In the first week of January 2012, Jane Clare Jones – a doctoral student in Philosophy – published an article about the Doctor Who Christmas Special. It appeared on ‘Comment is Free’ section of the online Guardian newspaper, and it was met by multiple responses. Many of the comments were remarkably, and depressingly, similar to those that followed an article published online two years ago by Professor Tara Brabazon in the Times Higher Education magazine.
The responses included:
Don’t submit a thesis in a fadingly trendy but eternally lightweight field, such as, erm, media studies.
God – wish someone would pay me to think about TV too much
Off to do some of my own “media studies” and watch EastEnders now.
I’m just glad there’s nothing seriously bad happening we need to discuss.
Media studies…Obviously this woman hasn’t a clue.
It’s amazing what you can do at university these days.
Who cares? It’s trash TV anyway. All style, no substance.
I’ve compiled the responses to both articles together, and while the two pieces had little in common – Brabazon’s article discussed not a specific television programme, but key and common mistakes made by PhD students – I think it’s hard to tell the responses apart.
To an extent, this hostility is par for the course when any woman posts her opinion online, especially if she identifies as in any way feminist, and if she chooses to include her name and photograph. (Brabazon’s article in particular was met with entirely irrelevant personal comments about her appearance).
However, the basic level of internet stupidity and misogyny is not, I believe, the only prompt for these responses. I’ve encountered something similar myself, when it became known that my PhD was a study of a popular cultural icon.
He sure as Hell won’t get any respect but he will be laughed at. Hahahahaha!!! What a f$@king moron/idiot wasting his money. He has nothing intellectual to do with his time.
That was a comment about me on a web forum, in January 1999. This view was echoed across the popular press, TV and radio, as my research briefly became a news story in a slow week at the end of the millennium. Terry Wogan, Vanessa Feltz, Johnny Vaughan and Zoe Ball used me as comedy material in their morning round-ups and quizzes, while journalist from Total Film magazine lambasted my work as ‘preposterous… it just doesn’t seem the sort of thing that you should be spending three years at college doing… something that most people just talk about down the pub.’
I’m not quoting those criticisms from memory, of course, and I feel no bitterness about them – I incorporated them in my PhD thesis, which was published as the book Batman Unmasked, so they became part of my material and shaped my argument. In a way, the public antipathy towards my research reinforced my sense of purpose. As I wrote at the time, in my Conclusion:
Cultural Studies clearly still has its work cut out for it… and seems destined for the moment to still be treated as a novelty discipline, the home of trick-pony research. However, my experience provides a convincing reason for its continued ventures into research like this current project, whatever the jeers; Cultural Studies has to do it, because the popular media are clearly not prepared to treat cultural texts with anything like the attention they deserve.
From the evidence of those subsequent articles and their feedback, little has changed in the last twelve years. There is still, it seems, a widespread resentment or distrust about the very idea of studying the popular media, and a knee-jerk reaction to ridicule it. I wasn’t especially surprised that tabloid newspapers and daytime TV shows took that approach in 1999; I knew I had set myself up for it, and in the end, I used them as much as they used me.
What does surprise and sadden me a little more is that, even in the second decade of the 21st century, the readers of our most liberal broadsheet newspaper, and a magazine devoted to higher education, respond with such hostility to (it seems) the very idea of a Professor of Media Studies, and an article that seeks to analyse the gender representations in a TV show.
Why this resentment? I think the Total Film journalist came close to capturing it, though he may not have realised that at the time. ‘It just doesn’t seem the sort of thing that you should be spending three years at college doing… something that most people just talk about down the pub.’
At the heart of the hostility, I believe, lies an outraged suspicion that cultural studies and media scholars have made ‘work’ into ‘play’, and vice versa. It’s ironic, perhaps, that a film journalist who earns his pay by writing about movies should take that line, but for people in other jobs, and perhaps other disciplines, the logic makes a certain sense. Popular culture is ‘leisure’; it’s what you do outside work. To make it into your work is a kind of cheating. It isn’t fair. It doesn’t seem right. It’s too good to be true, and so there must be something wrong with it, somehow. Either it must be easy, or it’s pointless, or, more generously, anyone in that field must simply be very lucky, studying things that other people watch or read for pleasure.
Unsurprisingly, I don’t agree that it’s easy, or that it’s pointless. I do agree that cultural studies scholars, like me, are lucky; but to a great extent, I think we made our own luck. I chose to study things that I love, and I kept doing it even in the face of ridicule from the mighty Terry Wogan. My work, much of the time, involves thinking and writing about things I find genuinely fascinating, and a lot of the time I can honestly say that if I wasn’t being paid to do it, I’d probably be doing it anyway.
But there is a down-side. When the boundaries become blurred, not only is much of your life a form of play, but it’s also a form of work. Those traditional oppositions can be useful, in terms of dividing and structuring your time. The idea of leaving the office and ‘turning off’ until tomorrow morning is almost unknown to me; the idea of watching TV, going to a film, reading a novel or even playing a videogame simply as entertainment, with no thought in the back of my mind of whether and how I could factor it into a forthcoming article, is unfamiliar. When popular culture is your field of study, it surrounds you, and almost everything you see jumps out for examination, comparison, filing and indexing in your mental matrix.
So, we may seem to study play, leisure and pleasure, and it can certainly be a pleasure, but it also makes the whole week, and the weekend, into work. We do it because, rather than looking down on the stories that surround us, we think they deserve critical attention. We do it precisely because the readers of a liberal broadsheet newspaper and a higher education magazine still seem to feel it’s trivial; because we know it’s important, and because so many people outside our own disciplines still refuse to take it seriously. And we do it because we love the things we study. Rather than treating popular culture as the opposite of work, we incorporate it into every aspect of our waking (and often dreaming) lives; and that’s fascinating, and often fun, but it’s not an easy ride.
Dr Will Brooker is Director of Research, Film & TV at Kingston University.