Elayne Rapping, UB pop culture expert, dies at 77

Release Date: June 13, 2016

Elayne Rapping, professor of American studies.

Elayne Rapping

“She was a probing scholar of popular culture, television and gender. During her years at UB, I was particularly impressed by her keen insights into the punitive ideological turn in crime dramas in her 2003 book, ‘Law and Justice as Seen on TV.’”
Kari Winter, director, Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Elayne Rapping, University at Buffalo professor emerita of American studies and media studies, died on June 7 in Atlanta, Georgia, following a battle with breast cancer.  She was 77.

Rapping, a nationally known media critic and analyst, was an expert on popular culture and social issues. Her pioneering research and scholarship contributed to a deeper and more nuanced appreciation and understanding for how mass media both reflects and predicts social, political and interpersonal issues and concerns.

She wrote prolifically for scholarly journals, popular magazines and major newspapers, including The New York Times, and appeared frequently as an expert commentator on CNN, NPR, Fox News and the major broadcast television networks.

Her interest in popular culture began as an extension of her rising awareness of women’s issues, according to her son, Jonathan Rapping, a professor of law at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School.

“As a young women getting a PhD in the 1960s, my mother had a keen understanding that she was climbing a steep hill,” said Jonathan Rapping. “Her awareness for all forms of inequity – gender, class, race – brought an awareness that there wasn’t a lot of messaging in television, movies or music that was targeting women.”

Rapping began concentrating on and critically examining soap operas and made-for-TV movies, among the few voices in the mass media that impacted women.

“That was the launch of her study of pop culture,” said Jonathan Rapping. “She started to focus on how pop culture reinforced societal values at the same time it shaped those values.  She saw pop culture as a powerful force to mobilize people and to address societal problems.”

The media sought her opinion, commentary and analysis on matters such as American history, gender issues, culture, politics, law, the media and its programming.  Her wisdom was boundless and her contributions enlightening, whether discussing slackers, Super Bowl advertising, the decline of network news, marijuana use, race horses, reality television or royal babies – all topics she addressed in the last five years for national news outlets.

“I give a good quote,” she modestly told the Buffalo News as part of a 2008 profile.

And she always did.

When Politico asked her in 2012 about stories suggesting a polling conspiracy submarining Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, Rapping nimbly responded: “Yes. It is obviously an international media conspiracy. And I have also heard that Obama was on the grassy knoll the day Kennedy was shot, but the media has been covering it up for all these years.”

But it was more than being quotable that fueled the demand for her expertise.

In 2013, Rapping told USA Today that superheroes were “reassuring symbols that somehow our complicated problems can be solved.” Yet Rapping herself was often the reassuring symbol, a respected intellectual who consistently and concisely deconstructed those complicated problems into comprehensible pieces that made here a memorable contributor to countless news stories.

Rapping brought the airborne superheroes, and other issues of lofty complexity, down to earth for general audiences.

“My mother was a rare academic,” said Jonathan Rapping. “She believed very much that theory was only valuable if it was accessible. For her, important work had to be presented in a way that was accessible beyond the academy.”

The humility she showed in her Buffalo News interview was indeed a life-long character trait.

“People who have been reading stories about my mother are saying they had no idea how much she had accomplished,” said Jonathan Rapping. “She didn’t wear her intelligence on her sleeve.”

But she never failed to inspire, said Jonathan Rapping.

“My work with the organization Gideon’s Promise, training public defenders, and that of my sister, Alison Rapping, the Arizona director of the women’s leadership organization, Take the Lead, are a direct result of our mother’s values,” said Jonathan Rapping.

Rapping published her first book, “Looking Glass World of Nonfiction TV,” in 1987. “Culture of Recovery: Making Sense of the Self-help Movement in Women’s Lives” followed in 1997 and in 1999 she wrote “Media-tions: Forays into the Culture and Gender Wars.”

“She was a probing scholar of popular culture, television and gender,” said Kari Winter, UB professor of transnational studies and director of UB’s Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender. “During her years at UB, I was particularly impressed by her keen insights into the punitive ideological turn in crime dramas in her 2003 book, ‘Law and Justice as Seen on TV.’”

Rapping was born in Chicago, Illinois. She earned a master’s degree and a PhD in English from the University of Pittsburgh and began teaching in the Department of English at Robert Morris University in 1970, spending 20 years at the university, where she also served as director of women’s studies.

Her interest in the scholarly potential of pop culture developed at Robert Morris when she heard the animated conversations of students discussing soap opera characters.

Drawn to New York City and what it had to offer her scholarly interests, Rapping accepted a position as a professor of communications at Adelphia University in 1991, but the university’s administration was not enthusiastic about her pop culture explorations

She came to UB in 1998 and served as professor of American studies until her retirement in 2009.  It was at UB that she became the media’s utility infielder for all matters of pop culture, being quoted in or writing hundreds of pieces well into her retirement.

A memorial service was held Monday morning in Atlanta. The Elayne Antler Rapping Scholarship Fund has been established to support women public defenders.

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