How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture: An Interview with Tracy Van Slyke (Part One)

In 2014, Tracy Van Slyke,the Director of The Culture Lab, wrote what has turned out to be an important white paper, "Spoiler Alert: How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture," which outlines a series of strategies by which popular culture can be deployed as a tool for campaigns in support of social change. I should have read this report as soon as it came out, given my own interests in, among other things, fan activism and the civic imagination, but it took me a while to get around to it. But, when I did, it was clear we were very much on the same wavelength and that I wanted to use this blog to draw attention to some of Van Slyke's core insights about activism and entertainment-education. The Culture Lab -- part of a larger Citizen Engagement Lab initiative -- has developed this helpful diagram for mapping the key points where they feel meaningful interventions can and are taking place in relation to popular media.


Many of the most heated debates impacting the worlds of fandom and gaming in the past few years have been struggles over representation, including how the media might do a better job reflecting the experiences of women and people of color. We are seeing more and more progressives recognizing the ways that popular media can and does, at least sometimes, speak for them, even as we are also seeing backlashes against "social justice warriors" from groups who are threatened by the inclusion of such perspectives in entertainment media. None of this is new, but my own sense is that we are engaging in such conversations with a growing consciousness of what is at stake in these struggles over the civic imagination.  What Spoiler Alert does, then, is bring together a wealth of examples, showing different sites where these struggles are taking place, and develops a conceptual vocabulary for talking about these examples that allows activists and community organizers to draw on the best practices of people working towards other related causes.

Over the next two installments, I will be running an interview with the report's author, Tracy Van Slyke, as we probe deeper into the implications of her findings and as we encourage her to reflect on more recent examples of these principles at work. But there is no substitute for reading the report itself.

You begin your report Spoiler Alert with the idea that our attachments to and investment in popular culture need to become more central to social change movements. What are some of the different ways progressives might be able to achieve those goals?,

This is a ripe and rich time to work at the intersection of social and culture change.

An increasing number of artists working in popular entertainment are making people laugh out loud, get lost in a story, and gasp at dramatic plot twists (which they have always done)—while also tackling society’s most pressing social and political issues: race and gender equity, reproductive rights, voting rights, and more. One recent example: Aziz’s Azarni’s new Netflix series Master of None, especially the third episode, which unabashedly calls out racism in the television industry (and really, society at large), while managing to stay funny and entertaining. Other highlights are the winter finale of Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal, which included a storyline on abortion and reproductive choice, and the latest season of Inside Amy Schumer, in which Schumer wrote a 30-minute parody of 12 Angry Men that skewered the power dynamics of men and their relentless judgment of women’s bodies.



We’re also seeing more moments in which celebrities throw down the gauntlet, like Jennifer Lawrence speaking out against gender-based pay disparities in Hollywood and Viola Davis’s Emmy speech about diversity in Hollywood. Celebrity energy sparks social network energy, and social media buzz and digital platforms can create both celebrities and pop moments.

Social change leaders are eager to connect to these compelling stories, these fires of public attention, because they are contending for people’s hearts and minds. Through organizing, policy, and communications efforts, progressives are constantly blocking the rhetoric of hate and divisiveness. They are fighting policies that reinforce inequality in race, religion, and gender and grow the power of the one percent over our economy and democracy. But defense is not enough. With our societal soul at stake, they need to proactively introduce and reinforce visions of equity and diversity, as well as an economy and democracy that works for all, not just an elite few.

They know that from television shows to sports, from movies to music, from video games to hashtag trends, pop culture is where people are already paying attention, where myths are shaped, and where hopes and fears take root. Culture can influence a single person and be disruptive enough to move large-scale, transformative change. And as culture turns, so does the social and political landscape—for example, the long-term approach to culture change that the LGBT community took is now seeing huge legislative and policy effects.

Now, the opportunity and need is for a long-term, extensive investment in culture. If the correct investments are made, progressives can:

  • Seed stories and narratives through and with a wide array of culture makers;
  • Develop and mobilize our communities to influence cultural content and products; and
  • Spread those stories and values to new communities.

Together, this can create new cultural experiences, moments, and over time, long-lasting values shifts.

As progressives focus on infrastructure needs, as Spoiler Alert articulates, they specifically need to:


  • Understand that culture is not about a communications strategy but about how and why people communicate to and with each other. By putting people at the center, we prioritize their needs, motivations, and identities, not just messages we want to deliver.
  • Tap into the cultural pulse by tracking pop trends, storylines, audience/fandom conversations to drive and increase the impact of campaigns. Progressive organizations invest heavily in influencing and tracking the daily political news cycle, but so far we’ve largely failed to use entertainment news and storylines to advance our goals.
  • Create a clear road map for investing in culture that drives their social and political work: Are they using cultural opportunities to help win campaigns or to bring about long-term culture change?
  • Build working partnerships with creatives and pop culture makers to inspire the stories, portrayals, and experiences we want to see in the world.

