Review of Pop Culture for Beginners
Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock. Pop Culture for Beginners. Broadview Press, 2021. Paperback. 310 pg. $46.92. ISBN: 9781554815657 (paperback) 9781770488113 (PDF)
Asking someone to define pop culture is like asking someone to define what a dog is: meaning that depending on who you ask, you may get a very scientific answer or something more general in terms of what a dog looks like or types of dogs. The same is true for pop culture. Some people will define it based on current trends or ideations while others will focus on the more esoteric assumptions of the genre. As a result, the understanding of and study of pop culture becomes a difficult task, especially for those new to the field. Jeffrey Weinstock’s book, as the title suggests, provides the reader with a great primary resource which could be useful to beginning scholars and those needing a refresher. For both beginning teachers and seasoned scholars of pop culture the foundational lens which Weinstock brings serves to break apart the mystery of pop culture and make it relatable, understandable, and accessible to all.
Most people, by the time they reach higher education (and especially the further they go up the education ladder), become far removed from what originally brought them to pop culture, namely entertainment. Academics tend to become focused on the meaning of pop culture and thereby are often seen as taking the entertainment and joy out of it. This is where Weinstock’s book can help. By getting back to basics, Weinstock acknowledges the fast paced, ever changing face of pop culture but also encourages one to dive deeper into what pop culture is and what it means, both individually and for groups.
The book is divided into two sections: The Pop Culture Toolbox (Chapters 1-4), which I refer to as the “academic” chapters, and The Pop Culture Units (Chapter 5-10) or what I refer to as the “practitioner” chapters. In Chapter 1, Weinstock hooks us in by trying to define pop culture but also making us rethink what we understand pop culture to be. For example, he starts Chapter 1 with the statement that pop culture as a definitive term is “elusive…of a single, clear definition” (pg. 4). From here he goes on to address the myriad of influences that make up pop culture, ultimately landing on “pop culture [being] something people seem to know when they see it” (pg. 11). While this may leave some people shaking their heads and wondering if there will be a definition, rest assured it is in there. However, what is beneficial is the periodic breaks in information he scatters throughout the chapters to ask the reader questions. Titled as “Your Turn”, he stops the flow of information to ask the reader to reflect on what they have read. Weinstock appears to understand how people learn and that they need time to digest and process information. His questions are designed to be examined from an individual perspective in order to acknowledge one’s own influences, tastes, biases, and lens. This element takes this chapter (and others) to a higher level of understanding as I was no longer reading for information but rather reading for understanding and decoding of my own perspective.
Chapter 2 takes us on a more academic journey helping us to understand the way culture is formed and how we signify information (signs). This semiotic approach is further broken down into not only our own connotation of what we see but also the denotation of those same signs. To better understand this approach, Weinstock uses common everyday signs like tattoos to further illustrate his meanings, making the concepts relatable and easy to process. Chapter 3 takes us into theories of viewing culture and examines the perspective by which culture can be examined (post-colonial, feminist, critical race, etc.) but does so in such a way as to remind the reader of the lens by which each of these theories views culture. Weinstock’s purpose here is to inform the reader that each pop culture offering can be viewed through multiple approaches and each of these becomes part of a larger understanding. Through this chapter he succeeds in breaking down these theories into relatively easy to understand bite sized pieces to shed light on differing viewpoints. This is perhaps one of the best chapters in the book as it takes the theories back to basics and serves to define and give substance to some theories I had created my own meaning for rather than fully understanding.
Chapter 4 is the last of what I call the “academic” chapters, in terms of chapters imparting information. This chapter really looks at pop culture in terms of authenticity, appropriation, structure, and subcultures. For example, as Weinstock puts it there is an almost “cultural imperative to ‘be yourself’” (pg. 87), but even this can cause dissonance when we consider which self to be: work self, spouse self, friend self, etc. The challenge is determining what is meant by authentic to each person. In relation to this is the idea of cultural appropriation and how members of one culture can appropriate (or misappropriate) another culture. This creates lines which are “murky” (pg. 90) between appreciation and misappropriation. When thinking about subculture, Weinstock challenges the reader to dive deep into cultural nuances. What makes one science fiction fan different from another? Don’t all punk rockers like the same music? Examples can be found in subcultures of “subversive” (pg. 104) groups like “bikers, skaters, punks, goths…” (pg. 104) who can be categorized as anti-culture, but each holds its own in terms of representation. Just as valid, however, are other subcultures including science fiction subcultures like “Potterheads… Trekkies, and so on” (pg. 105). In this way subculture becomes even more specialized and an “expression of personal taste” pg. 105). At the end of each of the “academic” chapters, there are suggested assignments which could be easily incorporated into classrooms. Each of the assignments serves to help students examine pop culture from their own lens but also encourages students (and faculty) to think outside of their preferred focus to examine how culture is viewed by others.
The “practitioner” chapters (5-10) break down the sub-genres of pop culture and dive deeply into their influences and meanings. From television to fandom each chapter details what is meant by the sub-genre, asks questions throughout, and then gives a sample essay at the end. This breakdown gives equal weight to most sub-categories of pop culture and allows students to focus in on their favorite, for deeper study, or to take a little-known sub-genre and investigate it. These essays are beneficial for driving home the points made throughout the chapter. I found these essays some of the most enjoyable reading throughout the book. While Weinstock acknowledges the “term-limits” (my words) of the pop culture references in these essays, I believe they can be valuable in helping students and faculty rethink pop culture for many years. As with chapters 1-4, there are suggested assignments in each chapter and suggested readings. Lastly, there is Chapter 11, which challenges readers to ”extend the approach adopted [in the book] to a different popular form” (pg. 277). Readers can use the book as scaffold to develop their own questions which challenge interpersonal thinking and viewpoints on culture.
Weinstock does a great job of introducing and reintroducing pop culture and does so in a relatable, humorous, and enjoyable way; in fact, I often forgot I was reading a textbook. While he presents an academic study of pop culture, he does so without abandoning the mystique and enjoyment most people find in pop culture. He challenges readers/students to examine their own cultural lens while encouraging us to think outside of the story presented to develop larger meanings. This book would be an excellent introductory book for pop culture studies (or really any studies) as it is easy to digest, thought-provoking, and just plain fun. Having said that, I study the intersection of science fiction and science interest (how does science fiction draw people to science), and I found this book a nice refresher and reminder of the broader contexts I am researching. Therefore, I recommend it to all academics, from those just starting to those who have been in the field for a while.
Kania Greer currently serves as the Coordinator for the Center for STEM Education at Georgia Southern University. She studies the intersection of science fiction and science fact by people who attend science fiction conventions.