5 Things I Took Away from #PopSex15

DCRC’s conference on Sex and Sexualities in Popular Culture nearly broke Twitter last weekend. Ok, not quite, but for a small postgraduate conference we certainly punched above our weight, with 1.7 million impressions, and being among the Top 10 trends in Bristol throughout the day. (That the hashtag was #PopSex15 may have helped.) Here are five things I took away from the day.

1. Plagued by stereotypes

The word “stereotype” was perhaps the most-used word of the day. Whether we were talking about an all-powerful, monogendered (yet female!?) species in the game Mass Effect, intersex characters in circus novels, LGBT advertising, or the intersection of race and sexuality in adult animation, stereotypes abounded. It may be 2015, but popular culture still struggles to create diverse, nuanced representations of gender, sex, and sexualities.

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2. Popular culture is a two-way street

Where mainstream, commercial culture fails, fans and audiences often step in. Where we find stereotypes, we fix them. Where there is a gap in representation, we fill it. And sometimes this fan creativity influences commercial creators in turn. We have seen this with queer interpretations of Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – though we probably have some way to go before we see the first queer Disney princess.

3. The dark side of interactivity

Web 2.0 may have made cultural producers of all of us, and created new sites of culture, but it has also created new threats for (some of) those who participate. With music genres which rely on internet distribution for their popularity – like Brazilian Ostentation Funk – fans can talk back directly to artists through YouTube comments. Yet the comments female artists receive are considerably more negative and rooted in sexism than those sent to male artists. Sexism is also rife on online dating sites – but women there are finding creative responses like the call-out site ByeFelipe in their quest for informal justice.

4. The conversations we open up, the conversations we close down

Yet all is not terrible. Keynote speaker Dr Meg John Barker suggested that rather than looking at things as good or bad, we should be asking what conversations certain types of representation open up or close down. Fifty Shades of Grey can legitimately be criticised for romanticising an abusive relationship – but the conversations that sprung up around that on social media made important contributions towards our understanding of sexual consent. Gender flip memes are a great way of pointing out sexism – but they also can perpetuate the idea of gender as binary. We should not be scared of the complexities, and we should continue to seek new, creative ways of having these conversations.

5. A serious medium

We should not underestimate the potential of media we have historically thought of as innocent or childish, like animation or games. Disney pretty much gets to define what’s natural and normal in our society through their films. Animation has a huge potential reach new audiences in accessible ways. In games – another medium traditionally thought to be for children as Dr Esther MacCallum-Stewart pointed out – representations of love and sex can sometimes be terrible, but in many cases they are nuanced, challenging, and engaging. And if games do want to be taken seriously as a medium, then they are just as open to critique and challenge as other forms of art and culture.

For a more blow-by-blow account of the day, here is a Storify of #PopSex15 tweets.

I would like extend our thanks to DCRC for hosting us, to Dr Esther MacCallum-Stewart and Dr Meg John Barker for their excellent keynotes, and to everyone who presented or attended on the day.

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