This week we had the opportunity to meet with Karen Heffernan Cummings, a recent graduate of Trent’s Public Texts program, and learn about the research she conducted into Young Adult fiction and girl readers as part of her thesis, “From Reading to Reality: The Girl Public’s Response to Post-Millennial Adolescent Girl Literature.” We also had the interesting (to put it mildly) task of reading Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” for our core course, ENGL5007: Public Texts II.
‘Why I am bringing up these two seemingly unrelated events?’, you might be wondering. ‘What could they possibly have to do with one another?’ Well, wonder no longer…
My reason for discussing Karen and Adorno and Horkheimer together has to do with the fact that each has a very distinct take on the role of popular culture and the impact that different forms of entertainment have on society.
Considering the culture surrounding Young Adult books aimed at post-millennial adolescent girls and the reading publics that emerged from and assembled themselves around both the Twilight saga and the Gossip Girl series, Karen views popular cultural works like ‘teen girl titles’ as a way for young women to empower themselves and assert their individuality, to actively engage with one another and create girl communities, and to safely experiment with archetypes and social roles and constructions. Although she readily admits that these YA texts are problematic, acknowledging that they are often poorly written, predictable, and carry anti-feminist undertones and that many of these works are commercialized, designed and packaged by publisher with the sole purpose of catching on to the ‘next big thing’ and launching a multimillion dollar franchise, she is also reluctant to write them off as ‘trashy,’ lowbrow works of fiction that merely encourage rampant consumerism and instill their readers with questionable moral codes. According to Karen, books like Twilight and Gossip Girl have value as they can challenge the status quo and offer their young female readers the opportunity to participate in a self-made girl public. She also adds that it is important not to overlook the agency of the girl reader when it comes to choosing and reading a text, suggesting that reading YA fiction is an act of active participation.
For their part, Adorno and Horkheimer are much more pessimistic, dismissing the masses as passive recipients of whatever product or entertainment that the makers of popular culture choose to sell them. In “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” they argue that popular culture, which includes film, music, literature, television, and other entertainments, operates with the specific aim of manipulating the public and encouraging conformity. Whereas Karen emphasizes the girl reader’s ability to select a certain book, Adorno and Horkheimer stress the illusion of choice and state that any decision made by the consumer is irrelevant as all cultural products are essentially the same. They also posit that consumers lack the ability to think critically about what they are viewing, reading, listening to, etc., as they have been conditioned to accept what is presented to them without question and resistance to the culture industry is essentially futile (to paraphrase the Borg).
With the two positions now listed, the problem then becomes: Where should we stand? Or, to reference the idea of “team-taking,” a concept Karen mentioned in her lecture that describes the tendency among girl readers to pick sides and align themselves with their favourite characters, are we Team Karen or Team Theodor and Max?
It might be a bit of cop out, but I’m inclined to say Team Everyone! Histrionic and elitist as they are, I think that Adorno and Horkheimer are right in their assessment that popular culture tends to be homogenous (please see any Katherine Heigl movie or any song produced by Dr. Luke) and that most of the culture industry is driven by capitalist motives. Nevertheless, as Karen explains, I also think that it is important to give some credit to the consumers and recognize that they have potential to resist and become active agents.