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July 17, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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Head to Head: Popular Culture as a Man’s Domain

Popular Culture is a man-flavoured manhole with mannish looking toppings in a man-bag surrounded by men in singlets beating each other up and a penis drawn on it.

Head to Head: Popular Culture as a Man's Domain pic. But first, a little disclaimer here: I’m going to back right out of critiquing why popular culture, is inherently masculine. Popular culture is the currency of hungry youths, desperately trying to stick it to the ‘man’ (the villain of popular culture is namelessly hegemonic, yet a man), and despite the fact that it may be a tad more subversive to sit here and scribble down a few thoughts on why it is that they aren’t sticking it to the ‘woman’, I won’t. Diversion over.

It’s all a matter of framing. The domain of popular culture has been built and constructed by men, to the point where popular culture today is completely owned by the masculine. Anyone can be part of popular culture. The argument isn’t a matter of success. Female musicians, filmmakers, artists, authors are all allowed into popular culture, and can be just as popular as their male counterparts. Popular culture isn’t exclusive along gender lines at all, (racially exclusive, yes. But again, that is this whole other vitriolic head to head).

Now I know I’m a media student, and most media students have to constantly be reminded that not everyone out there is a Foucault-loving subversive who can only stand mainstream television in the name of ‘irony’. And also, popular culture is one of those intangible and annoying phrases, bringing with it many different questions and dichotomies. So I’m going to use an example.

Think of popular culture as being art of any sort that goes out to any sort of audience of note. Now think of a football field.

Think of all the artists as athletes attempting to train on this particular field. Woman and men alike can play on the field. The stadium is in a nicer part of town though, so there wouldn’t be that many black people, and overall there would be a lack of different ethnicities. Men of any shape and size can throw a ball around on the field. Women are welcome, but there are rules. Minimum requirements. Ugly chicks are discouraged, (cue Scott Stapp and Benicio Del Toro looking at Rosie O’Donnell and thinking to themselves “who let her play?”) so the woman would be predominantly skinny and good looking. Slightly outnumbered, but still allowed on the field.

So men firstly have the advantage of numbers. Then there is the fact that they built the stadium. Every brick and blade of grass was laid down by men, men going by names such as Les Paul, the Lumiere Brothers, Edison, Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Hendrix and Spielberg.

Now let’s switch out of metaphor mode. In modern popular culture what are our iconic images? Jimi Hendrix burning the American flag, James Dean in a sports car, Elvis Presley swarmed by adoring fans. The Beatles in the studio. The Sex Pistols outside Buckingham palace. Kurt Cobain and his left handed guitar on Top of the Pops (it’s harder to come up with iconic images revolving around books, art, and theatre because of the slightly less public nature of the medium). All involve men. When I think of iconic female imagery few pictures come to mind. Janis Joplin is one of them, but even then she is doused in masculinity, dressed down and with a bottle of bourbon in her hand. She is trying to be like the men, in order to get accepted by them.

The medium is controlled too. Females have to go through male dominated business structures and use forms of technology psychologically associated with men. The gaze of the movie camera is a male gaze, and so a female filmmaker can only ever be interpreting what she sees through a man’s eye. The most-clear case of male ownership is the guitar. The guitar is renowned, and widely accepted, as a symbolic metaphor for the penis. So when you look at it symbolically it is a stones throw from impossible for a female not to become an object of male gratification when she picks a guitar up. Cases of token hot bassists slash hot drummers slash guitarists in bands are rife. What implication does this have?

Go to a quiet space and lie down. (And this is an exercise for both men and women.) Go to your happy place. Now think of every renowned female musician that you are aware of. Look them up and down. Try and picture them with instrument in hand. Now ask yourself this. Are you aware of this person because of technical prowess or appearance? In most cases, it’s appearance. And in the cases where the female musician of choice is notable for their technical prowess, does the phrase ‘one of the best female musicians around’ come to mind? How many times do you hear Ani DiFranco talked about as the best ‘female’ guitarist in the world? For me, heaps – and by girls and guys. It’s embedded in us.

But the question is, does it matter? Have we reached a point this far when this will never be reversed? Personally I think it is something that will gradually be forgotten and relapse over time. It is an ownership that is clear and defined, yet only clearly obvious when examined. And I guess if you can wail like Hendrix and look like Britney, go nuts. And when I stand in front of you and say something along the lines of “you’re the best female guitarist since Ani DiFranco”, ignore me. I’m just bitter I couldn’t play the damn thing in the first place.

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About the Author ()

James Robinson is a university dropout turned journalist who likes to pretend he has an honours degree. Turn ons include soup, scarfs, a hot bath and some FM-smooth Kenny G-esque instrumental jazz. Turn offs include student politicians, the homeless, and people who pronounce it supposebly.

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