Popular Culture and the Pedagogies of Resilience

This blog post has been written by Associate Professor Rob Cover from the University of Western Australia.

If resilience is to be understood as a process facilitated by subjects in the context of their interactions with environments, institutions, families, schools and workplaces (Unger 2012: 1), then how the ‘idea’ of resilience as something desirable for liveability is socially understood and communication is an important question.

Popular media culture has a long history of being dismissed in scholarly work—sometimes due to a residual high art versus popular culture dichotomy that is deployed socially to determine the moral value of a set of texts or activities (Storey 2003); sometimes because they are dismissed as being merely escapist or distasteful sedentary activities; sometimes because they do not fall into the taste spectrum of researchers, which is often based on performances of class (Bourdieu 1979). At other times this is the result of disciplinary discriminations which frown upon work which favours examining ‘low brow’ texts in favour of policy documents and service provision protocols. However, such texts play a powerful role in the everyday lives of those who, among others, are subject to such policies and service provision; media texts are thus influential in how they respond to and understand policy, service provision, healthcare, social justice, belonging and wellbeing. Making sense of both (1) the ways in which media, film, television, games and other activities communicate, frame and/or foreclose on concepts of resilience, alongside (2) the ways in which people interpret representations of resilience within those texts, is thus a worthwhile aspect to add to our understanding of the relationship between resilience, wellbeing and social justice in a world marked by the differential distribution of precarity.

Popular media culture can be a powerful source of information or a resource on how to interact with one’s environment in ways which help people to manage their own socially-derived vulnerabilities, precarities and adversities. Popular entertainment, film, television, digital interactions and interactive digital games can be especially meaningful for younger people in particular (Ashcraft 2003: 38); bearing in mind that young people are often the target group of service provision enhanced by programs that seek to foster self-reliance. Popular media—whether television, film or magazines—is not merely one-way dissemination nor something which is necessarily only casually viewed, no matter how simplistic, repetitive or banal its narratives, themes and expositions might sometimes be. Rather, popular culture is actively and interactively interpreted by audiences and subjects to create new meanings that have relevance for everyday lives and those include how one navigates liveability in ways that are more-or-less resilient by influencing both the non-voluntarist and agential decisions deployed to access services and/or to engage with other subjects in our communities in ethically non-violent ways. In other words, popular culture provides a site of learning how to be particular kinds of people who create and participate in particular kinds of social relations.

Moving beyond the dominant psychological approach that understands resilience as a personal characteristic or trait and towards social justice perspectives that critically engage with the idea of resilience as a process, it is important therefore to make sense of the role of pedagogies around how the concept of resilience (its meanings and values) and the mechanics of its processes (recognising resilient-promoting social factors, ecologies, institutions and supports that help one adapt to changed circumstances and manage instances of adversity).

Popular culture is pedagogical. As Henry Giroux (2004: 62) described it: “Culture now plays a central role in producing narratives, metaphors and images that exercise a powerful pedagogical force over how people think of themselves and their relationship to others.” Young people engage with popular culture in interactive ways that allow these texts to be deliberately utilised in ‘bettering’ oneself (Riess 2004), which can include increasing one’s capabilities in addressing adversities in creative and sometimes non-normative ways. Important here is understanding that there is a significant difference between what young people are actively taught (in education, in training, in service provision and counselling for self-reliance) and what young people desire to learn (forms of learning, sites and situations of meaning, interest, identity) (Clarke 2003). The potentialities for popular media to serve pedagogies of resilience may, therefore, have less to do with the extent to which it represents stories of resilience and more to do with how texts which invoke narratives of success, failure, relationality and self-reliance invoke specific readings understandable from a resilience perspective. What warrants investigation, then, is how young people in particular might be positioned to develop readings nuanced enough to gain value from popular media.

