ON MEDIA, GENDER & IDENTITY: KIRSTEN PULLEN AND DAVID GAUNTLETT IN CONVERSATION

This is a conversation between Kirsten Pullen (Colorado State University, USA) and David Gauntlett (University of Leeds, UK) around the themes of Media, Gender and Identity. Conducted by email in November 2001.

Kirsten Pullen: David, the first question that comes to my mind is how and why is this book a 'new' introduction to gender, media, and identity. Since feminist film theorists started looking at classic Hollywood cinema (to chose one arbitrary, and familiar signpost in the history of media studies), it seems that this triad has been scrupulously examined from a variety of perspectives and by a variety of critics. And, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, and Anthony Giddens, while certainly relevant critics, aren't necessarily the new(est) kids on the block. I'm not challenging your choice of title, only asking you to speak a bit about what's 'new' in this book.

David Gauntlett: Well, the simple answer is that the book is using ideas from some established figures but putting them together -- particularly in relation to popular culture and media audiences -- in a new way. So the book contains new arguments about how we can understand things, and how we can use some existing perspectives to gain new insight into the relationships between media, gender and identity. For example, both Foucault and Giddens have written very interesting material about how people create a sense of self, and construct identities and lifestyles, but these ideas are usually expressed in quite abstract terms, and any connections to popular culture or media are usually vague or fleeting.

That's not a criticism of the work of these theorists -- they are throwing out ideas which other people can then run with -- and so that's what I'm doing in this book, seeing what happens when you take some interesting-sounding but rather abstract ideas about identity and the self, and then try to understand them in the real-world context of actual individuals and the popular media of today.

So it's a new introduction to media, gender and identity because it's offering an account of this area which is new at least in the sense that it's not the usual set of explanations you get on this subject. As you say, there has been a lot of work on media, gender and identity before, but a lot of it, I'd say, is ultimately quite unsatisfactory. Some of the classic feminist work launched interesting ideas, but now seems worryingly sexist itself, with its bold assertions about how men and women will look at things differently. Psychologists seem to have arrived at only the most threadbare of accounts of how the media and popular culture might play a role in the formation of identities. And other work is not as relevant now as it might have been 20 or 30 years ago.

That's another one of the book's 'new' aspects -- it is concerned with the popular media we have now, in the early years of the twenty-first century. There are several significant ways in which the media is different from how it was in the 1970s and 80s, when a lot of the previous accounts were produced.

KP: In what ways?

DG: Well for example, there are now lifestyle magazines for men, which became popular in the 1990s, and offer some new (and some old) ways of thinking about being a man today. Elsewhere, the 'girl power' message -- whether it's a cynical marketing tool or not -- remains strong; and representations of women and men have changed in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I noticed that most books on representations of gender, including some very recent ones, seemed to think that you could talk about representations 'today' and refer to any study or example from 1970 onwards. I draw attention to important differences between the situation in the 1970s, and the 80s, and the 90s, and now. The ways in which we think about and show gender are changing all the time.

KP: You quote Beck as saying that 'inherited recipes for living and role stereotypes fail to function' in modern (postmodern?) society. While I certainly understand that media offers multiple 'guides' for constructing an identity, and implying ways of living (to use your words), could you explain a little how the suggestions for identity formation offered by popular culture don't fall under 'inherited recipes.'

DG: You mean that messages from the media themselves count as 'inherited recipes'? I see what you mean, and after all the mass media is a mainstream, 'authority' source. But I think that when Beck says 'inherited recipes', he is talking about more traditional recipes for life -- that's what I took it to mean, anyway. You'd still be right to challenge my implication that the ideas carried in the media are non-traditional. It's all relative, of course. The book contains a lot of discussion of examples. Overall we find that in terms of gender roles, popular media is today relatively challenging of the traditional ideas: women are expected to be confident, sexually assertive, do what they want to do no matter what anybody says. And men's roles, as seen in the media, haven't changed so much, but have become somewhat more sensitive and self-reflexive, and more aware of their partner's needs. In terms of sexuality, though, the media's messages have become only a little bit less conservative than in the past, and the 'inherited recipes' have been subjected to a bit of a shake, but not really been transformed, it has to be said. But basically I'd say that the media's messages, within young people's media in particular, are not the 'inherited' recipes, they are new ones.

KP: I'm going to agree to disagree here. I think that it's not so much relative as cyclical. For example, you bring up masculinity in the media and 'sensitive' men. What about Alan Alda? It seems to me that in the 1970s, for example at least in the US, that the sensitive man (Alda's MASH character, Phil Donahue and his unabashed feminism, Jimmy Carter's cardigan sweaters and negotiation model of foreign policy, etc.) was explored and celebrated in pop culture. I wonder if media studies, because it is a mini-industry always producing new texts, re-invents the wheel every decade? And, I get a little nervous about generalizations about new representations of sexuality (which I notice you're careful not to make) when I think about (again in a US context) the pre-production code Hollywood films of the 1920s and early 1930s. But again, I think it's a different way of looking at things: are they new and different; are they transformations of existing discourse; are they a recycling of the old? It's a fun thing to think about, at least.

