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Abstract

Imagine a contentious child-custody hearing in which the husband is testifying about his wife's behavior. If he were to state “she is no June Cleaver,” that testimony would have an immediate impact upon those present. Most people would understand that the husband was making a reference to Mrs. Ward Cleaver, the pearl-clad mother figure from the popular 1950s television show Leave It to Beaver. However, the reference does more than simply call to mind 1950s television. It is a vivid popular-culture allusion that immediately taps into the psyche of anyone familiar with the show. It tells the listener that the mother in this case probably does not stay at home with her children during the day. She is not a stellar housekeeper. She likely does not have dinner on the table when the family gets home in the evening. Perhaps she is neither nice to nor understanding of her children. But mostly the reference tells the listener she is not an ideal mother. How and why is so much information conveyed in such a concise manner? What is the value of using popular culture as a persuasive legal tool? Why do legal audiences respond so significantly to these fragments of not-so-current events? Understanding these questions gives insight into the use of popular culture as a valuable persuasive device. It also, however, raises the issue of whether using popular-culture references is simply good lawyering or manipulation that masks the truth. Learning how to tap into the former while avoiding ethical issues raised by the latter is the purpose of this Article.

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