Communication Theory and Millennial Popular Culture

Essays and Applications

by Kathleen Glenister Roberts (Volume editor)
©2016 Textbook VIII, 264 Pages


Theories help to troubleshoot gaps in our understanding, and to make sense of a world that is constantly changing. What this book tries to do, in part, is blur the lines between the differences between today’s college students – the millennial generation – and their professors, many of whom hail from the Boom Generation and Generation X.
In the following chapters, contributors build upon what both parties already know. Writing in a highly accessible yet compelling style, contributors explain communication theories by applying them to «artifacts» of popular culture. These «artifacts» include Lady Gaga, Pixar films, The Hunger Games, hip hop, Breaking Bad, and zombies, among others. Using this book, students will become familiar with key theories in communication while developing creative and critical thinking. By experiencing familiar popular culture artifacts through the lens of critical and interpretive theories, a new generation of communication professionals and scholars will hone their skills of observation and interpretation – pointing not just toward better communication production, but better social understanding.
Professors will especially enjoy the opportunities for discussion this book provides, both through the essays and the «dialogue boxes» where college students provide responses to authors’ ideas.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: Editor’s Note
  • Part I: Rhetoric
  • 1. Improving Your Speech Delivery with Modern Family and Friends
  • 2. Life as Performance—Dramatism and the Music of Lady Gaga
  • 3. “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose”—Finding the God-Terms in Friday Night Lights
  • 4. Understanding Ceremonial Speech through Fantasy Literature
  • 5. Winning Isn’t Everything—Credibility, Leadership, and Virtue in HBO’s Game of Thrones
  • Part II: Culture
  • 6. “Let it go, let it go”—Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony in Disney’s Frozen
  • 7. Mockingjays and Silent Salutes—Introducing Semiotics through The Hunger Games
  • 8. Understanding Stuart Hall’s “Encoding/Decoding” Model through TV’s Breaking Bad
  • 9. Postmodern Theory and Hip-Hop Cultural Discourse
  • 10. Seen but Not Heard—Exploring Muted Group Theory in Pixar’s The Incredibles, WALL-E, and Brave
  • 11. Knope vs. Pope: A Fantasy Theme Analysis of Scandal vs. Parks & Recreation
  • Part III: Media and Technology
  • 12. The Smartphone as Permanent Substitute Teacher
  • 13. Media and Technology—Metal and Mutation in the X-Men Films
  • 14. Hashtag Television Advertising—The Multistep Flow of Millennial TV Usage, Commercial Viewing, and Social Media Interaction
  • 15. Zombie Apocalypse, Haitian Vodou, and Media Ecology—A Cautionary Tale for Our Technological Future
  • 16. Uses and Gratifications Theory in How I Met Your Mother—True Story
  • Part IV: Interpersonal Communication
  • 17. “Don’t Open, Dead Inside”—External and Internal Noise in The Walking Dead
  • 18. Hook, Line, and Sinker—Theories of Interpersonal Deception and Manipulation in Catfish
  • 19. “Got a Secret. Can You Keep It?”—Pretty Little Liars, Friendship, and Privacy Management
  • 20. Social Penetration Theory and Relationship Formation in Harry Potter
  • About the Contributors


Editor’s Note

Kathleen Glenister Roberts

Theories, Artifacts, and Texts

Why do we study theory? There are many reasons. If you remember the “scientific method” from high school, you know that traditional theories start out with a hypothesis, and are tested through repeated experiments. If consistent results appear and prove the hypothesis, then you have a theory.

Theories exist in all academic disciplines, not just the sciences. In all fields, theories help solve puzzles—including in the discipline of communication. Theories help to troubleshoot gaps in our understanding, and to make sense of a world that seems to be changing very rapidly.

One of the authors in this book, Garret Castleberry, offers a very helpful perspective. Dr. Castleberry uses an analogy relating theorists to “showrunners”:

The term showrunner is unique in television. The showrunner functions similarly to a filmmaker or a composer with unique vision who steers the program in terms of the language spoken but often the look, sound, and scope of the series as well. In shaping a TV product, showrunners wield dynamic persuasive appeal. Academic theorists have a very similar job. Like showrunners, they shape how we view the world. Theorists offer informed insights based upon long-term research and analysis. For this reason, “theory” is often associated with heavy lifting, due to the burden placed on extending language and knowledge. Like the showrunner, a theorist harnesses potential for longstanding persuasive appeal. Yet whether persuasive appeal occurs through a theory or from a television show, these artifacts matter because they change our perceptions (Castleberry, this vol.).

