Popular Culture and Calvin & Hobbes
by disillusioned
(Everything Else, 7746 views) - 12/9/03
(recorded 12/9/03 @ 5:17:14 AM)
The following was completed in just over an hour this morning for my MCO 240 class, Media Issues in American Pop Culture. The hardest part was locating the proper strips on Amazon.com, in lieu of scanning. I hope you'll read through this and take to heart some of the points brought up. Sometimes, Calvin really knows what he's talking about...

Popular Culture and Calvin & Hobbes: An examination of the implications of manipulated popular culture as seen through the eyes of a fictional six-year-old


In today's society, pop culture has an irrevocable affect on media. The opposite is also true. As pointed out in the recently screened PBS special, this 'feedback loop' is what creates a forced evolution (or 'de-evolution, as some may consider it) in our culture.

Through his comic Calvin & Hobbes, Bill Watterson uses the medium of the comic strip to explore society's development and the affect pop culture has had on the growth and mental/consumerist development of a child in present times. Calvin exemplifies the 'feedback loop' and demonstrates a certain and fully visible willful ignorance that he is indeed being pandered to, that he is being manipulated simply for the monetary gain of a corporate machine. He recognizes that he is a 'victim', and instead of being repulsed or nonplussed, he instead embraces the concept.

In various instances, Calvin attacks (albeit indirectly) various issues related directly to media, culture, and society as a whole. He acts as a subtle voice of sarcasm for the author, and helps shine some light on the ludicrousness that embodies so much of our buy-everything, want-more culture.

What might be viewed as the most disturbing element by some isn't simply Calvin's aversion towards resisting the ploys of the advertisers and media 'controllers', but instead the way he so readily latches on, so quickly offers his character to be molded by those in control- and oftentimes pays for the 'privilege'. The disturbing part of this ideal comes with how closely it mirrors the children and youth of today- the market segment with the largest amount of disposable income have come so willingly to spend their money to fit the mold set out by those selling the image itself, it's more of the feedback loop.

Calvin also specifically mentions the issue of the culture of celebrity and how obsessed we are with these fictional realms and those who inhabit them. In one strip(1), he says: 'Ever notice how many conversations revolve around TV shows and movies? Our common references are events that never happened and people we'll never meet! We know more about celebrities and fictional characters than we know about our neighbors!' to which Hobbes replies 'That must be why new houses aren't built with big front porches anymore.' Calvin then reveals something of a conflict with his closing: 'I can't believe Dad won't let me have a TV in my own room.' As if to say that, while Calvin initially appears disgusted and outraged at this, our culture of celebrity, he's as willing as anyone to jump on the bandwagon, and chagrined to learn he's being 'left behind' in that respect.

Hegemony and homogeny also play a specific role in Calvin's mind and in a great deal of his rants. In another strip(2), he complains to his father 'We've got to get cable TV, Dad.' His father's reply is a simple 'No, we don't.' Calvin further argues his point, saying 'But people across the country are watching different TV shows than we are! If we don't all watch the same TV, what will keep our culture homogenous? We can't rely on monolithic networks to provide uniform national blandness anymore!' His dad retorts with 'There's still McDonald's and Wal-Mart'. Calvin closes the strip with a stark 'But they don't come into our homes!'

Within those four panels is an examination of our culture- our willingness to be spoon-fed our identities, to learn what's 'cool', what's 'popular' and what's 'in' by the very corporations selling those 'solutions' to us. Calvin exaggerates the common tendency for all of us to fall for the allure of being culturally homogenous, however repugnant the idea may initially sound. Despite the initial holding back we may have, embracing for a moment our uniqueness, we eventually sacrifice our originality and personality for acceptance and a modicum of self-confidence. We enhance our self-image by becoming what everyone wants us to become.

Strangely, because of so many people rushing towards the same goal, (that is, global acceptance and the like) an entire sub-culture has sprung up in the form of 'non-conformity'. Currently extremely popular in junior and senior high schools, teenagers are finding what they believe to be unique and original images in the form of non-traditional dress and expressions of themselves. Corporations, one step ahead of these 'non-conformists', have begun mass-producing the very elements of their attempts to escape from the bonds of being like everybody else. In essence, this forces them to conform along with their fellow non-conformists.

In another strip(3), Calvin presents his show & tell:
'Today for show & tell, I've brought a tiny marvel of nature: a single snowflake.' (Calvin is holding in front of him a small box)
'I think we might all learn a lesson from how this utterly unique and exquisite crystal' 'turns into an ordinary, boring molecule of water, just like every other one, when you bring it into the classroom. And now, while the analogy sinks in, I'll be leaving you drips and going outside.'

