Cultural Studies, TV Studies, & Empathy
Ron Becker
Miami University
I believe the cultural studies project could benefit from a paradigm shift in its approach to
television. Television studies is in the middle of what I would call a post-cultural-studies turn. The
dramatic transformations of our object of study have redirected the attention of many scholars. More
work, for example, is being done on aesthetics and form as well as on production and certain types of
audience analysis (e.g., aca-fandom). Certainly many of these paths emerge out of cultural studies’
models and imperatives and some of the work being done in these areas are centrally motivated by a
desire to engage with the unequal distribution of social power (for me, the heart of the cultural studies
project). Others, however, seem differently invested. If television studies is drifting away from the
cultural studies project (and I would argue it is), what might we do to revive the connection between
the two?
One recommendation: re-imagine the function of TV texts in the cultural studies project and in
doing so revise our role as scholars/teachers and the foundation of our expertise. Approaches to the
politics of TV representation (a central lynch pin in cultural studies models) have remained relatively
stagnant. In many ways, they still reflect the ideological approaches central to the field at its birth in
the 1970s. Despite evolving interest in contexts of production and the conceptualization of reception as
a process of negotiation, a key function of the teacher/scholar has remained the same: to open
readers’/students’ eyes to the unnoticed ideological assumptions in texts by offering sophisticated
readings that marshal representational theories, close textual analysis, and historical perspective.
Because such work is usually invested in a political project (e.g., feminism, critical race theory,
Marxism, queer theory), the process of understanding the ideological implications of representations
are a matter of opening students’ eyes to the politically problematic nature of those representations.
I apologize for falling into the pitfall of making sweeping, unsupported characterizations.
However, I do so in order to identify the most taken-for-granted ways we operate as teacher/scholars
and to historicize the utility of certain kinds of expertise. We work hard to know more about how texts
operate than students and assume that our job is to impart more sophisticated ways of understanding
texts, power, and politics. That approach made sense at a time when television constructed a mythic
mainstream through images and narratives shared by large percentages of the population. But I don’t
believe it is as productive for intervening in a society as profoundly marked by the fragmentation of
cultural consumption as ours. Texts are still ideologically complex and politically invested, of course,
but they don’t function the way they used to sociologically which should lead us to change how we use
them pedagogically. TV texts don’t seem to be well suited any more for the kind of cultural studies
interventions we have traditionally used them for (i.e., to make students understand culture as a site
where systems of power get reproduced and contested with the ultimate goal of producing a more just
social world) because both TV and society have changed.
In response to such changes, I would like to suggest that we shift our role and the basis of our
expertise. What could cultural studies work on TV look like if we saw our function as facilitating
conversations among our students (and ourselves) about social identity, privilege, and power centered
on their and our differing engagements with and feelings about television programming? To many of
us, that may sound like we already do, but I believe we can do that differently—more explicitly and
wholeheartedly. Executing such an approach fully would require different skills (and different modes
of scholarship) than the ones we are socialized in during graduate school; our expertise would not be
based (at least solely) on providing the smart, theoretically sophisticated reading of a text, but rather on
helping students talk to each other about their experiences with media. It might require us to be
sociologists, mediators, or even therapists as much as or more than cultural theorists and textual and
industry analysts. Such an approach might offer benefits better suited to our current context in which
cultural segregation and political polarization seem to be as much of a problem for social progress as
the homogenizing dynamics of network television were in the 1970s.
The approach we’ve followed up to now develops students’ capacity for critical thinking; it is
predicated upon the assumption that demystifying how media texts operate or how the media industries
are structured are practical ways to give students the skills needed to become responsible, liberally
educated citizens. Giving students more information about the dynamics of cultural production and
developing their ability to think critically is vital. But I also believe that there are limits to the benefits
of that approach; just because people know more, doesn’t mean they will do better (to paraphrase and
challenge Maya Angelou). The new approach I suggest here could develop students’ capacity for
empathy. As various academic traditions have long pointed out, empathy is a socio-political
competency needed to translate knowing better into doing better. TV studies could serve as a
tremendously valuable arena where students can develop those abilities; in doing so, Television
Studies could once again become a valuable part of the cultural studies project.