...But popular culture need not be all-powerful

Young people are far more creative and self-determinative than most parents want to believe. Most parents don't want to admit that they were enormously influential in shaping those children for the first six, seven years or so, and after that they have semi-autonomous creatures on their hands who are now behaving in ways sometimes that they don't understand and don't like.

My guess is that without MTV, without movies, if you suddenly poofed away the entire superstructure of mass cultural communications, most teenagers would similarly be obsessed with sexual relationships with the opposite sex for the most part and would still be excessively concerned with their appearance and their attractiveness.

What is a central obsession of teenagers and young adults? That is sex and and the fear of not being sexually attractive.

The media certainly does not create that.

The media will distort that in certain ways into superficial attractiveness - the flip of the hair, the size of the breasts, the slimness of the thighs - it will exaggerate that.

I think there are there are several limits to the power of the media. They don't control the field. People have access to resources in a complicated culture that includes family values, religious training, schooling of various kinds, ethnic cultures, the arts. A whole range of sources of patterning, sources of value, sources of alternative ideas and views.

Secondly, even to the extent that it does play an important part, it plays it only through the imaginations and the minds and the feelings of individuals who are responsive, not just receptive to those messages. Who are interactive, not just reactive to those messages, in a creative process which is unpredictable. They generate new forms and new ways of explaining the world to themselves or making the world beautiful and pleasurable to themselves. Whether it's from rap or from weird fashions that bubble up from neighborhoods and Seattle grunge.

One result of the saturation of the society with media images is we lose the ability to think slowly and clearly as we used to do with reading. On the other hand it may make us more visually literate and therefore more canny in understanding and discerning of our own culture.

The world of everyday life that they actually inhabit, in which they have warts and they have sloped shoulders and they have slightly thicker thighs than they wish they had, they live in that world, the people they know live in that world, and the relationships they establish are not dominated by, controlled by, the fantasy images that they see on the screen.

Part of that everydayness is simply appreciating people for who they are, finding the light in someone's eye and the swagger in someone's walk to be very attractive and sexually stimulating, even if that person does not look like Kate Moss, or the Guess Jean girl, or that guy doesn't look like Dylan on Beverly Hills 90210 or whoever.

Professor of History and American Studies at Amherst College

To inquire about this project
in video, and printed formats,
send an email to project creator Dan Habib.

All photos ©2010, Dan Habib