Mass Medias Influence on Social Identities1

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Mass Medias’ Influence on Social Identities
“People have always needed a sense of who they are and a place to ground that sense of
their identity in one or more of the institutions or activities of their lives. [These include] the
Church, their work, their families, and increasingly, their leisure” (Grossberg 219). Leisure is
becoming an increasingly important part of the way in which people form their identities.
Societal and economic changes in industrialized countries have afforded their citizens the ability
to focus more of their efforts of how they spend their free time and discretionary income.
“The origins of the American consumer society can be found in the social changes that
were the product of economic developments between 1880 and 1920…Higher wages
allowed workers to become consumers of the goods they were mass-producing, and
shorter hours allowed them the time and freedom to use their newly purchased goods”
(Grossberg 227)
In the chapter “Producing Identities,” Lawrence Grossberg elaborates on the fact that all
forms of media are capitalizing on the fact that people, on average, have more income and more
leisure time. Interestingly, Grossberg breaks down “identity’ and “audience,” or the way in
which people have a sense of themselves into two dimensions. The first dimension is an
economic identity that suggests people exist as consumers of goods, or for their attention to be
bought and sold as a good itself. The other dimension is a cultural identity that breaks down into
two categories. The first being natural and inevitable and the other being socially constructed.
Through the chapter, Grossberg sheds light on the increasing influence media has on its audience
and how they view themselves.
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“The most common way that those involved in the media industries think of the audience
is as made up of consumers: To sell a book, a film, a record, a videotape, or any media product”
(223). This idea of the audience is fairly straightforward. Media producers understand the
viewers of their content to be consumers of specific ideas and products. They categorize their
viewers by several means including demographics, taste culture, and lifestyle clusters.
“Demographics is the quantitative description of a population according to a set of social or
sociological variables” (Grossberg 224). This can be broken down by age, race, sex, geographic
region, and more. Essentially, the idea is that certain groups of individuals within the same
demographic will likely respond similarly to advertisements they are exposed to, and those
advertisements should be tailored to the demographics of various media sources. Another
category is taste culture. “In this case, demographic identity of the audience members is less
important than the continuing commitment of a group of people to some type of product”
(Grossberg 225). A great example of this is the science fiction community. There is no
demographic information that can accurately break down the fans of sci-fi movies and novels
and this group will include members from every age, race, and sex and needs to be advertised to
in a different way than just a demographic breakdown. Finally, one of the more significant and
recent categories is lifestyle clusters. “[They] can be understood as a mixture of demographic
categories and consumption habits or tastes” (Grossberg 225). These are segments of the
population that also defy traditional demographic breakdowns, and are partial to specific
products or decisions. Advertisers and media producers target these lifestyle clusters as they are
can very accurately and precisely spend their ad dollars on these people.
Interestingly, Grossberg also elaborates on the fact that the media doesn’t only play a role
in selling products to these people but helped develop their identity altogether. “[The] media has
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help[ed] construct a consumer society by encouraging people to locate their identity in their
leisure tastes and consumer practices” (Grossberg 228). Whether it be intentional or not, the
media created the consumer and convinced them to buy their products. A prime example of this
is the increasing number of subscription services geared towards college students and young
professionals that have risen through the ranks almost entirely through marketing on social
media. A subscription service I have used in the past, and I personally know others who used is
called Five Four Club. Five Four Club is a subscription service that provides a new outfit or two
on a monthly basis to its subscribers. New users fill out a survey when signing up that tailors the
outfits to their style and size and ensures that the user always has a new outfit without taking the
time to go to the mall and pick something out. This is a prime example of a lifestyle cluster in
which millennials are so concerned with efficiency in their life that they pay for someone else to
pick their clothes out for them. Interestingly, the Women’s version of this same service,
StitchFix, is currently valued at $1.5BN. These monthly-subscription fashion companies helped
create the identity of millennials as being the most efficient generation who always wants
something instantly, and sold them the products to make that identity come to fruition.
