The Y Report

Pop-Culture Power

A photo of a man with black glasses and a paisley shirt balances a boom box on his shoulder.
To Scott Church, who teaches a class on pop culture, the ’80s have always been totally rad. Photo by Bradley Slade.

Communications professor Scott H. Church (BA ’05) liked the ’80s before it was cool. One of his favorite TV shows is Freaks and Geeks, a cult classic about high schoolers in the 1980s.

The show made him laugh—and helped him navigate challenging experiences. That’s the power of entertainment we love, says Church, who’s turned pastime into academic pursuit, researching and teaching about pop culture.

How do you define popular culture?

A: Popular culture is entertainment for the masses: movies, TV shows, music. But pop culture is also hairstyles, outfits, even buildings. It’s so prevalent that references work their way into our lexicon. Tell someone, “May the Force be with you,” and they’ll catch the Star Wars reference—even if they haven’t seen the saga.

What are the benefits of pop culture?

A: Pop culture adds more to our lives than an escape from boredom. Authentic portrayals of events and people make us more empathetic, exposing us to new perspectives and building bridges. It can be cathartic, helping us purge strong emotions and work through past experiences. It also helps us connect: you see someone wearing a T-shirt with your favorite band, and you think, “Okay, we’re kindred spirits.“

Does pop culture have a dark side?

A: We consider it mere entertainment, which gives pop culture power to persuade us to accept messages we wouldn’t otherwise consider. Pop culture can define our perceptions of what is normal and abnormal, what is funny and not funny, what is beautiful and not beautiful. If we aren’t careful, it can influence our attitudes, values, beliefs, and judgments negatively.

How can we make sure that our entertainment influences us for good?

A: Be willing to think critically about your entertainment. What questions does it raise? What impact does it have on you? As a father of five young daughters, I am always mindful of the standards of morality promoted by what we consume as a family. I also try to vet my personal entertainment on sites like Rotten Tomatoes to make sure it’s worth my time.

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