Do you follow the fashion trends and new hairstyles you see on social media, buy the content creator’s merchandise, or share your playlists so you can sing the same tunes with your friends? Some critics argue television shows affect the way we behave towards other people, especially our expectations of romantic relationships or how we conduct ourselves in an office environment. As Gerbner suggested in his cultivation theory, the media might shape how we see the world.
Even if you believe the media’s power over us is less pervasive than the opinions of our friends and family, it is still worth exploring its impact on our identity.
Media, Gender and Identity
In his 2008 update to “Media, Gender and Identity”, David Gauntlett argued our heavy exposure to the media could “hardly fail to affect our own way of conducting ourselves and our expectations of other people’s behaviour”.1 Although the research and case studies mostly focused in the representation of gender, his approach can easily be applied to other aspects of our identity.
Fluidity of Identity
Gauntlett commented on the changing representation of men and women in mainstream media. The depiction of the passive housewife throughout the twentieth century was increasingly being replaced by images of assertive women taking control of their lives, epitomised by the “girl power” endorsed by the Spice Girls.
The representation of men being active and confident was giving way to a more introspective and emotionally-aware version of masculinity. “Men’s Health” magazine and its focus on wellbeing, which Gauntlett cited as a great example of this shift, was first published in 1986.
Despite the old binary representations still finding their way to the front covers of magazines and forming the narrative of most Hollywood blockbusters, there is now a “greater diversity of identities” being depicted in the media.
Case Study – Lynx Advertisement
Gender identities are not fixed because we are willing to adapt to new cultural norms. Consider the following advertisement for Lynx Africa deodorant and its representation of relationships.
The narrative begins with the boy meets girl trope but ends with the girl taking control of the relationship, suggesting a shift in the balance of power between genders. There is also a break from the dominant heteronormative ideology with the representation of the two boys at the bus shelter.
For a more detailed look at gender identities, you should read our introduction to Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble”. She described gender as a “stylized repetition of acts” and a role we are expected to perform. Importantly, those roles can change over time.
Although the representation of femininity and masculinity might be shifting away from the old binary definitions, they will still offer a variety of cues we can use in the meaningful construction of our identity. The magazines we read or the films we watch all provide information about ways of living which we purposely and knowingly integrate into our own relationships and lifestyles.
For instance, we value the ideas expressed by the contemporary opinion leaders who dominate our social media feeds. If an influencer on Instagram or TikTok suggests we should visit a particular shop or buy a certain brand, we might act on that advice. The representation of characters in a sitcom or a film could help us discover our own identity.
This concept of the constructed identity is similar to the symbolic modelling in Albert Bandura’s social learning theory which argues children learn behaviour from the role models they see on television. There is no doubt children copy the language and actions of the people they see on YouTube.
Be the Hero
The media helps us
to construct our identity.
Gauntlett’s own Lego Experiment, which is detailed below, supported two important sociological arguments regarding constructed identities. First, he observed how participants developed a “back stage” personality and a “public face”, reinforcing Goffman’s argument that we generate social performances depending on our audience.2 Think about the way you speak to your parents and teachers compared to the language you exchange with your close friends. In linguistics, the term register refers to the different words and phrases we use for different situations.
Second, we construct a personal biographical narrative to tell the “story” of our identity.3 For example, we might carefully select which details to reveal so we can manage how we are viewed by other people.
The media can help us establish our own identity – no matter which texts we choose to consume, there will certain representations of gender that will appeal to our own sensibilities.
Inevitably, there will be some tension between this construct and how we present ourselves to the world. Whether it is our relationships, interests or careers, we want to engage with others but still retain some individuality. Therefore, as Goffman argued, we need to reach a “working consensus” or agreement regarding the roles each person will assume in any interaction.4
A negotiated identity is a balance between our own desires and meeting the expectations of others.
Again, think about how you interact with your teachers in school or college. Is your demeanour and tone of voice different from how you behave in the park with your friends?
In terms of media studies, collective identity refers to our sense of belonging to group, especially because there is shared interest or love for a media text. Of course, the uses of gratifications theory described our desire for personal relationships as a key motivator for consuming the media. Fandoms are an excellent example of this cultural experience because they are such a strong influence on our identity.
Gauntlett on “Identity”
David Gauntlett and his approach to identity is part of the syllabus of A Level Media Studies. He created this video to help students consider his thoughts regarding representation.
Gauntlett offered a list of conclusions in “Media, Gender and Identity” that are worth pointing out. He assumed there was a generational divide in attitudes towards gender roles, but older people were less likely to be exposed to the new liberal representations of masculinity and femininity. He also wondered if this younger demographic would “grow up to be the narrow-minded traditionalists of the future”.
He argued role models served as “navigation points” guiding the audience through their own choices in life.
Finally, Gauntlett emphasised the contradictions in the media. While some texts offered a liberal and diverse representation of sexuality, for example, others repeated more a traditional stance on relationships. Different messages could easily be found in a single text, such as the different sections in a magazine aimed at women. In this way, popular culture delivers a terrific range of values and ideologies. Our identities are just as complex.
The Lego Experiment
In a wonderfully innovative project, Gauntlett offered a group of young pupils from Leeds the opportunity to make their own video productions discussing important environmental issues. Their thoughtful and critical responses demonstrated impressive media literacy and a tremendous awareness of how the media constructs messages. The researcher concluded that newer methodologies were needed to investigate the media’s influence on our behaviour because the old effects models of audience theory failed to properly explain the relationship.
Gauntlett continued using his own approach, inviting participants to create artistic responses, such as collages and diaries, to describe their experiences with the media and the world. Perhaps the best example of these studies is his Lego Experiment.
In this simple task, Gauntlett asked people to develop a version of their identity by piecing together Lego blocks into meaningful shapes and then commenting on the decisions they made during the construction process. Reinforcing previous results, participants had no trouble building a representation of themselves, which suggested we have a solid understanding of our own sense of self. Of course, there were plenty of references to their hobbies, loves and aspirations.
your own identity using Lego
Interestingly, very few people mentioned the importance of the media’s influence on their identity.
We are media literate. We understand and appreciate how the media constructs messages to the extent we can follow their codes of conventions in our own texts, but the media has a limited impact on our identity and how we view ourselves. Despite not having a powerful influence on our behaviour, the media does provide some signs, codes and narratives which we can use to express our identity.
Some harsh and blinkered critics might dismiss Gauntlett’s Lego experiments as irrelevant and unscientific. You should read his simple explainer for practice-based research. There is no doubt his creative approach is a “process of investigation, leading to new insights, that are effectively shared”.
Now we have covered important four approaches to understanding identity, try to evaluate which ones are the most significant influences on your own identity. Do you define yourself by the team you support? Do you feel your appearance and behaviour in work is the real you? Is there any truth to the version you present to your friends? Or are you always performing a role?
You might find it useful to download our identity worksheet and complete those questions.
Exam Practice and Revision
If you would like to develop your understanding of the media’s impact on our identity, you can find lots of products to analyse on our representation exam practice page. The cover of Elle magazine with Billie Eilish is a good text to start your revision of the key concepts.