, audio sampling, videotaping, and computer technology make it ever easier for fans to cut and paste their own versions of pop culture, it is increasingly difficult for original producers to control all representations of their product, says Jenkins, who notes that Star Trek distributor Viacom has cracked down on fan clubs in Australia over fan-generated materials.

Moral regulators face a more daunting task. "A top-down conception of culture goes back to the very roots of the concept of culture," says Jenkins. "Educational, intellectual, or political elites assume that the mass has no taste or culture of its own, that culture can be used by elites to refine the tastes of the mass." As a result, says Jenkins, reformers have an uneasy relationship to popular culture: They like it because it can be used to push certain types of "good" beliefs. But that also means that pop can be used to present competing messages. "For the Clintons and the Doles," says Jenkins, "it's an either/or proposition. Either movies, TV, and music teach good behavior or else they're teaching bad behavior."

But that dichotomy runs up a blind alley, says Jenkins. There is simply no way to effectively police popular culture because that would mean controlling every individual exposed to it. "Culture is something we all participate in," says Jenkins. "We're all in dialogue with the cultural materials that come out there."

The dialogue Jenkins mentions extends beyond media-related culture as well. Consider two examples that range far beyond the unholy trinity of TV, movies, and music, and that point out just as strongly the fallacy of reining in pop culture: pogs and the use of "blunt" cigars for smoking pot.

Pogs, hailed and bemoaned as "the marbles of the '90s," are colorfully decorated, silver-dollar-sized cardboard circles that kids play with. Costing anywhere from a dime up to a couple of dollars, pogs are currently a multimillion-dollar-a-year industry, complete with "official" world championships and trademark disputes galore. A number of schools across the country have banned pogs, which they blame for inciting fights, theft, student inattentiveness, and generally bad behavior.

In a game of pogs, kids stack a number of the circles and then "slam" them with a heavy plastic or metal piece, the winner keeping any pogs that have flipped over. The craze started a few years ago on Oahu, when an elementary school teacher showed her students a Depression-era game played with milk bottle caps. The current incarnation of the game gets its name from the lids of a local juice drink called POG, which stands for passion fruit-orange-guava juice. The game of pogs migrated from Hawaii to the West Coast and then headed eastward. Along the way, a California businessman bought the POG trademark and various companies started making intricately designed pogs bearing images of celebrities.

The POG phenomenon is an unpredictable mix of ground up and top-down forces, of accident and design, impossible to predict and, according to most industry observers, already in decline. Teachers can breathe easy--until the next fad shows up on the playground.

The use of "blunt" cigars, particularly the brand Phillies Blunts, is an example of pop culture appropriation. A few years ago--like many pop phenomena, the origins are hazy--teenage boys started buying blunts--cheap, medium thickness cigars--cutting them open, hollowing them out, and replacing most of the tobacco with marijuana (girls apparently enjoy Tiparillos). After the rap groups Cypress Hill and Beastie Boys started sporting Phillies Blunts T-shirts and hats in concert, wearing Phillies Blunts paraphernalia became something of a fashion statement as well.

The makers of Phillies Blunts, Hav-A-Tampa Inc., have seen sales jump, an increase largely attributed to the unintended and unauthorized use of the product. Some tobacco stores have stopped selling the brand because of its new connotations, but the trend continues. It will no doubt pass out of favor at some point, only to be replaced by another equally unforeseeable object.

As with all market-based exchanges, knowledge, value, and power in popular culture are dispersed. And reining in popular culture--or, more precisely, the meaning of a particular piece of pop culture--is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. It's messy, difficult, and doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Regulators and paternalists are in the difficult position of stanching the dynamic flow of culture. They can outlaw "gratuitous" violence in movies, censor inflammatory lyrics in rock and rap, plant a V-chip in every television in the country. But they will still be frustrated in their attempts to keep pop culture--and its creators--in line. In that sense, they are like Canute attempting to hold back the waves, Gatsby striving to relive the past, or perhaps more appropriately, the castaways forever trying to get off Gilligan's Island: It just can't be done.

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