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The Messages of Pop Culture
Oftentimes I lie awake at night because I can't stop thinking. I also have a tendency to zone out in the middle of conversation and then suddenly start rambling about something that has nothing to do with the conversational topic. I think too much, but a lot of people don't think enough. This is especially true when it comes to media, and what that media is really saying. Too many people are content to take and run with what is presented on the surface, and not take a real look at what they are carrying with them. Media that is included in pop culture is extremely important to think about because of how widespread of an impact it has, and endorsing media based off of the surface level messaging is ignorant. I’m extremely passionate about pop culture because of what it says about the society that produces it.
One of the pop culture spaces that I am involved in is My Hero Academia, a popular anime that has a large cast of characters. One such character is Himiko Toga. In the universe of My Hero Academia, the beginning of the main plot is set about 300 years in the future, and the main difference between this world and reality is that it is a world of super powered individuals, each with unique superhuman abilities that are known as “quirks”. In this universe Toga (aged 16 at the time of her first appearance) is a villain who is a part of a criminal organization known as the League of VIllains, a group who have regular conflict with the protagonists.
In the society presented by the anime, quirks reflect those who hold them. For example Katsuki Bakugou is a character known for being extremely explosive and aggressive, and his quirk Nitroglycerin allows him to ignite the chemicals in his sweat to create literal explosions. The protagonist of the series was an outlier of society, and did not originally have a quirk of his own. The main character, Izuku Midoriya, received the quirk One for All from his hero AllMight, and his personality is being an AllMight fanboy (joking) is extremely self sacrificing and is known for prioritizing others to a dangerous degree. It is a common theme for quirks and characters to have correlation. Toga’s quirk is called Transform, and when Toga drinks someone’s blood, she can completely turn into them. And she explicitly states that this includes the person's clothes. What does it mean to “completely turn into someone”? A lot of people would see this as being merely physical, and would interpret turning into someone to mean physically copying their body. But quirks and character have correlation in this universe, so the implication is that this character, who is a villain mind you, has an unconscious philosophy that who you are goes beyond the physical. Meaning that in Toga’s eyes a person's clothing is such a large part of someone’s self expression that it is literally a part of you. This shows that from a young age Toga has had the understanding that people are more than just their appearance (what’s on the surface) but they are also their choices. And when she turns into someone, she always manifests their clothes as well, meaning that on some level her morality does not allow her to represent someone as anyone but themselves, and even if she is literally stealing their identity, she still makes sure to do it accurately and not falsely represent them.
This is evidence of Toga’s morals, and since a quirk is an intrinsic part of a character’s identity, it also means that Toga intrinsically has morals. And since in this universe quirks typically manifest at the age of four, it means that Toga had morals prior to becoming a villain.
So then the question becomes: if Toga has an innate understanding of morals and what makes a person who they are, why did she become a villain? You would think that she would be led down a more positive route in life. Toga has evidence of morals at a young age, but the wrong part of her was nurtured. Her quirk has amazing potential, and all potential can be used both moral and immorally. In the case of Toga, only the immoral uses were perceived by others, and because of this she failed to reach her full potential because society has effectively crippled her and forced her into the role of villain due to society's fear. With her quirk she would make an amazing detective, as long as there was dna left behind at the scene she would be able to turn into that person, which would make her great at identifying both criminals and their victims. But society was blinded by both fear and the hatred of the nonconforming, so the positive potential of her quirk was never realized. The behavior of others towards her fed her negative traits to the point where they grew and overshadowed the positive ones. Not only this, but her rejection by society because of her Transform quirk made it so that the only place where she could find acceptance was with those who have also been shunned.
A lot of people would read this far and go “why is this important”. My answer to that is: the small minded thinking of the society within this work is reflective of modern society, and therefore any lessons learned from this media can also be applied to reality. Toga contained the potential for both good and bad. Those around her prioritized prevention of a theoretical “bad” instead of putting in the effort to guide her to “good”. Toga's story demonstrates a societal pattern of banishing what does not conform over acceptance and aid. By the time of Toga’s introduction to the main plot, she has mental issues that make her extremely unstable and an unhealthy fixation on blood. It is also notable that Toga is canonically bisexual and has obsessions with two of the protagonist characters who are of two different genders. The protagonists of this anime are all people who are either working to become or actively hold the occupation of a Hero, which in this world is an actual career path. It's worth reiterating that at the time of her introduction, Toga was 16, and though the crimes she had committed by that point were serious, the adults, the literal Heros, consistently chose to physically fight against a child in place of containing her and putting her in some sort of rehabilitation program that would give her the chance to change her path.
Critical thinking about media like this one can help when it comes to real life realities. Toga’s oustment is an extreme version of what minority groups often face, and how damaging society can be to those who are nonconforming. Not only this, but the treatment of her by the Hero’s/law enforcement of the media reflect a similar issue that is seen in the american prison system, which serves only to punish not to reform, therefore perpetuating a toxic cycle of people being unable to ever improve or rejoin society and effectively becoming blacklisted.
