Book Reviews

Susan Smulyan. Popular Ideologies: Mass Culture at Mid-Century

Susan Smulyan. Popular Ideologies: Mass Culture at Mid-Century. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Pp. 202. ISBN: 0-8122-4020-0.

In 1941 the publisher Henry Luce wrote an editorial in one of his magazines. His Life editorial, boldly titled The American Century, expressed his desire to see the United States of America more actively engaged in international affairs. At the time of his article’s publication, the US had not yet joined the Second World War which had started in 1939; so for Luce, the war represented an opportunity for the US to catapult itself into world events of a great magnitude. In short, he argued against popular opinion at the time, suggesting that national interests were at stake and could be negatively impacted by a continued policy of non-intervention. Luce forcefully made the case that if the US was to assume a place on the world stage, in order to promote its values, its economic system, and its political ideology, it had to join the war that was in progress. The US, Luce asserted, must “exert upon the world the full impact of our influence.” Taking it further, he audaciously declared that “the twentieth century should be the American century.” While Luce primarily focused on matters of politics and economics, he also advocated the spread of the ‘American way of life,’ desirous to see non-Americans think, behave, and live more like Americans. In some respects, Luce was able to forsee the potential and feasibility in the projection of American cultural influence into the world following the ultimate termination of hostilities of the Second World War.

This discussion of Luce’s ‘American Century’ is connected in some respects to Susan Smulyan’s fascinating study of American popular culture. If Luce was talking about the need to spread American values and culture, Smulyan tells us about how it was actually achieved. As indicated in the title of her book, Smulyan analyzes the nature of American culture during the 1950s. She identifies this period as critical in terms of how American popular culture assumed a character and quality in which it was consistent with a commodified mass culture. Beginning from the premise that culture is not void of ideology, Smulyan sets out to explore the significance of culture in relation to issues of race, class, gender, nationhood, and consumption. Her integration of these discourses with the culture industry’s mass production processes of culture, forms a delicately woven narrative. Each chapter is a case study illustrating the transformation of popular culture into mass culture and how that dynamic “played a role in class formation as the middle class struggled to delineate itself as consuming, white, gendered, and American in a particular way.”

Following an introductory section in which the author discusses the parameters of the book along with a helpful exegesis of her deployment of cultural terms and explanatory concepts, the first chapter explores the terrains of class and race. Smulyan’s analysis focuses on a popular form of entertainment during the first half of the twentieth century: amateur minstrel shows. Such performances were supported by numerous ‘how to books’ and instruction manuals making the production of such shows relatively easy. As Smulyan points out there was something else behind the curtain of this apparent wholesome family and community leisure activity. Amateur minstrels, the author establishes, was an important ideological site for the construction and reinforcing of views on race and class. Specifically, white middle class mentalities were shaped by such cultural practices that upheld racial stereotypes and promoted misleading views about class in which the politics of nationalism was employed to represent the middle class “as congruent with the nation.”

In the book’s succeeding chapter, Smulyan gives a fascinating account of nylon stockings. From its invention in the late 1920s by the DuPont Company and its entry and abrupt disappearance in the 1940s, to its reintroduction into American society later that decade, the author maps the ideological meanings of this cultural artifact as it related to gender, race, nation, and capitalist consumption. For example, particular attributes of nylon stockings such as elasticity, luster, and strength were emphasized in its marketing. But also, DuPont marketed the product “as an anti-Japanese commodity;” that is, nylon as a substitute for Japanese silk, taking advantage of the growing tension and animosity between the US and Japan prior to America’s entry into the Second World War. In addition, DuPont carefully promoted the mystifying and erotic qualities of stockings and women’s legs. Smulyan’s insightful semiotic readings center around the following: nylon stockings as imbued with sexual and gender-based identification, the female body as an object for display under the male gaze, and the curious opposition or contradiction “between women’s legs as both covered and uncovered.” Finally, the author also draws attention to the nylon-consumption nexus; specifically the manner in which consumer demands impacted on corporate policy, and in turn, how DuPont’s marketing-advertising strategies centered around a very specific mode of representing female consumers - a depiction that was not necessarily flattering.

