MU professor shines light on polarizing popular culture media


Melissa Click sits in her office at MU’s Department of communication building, Switzler Hall. Photo credit: Guimel Sibingo

By Guimel Sibingo

COLUMBIA – On the first day of Television Criticism class, Melissa Click, an assistant professor of mass media at the University of Missouri, asks her undergraduate students this question: “How many literature classes have you taken?”

Most, if not all of the students raise their hands.

“How many classes on television have you taken?” she asks.

A few hands may go up, but not very many.

“Which do you spend more hours doing, watching TV or reading novels?”

Indeed, it seems that before college, students may not get much exposure to classes on media and its impact.

This is exactly what Click studies. She especially likes to focus on how people relate to pop culture phenomena rejected by the mainstream – those books, movies and artists that people both love and love to hate. Some of her most recent studies examine the effect of Fifty Shades of Grey on women, how Lady Gaga relates to her fans, and male fans of the Twilight book series.

Recognized by her peers as a leading scholar in feminist media and audience studies, Click explores how gender, sexuality, race, and social status play into people’s media choices and the construction of their identity.

She has found that Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, and Lady Gaga have real meaning for their fans. Click seeks to not only understand why these media sensations are popular but also to create an understanding of why people like them, with the hopes of fostering open mindedness.

Early Years

Click was born January 23, 1971 in Harrisonburg Virginia. At the age of 7, her family moved to Winston-Salem North Carolina to take care of their garden store business. From a young age, Click had a fascination with media and television. She recalls having a tape recorder on which she would record the main theme songs of popular TV shows such as Happy Days and Mork and Mindy.

“I never learned to play an instrument or read music,” she said. “but I did love to listen to music a lot.”

In high school, Click developed a passion for fashion, which led her to pursue a retail marketing and fashion merchandising double major in college. Click always thought she would end up in the advertising industry. At the start of her junior year in college, however, her interests began to change.

The Shift

It was the early 1990’s at James Madison University in Virginia. Those were the years of Nirvana, punk rock, CDs, and boundary-pushing movements. Just 2 miles from the university, the Riot Grrl feminist underground punk movement in Washington D.C. was taking place. That world was not lost on Click, who had become a vegetarian and consequently involved in animal rights, which led to her involvement in environmental and feminist-minded groups. She started meeting groups of people who described themselves as “freaks,” had piercings or pink hair. Click began attending feminist punk rock concerts and participating in social justice events. After hearing about classes on gender, she decided to add the women’s studies minor.

During that time she went through what she calls a “consciousness shift” that made it increasingly difficult to attend her business classes. As she learned more and more about gender theory, she began to see gender injustices everywhere. She recalls being one of the few females in her business classes and feeling frustrated with the use of “he” to refer to businesspeople, managers, or CEOs.

“I could remember sitting with my two long braids in my denim overalls, which were not typical business attire, and being like, ‘Do you mean her?’” she said. “I must have been a total pain to some of my professors.”

The shift to feminism was gradual but she does recall being impacted by Dreamworlds, a documentary about violent media images that she had to watch for one of her classes. The documentary graphically compares media portrayals of women to a gang rape scene in The Accused. Click began to realize that she no longer wanted to be a part of creating messages detrimental to women but instead wanted to analyze them.

After completing her masters and Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Click began working as a professor at MU’s Department of Communication. There, she continued her research into popular culture and audiences.

The Research

With a 25% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, Fifty Shades of Grey is far from being considered the most popular film among critics. However, not everyone shares the critics’ disdain. The book series by E.L. James has sold more than 100 million copies and the film grossed more than $85 million at the box office on its opening weekend in February 2015. People wondered, how are these books and movies so successful and at the same time so bad?

Similiarly, the Twilight book and movie series and the artist Lady Gaga have attracted both legions of fans and public ridicule. Click’s research has centered on pop culture marvels such as these and why their audiences are attracted to them. Her work has been informed by theories of gender, sexuality, and identity.

