Turning the lens on ourselves case study

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turning the lens on ourselves
Over the course of this year in Humanities Core, you’ve used your ever-expanding arsenal of knowledge, tools, and methods to conduct various types of analyses. At this juncture we are embarking into new territory, which includes popular culture (movies, television, video games,
anime, comics, music, etc.) and the people who consume it (including
you!). This chapter is designed to help you understand how to conduct
analyses within these realms, as well as why this work is essential to our
efforts to build a more free and equitable society.
Two new tools that you may find useful this quarter as you analyze
films, television, video games, anime, or any other type of popular culture texts are Cultural Studies and Ethnography, which can be used individually or in tandem. Both of these fields contribute to a wide array
of other interdisciplinary fields and methods through which we conduct more specific types of analyses (e.g., Queer Theory, Asian American Studies, African American Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies,
Critical Theory, etc.). First, let’s tackle Cultural Studies.
Chapter 10
Cultural Studies and Ethnography
Annie Yaniga
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what is cultural studies and why do i need it?
Cultural Studies is the name we give to an interdisciplinary academic
practice focused on analyzing cultural forms and their meanings in the
context of power relations (Kellner and Durham; Miller). The intention behind Cultural Studies is to reveal the ways in which cultural
forms, such as film, television, music, and video games, reinforce and/
or resist hegemonic ideologies, or dominant ideas in our society that
reinforce the status quo (Kellner and Durham 6-7). As political theorist Antonio Gramsci explains, hegemonic ideologies are ideas and ideals that are widely accepted to be normal (or even natural) and which
support the current distribution of power in our society (44-46). Such
ideologies might include nationalism, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, classism, patriarchy, ableism, and gender binarism.
Cultural Studies gives us the tools, ideas, and methods to see underlying ideologies present in cultural products, rather than absorbing
them unconsciously. Becoming aware of underlying ideologies grants
us the opportunity to critically analyze what we consume, creating
space for us to choose what we think and believe and to determine who
we would like to become. In this way, Cultural Studies often overlaps
with what is known as Critical Theory, a field with an important history at UC Irvine. As Max Horkheimer points out, what makes a theory “critical” is its aim is never just an increase in knowledge as such, but
rather the eventual liberation and emancipation of human beings from
conditions of oppression and domination (246).
Cultural Studies was founded upon the Marxist idea that dominant ideas come from the ruling class and through Gramsci’s notion
that hegemony is maintained through ideologies that are communicated through culture. It developed first in the Frankfurt School of the
1930s, pioneered by theorists such as Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno,
Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin (Kellner and Durham 8), and
evolved further out of the Birmingham Centre in the 1960s, primarily
through the work of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Edward
Palmer Thompson, and Stuart Hall (Miller 3). Cultural Studies was
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initially a response to an academic focus on “high” culture—what
we commonly perceive to be the culture of the elite, or wealthy—and
demanded a re-focus on other forms of culture, such as subculture
and popular culture. The intent was to uncover how social discourses
(narratives, belief systems, truths, etc.) operate within various cultural
forms to create subjects and identities, influence and maintain ideas
and ideologies, and uphold or subvert the status quo. While Cultural
Studies spans many disciplines and methodologies, the field is unified
as an analytical lens that primarily seeks to reveal power relations within cultural forms, with the purpose of uncovering how power works in
our daily lives.
If you are interested in better understanding how power and ideology are operating within a cultural text, you could analyze your favorite
video game or film using tools and approaches drawn from Cultural
Studies. In fact, Jack Halberstam did just that in one of the articles we
are reading this quarter, in his analysis of children’s animated films. By
looking closely at what characters in these animated children’s films
did, said, and represented, Halberstam was able to better understand
the underlying messages communicated by the films.
Halberstam argues that some of these films seem to sustain the
status quo. For example, he found that the individualistic ideologies
communicated via The Incredibles and Happy Feet support the economic system of what scholars sometimes term “neoliberal” contemporary
capitalism, which Halberstam notes is dependent upon individualistic competition, rather than collective responsibility (47). However,
Halberstam also argues that some films appear resistant to hegemonic
ideologies and the dominant system of power, citing as examples the
collectivist and “queer” themes of Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and Chicken Run (29-32, 44).
Meghann Meeusen does similar work on more recent children’s
animated films, including Zootopia and The Secret Life of Pets. Meeusen
uses Cultural Studies frameworks to argue that the specific portrayal
of humans as animals in these films serves to make the stereotyping of
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race and class-based identities appear harmless, when in fact they have
just as much of an impact on child viewers as they would if they were
portrayed as humans:
…when such portrayals present racial stereotypes or render
non-White characters invisible, absent, or inconsequential,
they can, like other forms of narrative for children, shape
young viewers’ narratives and worldviews in negative ways,
and consequently, they can do significant harm. (348)
Meeusen’s analysis is focused primarily on representation, or the way
in which characters (based on real-life identities and groups), are portrayed, developed, stereotyped, or absent. These representations (or
lack thereof) have very real effects on how viewers perceive themselves,
others, and the “truth” of their everyday lives. For example, Meeusen
explores Snowball’s characterization in The Secret Life of Pets, arguing
that his coding as an African American character, representative of a
non-dominant class and intent on revolutionary social change, is trivialized by his comic portrayal as mentally and emotionally unstable:
For example, although Snowball has a clear social agenda to
seek freedom and empowerment for the forgotten pets, he is
constantly construed, in the words of one of his compatriots,
as a “ball of fluff” who “has a screw loose.” While humorous,
moment’s like Snowball’s attempt to explain the scribbled
crayons that constitute his plans or calling the forgotten pets’
antics “groundbreaking evil activity” serve to make clear that
his cause is not one that viewers need to take seriously. Snowball is violent and maniacal, but also ridiculous and ineffectual, making his cause appear equally humorous and unimportant. By taking this approach, The Secret Life of Pets
presents class and potentially racially-coded power structures, but it does not work to critique or dismantle them,
instead using this divide between the rich, White, Manhattan dogs and the oppressed, underground pets primarily for
humor rather than any critical purpose. (355)
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In other words, Meeusen is arguing that the revolutionary potential
of a black, lower-class character is undermined by his characterization
as both mentally unstable and comic, thereby legitimating the status
quo of white, upper or middle-class experience. She also argues that
Snowball’s characterization as a “harmless” animal makes these coded
messages also appear harmless, thereby obscuring their power. Both
Meeusen’s and Halberstam’s analyses reveal how cultural texts communicate ideas and beliefs about what is good or bad about real world
ideas, systems, identities, behaviors, and groups. You can take a more
active role in your own cultural consumption by using Cultural Studies
frameworks to better understand what ideologies and representations
are teaching you to see, believe, and be.
