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
PDF version

The truth is buried in there somewhere

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
by Mary Wollstonecraft

I originally got this book for the Year of Feminist Classics project, but when they actually discussed it back in January I was only about 20 pages in. And then I put it aside for four months. The thing is, while being a hugely important and interesting work, this one is pretty tough to read. Or at least, I thought so.

First up, why was it hard to read? Well, it’s rambling and repetitive to such an extent that even my abridged Penguin Great Ideas edition of 132 pages felt too long. The language is as archaic as you might expect of 1792 and the society to which it refers is so long gone that it’s only recognisable from old novels. This also means that a lot of her arguments and the things she wishes to change have already changed, the fight has been won, so you could argue that it’s no longer relevant.

And yet, it is also eye-opening and indeed educational to be reminded how different society was, how unequal the sexes, and therefore how much progress has been made. Mary Wollstonecraft was arguing against the assumption that women are inherently weak, incapable, over-emotional beings with a natural love of dresses and pretty things; that men are inherently superior and women their slaves. This is not the view of one or two lone misogynists but that of most people in the western world at the time.

Wollstonecraft addresses herself to men and keeps all of her arguments abstract. She does not single out great women of history to look up to and indeed her comments about queens not being the equal of kings make me suspect that she did not subscribe to the now widely held view that Elizabeth I was a fine example of a woman proving herself in a man’s world. What Wollstonecraft does do is paint a series of caricatures of women who have been ruined by their upbringing or society or both.

This text does not set out any rules for women to follow to improve themselves, besides a brief attack on reading novels (which she distinguishes from literature). The primary point seems to be a plea to the powers that be – all male, of course – to at least try providing equal education for girls as for boys, so that women can prove by themselves that their silliness is a result of lack of education first and foremost.

Though education is her primary goal, there are also social changes to be made that are harder to resolve, and indeed Wollstonecraft does more describing how the current state of things is bad than suggesting how it can be changed. She appeals to what men might want in a woman – when sexual passion dries up, don’t they want an interesting, educated companion to share their life with? Don’t they want their children to spend their formative years with a strong, sensible, intelligent caregiver? Don’t they want to share some interests and hobbies with their life partner, to make marriage more enjoyable?

One point that Wollstonecraft makes is that while men have various hobbies and pastimes, women have only one – their appearance – which has a derogatory effect in numerous ways. And this really rang true for me because from what I remember, though it’s been a while, magazines for girls are about that one thing and basically nothing else – how to attract boys, what celebrities are wearing, how to pluck your eyebrows… How on earth this stuff can be regurgitated weekly astounds me but it was and probably still is. Yet lads mags, between the topless/bikini-clad ladies, have articles about cars, gadgets, films, sport. They’re still clichéd topics, sure, but at least there’s some variety, some looking outward to the world. It’s depressing how little has changed since 1792 when you look at details like that.

The passage that struck me the most was related to the above but not quite making the same point. Wollstonecraft argues that men who encourage women to be flirts who obsess over their appearance create women who are too physically unfit to be of any use in the bedroom or in childbirth. Now there’s a point I can agree with!

I’m glad I ploughed my way to the end and I can see why it’s considered important, but this was too poorly structured and hard to read for me to call it great.

First published 1792.

See also: reviews by Amy Reads and Emily of Evening All Afternoon. If you’re interested in Mary Wollstonecraft, it’s well worth taking a look at the excellent project A Vindication of the Rights of Mary.