Introduction to cultural criticism

Growing up, I thought of all pieces of writing as being in one of two boxes: academic or non-academic. (Or, more bluntly, “fun” or “not fun.”) Now I realize there’s a space between, and in that space lies cultural criticism.

Cultural criticism can be somewhat academic. It involves a lot of research and, per the Poetry Foundation, often draws on techniques from the social sciences, whether that’s psychology, anthropology, sociology or history and in that way is like any other research paper. But cultural critics make sure to expand the realm of what they write about. It’s not just things in the academic canon, but pop culture, too. Cultural criticism is writing academically about the kind of books your middle-school teachers told you to stop reading because they were “fluff.”

I’m interested in cultural criticism because I always find it fascinating when I read it and because I’ve often thought of my own cultural criticisms even when I don’t label them as such. I’m a political science major, so the social science aspects of it appeal to me. For this project, I’m drawing on a personal essay about how I made a meme of my appearance on a TV show in order to reclaim my identity, and it made me wonder what the reasons are for other people behind memes, and the reasons people use such memes. The social aspects of my own story and the fact that people use memes as a form of social interaction made me think that cultural criticism would be appropriate for this project.

This piece from Vox is a combination of an argumentative editorial and cultural criticism, where the author describes cultural criticism as a way of explaining the world through pop culture. But she also engages in some criticism herself, discussing Tarantino movies and the TV series Girls as microcosms of American life. The examples at the bottom view pop culture through various lenses, including feminist and LGBT theory and inherited trauma, showing the wide range of topics cultural criticism can cover. It’s also a good example of the conventions of cultural criticism: writing on some form of culture, not discriminating between high or low culture, explaining the reasons why certain pieces of culture were made or why they’re popular or unpopular.

4 thoughts to “Introduction to cultural criticism”

  1. I think its really cool that you are planning on using a meme about your appearance on a TV show as the basis for this project. I think turning a meme into any type of writing is a really fun experiment and I am really excited to see the outcome. I like how you discuss in this post cultural criticism can both be academic or not. I really relate to your viewpoint of seeing academic pieces as not fun and seeing nonacademic pieces as being fun so I think the research you did about cultural criticism is really exciting and promising.

  2. I like how you described cultural criticism as the space between “fun” and “not fun” writing. If you’re looking for another source who was a meme at a young age who has reclaimed her identity and image similar to the way you did, I can hook you up with disaster girl (@zoeroth on Instagram)!

  3. I didn’t even know cultural criticism was a genre before reading this piece so thank you for educating me. I also was in the camp that all writing fell in to the “fun” or “not fun” category. I think it will be a challenge to try and experiment with this genre without falling into relying on what would be considered traditionally fun or not fun, but I think this could be a really interesting opportunity to try and blur those lines as much as possible!

  4. I’ll be honest, I have never heard of cultural criticism as a genre before. I think that this sounds like a very interesting way to explore your own experiences in the context of society as a whole. I’m looking forward to reading your piece as my first introduction to this genre.

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