Two faculty members mine pop culture to discover keys to our changing social landscape
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Imagine, for a moment, that you have been led down a dark passage into the inky depths of a cave. You are placed in front of a massive, oak-planked door and told to turn the equally massive doorknob—a task that takes two hands to accomplish. The door creaks open, your guide illuminates the chamber with a torch, and inside you come face-to-face with a treasure trove of…comic books, movies and television programs on VHS tape, old Playbills, and years’ worth of TV Guides.
You might be disappointed to have found no gold or jewels, but two faculty members in the College of Communication would be more than delighted. Professor Kelly Kessler and Associate Professor Blair Davis—both educators in the college’s media and cinema studies program—have made pop culture their research and pedagogical specialty. Both say their work arose from a love of what some people consider trivial entertainments that fade as new cultural markers emerge, and both agree that studying pop culture is essential to understanding our society.
From stage to screen to stream
Kessler, a self-described “nerdy theatre kid” with an undergraduate degree in theatre, grew up in an Illinois steel mill town in the St. Louis area. She says, “My parents would take us to The Muny in St. Louis every summer, which is, I think, the largest outdoor amphitheater in the U.S. for musicals. So, I grew up on musicals.”
One look at the title of Kessler’s doctoral dissertation, “Tough Guys, Rock Stars, and Messiahs: Genre and Gender in the Hollywood Musical, 1966–1983,” reveals the trajectory her academic career would take. She has amassed a body of work examining gender, sexuality and genre in American television and film, with a particular emphasis on the musical. Her most recent book, “Broadway in the Box: Television’s Lasting Love Affair with the Musical” (Oxford, 2020), discusses how and why television embraced musical theatre.
In the early days of television, producers were “trying to figure out how to balance [television and live entertainment] aesthetically,” Kessler says. “Anthology dramas were shot like theatre. The Goodyear Playhouse version of ‘Marty’ doesn’t have a live audience, but there’s a sense of liveness that’s still attached to it because of the way that it’s shot. You also had sitcoms and variety shows in front of live audiences. A lot of those performers, especially those doing anthology dramas, were people who were performing on Broadway,” she continues, acknowledging the fact that much early television production was based in New York City.
In the following two decades, variety series like “The Carol Burnett Show” and musical specials like Liza Minnelli’s “Liza with a Z” were mainstays on network television. As tastes changed, these types of musical programs were seen less and less.
During the 1980s through the early 2000s, television viewers were offered musical episodes of their favorite shows. “In ‘Ally McBeal,’ there would be a couple of musical numbers, and ‘The Drew Carey Show’ had a few episodes that had some musical numbers,” Kessler says. “There were one-off episodes of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ ‘Xena’ and ‘Scrubs.’ There was a variety show episode of ‘That ’70s Show.’” Kessler believes that the creation of these musical episodes was partially the result of the shows’ creators having backgrounds in musical theatre and partially due to stylistic shifts occurring on the television landscape.
Then “Glee” hit.
Kessler remembers watching the first episode of this musical dramedy, which aired on the Fox network from 2009 to 2015. “It was aired brilliantly—months ahead of the second episode—after an episode of ‘American Idol.’ So, they’re capitalizing on this young audience, this family audience, an audience that was already buying into a show on a musical star being discovered out of nowhere. I remember the ‘Glee’ actors singing ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ at the end of the first episode. I couldn’t wait until [the series] started.”
The creators of “Glee” “hustled 21st-century media,” Kessler continues. “They did a hardcore social media campaign between that airing of the first episode and the second episode, and they dropped other musical numbers in between. I think ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ was already on the iTunes charts before the second episode even aired.” In addition, the producers were very conscious about crossing various music markets, from pop and Broadway to country and rap, to try to broaden their draw.
Full-length musicals also have graced the small screen. Baby Boomers remember the yearly broadcasts of the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” and a filmed stage performance of “Peter Pan,” starring Broadway luminary Mary Martin; for many, “The Wizard of Oz” was a television experience before it was a movie experience.
