Ethics and Morality in Pop Culture

Social and digital media are ubiquitous in pop culture.
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“Pop culture,” defined in the Oxford Dictionary as commercial culture based on popular taste, often dramatizes themes that people encounter in everyday life. Pop culture consumption is driven by popular taste and what people enjoy for entertainment or other purposes. Since it usually focuses on common and newsworthy topics, pop culture is also linked with ethics and morality, either as a source of influence or an object of judgment.

Pop culture can reflect cultural mores and suggests to society which behavior is good and moral, or immoral and unethical. In his book "Rhetorical Dimensions of Popular Culture," Barry Brummett explained that we should look at pop culture as a source for constructing meaning of common social themes and public perception of them.

1 Controversy and Popular Culture

Controversial ethical and moral issues can be dramatized in films and television programs as a way to explore the sides of a debate and present a narrative that plays out possible outcomes in real life. Such issues as abortion, gun rights, religion, traditional gender roles, capital punishment, war, homosexual relationships and discrimination have been employed as serious themes in American cinema and television for generations. Topics that are sensitive or taboo play prominently in performance arts and in mainstream culture, and are simultaneously compelling and repellent to people.

2 Social Influence

Other subjects still considered morally significant or repugnant to some in society have at the same time become less taboo over the decades and more widespread in pop culture. These topics include casual sex, sexually suggestive behavior, violence, adultery, underage drinking and drug use. Their presence in mainstream culture is both superficial and pervasive in television, films and videos, sometimes with harmful consequences for young viewers, according to such organizations as the American Academy of Pediatrics..

Often, parents are the first to raise concern about perceived negative trends in pop culture. Violence in media is an example of a common theme that is both morally questionable and pervasive. Studies such as those implemented by the AAP have analyzed a possible link between violence in pop culture and social behavior. While educators, psychologists and other scholars are concerned about the influence of violent video games on children, sales of such games remain strong.

3 Pop Culture’s Reflection of Morality and Ethics

Not all ethical and moral issues are controversial, but scholars have analyzed whether pop culture accurately reflects moral and ethical issues. For example, in the genre of reality television, the lines between reality and fictional entertainment can blur and confuse viewers. In "Psychology Today," Jim Taylor, Ph.D., wrote that “Reality TV promotes the worst values and qualities in people, and disguises them all as entertainment.” On the other hand, such discussions can obscure the positive elements that people gain when consuming pop culture.

4 The Positive Sides of Pop Culture

In his 1991 essay, “The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent: Defending Popular Culture from the Populists,” Simon Frith stated that moral judgments of pop culture contribute to an analysis that ignores its aesthetic appeal and dimensions. He wrote that aesthetic appeal is equally significant in pop culture consumption.

Since pop culture is consumption-driven, the public chooses what entertainment to consume. As a result, pop culture can also have a positive, unifying effect on its consumers with such televised events such as the Super Bowl, entertainment awards, compelling dramas or exploration of a literary masterpiece.

Alison Lake has been a journalist and editor since 2001, working with numerous newspapers and magazines. She has served on the world news desk of the "Washington Post" and contributed to The Atlantic, Foreign Policy Online, Al Jazeera English and GlobalPost.