How Not To Do Popular Cultural Semiotics

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Back in December 2013 I wrote a complete Bits blog entry on the then just released Disney animated film “Frozen.”  Briefly touching upon the fact that, like the Marvel superhero Thor, here was another popular cultural phenomenon featuring archetypally  “white” characters—look at those gigantic blue eyes, those tiny pointed noses, the long ash blonde hair of one of the princesses (the other is a redhead) and the blonde mountain man .  .  . you get the picture—I focused on the continuing phenomenon of a bourgeois culture producing feudal popular art: you know, princesses in their kingdoms, princes, that sort of thing. But I never posted it, and wrote something else instead. Why?  Well, it's always possible to overdo a good thing.  I figured that perhaps, as Christmas was approaching, whatever readers I may have here would not be thrilled with a political analysis of a seasonal fairy tale film.  While, semiotically speaking, nothing is ever just an entertainment, sometimes a semiotic analysis can feel just a bit heavy handed—or rather more than a bit.  So I let it go. So picture my surprise when I encountered a national news story that is circulating in the wake of the recent Academy Awards ceremony.  It appears that “Frozen” is not only an Oscar winner; no, according to a blogger and at least one conservative radio host, “Frozen” is a devious example of a “gay agenda” to turn American children into homosexuals.  Worse yet, it also promotes bestiality. Say what? Let’s start with the bestiality part.  You see, concerned Americans don’t like the friendship between Kristoff (the mountain man) and Sven (his reindeer).  Well, um, OK, but if you think that that is coded bestiality, then you’re going have to give up on America’s most red-blooded story type of all: the Western.  I mean the old joke used to go that at the end of the typical Western the cowboy hero kissed his horse and not the girl, but we weren’t supposed to take that literally. But what about the “gay agenda” thing?  Well, it goes something like this: Elsa, the princess with secret powers, isn’t very popular, and she doesn’t have a boy friend.  Obviously, then, her powers are a metaphor for her homosexuality.  Then, the fact that her sister princess (the redhead) is forced into a marriage she doesn’t want, is clearly an attack on heterosexual marriage.  And, finally, the popularity of Elsa in the happy ending of the movie is blatantly a message to America to embrace its erstwhile ostracized homosexuals. [Insert forehead slap here]. I’m sorry, but this is not a good semiotic analysis.  Semiotic analyses do not seek out hidden allegories without textual support.  They begin with a precise sense of the denotation of the sign, what exactly one is observing, and move to what such denotations may signify.  In this sense, if I was to pursue my earlier analysis of the film, the princesses are white; their features are stylizations of characteristically northern European appearance.  They are princesses; they do live in a “kingdom.”  These are medieval phenomena, and the question then becomes what do such manifest facts culturally connote in what is a bourgeois society transitioning away from having a Caucasian majority?  Whatever answers one gives to such questions must be abductive:  that is, in C.S. Peirce’s sense of the term, they must constitute the most likely interpretations of the signs. When an interpretation gets into wildly unlikely interpretations of what isn’t remotely denotatively present, there’s bound to be trouble.  And when one piece of "evidence" offered in support of the "gay agenda" thesis is that “the Devil” may have purchased the Disney Corporation in order to corrupt America’s children, um (I know I am using this pseudo-word a lot here, but, um, well, what else can one say in this overly sensitive world?), you really know that you've got semiotic Trouble with a capital "T". I know that we have been here before, that Fredric Wertham’s 1954 Seduction of the Innocent accused America’s comic book writers of trying to turn American boys into homosexuals (Batman and Robin, get it?), but to see this in 2014 .  .  .  ? Wait a minute: here is our cultural signifier for the day.  When people are, with apparent seriousness, reviving Cold War style, McCarthyite attacks on popular culture (that’s the denotation of the sign here), it is a reasonable interpretation that such people are, well, reviving Cold War era McCarthyite politics.  When you situate this "gay agenda" interpretation of “Frozen” into a cultural system that includes Arizona’s recent attempt to make discrimination against gays legal on “religious” grounds, not to mention the Chick-fil-A controversy, the Duck Dynasty controversy, and all the anti-gay marriage referenda that have been passed, this is quite a likely abduction.  After all, in such a world gays are the new "communists". Maybe it’s time to start playing Bob Dylan’s “Talkin John Birch Paranoid Blues” again.  I need some comic relief.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.