This last point is especially important: theories change our perceptions. Recent social theory has even changed our perception about the majority of you reading this book: most of you are the generation broadly called “millennials.”

By now you’re probably familiar with this generation’s supposed characteristics. If you were born after 1982, you’re described as “technologically sophisticated multitaskers, capable of significant contributions to tomorrow’s organizations, yet deficient in communication skills” (Hartman & McCambridge, 2011, p. 22). It has even been argued that, due to increased exposure to technology, members of the cohort most likely have actual neurological differences compared to their parents—and professors (Prensky, 2011). ← 1 | 2

When it comes to communication, millennials sometimes get a bad rap. There is widespread concern that, despite their electronic savvy, today’s college students who are “digital natives” have less-developed interpersonal skills (Milliron, 2008). It is unclear whether millennials’ communication truly is deficient, or if the nature of communication simply has to change. For instance, if millennials uniformly believe that ending a romantic relationship via text message is acceptable, then is that action really deplorable? Will it still be considered a breach of etiquette in 20 years, or will it be the norm? These are questions we are just starting to ask, bearing in mind that there is great diversity among the group we call “millennials” (there’s some “troubleshooting” for you).

Characteristics of a generation have to be neutral to some extent: people are shaped by historical events and by their environments, among many other things. So it is helpful to meet a generation of students with appreciation for the differences they may have from their professors. Millennials show, for instance, a preference for an “informal style” of communication (Krader, 2010, p. 9), something that creates a bit of a generation gap today on college campuses, where many professors hail from the more formal Boom Generation and Generation X (Elam, Stratton, & Gibson, 2007).

What this book tries to do, in part, is blur the lines between generations. In the following chapters, we try to build upon what both parties already know. Writing relatively informally (like a college lecture), we discuss communication theories by applying them to “artifacts” of popular culture. Andrew Cole and Bob DuBois, for instance, explore the concept of “noise” through episodes of The Walking Dead. As they write to explain their project:

These labels—“artifact” and “text”—are useful for TV shows like The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad. In this book, the terms apply to films, technological forms, and literature, as well. Dr. Castleberry’s thoughts on his essay are helpful here, again, explaining exactly what we mean in the field of communication by “artifact” or “text”: ← 2 | 3

These words are both strategic and interchangeable. Barry Brummett (2010) sees a text as specific kind of message that performs a specific kind of work. Thus when referring to materials like TV shows as texts, we are recognizing the persuasive and thus rhetorical values that they carry. In the communication field …, learning to read—or “close read” as Brummett might say—a text for its rhetorical values helps elevate our ability to move from passive consumers to active audiences (Castleberry, personal communication 2015).

The authors in this book have selected texts and artifacts they know appeal to members of the millennial generation. Some of the authors—graduate students Gerald Hickly, Joe Hatfield, and Jake Dionne—are themselves millennials. Others are “Generation Xers” who clearly share affinities for the media favorites of the younger generation. For instance, Kelli Smith and Pixy Ferris analyze one of the most prominent phenomena of the millennial period: Harry Potter. Likewise, Claudia Bucciferro shows expert knowledge of The Hunger Games trilogy—“young adult” novels that truly deserve their broad, intergenerational audience. In that sense, this book is not just for millennials. If you were born before 1982, you’ll find useful discussions of theory merged with familiar texts from hip-hop, X-Men, and The Lord of the Rings, along with Parks & Recreation and Scandal.

Fields of Communication Theory

This book is arranged in four parts, based on the settings and forms communication takes.

It begins with the roots of the communication discipline. The ideas you are learning about communication today began in ancient Greece, with the philosophers who discussed Rhetoric (Part I). Of course, communication itself existed long before that, all over the world and in many forms. But the origins of contemporary media theory, for example, can be found in the very first form of “mass communication”: public speaking.

