“Did you know that dolphins are just gay sharks?”

This quirky quote from a ditzy cheerleader on the popular TV show, Glee, can be found on the Facebook walls and t-shirts of many tweens. It was also the title of a panel at the recent Console-ing Passions conference hosted by the Suffolk University College of Arts & Sciences.

Nearly 200 media studies scholars came from far and wide to dissect the gender politics of fashion on Mad Men and depictions of sexuality in video games. Zombies, Real Housewives, and Lady Gaga also featured prominently in the discussions.

If these themes seem more like the contents of Entertainment Weekly magazine than the panels at an academic conference, that’s 100% intentional:

“We love what we study because people engage with pop culture every day,” explains conference organizer and Suffolk communication professor Nina Huntemann. “Most people dismiss this media as mere entertainment. But when the vast majority of society spends more time watching television than reading books – and more time listening to pop music than the news – it does have an important and lasting influence on attitudes and behaviors.”

Pop culture meets popular opinion

If the media that society consumes both reflects and shapes its views, things like perceptions of gender or homosexuality on a popular show like Glee move beyond the realm of entertainment into public discourse. And these topics don’t just spark debate in the living room and the “ivory tower” of academia; they’re influencing talk on Capitol Hill, too.

Conference planners suspected their topic would appeal to a broader audience. They were right; more than 100 members of the local Boston community attended the final conference plenary session, hosted by noted feminist media critic and author Jean Kilbourne. After a screening of the film The Purity Myth, a distinguished panel of experts explored how the media contributes to the perception that a woman’s worth is linked to her sexual behavior, and how that relates to the much talked about “war on women”.

“We talked about how some pundits use moral attacks to try to silence women’s voices – how someone like Rush Limbaugh will dismiss a woman with an opposing view on healthcare by calling her a ‘whore’ rather than address her argument,” explains Huntemann, who takes heart in the fact that more progressive views of gender and sexuality are also gaining ground in the public square, particularly through the use of online social networking.

Panelist and social media expert Deanna Zandt, who has successfully used social media to encourage grassroots feminist activism, told the lively crowd that they “already have all the power [they] need – it’s the agency to express that which is critical.”

For attendees, Console-ing Passions may have just provided the spark.