- Popular Ideologies: Mass Culture at Mid-Century
In her undergraduate and graduate courses on popular culture, American studies professor Susan Smulyan encounters students who readily see political ideologies at play in marginalized popular culture forms but who simultaneously downplay the ideological significance of mass culture. In seeking to remedy that, and also providing a fascinating read of mid-twentieth-century cultural productions as diverse as minstrel shows and nylon stockings, Smulyan makes visible the ways in which race, class, gender, [End Page 1077] nationhood, and consumption both emerge in and are developed through popular culture.
Arguably of most interest to readers of Technology and Culture is Smulyan’s second chapter, “The Magic of Nylon,” in which she traces technological development as well as nylon’s consumer manifestation in stockings for pre-and postwar American women’s legs. Well-read in the scientific history of nylon, Smulyan explores the oft-told tale of the young organic chemist Wallace Hume Carothers, whose laboratory work between 1928 and 1930 resulted in the development of nylon. She adds significantly to that history by arguing that nylon as a product relied not only on Carothers and the other scientists involved in its creation but also on the efforts of the advertisers who promoted it and the female consumers who took ownership of nylon in more ways than one. In an argument characteristic of the approach to each of the cultural forms examined in her book, Smulyan explores nylon “as a series of cultural events that constructed ideologies of gender, race, and nation” (p. 41).
Both the DuPont corporation and historians of science and technology have explored the historical trajectory of the research that would result in this new product, nylon (the name combines “new” and “rayon”). Polymer research represented a significant moment in the development of corporate R&D strategies and in the conflicting paths and purposes of pure and applied science. Smulyan’s analysis adds an additional and important component. Although neither Carothers nor DuPont initiated this polymer research in order to provide stockings for women, the potential marketability of the product quickly came to influence its further development. In other words, once it was touted as the equivalent of silk, particularly in stockings, this played a role in how the product would be fashioned and which of its qualities would be furthered in the laboratory.
Following nylon’s introduction, DuPont continued a process of attributing to it both scientific and cultural meaning. When the firm began its work on nylon, women had been wearing shorter skirts for only about a decade, but silk stockings were already widely understood as a significant consumer product. Nylon potentially met the needs of huge numbers of female consumers, who sought a replacement for expensive and less-than-durable silk. In positing nylon as a stronger alternative to silk, and in emphasizing related qualities like sheerness and sheen, DuPont set itself up to meet the demands of women consumers. Yet despite the company’s claim that “well made nylon hose have no superior,” nylon itself was hardly run-proof. The resulting struggle between DuPont and female consumers forms the core of Smulyan’s analysis and results in her argument that as mass culture developed, large corporations like DuPont gained more and more power not only over production but also over the ways in which producer-consumer conflicts would be waged. Women asked why, if DuPont’s claims were true and nylon was tough enough to tow airplanes, could it not also result in a [End Page 1078] stocking that would not run. Repeatedly, DuPont’s response implied that impossible-to-please females, rather than its own research or production, were at fault. This case study aptly demonstrates Smulyan’s overall argument that mid-century conflicts between producers and consumers of popular products show the increasing power of producers in controlling the language about, and the multiple meanings of, goods.
In three other chapters, which feature Hollywood films in occupied Japan, amateur performances of minstrel shows, and novels set in advertising agencies, the production of...