- Popular Ideologies: Mass Culture at Mid-Century
Professor Smulyan, a member of the American Civilization program at Brown University, explores four quite disparate yet highly intriguing case studies that span the 1930s to the 1960s in order to demonstrate that popular culture (contrary to her students' persistent perspective) attracts and involves more than "just escape" from reality. Instead, she insists that ideology underlies and conditions various forms of cultural performance, consumerism, the exportation (and exploitation) of American films abroad, and the changing character of novels about advertising during the 1940s and '50s. She justifies her emphasis on ideology (rather than hegemony or discourse as operative terms) because of her interest in issues of power in twentieth-century American culture, especially as a means of oppression (12–13). As she explains in her introduction:
The question of how to undertake a mass culture study dedicated to producing the possibility of social change remains open, but I believe that examining expressions of power is crucial. This study takes up that issue both by looking at the moments when cultural expressions took steps toward mass culture and by focusing on powerful cultural producers (9).
The first of her case studies is the most fascinating and will come as a genuine revelation to many students of American social and cultural history. It treats the fairly broad appeal of amateur minstrel shows during the first half of the twentieth century, and makes wonderful use of manuals written during the 1920s and '30s, especially, to provide complete instructions for community groups such as the Rotarians and Lions Clubs, but also church and women's groups as well: what acts comprise a minstrel show, exactly how to burn cork in order to black [End Page 529] up, the proper role-playing for interlocutor and endmen, and so forth. There was even advice to these largely rural and nostalgic communities on what to avoid, such as mixed-gender casts. According to conventional wisdom among scholars, the minstrel show was immensely popular from the early 1840s until the later nineteenth century whenWildWest shows, burlesque, vaudeville, and silent film put an end to three generations of minstrelsy. Well, that closure may have been true of urban America, but not for small towns that time forgot—and perhaps towns that had very small African-American populations, if any. By the early 1950s a sense of embarrassment finally set in, and the phenomenon came to an end; yet the fact that it flourished for so long but has remained "beneath the radar" comes as a shock. Smulyan has made a major contribution to an important body of literature about racial stereotyping and insensitive (almost oblivious) racism in America.
The second chapter, equally original though somewhat less intriguing, involves the way DuPont invented nylon in 1939 and then created a wild demand for women's stockings that became impossible to fulfill, not only during World War II but for decades after. Smulyan explains the intense battles that raged over denier, gauge, and sheerness. Women wanted the stockings to be as sheer as possible, yet resented the snags and runs that resulted from efforts to satisfy the desire for sheerness. The resulting conflict between the limits of technology and social demand is amusing, and DuPont's manipulative role in the market-place of desire exemplifies the uses (and misuses) of corporate power very well. The role of ideology, however, remains unclear.
The third case study concerns the export of American films to occupied Japan following World War II. The initial intent, of course, was propaganda for the American way of life—"teaching democracy." As Smulyan finds, of course, when one looks at the films chosen, and the difficulty of pinning down the meaning of any particular film, the certainty that the Occupation film program expressed a coherent ideology disappears" 112). As more than one American critic observed, the films did not serve their purpose because they too blatantly came across as advertisements for capitalist mass culture and reflected an excessively modern sensibility that conflicted with Japanese traditions. Kissing in public, for example...