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The Popular Culture Stigma and the Case of Comic Books

The Popular Culture Stigma and the Case of Comic Books
© Photograph by Angélica Vargas

Goffman (1963) in his classic work ‘Stigma’ argued that a stigmatised person’s social identity is discredited by the power of a single attribute, such as being visually impaired or a drug user. He also argued that such individuals might be viewed as deserving of some kind of intervention.

Goffman, however, never addressed stigma in relation to popular culture. Yet the fundamental aspects of stigma that he outlined resonate with past and present ideologies concerning popular cultural forms and the individuals associated with them. Early jazz, for example, was framed as a musician whose audiences fell trancelike into vulgar and wanton behaviour (Ogren, 1989), while the fans of the Grateful Dead were viewed as directionless, drug-addled nomads with no link to reality (Paterline, 2000).

My interest in popular culture and stigma stems from my research on comic books in America. In reading histories, interviews, columns, and other writings in the subculture of comic books, I found the multiple levels of stigma to be quite remarkable.

Comic books have been stigmatised since their introduction in the mid-1930s, and this stigma has affected comic books as well as artists, readers, and fans of comics. I even experienced this stigma in the responses from colleagues when I chose to study comic books, and I found that other comic book scholars in America shared this experience (Pustz, 1999). In my previous work on jazz, stigma also played an important role (Lopes, 2002, 2005). But in once again facing the power of stigma in the world of comic books, I believed it was time to readdress the basic role of stigma in popular culture.

The issue of stigma has appeared in other scholarship on popular art, audiences, and fan cultures. Jensen (2001), for example, points to how fans of popular culture often have their social identities discredited and their behaviours characterised as pathological. Other works on fan culture addressing stigma include Jenkins (1992), Bacon-Smith (1992, 2000), Harrington and Bielby (1995), Pustz (1999), and Hills (2002). Brunsdon (2000) addresses the stigma attached to the soap opera genre, while works by Gamson (1998) and Grindstaff (2002) address the stigma attached to television talk shows. Radway (1984) looks at the efforts of female readers to manage the stigma associated with romance novels.

This scholarship, however, does not clearly distinguish between stigma and low status. The framing of popular culture as enmeshed in a hierarchy of cultural distinctions seems inadequate in delineating the difference between stigma and low status. I believe they are closely related, but differ in distinct ways as social phenomena. Low status is usually a precondition for the stigmatisation of a cultural form. But low status and stigma are not equivalent, even if they might overlap in terms of cultural forms and practitioners. A popular cultural form could have low status but not be stigmatised (e.g., country music) or have low status and be stigmatised (e.g., rap music). And stigma, unlike low status, makes an individual or cultural form problematic. While low status certainly has adverse social effects, stigma leads to the discrediting of an individual or cultural form in a global sense, and thus has far more negative effects and elicits more direct action from the people Goffman (1963) calls “normals.”

It seems important to think through in a more general way how stigma works in popular culture. This article begins with a brief review of essential points in Goffman’s and others’ analyses of stigma that elucidate ways of understanding culture and stigma. The second part presents a general framework for understanding stigma and popular culture, along with a continuum for differentiating between status and stigma. There I focus on my past research on jazz (Lopes, 2002, 2005) and other work in popular culture. The final part applies the general framework on stigma to my more recent research on comic books.

The case study of comic books is based on my research on the 20th-century discourse on comic books. Like my earlier work on the discourse on jazz, my analysis of comic book discourse was divided into two fields based on John Fiske’s (1992) distinction between an “official” cultural economy and a “subcultural” economy. Official culture is represented by the general press and academic journals. I analysed the discourse on comic books in these two official cultural economies from the late 1930s to the present. I used the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, the New York Times Index, JSOTR, and LexisNexis. A comic book subculture that emerged in the 1960s represents the subcultural economy. This subculture eventually included, besides comic books: magazines, books, conventions, websites, and speciality shops (Pustz, 1999). I looked at (1) the fan magazines Comic Artist, Wizard, and Comics Journal; (2) the comic book catalogs Preview and The Standard Catalog of Comic Books; (3) industry websites for distributors and publishers; (4) fan websites; and (5) books published in the subcultural economy of comic books.

The case study of comic books also reveals one aspect rarely addressed in how stigma affects popular culture. This is the negative effect of stigma on the evolution of a cultural form. The most interesting aspect of the stigma experienced in the world of comic books in North America was how the stigmatisation of comic books as subliterate and a children’s medium prevented this art form from evolving into more adult genres similar to those in the field of popular literature. This is how comic books evolved in Europe and Japan (Sabin, 1996). One of the greatest complaints in the subculture of comic books is the difficulty of transforming the comic book beyond the limited domain imposed by the stigma associated with this cultural form.

Goffman emphasised that stigma refers not directly to an attribute but to a “special kind of relationship between attribute and stereotype” (Goffman, 1963:4). He argued that an attribute that stigmatises one type of person can just as easily signal the normalcy of another. He also argued that stigma in certain instances is an articulation of social class distinctions. By using the term stereotype, Goffman emphasised that stigma was a social construction, not a reflection of an individual’s inherent qualities. He confirms this in his discussion of the “moral career” of stigmatised individuals as they go through different stages of understanding their predicament. Link and Phelan (2001) argue that labelling theory best conceptualises this social process — especially since stigma theories and their effects can change over time.

The basic effect of stigma is to discredit individuals, or at least subject them to being discredited. As later clarified by Crocker, Major, and Steele (1998:505), stigmatised individuals have an attribute that “conveys a social identity that is devalued in a particular social context.” To be discredited is to be viewed as lacking or inferior to “normals.” It is to be “reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one” (Goffman, 1963:3). The crucial point is the global nature of such discrediting, which cuts across different social situations and social roles. Goffman also focused on the strategies — stigma management — that individuals adapt to minimise or avoid problematic interaction. Such strategies, for example, involve general control over “signs” indicating the stigma or control over personal information that can lead to being discredited. Individuals with stigmatised attributes, in other words, can attempt to “pass” as normals, which can often lead to victimisation. Goffman also emphasised the more global effects of stigma on self-identity, whether experienced as shame, self-hatred, or self-derogation.

Goffman, however, did not address the way social institutions or moral entrepreneurs make individuals with specific attributes problematic and then demand intervention. This labelling of individuals as deviant can lead to viewing them as a threat to the social order or, at least, to themselves. It is important to emphasise that being stigmatised is more than being discredited in social group interaction; it means being susceptible to interventions as extreme as institutionalisation, imprisonment, drug treatment, or censorship. Discrimination and power are crucial elements in stigma as a social phenomenon (Link and Phelan, 2001).

Goffman also pointed to how stigmatised individuals can reject the stigma theories of normals through contact with “sympathetic others.” More important, Goffman stressed how stigma acts as an agent for group formation as individuals grapple with its effects. A stigma “can function to dispose members to group-formation and relationships” (Goffman, 1963:24). Group-formation can allow for a collective reinterpretation of normals’ stigma theories, and such reinterpretation can help individuals deal with the negative and discriminatory effects of stigma by validating an alternative theory of the significance of their shared attribute. The collective reinterpretation of normals’ stigma theories through group-formation may also lead to the reshaping of normals’ understanding of this attribute as group members become spokespersons who defend their stigmatised group.


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