mixing high and low culture

Intersectionality, high and low culture, media tendencies

It’s only the first week of classes, and I’ve already collected much food for thought.

In the social sciences, we talk a lot about the idea of intersectionality– the idea that individuals are not identified simply by one category or characteristic, and more often than not, we use multiple identifiers in order to fully represent ourselves. For example, I am a young woman of color of Chinese descent who works in the education field and enjoys the outdoors. While this isn’t necessarily a comprehensive list of identifiers for myself, all of these characteristics help describe who I am as a multidimensional person whose experiences have shaped who I am.

Understanding that individuals, however seemingly similar or dissimilar, have a long list of intersectional identifiers can be critical to understanding how best we can use multimedia communications to reach our audience. What do we have in common, and how can we tap into that commonality in order to spread a message that resonates with our experiences?

In our discussion about high and low culture this week, my classmates and I talked about structures of power in society and what it means to have access to products and ideas that are considered “low culture” or “high culture.” We agreed that in so many ways, what’s considered high and low culture is determined by the media but also by us as consumers, as we passively perpetuate the cycle by buying into those ideas. However, as distinct as the lines between high and low have historically tended to be, I think the advance and expanse of media outlets and a shift in social norms are now blurring those lines more, creating a grey area where there was once a hard fence. We used Hamlet and The Jersey Shore as examples of high and low culture respectively: Hamlet, as a Shakespearean product, has historically been more accessible by the upper class, and The Jersey Shore is considered to be bad television or “a guilty pleasure.” However, Disney transformed the story of Hamlet into the Lion King, making the story much more accessible to the masses and to children in particular (who, if they were like me, had their minds blown in high school when they found out the Lion King was based on Hamlet). The definition of high culture, I think, is also changing– no longer does it mean access to exclusivity, but I believe the focus has shifted to valuing well-roundedness: Going to the ballet was fine and dandy, but there was a time when anyone who didn’t know about The Jersey Shore was probably asked if they lived under a rock. Knowledge is power, and for the socially powerful to remain in power, the definition of “being cultured” has shifted with it. It would also be interesting to think about the role race plays in high and low culture as well, especially as society places more value on diversity– another layer to be added to the pot of intersectionality here.

One last cultural layer here– our tendencies as media consumers have also shifted over time. Right now, it’s all about having immediate access to information, and any lag time could mean losing our audience. Understanding the audience’s tendencies and preferences is integral to communicating effectively. We not only need to step into their shoes; we need to remember that we are members of the audience, too, and that to hit a chord on a human level is a strong way to convey a message.


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