Over the past year as CEL Culture Lab director, I’ve seen increasing numbers of progressive groups that want to hook into pop culture, but don’t have the infrastructure and knowledge they need to make that happen. The Culture Lab is working to help fill in these gaps. For example, we have built a new service, called the Cultural Pulse, which tracks pop culture news and storylines, adapts the audience­-listening strategies and tools used by marketers, and combines that data with action tips that help progressive changemakers use popular culture to advance political and societal change.

Many on the Left have been taught to see corporate media as the enemy—something to be deeply distrusted—and they also are often fearful of emotion and pleasure as mechanisms that are pit against rationalism. Are they wrong to have these concerns? Are there ways that one can embrace the emotional power of popular culture without giving up the value that many progressives place on rationalism and science?

It’s not wrong to have concern about corporate control of pop culture—but it’s not strategic to dismiss pop culture because of it.

The basic principles of political organizing apply to our work in culture: power analysis, targets, and demands. This means knowing what you want to have happen and understanding who has the ability to give you want you want. For progressive changemakers, that includes the purveyors and consumers of popular culture.

Many social change organizations have pivoted off of pop culture, creating campaigns that advance their larger goals. For example,, an online organizing group dedicated to fighting for the rights of Black Americans, has won multiple campaigns over the last few years, including forcing Fox to stop airing its exploitive show Cops after 25 years and making the Oxygen Network cancel the show All My Babies’ Mamas for its stereotypical and racist depiction of Black families. The Harry Potter Alliance—a network of thousands of Harry Potter fans banding together to work for human rights and equality—ran a four-year campaign that resulted in all official Harry Potter chocolate products being fair trade.


Focusing on popular culture doesn’t mean we have to set aside science and data. In fact, translating data into narrative, giving it a values-driven voice, and embedding knowledge into the DNA of a character that fans follow through books or screens or control through games can be effective in both reinforcing and disrupting subconscious beliefs. Studies show that when they’re presented with simply statistics, people may feel like they are powerless to make a difference. A story has the opposite effect: it inspires empathy. “Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry—and that’s what it means to be a social creature,” says the neuroscientist Paul Zak.

Storytelling can also influence an individual’s sense of agency. In “The Power of Story,” Elizabeth Svoboda writes:

Using modern technology like functional MRI (fMRI) scanning, scientists are tackling age-old questions: What kind of effect do powerful narratives really have on our brains? And how might a story-inspired perspective translate into behavioural change? ... The Ohio State University psychologist Lisa Libby studied a group of people who engaged in “experience-taking,” or putting themselves in a character’s place while reading. High levels of experience-taking predicted observable changes in behaviour, Libby and her colleagues found in 2012. When people identified with a protagonist who voted in the face of challenges, for instance, they were more likely themselves to vote later on.

That’s why progressives should not think they can just create their own cultural content. It should be a priority to work and partner with artists and media makers—people who are actual experts in narrative creation and storytelling—to bring data, story, and experiences together so that people want to watch, talk about, and be inspired by the storylines and characters, instead of cynical about the latest soundbite.

And that’s the trick. Pop culture is fun! It’s escapism, it’s relaxing, it takes us to new places, even new worlds (for the sci-fi and fantasy geeks in us). When we are at work as community organizers, social change advocates, we all-too-often focus on the serious in ways that are disconnected from the places in the cultural environment that we go to play. We forget that people don’t want to be fact-finding, hardline policy geeks on a Thursday night binge watch or Sunday sports day. We need to find ways to reach people where they are—instead of trying to get them to come to us.

Tracy Van Slyke is the director of the the Culture Lab at Citizen Engagement Lab. The Culture Lab works to increase the ability of social change organizers to engage people by tapping into the energy, creativity, and reach of culture. Through an iterative, experimental approach, it develops the services, knowledge-building products, and relationships that help changemakers design and evaluate cultural strategies that move systemic political and societal change. As an Opportunity Agenda fellow in 2014, she wrote the report “Spoiler Alert: How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture.” Van Slyke was previously the director of the New Bottom Line, an alignment of economic justice organizing groups; director of the Media Consortium, a network of independent media outlets; and publisher of In These Times magazine. In 2010, she co-authored the book Beyond The Echo Chamber: How a Networked Progressive Media Can Reshape American Politics (New Press).