American Popular Culture Essay
American popular culture has brought entertainment to many for the past two centuries. However, very little people know the extent to which American popular culture has shaped the historical relationship between marginalized social groups and dominate American society. Traditionally, the term popular culture has denoted the education level and general “cultural-ness” of the lower classes, as opposed to the “official culture” and higher education emanated by the dominant classes.
This separation of upper class and lower class became even more pronounced towards the end of the 19th century. At the end of the 19th century the was a strong need for one to express their intellectualism as well as further their education in order to gain a higher status in society. Due to the need to denote other races, we have the arrival of black face minstrelsy in American popular culture, which allowed for inferior white races such as the Jewish of Irish to gain approval from the dominate white culture.
However, black face minstrelsy also forced African Americans further into segregation from American society. During the period of Modernity from 1870 to 1930, there was a strong fascination with the Wild West and Manifest Destiny. During this time there was the formation of the Boy Scouts, which was the true depiction of what Americans thought it was like to be Native American. Due to irrational fears and anxieties, American popular culture took comfort in “playing Indian” because it allowed them to express these worries in American mainstream media.
From the end of World War I, following major cultural and social changes brought by mass media innovations, the meaning of popular culture began to overlap with those of mass culture, media culture, and culture for mass consumption. Because of World War II, many women were put to work in order to fill the jobs of the men at war allowing them to gain a sense of independence. However, other events in history such as Vaudeville, and the idea of the New Woman also allowed women to gain a sense of power during the 19th century with pioneers such as Sarah Bernhardt.
American popular culture was the gender revolutions biggest supporter as well as its biggest critic. Throughout American history, popular culture has been an entry way for marginal social groups into the political, economic, and social mainstream of American society. With Irish and Jewish males finally being accepted by dominate white society through the performance of black face minstrelsy as well as women being able to control their own being through expression in Vaudeville.
However, while these minorities are able to further their social hierarchy through performance, African Americans and Native Americans were often exploited as a way of making profit. While American popular culture has its positive social constructions, I believe the negative effects that American popular culture has had on the historical relationship between marginal social groups and American society has caused too much damage to repair. Through acts such as the minstrelsy shows, the Buffalo Bill Show as well as films and plays of the time, minorities are depicted in a subordinate role to the Anglo-Saxon male.
These acts within popular culture spilled over onto American society and allowed for the prejudice and racism of the 19th and 20th century. The minstrel show, or minstrelsy, was an American popular culture entertainment consisting of comedy skits, variety acts, dancing, and music performed by white people in blackface. Blackface was when a White American would paint their face with black makeup and exaggerate their lips and being to impersonate an African American male. Minstrel shows caricatured black people as poor, lazy, dim-witted, buffoonish, happy-go-lucky and violent.
The minstrel show began with brief parodies and comic entr’actes in the early 1830s and emerged as a full-fledged form of mass entertainment in the next decade. In 1848, blackface minstrel shows were the national art of the time, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience. Minstrel songs and sketches featured several run-of-the-mill characters; the slave and the dandy in nice clothes quickly began the crowd favorites. These were further divided into sub-archetypes such as the mammy, her counterpart the old darky, the provocative mulatto wench, and the black soldier.
Minstrel performers claimed that their songs and dances were authentically “black”, although the extent of the black influence remains debatable. The depictions of African Americans as these “token” characters, allowed for the ignorance of White America to be validated through the representation of minorities through stereotypes. African Americans were seen as bumbling fools who couldn’t take care of themselves and needed a White master to explain the world to their simple minds.
African Americans were seen as people who needed someone to represent them; they needed someone with power to gain control of an “untamed” culture. A certain version of a black identity can be created through things like the minstrel show and other forms of popular culture, and that understanding has led to material practices like racial segregation and social inequality and educational deprivation. Americans use to believe that race could be distinguished biologically and that different ethnicities had different DNA coding than others. American popular culture is how most people learn about other identities and allowed them to understand the practices of another culture.
As Professor Avila stated in lecture “the minstrel show is one of the sites in history where this could be found. The 19th century was a time where people saw racial difference and were terrified by it. The existence of slavery and its uncertain future promoted a mixed range of responses by Americans and they were acted in a variety of ways” (Avila Lecture January 15th 2013). The minstrel shows are a perfect example of how White Americans acted out their own prejudice to enact their own culture in 19th and 20th century America.
