Elayne Antler Rapping, 77, a pioneer in the study of popular culture and its social impact, died Tuesday, June 7, 2016, in Atlanta, surrounded by family.
Her work helped transform the way television and movies are understood as a reflection of the most pressing social concerns of the time and a harbinger of the nation’s consciousness of those issues.
Rapping was born in Chicago. She married Leonard A. Rapping, whom she met while studying at the University of Chicago, before moving to Los Angeles, where she earned her bachelor’s degree from UCLA. Rapping later moved to Pittsburgh, where she earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pittsburgh. Rapping began her academic career as a professor of English and director of women’s studies at Robert Morris University from 1970 to 1990. She later became a professor of communications at Adelphi University from 1991 to 1998 and a professor of American studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo until 2009, when she retired.
Rapping’s experience navigating the male-dominated academic world in the late 1960s, while raising two young children, served to raise her consciousness about gender discrimination. Her activism increased as she became more involved with the anti-war and civil rights movements, and she came to understand how the role of women was often marginalized even in these social movements. She became a women’s rights activist and leading feminist voice. She divorced while her children were young, and as a single mother with a daughter and a son she became acutely sensitive to the cultural forces that reinforced societal gender roles.
Her first book, “The Looking Glass World of Non-Fiction Television,” examined how television programming is derived from, and reinforces, our cultural and economic values. She was among the first academics to take seriously programming that targeted women, and she frequently wrote about the importance of soap operas and made-for-TV movies. Her second book, “Movie of the Week: Private Stories, Public Events,” further shined a light on the role of television in raising awareness of oft-ignored issues that affect women. Rapping taught and wrote in accessible language that enabled her to easily relate complex theory to her students and readers. Her rejection of a narrow view of feminism that shunned all gender roles helped make feminist theory attractive to younger audiences.
In the last of her five published books, “Law and Justice as Seen on TV,” she began to apply her work more broadly, examining how law-related television programming shed light on some of the most important legal and social issues of our time. Renowned political science professor Austin Sarat stated that Rapping’s work “shows how valuable the analysis of popular culture can be in illuminating some of the most important legal and social issues of our time.”
Rapping’s influence carries on in the ongoing work of her children, both of whom inherited her passion for social justice. Rapping’s daughter, Alison, who has spent the past 25 years in the nonprofit sector, has become a leader in the effort to mobilize not-for-profit organizations to address some of the community’s most pressing social concerns. Her most recent venture, spearheading Take the Lead’s “50 Women Can Change the World,” an intensive leadership training program for women who work in the nonprofit sector, builds on her mother’s legacy to mobilize a generation of young women to address the most important challenges of the day.
Rapping’s son, Jonathan, who earned a MacArthur genius grant for his work in the criminal justice arena, is equally influenced by his mother’s work. His organization, Gideon’s Promise, seeks to transform the cultural influences shaping our “tough-on-crime mind-set” that his mother wrote about so insightfully. As a professor of law at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, he also follows in her footsteps as he teaches future lawyers to lead purposeful careers. Jonathan regularly credits his mother’s influence in his writing about criminal justice reform.
In addition to her two children, Rapping is survived by her daughter-in-law, Ilham Askia, an educator and criminal justice reformer, and her two grandchildren, Aaliyah and Lucas. Rapping died after a heroic battle with breast cancer. In her final days she expressed immense satisfaction with all she has accomplished and in knowing her life’s work is being carried on through those she has loved and influenced.
Sign the online guestbook at www.edressler.com. In lieu of flowers, please donate to the Elayne Antler Rapping Scholarship Fund to support female public defenders at www.gideonspromise.org/donate. Please write in the comment section “For the Elayne Antler Rapping Scholarship Fund.” A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Monday, June 13, in the chapel at Dressler’s Jewish Funeral Care. Arrangements by Dressler’s Jewish Funeral Care, 770-451-4999.