When Fiction is Reality: Critical Thinking and Popular Culture

Sheryl C. Stanley****
University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work

(Used with Permission of the Author)



Before the late 1950s and 1960s, ordinary and critical usage of the word “culture” was reserved for the classics, a body of great works of art, music, or literature, and the “cultured” were the elite who enjoyed these offerings. The emergence of cultural studies over the last thirty years, with its synthesis of knowledge from diverse academic disciplines, including history, literature, philosophy, and sociology, led to a new understanding of the word “culture” as the “activities and beliefs which define a social group’s particular way of life,” and opened up the possibility of taking the study of popular culture seriously (Willis, 1995, p. 175-176).

Essential information about life and how the world works comes from every source of popular culture in a continuous stream. The messages can be positive and life affirming, on one level sensitizing society to the feelings and life condition of others, and on another level validating the feelings and life choices of the individual. Darker messages come from popular culture as well, with the violence and stereotyping common in some of the most successful movies, detective novels, pornography and even comic books. Whether fact or fiction, truth or distortion, the data continue to flow.

The challenge for social workers is to use popular culture as a tool to carry out our primary mission: to promote social and economic justice. We can use it on a societal level to enhance sensitivity to the needs and strengths of groups marginalized through race, gender or other means, and on a case level to expand the understanding of reality and of what can be made real. To do this, we must use and teach critical thinking-in part by comparing popular culture, reported fact, classical fiction, history, and cumulative wisdom from other disciplines. The more schools of thought that view a truth in the same way, the more likely it is that this is a truth to be depended upon, the consensus conferring a kind of universality.

In Yearning (1990), author bell hooks describes how her family taught her to be an astute consumer of popular culture, to contrast the reality of her daily life as a black woman with the depiction of her race on television and in the movies, industries controlled by the dominant white class. She and her family watched, and even enjoyed, shows like Ed Sullivan but the adults often commented on the poor treatment of or misperceptions about black people. “Watching television in the fifties and sixties, and listening to adult conversation, was one of the primary ways many young black folks learned about race politics” (hooks, p. 3).

Early introduction to the concept of critical thinking gave hooks the ability to separate reality from deception in popular culture. In contrast, the absence of early home discussion about the important things in life led me to search on my own for the truth to be found in popular culture. I agree with hooks that the use of popular culture in conjunction with analysis is a powerful teaching tool.

Initially, my research revealed a dearth of professional literature regarding the pervasive effect of popular fiction and its use in teaching. Two articles discussed using movies to teach therapists (Higgins & Dermer, 2001; Paddock, Terranova &, Giles, 2001), but teaching to experts is not the same as bringing the issue into the ordinary language of the everyday man (de Certeau, 1984, chap. 1). Androutsopoulou’s use of fiction in clinical therapy (2001) introduced me to the concept of bibliotherapy; a term coined the 1930s when it became accepted that readings were helpful to psychiatric patients (Rubin, 1978 as cited by Hesley & Hesley, p.6). “Practitioners have long recommended books, plays, poetry, and the visual and performance arts as a means of teaching concepts of mental health” (Pardek, 1993 as cited by Hesley & Hesley, p.5). Hesley and Hesley (2001) used “video work” to aid clients when they are emotionally blocked, or to introduce a different way of thinking about a life issue.

Numerous other books are available, for the general public as self-help reading and for mental health practitioners, as well; all authored by mental health professionals including psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers.

No one, however, has written enough about the pursuit and recognition of truth through analysis of popular culture. In this paper, I plan to expand on this theme by addressing the significance of popular culture in the everyday life of the consumer as demonstrated through the following three issues:

1 - All popular culture is useful.
2 - People will make do.
3 - Connectivity is a tool for critical thinking.

The analysis of these issues will be drawn from personal perspective.

All Popular Culture Is Useful

The field of cultural studies is finding that popular culture is significantly more important than previously thought. The range of representations varies from idealistic visions to gross negativity. A discussion of the significance of both the positive and negative follows.