The Minstrel performers were often men of Jewish or Irish descent, which were two groups of people who were discriminated against even though they were White. Often, Jewish and Irish men took comfort in dressing up in Blackface for the minstrel shows because it allowed them to relate to the audience as well as the character they are portraying. These performers used minstrelsy as a platform to gain social hierarchy in American popular culture by bringing comic relief to a working class audience.
Also, they often were able to finally express themselves once they put the Blackface make-up on because it served as a mask which hid their actual identity from the audience. These minorities were able to use their performances to gain acceptance from the dominant White American society. However, this upward social mobility came at a large price for African Americans during the 19th century. The depiction of African Americans as fools or grime savages in the minstrel show furthered the discrimination and stereotypes upheld by Anglo-Americans. Minstrels were not shifty in their theft of black cultural expressions and practices.
The performers depicted these expressions quite brazenly, acknowledging and emphasizing the speeches and songs they created. At the same time, black face minstrels were the first self-conscious white entertainers in the world. While they told themselves they were only playing the role of an African American in American society, they often found their life struggles were very similar to those of the characters they portrayed. This mutual discrimination by dominant White America, allowed for African Americans and the White Americans portraying them in minstrel shows to bridge a formerly segregated gap in American society.
Blackface minstrelsy was the first distinctly American theatrical form, and deeply rooted in American popular culture. In the 1830s and 1840s, it was at the core of the rise of an American music industry, and for several decades it provided the lens through which white America saw black America. On the one hand, it had strong racist aspects and furthered discrimination of minorities in America; on the other, it afforded white Americans a singular and broad awareness of what some whites of the time, considered significant aspects of black-American culture to be.
Although the minstrel shows were extremely popular, being “consistently packed with families from all walks of life and every ethnic group”, they were also extremely controversial. Racial integrationists decried them as falsely showing happy slaves while at the same time making fun of them; segregationists thought such shows were “disrespectful” of social norms, portrayed runaway slaves with sympathy and would undermine the southerners’ “peculiar institution”.
With Irish, German, Polish, Italian, Russian-Jews, and Native stock within the audience, the minstrel show provided a relational model by which those in audiences could unite in whiteness. And although the minstrel show sometimes did highlight interethnic diversities, they all could share in this particular joke – the laziness and stupidity of black people. African Americans were not the only minority group to suffer social, political and economic discrimination during the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Native Americans who are the rightful owners of our beautiful land have faced harsh and cruel discrimination from dominant White American society. Throughout early American history, there was a strong push for Manifest Destiny, or the wide held belief that American settlers were destined to expand throughout the continent. This ideology was upheld by most Americans because they believed that God had told them it was their destiny to settle on this land. Due to the fact that they believed it was their destiny, the settlers took little to no pity on the people who already inhabited the land they were seizing.
The concept of Western expansion seemed to be on the forefront of every Americans mind during the late 19th century, allowing for new fears and anxieties to form about Native Americans. With leisure time becoming a strong part of American culture, there became a strong pull to produce shows to entertain the masses after a hard day’s work. Showmen such as William F. Cody began to produce shows like the Buffalo Bill show, which featured relations between cowboys and Indians. For 23 years, the show featured a skit called “attack on setter’s cabin” as the grand finale show.
This skit would start by showing a frontier home which was set on fire by savages, each time the encircling group of Indians came close to the cabin, Buffalo Bill would ride out on his horse to the rescue and save the day. The common theme of the Buffalo Bill show was to reinforce the heroic image of the Cowboy who expanded the land from sea to shining sea, saving the lives of White Americans and killing the enemies who stopped their destiny. While William F. Cody would sometimes depict a Native American in some of the skits, he was often the heroic cowboy everybody was waiting to see.
However, working as a Native American in the production of the Buffalo Bill show had its upside. William F. Cody did not adhere to government demands as often fought to resist them to gain rights for his employees. One example of his resistance is allowing his Native American actors to keep their long hair instead of assimilating to dominate society like the government demanded. Also, the Native Americans in the Buffalo Bill show were offered a unique opportunity that many minorities didn’t have during the 19th century in America. Cody offered the Native Americans the chance to travel the country and make an income that was sizable.
