Berghahn Books Logo

berghahn New York · Oxford

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Youtube
  • Instagram

Is There Such Thing as “Low-Brow?” Taking Pop Culture Seriously

by Martha Hoffman, Journals Editorial and Production Manager


Maybe it’s my age, but sometimes I feel like two different people inhabit my mind: there’s the person that was obsessed with sociology in college, reading Critical Race Theory for fun and over-scheduling classes I didn’t need because I was genuinely excited at the thought of learning and figuring out what I was most passionate about. This is the half of me that feels most at home at Berghahn, the intellectually curious and studious parts of me thriving as I help in the production of academic and scholarly journals.

But there’s also the other part of me: the girl that loves reality television, blockbuster movies and popular music. I can spend hours looking for fun dance songs, watching network comedies and am willing to pay NYC movie theatre ticket prices to see a rom-com if a friend is willing to do the same.

The other day, I was working on creating an ad for a new issue of Girlhood Studies. I was looking at the last issue, and an article title caught my eye: “Some Assembly Required: Black Barbie and the Fabrication of Nicki Minaj.” The topic of Minaj has come up in my life from time to time, though it’s usually on the internet, radio or tv, and if anyone’s discussing her it’s usually not her merits or her culture significance but rather her butt, face or the fact that she can’t rap. It’s not that I think Minaj can’t rap, I’ve just noticed that the most vocal commentors of the artist are those insisting she’s not an artist to begin with. With any type of fame, knee-jerk vitriol seems to follow. Admittedly, my comments about her have often fallen into similarly shallow categories, albeit positive: I think she’s beautiful, funny and a decent rapper. However, other than those cursory observations, I don’t think I’ve ever stood back and thought about her in a larger context, whether it be from a gender-, race- or cultural standpoint.

I think this happens with a lot of popular culture. It becomes relegated to only being pop culture, and that’s where it remains in the psyche of both its audience and those who choose not to participate.

Jennifer Dawn Whitney’s article provided a fresh reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way. Too often, ugly terms like ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ end up relegating certain parts of culture to never be examined or taken seriously. But why shouldn’t they? Nicki Minaj is listened to and watched by millions of people, many of whom are young, impressionable girls. I’m used to seeing academic articles dissecting Shakespeare, Sartre, Woolf, and Donne. But why was it so jarring to be sitting at my desk and see the last name “Minaj” jump out at me while I flipped the pages?  So many mainstream movies, musicians, and television shows are considered “guilty” pleasures. They are cultural consumption that doesn’t get talked about, unless it’s in terse, over-simplified summations: ‘I hate her,’ or ‘I love him’ or ‘that movie sucks’ or ‘that song is so annoying.’ It’s refreshing to see an academic article in an award-winning journal that delves into the complicated construction of a public persona that could easily fall into one of these categories.

Pop culture and academic writing shouldn’t feel as dichotomous as it sometimes does. Even while willfully ignoring the newest trends and fads, it’s important to recognize the influence of popular culture on ourselves as well as younger generations. Even if I hadn’t already been a fan of Nicki Minaj, Whitney’s article points out that her existence is influencing perceptions of femininity, race, and what constitutes musical talent for a large part of a burgeoning generation. Why would I want to ignore that? Why would anybody? Whitney’s article is well-written, and her interest in a topic that many other scholars wouldn’t touch is exciting.

I want to challenge myself to reject the notion that the part of me that loves a sappy Hugh Grant movie or the newest song by Britney Spears can’t be the same person that works at Berghahn and loves academic non-fiction. I think the two interests make for an interesting perspective, and it’s one that makes journals like Girlhood Studies so revolutionary and important.

Though I know GHS is far from the first journal to write about pop culture from an interdisciplinary standpoint, and Whitney isn’t the first to write about Minaj, I’m still taking this blog post as a platform from which I can express my excitement about well-researched and dynamic pop culture writing. There’s a chance Whitney herself wouldn’t agree with the way I’ve interpreted her article, and so I feel compelled to include the disclaimer that these are my feelings upon reading her article, and nothing more. Maybe Whitney should be left out entirely.

I remember in college I once had a professor that was impressed by my coursework, but also continually fascinated by my love of reality television. He treated it as such an anomaly to my character, as if I had a third arm, the standard two being my love of English and writing and then this third protruding limb: my fervored excitement when I talked about Real Housewives or the Real World. “How do you sit through it? It’s so painful!” I tried to explain that it was its mass appeal that excited me, it’s obvious, accelerated influence on media and television. The way it agitated culture—the way it agitated him—was fascinating and it didn’t feel like something that so many should be able to ignore. I think around that time I started to shut up about popular culture around others for fear of embarrassment, but I wish I hadn’t. It’s worse not to be looking at it. It’s worse not to care.

Image: Nicki Minaj at the Fall/Winter 2011 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, by Christopher Macsurak