Fiction as Reality

Barbara Kingsolver expresses the idea of truth in fiction beautifully in her book of essays, High Tide in Tucson. In “The Spaces Between” she writes, “How is a child to find the way to her own beliefs unless she can stuff her pockets with all the truths she can find - whether she finds them on the library shelf or in a friend’s warm strange-smelling kitchen” (1996, p. 156). She was teaching her own child to distinguish between “Indians” in spaghetti westerns and “Native Americans,” who are living, breathing individuals. The quote expresses the dynamics of learning and truth: “you get it where you find it.” Her image of a warm kitchen vividly brought to mind a cherished childhood memory: my brother and I in our neighbor’s kitchen waiting like starving stray puppies for hot tortillas off Ramona’s griddle. An essay about finding truth in everyday life pointed in a natural way to a truth in my life: We never took for granted or objectified people who were Mexican Americans, because it was inconceivable for us to do so. We knew them as neighbors and friends, not as members of a particular group, and we learned that in Ramona’s kitchen.

In “Jabberwocky,” from the same book, Kingsolver expresses more directly how truth in fiction can be more influential than the reality found in nonfiction sources:

A novel can make us weep over the same events that might hardly give us pause if we read them in a newspaper. Even though the tragedy in the newspaper happened to real people while the one in the novel happened in an author’s imagination. … The power of fiction is to create empathy. It lifts you away from your chair and stuffs you gently down inside someone else’s point of view. It differs drastically from a newspaper, which imparts information while allowing you to remain rooted in your own perspective (1996, pp. 230-231).

Beloved (1987), by Toni Morrison, provides an excellent example of this concept. No one disputes the absolute evil of slavery, yet the paradox for Americans, particularly in the South, is that slavery was legal in our own recent history, a fact that makes deep reflection on the topic uncomfortable. Thus, understanding tends to remain on a thinking, not feeling, level. Morrison’s powerful story makes it possible to leap from knowing the facts of slavery on a cognitive level to experiencing the horrors of it along with novel’s characters.

Curiously, sometimes the reality in fiction becomes reality in fact. The Middle America baseball fantasy film, Field of Dreams (Gordon & Robinson, 1989), leads the audience on a quest; it is an allegory about following dreams without counting the cost. Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), in answer to a mysterious voice that tells him “if you build it, he will come,” plows under his corn crop and nearly bankrupts his family. The movie’s emotional truth is that after a long journey, and several more mystical instructions, he realizes that the object of his quest was really to have another chance to connect in a meaningful way with his father.

The observable reality in this story, where fiction became fact, is that they rebuilt it, and people did come. It is now thirteen years after the movie was in theatres, and an average of 50,000 people each year visit the Dyersville, Iowa, farm free of charge “to run the bases, pitch to one another, hit fly balls to the corn-bordered outfield. And many indeed sit in the bleachers in their shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon” (Gravelle, 1999, para. 3). Many thousands more visit the web site for the baseball field, HERE, which describes the evolution of the baseball field from movie set to utopian space:

The baseball field was constructed in just three days. Following the movie's premier it was back to reality. Or was it? With the field still in place, the first of many visitors arrived on May 5, 1989. People have come from all corners of the world. People who are magically drawn here for reasons they can't explain. … The best thing about this place is what isn't here - instead of providing images and dreams, it is content to be a mere stage. It falls to each individual guest to supply whatever drama and whatever cast he or she desires (Field of Dreams Movie Site).

Field of Dreams is the utopian space: the place that Michel de Certeau says is a space of reality in which we reside in the face of the daily facts of life (de Certeau, 1984, chap. 2). It changes a place in Iowa, which “excludes the possibility of two things being in the same location [cornfield/baseball field]” (de Certeau, p. 117) to a space in which time, purpose, and experience intersect (de Certeau). It is a utopian space where one character who died years ago plays his only at bat as a professional player, then steps off the magic of the field to save a little girl as a gray-haired doctor - thus affirming his life choice 1, a space where those who have died, come back to play the game they love, a space where a man regains the idealism of his youth and another man reconciles with his father. Ordinary people go there every day; perhaps to find the healing they viewed in watching Field Of Dreams.

An original 10-minute play titled “Sounds of a Rude World” (Bruner, performed 2002) provides another example of the emotional reality to be found in fiction. The main character, a young boy who was a slave on a Southern plantation, was taught to read by the master’s son. This could have resulted in his death or sale, but in spite of his mother’s terror, he persisted. 2 The play had a significant emotional impact I did not expect because the subject matter seemed so unrelated to my life experience. Still, every time I recalled the end of the play, with that small boy singing “Beautiful Dreamer,” I was moved to tears. Finally, I realized I was reacting to the persistence of hope in the face of the terror and oppression inherent in the story.

