Mark Bittman’s article, “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?” which originally appeared as a New York Times op-ed piece in 2011 (and was more recently reprinted in the composition textbook Everything’s an Argument), makes a compelling case for replacing fast food with healthier, home-cooked alternatives. Among other evidence, Bittman demonstrates that feeding a family of four at McDonald’s runs to around $28 while you might make “a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk” in your own kitchen for just about half that. On the whole I find myself in sympathy with Mr. Bittman (though I will admit I don’t always make the best choices in my own diet). Really, who could argue with the notion that we as a society would be vastly healthier if we all chose to eat out less or (gasp!) not at all? But while I don’t disagree with Bittman’s central thesis, I have some trouble with a paragraph that appears later in his essay:
Taking the long route to putting food on the table may not be easy, but for almost all Americans it remains a choice, and if you can drive to McDonald’s, you can drive to Safeway. It’s cooking that’s the real challenge. (The real challenge is not “I’m too busy to cook.” In 2010 the average American, regardless of weekly earnings, watched no less than an hour and a half of television per day. The time is there.)
For the sake of time, I’ll pass over the snobbish “regardless of weekly earnings” and focus on the big picture. Simply put, when will we stop thinking of television (or film, or video games, or popular music) as a “time-waster”? The Kardashians? Ok, maybe. Real Housewives? Very probably (though even these shows have their value as sociological artifacts). But Walking Dead? The Blacklist? Game of Thrones? Justified? I say unapologetically, and as someone whose life has been devoted to Dickens and Joyce and Faulkner: these shows rank among the great works in the history of literature. Suppose Bittman’s parenthetical aside had read “In 2010 the average American, regardless of weekly earnings, read a novel for no less than an hour and a half a day.” Instead of nodding our heads sagely and agreeing, “Yes, we all have time to cook good meals if only we would learn to use our time more wisely,” I suspect we might be congratulating ourselves on our intellectual progress as a society.
I could, of course, list out all the arguments for television’s value, or perhaps talk about Shakespeare’s plays or the novel, both of which were initially dismissed by cultural critics as cheap, mindless, time-wasting entertainment. But David Bianculli’s excellent Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously laid out all the important arguments on this score nearly twenty years ago, and so here I’ll simply recommend his study to anyone who might wish to consider these arguments at greater length.
What most bothers me about Bittman’s comment is its seeming innocuousness. This isn’t Allan Bloom or Neil Postman railing against the danger that TV (or any other form of popular entertainment) poses a threat to our very cultural survival. No: we’ve taken their misguided opinions so to heart, allowed them to become so engrained – particularly in our education system (“television will rot your brain” my eighth grade English teacher would intone), that we might very well pass over a passage like this one without thinking twice about it. On the one hand, this attitude does a disservice to the work being produced today in these vital artistic fields. On the other hand, it teaches us to be lazy, to ignore the real depth in the shows we watch and instead merely float along on their surface.
Ironically, while the mainstream views pop culture largely only as a source of entertainment (even while it continues to gobble up that entertainment in ever greater quantities), many corners of academia now acknowledge the artistic merit of pop culture artifacts from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Taylor Swift. It is this academic attention I want to bring to pop culture here. There are plenty of blogs out there (hundreds?) that explore popular culture from every conceivable vantage point, from sites that supply the latest Hollywood gossip to sites devoted to cataloguing every film mistake in the 125 years of cinema history. All noble pursuits. My goal with this blog, though, is to bring an academic lens to popular culture, not because this is the only or even the best lens through which to examine it, but because I believe Breaking Bad and The Talking Heads and The Matrix and Jim Gaffigan’s standup and Family Guy and Psycho and Phil Collins deserve serious attention.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
Don't have the time to listen to our podcast this week? Check out the transcript from each of our podcasts here.