At the apogee of Game of Thrones-mania during the recently completed final season of the series, a quick stroll through Sunday-night social media saw a phenomenon revealed almost as popular as the HBO megashow itself: people loudly pronouncing that they never watched a single episode of Game of Thrones.
The backlash-to-the-backlash was predictable in its rote indignation, but it shouldn’t have been. Every pop-culture journey is personal, and everyone has their own hodgepodge of books, movies, podcasts, series, comics, tie-ins and toys.
What the backlash really was demonstrating, was that people didn’t need to feel afraid of gatekeepers anymore.
Gatekeepers, UNLV communication studies professor Carlos Flores says, form one of many subsets of pop culture enthusiasts who, knowingly or not, criticize those who are late to experience the most current trend, Flores teaches a class on pop culture’s theoretical, political, sociological and fandom roots.
Gatekeepers are more than mere fans, they’ll have you know. They feel like they have sole ownership on a phenomenon because they’ve been there from the beginning. Instead of including people in the experiences — be it sports, technology, video games, and entertainment — these fans find ways to exclude others.
Gatekeepers may feel like they have a right to quiz people on their knowledge of a subject to feel superior in their own fandom. Or fans exclude each other because they assume a particular fandom doesn’t fit with someone’s personality. They’ve stereotyped the fan out of the experience, Flores said.
And that’s the irony of it all: Flores’s class, at its core, is about acceptance and understanding how pop culture can be a vehicle for finding common ground, unpacking assumptions and personal growth.
“We all are thrive the most when we profess how something popular reflects our experiences. Pop culture is a giant celebration,” Flores said.
Changing the narrative
“You’re articulate for a Latino.”
Flores was a sophomore in college and those words served as a catalyst for what would become part of his teaching.
Growing up, it was uncommon for Flores to see his heritage positively represented in pop culture. Perhaps the remark about Flores’s background came from a place of misunderstanding and it could have been related to misrepresentation of Latinos in the cultural landscape, Flores said.
That’s when gatekeeping takes on another shape. There are creators of pop culture who are producing work reflecting today’s issues and people. And then there are creators who may not speak directly to different audiences.
As he teaches students about the role of advocacy through the lens of media platforms, Flores reminds students that so much of pop culture is both political and personal. Pop culture can be a form of escapism yet it can also be a mechanism for change and personal storytelling.
In Flores’s pop culture class this summer, undergraduate students analyzed the social issues addressed in an episode of the comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, in which a main character, Sgt. Terry Jeffords (portrayed by Terry Crews) is racially profiled. This led to students talking about how pop culture has had a history of misrepresenting groups of people, ethnicities, and cultures.
The way we consume media is constantly changing. We’re not all watching the same show at the same time or we may not relate to a particular storyline. It’s inevitable that we may feel left out on the memes, gifs, and jokes. And it doesn’t help if a gatekeeper closes the door on your newfound enthusiasm for an art form that may be a few years old.
My Top Picks: Communication Studies Professor Carlos Flores
A list of eight things to read, watch, and listen to this summer (or whenever you can get to it, no pressure)
- Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox: For those who are looking to hear a creative spin on contemporary and popular music of today, look no further than Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox. This musical act that found its audience on YouTube, which boasts more than 4 million subscribers. Helmed by creator Scott Bradlee, the rotating group of musicians covers recent pop hits through various styles of vintage music. Having seen them four times (all with different rotating casts) made for an excellent time, with audience members even dressing in vintage clothes. It’s amazing to see audiences young and old come together to appreciate artists and musical styles that they normally wouldn’t get to share in. From a 1920’s Great Gatsby-style rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” to a blues rendition of “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus, this musical group has cemented itself in the popular culture landscape, and has a residency at The Mirage hotel until the end of July.
