Popular Culture

Chapter Introduction

Popular culture is integral to the creation of meaning and exercise of power.

How are power relationships represented in popular culture?

How does popular culture provide instructions for everyday life?

How do powerful groups use popular culture?


In this chapter we consider the uses of popular culture:

  • Crafting and mediating identities and social life.
  • Making sense of social reality.
  • Making value from the mediation of identity.
  • Mediating political participation.
  • Managing power relationships. 

Cases & Activities

Oprah’s book club

Oprah’s book club provides an example of how her show integrates political and commercial processes. Oprah’s book club was credited with revitalising the commercial publishing industry and reading as a public practice. That is, it was said to have both commercial value to the book industry while also make a political contribution to American life. Over time Oprah positioned reading as part of the work of ‘building’, improving and working on ourselves. For Oprah, books are a resource in a regime of self-improvement and work. The book club positioned these narratives within a sense of public deliberation and discussion, which fits American democratic ideals. By reading the carefully selected books and engaging in discussions facilitated by Oprah, her audience engage in local level forms of democracy organised around self-improvement. Furthermore, the books Oprah selects are a kind of ‘therapeutic toolbox’ (Peck 2008: 186) for her readers, books that contain content that serves her narratives of self-improvement and enable the further mediation of her brand. Literature serves as a resource for building, mediating and valorising the Oprah brand. The Oprah brand becomes a ‘way of life’ that other products and brands can be inserted into.

Peck (2008) argues that narratives of ‘self-care’ and personal responsibility go hand in hand with more precarious forms of economic and social life. The more vulnerable we are the more work we need to do to improve ourselves. If neo-liberalism celebrates the enterprising individual it also blames the vulnerable and suffering individual for their own circumstances.  Oprah mediates, manages – and profits from – these political, social and cultural arrangements. The Oprah brand stimulates and profits from the precariousness and vulnerability ordinary people feel in neo-liberalism’s power relationships. It isn’t just that Oprah’s narratives ‘naturalise’ neo-liberalism with their narratives of personal responsibility, it is that Oprah also sells a ‘cure’ that is highly economically profitable for her and her associated brands. The more vulnerable ordinary people are the more they seek out Oprah – and her brand – as a set of meanings and cultural practices for making sense of and coping with their life circumstances. Oprah’s advice can’t ever solve their problems, in fact it has an economic interest in sustaining them. Oprah prompts a desire for self-improvement, and then captures and commodifies it as both attention and a set of cultural practices. Oprah profits from the desiring subjects she crafts. Oprah’s spirituality stimulates the anxiety that her program claims to address. Popular culture provides ‘imaginary resolutions’ to ‘manage desires’. Oprah creates self-enterprising neoliberal subjects who do the work of enacting the ‘natural’ values of a neoliberal economic order (Peck 2008: 222). Those prescriptions have to be ‘repeated’ because they cannot ‘resolve’ the real world social conditions.

What impacts does Oprah’s book club have on the book industry, novelists, audiences and reading as a part of cultural life?

How does Oprah’s book club change the kinds of stories, characters and identities that the publishing industry produces?

How does the production of these kinds of stories and characters reflect power relationships?

What kinds of ‘instructions’ do books selected for Oprah’s book club offer on how to life a good life?



Oprah’s book club.


Find Oprah’s book club videos on YouTube.



David Simon’s deep texts

The letter to New Orleans

On the eve of Treme’s debut David Simons wrote an open letter to the city of New Orleans where he responded to the way the show brought ‘drama’ and ‘reality’ together. In the letter he explained that Treme ‘sometimes lies about details to convey thematic truth’. He says to the people of the city that he expects them to hold him ‘to certain standards’ as the drama takes ‘liberties with a profound unforgettable period in (the) city’s history’. He finishes his letter by asking ‘Why? Why not depict a precise truth…?’: 

‘Well, Pablo Picasso famously said that art is the lie that shows us the truth. Such might be the case of a celebrated artist claiming more for himself and his work than he ought, or perhaps, this Picasso fella was on to something. By referencing what is real, or historical, a fictional narrative can speak in a powerful, full-throated way to the problems and issues of our time. And a wholly imagined tale, set amid the intricate and accurate details of a real place and time,  can resonate with readers in profound ways. In short,  drama is its own argument.’

David Simons claimed that Treme was an argument for the city. The letter is a deep text in the sense it is an attempt to theorise and explain the real meaning and value of the fictional drama.

How does Simons explain the value of Treme?

How do dramatisations of our cities, lives and histories affect us?

Does drama play a role in crafting and changing power relationships?


David Simon’s statement on Felecia ‘Snoop’ Pearson’s arrest

When Felicia ‘Snoop’ Pearson was arrested on drugs related charges Simons made the following statement:

‘We believe the war on drugs has devolved into a war on the underclass, that in places like West and East Baltimore, where the drug economy is now the only factory still hiring and where the educational system is so crippled that the vast majority of children are trained only for the corner, a legal campaign to imprison our most vulnerable and damaged citizens is little more than amoral. And we said then that if asked to serve on any jury considering a non-violent drug offense, we would move to nullify that jury’s verdict and to vote to acquit. Regardless of the defendant, I still believe such a course of action would be just in any case in which drug offenses – absent proof of violent acts – are alleged. Both our constitution and our common law guarantee that we will be judged by our peers. But in truth, there are now two Americas, politically and economically distinct. I, for one, do not qualify as a peer to Felicia Pearson. The opportunities and experiences of her life do not correspond in any way with my own, and her America is different from my own. I am therefore ill-equipped to be her judge in this matter.’