“The media not only created a consumer society by constructing the audience for its
messages as a market, but it also constructed the audience as a commodity” (Grossberg 229). In
other words, the media is not only constructing a market of consumers to sell an ideology,
lifestyle, or narrative. But the media also intends to sell this audience that it has aggregated, as a
commodity to be bought and sold, to advertisers attempting to maximize their ad dollars on
specific demographics of people. The Super Bowl is an excellent example of this. Although the
Superbowl, at heart, is about football and watching the best two teams in the NFL play each
other, millions of people tune in to the game simply for the commercials. The NFL knows this
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and knows the demographics of the people tuning in and uses this information to “sell” their
viewers to advertisers who want to place commercials during the game. “Advertisers are
purchasing what they hope is the attention, the visual labor of watching and the labor of
listening, of the audience [the NFL has constructed]” (Grossberg 231). A current example of this
and one that we have probably all experienced is the advertisements we are subjected to through
Youtube or other music streaming websites like Spotify. These services know that a specific type
of person listens to a specific genre of music and the audience of different genres can be
advertised different products. These streaming sites then go on to sell the viewership of these
people to advertisers who are attempting to capture a specific demographic or culture of people.
“We can [also] think of the audience as cultural identities represented in the media. The
audience is composed of individuals who are each member of one or more social groups that
define their identity” (Grossberg 232). Each person’s identity is a function of their position
within their various social groups and the differences between groups. This cultural dimension is
then broken down into an essentialist (stereotype) and non-essentialist (socially constructed)
The essentialist view “assumes every category (identity) exists naturally, in and of itself.
And the meaning of the category is always intrinsic to the category itself” (Grossberg 234).
Under this representation of culture, stereotypes are not inherently a bad thing. They are natural
ways in which we group information based on past experiences to guide our expectations of the
future and prepare us for future experiences. That said, traditionally stereotyping has perverted
the perception of certain social groups within the media. For example, white men have
consistently played the powerful and adventurous roles in films and on TV while women and
other minority group have been systematically underrepresented if represented at all. Also, an
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authentic and interesting point that Grossberg brings about is that fact that those who suggest
there is a “correct” image of specific demographics of people is inherently stereotypical. To
elaborate, if an individual of a specific race or culture does not like the way that race or culture is
represented in the media and wants to be expressed in a specific way, then they are stereotyping
their people. For that person to assume there is a correct way to represent a group of people is in
itself stereotyping. Regardless of one’s ideas about representing a specific group of people, it’s
important to recognize the fact that the media has and will continue to play such a profound role
in influencing how individuals think about themselves and each other.
Contrary to the Essentialist view, the Anti-Essentialist view states that “the very
existence of such categories, as well as the specific ways they function, the specific differences
they mark, and the specific meaning they carry, are all socially constructed” (Grossberg 234).
This theory points at the fact that differences between social groups and demographics do exist,
however humans intensify the significance of certain, usually visual, differences and their
meanings as products of the “communicative codes of society” (Grossberg 234). One aspect of
social construction to consider is that some people believe that distinction among demographics
of people are found in nature and are based on the genetics of the individual. In reality, it is not
possible to see the genetic code of another human. As a result, when we associate a characteristic
of something like having long hair as being feminine, we are not looking through the skin of the
person and into their DNA, we are applying an understanding of what we have been taught to be
feminine on the person we have just met. The idea of gender is likely the largest victim of social
construction as it has been systematically perpetuated throughout history. Women have been
constructed as an almost second-class citizen throughout history who need a man in their life to
support them. This idea is becoming increasingly challenged. As women have had more access
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to education, they have continuously moved through the ranks, breaking glass-ceiling after glass-
ceiling and proving themselves throughout society, whether it be in corporate America or
politics. This is an excellent example of a social construction regarding women that has hindered
their pursuits and has led to a drastic underrepresentation of women at the executive level of
Fortune 500 companies. Often times, people are skeptical of a woman’s ability to be a leader
because from a young age, particularly through children’s movies and TV, women are presented
as submissive. Although we know that women are not inferior in any way to the careers that have
been dominated by men, we have been subconsciously taught women are inferior to men through
continuous repetition of gender roles in media.
Mass Media and its prevalence in our lives has influenced society in ways that transcend
simply providing information to the uninformed. Media has changed the way we find our
identities and has even created the identities in which many of us pursue. Whether they be
socially constructed, or natural, or a function of corporate America attempting to squeeze every
last dollar out of society, the identities that mass media has produced and perpetuated have and
will continue to affect us all.
Works Cited
Grossberg, Lawrence. “Producing Identities.” Mediamaking: Mass Media in a Popular
Culture, Sage Publications, 2006, pp. 219252.

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