Taking part in these reenactments of American history also allowed for Native Americans to hold onto a sliver of their culture in a society who is try to diminish their practices. However, the overall goal of the Buffalo Bill show was not to inform the public about the cultural and social practices of Native Americans, but rather a remedy for the fantasies and fears that flooded American society during the late 19th century As stated by professor Avila “the image of the Indian has this degree of symbolic flexibility to be able to contain the projected fantasies and anxieties of Native Americans” (Avila, Lecture, January 29th 2013).
The onslaught of Modernity challenged the concept of identity for everyone in America. The anxieties of the upper class about a minority revolt were enhanced by the acceleration of modernity (Lawrence, American Culture). Modernity brought a deep sense of transformation from an old world order to a new society. “However, this allowed for the objectification of people and products alike, with things becoming abstract commodities, like people becoming cogs in a machine, rather than being an independent human” (Nasaw, Going Out).
Suddenly during the late 19th century there was a strive for authenticity, or a culturally-constructed category created in opposition to a perceived state of inauthenticity; a way to imagine and idealize the real, the traditional, and the organic in opposition to the perceived inauthenticity of modern commercial life. Inauthenticity was beginning to plague the youth of America and there was a strong push toward needing to be authentic.
One of the urban responses about the corruption of youth was the invention of boy scouts, which wanted to introduce frontier experiences to youth, with an emphasis on scouting, camping, exercise, and a wholesome relationship with nature. The concept of the Boy Scouts takes the idea of “playing Indian” to its fullest extent. The actual image of the Indian was important to the Boy Scouts understanding of nature and the things that inhabit it. The Boy Scouts idealized the image of a Native American because it represented the human removed from modern life, who is retaining virtues from nature by living in it.
White Americans use “playing Indian” as a way of projecting their fears and anxieties about the unknown onto the lives of Native Americans. Although it is not a strong point of the Buffalo Bill show, William F. Cody was known for his performances as he heroic cowboy, but he sometimes depicted the “Indian” in some of his skits. The audience at the shows seemed to like when the White actor would dress up as Native Americans, because they felt like they could connect better with that actor and his struggles.
The idea of “playing Indian” in American popular culture can be seen both negatively and positively. Unfortunately, “playing Indian” led to the development of new stereotypes and anxieties, as well as reinforced old stereotypes about Native Americans. This caused a lot of tension and fear between the White settlers and the Native inhabitants of the land. On the other hand, “playing Indian” allowed for a previously intolerant society to gain a better understanding of the cultures and societies around them.
Through experimenting with “playing Indian” American popular culture has both hampered the historical relationship between marginalized social group and American dominate society as well as strengthened the bond between two previously segregated groups. The American concepts of Manifest Destiny and Western expansion created many fears and anxieties for the White settlers of the land. After the closing of the frontier in 1890, Americans began to face new anxieties that European settlers would come from all parts of Europe and demolish the democracy that America had worked so hard to create.
We can accredit most of the need in America for White Americans to portray themselves as Indians to the concept of Modernization. With Modernization came the invention of the railroads and the automobile which gave a stronger push toward urbanization. White Americans felt the need to seek simpler times like they had before industrialization and modernization took their course on American popular culture. Throughout American popular culture, there has always been a need to enforce a social hierarchy to make sure that minority groups don’t gain any power.
This has proven to be true throughout America history with different racial groups, but minorities do not stop at race. During the 19th and 20th century, women were seen an inferior to men in America simply because they are a different gender. The concept of gender identities is often visited in American popular culture. In lecture, we have discussed how gender roles play out in public spheres of the modern city such as dance halls where women were given freedom to dance and the creation of department stores which gave women the option to work and be part of something outside the home.
However, prior to the mid-19th century, women were meant to adhere to tradition gender roles placed on them by society. The rise of the theater and vaudeville house, between 1820s and the 1900s, allowed for popular theater to emerge in the conversation of sexual identities. The female performers in Vaudeville became the agents and metaphors for ancient social roles. This was the era associated with the “new woman”, who became perceived by the public eye as non-traditional. The new woman was both a social reality, as depicted by Sarah Bernhardt and a cultural concept, as shown by the feminist revolution.
It was coined at the end of the century, and described a woman changing her public behavior and adopting new roles within a previously bias society. At the turn of the 20th century, American had a new league of ambitious, educated women who often put off or refused marriage, and dedicated themselves to political causes and social reforms – these women were part of what was labeled as the new woman of the 20th century. By the time of World War I, women demanded political and economic equality with men.
