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A Discussion About Popular Culture and Its Youth-Shaping Nature

We are living in the age of consumer capitalism which is amplified by the proliferation of popular cultural products such as celebrity news, influencers' posts, tabloids, newspapers, talk shows, and reality shows.

Consumers of all ages and backgrounds are prone to be the potential consumers of this market society, albeit, children and youth, in particular, are often the most susceptible actors in the role of the consumers because of them mindlessly buying into these cultural artifacts. It is astounding to see how much popular culture projects certain values, attitudes, and beliefs to impact the youth's consumerism and identities (Marsh, 2005). Many children foster a sense of themselves through media, thereby performing different identities and trying out new roles. Their social and cultural world is intertwined with their favorite popular culture and media narratives. It is, therefore, important for this article to understand the role of popular culture and artifacts play in contemporary childhood.

Culture and popular culture

The word culture derives from the Latin cultus and from the French colere which means "growth, or cultivation and nurture" (Mäkilouko, 2003, p.17) as it shares its derivation with a number of other words related to actively fostering growth and change. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the term was used widely among Europeans to connote a process of cultivation or improvement, as in agriculture or horticulture. Thus, it can be seen that no matter whose culture it belongs to, it will change. This occurs because culture lays the foundation of our interconnected world which is made up of various ethnically diverse societies and conflicts associated with religion, ethnicity, and ethical belief. Mapping into the changing and growing nature of culture, one of the research conducted by an Indian Professor named Kumar (2022), records the differences between dominant culture as popular culture and the decline of traditional culture among youngsters. To explain this notion, the young participants in the research validate and put more attention to information and events happening in the present time and actively adopt new cultural values in this society. When considering culture and its influences, it is necessary to differentiate between three types of culture: elite, popular, and folk (Nachbar and Lause, 1992). Elite culture consists of those aspects of the culture that are produced by and for a limited number of people who have specialized interests, training, and knowledge. Folk culture, juxtaposed with elite culture, is limited within the community and communicates directly from generation to generation, among folks who are familiar with each other. The focus of this article is on popular culture, which is irrefutably connected with a commercial culture that is represented by movies, television, radio, cyberspace, advertising, and fashion. Regarded as the widely accepted whole of products of human work and thoughts, popular culture is influenced by all the sociological factors and issues that are happening around us in the current scenario of media globalization.

Figure 1: The Slap during The Oscars is just one of the many memorable popular culture moments to define 2022. (n.d., Myung, C.)

On the notion of understanding the nature of popular culture, Nachabar and Lause (1992) develop a model of explaining popular culture consisting of cultural mindsets, artifacts, and events. Cultural mindsets are defined as the architecture of our life in which two parallel parts are existing at the same time. Whilst the former lies in the deepest part of our consciousness, the latter seems to be more transient and faddish and prone to temporary values such as fashion trends. As beliefs and values are difficult to discern, physical representations are deemed to be necessary to grasp popular culture. That explains the reason why artifacts (objects and people, whether they are real or imaginary) appear to embody and represent popular culture in a more visible approach. The framework of popular culture completes with the last element: events which are the rituals, and popular arts that are encountered in daily life as means of building a sense of community.

Popular culture and its tremendous role in shaping the identities of youth

It is easier to think that individuals are in charge of their own identity and beliefs, dislikes or fondnesses, behavior, and desires, nonetheless, how much of it is shaped by the popular culture that they are living in? All the things that are told to be trivial, special, or outdated in this media-saturated world may impact what people value and identify with more than they could imagine.

For decades, cultural theories have argued that people's constructions and understandings of their worlds may be studied through popular culture (Fiske,1989; Turner, 1996; Willis, 1978). Fisherkeller (1997), an associate professor at New York University, with years of research into kids and their relationship with media culture, points out in his research that youth even implemented "imaginative strategies" in their learning and developing of identity creations to cope with dilemmas in their daily lives and to envision wholesome different realities. Taking the "feminism" theme portrayed in movies and books as an example, many girls aspire to be strong and independent female figures on television, thus affecting how they dress, act, and present themselves as the alternative female versions of these characters in their real lives.

Figure 3: Patricia Allison, left, Tanya Reynolds, Simone Ashley, Aimee Lou Wood, Emma Mackey, and Chinenye Ezeudu in the second season of Sex Education, a moment that "(...) give us joyful images of female solidarity and inventive resilience in the midst of societal circumscription (...)"Horeck (2020) (Episode 7, Season 2, September 16th, 2021 Netflix).

Added to the consistent relationship between popular culture and audiences' identities, Hagood (2005), an associate Professor of Literacy Education at the College of Charleston, has conducted research on the everyday uses of popular culture for identity construction and illustrates how adolescent boys also use popular culture and culture norms in society as a way to play with expected gendered identities. Observing them both on and off the school premises, Hagood documents how they use their popular cultural interest to ascertain and ultimately challenge acceptable gendered, male identities tied to their ethnicities. Whilst the immigrant boy from China to Australia excelled in all sports and work diligently to sustain the status of an athletic young boy, which is highly prized in Australia, the Australian native student exclude himself from sport playing activities due to his small figure and effeminate feature. The Australian student was also further excluded from his peer groups because of his great interest in Japanese anime. Unarguably, the two boys questioned the stereotypical male identities titled to their ethnicities and paved the way for the construction of new identities that cut across race, ethnicity, and gender using their own popular cultural natures.

Interrelation of popular culture as everyday culture and identity formation are found in several studies that highlight categorical identities such as ethnicity, race, and gender. For example, Mahiri (2004), an African American professor at Berkeley School of Education, examines how five urban African American adolescents used street scripts to describe and demonstrate their awareness of urban life through rap and hip-hop popular culture.