Arguably, there is a sentimentalisation of narratives of resilience in popular media. Lauren Berlant (2008) and Janice Radway (2012) have suggested that much of the fiction, melodrama, stage and screen work from the second half of the Nineteenth Century to the present early Twenty-first is constituted by repetition of the ‘sentimental’ as a genre that presents as desirable a human reliance on felt emotional responses that produce certain kinds of attachments (nationalistic, familial, non-normative, etc.); such sentimentalism is largely “responsible for mass culture’s ability to gather those solicited by its dreams and promises into a mediated yet ‘intimate public.” (Radway 2012: 339). In one respect, an attachment to narratives of the resilient in the outputs of contemporary culture industries can be understood to be produced through a sentimentalist engagement with stories of success and failure, whereby these are pitted as lifecycle outcomes in terms of the ability of a subject to ‘bounce back’ from instances of adversity, setbacks and challenges.

In thinking about the conceptualisation of resilience in popular culture, one can make the argument that not only does a sentimentalisation of narratives of resilience mark the production of texts, but the other side of the creative and cultural industries’ process as well: the audience desire to see and engage in such texts. That is, there is an identifiable broad audience ‘taste’ for stories of resilience and resilient characters and a pleasure derived in viewing a character on film or television overcoming obstacles to achieve a set of goals (which is not necessarily to suggest that these are done in ways which conform to social justice and ethical relations—for example, the Oceans films that positively portray criminal activity, or Absolutely Fabulous that sees two broadly unlikeable people hurt others and still come up on top). At the same time, there is an audience position in which pleasure is derived from engaging in texts about characters who lack resilience, in that they are unable to deal with and address adversity and adverse social conditions well.

An exemplary popular-cultural site in which we can bear witness to the operations of resilience narratives is the romantic comedy. The filmic convention of the romantic comedy genre situates a problem which occurs just before the middle, and a return to some sort of stability is necessary at the end, despite what might be learned-on-the-way (Neale & Krutnik 1990:141-2); typically this is one or more challenges that disrupt two people from getting together: the appearance of an ex-lover, an adversarial parent-in-law, a misunderstanding. How one responds to that challenge determines the outcome: if the character bounces back from the challenge with resilience (typically in these cliché narratives, enhanced by a set of personal realisations that emerge via the advice from a friend or ‘wise’ figure), then the subject can reach closure within the narrative arc of the text. Conversely, the ‘bad’ character is the one who fails to make those personal realisations, which might include a realisation of one’s own vulnerability, and thus fails to understand or articulate resilience. Often, and problematically, this is deemed to be an inherent character flaw, re-invoking the more narrow psychological and pedestrian understandings of resilience. At other times, such a character is depicted as lacking resilience not due to an individual ‘lack’, nor to the inaccessibility of resources, but due to their unlikeability—the character lacks genuine ties of friendship, family and peer networks; usually such a character ‘falls on their face’ (either figuratively or literally) in the closure of the film, symbolising the inability to bounce back from their own adverse conditions.

For those old enough to remember the spate of John Hughes’ teen romantic comedies in the 1980s (many starring Molly Ringwald as the character who learns resilience), this narrative framework of resilience is quickly recognisable—all of that genre of films are texts about resilience. For example, the Hughes’-scripted film Pretty in Pink (1986) focuses on the learning curve of working-class high school senior Andie (Molly Ringwald), raised in a single-parent household with an out-of-work father and living on the ‘wrong side of town’. She is romantically interested in wealthy Blane (Andrew McCarthy) but lacks the confidence, social support and financial resources to pursue the cross-class relationship. This is the stumbling block central to the romantic comedy genre. Through encouragement from an unexpected source, Andie is able to develop the confidence to attend her high school prom alone, and ends the films having achieved personal and romantic goals as a result of her resilience to continue their pursuit despite persistent setbacks. A mundane story, of course.

