Mediated Political Playground: Popular Entertainment Culture and Public Sphere Engagement among Young Adults in a Context of Political Contentiousness

Johnson-Palomaki, Sarah, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Press, Andrea, Sociology, University of Virginia

This dissertation explores the relationship between young people, their popular entertainment media, and playful engagement with politics in the civil/public sphere(s) within the context of a seemingly hostile political environment. Through qualitative focus group and follow-up diary and interview data, organized in friend groups and grounded in their popular culture, this project explores when and under what conditions different popular entertainment media may be a resource for playful political engagement or participation in the public sphere. Further, I explore when these media are alternatively, or additionally, used as a tool for active avoidance within this seemingly hostile political environment.

These questions are first explored via discussions around participants’ entertainment television and popular music, culminating in the conceptualization of a “Goldilocks zone of political play,” with which I theorize the opportunities for and constraints around playful political engagement through popular culture. To explore such political play, I analyze young people’s engagement with celebrity and cancel culture via a typology of celebrity cancelation to illuminate the variable levels of public-ness with which young people play (e.g., counter-/sub-/weak/dominant public or civil spheres). I further theorize the processes of and motivations behind such political play through popular culture in this analysis of celebrity cancel culture. Finally, through an analysis of young people’s interactions with/in online spaces, I theorize the forms such playful engagement with politics may take: cultivation and connection through similarity, and cohabitation and confrontation with difference. Building on participant discussions on memes, I then turn to explore the implications of such play.

Thus, this dissertation theorizes popular entertainment media as a site of political play, explored through data on young people’s media and everyday talk with friends. Ultimately, I theorize such playful engagement with politics, via popular entertainment media and in this contemporary (“hostile”) moment, in terms of competitive games, or what Huizinga (1955) theorizes as the agon. I consider and frame these findings and their implications relative to Mouffe’s alternative to liberalism, “agonistic pluralism,” and the antagonism that threatens such pluralism (1999; 2000; 2005; 2013). Taking this popular play with contentious politics seriously, both agonistic and antagonistic, I illuminate a nuanced, complex environment of avoidance and engagement, silence and deliberation, hostility and pleasure, and creative, active play within the democratic public sphere.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
popular culture, media sociology, political engagement, political avoidance, contentious politics, Goldilocks, political play, cancel culture, memes, politics online, agonism, entertainment television, popular music, pop music, pop culture
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