The aforementioned research laid the profound shreds of evidence leading to the conclusion that under the discourse of popular culture, the identities of young participants are constructed, deconstructed, shaped, and tested, thus highlighting the multifaced and being in flux with old and new images of their life.

Intersections of youth values, commercial media, and consumer forces

During the reign of popular culture, children have become a captive audience, both to traditional media such as film, television, and print as well as to digital media that are readily accessible through smartphones, PDAs, laptop computers, and the Internet.

A lifetime of constant, unquestioning consumption has been facilitated by the information, entertainment, and cultural pedagogy disseminated by massive multimedia corporations such as TikTok or Walt Disney. Because of their value as consumers and their ability to influence the spending of their parents, young people have become major targets of an advertising and marketing industry that spends over $17 billion a year on shaping children’s identities and desires (Golin, 2007). Added to such statistics, Bryce (2005), an American author and journalist in Texas, detects the amount of $263-billion-dollar-a-year United States spent by the advertising industry, which not only targets selling its products but also values, images, and identities, thus aiming at instilling into the young mind the habit of consuming commodities. Typical children see about “40,000 ads a year on TV alone”, and by the time they enter the fourth grade, they will have “memorized 300-400 brands already" (Rideout et al., 2005, p.4). Susan Linn, a research associate at Boston Children's Hospital and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, calls the virtual army of marketers and psychologists by the name "a hostile takeover of childhood in which they seek in the new media environment to take advantage of the growing economy wielded by children and teens" (Linn, 2004, p.8).

Figure 4: "The TikTok made me buy it" trend becomes viral on Youtube (n.d, Espinoza, G.)

Children, unarguably, are not born to be consumers. Their identities have been explored to be passively directed to assume the role of one. Therefore, every child is vulnerable to the many advertisers and entertainment providers who diversify markets through various niches, with the help of mobile technologies, social media, and the proliferation of what is defined as popular culture.

The importance of providing opportunities for children and young people to both enjoy and critique popular culture

With the argument mentioned above, it is obvious that popular culture plays an important role in a young person's life. The finding, reported by Rideout, Vandewater, and Wartella (2003), indicates that many young children's lives are media-rich and they are surrounded by a wide array of media and technology from birth. The belief that popular culture has a negative impact on children's learning and behavior appears to have become widely accepted (Giugni, 2006). These have included concerns about the perceived negative impact of media on children’s emotional, social, and cognitive development. Kenway and his college Bullen (2001), worry about the way in which children are becoming positioned as economic targets by multinational companies. It may be also the case that the confusion and negativity which surround children's popular cultural practices are derived from the notion as young children are insiders and adults the outsides who are unsure about where the technology is leading and concerned about losing control over their children (Lankshear and Knobel, 2004).

Figure 4: Peppa Pig World at Paultons Park, in Hampshire - a global phenomenon as it touches down to the most universal issues such as riding a bike, and going shopping (n.d, Murray, D. )

However, considering how much popular culture affects children's lives, a rethinking of popular culture proposed as the practices of teaching merit more attention. Indeed, Carmen Luke, an emeritus Professor of Education at The University of Queensland, emphasizes the need to develop a critical awareness of the media as early as the primary grade and extend through teacher education programs simultaneously. Not insisting that students learn to critique the very texts (films, video, print) in which they take great pleasure, Carmen puts emphasis on the following: "Popular culture involvement in the lesson gives students the technical skills to dismantle and dismiss ideology incorrect texts to identify stereotyping, class bias, sexist or racist content" (Luke, 1997, p.15). Hedges (2011), a professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Auckland with an interest in early childhood education, agrees with the notion of using popular culture and that interpreting popular culture as a "fund of knowledge" might assist teachers to consider a different view of this interest and its potential for curriculum experiences. Hedges observed that children brought items that represented their interests such as books, toys, and photos to the kindergarten which they may link to a famous current movie such as SpongeBob. However, such items were only taken out at group times but commonly returned to children’s bags afterward rather than being integrated as a part of the curriculum. Popular culture provided a unique way for children to transform participation in activities. Specific examples related to boys’ dramatic play as superheroes and the physical excitement and skills involved. Therefore, valuing and mentoring children in out-of-school practices is not just about plainly engaging them in the classroom settings, however, it also offers recognition of the new kinds of learning and emerging skills that are blooming outside of the school premises.

Thus, it is time for educators to change their thinking and responses and began to consider its potential for building a curriculum around popular culture.


Corporate giants, such as Tiktok or Disney Walt Inc, wrap themselves under the discourse of harmless amusement enthralling kids with new desires and offering them new commodified identities, thus prompting them into spending money or pestering their parents to spend money in order to chase after new fad online. It is not difficult to recognize the tragedy in the fact that kids may have little resistance to their virtual participation being expropriated and influenced by various advertisers and entertainment providers.

Alongside evidence of extending knowledge such as literacy, the young should be encouraged to learn about physical and emotional well-being, identity, and making sense of the world around them, McNaughton (2009), who worked in early childhood for thirty years as a practitioner, manager, and senior policy adviser to the government in both Australia and the United Kingdom, suggests teachers should engage in discussions with children about issues related to identity, fairness, and justice on which popular culture may encourage a focus, ethnicity, and equity using critical theory.

Thomson, who is well-known for her innovative work as principal of disadvantaged schools in Adelaide, discusses this notion regarding the children who are about to start school: "Students come to school with their virtual school bag full of things they have already learned at home, with their friends, and in and from the world in which they live." (Thomson, 2002. p.1). It is therefore how the culture of the school and teachers determines whether or not these tech-savvy children get to open the bag and make use of this content.

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