Billie Elish

Identity and Billie Eilish

What is Identity?

Our identities are shaped by our culture and experiences. It is how we define ourselves in terms of demographics, such as gender, ethnicity and economic power, and our values and beliefs.

In his book “Media, Gender and Identity” (2008), David Gauntlett explored the representation of gender in the media and its impact on our identity. He offered terrific summaries of important theories and theorists, including Liesbeth van Zoonen’s thoughts on feminism and bell hooks’ intersectionality, and commented on their relevancy when approaching a variety of different media texts.

If you are looking to practise your analytical skills and your understanding of Gauntlett’s key concepts, then this magazine cover is a great place to start.

Essay Question

Analyse the following magazine cover in terms of identity as summarised by Gauntlett, including constructed identity and fluidity of identity.

Elle magazine cover with Billie Elilish
Elle Magazine Cover

Elle Magazine Cover

Elle Magazine claims to be an “international authority on style” and focuses on fashion and “spirited content” for young women. Its online output reaches over one million unique viewers each month. This magazine cover is from their October 2019 edition and you can read the interview with the pop star by clicking here.

Billie Eilish’s debut solo album topped the US Billboard charts in 2019 and she won plenty of accolades, including five Grammy Awards and a Brit Award. Wanting to look “memorable”, she also receives lots of media attention for her style and fashion. Her control over her identity and public persona makes this particular media text worth studying.

Points to Consider

You always need to explore how media language constructs cultural meanings, so make sure you refer to the codes and conventions of magazine covers in your answer. For example, how does the headline “the new edge of seventeen” help to anchor the preferred reading of the text? You might comment on why the typographical choice supports that interpretation.

Fluidity of Identity

David Gauntlett noted there was a fluidity of identity regarding the representation of men and women in broadcast media, moving from the stereotype of the passive housewife to the new depictions of “girl power” where women were no longer simply being objectified in the narrative.

Look at the dominant signifier of Billie Eilish. How does her self-representation differ from the old stereotypes? For instance, what does the grey and fleecy dress code suggest about her identity? You should also comment on the fact she has zipped her coat right to the top. Is she simply an object of the male gaze on this magazine cover?

Long and painted nails are often a signifier of femininity. However, what do Billies garish green nails suggest about her personality? Do they look passive or aggressive? Earrings, lipstick, plucked eyebrows and eyeshadow are also typically regarded as feminine so you could comment on how Billie reinforces some gender stereotypes in this photo shoot.

Try to apply Roland Barthes’ concept of myth to the magazine, especially how the cover celebrates these conventional aspects of femininity repeated by mainstream media. It will also be worth considering our obsession with celebrities.

Constructed Identity

Elle is a French pronoun meaning “she” so it should be obvious the primary target audience for this particular publication is young women, especially anyone interested in fashion, beauty and celebrity gossip. When the readers view this representation of an empowered young woman, they might want to emulate the musician. This leads us to the concept of constructed identity.

How do the cover stories also target this demographic? You might want to frame your answer in terms of the uses and gratifications theory and, in particular, personal identity.

Does the representation offer some cues to how we can construct our own identity?

There is no doubt Billie Eilish is in control of her representation and how she wants to be perceived by her audience. Psychologists might call this impression management. For media studies, we could analyse the representation according to her “public face”. In other words, you need to describe what meanings she is trying to convey in the carefully constructed pose and choices in terms of makeup and clothing. Is she generating a social performance?

Further Study

If you want to reinforce your understanding of fluidity of identity and constructed identity, you should go back and read our introduction to David Gauntlett and his ideas on gender.

Finally, bell hooks argued we needed to develop an oppositional gaze and critically assess the dominant ideologies being repeated in the media. Is the representation of Billie Elish something we should applaud because she is a wonderful role model for young people?

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