Analyzing Pop Culture

Cultural Criticism: Taking Pop Culture as Text

When we take popular culture like films, television, and advertisements as texts for analysis, we are engaging what is broadly called in cultural criticism.

One way to describe the general aims of pursuing cultural criticism is to educate people in cultural literacy.

There are varying branches of study that fall under the cultural criticism umbrella.

Branches of Cultural Criticism

Critical Discourse Analysis


Rhetorical Analysis

Examples in Action: Analyzing Pop Culture

Pop Culture as a Vehicle for Ideology

Pinocchio famously sang that he had no strings. What he did not realize was that, even as a real boy, he was still, in a way, a puppet – open to the persuasions of people like the con man Honest John.

We’ve all got strings. We can all be influenced and persuaded and, here’s the rub, we don’t always know when it’s happening.

This is true in part because persuasion takes place on many levels. Advertising is not the only kind of message we encounter on a regular basis. While commercial messages are highly noticeable, they are just one facet of a far larger communication of values and ideology that we receive almost every day.

Ideology (def.): a cultural outlook and value system that informs notions of social good, political virtue and material desirability 

Explore this idea further: “I Got No Strings: Pinocchio & Ideology”

What is Discourse?

One thing that each branch of cultural criticism has in common is an interest in public discourse. Let’s take a minute to talk about what this term means.

What we’re talking about is public speech, but “speech” is not limited to the things people say when standing behind a podium…

When we talk about public discourse, we are talking about a broad set of conversations which are more-or-less available to more-or-less everyone. 

Our national public discourse includes many topics: presidential politics, prison reform, immigration, race, policing, sexuality, climate change, economic issues, entertainment, and sports. 

As a culture, we have a way of talking about each of these items. That “way” is our discourse.

Importantly, the way we talk about an issue reflects the way we think and feel about that issue.

And here it is important to recognize that our modes of “talking” about something such as sexuality includes film depictions sexual orientation. It also includes the ways in which TV shows portray gay and straight characters. These are ways of talking about sexuality.

This is how media products represent one way of talking about these important social issues and cultural ideas.

Often, media products end up being our primary way of talking about these things. That is one reason cultural criticism exists – because important ideas circulate in our public discourse.

This is where our ideas are shaped.

The articles listed above each offer look at how our discourse on a topic reflects larger ideas, values and beliefs.

Discourse & Values

As individuals we each have a certain point of view. (More accurately, we have a number of points of view on a variety of topics.) In short, we have a way of looking at the world that defines our relationship to that world.

We have values. We have principles. We also have preferences and biases. This is also true for us collectively. As a cultural community, we have values, principles, preferences and biases. 

Where do our values, principles, preferences and biases come from? Some of them come from family culture. They come from the home. Some of them come from school. But many of our ideas about good, bad, better and worse come from elsewhere. And even if they don’t, we have to recognize that the spaces of family and school don’t exist is a vacuum. They are informed by ideas coming from the culture at large.

Our values and biases are authentic. Yes. But they are almost never original with us as individuals.

These things are all present in our discourse – the shared conversations we have as a society across media, in film, television, politics, and in person. Our ideals and perceptions are communicated in our discourse. 

Explore & Inform Your Thinking: Critical Concepts in Pop Culture Analysis



Published by eric m martin

A writer, teacher and coffee shop owner living in the southern reaches of the Mojave Desert.

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