It’s just a book!
It’s just a TV show.
It’s not real.
Aren’t you reading too much into it?
Isn’t studying popular culture a waste of time?
These are questions most of us in popular culture studies (or, indeed, many humanities disciplines) have probably heard before: why study popular culture? Is it a “real job”? Why talk about books when they’re just, well, books?
Trying to explain that our jobs involve researching literature, film and other media can sometimes be … interesting. Previous research on TV, for instance, has been met with thunderous accusations of “drivel”, “waste of money” and suggestions to “get a real job”.
The truth is, sometimes we in popular culture do read “too much” into things. I’ve certainly seen examples where this is the case in other works, where academics have asserted that particular books or TV shows will lead to the downfall of all humanity if not the end of the world itself, and no doubt I’ve even been guilty of reading a bit too much into things before, as well.
But there are two answers to the question of why this stuff matters. The first is that if authors are telling readers “I was trying to explore disability through this character” or “This plot has parallels to being a racial minority”, then they’re already saying that’s how we should be reading this stuff, they’re pointing to the links between fiction and real life.
The second reason why I think popular culture matters is that stories are incredibly powerful tools we all use to shape our own lives. We create “stories” around our lives in unconscious ways all the time. You watch Olympians walking out to the pool deck, ready to compete, headphones on. Why? Maybe they’re trying to cancel out the noise from the crowd, stay focused. Others might be listening to a song, to a story in lyrics, that has inspired their own life, that has motivated them and inspired them to be higher, faster, stronger. The song may not be written about them but they can relate to the story within it.
Or you’re faced with teaching your first class of students, and you’re not sure what to expect, and suddenly all those inspirational teaching-themed movies seem startlingly relevant (if not always accurate, as those of us who don’t inspire slavish devotion and great feats in students can understand).
Or those of you doing PhDs can laugh at PhD Comics, or find it amusing to compare doing a PhD with the Lord of the Rings, because comedy or fantasy aside, we can see our real lives and experiences reflected in the stories we read and see and hear about.
Stories help us to make sense of our world. They may not be “real”. They might contain elves or spaceships. Werewolves might show up. Maybe the stories are set in the future, or in the past. But it doesn’t mean we can’t relate to anything in them.
So yes, it is just a book. And it is just a TV show or movie. Sometimes there’s really nothing more to it than that. We won’t always find deeper meanings in everything.
Stories aren’t the only things that shape our identity, but this doesn’t mean they have nothing to do with what matters in the real world.
Because sometimes it’s also true that when we look at the stories that are popular in our society, we can start to understand more about that society. After all, what do we know about our world unless we’re prepared to critically examine the stories that draw us together?