What does Simons’ statement say about his values?

How does television drama contribute toward public debate about and responses to crime and race?

Can drama prompt conversations that reshape how people think and act?

Can drama reveal power relationships in constructive ways?



David Simon’s letter to New Orleans about Treme.


David Simon’s statement about Felicia ‘Snoop’ Pearson.


David Simon in Guernica.



The White House Correspondent’s Dinner

The White House Correspondents dinner began in 1920 as an event that recognised the achievements of political reporting each year. Since the 1980s, the dinner has gradually transitioned toward an event that satirised the President and Administration. Sitting Presidents have more regularly participated in this satire, poking fun at themselves, their opponents and their relationships with the press. The dinner has drawn criticism as an event that illustrates how symbiotic the relationships between politicians and journalists are. We might also argue that the dinner offers a forum for powerful political actors to position themselves as part of ‘in jokes’ that mock their own status. These activities ought to prompt us to consider why the powerful now so routinely expose and mock the workings of power.

The Presidents’ performances at the White House Correspondents Dinner provide one example of the powerful ‘winking’ and ‘nodding’ to the public, indicating to them that they know the public can ‘see through’ their power and their meanings. That, they can see how their political interests drive the meanings they make. That, they can see how power ‘really’ works. We might argue that the kind of ideology we see at work here is one that in general celebrates a continuous ‘revelation’ of the backstage, of power relations and sites of power, by making fun of the powerful and having the powerful make fun of themselves. This political culture maintains power relationships by letting the public feel like they are part of the ‘backstage’ action or ‘inner circle’ of elites. This should prompt us to consider how this disposition works to create and maintain power relationships. And, why the powerful would not only sanction it, but also actively participate in it.

At the 2011 White House Correspondents dinner President Obama began his speech with a Hollywood style montage that presented his birth certificate set against other symbols of real Americana like the Stars and Stripes, Uncle Sam, eagles, Rocky, baseball, Michael Jordan and WWF wrestling. The montage poked fun at the ‘birther’ controversy sparked by the conservative Tea Party movement and right-wing figures like Donald Trump. He began his speech by nothing that his birth certificate had been released, but that he was prepared to go a ‘step further’ and release his ‘official birth video’. He then screened the famous ‘Circle of Life’ seen of Simba’s birth form the Disney cartoon The Lion King. Obama remarked, ‘I want to make clear to the Fox News table that was a joke, that was not my real birth video, that was a childrens’ cartoon’. His speech featured many more jokes that referenced contemporary political and popular culture, celebrities, comedians and journalists, and poked fun at his opponents and himself.

Obama’s 2012 speech began with a spoof recording of Obama backstage before his speech. The gag was that as Jimmy Kimmel was preparing to introduce him, his backstage remarks were broadcast because his microphone had been ‘accidentally’ left on. Obama was backstage warming up his voice, flushing the toilet, checking out his grey hairs, and complaining that he had to open for Jimmy Kimmel and tell ‘knock knock jokes to Kim Kardashian’ and other celebrities. When he was prompted to go on stage by his minder he said, ‘OK I’m going, god forbid we keep Chuck Todd and the cast of Glee waiting’. He then took to stage to tell the audience that he ‘could not be more thrilled’ to be talking at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and went on to say it was an ‘honour’ to open for Jimmy Kimmel and he was ‘delighted’ to see Chuck Todd and the cast of Glee. In this opening gag he poked fun at himself, as a political leader. He ‘winked’ at the public, saying ‘I know you know’ that you think everything political leaders say is contrived based on what people want to hear.

Why would the most powerful person in the world publicly make jokes about themselves?

Why in the past ten years have powerful political figures engaged in these comedy formats and made jokes about their own power?

What does the President’s performance at the White House Correspondence dinner say about his identity, values and the way he exercises his power?



Barack Obama at the 2011 White House Correspondent’s Dinner.


Barack Obama at the 2012 White House Correspondent’s Dinner.


Barack Obama at the 2013 White House Correspondent’s Dinner.


Barack Obama at the 2014 White House Correspondent’s Dinner.


Further Readings

The readings below address a range of issues we explored in the chapter. Ouellette and Hay (2008) analyse how reality TV offers a framework for governing everyday life. Turner (2006) offers an argument about the participation of ordinary people in popular culture formats like reality TV. Peck (2008) examines the frameworks of self-improvement offered by Oprah. The readings by Baym (2005) and Feldman (2008) consider the role that comedy news plays in informing the public and enabling deliberative forms of democracy.

Baym, G. (2005). The Daily Show: Discursive integration and the reinvention of political journalism. Political Communication, 22(3), 259-276.

Feldman, L. (2007). The news about comedy Young audiences, The Daily Show, and evolving notions of journalism. Journalism, 8(4), 406-427.

Ouellette, L., & Hay, J. (2008). Makeover television, governmentality and the good citizen. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 22(4), 471-484.

Peck, J. (2010). The secret of her success: Oprah Winfrey and the seductions of self-transformation. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 34(1), 7-14.

Turner, G. (2006). The mass production of celebrity ‘Celetoids’, reality TV and the ‘demotic turn’. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 9(2), 153-165.