Problematically, the film ‘levels’ the inequitable distribution of resources, resilience and wellbeing. Interpreted from the angle of the male lead, the resilience process is central to Blane’s development in which his stumbling block is the need to overcome the peer social pressure that results in his being mocked for his interest in a young woman of a different class. This is despite his substantial wealth and his capacity to project a sense of futural liveability post-school Dealing with the (literal) adversity, resilience is required to ‘cope’ with the substantial disruption to his social network this romance causes. In contrast, his best friend Steff McKee (James Spader) operates as the counter-resilience figure—bullying, overbearing, misogynistic, he too must cope with the challenge to his social circle that Blane and Andie’s romance invokes. However, he fails not due to a lack of resources but to the weakness of his social ties.

While this is just one, brief reading of a now-dated film from the genre of teen-oriented romantic comedy, it provides an exemplary account that allows us to see three aspects of the social production of resilience concepts:

1. While dominant accounts locate resilience in the ‘inner’ of identity, the conventions of the genre contrast this with accounts that incorporate the significance of sociality, social networks and strength of peer ties as the source for resilience. Much like the social-ecology approach, this depiction accounts for the extent to which subjects recognise these resources and supports in order to produce resilience. More importantly, this representation permits reading resilience produced not only in the connections between the individual and the social, but understands that individual subjects of resilience are constituted dynamically in relation to their social worlds, performing resilience as an aspect of subjectivity.

2. The capacity for resilience in such films is distributed without regard for class, socio-economic background or familial arrangements, problematically articulating the institutional environment of the school as a classless space separate from the ‘real world’. The North American cultural ‘anyone from anywhere can make it’ is enhanced (marginally) by the notion that anyone can make as long as they can learn resilience. While that resilience is produced through social networks, it is simultaneously understood as performed through individually ‘standing alone’.

3. The role of such films is not merely to entertain teen audiences but to disseminate a pedagogical account of resilience. Characters are arrayed as those with whom one can identify (if racially white, able-bodied and relatively straight, that is), and the identification is produced in the context of the acquisition of codes of behaviour and relationality that make possible particular modes of being and relating—we are actively invited to make self-comparisons along a normative scale of the ‘capability’ for resilience in terms of the range of characters presented through popular culture depictions.
There are many other media genres, too, which can be read as being accounts of resilience or ‘how to do’ resilience, including the amateur talent reality television shows such as X Factor and American Idol, all of which can be understood as being not only about the quality of performance but—given the amount of screen-time of background, training, interviews (etc.), that focus on the participant’s ability to cope (with pressure, with performance anxieties, with family, with competitiveness). Pointing to the ways in which contemporary creative industries have incorporated resilience as the ‘grand narrative’ of western society in ways which are sometimes-complex and sometimes-problematic does not necessarily preclude resilience as being of value. Rather, the question at stake is how to ensure stories of resilience do not foreclose on social justice and the production of ethical ways of being. And that will involve new, deeper, more engaged and more-nuanced pedagogies of popular culture.



Ashcraft, Catherine (2003) ‘Adolescent Ambiguities in American Pie: Popular Culture as a Resource for Sex Education’, Youth & Society 35(1): 37-70.

Berlant, Lauren (2008). The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1979). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Clarke, Kyra (2013). ‘Pedagogical Moments: Affective Sexual Literacies in Film.’ 13(3): 263-275.

Neale, Steve & Krutnik, Frank (1990). Popular film and television comedy. London & New York: Routledge.

Radway, Janice A. (2012). ‘Cultivating a Desire to Become “Not-Something”: Lauren Berlant, the Idioms of the Ordinary, and the Kinetic Temporality of the “Nearly Utopian”.’ Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 9(4): 337-345.

Riess, Jana (2004). What Would Buffy Do? The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Storey, John (2003). Inventing Popular Culture: From Folklore to Globalization. Oxford: Blackwell.

Unger, Michael (ed.) (2012). The Social Ecology of Resilience: A Handbook of Theory and Practice. New York: Springer.