The film industry made political headlines this past month when the Todd Phillips film, “Joker,” was released to audiences worldwide Oct. 4. Before its release the film was no stranger to media-derived fear about what it could inspire. When “The Dark Knight” came out in 2012, its villain – the Joker – inspired a man to shoot into a movie theatre full of audience members in Colorado, killing 12 and injuring 58. During trial, he pleaded not guilty on account of insanity. It’s reasonable to be cautious heading into a film dedicated to the character that apparently inspired someone to commit such an atrocity.
This issue speaks to how pop culture has escalated into controlling the way people think, act and behave. Social Media has made it easier for people to spread pop culture, and discussing various podcasts, albums, films and TV shows happens more and more. Look at the impact that shows like “The Office” or “Stranger Things” and films like “The Avengers” franchise, have all had on society. People dedicate their lives to these pieces of media. But who is this good for? Is it okay? Where is the line drawn? These are things I find myself wondering, and I can’t even imagine where society is going to be a couple decades down the line. Society’s approach to media is very binary. People who aren’t obsessed with something either ignore it or are completely against it.
The Avengers example is so interesting to me because of the perception of comics. Until recently, comic books have been primarily for nerds and sold to a very niche market at low prices. Iron Man, a character that would be on the 21st century pop culture Mount Rushmore, was a B-tier character, someone very low on the relevancy and power spectrum. The Marvel movies have convinced millions upon millions in country upon country to care and develop an extremely intense emotional connection with Iron Man, catapulting him into stardom.
I think a common denominator in all of this is escapism. The world is darker than ever – turning on the news on any given day is bound to depress. So instead of paying attention to that and caring about politics, the younger generations choose to invest their time and emotional energy into something made up. The Avengers and other franchises allow them to slip away from the dark dystopian hellscape that we call everyday life. It’s easier to pretend that you’re a superhero than take the time to educate yourself on the political climate in order to make an educated vote come election season.
Jim Taylor, Ph.D. from Psychology Today sums this up perfectly in his article, “Pop Culture: Too much time on our hands.”
“We’re searching for two things that have become casualties of America’s progress and prosperity,” Taylor said. “We’re looking for meaning when life for many seems to be devoid of significance. We once found meaning by creating stable lives for our families and working to make life better for our children, but such security and opportunity are less likely now than at any time in our recent past. Meaning came from believing that America was united in its values and its vision for the future.”
There’s also a level of companionship that people find in obsessing over pop culture. Finding and developing relationships with people who like the same things becomes cathartic for some. People who feel isolated in the real world find themselves welcomed and a part of a larger community online that love the same niche things that they like. The constant innovation of technology and the means in which we communicate is what allows this to happen.
Pop culture has inserted itself into the domain of politics and other dominant aspects of what people deem important in society. It’s highly unlikely that the entertainment industry would ever return to the role that it held in the 20th century, but with that said, it’s important that there is at least some separation between fantasy and reality.