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It's Only Entertainment

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One of the most important lessons to learn in the semiotics of popular culture is the fact that if something is entertaining it calls for an analysis, not an end to the discussion. Unlike high-art artifacts, which may indeed be created for very small audiences (or for no audience at all within their creators' lifetimes), the products of popular culture exist, by definition, in the hope that they will appeal to (i.e., entertain) a mass audience, and thus their analysis should reveal what it is that makes them entertaining and what that says about their audience and the culture in which they live. The point is not to treat the mass cultural artifact as if it was a high cultural one; it is to assess the significance of whatever it is that large numbers of people find entertaining. I begin all of my popular culture classes with this explanation, because otherwise I fully expect the kind of reaction that inevitably occurs when someone in the popular press dares to present an analysis of the cultural significance of a current entertainment. For example, in a recent review of the movie Ted, Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times offers what is, in effect, a semiotic analysis of the appeal of the film. Acknowledging what he calls the likely "sociological" explanation for the recent success of such "man-child" themed movies as Ted is—that is, the effects of "helicopter parenting, the rise of feminism, video games and a cruddy economy that has a larger percentage of 25–34 males living with their parents than ever before"—Goldstein proposes a counter interpretation that begins by situating Ted within an entire cinematic history from Stan Laurel to Will Ferrell, and ends by arguing that goofball comedy featuring immature men (and women) is simply a staple of the medium. Ted, for Goldstein, is just another instance of what might be called "The Three Stooges Syndrome." Personally, I would give more credence to the sociological explanations that Goldstein underplays in his analysis, and I would also situate Ted within the American tradition that is so well explored in Leslie Fiedler's great study Love and Death in the American Novel.  But no matter: Goldstein's analysis is a competent reading of a definite contemporary trend in American entertainment. But what interests me here is the response that his column received in the "Comments" section of the LA Times.  The hostility, the name calling, the sheer rage that his brief review elicited would be breathtaking if it wasn't so predictable. His greatest sins, according to the comments, are twofold. First, he dared to analyze something that is "only" an entertainment, and second, he makes some generalizations about audiences.  Well, to echo one of the angriest responders: news flash, pal, Ted was a highly calculated entertainment package designed to appeal to a very large, and specific, audience, and its box-office success reveals that the generalizations that its creators made about that audience were perfectly correct. In other words, to make successful entertainments, mass cultural creators rely on their own generalizations about their intended audiences. They are, in effect, semioticians without portfolios. This is why I always have a large number of film and TV majors in my popular culture classes, and I make it explicit to my students that semiotics is just as applicable to the creation of popular cultural artifacts as it is to their analysis. Filmmakers, television writers, advertising teams, whatever—all anticipate the responses of their target market/audiences by reading the behavior of masses of people (advertisers even make use of such things as "psychographic" profiling schemes that really get into down-and-dirty stereotyping, because they work).  What enrages people about this is that the American mythology of individualism absolutely rejects the predictable realities of mass society and mass behavior, but that is the essence of mass culture. The fact that America is at once the world's leading creator of mass culture and its most vociferous exponent of individualism is just another of the many contradictions that roil our society and that must be taken into account when trying to understand American behavior.
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.