â€œAmerican popular culture not only celebrates freedom, it is also itself an example of American freedom at its best and most vibrant,â€ writes Paul Cantor in his new book, The Invisible Hand and Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV.
Even before politicians and elite cultural critics decried the boob tube as a "vast wasteland," they were attacking other forms of popular entertainment - novels, movies, comic books, and more - as simultaneously soporific and dangerous, either lulling the masses into quietism or sparking bad behaviors. But Paul Cantor, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, argues that such criticisms get everything wrong.
Within a marketplace system, TV, film, and other forms of entertainment respond to viewer demands as much as they may create them. More important, popular culture is constantly developing new and different shows and media that allow more people consume and produce whatever they want. The same system, says Cantor, that brings us Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo also produces Deadwood and South Park, which he considers some of the most sophisticated contemporary storytelling to be found anywhere in the world.
Cantor also argues that the current vogue for zombie apocalypses - most clearly seen in AMC's hit series The Walking Dead - and other shows (such as Revolution) underscore the recurring theme of freedom from oppresive government in popular culture going back to early American novels and plays.
Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward spoke with Cantor about the current state of American television and the economics that underlie it.
About 8 minutes.
Produced by Todd Krainin. Camera by Josh Swain and Krainin.
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