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When Game of Thrones becomes a common language to talk about serious issues

In a changed media landscape, pop culture references become a common language - one that is moving beyond the fictional entertainment universes and gets used as a framework to talk about everyday life or serious subjects, shows the research of Associate Professor Susana Tosca.
Susana Tosca
Susana Tosca researched in digital media, transmediality and popular culture for over 20 years. Photo taken in Fanatic in Roskilde. Photo: Jón Bjarni

The Trump Tower skyscraper dominates the skyline of a dark New York, but there is something different about what New Yorkers are used to seeing. There is a great lidless eye, wreathed in flame, hovering above the Trump Tower. The eye of Sauron, the embodiment of evil from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books and the movies that followed.

Images that link Trump Tower and the President of the United States, Donald Trump, to the fictional villain Sauron are spreading like wildfire across the internet - shared by Trump’s critics. You can also find images of Trump appearing as other classical dark overlords from fiction, such as Darth Vader from Star Wars, Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter universe and characters from Game of Thrones.

The images are so-called memes, which is an internet phenomenon used to communicate brief messages - usually in the form of a picture and a short text. Memes are often humorous in nature, but they are also used as a form of expression to comment on current event such as, for example, the election of Donald Trump, the war in Syria or climate change.

The multitude of memes is merely one example wherein fictional entertainment universes are used as a language to talk about events in real life. Works of fictions have always reflected and commented upon reality, but the way people use media has changed so that reality and fiction are being entangled in new and more intense ways, explains Associate Professor Susana Tosca from the Department of Communication and Arts at Roskilde University.

On one hand, it is still entertainment and escapism, but on the other hand, people are also talking about important subjects that move them

She has studied fictional content that spreads across media platforms since 2004 together with Associate Professor Lisbeth Klastrup from the IT University of Copenhagen, and next year their new book ‘Transmedial Worlds and Every Life: Networked Reception, Social Media and Fictional Worlds’ will be published. The book investigates how the fictional universes impact people’s everyday lives, and it is based on several years of empirical work.

»In media research, there is a tradition of looking at fans who are very dedicated, while mainstream users have not been as interesting. However, people today are present on a lot of media platforms, and they are producing a lot of content on social media themselves, which is something new,« Susana Tosca points out.

A new meta-view

The fictional entertainment universes are becoming a form of expression that you can use to get people’s attention, the researcher explains, and to create a connection between people or make them laugh. Yet at the same time, many use it for serious matters,« Susana Tosca notes:

»Previously, you would have thought that subjects such as politics or global warming were not to be made fun of like that,« says Susana Tosca.

»But now ordinary people have developed a meta-view where they both can communicate at a fictional level while being serious at the same time. In a way it is a skill, a kind of “meta muscle”, that we typically think is reserved for poets and other artists. But social media highlights how that “muscle” is used eagerly by ordinary people who can lean on the fictional universes to make their own metaphors or to suggest a new symbolic interpretation of their love lives. The fictional universes are used as a lens to see the world through,« says Susana Tosca.

In the book, the researchers present a number of cases that exemplify this new way of connecting everyday life and fiction. Besides people’s use of memes, they also, among other things, examine how people are living out their most secret dreams in romance-themed computer games, how fictional universes bring people who are going through tough times together, and how ordinary people become amateur cultural critics and develop new skills such as in the popular ‘let’s play’ videos where gamers build their own amateur show upon filmed playthroughs of computer games.

Large narratives are stepping into the background

Previously, large narratives such as religion and political ideologies played a significant role in explaining life and the social order, but in some places around the world, their impact has faded.

This is where the fictional entertainment universes become important to an extent that surprises the researchers:

»It’s not the case that these fictional universes by themselves take the place of the large narratives for a lot of people, but some of the functions that, for example, religion or political ideologies have had have disappeared, so there is a void that is filled by something else. Some might use Game of Thrones to describe political ambitions and how far some people are willing to go in order to have power. Others are eagerly discussing what moral values the Star Wars universe contains and in what order they should show the films to their young children as a kind of way of bringing them up properly,« Susana Tosca explains, and she adds that the popular fictional universes are often based on the struggle between good and evil - with characters who must make moral choices that can serve as indicators for how people should act themselves.

»It is a bit of a paradox, because it’s an entertainment culture that can be seen as low entertainment, but it’s something that a lot of people feel connected to, and who hasn’t heard of Harry Potter? On the other hand, you cannot be sure that people have read Marcel Proust or James Joyce or anything else that might be considered as high culture. As a researcher, you might lament this or dismiss it as banal, but we have chosen to study what people get out of their involvement with popular fictional words,« says Susana Tosca.

Bridges between people

One of the reasons that pop culture becomes so strong as a common language is that it creates a personal connection between the sender and the receiver.

»You understand what I mean, and this creates an emotional bond between us, because we share the same passions and the same frame of reference in understanding what is going on in the world. It’s something we have in common,« the researcher notes.

It has become easy to find people online and on social media with whom you share common interests, and this can create relationships across geographical divisions, age groups and other obstacles. That creates new kinds of communities.

Susana Tosca’s research reveals that the connection between everyday life and fictional entertainment universes is not just used to comment on big political issues and global challenges, but it can also be used as a language to talk about very close and personal things.

»On one hand, it is still entertainment and escapism, but on the other hand, people are also talking about important subjects that move them,« says Susana Tosca.

One example is the Norwegian TV series ‘Skam’ which was also a big hit in Denmark. The series is about a group of youths who go through many of life’s ups and downs together, and many of the issues are familiar from the viewers’ own everyday life.

In Denmark, for example, a lot of fans have gathered together in the so-called ‘Kosegruppa DK’ on Facebook, where more than 41,000 members discuss both the big picture and the details in the series.

»People are having deep discussions about what, for example, it means to have a good girlfriend, what happens when your parents want you to have another life than what you have, or what it’s like to be homosexual and not feel that you can come out of the closet,« Susana Tosca explains, and continues:

»The fictional universe becomes a language that allows these people to talk about immensely important subjects that they haven’t really had a space for doing so in. The group becomes a small family, and you know that it is safe to share updates there that you would not post on your regular Facebook wall or other places where you might be exposed. In that way, the fictional universes become a kind of bridge between people,« she concludes.



The book ‘Transmedial Worlds and Every Life: Networked Reception, Social Media and Fictional Words’ will be published by Routledge in 2019.