Colleges embrace pop-culture studies of stars like Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé

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Colleges embrace pop-culture studies of stars like Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé

Posted on: May 28th, 2014 by tommyj

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Miley Cyrus has been called 'a useful primary document' in duscussions about sex and power in media.

Attention, students: You may now twerk hard and fall crazy in love in the classroom.

Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé will be icons of academe this summer, with two area colleges offering seminars on the pop princesses.

At Rutgers University, all the single ladies (and other students, really) can put their hands up in “Feminist Perspectives: Politicizing Beyoncé,” a women’s and gender studies course starting Wednesday.

The course covers the growth of Queen Bey’s media empire, with a special emphasis on how she manages her roles as a black icon and sex symbol with motherhood and marriage.

“She’s the most powerful black woman in entertainment and pop culture,” says Kevin Allred, the doctoral student who’s teaching the class. “She’s gotten more confrontational and more explicit when she’s talking about beauty and gender.”

Beyoncé is regarded by academics as a powerful symbol of motherhood and marriage, as well as sex appeal.

Allred sees Beyoncé as perfect fodder for a women’s studies class because she is a modern ideal of feminism. Her commitment anthem, “Single Ladies,” and her collaboration with hubby Jay Z show she’s the rare star who advocates sexual magnetism as well as monogamy, Allred says.

“Her music has always had strong implications for what it means to be a beautiful and strong woman today,” he says.

But Beyoncé is not the only multiplatform star who can teach a thing or two to today’s youth. Starting Tuesday, Skidmore College in upstate New York will offer “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus” to give pupils a crash course in the history of someone the same age they are.

In a career of less than a decade, Miss Miley has already proved herself “a useful primary document” for discussions of sex and power in media, teacher Carolyn Chernoff says.

Cyrus went from squeaky clean Disney star to dirty-minded diva strutting her stuff in every concert. She sparked debates about slut shaming, overt sexuality and the privileges of white stars — as when she borrowed twerking from hip-hop culture and brought it to last year’s Video Music Awards.

“She’s a really interesting case study for how someone can represent sex and gender while maturing in the public eye,” says Chernoff, a visiting assistant professor at Skidmore. “Miley is a work in progress, but you can already see such a complex narrative of how people talk about her unbridled sexuality.”

That kind of analysis is what separates popular publications like Entertainment Weekly from ponderous ones such as American Quarterly, the Journal of the American Studies Association.

“Sociologists have long talked about peeling back the layers to see what’s behind our social phenomena,” says Rik Scarce, chair of Skidmore’s sociology department, who said he had “no hesitation” in approving the Cyrus course.

“Miley Cyrus is a delivery device for themes of American life,” he adds. “When you say, ‘Miley Cyrus? Who cares about her?’ you shut down the very purpose of sociology.”

Of course, it’s not the first time that residents of the Ivory Tower have deigned to study pop culture. In fact, it’s become as widespread on campuses as binge drinking and all-nighters.

Film and television became accepted as worthy of academic study in the 1960s, followed by music when Dartmouth College started teaching Bob Dylan as part of its poetry courses in the 1970s.

But these days, the course load is increasingly likely to include music and other pop culture. Georgetown University decoded Jay Z in a sociology class, the University of South Carolina did the same for Lady Gaga, and New York University brought in Questlove for a Classic Albums course in which he considered the works of the Beastie Boys and Prince in the manner of long-loved works of literature.

Today's graduates may have excelled at math, media and Miley.

But there’s a reason for all this genre bending: The mainstream material gives students an easy way into topics such as identity and social change that they otherwise might gloss over.

“Those classes use popular culture as the Trojan horse to sneak in education on other topics,” says Syracuse University media professor Robert Thompson, who taught “The Love Boat” in the ’80s as an example of how TV viewers love shows that don’t demand their full attention.

“If an academic were to responsibly look at Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé, he or she could scratch the surface of all kinds of really important things with who we are as a culture,” he says.

Students in these classes won’t just be tuning in for long lectures. Allred and Chernoff say they’ll show clips of the scholarly songstresses’ music videos and interviews, while citing less sexy theoretical writings. The classes will center on group discussions that bring it all together.

Beyoncé’s work will be accompanied by texts from black feminist writers, including activist bell hooks and abolitionist author Sojourner Truth. Miley will share the intellectual stage with sociologists like Laura Grindstaff and Joshua Gamson. (Who? Exactly!)

So pop scholars, check on it — these will be a true wrecking ball of critical theory.

“This will be an intensive experience,” Chernoff says. “It’s just a different way of teaching sociology.”

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