Moral panic and popular culture

Lady Reading in an Interior
Lady Reading in an Interior by Marguerite Gérard (c. 1795).

A while back Tim sent me a link to a research paper by sociologist Ana Vogrinčič that draws a line from the vilification of novels (and their readers) in the 18th century to the vilification of popular culture, particularly television, today. Then I read a blog post (which I can’t find now, sorry!) that asked about the books we happily talk about and the books we hide away, comparing that with the TV shows we discuss and those we don’t admit to being regular viewers of. Which got me thinking…

Moral media panics about popular culture are nothing new (as Vogrinčič’s paper shows) and by their very nature are later proved unfounded (at least on a general, wide scale; there will always be individual examples that can be dug up and repeated ad infinitum). The novel has over the last century gone from being considered low-brow and even damaging to health (yes, really) to being considered one of, if not the, best form of culture to be consumed in large quantities. In fact these days we worry about people not reading. (I’m not talking about literacy here, which is a separate matter, just about people who are capable of reading making the decision to pick up a book for leisure.)

This may be a really obvious link to draw but I found it fascinating:

“People did not stop reading novels. Nor did moral panic in any way weaken novel-writing or the distribution of novels – just as, two centuries later, it did not prevent people from watching television. On the contrary, the success of the genre and the campaign against it run parallel. And readers seem to have gone along with it…People genuinely believed that novels were harmful, but they were at once convinced that they themselves could not be affected. Or they just did not apply the threat to their own individual readings. It was (is!) the same with watching television.”

Right now, I think we’re starting to see the wane of the panic over television, though I wouldn’t call it just yet. Just as certain types of novel were vilified far longer than others (romance, especially) certain types of TV show continue to draw ire (reality TV being the obvious example) while other types, such as drama or documentary, have gone from acceptable to commendable – cultural aficionados will eagerly discuss whether The Wire or The Sopranos is the greatest TV show ever made while denying having seen a single frame of any soap opera (I’ve lost count of how often I hear someone defend their knowledge of a soap by saying “My partner/housemate/kid watches it so I’m in the room when it’s on but I don’t watch it really.”).

The other obvious example of a media panic is computer games, though I think (hope) that one too peaked a few years back and people are starting to acknowledge that games can be works of art/culture. I’m not a gamer myself but Tim is and I have spent many an hour watching him play games with carefully crafted plots and beautiful visuals. And even the games that look rubbish/have little or no plot are harmless fun and have some benefits (cognitive reasoning, stimulation of imagination, etc) just as reading “trashy” books is harmless and can have benefits (improved vocabulary, stimulation of imagination, etc). I read many a Sweet Valley High and Mills & Boon in my teens and it did me no harm that I’m aware of!

I’m struggling to see any benefit to watching reality TV, though, so maybe my argument falls apart a little at the edges. But it’s a topic I find really interesting so if you’ve spotted an article or podcast about this please let me know.

What do you think about moral panics over popular culture? Do you think it’s the same thing as cultural snobbery (high-brow versus low-brow) or are they two different but sometimes overlapping things?

You can read the research paper for yourself in the bilingual Croatian and English journal Media Research, though the poor copy editing (at least in the English version; I can’t speak for the Croatian) makes it a bit of a tough read in places.

Ana Vogrinčič 2008 The novel-reading panic in 18th century England: an outline of an early moral media panic Medijska Istraživanja 14 (2) 103–124
web version
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