Tag Archives: popular culture

‘Fun gifts for boys’ and the geographies of ‘aww’, ‘umph’, ‘wow’ and ‘cool’

By Ashley Crowson, King’s College London

As manufacturers and retailers prepare to sell huge quantities of toys and gadgets in the run up to Christmas, at least one seven-year-old girl has protested this week at the marketing of such products according to gender.

Karen Cole tweeted a photo of her daughter, Maggie, next to a sign for Marvel Comics merchandise in a branch of Tesco that read ‘Fun gifts for boys’.

7-year-old Maggie not impressed with 'fun girts for boys' sign

Maggie, who is a big fan of Spider Man, Wonder Woman, The Flash and Doctor Who, spotted the sign and told her mother that Tesco was “being stupid” as “anybody can like superheroes”. The photo was retweeted more than ten thousand times, forcing an apology and the removal of the signs from all Tesco stores.

These superhero characters and toys are clearly important to lots of children like Maggie; it is this relationship, alongside the role played by popular culture characters and products in children’s lives, that John Horton seeks to examine in a recent edition of Geography Compass. The paper calls for “more direct, careful, sustained research on geographies of children, young people and popular culture.”

Horton outlines ‘classic’ works from cultural and media studies, which, he contends, have been “centrally concerned with meanings of popular culture designed for children and young people”. The likes of Barbie and GI Joe, Horton argues, have often been central to such discussions, with Barbie being widely critiqued as “a ‘condensed’ representation of normative ideals of ‘emphasised femininity’ and female body image”.

While Horton recognises the value and importance of this kind of work, he argues that “if one jumps to write about meanings of popular culture, it is all too easy to overlook how popular cultural texts, objects and phenomena matter in practice within people’s everyday geographies.”

Horton presents an analysis of ‘Toys ‘Я’ Us’ brochures old and new, but reflects that in attempting to write about their meanings and representations “I have suppressed (or at least distanced myself from) what I felt as I browsed the 1975 Toys ‘Я’ Us catalogue and other decades-old toy catalogues: feelings of ‘aww’, ‘umph’, ‘wow’, ‘cool’, ‘I remember that’, that are not easy to put into words.”

Geography, then, has an important role to play in addressing questions of both meaning and Mattering in this context. This involves examining the more-than-representational ways in which popular cultural texts, objects and phenomena are encountered and experienced by children in a diverse range of everyday spaces.

As Horton acknowledges, this raises important questions of how to conduct research attentive to both the political-representational concerns of the sort quite rightly raised by superhero-loving Maggie, and to the complex nonrepresentational materialities that constitute young people’s geographies – the ‘awws’, ‘wows’ and ‘cools’ evoked by the bodily practices of play, the meanings of which may not be sayable or may simply not exist.

 Girl, 7, gets Tesco to remove ‘stupid’ sign suggesting superheroes are ‘for boys’ The Independent, 25 November 2014

 John horton, 2014, For Geographies of Children, Young People and Popular CultureGeography Compass 726-738

The Funny Side of Geography

By Ashley Crowson, King’s College London

Comedian Russell Brand. Via Wikimedia Commons

Comedian Russell Brand. Via Wikimedia Commons

If you have been anywhere near a television or radio this week it can hardly have escaped your attention that Russell Brand has a new book out. In place of the politicians, CEOs and commentators who are usually grilled in the studios of ‘Newsnight’ and the ‘Today’ programme, the stand-up comedian and actor has been quizzed about his plans for a global revolution based on spiritual enlightenment and radical economic restructuring. In roughly equal measure, Brand’s foray into politics has been dismissed as ‘pseudo-revolutionary blather’ and praised for engaging his mostly young and presumed apathetic fans.

In the United States another British comedian, satirist John Oliver, has been inundating print and broadcast media. He was recently featured on the front page of Rolling Stone magazine and his HBO show ‘Last Week Tonight’ continues to grow in popularity. The show, which is comprised mainly of comedy monologues on topical issues, has, in recent weeks, dealt with topics such as Special Immigrant Visas for translators, gay rights in Uganda, the US embargo against Cuba, and Argentinian debt restructuring. A number of surveys have pointed to the influence of this kind of satirical show; the Pew Research Centre found that during the 2000 US presidential campaign 21% of 18-29 year-olds cited comedy shows as a primary source of information about the election. A poll by the same organisation in 2007, placed Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s ‘The Daily Show’, fourth in a list of most trusted people in the media.

It is perhaps this prevalence of funny men and women in political and geopolitical discourse that is fuelling interest in geographical studies of humour. The most recent issue of Geography Compass features a review of such studies by Juha Ridanpää. The article illustrates:

[H]ow practices of popular media are geopolitically charged, how humor is intertwined with issues of social marginalization, how humor operates as an important element in the construction of group cohesion, how humor works as a non-cognitive element of human actions, feelings, and emotions, as well as how it represents a useful tool for educational and economic purposes, and how all of this has been studied by scholars of geography. (p. 701)

Ridanpää’s review suggests that the subfield of popular geopolitics is taking the lead in geography’s engagement with humour. Popular geopolitics, according to Dittmer (2010), ‘refers to the everyday geopolitical discourse that citizens are immersed in every day’ (p. 14). These ‘everyday discourses’ are important as ‘the general manners of perceiving political issues and their spatial nature are learned and assimilated through popular culture’ (Ridanpää, 2014, p. 702).

Ridanpää argues:

In many cases, humor makes complicated or sensitive issues easier to comprehend and digest. In popular culture, geopolitical questions are often intentionally forged in the form of a caricature, easily approachable stereotypes are used for the purposes of narrative-building, and complex issues become (overtly) simplified. (p. 702)

A skilled and witty satirist, then, such as John Oliver, adept at synthesising and caricaturing complex political and geopolitical issues, arguably holds a highly influential position in shaping the crucial ‘everyday geopolitical discourse’ that scholars of popular geopolitics are interested in.

Drawing on studies from geography education literature (Alderman and Popke, 2002; Hammett and Mather, 2011), Ridanpää argues that ‘by processing harsh social reality through laughter… the legitimacy of established ways of seeing the world can be questioned… [S]atire… can be used to raise consciousness about global forms of social inequality, politics of difference, and otherness.’ (p. 706) While the prospect of a Russell Brand headed global revolution hardly appears imminent, perhaps his phrase ‘The revolution cannot be boring’ will prove prophetic.

Although investigation into the geographical aspects of humour remain relatively limited, as Ridanpää suggests:

If we think how important a part humor plays in people’s everyday lives, for instance, how people form their conceptions of the modern world through media in which humor is constantly present, it is obvious that some need or even imperative for further study exists. (p. 707)

 ‘Russell Brand’s Revolution: panel verdict‘, The Guardian, 23 October 2014.

 Juha Ridanpää, 2014, Geographical Studies of HumorGeography Compass 8 701-709

 Jason Dittmer, 2010,  Popular culture, geopolitics, & identity. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

 Alderman, D. and Popke, E. J., 2002, Humor and film in the geography classroom: learning from Michael Moore’s TV Nation, Journal of Geography 101 228–239.

 Hammett, D. and Mather, C., 2011, Beyond decoding: political cartoons in the classroom, Journal of Geography in Higher Education 35 103–119.