The author’s next case study focuses on the federal government’s use of Hollywood films in postwar Japan. Following the US defeat and occupation of Japan, the American military sought to instruct, reorient and democratize the Japanese. Part of its objectives also included making the Japanese future consumers of American products; markets for American goods both at home and abroad were deemed essential for the postwar economy of the US. Therefore, the postwar Japanese context served as an important ‘testing ground’ for exporting aspects of America’s cultural values to foreign cultures. Working in unison with this process was the expedient of promoting “consumerism as a way of life,” by picturing “American products and films as the epitome of the commodification of entertainment.” Equally important, Smulyan reminds the reader, is to acknowledge how the medium of film served the purposes of spreading American propaganda, a classic example of ideology masked as entertainment.

Writing about twentieth century mass culture would be incomplete if it did not include coverage of some aspect of advertising, one of the key components of America’s cultural landscape. The book’s approach to advertising is interesting in that it considers novels and films that were set in advertising agencies and which were written by those who were part of the advertising industry. The content of those novels Smulyan deals with are, curiously enough, critical of mass culture, consumerism, the world of advertising, and apprehensive about mass culture’s future implications. This sort of depiction is used by the author to confirm the arrival of mass culture and its growing pervasiveness in American culture. The self-criticism of advertising insiders exemplifies how mass culture “was able to incorporate all the criticisms into new and improved cultural forms.” Mass culture’s ability to be impervious to serious, sustained criticism reveals its hegemonic qualities and emergent institutionalization within US society.

Perhaps even Henry Luce could not have ever imagined the ever growing reach and permeating capabilities that American mass culture had begun to exude midway through the twentieth century. In some respects, one might argue, the ‘American Century’ had indeed arrived. Smulyan’s study of the 1950s successfully manages to give readers a concrete understanding of a key historical moment in American cultural history when foundational changes were taking shape which impacted tremendously on audience input and provided a foothold for corporate power interests allied with capitalist production. Equally impressive is her ability to isolate the ideological bearings of cultural production that were becoming more entrenched as popular culture became more identifiable as a mass-consumer oriented culture. Some readers, however, might find problematic her methodology and selection of texts for her case studies. By this, I am referring to the nomenclature for cultural forms that she applies in her analyses under the very broad rubric of popular culture. While the particular variety of topics chosen may at first qualify as popular culture texts, some might prefer to categorize them as political culture and propaganda. Or, other texts might be more properly identified as corporate culture; another as consumer culture, and so on. The nomenclature is critical because each one of these domains of culture require specific terminologies and methodological approaches. Despite this, I believe Smulyan’s rigorous unraveling and decoding of the ideological nature of American popular culture makes a vital contribution to our understanding of the trajectory of America’s global cultural influence. While many volumes have been written on well-known topics and popular icons of the period, Smulyan’s compelling treatment moves beyond Elvis, Monroe, and Rock n’ Roll. Her mere selection of such a diverse field of ideologically laced texts exposes the manifold influences present in the culture-ideology nexus. From amateur minstrel shows and nylon stockings to Hollywood films and ad novels, Smulyan carefully navigates the reader through the intricate web of contemporary American cultural history. Her glimpse into the early twenty-first century, at the book’s conclusion, closes with a hint of optimism. Despite the contemporary condition of mass media proliferation, there are examples of ‘popular’ challenges to this regime by college students who seek an escape from mass commodified culture by organizing campus cultural shows and events, and set about producing culture themselves. In concluding, Susan Smulyan’s scholarly analysis is highly readable and thoroughly engaging. Popular Ideologies adds another dimension to US contemporary cultural history and to the mapping of the American cultural experience.

Joseph Michael Gratale
The American College of Thessaloniki