Harnessing the Power of Pop Culture

by Latoya Peterson, originally published at Feministe

In the first 45 seconds of the trailer for Clueless, Cher Horowitz (played by Alicia Silverstone) gives one of the best rebuttals I have ever heard to opponents of providing asylum on our shores for oppressed people.

Yes, I’m serious.

Let’s reexamine the language (excerpted from Paul’s Ultimate Clueless Script):

SCENE IV – CLASSROOM DEBATE

MR HALL

Should all oppressed people be allowed refuge in America? Amber will take the con position. Cher will be pro. Cher, two minutes.

CHER

So, OK, like right now, for example, the Haitians need to come to America. But some people are all “What about the strain on our resources?” But it’s like, when I had this garden party for my father’s birthday right? I said R.S.V.P. because it was a sit-down dinner. But people came that like, did not R.S.V.P. so I was like, totally buggin’. I had to haul ass to the kitchen, redistribute the food, squish in extra place settings, but by the end of the day it was like, the more the merrier! And so, if the government could just get to the kitchen, rearrange some things, we could certainly party with the Haitians. And in conclusion, may I please remind you that it does not say R.S.V.P. on the Statue of Liberty?

(Class breaks into applause)

This segment was designed for us to laugh at the ridiculousness of Cher’s logic and her mispronunciation of Haitians (Haiti-ins!). But there is some truth in what she says.

Haitians need to come to America = Amnesty.

But some people are all “What about the strain on our resources?” = Opposition Arguments

And so, if the government could just get to the kitchen = Survey the situation

Rearrange some things = Reprioritize and reexamine how we use resources and we admit new entrants

We could certainly party with the Haitians = Grant amnesty, fix our selective and fractured policy.

And this line is classic: may I please remind you that it does not say R.S.V.P. on the Statue of Liberty?

It totally does not say R.S.V.P. on the Statue of Liberty. It actually says:

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name,
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

And yet, for the last few years, we’ve been having a debate around immigration which boils down to “everyone has to RSVP, we’ve got a velvet rope, and most of you aren’t invited to the party.” The tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free? Fuck ‘em!

Where are all the other voices in this debate? We’re left out. So many conversations around public policy and theory are couched in a language that makes them inaccessible to the average person with a limited understanding of the issues. And if the language that we as progressives and feminists use is inaccessible to the average reader/listener/viewer, we lose out. This is the void that has been filled by regressive interest groups – they dominate the dialogue by using very simplistic messages to summarize their position. Messages like “they are evil” or “they hate our freedom.” These messages may not even be true – but they are easy to remember. And that’s the problem. A complex, nuanced message is harder to grasp than a simple catchy statement, and thus, less likely to stick.

So, in order to reach more people, progressives need to critically examine the messages we send, what we say, and how we present them.

To this end, we need to learn to harness the power of pop culture – taking a message, shortening it, adding some spin, and preparing it for mass consumption.

Back in May, the New York Times published an article describing the efforts of U.S. Campaign for Burma to sell their cause using celebrities like Ellen Page, Jennifer Aniston, and Will Ferrell. And yet, somehow, they are still having problems getting their message to catch on.

The article discusses the strategy employed by Campaign for Burma:

To do so, the Burma campaign has decided to use some of the same brand-building strategies — simplified narratives, clear-cut imagery and, of course, the most carefully selected celebrities — used by other successful aid agencies, or even consumer-goods marketers.

“In a certain sense, you have to ‘brand’ it up,” said Jack Healey, the founder of the Human Rights Action Center, a partner in the Campaign for Burma. “It’s the nature of the business now.”

However, they are running into trouble getting the message to stick:

Jeremy Woodrum, a founder of the group, believes Myanmar is near the top of the list of global priorities, even in a world full of troubles. He says that the military dictatorship has enlisted the most child soldiers in the world and destroyed twice as many villages as the Sudanese have in Darfur. “There are a lot of situations, but really only a few that are extremely severe,” he said.

“When you’re talking about 3,200 villages destroyed and a million and a half refugees, I mean, that’s not everywhere.”

“Our challenge,” he added, “is how to convey those facts publicly.”

From where I sit, using a celebrity to convey a message about social justice issues is kind of a mixed bag. On one hand, you do pull a lot of eyes and attention to your cause, as news outlets and mainstream magazines are more willing to do a service piece if there is a celebrity hook.

However, social justice isn’t a product. It’s not Smartwater. You can’t just stick this message in Jennifer Aniston’s hand and expect that people will embrace your cause. For one thing, using a celebrity for product placement works well because there is a defined action to take – oh, Jennifer Aniston drinks Smartwater, maybe I should try this product. It’s as easy as going to the store and spending a couple dollars.

However, a situation like the one in Myanmar requires (1) some base knowledge of the issue, (2) an idea of what is at stake, (3) the inclination to become involved in the cause itself, and (4) the willingness to stay with the cause until resolution/no further action to be taken.

Add in the fact that many issues of global politics and social justice require a lot of untangling root causes and complications to understand, and we can see why most people opt to buy the damn Smartwater, and leave the social justice part to someone who actually cares.

The situation is far from hopeless, though.

It just requires a different way of thinking about how we present the information.

One of the things that is most compelling about watching the Republicans work is their strict adherence to talking points. I remember being annoyed by how people would dodge questions and keep repeating the same three crap ass sentences over and over and over. Now, I’m enrolled in a media training program, and I have learned that repeating the same crap ass sentences over and over is crucial. Why? Because you only have a limited time on air to get your ideas out there before you lose your audience. So, the goal is to get what you need to say out there. The person who sticks to their talking points controls the conversation – it doesn’t matter what the opposition says because what you are saying is being repeated, and you have already tailored your information to stick in someone’s mind.

So, there are two main tactics to combat this.

One, is the development of your own talking points, or counter talking points to that issue.

But the second, which is a bit more appealing to me personally, is reframing the issue using a different kind of spin.

So back to my original premise – Cher’s party analogy about amnesty is genius, because it reframes the issue into easily digestible bites in a memorable way. Everyone doesn’t understand the concept of international amnesty, but everyone can understand a party. And using a simple statement like “If the government could just get to the kitchen, rearrange somethings” begs the question, “Yeah, why isn’t the government trying harder?”

But this is just one example of an effective reframing.

Here’s a different one:

Target Women is a segment on Current TV’s Infomania program starring Sarah Haskins. The entire purpose of target women is to skewer advertising and marketing directed at women by humorously deconstructing the inherent stereotyping and other assumptions behind these messages. With most segments coming in under five minutes, Haskin’s pithy one liners poke holes in the established narrative – and encourage you to mine commercials for your own internal punchlines.

One last tactic to take is humanizing an issue through illustrating the lives and stories of people affected. Some of the most compelling Asian American narratives arose out of the decision by the United States Government to intern Japanese Americans in the 1940s. For many people, this is just a footnoote in history, something that went on during World War Two.

When Mike Shinoda (of Linkin Park fame) released his side project Fort Minor in 2005, one of the tracks on the album was called “Kenji.” In about four minutes, Shinoda illustrates the drama and issues surrounding internment and the aftermath through the eyes of his narrator, interspersing his rhymes with actual narratives from those who lived through this part of our history. The song (with posted lyrics) is below:

Now, Shinoda’s album was not a commercial success – but over 400,000 people heard the song.

In order to progress the feminist cause (or whatever cause you fight for, really), to reclaim the airwaves, and to reframe the national conversation, we need to start looking at how we represent our messages.