Finally, Dune (1971), a novel by Frank Herbert, provides a philosophical truth, and a possible path to the idea of critical thinking. In the world of Arrakis, a group of philosophers approached problem solving not by looking for answers, but by seeking questions. As they asked questions, the shape of a possible solution would begin to form. In their philosophy, questions were far more important than answers. I was struck by the concept when I read the book many years ago; but since, when analyzing books, movies, and television it has proved to be a fundamental precept of learning to think critically.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in Popular Fiction

In a classic episode of Star Trek, “The Enemy Within,” (Matheson & Penn, 1966) Captain Kirk is split into two people by a transporter malfunction: a “good” Kirk and an “evil” Kirk. The crew does not realize what has happened at first, but soon understands that destroying the evil Kirk will not rectify the situation. Without his “dark” side, with its aggressions and desires, the good Kirk is indecisive and weak. The transporter is repaired, but to work, the two Kirks must stand on a transporter pad that normally would accommodate only one person. The good-but-weak Kirk must hold the decisive-but-evil Kirk in his arms, and when sent though the transporter, the two are integrated. The director’s visual and physical representation of a psychological truth is fascinating: Kirk could not simply accept the side of himself that he found undesirable; he had to embrace it.

To some extent the metaphor of embracing the dark side can be extended to popular fiction. Exploitative, violent, or vulgar forms are, after all, part of popular culture. “Gangsta rap” may cause consternation in middle class white people (or middle class African-Americans for that matter), but hearing the rage in the poetry warns those listening that there are powerful feelings in young black males. Considering the millions of dollars earned by this division of the music industry, rap artists must be giving voice to real emotions of those who are disillusioned by discrimination.

Up to this point, my theme has been to find and use the truth in fiction. Bill Nichols, in Blurred Boundaries (1994) and another work, Representing Reality (1991), takes the opposite view. His primary focus in the first book is determining how much fiction is inescapable in documentary, and in the second book he concentrates on the intersecting and diverging qualities of documentaries and movies. In other words, he tends to look at the fiction in reality instead of the other way around: a useful perspective when looking at the power of teaching through popular culture.

In an interesting depiction of women as “the other” (members of a marginalized group) in popular film, he makes a truly radical comparison between ethnological documentaries (those that study the culture of the other) and pornography. In documentaries, the audience is all seeing, as from a tower viewing an enclosed area (an echo of the panoptic view of the “proper,” a strategic place of power from de Certeau (1984, chap. 3). In pornography, the viewer is voyeur, seeing from a hidden place. In both, however, it is essential to the audience to believe that what is seen on the screen actually happened (Nichols, 1991).

According to Nichols, women are created as the other in film. A woman is there to be desired, and therefore must be desirable; necessary to the film only in fulfilling the hero’s desires (1991). Certainly pornography is true of this type of exploitation, but the woman as protagonist is making a comeback in mainstream American film. She is her own hero. A good case in point, and one in keeping with the “bad and ugly side” of popular fiction, is Dolores Claiborne (Hackford, 1995), a dark story of a woman’s drastic steps to save herself and her daughter from physical and sexual abuse. It is from Dolores Claiborne that we get the quote, “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to.” The women in the film are the strongest characters, and the story is quite definitely told from their point of view. One of the most interesting revelations is that Dolores, who is poor and working as a servant to support her family, and who feels she has to kill her husband to stop his sexual abuse of their daughter, finds that her rich employer has had a similar, undisclosed, deed in her past.

What is of value in this dark tale? Primarily it poses the question: Is this a realistic portrayal of the destructive power of abuse in the family? By its existence, the film supports discourse on the subject, one that is still difficult to express in “polite” society. On another level is the message that “bitch” is not such a bad thing to be; women are often called bitches when they take care of themselves. Finally, it is implied that wealth and social position may not be a foolproof defense against oppression if you are a woman.

Romantic fiction is another form of popular culture devalued by society. Starting with Flaubert’s doomed heroine, Madame Bovary in 1856, readers of romance have been warned against the corrupting influence, and downright danger of reading romances. “Society does not approve of the reading of romance novels. It labels the books as trash and the readers as unintelligent, uneducated, unsophisticated, or neurotic” (Krentz, 1992, p. 1). Kim Pettigrew Brackett agrees, stating:

Marginalization of the romance as acceptable literature threatens the “face” of the reader. Face refers to the positive image an actor attempts to maintain in the eyes of her observers. The readers, then, feel obligated to justify the reading, not only in terms of the time spent, but why it is useful or enjoyable (2000, p. 348).

