Don't Look Back: Crisis and the Persistence of American Popular Culture

Thursday, March 30, 2023, 2:45 PM - 4:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Popular Culture; Race


Presenters on this panel explore moments when popular culture was used to respond to different moments of crisis–both real and imagined–in the twentieth century. We are interested in how race and space contribute to the process, as well as the consequences, of cultural constructions that seek to create conditions of possibility that use memories of the past to create hope for a new future. But as many scholars have argued, popular culture requires a certain level of accommodation with existing power structures, indicating the limits of a counter-hegemonic use of the many forms of media. Presenters, therefore, will examine how periods of crisis related to racial uprisings, war, and public health emergencies—including the fear of disease along with the boredom caused from quarantine—became catalysts for artistic expressions that sought to alter social life and some of the accommodations that artists and activists may have had to make along the way. Through analyses on youth culture, racial uprisings, Queer activism, war, and, social movements panelists will interrogate concepts such as identity, representation, whiteness, liberalism, and conservatism. The papers will also use an intersectional lens to examine cross-racial connections and frictions, class conflicts and dynamics, interruptions of hetero-normative space, national identity, and the tension between social and “anti” movements. By considering how moments of crisis have influenced popular culture, the panel seeks to contextualize the cultural responses to the civil unrest and pandemic that we are living through today.

Papers Presented

“Funless Season Ends Today”: Youth Culture and the Influenza Bans of 1918 - 1920

Histories of modern American youth culture tend to focus on the Great War as the catalyst. Young people, some too junior to fight on the battlefield but old enough to process the shattering effects of industrialized mass killing, were forever changed. As the story goes, disillusioned youth pondering the end of humanity stretched the boundaries of morality, threw out their corsets and bowler hats, participated in “petting parties,” and indulged in drugs, alcohol, and provocative music. In other words, World War I made the Jazz Age. Missing from these histories is an exploration of the crisis of the influenza pandemic, which first took hold in the United States many months before Americans headed to the European front and at a transformative time in American popular culture -- when more young people than ever before attended middle and high schools, urban amusement parks peaked in popularity, moviegoing arose as a new cheap form of entertainment, and cars went into mass production. Popular leisure afforded youth more opportunities to socialize and create new identities away from home. But the spread of influenza led to the shuttering of many of these places. The influenza crisis of 1918 introduced the so-called “wild young people” to the “funless season,” a period that had as deep an impact on their lives as news of the Great War. In probing, first, the ways in which young pleasure seekers defied the boundaries put in place during the 1918 influenza crisis to prevent the spread of disease and, second, the varied responses to these quarantine rebels, the paper aims to demonstrate the connection between the influenza crisis and the rise of modern youth culture of the 1920s.

Presented By
Felicia Angeja Viator, San Francisco State University

From Watts to Hollywood: Cultural liberalism and Integration in 1960s Television

In the aftermath of the 1965 Watts Rebellion, white Hollywood liberals believed the media industry could mitigate or incite riots. Rooted in the language of Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society, a type of cultural liberalism emerged in response to the numerous uprisings that roiled the second half of the 1960s. Claiming the entertainment industry had a role to play in urban reform, Hollywood celebrities and producers created job-training programs to teach African Americans the skills of screenplay writing to present a more “authentic” Black experience in popular culture and, in turn, educate white audiences while assuaging racial unrest. Networks also faced pressure from Black activists and the Federal Communications Commission to integrate an otherwise white industry. By 1968, twenty-one prime-time series included at least one regular black cast member such as Julia (1968-1971), Mod Squad (1968-1973), and Room 222 (1968-1974). Furthermore, many of the sitcoms also employed Black writers, many of whom got their foot in the door through the Watts Writers Workshop. Although these series have since been criticized for their watered-down portrayal of race relations in the US, this paper explores how these increased representations of Blackness contributed to a social panic over television’s ability to disrupt the segregated social order that many whites felt suburbia protected. This paper aims to examine the possibilities and limitations of cultural liberalism following moments of civil unrest in the mid-twentieth century.