Most historians have seen the rise of the political women, but particularly in urban slices of society, an important venue of acceptance was seen. Sarah Bernhardt embodies this idea of the “new woman”, or a woman who doesn’t see her gender as a limitation to her life. Sarah Bernhardt formed her own theater company, and she was the first actor to tour on an international circuit. She often played the roles of women, many of which were familiar to American audiences. She also accredited for pioneering the form of the woman torn between power hungry aggressions and passive submissions.
Onstage, she was usually very dramatic and could perform hysteria without shame, which was usually considered not ladylike. She caused many scandals by playing the roles of men in her plays, like in 1899 where she played the role of Hamlet. She upstaged men performing alongside her, jumping across masculine and feminine roles at the same time, blurring the lines between men and women, and blurring the line between a bad woman and a good woman. Whatever the case, her personality always dominated the characters she played. “She had an immodest presence and was known for shameless and bold publicity stunts.
She could seize the possibilities for self-construction afforded by mass culture and spectacle” (Kasson, Amusing the Millions). She invented the farewell tour, and each tour was loaded with drama and tears. She did this to heighten a dramatic sense of finality, and was a master of advanced publicity and that of her own self-image. She was in control of her own self-image, not unlike women promoted by PT Barnum. Unlike Jenny Lin, Bernhardt called the shots for her performances, and that image was that of a high-strung and egotistic person.
She took ownership of her public image, and though she was adored, she was criticized by males for being too unladylike. This could have suggested gender confusion at the time. Nonetheless, she contributes to the large visibility of women, and showed how women could change the terms with public culture. This created new examples of women that were willing to stand for their rights by asserting their demands for political equality. In contrast to the Bernhardt image, there were images in the 20th century American popular culture, which reinforced women as ornaments which were to be produced and handled by men.
The creation of the chorus line gave birth to a new type of objectification. The amusement of the line resided with the ability for women who were the entire same image to show their ability to synchronize and choreograph their movements together. The line symbolized the application of the principles of scientific management to mass entertainment. These women who danced in the line all looked the same and held the same facial feature throughout the show almost as if they were wound up robots with someone controlling their every move.
The idea is to synchronize limbs and bodies to a series and different steps, and in turn it reflects a faith into human engineering as entertainment. The chorus line was referred to a small army of femininity where women worked rigorously into being part of the crowd, and not an individual. They are parts of a whole, and are theatrically useless when they are separated from each other. They were displays of mechanical awareness, and that also broke the body to eroticize particular parts of the body, exposing these previously well hidden body parts to the public gaze.
Historians argue that the chorus line is a perfect example of how men view women within a society; they are just pieces of a machine waiting to comply with a strong males command. These two different types of women that emerged in the 19th and 20th century in America show the strong influence that males had over women during this time period. The “new woman” was a rebellion against traditional gender roles, while the chorus line depicted a submissive woman who needs male guidance. Throughout 19th and 20th century American popular culture, there has been a lot of discrimination towards this idea of the “outsider”.
In the minstrel show the outside is shown as an African-American male and the “insider” is the White family who paid to see the show. The creation of The Buffalo Bill show painted Native Americans as the “outsiders”, even though they inhabited the land before Americans even got here. Finally, American popular culture allowed for women to be depicted as the “outsider” and males to be presented as the “insiders”. However, even though these tragedies plague American popular culture minorities still find ways of resistance.
Whether it be through Irish and Jewish culturally subordinate groups depicting the stereotypes of another minority to try to fit into mainstream American, or women like Sarah Bernhardt who don’t set limitations to their ambitions due to their gender, American counter culture has always found a way to strike back and its oppressor. I believe that American popular culture has allowed naive Americans to get a better perspective of the hardships faced every day by someone who is considered a “second class citizen”.
American popular culture as both provided a gateway for minorities to fit into modern American society, as well as crumbled any hope for a sensitive bridging of gaps between social, political or racial groups within America. Works Cited Kasson, John. Amusing the Millions: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century. Hill and Wang; First Edition edition, 1978. Print. Levine, Lawrence, “American Culture and the Great Depression,” The Unpredictable Past: Explorations in American Cultural History Oxford University Press, 1993. Print. Nasaw, David, and . Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements. Harvard University Press, 1999. Print.
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