Some of the face-saving strategies cited by Brackett include concealment, criticism (of badly written romances, and people who read only romances), and correction (citing intellectual validity). In illustration of corrective strategy, one of the participants in Brackett’s study stated, “you can pull value out of anything you read,” and “you would be amazed at all the little trivia that you pick up…people say, ‘how did you know that?’”(Brackett, p. 354).

Sue Jackson concurs with the general theme of this paper, that popular culture can and should be used to teach. Specifically, her article proposes to use romantic fiction to teach strategies to young women in abusive relationships. She writes, “Romantic narrative is undoubtedly a powerful and salient cultural resource. In looking towards how we might help young women to negotiate the tricky territory of romantic-abusive relationships we need to encourage their stories of abuse to be told in ways that expose the ‘toad’ and hold him responsible for the abuse” (Jackson, 2001, p. 318).

In summary, popular culture, whether depicting positive or negative images, whether valued by society or considered frivolous, has an impact on the consumer. Critical analysis of the words and images put forth in books, movies, and television can make useful all forms of popular fiction.

People Will Make Do

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau writes that the consumer of popular culture, particularly the television viewer, is separated from the creation of the product, that he has lost “his author’s rights and becomes a pure receiver,” but de Certeau goes on to describe the phenomenon of making do in which the consumer manipulates the language or objects imposed on him for his own use (de Certeau, p. 31).

Rap music is one of the best examples de Certeau’s version of making do that has occurred in this country. Innovated in the early ‘70s by a Jamaican disk jockey,

Rap caught on because it offered young urban New Yorkers a chance to freely express themselves. … One didn’t need a lot of money or expensive resources to rhyme. One didn’t have to invest in lessons or anything like that. Rapping was a verbal skill that could be practiced and honed to perfection at almost anytime (Cook, 1985, p. 3).

The art form had the subversive element that de Certeau is fond of describing, because when the rhyming lines were recorded or performed live, it was usually over “sampling” of instrumental and percussion breaks of popular music - current and “oldies,” and royalties were not paid for the use of these pieces.

An intriguing element of the story of rap is its roots within the African culture and oral tradition: “Throughout history here in America there has always been some form of verbal acrobatics or jousting involving rhymes within the African-American community” (Cook, 1985, p. 2). In Beloved (Morrison, 1987), the slaves maintained their own verbal acrobatics, singing original songs that allowed them private communication with impunity in the presence of their white owners.

Another musical version of making do comes from Paul Simon’s 1990 concert tour to promote his album Graceland (Simon). The South African musicians on tour with him used a wildly assorted set of everyday items to produce a rich and sophisticated percussion rhythm underlying the tunes and lyrics of the songs. The homemade instrument I remember best was an old Quaker oats box with “who-knows-what” in it. A reviewer of the album at the Amazon.com web site wrote the following:

It is at once raw and refined, traditional and modern. Rather than emphasizing the suffering and rage of the black South African people at the time (which perhaps Simon could not have and was not in the place to convey authentically) it becomes an exuberant celebration of their rich and vivacious musical culture (Emily, 2002). 3

Having been present at the Austin concert, I observed making do on two levels: the obvious was in the homemade instruments mentioned above, the more subtle was that the musicians, intended to be in the background, appropriated the audience.

Critical Thinking and Connectivity

When proposing to use critical thinking to find reality in fiction, the sheer volume of books, movies, and broadcast images filling the collective consciousness can be daunting. If the goal is to teach critical thinking, the problem becomes more immediate: how to sift through that volume of information in order to discern the truth, to determine what is useful, and to know if the truth uncovered is universal. According to Imagologies, one function of philosophy is synthesis, “an appeal to undertake the effort to discern connections and interrelations for the purpose of evaluation and intervention” (Taylor & Saarenin, 1994, Media philosophy chap., p. 11). Thus the ability to make connections, connectivity, can enable the process of sifting, discerning, determination, and judgment.

When I was researching this paper, extensive connectivity continually revealed itself. The best example was the discovery of the story of Petra Kelly in Imagologies. Ms. Kelly was the foremost spokesperson for Green movement in Germany in the 1980s. Because of her personal charm and exceptional speaking ability, she was responsible for more gains by the Green movement in Germany than anyone who had come before her, and she set developments in motion in other European countries as well. When it came time to put forward a candidate for Parliament, however, the party refused her. They decided that “the personality cult must be fought at any cost,” and the cost turned out to be that a Green candidate was never elected (Taylor & Saarenin, 1994, Media philosophy chap., p. 8). The first connection this story brought to mind was a Chinese Proverb, “The tall tree catches the wind,” meaning that he or she who stands head and shoulders above the rest should be ready to be cut down, to be the person blamed when things go wrong, and to be the target of petty and malicious envy.

