University of Saskatchewan

September 20, 2014   

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Connie Luther (photo by Liam Richards)
September 25, 2006

From Homer to Homer Simpson:  Cultural Research Thriving at U of S
(>Seventh in a Series)
Charles Hamilton
For The StarPhoenix


When University of Saskatchewan master’s student Connie Luther first saw the teen hit Napoleon Dynamite with her two daughters, she just didn’t get it.  Maybe it was the film’s peculiar humour, or maybe it was the fact that she was from a generation out of touch with youth culture.  


“The way people everywhere were consuming this movie seemed very odd to me,” she says.  “I didn’t understand how it got so popular.”


But the more she thought about the film – and the more she witnessed the explosion of its commercial success – the more she began to believe there was something else going on besides the generation gap.


She expected the overly dry, pathetic and geekish temperament of the characters, as well as the uneventfully random nature of the plot, would have kept Napoleon Dynamite on the fringes of the film world, away from the mainstream.


But she noticed young people everywhere were constantly reciting lines and jokes from the movie.  It had become unpopular to be someone who hadn’t seen the film and couldn’t repeat the jokes.    


The bizarre cultural devotion by teens and young adults to a seemingly mindless comedy prompted her to do a cultural analysis of the film for her master’s project.


The film – which cost director Jared Hess only $400,000 to make – grossed $44.5 million after it was purchased by Fox Searchlight Pictures. The success was due in part to Fox’s enormous buzz marketing campaign, which hyped the film as independent and beyond the mainstream.   


But Luther does not believe that the success of the film was entirely the result of Fox’s clever marketing. She thinks there is something else, something buried deep in the culture of Napoleon Dynamite that made it a hit. 


It wasn’t that people were identifying with the characters of the film, who are for the most part losers, dismal and uninteresting. 


Rather, viewers were identifying with the culture that surrounded the film. When people saw Napoleon Dynamite, they participated in its culture – they were able to repeat the lines and get the jokes, becoming part of the collective cultural identity that stemmed from this otherwise meaningless piece of pop culture.


Research like Luther’s is great for both students and the broader society as a whole, says U of S English professor Len Findlay, one of Canada’s foremost cultural studies scholars.


“Cultural studies is an area of empowerment for students,” he says. “It teaches them to value their knowledge of Homer Simpson as well as Homer.”


“Often they know far more than I do,” he says. “That reduces the gap between me and them and it really asks them, ‘What do you think about your world, about your culture?’”


Undeterred by accusations that the study of contemporary culture is unnecessary and un-academic, Findlay insists that pop culture analysis, like Luther’s, is not only valid but also a crucial academic pursuit. 


“Culture is hugely important,” says Findlay.  “Who we are, how we function in whatever it is we do, depends on the cultural knowledge that we have and how we exercise it.”


Luther isn’t the only one doing cultural research at the U of S – projects range from a religious analysis of the trashy television series Trailer Park Boys, to a philosophical exploration of material reality through the eyes of Japanese anime. 


The ability to understand popular culture, to learn from our cultural undertakings is something Findlay says is essential, not only to academic life but also to societal well-being.


“In order to understand our identity – who we are in relation to the world around us – we have to analyze the culture that we are a part of,” says Findlay.  “We have to understand that we too are part of history.”



(This article is part of a partnership initiative between The StarPhoenix and University of Saskatchewan Research Communications Office to highlight the work of student researchers and showcase the efforts of student writers and photographers.)

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