DG: I know what you mean... but there are clear changes in the media of the past ten years or so, which bring certain ideas much more into the mainstream than they ever were before -- the visibility of gays and lesbians, for example (even though it's still limited), and in particular a more liberal and less sexist attitude to sex -- don't you think?

KP: Umm, I'm not sure. For the sake of polemic, I'm going to say not necessarily. In the 1970s, Soap had a gay character and high ratings, and disco allowed for more sexual expression. Going all the way back to the1920s, there were two lesbian plays and one gay play on Broadway! Again, I think that at certain times the culture is more willing to support alternative sexualities. Maybe because I fancy myself a historian of a certain stripe I'm going to insist on a cyclical pattern; eruptions at different points rather than a progression. On the other hand, I'm not going to insist blindly that there hasn't been a transformation of some kind in the way we think and live sexuality; certainly at this moment there does seem to be a more liberal and less sexist attitude to sex.

DG: Well, I don't agree that it's all just cycles of this and that, going around and around. I think that things are changing -- maybe quite slowly, in some spheres, but changing, pretty implacably, nonetheless. But let's move on.

KP: What do you think students will make of your book? I ask, because as more and more universities, colleges, and even high schools offer media studies courses which take as their central questions the role of media on identity formation, especially for young men and women (as your book does as well), I wonder about the kind of feedback loop that can be created.

DG: How do you mean?

KP: It seems to me that students who are already very savvy and knowing about their relationship to the media (although perhaps simultaneously unsavvy about other aspects of that relationship), take courses and read books about them and their identities -- which seems kind of interesting to me, not least perhaps because I'm teaching one of those courses. So, the real question behind all that is how does your book (and similar books and courses) become part of the media or guides-for-living that your book critiques, analyzes, and questions?

DG: Hmm, that's interesting. I think, as you say, people are increasingly curious about our own construction of identity, which is one of the reasons why people buy magazines and self-help books, and watch 'people shows' on TV, and also one of the reasons why people are interested to do courses in media or sociology or psychology. I think we tend to keep the 'analysis' separate from the actual 'stuff' (the cultural material of magazines or movies or music or whatever), though -- in the sense that one doesn't start to replace the other. So I don't think that an analysis of the place of media in everyday lives and identities, like my book, would take on the role of being a 'guide for living' itself. But having said that, you do start to experience things differently, once you've started to think about them. Your tastes probably remain more or less the same, though.

I find it interesting that the same themes show up in my academic interests and my pop-culture interests, though -- in a non-deliberate way, I mean. For example, this weekend I came across all my old Howard Jones records, and I enjoyed playing them again -- they stand up well today. Howard Jones was the first pop star that I was really into; he was a pioneer of synth-pop in the mid-1980s, when I was in my mid-teens. The funny thing is that all of the Howard Jones songs that I really liked back then had a very clear-cut set of themes -- about how you should believe in yourself, and not feel confined by stereotypes or people's 'preconceived ideas', and about how life is not a competition, and anybody can change to become what they want to be -- it sounds sucky now, but these were the messages of some pretty good pop songs -- and these themes occur again and again in Howard's songs (in an obvious way that was probably irritating to non-fans). Of course the rather worrying surprise -- I can't call it a coincidence because it obviously can't actually be a coincidence -- is to find that these are the themes which I am today most preoccupied with in my academic work, 15 years later!

I'm not saying that the popular media (Howard Jones in this case) caused me to be interested in these issues; and I didn't become a Howard Jones fan in 1985 because I'd previously identified these concerns as interesting! Instead, the pop interests and the academic interests obviously stem from the same place.

KP: This is one of the toughest things for me to communicate to my first-year students. After the first essay they write, many complain that they can't just enjoy TV anymore -- I've forced them to think while they watch. I try to tell them that there's pleasure in this kind of critical watching -- I certainly get a lot of pleasure out of reading texts -- but I'm not always sure they buy it. This is a bit of a digression, but I just saw Serendipity last night, a well-reviewed but not particularly enjoyable romantic comedy (maybe I just hate romantic comedy!) and I got more pleasure talking over the film and it's 'queer reading' than I did actually seeing the film. But I do think that once you get started down the media studies road, you realise fairly quickly that your likes correspond to your academic interests. Obviously, I consider myself a feminist, but it wasn't until about 6 months ago that I realised the vast majority of my CD collection was female artists -- I don't think that's coincidence!

DG: Ha, yes. Of course your friends spotted this years ago... and none of us is as self-aware as we like to think!

KP: One of the things I like about your work and that this book seems to do well is to recognise and interrogate the ambivalence of some of the new ways of talking about gender in the media -- Maxim and other men's magazines are both about an assertive masculinity and about a vulnerability and concern with image traditionally associated with women's magazines. My question, then, is what tools do you bring to bear, both in your writing and in your classes, to go beyond an initial 'yay, pop culture!' or 'ugh, pop culture!' response?