Kessler calls these and other annual specials “event television” that people across the country watched at the same time. “The ways in which technology has changed has led to the loss of this notion of event television,” she says. “We’re not watching things at the same time, largely because there are so many different channels and streaming services to choose from.”
The need to attract audiences, however, has not vanished. Attempts have been made to recapture the event experience in the 21st century by mounting musical productions such as “Grease Live!” and “Hairspray Live!” (both 2016) with coordinating second-screen activities on social media, such as Facebook Live streams and cast members live-tweeting to the viewing audience. “I talked with the head of the social media campaign with Fox when ‘Grease Live!’ aired,” says Kessler. “It was interesting to learn the ways in which they were trying, in a digital context, to recapture the specialness of the early live musicals of the ’50s and ’60s.”
Pop culture, panel by panel
Blair Davis, a media historian whose research encompasses multiple media, says, “I’ve been fascinated with comics as a form of visual entertainment and storytelling since I was a little kid. We never owned a VCR in my house until I was a teenager in the late 1980s. I realized that comics allowed this sort of interplay between moving images across panels, but also still images within panels. I really appreciated that ability to control the pace of the story in a way that I couldn’t with movies at the time before we had a VCR.”
Davis is the author of “The Battle for the Bs: 1950s Hollywood and the Rebirth of Low-Budget Cinema” (Rutgers, 2012), “Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page” (Rutgers, 2017) and “Comic Book Movies” (Rutgers, 2018), as well as numerous chapters and articles for scholarly and popular publications. In his examination of film, television and comic books, Davis says, “I’ve been really interested in tracing those media all the way back to their starting points and seeing how those media have interacted with and impacted each other historically. As long as we’ve had cinema, we’ve had comic book movies, because the origins of comics, as far as comic strips in newspapers, date back to when films themselves got their start in the late 1800s.”
Davis is particularly drawn to science fiction and how comic book superheroes reflect developments in science and technology.
“Sci-fi is one of my favorite genres for its ability to envision current social dilemmas through metaphors of future societies and technologies,” Davis says. “As a researcher, I’ve been fascinated with the way in which previous eras have tackled dilemmas or questions, for example, how people of the ’30s envisioned the potentials of technology through pop culture like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movies.”
Davis instructs his students about the politics and social messages that may be embedded in science fiction stories. “When I was on the ‘James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction’ show on AMC, I talked about ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956), which is a film that I’ve taught for many, many years,” he says. “It can be read simultaneously as either an anti-communist parable or an anti-Joseph McCarthy parable in that we’re afraid of the Red Scare coming to threaten our American way of life or afraid of conformity to dictators. I’ve had students who will try to argue it both ways.
“I love how science fiction can allow room for just enough ambiguity to create multiple readings. It allows us to have a forum through which politics can be debated in ways that use metaphor and character to examine complex ideas in perhaps a relatively safer space.”
Why study pop culture?
Kessler sees her work as doing what any other historian does. “Popular culture is part of how we’ve defined ourselves for generations. When I teach the history of television and radio, or when I teach race or gender and sexuality and television, I talk about the ways in which the shows that I watched helped me understand, problematically or not, the world around us. It helped me understand the people and places where I was not.
“As much as anyone wants to say, ‘It’s just television,’ I don’t believe there is just. We take in as much from our entertainment forms as we do from our educators, from our religious leaders. One of my next projects is about raising kids with media written by people who are media scholars, but who are also parents,” she says.
Davis concurs. For him, pop culture operates under the notion of “opening up the landscape to allow more voices to be heard from, more voices to be represented through characters and stories, and just opening up the possibility of who gets to be a hero or who gets to be the protagonist.
“Looking back at my childhood, the toys on the shelf reflected almost overwhelmingly white male heroes. Well, now we’re going to change what stories are told. We will change what products are made off of those stories, which will, in turn, change what role models are at the forefront of popular culture.”