The Pop Culture President
In November 2016, American voters sent popular culture to the White House with the election of Donald J. Trump. Trump was the star of the hit reality television show The Apprentice
and one of its executive producers. He is famous for his heavy use of Twitter and for his long-standing relationship to celebrity culture. Before becoming the President of the United States, Trump primarily worked as the head of the Trump Organization, a private company founded by his grandmother and his father. But while running the business from 1971 to 2017, his primary interest seemed to be fame. According to Trump’s page on the IMDb (formally known as the Internet Movie Database) he has 25 credits for acting, most of which were for playing fictional versions of himself.1
He had uncredited appearances in two episodes of The Jeffersons
, in 1981 and 1985. Other credits include Home Alone 2: Lost in New York,
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Nanny,
and Sex and the City.
He won a Golden Raspberry Award, also known as a Razzie Award, for Worst Supporting Actor for his 1989 appearance as himself in the Bo Derek film Ghosts Can’t Do It.
had an impressive 14-season arc with Trump as lead, and continued for one additional season starring celebrity-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the original version of the show, contestants competed to become an assistant to Trump through a series of team challenges. From the start, the teams were divided by gender. This is commonplace on
reality television but was particularly striking in a context that was meant to mimic white-collar workplaces. In each episode, with occasional exceptions, a contestant was dismissed from the show with Trump’s famous catchphrase, “You’re fired!” In a variation of the show, known as The Celebrity Apprentice,
B-list celebrities compete to raise money for charity. They, too, are signaled off the show with Trump’s classic declaration, “You’re fired!”
You’re fired. That is basically the message that entertainment culture sends to each of us. We may survive for a few episodes with our charm and grace, but, ultimately, we are fired for one reason or another. The message of pop culture taken as a whole is that we are not good enough. We are insufficient persons due to our race or ethnicity, gender or gender identity, social class, disability or body type, sexuality, age, faith or lack thereof, nationality, values, education, or any other aspect of our identities.
You’re fired is the catchphrase for The Apprentice, but it is the essential message of all entertainment media. Certainly, reality TV is in the practice of firing its contestants and, by extension, its audience. Consider the example of The Biggest Loser. Contestants are selected not simply for their weight, but also for the way that being overweight gives them a story of marginalization or despair. Producers look for contestants with extreme stories and extreme personalities. Once they make it to the show, they are subjected to grueling workouts and voted off one at a time for the very thing that brought them on the show in the first place: their struggle with weight loss.
The mentality of “You’re fired!” extends beyond reality TV to sports, video games, spelling bees, and a million outposts of popular culture where competition is the name of the game. Television dramas may not feature competition, but they are mostly driven by the inadequacies of their characters, whether it is the criminal behavior of law and order shows, the failing health of patients on medical dramas, or the corrupt souls of the major characters on political thrillers.
If TV dramas and sitcoms do not make competition their central theme, they are nevertheless caught up in their own competitions for Emmy Awards, advertising dollars, and audiences. Every wing of entertainment culture has one or more awards that validate the success of a small few while sending a message of “You’re fired!” to the rest. In entertainment, you’re only as good as your most recent work. A few weak productions and suddenly you need a comeback.
Who doesn’t get fired? Well, Trump for starters. After 14 seasons of The Apprentice
Trump was elected to be the President of the United States. Trump
provides a nice metaphor for the entertainment industry itself, which seems both unfireable and ascendant. It assumes greater and greater control of our social and political structures and our day-to-day lives. Films and songs and shows may flop, but the massive corporations that make them live on. If entertainment was once a diversion at the end of the workday, it is now a ubiquitous voice calling out to us at every turn and every hour of the day. That voice has a lot to say, but the most consistent message is clear: You are not good enough. Buy more. Otherwise, you’re fired!
Losers, Strangers, and Freaks
Losers, freaks, misfits, cripples, and queers: the world of popular culture has a way of telling us that we do not fit in, and then turning around and selling us a ticket to conformity, to the pop-culture prom with a gorgeous date. But the ticket is always a counterfeit; we never get into the prom, at least not for long, and we have to buy yet another ticket. Unless we fight back—organizing our own alternative prom and turning around the weapons of mass culture.
We may compare the fired contestant on The Apprentice to the stranger in a 1908 essay by the early sociologist Georg Simmel. Simmel begins “The Stranger” with a discussion of wanderers—traveling merchants in particular—who roam into a new community, bringing with them an awareness of everything that is beyond and outside of that community. Simmel is most intrigued by the wanderer who then lingers, settling into his surroundings, but always being identified as an outsider, someone who never attains full membership in the community because he is not organically a part of it. The persistent presence of this stranger provides for the larger community what Simmel calls a “union of closeness and remoteness involved in every human relationship . . . an element whose membership within the group involves being both outside it and confronting it” (2010, 302–303).
