Judging by the Women’s Marches that took place around the world on Saturday, January 21, the revolution will be pop cultural.
Sign after sign was built on pop cultural references, showing off empowering female characters or quoting famous movie lines or song lyrics or riffing off of famous plot twists.
That’s because popular culture is both America’s greatest common touchstone and one of its great indicators of identity: This kind of person likes Beyoncé, and this kind of person likes Nickelback.
When you declare your allegiance to a particular piece of pop culture, you are telling the world something about how you want to be seen and how you think about yourself: hence the Team Cap vs. Team Iron Man feuds that arose last summer after the release of Captain America: Civil War.
And as pop culture becomes an ever-greater signifier of identity, and the country grows ever more politically polarized, the two categories slip together. We are what we watch and read and listen to, and we are political, so the culture that we consume is, too.
But because pop culture is also communal, we don’t use it just to signify our own identities. We use it to signify communities, too.
Part of what makes a political pop culture sign work is the thrill of recognition: Oh, I know that reference! I’m part of the group, too!
If you understand both the political statement and the cultural reference, then you can be in the club. It’s a form of community building that feels simultaneously exclusive and welcoming.
And it’s the way protesting looks today.
The slippage between pop culture and politics isn’t necessarily good, but it is unavoidable
The fact that we have intertwined pop culture and politics, and use them both as ways to think about our identities, is not necessarily an unalloyed good. Eric Bain-Selbo, a philosophy professor at Western Kentucky University, argues that we use both pop culture and politics to fill the existential void created by capitalism. “The consumer of popular culture is an isolated individual,” he writes:
There is nothing that binds the consumer with his or her fellow citizens other than the act of consumption. There are no common traditions or codes of conduct. … We do not have political community. (Again, I suspect there are exceptions that prove the rule.) We have groupings as a consequence of market segmentation. And as Cohen notes, the market segmentation of consumer culture has long since made its way into the political arena. In other words, not only are consumers divided through market segmentation, but citizens are divided as well — into liberals and conservatives, the religious and non-religious, gay rights advocates and their opponents, and, of course, Pro-Choices and Pro-Lifers.
In other words, we’ve learned to self-identify with pop culture communities and political communities in part because capitalism wants us to, because that makes it easier to sell things to us.
That quirk of capitalism is part of what makes it possible for a reality TV celebrity like Donald Trump to ride his name recognition into office. And it encourages the kind of social media tribalism that was so widely denounced after the election: If you’re a marketer, once you’ve got your preferred market isolated, you want to keep it isolated so that a different marketer can’t poach it. If you’re a consumer, you want to stay with the tribe you’ve identified as your kind so that you don’t bring in dissenting voices. In that way, building your identity through pop culture and political choices can become a self-sustaining system.
But regardless of whether or not the politicization of pop culture is a good thing, it is for right now an unavoidable thing. It is what our culture looks like now, and it is here to stay for a good long while.
As it is here, the revolution will be televised. It will be broadcast on the radio. It will be discussed and furthered on the internet. It will be replicated into a thousand memes. That’s how our culture builds its tribes and its groups and, now, its political protests.