These are the kinds of thoughts that make me fascinated with pop culture. The thing that separates pop culture from just media is that it has massive influence. You can walk into a high school classroom and shout “what are thoooose” and at least half the class is going to know what this means. That’s because pop culture creates a common sub language within English, where you will have words or phrases that you can say and have a lot of context attached to them that gives them larger meaning than what they appear to have on the surface. Because of how widespread pop culture is, any messages that it passes on are going to affect a very large portion of the population, and often we don’t even think about what those messages are purely because of how “common” or popular these things are. For example many Marvel movies do not pass many of the tests for female representation, and as these movies are widely loved, you are passing on the message that it is more important to represent one gender over the other as we are praising a work with unequal representation and calling it “awesome”. This isn’t a good message, so it’s important to think about media so that you don’t absorb the bad messages mixed in with the wholesome ones that you are being given on the surface. Culture is what unites us and gives us a common understanding and morality, therefore the messages put out by popculture have a widespread effect and looking at the messages that we are absorbing can be explanations for broader societal tendencies.
I tend to hyperfixate on things like this because it's safer than hyperfixating on a similar real life situation. By discussing an instance in media it helps remove us from the situation and see it from an outside perspective. This makes it easier to analyze and learn from. People often argue about whether life reflects art, or if art reflects life. A weird pattern that people have is excusing real life people for things that they condemn in media, or vice versa. It shows that morality is subjective and some people only apply morals to certain situations and that unconsciously we give morality qualifiers while advertising it as black and white. For some they show less morality when they are dealing with actual people, content to excuse bad actions if they believe the purpose outweighed the bad act. Others are more lenient with media becuase “its not real” which is interesting when it comes to extreme acts such as killing because it implies that whether or not murder is bad is conditional.
We feel guilt for real life murders and when we hear about a murder on the news the gut reaction thats been trained into us is “oh thats horrible” but at the same time we also have normalized indiscriminate killing in video games and we feel no guilt for those. This demonstrates that its the conseqences of murder that we actually see as bad not the act of murder itself. The consequence of murder is the loss of life, and that is what we actually mourn. That's why death in media is not treated with the same severity, because media is a product of imagination and does not have life. It's also why you get apologists for characters like Severus Snape, who in the Harry Potter series was a part of an organization that was essentially a magical alternate universe version of Nazis. There are always groups of people in fandoms who defend the villain and give them redemption arcs even if they have killed countless people. Because it is not the act of killing that is bad, it's the fact that that life is now lost to us and cannot be returned. But I would never know these things if I only accepted the surface level message and did not think deeper about what I am being taught.
There are many reasons why I’m passionate about the messages that media puts off. Media helps me understand the world in a controllable way. You often cannot control what messages you gain from real life events because they happen in real time and cannot be paused and thought over in the same way. Books and tv shows on the other hand can be paused and rewound so that you have the opportunity to catch nuances that you might not have otherwise. Just like adding one to three will change the number to four, these small nuances can completely change the overall output.
By analyzing media you expose the hypocrisy of society which is extremely important. Oftentimes the messages of media conflict with the moral standards preached by the general public. This then provokes the important thought of which actually has a more broad impact on people: the underlying message or the broadcasted one. Oftentimes the conflict between the messaging can expose the flaws of society which is a critical thing for people to acknowledge the existence of. If you do not see the flaws as well as the virtues you can never hope to improve, because you cannot improve upon perfection due to the very nature of something being perfect meaning that it is impossible to ever make greater. Ironically, acknowledging imperfection actually brings you closer to achieving perfection than simply believing that something is perfection already.
The best way to better society is to better yourself, because you are the only thing you have complete control over, and while I cannot control the messages that media puts out, I can control the messages that I convey and spread. Since we absorb messages from the media, I find it crucial to analyze that message so that I do not unintentionally pass on something that I find morally reprehensible.
Analyzing pop culture is also a way for me to frame things in a way that I find understandable. If I were to have a conversation with my mother about a media that both she and I had absorbed, we would have taken very different things out of that media. Because we have different focuses when receiving information, it's often hard for either of us to process the way the other thinks, because it seems alien. She tends to focus more on the surface value, the way things are supposed to be presented and received and prioritizes the intended message. Whereas I think the actual message is more important than the intended one. Therefore instead of getting my life lessons and constructing my morals based off of the words of other people, I prefer to do it through my own analysis of the source material, because only then will I know what my own thoughts are. If the other person does not process information in the same way I do then I won't be receiving the information that I prefer to make my decisions off of, and therefore won't be getting what I perceive as an accurate lesson out of the material. Overall, analyzing pop culture helps me understand the patterns of society and use what I’ve learnt to improve myself.
My passion for pop culture is largely driven by a need to understand those around me, and where both their and my behavior stems from. With the level to which modern technology has expanded, bringing us the holy being known as Google to the tips of my fingers, this understanding is wholly within reach. The thing that separates ignorance from innocence is whether information is available to you or not. And while I often cannot help but be innocent, I refuse to be ignorant.