Being fired—by your boss or by popular culture—means being denied full participation in the social milieu while still living within it. Popular culture tells us that we are ugly, but it constantly promises to make us beautiful. It tells us that we are failures, but it swears it can sell us the formula for success. This book explores how the popular culture we produce and consume creates a sense of closeness and remoteness for all of us, living in a world in which we are pressured to conform, in ways that few of us can fully achieve. The very same traits that make us unique individuals also prevent us from realizing the popular ideals of our time, which we affirm and produce through the music
we dance to, the television shows and films we turn to for entertainment, the books we read, and even the websites we access for diversion or information. This is a book about the intersections of identity—the associations that make us who we are and give us a sense of belonging to the tribe—and popular culture, the somewhat mechanical set of meanings and values that dominate our world, regardless of our tribal membership.
Why freaks? The word freak can be very off-putting; it is an insult. Interestingly, it is a slur that has never attached itself to any particular group. Kids who are gay have been called freaks for their sexuality. Christians have been called freaks for their faith. Artists have been called freaks for their self-expression. People with disabilities have been called freaks for the unique qualities of their bodies or minds. Smart people have been called freaks for their high IQs. Anyone is susceptible to being called a freak. The word is a mechanism for undermining the social power of the person at whom it is targeted. It implies that the recipient has been poorly socialized to be a member of the community. On the surface, freak is an accusation against the individual target, but it also implies that our mechanisms of socialization may be suspect. Who is responsible for these freaks? Parents? Neighborhoods? Schools? The media?
I embrace the word freak in this book, first because I believe that we operate within a commercial culture system that treats us all as freaks. The system’s goal is to push us to spend and consume, and that means that we can never be satisfied. We are told that we can find peace and satisfaction when we achieve the right lifestyle, but nothing is ever good enough. There is always another gadget to buy, another imperfection in our bodies, another reason to feel like a freak. If we are not maligned for our race, class, gender, sexuality, or bodies, then we are maligned for our religion, age, ethnicity, political ideology, or cultural tastes.
How do we escape the freak cycle, in which popular culture tells us that we are not good enough, and then sells us a path to supposed perfection, and then says we failed to follow that path successfully and have to buy into the next path that it offers? As I look at audiences, the people who consume popular culture—which is to say, all of us—I notice that those who seem to find some peace and satisfaction are the ones who lean into the identity of the freak. When commercial culture says they are not good enough, they say, “Hell, yeah!” and laugh. They take the messages embedded in popular culture and twist them around to find new kinds of meaning that allow them to experience empowerment and pride.
I argue that we are all pop culture freaks in a commercial culture system that is inescapable and needs all of us to feel insufficient. But I also argue that embracing our freak status may provide us with the tools to find some agency within that system and have some control over how the culture industries influence our lives.
Defining Popular Culture
The term popular culture has a variety of meanings, and I will be very specific about which ones I am using in this book. The word popular is from the Latin populus, meaning “the people.” Historically, both in Roman times and in other societies, “the people” referred not to all people, but rather to a very specific and very large mass of poor and working people. It excluded a tiny group of ruling elites, who were associated with a very different kind of culture—a privileged set of cultural goods like paintings, classical music, literature, and other forms of creative expression—that we now refer to as high culture . Everyone else had what we call folk culture—local music, crafts, oral traditions, morality plays, and many other types of expression. Another term for folk culture that is sometimes used is low culture. Low culture has a different connotation from folk culture because it places the emphasis on a cultural hierarchy. High culture is presumed to be elevated not just by the economic class of its patrons but also by the level of quality or value that it carries. Low culture is diminished by its presumed lack of value. Yet another common term is mass culture, which refers to the idea that everyone shares the same mass-produced culture. The idea of mass culture can be a useful way of thinking about certain shared experiences and symbols, but it obscures the fact that the audience for any one cultural work is oft en just a sliver of the population.
If popular means the people, then popular culture could be associated with folk culture, low culture, or mass culture. But popular culture has many meanings. Folk culture is local, rooted in regional identity. The popular culture that I discuss in this book has been carefully scrubbed of that kind of localism to make it appealing across regions. Low culture is a subjective designation, riddled with bias and power and unusable as a sociological category. Mass culture is a usable category, but it is actually not an accurate description of most contemporary culture. As the 2016 election highlighted, we really do not all live in the same cultural spaces.
Although categories like high, folk, low, and mass culture are still in use, both in the United States and around the world, they do not apply to a lot of
the culture that is now produced and consumed. This is attributable in part to the growth of the middle class, as sociologist Herbert Gans explains in Popular Culture and High Culture
(1999). As a cultural category, middle class refers to a set of lifestyles. Members of the middle class have enough money to purchase almost everything they need, rather than making these goods at home. But they do not have so much money that they can commission a craftsperson to make these goods for them individually. For example, they do not typically sew their own dresses, nor do they hire dressmakers; instead, they purchase mass-produced clothing.
The growth of the middle class, both economically and culturally, has resulted in a shift in how we think of popular culture, from the working masses to the vast middle class. Middle-class cultural practices are so ubiquitous that middle-class consumption has become the norm for everyone. Even those who may sew their own dresses out of economic necessity or commission custom-made dresses because they are economically privileged probably also purchase most of their clothing at the fashion mall. This book focuses on the culture associated with this middle class, which has become so broad as to f...