Lady Gaga with her Japanese fans. Photo by Scott Larson / Splash News Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Lady Gaga with her Japanese fans.
Photo by Scott Larson / Splash News Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In a study on Lady Gaga and her fans, Click and two other researchers interviewed 45 self-identified “Little Monsters”, seeking to understand the relationship that the fans had with the singer. They found that Gaga’s positive use of the word “monster” helped them accept and embrace their own differences, differences that isolated them from mainstream culture.

Another recent study analyzes male fans’ relationships with the Twilight book series and masculinity. Based on interviews with male Twilight fans, the researchers found that most of the men had been introduced to the series by women but were ridiculed for their interest in Twilight.

One respondent, a landscaper, said he didn’t understand why his male co-workers made fun of him when he did things that typical men do like play video games or do landscaping work. The researchers explored the question of what it means to be a man.

Click believes mainstream culture ridicules books and artists like these because of their associations with traditional notions of femininity.

I do think we have a bias against things that women like,” she said. “Fifty Shades or Twilight are considered to be stupid, mindless and dangerous messages for women, but nobody questions what messages Batman or Iron Man are doing to young boys and men in the same way that Fifty Shades is to women. The presumption is that women’s messages are harmful, while men’s messages are entertainment and mindless fun.”

Although Click understands that popular culture geared towards women is not devoid of harmful messages, she finds it important to create an understanding of why fans are attracted to these messages.

The Impact

Click’s work has been noticed both inside and outside the media studies world. She’s been cited in a Los Angeles Times article about Fifty Shades of Grey and writes for the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s media and cultural studies blog Antenna and the University of Texas’s online journal of television and media studies, Flow.  She is the Vice-Chair of the International Communication Association Popular Communication Division and was chair of the committee hosting Console-ing Passions conference, a conference on media and feminism, April of last year.

“She’s one of the preeminent feminist audience studies scholars, and more generally a leading light in feminist media studies research,” said Jonathan Gray, professor of media and cultural studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison and a personal friend of Click’s.

Gray recognizes the value of her work, specifically as it relates to feminist media studies.

“Her work is politically alive and important,” he said. “Women’s interactions with popular culture and women’s media culture are so often excused as unworthy of examination in the culture at large, yet Melissa’s work shines a bright light on it.”

It seems that the nature of Click’s work and her talent as a professor have made her a popular advisee and mentor at MU. Click has won several awards for her teaching, two of which were awarded by students (Outstanding Mentor in 2011 by MU’s Association of Communication Graduate Students and Graduate Advisor of the Year in 2013). Click also oversees 20 to 25 communication graduate student teachers.

Cristin Compton, an MU doctoral candidate and graduate teaching assistant, has been working with Click as her research assistant for two and half years.

“The nice thing about Melissa is that no matter what kind of problem you take to her – a question or a concern or even just, you know a good piece of news – she will respond to you,” she said. “She’s made my experience at Mizzou so much better than it could have been.”

Amanda Edgar is one of the graduate teaching assistants that Click oversees. Edgar says that Click has not only been helpful as a mentor but has helped her get opportunities in her career.

“Some of the coolest things have been times when she’s been able to introduce me and the other advisees as well to kind of famous people in the discipline,” she said.

Looking Forward

With more individuals engaging with popular culture in more diverse ways, communication scholars find it increasingly important to study these media texts and their audiences. Gray believes that knowing about culture is paramount to an increased understanding of society.

“Critical/cultural work aims to do that heavy lifting, and thus to provide theories and frames for comprehending how and why popular culture and media matter,” she said. “What they do to construct our world, and what we do with them.”

Click stressed the importance of understanding why audiences choose the media they consume. The fans of these popular culture books, artists, and movies find them to have meaning in their lives, and Click hopes that through her work, others may be able to understand and respect those choices.

“I feel like what I try and do is give voice to people who are publicly misunderstood because of what they are interested in,” she said.

When she is not working, Click likes to spend time with her family. She enjoys knitting, cooking, and gardening and plans to plant some seeds with her children this year. When it comes to the media, Click calls herself an “omnivore” enjoying a little bit everything. She does not like reality television and has been recently been getting into the British TV Show The Fall and the Outlander book series.

Her relationship with media has not changed since she started her research. Now the struggle is finding the time to watch for fun.

“I did worry that studying television would make me not interested in television anymore,” she said. “But that hasn’t happened.”


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