Presented By
Kate L. Flach, California State University, Long Beach

“Todos Deben de Brillar”: Los Angeles, Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos, and the New Face of America’s Queer Rights Movement

During the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States in the 1980s, Queer organizations quickly adapted to address the needs of Queer individuals living with/at risk of contracting the disease. Before and during this time, Queer Latinx individuals had to adapt and create their own spaces while prominent Queer rights groups in the US at the time failed to meet the needs of the Latinx community. In Los Angeles, this led to the formation of Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos (GLLU), a group formed as a response to the distrust some felt in predominately white organizations, but also to aid in helping Latinx and Spanish speaking individuals in LA feel seen and heard. This paper analyzes the creation of the GLLU and how it adapted to the HIV/AIDS crisis and became a prominent figure in the intersectional approach to the Queer Rights movement. To remove the stigma of HIV/AIDS as a “gay disease,” the GLLU umbrella organization VIVA, Lesbian and Gay Latino Artists, pushed for more representation of Latinx LA artists, creating a space for visibility and challenging the stigma Queer Latinx individuals in LA faced from various communities in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In an era of little representation in the media, it was vital for Queer Latinx communities to find ways to put their image out there. Through events hosted by VIVA, the community in LA was able to break stigmas they faced from their community by showcasing what their community was experiencing and creating.

Presented By
Victor Javier Aguilar, San Francisco State University

“We’re on the good side with y’all”: The Iraq War, the 2004 Election, and Protest Music

Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the music industry became a minefield of pro- and anti-war music. Yet, evidence mounted on the duplicitous reasoning for the invasion, which caused popular support to wane. As the 2004 election approached, the George W. Bush and John Kerry campaigns relied on mudslinging tactics and playing into the ongoing culture wars regarding abortion and gay rights. However, the topic of debates often resorted to US involvement in Iraq. Conservatives supported Bush and utilized patriotic fervor to support the conflict while liberals questioned the pretenses of entering the war. These battles befell the music industry as well. The music industry became a minefield of pro- and anti-war music. While many pro-war songs came from artists like Toby Keith, it was an unlikely coalition of musical groups that led the protest against Bush. Artists across the musical spectrum began a resistance movement to Bush and the Iraq War by staging voting registration tours specifically to engage the youth vote. The artists or groups came from various genres like rap, pop punk, and country music to form the Hip-Hop Summit, Nashville’s Music Row Democrats, and PunkVoter. I argue that these events helped drive US youths to register to vote in the 2004 election and become politically aware. These events, as well as the websites like, allowed fans to voice frustrations over the war and Bush era foreign policy.

Presented By
David Justice, Middle Tennessee State University

“Mention it All”: The Intersections Between Bravo’s Real Housewives, BLM, Trumpism, and COVID-19

Bravo TV’s Real Housewives have been a cultural mainstay since 2006, capturing numerous national crises on camera along the way starting with the 2008 financial crash. While the predominantly Black casts in Atlanta and Potomac were always overtly political engaging various forms of local and national activism, white casts on other franchises mostly dabbled in philanthropic work as a kind of subtle political gesture. Since 2020 Bravo has struggled to avoid audience criticism over their casting decisions in the wake of the growing BLM movement, the persistence of Trumpism, and the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. As cast members across all franchises make public forays into social movements, whether for social justice or anti-Vax COVID denial, viewers demand the network represent their ideologies. The recent anti-Black racism on the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City in January 2022 is the most recent iteration of national polarization playing out onscreen with cast members and with fans offscreen via social media. Network executives and cast members attempt to please fans on both sides of the political spectrum, and in so doing fail to take meaningful actions to rectify the hate and misinformation perpetuated through these shows, thereby reifying white supremacy and COVID-denial in the process.