- One Day at a Time: This series debuted on Netflix in 2017 and is loosely based off the original sitcom of the same name from the 1970s and ’80s. This version features the experiences and lives of a Puerto Rican family living in Los Angeles, and stars Justina Machado as a single mother fresh out of the Army who raises her kids with the support of her mother, Lydia (portrayed by the legendary Rita Moreno). The show is significant in today’s cultural and political landscape, especially since it covers topics pertaining to the intersecting facets of race, LGBTQ identity, and mental health, among others. The show has resonated with me as a Latino who grew up in Los Angeles, and has struck a meaningful chord with audiences in a time where representation truly matters. The show was recently picked up for a fourth season on Pop TV after having been canceled by Netflix. Look out for the fourth season in 2020.
- The Bob’s Burgers Burger Book: Real Recipes for Joke Burgers: Based off the show Bob’s Burgers, this book contains a litany of pun-centric recipes based off the popular Fox show. The idea of creating recipes based off of witty burger names posted on the chalkboard of the show’s eponymous restaurant goes to fan Cole Bowden, who chronicled his creations on Tumblr and eventually partnered with the writers of the show to create this New York Times-bestselling book. Being a fan of the show myself, this is a stellar instance of art coming to life. From the “Baby You Can Chive my Car” burger (created with fried pickles for wheels) to the “If Looks Could Kale” burger, there are plenty of recipes that will bring the joys of this animated show to life, and to your dinner table.
- NPR’s How I Built This with Guy Raz: This podcast explores the origins and motivations behind notable companies. Hosted by Guy Raz, the podcast has featured the creators of companies such as Yelp, Zappos, Chipotle, and even the Power Rangers franchise. The anecdotes and stories these creators share offer fascinating insights into how these companies got started, and where they are going. I recommend the episode on the creation of the TRX suspension training equipment, along with the episode that features Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben and Jerry’s.
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: It would be an easy choice to say Avengers: Endgame is my go-to movie (one of many), but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a love letter to Spider-Man lore and the comics world broadly. The film tells the story of Miles Morales, the Spider-Man of another dimension who has to help save New York when an accident draws all other Spider-Men to Morales’ universe. The movie has been praised for its stunning animation, and looks like a comic book come to life. It’s amazing to see so many Spider characters on screen at once, and to see an Afro-Latino teen in the mix is truly something to behold.
- The Museum of Popular Culture: If you are ever in Seattle, one of your stops has to be the Museum of Popular Culture. Located next to the Space Needle, this museum has a bevy of exhibits that showcase mainstays and highlights of popular culture. Take a walk through the fantasy exhibit, where you’ll be able to marvel at sights and displays from the worlds of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. For musical aficionados, exhibits devoted to legendary acts like Prince and Nirvana chronicle the success and impact of these musicians’ storied careers. The museum also hosts rotating and timely exhibits. Most recently, I visited an exhibit devoted to the history of Marvel comics. Whether you’re a fan of comics, science fiction, or music, the history of popular culture runs far and wide here for all.
- 8-bit Philosophy: The best of both worlds: classic video games and ... lessons in philosophy? That’s what the folks over at the YouTube channel “Wisecrack” have succeeded in crafting with their series “8-bit Philosophy.” This series makes use of 8-bit video game sprites from various series to convey lessons in ancient and contemporary philosophy. Game sprites from the Super Mario Brothers franchise alongside the theories of Karl Marx makes for both a whimsical and fruitful lesson in philosophical thinking, and a great resource for students and teachers alike.
- @jeffvictorart on Instagram: Jeff Victor is the freelance artist responsible for “Pop Culture Evolutions,” a series of art where your favorite figures in popular culture are drawn and chronicled in their evolution throughout their years in different roles. Victor has gone on to draw the evolutions of pop culture icons such as Stan Lee and Robin Williams, Captain America and Wonder Woman, and even celebrities such as Kevin Hart and Charlize Theron. Normally I would pick a favorite to highlight, but all of the evolutions that he creates are incredibly special. His prints, along with book collections of his illustrations, can be purchased on his website.