One of my least favorite situations to find myself in is at a party, a bar, or a club, cornered into a conversation about a pop song, a music video, a TV series, and its radical implications for social movements.
I dread these conversations.
I hate their jargony language and circular theory. I detest their pretense of inclusivity, when they regularly shun those without the vocabulary and training to participate in them. But what I really can’t stand is the immense power they place on corporate representations of our communities, over the actual people building movements, the people in the room, the people having the conversation.
How did so many straight, cis, light skinned, skinny, corporate-backed figures and the innocuous art generated (by teams of outside writers, producers and directors) under their names become the avatars for the revolutionary actions being taken by trans, queer, immigrant, Black and Brown feminist movements on the ground? Who has the power to build, and who benefits from, these peculiar connections?
My unwavering position in these conversations is this: Not only is pop culture at best a mere reflection of the hard work we, our neighbors, our family and friends are doing in real time, it is a reflection that is used intentionally to distract our activism and placate its demands.
We exist in an era where much of our activism’s values and perspectives are rooted in academia. We know this is not an accident. We know that for the last four decades, the state and private sector have worked tirelessly to gut labor, infiltrate radical political parties, and sate the transformational demands made by students, feminists, civil rights activists and oppressed communities everywhere through the specters of corporatized higher learning, and the nonprofit industrial complex. We know that, up until very recently, our community movements and their hard earned victories had been largely replaced by academic institutions and privately-funded non-government organizations.
The history of austerity and appropriation that got us here is beyond our control. What we are responsible for, however, is recognizing the values that come to us not only from outside of our community movements, but which were introduced purposefully to confuse our goals, and weaken the strength of our collective organizing.
In a moment like the present, when new and inspirational movements are springing up around the globe, we are in a unique position to return to the values of our communities, hijacked for so long by the academy and private sector, and rethink some of the skewed teachings we’ve been laboring under. Cultural critique is one of these values I believe is worth revisiting.
A core belief undergirding cultural critique as it is laid out by the academy is that the interrogation of media—often mainstream media—will reveal larger and more poignant truths about the social positions of the communities represented therein. While I don’t believe this basic premise is untrue, I think the degree to which it dominates conversation, theory and practice in many activist circles is detrimental. It not only limits our scope to the unending analysis of corporate media, but diverts our attention away from the violence, turmoil and resistance happening all around us in our own communities.
We can see how prioritizing this kind of interrogation can derail movement building in immediate and obvious ways—case in point, generating debate over the VMAs while austerity measures reach new extremes, and more Black women die in police custody. But there are still deeper ways this type of critique throws us off the path of genuine and ongoing movements for justice.
The most toxic effect of this approach is the false sense it creates that corporate-generated icons are actual representations of who we are. Instead of looking to our elders, our youth, our sisters, and each other to better understand the political realities we are navigating, we turn to mainstream media as the best barometer for the true state of our communities and movements.
This is incredibly beneficial for wealthy corporations and media conglomerates. It means they can quell dissent, influence opinion, evade accountability for reparations, all while not merely maintaining their wealth, but growing it on the backs of the struggles meant to challenge them. It means that we confuse projections of ourselves in mainstream media with our own personal empowerment, and are left hopeful for concrete political and economic shifts that aren’t coming. Our political energies become focused on the ways we are represented by giant companies, not the powers, rights and resources we lack in our daily lives. And when the very corporations denying us those rights produce a TV show about trans people, or give a Black actress a prestigious award, we are tricked into believing we are being honored, respected, listened to. We are tricked into thinking this is the mark of our movement’s success.
When we demand representation, inclusion, what are we asking for? Do we want to see more people that look like us on TV, or do we want our voices to be heard by a state that is working harder than ever to censor and discredit them? Were Grammys, Oscars or primetime television slots ever what our movements set out in search of? And how are we actually benefiting from their supposed achievement?
Of course mainstream representations of our communities have real impacts on the ways we are treated and understood. Of course having trans actors, Black women heroes, and queer love depicted on primetime television changes the visibility of those identities in ways that may make many of our lives easier. But those shifts come from our own communities first. Media are always working to catch up with the resistance oppressed people engage out of necessity. We need to stop crediting corporations for selling our own images back to us, stop looking to the mirror for answers to the questions of our safety, sovereignty and strength—especially when the forces behind that mirror are working so hard to deny us racial, political and economic justice, all while fetishizing fictitious versions of our lives.
We have got to stop kidding ourselves that Viacom and Time Warner are in the business of empowering Black women, celebrating diverse bodies, or fomenting social transformation of any kind. They are in the business of mass marketing, which means they will produce whatever is popular, whatever captivates the widest audience—and in a time like the present, that means addressing the issues that have been roiling beneath the surface of our communities for so long, the ones that organizers have forced into a national light through direct action.
No corporation is so foolish as to produce any media dangerous enough to provide the tools to its own undoing. When the social tide turns, so will the ways we are represented, and the allegiances of the conglomerates who take on that representation.
Using our struggles as a provocative backdrop is not the same as participating in them. Rihanna and Nicki Minaj are not the leaders whose courageous actions have provided the ongoing battles of our people with new energy, new vision, and new direction. Alicia Garza, Jennicet Gutierrez, and the women, Black, Brown, poor, working, trans and queer members of our own immediate communities are.
Art, media and culture are important. They have the capability to sustain, unite, resist, educate, renew, and provide the outlets for imagining brilliant new futures for ourselves and our people. But we have got to start drawing the distinction between the art, media and culture that we create for ourselves, and those which are produced for our consumption by the parties who actively oppress us. We have got to recognize the difference between the voices and visions of our own communities, and the gimmicks that fool us into reinvesting into old systems, the very ones who ingeniously absorb and profit off the powerful cultural forms originally created to fight against them.
We might love a figment of popular culture, might connect to it deeply. It might very well be empowering, nurturing, even healing for us to see ourselves represented in media in ways that challenge the hateful depictions we are regularly forced to confront and absorb. But this doesn’t mean that media is for us. It doesn’t mean its goal is anything more than profit. The same networks that show us as heroes on a sitcom will paint us as villains on the news a few hours later. We are not doing each other or our movements any favors by entrenching ourselves in complex critiques that strengthen our allegiances to the corporate bodies that have to be dismantled for us to be free.
Ultimately, the question is what are we willing to leave behind as we move in the direction of liberation? Though we may find comfort in popular culture, what comforts do we need to let go of if our movements are to achieve their deepest goals?
Pop culture may provide real healing from the harsh world we are currently navigating. How do we learn to find that healing within ourselves and each other, from our own communities and their radical traditions of resistance, and not in the vestiges and byproducts of the systems that are trying to kill us?