Presented By
Kacey Calahane, Historians on Housewives

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Eric Avila, UCLA
Eric Avila is Professor of History at UCLA and holds a joint appointment in the department of Chicana/o and Central American Studies. He also holds a courtesy appointment in the Department of Urban Planning in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Policy. He is a twentieth-century U.S. urban historian, whose research and teaching emphasizes race and ethnicity, cultural expression, and the built environment. He earned a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in History from U.C. Berkeley and is the author of three books, including Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles (California, 2004), The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City (Minnesota, 2014), and American Cultural History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2018). He is currently beginning two new book projects, both focused on the social and cultural history of Los Angeles.
Professor Avila is a national expert in the history of American culture and his research has fueled national discussion about the historical relationship between race, urbanization and infrastructural development. He interviews frequently for national news outlets like the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times, USA Today, NPR, PBS and CNN.

Presenter: Victor Javier Aguilar, San Francisco State University
Victor Javier Aguilar is an American historian, focusing on 20th century American culture, Queer History, and Latinx communities in the United States, and a Mexican/Nicaraguan historian, looking at the cultural and social evolution of the nations in their post-independence era. His specific interests in American culture revolve around television, fashion, and sports. He looks at both representations of American life on television and the use of popular culture as a form of resistance. In addition, he studies Latinx communities in the US, particularly looking at Queer individuals in Los Angeles creating spaces for themselves in a predominately white world. He graduated from San Francisco State in 2016 with a BA in History and Minors in Education and Sociology. He finished his MA in History in 2022, with an emphasis in American Popular Culture history. As an educator, he hopes to help people see themselves in history, being able to connect to the past but also connect and think critically about the histories of themselves and others to the world they currently live in.

Presenter: Kacey Calahane, Historians on Housewives
Kacey Calahane received her Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of California, Los Angeles, and her Master’s in History from San Francisco State University. She is currently a doctoral candidate in History at the University of California, Irvine. She specializes in women's, gender, and social movement histories. Her dissertation, The General and Her Soldiers: How Phyllis Schlafly and Eagle Forum Mobilized the Conservative Movement offers a case study of conservative ascendency that centers the institution building and organizational networking that Phyllis Schlafly and Eagle Forum performed to mobilize the movement before, during, and after their battle against the Equal Rights Amendment of the 1970s. Kacey is currently an adjunct faculty member at Saddleback College lecturing in United States, African American, and Women’s History. She recently collaborated on the #EmpireSuffrageSyllabus in partnership with the Woman and Social Movements journal, Alexander Street Press, and the UC Consortium in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality History in the Americas. Kacey is the writer and co-host of the Historians on Housewives Podcast.

Presenter: Kate L. Flach, California State University, Long Beach
Kate L. Flach is a Lecturer for the Department of History at California State University, Long Beach. She is a twentieth-century historian whose research and teaching interests include media, race, and gender. She earned her B.A. and M.A. from The University of Akron, and her Ph.D. in History from the University of California, San Diego. Her book manuscript, Producing America: Race, Media, and National Identity, examines how television producers responded to changing broadcast policies in the 1960s and 1970s by creating educational sitcoms and dramas that reflected liberal ideals of multiculturalism. Flach’s writing has appeared in The Washington Post.

Presenter: David Justice, Middle Tennessee State University
David A. Justice is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Florida. He received his PhD from Oklahoma State University. His research focuses on the cultural dimensions of US-Spain relations post-1975. His current manuscript, tentatively titled “Keeping Francisco Franco Dead,” examines how the newly democratic Spain made a significant impact on American culture. Though US citizens often equated Spain with dictatorships and the black legend, Spanish culture quietly influenced a number of American cultural representations including film, music, food, and sports.

Presenter: Felicia Angeja Viator, San Francisco State University
Felicia Angeja Viator is an Associate Professor of History at San Francisco State University. Her first book, To Live and Defy in LA: How Gangsta Rap Changed America (Harvard University Press, 2020), demonstrates how LA rap was, from its inception, a response to police power and an experiment in demanding national dialog about it. Her second book will explore children’s entertainment and the social lives of youth in times of national crisis. Viator’s writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Lapham’s Quarterly, American Studies Journal, Journal of American History, and California History. Before her career as a historian, she worked as a mobile and club DJ in the Bay Area.