DG: Oh that's a good question. It's not really satisfactory to have an essay that goes, 'Are women's magazines a good thing or a bad thing?', and then they debate the pros and cons and decide that they are mostly bad (or good) but with some good (or bad) aspects. As you suggest, that doesn't get us very far. To understand these questions better I think we need to look at what the appeal of the magazine (or whatever other piece of popular culture) is -- in other words, why is it popular? -- and then look at what meanings that thing might have for an individual and how it might, in any small or subtle way, have an influence on a person's sense of identity.

So I'm always on the lookout for any theorist that might give us useful tools for thinking about that. In Media, Gender and Identity I aim to show how people can make use of the work of Anthony Giddens (on how media products can be used as part of the construction of a 'lifestyle' and a 'narrative of the self'); and Michel Foucault (on how media may contribute to the cultivation of the self, and also lead people to monitor and police themselves and their projected identities); and Judith Butler (on the fluidity of identities); amongst others.

KP: You seem to suggest that 'popular feminism' has allowed many young men and women to shift some of their ideas about gender roles -- the 'radio-friendly remix' has disseminated feminism to a wider audience. While I think this is certainly true and even positive, I wonder if there isn't a danger here. Many of my students and colleagues (of all ages and genders) assume that the 'women's lib' battles have been fought and won -- after all, Ally McBeal is a serious lawyer despite her gender and her short skirts. For someone who is always aware that it's more complicated than that (my favourite phrase), I worry that 'popular feminism' masks more ambivalence about gender roles than its widespread acceptance suggests. Any thoughts?

DG: There's certainly a problem that people think debates about gender are over with now, and that feminism has come, and done its thing, and that's that. I think it's interesting that Angela McRobbie, who would probably call herself a feminist, dares to suggest that the problem is partly because feminism failed to keep up, after certain popular discourses (Cosmo, and later Madonna, and then the Spice Girls, then Destiny's Child) picked up the ball and ran with it. (They popularised certain ideas -- assertiveness for women, basically -- but also of course didn't carry forward all of feminism's messages. The idea that you shouldn't have to conform to a glamorous ideal, for example, seems to have been lost here). McRobbie realistically recognises that young women today grew up in a time when feminism was the language used by some well-established authority figures -- it's like the voice of your parents! We couldn't expect them to just accept that ideology -- rebellion is much more healthy. And in fact, it's not like the new generations have rejected feminism -- they have embraced it really, but they wouldn't call it 'feminism' because of feminism's image problem.

But, as you say, although the popular remix of feminism is accepted by young women, it remains the case that most women and men remain somewhat constricted within particular gender roles. My students would say 'That's because we like it like this,' but I still think it's rather too delineated. What do you think has been the significance (or not) of the populist remix of feminism put forward by Cosmo and the confident female pop groups?

KP: In general, I would agree that many young women (and men) are 'feminists' in the sense that they identify with the images of women put forth by Destiny's Child and Cosmo. The popularizing of feminism, and the separation of female agency and autonomy from 'women's lib' have allowed the idea that women are in charge of their bodies, their careers, their emotions, and their intellect to gain more widespread acceptance, which I would argue is a positive thing. I am frustrated, though, by the assumption on the part of many of my students that the goals of the women's rights movement have been met. In some ways, this creates a bind for young women -- we are taught that if we just work hard enough and assert ourselves we will be successful. And, while this is a more realistic view than it was 30 years ago, I do think that sexism still exists -- I don't think the disparity between tenured men and tenured women in the academy can be attributed solely to the notions that women scholars aren't as hard-working or talented as their male counterparts. So, while I am pleased with the popularization of feminism and increasing numbers of young people holding what are traditionally feminist views even if they don't label them as such, I do worry that popular feminism elides very real instances of 'patriarchial oppression.'

DG: Oh yes, I would agree. I never mean to imply that everything is fair and equal now, as it obviously isn't. I'm quite optimistic about young people's attitudes. In particular the confidence of young women is good, but is also necessary, because I don't think men have changed that much and women still have an uphill struggle against stupid old sexist attitudes.

KP: In a related question, gay rights, or even freedom of sexual orientation are certainly more visible in popular culture than they were five or certainly ten years ago. At the same time, does this increased visibility really lead to increased acceptance? Or, are the media gains made to stand in for real, political gains. I'm reminded of an old All in the Family episode, where Edith Bunker is asked what she thinks of black people. In her inimitable way, she responds that just five years ago they were janitors, cooks, and maids and now they're lawyers, doctors, police officers, and businessmen -- they've come a long way on television. In some ways, this gets back to my thoughts on 'new' and 'inherited recipes?' Has much changed? How does media studies push the change, insist upon the slow but steady transformation of society through pop culture representation?

DG: Well of course we should never confuse changes in the media with changes in real life. However I do think that popular media can take a leading role in this kind of social change. On its own, the media can't transform people's attitudes, but I think it can help to chip away at people's prejudices. To take up an example you mentioned, intolerance towards lesbians and gays is slowly decreasing (I've got statistics about this in the book). By no means has it gone away, but it's in decline. I think that one part of the reason for that is that TV has allowed people to 'get to know' some pleasant gay characters. That doesn't always work of course -- some people are so intolerant that they just get even more angry when they see people from groups they hate on screen. But I think that over time, popular media is bound to be able to slowly affect attitudes.


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