This is a particularly powerful representation of the drive deep within us to be different, at least in some small way, from everyone else. Calvin struggles with school, and decides to metaphorically represent himself as a snowflake- unique until it is melted with the others, becoming uniform and bland. His desire to 'leave you drips' and go outside- to 'freeze', such as it would be, is charged with the belief that homogeny and massification isn't good enough.

Though as to contradict himself, which in and of itself may be some form of arbitrary social commentary, Calvin later(4) expresses his desire to be a 'walking advertisement'- to appreciate the 'psychological edge of pretending you're sponsored'. Oftentimes the polar opposite of a typical 'non-conformist's' style and purchasing mindset, an equally large subset has formed which excels in purchasing products adorned with corporate logos. Products sometimes even go as far as to claim 'ownership' of the person wearing said products, although that may be a bit of a stretch.

Calvin eventually(5) shows a frightening willingness to sacrifice himself to his television. 'Oh greatest of the mass media, thank you for elevating emotion, reducing thought, and stifling imagination. Thank you for the artificiality of quick solutions and the insidious manipulation of human desires for commercial purposes. This bowl of lukewarm tapioca represents my brain. I offer it in humble sacrifice. Bestow thy flickering light forever.' This monologue accurately characterizes the attitudes and mindsets of present day youth and children, reaching out to accept whatever their televisions will feed them. Children are now being raised nearly exclusively through the television, manipulated for commercial gain.

Calvin mentions stifling imagination- why think, when people will tell you what they're thinking and show it in a flashy manner? He reduces the function of the television to something designed to forward media, destroy free will, and alter people at their basest levels: their dispositions, opinions, theories, attitudes and the like, and maybe rightly so.

This obsession which has befell the nation for the past few decades has only itself degraded in quality and in standards to the point where it is almost always pandering to the lowest denominator- no challenges to stupidity are made, for those that are quickly fail in the face of a stupid world. We're no longer encouraged to think critically, form our own opinions or beliefs, or challenge our own perceptions of reality and society. Instead, we're expected to simply accept what's 'popular', or at the very least, what we're told is popular. Indeed, our popular culture has become aimless and driven by greed and disproportionate levels of manipulated demand. We'll see what Calvin thinks of this when he grows up.


All pieces below are comic strips from various Calvin & Hobbes book collections. Those numbered were used in the text above and should be read accordingly. Others were used simply for additional context.

1:

2:

3:

4:

5:

Etc:

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Notes:
Nice job...I can't believe you wrote this in about an hour.

I really enjoyed what you said about "non-comformists." They have themselves so convinced of their uniqueness. Someday their eyes will open and they'll feel like idiots (well at least some of them).

The comic strips were great! Calvin & Hobbes rocks! I don't think I've ever really stopped to realize the depth of the content contained within them...Bill Watterson is quite amazing!

   [resplendence (J) 12/12/03 6:51 AM]



You linked to this insightful piece in a comment you made to my journal entry and suggested I should read this musing of yours in relating context.
I have and I am happy I did so. I never read much clavin and hobbes (it's not nearly as good in German), and thus I never realised how good it actually is. Your comments on the comics and the conclusions drawn are absolutely accurate.

As the previous commentator mentioned, your "non-conformist" observation is very true. I think an excellent example of such "I wanna be different than the rest" is for one the Rap-scene and also the (at least here in europe, dunno how it plays out in the States) 'Bob Marley/joint smoking" fraction.

In my surroundings it's very cool to belong to the latter, to be against the 'rest' and to 'keep it real'...
While I know a few people that actually do have the mindset that is associated with the movement, the majority does not. They appear to be non-consumers, but once they come home and are alone, they change. They go out and buy that newest graphics card or the best speaker system. Hippocracy seems to be abundant in these non-conformist circles, which of course ridicules the movement and thus also the people.
Non-conformism (which probably isn't even a word) does not come from how you dress or what you say, but how you think and what you think. 'Think where no man has ever thought before' and then you are truly different, all the rest is just different shades of gray.

   [Grinner (J) 1/10/04 8:22 AM]



Thanks for the comments- I especially liked the last point you made... It's very much your mental attitude that sets you apart, and much less the things you own or the clothes you wear. Something everybody seems to forget, far too often...

   [disillusioned (J :: M) 1/10/04 2:22 PM]



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