representation and subject-formation
To summarize, the frameworks of Cultural studies originate in analyses
of how power (the unseen force that compels us to act in accordance
with norms that support existing relations of dominance, both economic and social) works through ideologies communicated via cultural texts such as films, television, art, music, etc. These ideas and
ideologies are often expressed via identity representation—how individuals, groups, and identities are (or are not) represented in cultural
forms. Representations carry great weight in the “real” world, in that
representations (or the lack thereof) influence the perceptions of the
people who consume them.
For example, an absence of representation of people with disabilities in the United States, or representation limited to a narrow range of
stereotypes, has been shown to result in considerable damage to differently-abled Americans in the real world, reinforcing hierarchical power
structures and systemic discrimination (Zhang and Haller). Analyzing
cultural forms with attention to their impact helps us combat problematic representations and create a more free and equitable society.
Just watch a few hours of your favorite television show or film,
looking for how a specific group or identity is represented. What mes-
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sages do you see being conveyed about this group/identity? Are they
humanized or trivialized? Are they heroes, villains, or comic relief? Are
there multiple dimensions of their human experience portrayed, or
only one or two facets? Are we meant to sympathize with them, or
view them from the outside looking in? What impact do you think
this might have on how American society perceives this group/identity?
All of these forms of power, evident through Cultural Studies
analyses of ideology and representation in cultural texts, gain strength
through the process of subject-formation, whereby real viewers construct their sense of self and reality through the messages and perceptions they gain from cultural texts. If viewers are unfamiliar with Cultural Studies tools, the impact of cultural texts on their sense of self or
subject-formation is more likely to occur unconsciously, because they
are often unaware of the messages conveyed. To better understand this
idea, ask yourself, were you aware of the messages Halberstam identifies in Finding Nemo before reading his article? Did you interpret The
Secret Life of Pets the same way Meeusen did? Your prior opinion is just
as valid as theirs, of course, but it is interesting to think about how
media affects you differently before and after you become trained to
analyze it.
In short, cultural texts teach us what reality is, who we are, and
who we should be. Learning how to see what cultural texts are teaching us before it becomes a part of our worldview and identity results
in greater opportunities for self-determination and a more free and
equitable society.
If you’d like to take your Cultural Studies analysis one step further to better understand the impact of ideology and representation
on “real” people, which includes the cultural production, reception,
interpretations, reactions, and interactions of people in relation to cultural forms, you could incorporate the tools and lens of ethnography,
either as its own endeavor, or in tandem with your newfound Cultural
Studies skills.
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works cited
Bernard, H. Russell. Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and
Quantitative Approaches. Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.
Brewer, John. Ethnography. McGraw-Hill Education (UK), 2000.
Fusco, Coco. “The Other History of Cultural Performance.” English is
Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas. New Press,
1995, pp. 37-63.
Gramsci, Antonio. “The Concept of Ideology.” Media and Cultural
Studies: Keyworks. Blackwell, 2001, pp. 44-46.
Gross, Larry. “Out of the Mainstream.” Media and Cultural Studies:
Keyworks. Blackwell, 2001, pp. 405-423.
Halberstam, J. “Animating Revolt and Revolting Animation.” The
Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011, pp. 27-52.
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Horkheimer, Max. Critical Theory: Selected Essays. Continuum, 1975.
Kellner, Douglas M., and Meenakshi Gigi Durham. “Adventures in
Media and Cultural studies: Introducing the Keyworks.” Media
and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. 2001, pp. 1-29.
Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “The Ruling Class and the Ruling
Ideas.” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Blackwell, 2001, pp.
39-42.
Meeusen, Meghann. “Power, Prejudice, Predators, and Pets: Representation in Animated Animal Films.” The Palgrave Handbook of Children’s Film and Television. Palgrave, 2019, pp. 345-361.
Miller, Toby. “What It Is and What It Isn’t: Introducing… Cultural
Studies.” A Companion to Cultural Studies. Wiley, 2001, pp. 1-19.
Spradley, James P. The Ethnographic Interview. Holt, Rinehart, and
Winston, 1979.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Global Transformations: Anthropology and the
Modern World. Springer, 2016.
Whitehead, Tony L. “What is Ethnography? Methodological, Ontological, and Epistemological Attributes.” Ethnographically Informed Community and Cultural Assessment Research Systems
(EICCARS) Working Paper Series, University of Maryland. College Park, MD., 2004.
Zhang, Lingling and Haller, Beth. “Consuming image: How mass media impact the identity of people with disabilities.” Communication
Quarterly 61.3, 2013, pp. 319-334.


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