That thought brought the second connection to mind: how Baby Suggs, the grandmother of Beloved (Morrison, 1987), gave a lavish feast for her neighbors out of wanting to share her joy, and how her action caused the neighbors to envy her to the point that they failed to warn her when danger was on the way to her house. She had gotten above herself. This led to connection three, a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus, and we petty men/Walk under his huge legs.” In the play, and in life, Caesar was so popular with the plebes, and so brilliant in his own right, that his contemporaries in the oligarchy had to assassinate him to feel safe from domination.

The same concept, the results of envy, is expressed in four different ways and by four different sources. The sources come from different historical periods, different cultures by virtue of geography and race, and different formats: one is historical fact; another is a play based on history; yet another is a novel; and the last is a commentary on human behavior in the form of a proverb. Because of this broad dispersion of its sources, it appears this concept may be accepted as reality, a universal truth.

Another connection from the research was initiated by de Certeau’s concept of the strategy of place, the proper.

“It would be more correct to recognize in these ‘strategies’ a specific type of knowledge, one sustained and determined by the power to provide oneself with one’s own place,” as opposed to the tactics of space, “a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus…the space of a tactic is the space of the other” (1984, pp. 36-37)

The connection I made was to the way the Romans under Caesar waged war in a foreign country. They simply made a place wherever they went. As soon as they arrived in an area they built a fort, forcing the people native to the land into the space of the tactical, the other. One part of the connection comes from a philosopher from this century; the other from reported history of the Roman republic. Again, the juxtaposition of theory and history, philosophy and military science lends credibility to the expressed idea.

In contrast, another example of connectivity from my research for the paper is less persuasive as a universal truth because, although found in different disciplines, both sources came from philosophers who were roughly contemporary to one another. Willis states,

For [E. P] Thompson, working-class culture did not simply arise out of the shared meanings and values of a particular class at a specific moment in history, it was central to the emergence of a class. It was the specific means by which its members assembled themselves as a class “for itself” and so resisted their exploitation by other classes (1995, p. 177).

Compare this to de Certeau who wrote, “That is where the opacity of a ‘popular culture’ could be said to manifest itself - a dark rock that resists all assimilation” (1984, p. 18). Connectivity gains credibility as additional connections are made; therefore, this concept could grow in credibility as additional sources or observations are found.


The application of critical thinking can advance the pursuit of truth in popular culture. This paper has attempted to support this view by illustrating the reality in fiction, the necessity to include all forms of popular culture in the process of critical thinking, the ability of people to find meaning in the cultural forms imposed on them and a congruent ability to create art from what is available. Finally, connectivity has been proposed as a means of synthesizing the vast amounts of data produced by popular culture, and determining those truths that have meaning in the lives of the individual, and for society as a whole.


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Bruner, A. L. (performed 2002, August). Sounds of a rude world. Scriptwriters Houston: Ten by ten showcase.

Cook, D. (1985). The history of hip hop. Retrieved November 20, 2002, HERE

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Sheryl C. Stanley

Sheryl Stanley is a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program at the Graduate School of Social Work, University of Houston, Texas. This course of study represents a life change for Sheryl, who has been a CPA for the more than 20 years. The impetus for writing "When Fiction is Reality" (besides academic requirements) is the tendency of serious scholars to dismiss popular culture, such as movies or novels, as frivolous or unimportant. Sheryl fervently anticipates graduation in May, 2004.

Sheryl can be reached at sherylstanley@houston.rr.com

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1 The character is a film representation of the real Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who gave up his opportunity to play major league professional baseball to become a small town doctor. Graham gained national recognition for his thirteen-year study of children’s blood pressure in Chisholm, MN (Field of Dreams Movie Site, Game Program page).

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2 “Sounds of a Rude World” is a potent story, but some would say it is compromised by the fact that it was written by a white woman. Author bell hooks has written at length about this subject in Yearnings (1990).

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3 The quote from Emily may be difficult to find a second time. Amazon.com changes the reviews daily based on reader rankings as to the usefulness of the reviews.

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