When people think of “pop culture,” they usually think of famous people, products or objects from a certain country that have cemented themselves into that country’s history that they become synonymous with that culture. This definition is only partially true, though. Pop culture also includes practices, beliefs, and even activities that become so engrained in the culture that they come to represent that culture. Because the concept of pop culture is so broad, icons can be found in “movies, music, television shows, newspapers, satellite broadcasts, fast food and clothing, among other entertainment and consumer goods” (Levin Institute, 2017).
Every pop culture icon, whether it be a thing, a place, a person, a belief or an activity, can be placed into a certain pop culture category:
entertainment (movies, music, TV)
news (as in people/places in news)
technology (West, 2013)
If you’re having difficult coming up with a pop culture icon, just think about the most popular people, places, activities, movies, television shows in your home country. Whatever you’re thinking of right now is most likely a pop culture icon!
Thinking of your home country, try to come up with at least one example of a pop culture person, place or item for each of the categories. Remember that as long as the person or object is important to your culture, it can be considered part of pop culture. There are really no wrong answers!
My home country: __________________________________________
Pop Culture Object, Place or Person
Brief Description (Why is it/he/she popular?)
While pop cultural icons are a source of entertainment for many, there are some who don’t share as much enthusiasm for them. Pop culture is viewed by some as being a front for commercialism, with big business profiting off of the poor and working class through the constant promotion of their products. With a daily bombardment of television commercials, billboards, magazine covers, consumers eventually succumb to the idea that the product or person is, in fact, a pop culture icon, and spend money to support them. Other critics warn that with the rise of celebrities who are “famous for being famous,” icons who were once talented and charismatic, like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, are being usurped by Kim Kardashian, Nicki Minaj, and others who do little more than sell their sex appeal and controversial views to the masses. (For those interested in exploring these critiques more, check out the science fiction comedy movie titled Idiocracy by Mike Judge (2006)!)
It should be understood that this unit presents just one way to define and categorize pop culture, as well as some critiques of pop culture. Like the definition of culture, there are many ways to view, define, analyze, and perceive pop culture and pop culture icons, and there is no “right” or “wrong” way—just different perspectives that are usually influenced by our own culture, experiences, preferences, and opinions (Strinati, 2004). Feel free to agree or disagree with anything presented here! As mentioned many times in the textbook, the goal is to spark critical thinking and discussion.
American Pop Culture
“Images of America are so pervasive in this global village that it is almost as if instead of the world immigrating to America, America has emigrated to the world, allowing people to aspire to be Americans even in distant countries.”
-Former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell
This quote from former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell is telling of how powerful American pop culture has been on the entire world. The most popular American pop culture icons have withstood the test of time, meaning many years have passed and they are still popular, well known, and often mentioned in news, television shows, movies, and advertisements.
Good examples of pop culture icons that continue to be representative of the American culture are:
Rock and Roll,
the Empire State Building, and
the American Dream.
When you read this list, you most likely pictured in your mind these places, people, things, and ideas. What is even more amazing than this is that most people’s brains, upon hearing any one of these items, would immediately connect them to America. American pop culture has dominated the world for years, and many images have no doubt caused many people in various countries to share the same dream of moving to America and living out the “American dream.”
Interestingly enough, because of America’s “melting pot,” other countries’ pop culture icons have crept into America and blended into American pop culture. Popular examples of this are Godzilla, sushi, Ultraman, kimono, Hello Kitty, and samurai imported from Japan.
What impact has your home country had on other countries? No matter where you are from, there is something—even a small part—of your culture that has had an effect on people living in different parts of the world. Pop culture is an incredibly powerful tool for communicating cultural ideas, norms, and values, and can transcend language, cultural identity, gender, and even national borders. An openness to reflect on these icons in popular culture, whether positive or negative, as well as the other cultural aspects that have been presented throughout this textbook, is a great springboard to our final discussion on Global Critical Thinking (GCT).