Greek city-states between 500 and 300 B.C. were marvelous experiments in forms of government and public interaction. In Athens, the city-state often termed the birthplace of democracy, there was one way of reaching “the masses,” and that was to be a commanding speaker. Those who wished to be heard stood in the Athenaeum and used their voice to persuade the crowd. Imagine what it was like to share ideas with no printing press, no radio, no television, and no Twitter. ← 3 | 4

We may think that the modern forms of mass media that I just listed—from the printing press to Twitter—have made public speaking irrelevant. But they haven’t. Instead, these marvels of technology simply allow the spoken word to travel much farther and faster. A public speaker in the Athenaeum in 323 B.C. had little choice but to project his voice and keep the crowd interested, if he wanted to share an idea. He hoped they might then continue the discussion. Today, speeches are broadcast across the entire planet instantly. And if the Twitterverse disagrees with any part of the speech, well, that seems to travel even faster. So rhetoric is still crucial to the way global politics are conducted (see the examples of ethos in Elena Strauman’s chapter), and to the way we shape identities in smaller communities (see the chapter on epideictic rhetoric).

Particularly in the United States, public speaking is highly valued. Nancy Bressler’s chapter offers some tips from your favorite TV shows, on how to use nonverbal communication in your public speaking. But rhetorical theory extends beyond public speaking, as chapters on Kenneth Burke’s theories (by Gerald Hickly, Jake Dionne, and Joe Hatfield) will show in this first section.

The broadening of persuasion beyond public speaking and into other cultural forms has impacted critical and cultural studies in communication. Part II, Culture, thinks about this term in its broadest sense, not diversity or exoticism. Everyone is part of a culture. For communication, culture can be thought of as the symbolic systems, framed by institutions (like education, law, religion, and healthcare), that arise from and enhance a group of people’s identity, history, beliefs, and worldviews. Krystal Fogle and Claudia Bucciferro, in their chapters, show how groups assign meaning to human experience through symbols and themes.

Cultural studies, as a field of theories, assumes that culture is not fixed: culture is created by people in interaction. For instance, I said above that culture’s symbolic structures arise in part from history. But history is more than just a sequence of events: it’s the way a group of people remembers and discusses those events. Some happenings are important to a group and add to their sense of identity. Others do not, and they are forgotten—no one speaks of them. Or they argue about and critique those events. Most critical approaches are marked by “deconstruction,” as readers will see in chapters on the postmodern nature of hip-hop (by Hunter Fine), hegemony and counterhegemony in Frozen (by Janelle Applequist), and Muted Group theory through several Pixar films (by Bruce Finklea and Sally Hardig). ← 4 | 5

Part III, on Media and Technology, is an extension, in many ways, of the arguments about “culture” in the previous section. The artifacts these authors chose may have more immediacy, because of rapidly shifting technology. Overall, they are marked by an interpretive approach in communication known as media ecology. “Media” are simply the forms intentional messages take, while “ecology” relates to its familiar sense in ecological systems: media ecology treats media as an environment.

From this perspective, media and technology can be seen as the ways we organize not just information, but knowledge. Chrys Egan and Andrew Sharma offer a chapter analyzing the way advertising has changed, through hashtags, in the new millennial media environment that includes Twitter. Brian Gilchrist and Brent Sleasman offer similar insights in their respective chapters on the smartphone, and zombie metaphors. Interaction with this media environment takes forms that impact other forms of communication, too, including the parasocial. These ideas are explored in chapters by Paul Lucas and Linnea Sudduth Ward.

Finally, Part IV of the book, Interpersonal Communication, concerns the interaction between two people—a dyad. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that this section is a bit smaller: most professors offering chapters in this book wanted to write about media and technology when thinking of the millennial generation. But that may make interpersonal communication theory all the more important for millennials: there is growing concern that the interpersonal etiquette and skills that older people expect of millennials are not being met by today’s college students. Returning to the basic theories of interpersonal communication will be useful, as seen in Alysa Ann Lucas’s chapter on Pretty Little Liars. Whether millennials will change the face of communication or not, there are still multiple generations who need to communicate with one another. I believe you will find that these interpersonal theories are still applicable to how we interact with people, even if that’s online or mediated. Sara Trask and Holly Holladay’s chapter about Catfish is especially interesting, since it shows how the internet has made interpersonal deception easy and widespread (even to the point that it has its own noun: “Catfishing”).


VIII, 264
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Communication theory Cultural Discourse Hip-Hop,Popular Culture Media and Culture
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. VIII, 264 pp.

Biographical notes

Kathleen Glenister Roberts (Volume editor)

Kathleen Glenister Roberts (PhD, Indiana University-Bloomington) is Associate Professor of Communication and Rhetorical Studies and Director of the Honors College at Duquesne University. She is the author of numerous essays and the books Alterity and Narrative (2007) and The Limits of Cosmopolis (Peter Lang, 2014).


Title: Communication Theory and Millennial Popular Culture
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266 pages