The new class “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus” at Skidmore College has garnered a lot of attention and the sociologist behind the course explains why it is needed:
With all the very real problems we’re facing as a nation, right — violence against women and children in communities of color, the collapse of the public education system, ongoing poverty and wealth stratification — it’s a convenient distraction to say that a barely post-teen girl or woman is a moral apocalypse. So on one hand, it’s a convenient distraction.
On the other hand, I think that the things that get people so incensed about Miley are the same reasons that I’m trying to teach this course — to help people deconstruct and better understand media, systems of representation, and ideas of power and privilege in the contemporary U.S…
All the best, most inflammatory stuff — all of the pearl-clutching about “Oh, the liberal arts are a cesspool; oh the social sciences are a cesspool! Can you believe that someone would do something so silly!” — is more grist for the mill. It’s more data about why we need to rigorously study media and representation. If you look at the flyer for my class that got tweeted, and if you look at the content of that, this is, you know, serious sociology. This is rigorous stuff, looking at understanding the world. So in some senses, all of the hubbub in the blogosphere sort of proves the need for a class like this…
I mean, officially, anything that lets me remind people why sociology as a discipline is a rigorous and relevant, why this is useful, why what happens in a liberal arts school is helpful to society? That’s great. I can talk about that all the live-long day.
This is not new criticism – courses about Jay-Z and other parts of popular culture draw similar attention – but it misses the point. Sociologists study social behavior and interaction so theoretically anything is fair game for sociological instruction. Classes can work even better when using current examples, like the attention Miley Cyrus gets for her actions, to illustrate important sociological points. In this case, it sounds like the course will look at how the media presents celebrities and women, to think about how all that media (roughly 11 hours a day for American adults) affect our viewpoints of the world and reflect power dynamics between different groups. The purpose of a sociology course isn’t to psychoanalyze Miley Cyrus or to judge the morality of her actions but rather to think through what she represents and what it reveals about American society.
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