Studies of young people and media tell us a lot about how media work, in a general sense.
Research on girls and the media has established that popular culture is a powerful socialising force. When girls read magazines, listen to music, and swoon over teen idols, they are figuring out how they are going to fit into societies. For complicated reasons, the world often has a vested interest in creating the impression that women’s choices are limited. In this regard, media become important as agents that either get girls to accept this as ‘just the way things are’, or else encourage them to kick against ‘common sense’ views of what they can be.
Early studies on girl culture emphasised that teenage media habits were the foundation for ‘careers as women’. In other words, it’s interesting to think about how impressions of what girls *can* become, developed in relation to media images, is related to what they *do* become. I’ve been thinking about this recently, in regard to a couple of news stories.
On Monday, I wrote about #THISISNOTUS; a Twitter # used by 1D fans to protest about their depiction as crazed obsessives in a documentary, broadcast on UK TV. The post argues that there are perfectly good reasons why girls ‘get carried away’ with teen idols. These have nothing to do with the idols, or unrealistic fantasies about dreams that will never come true. They have everything to do with how girls become conscious of their identities as girls in cultures where gender matters. One of the things that research in this area has discovered is that girls know that the world views them with disrespect. That makes them angry. So, much as they like it, engagement with popular culture can often be an uncomfortable experience, because it underlines unpleasant social truths.
I couldn’t help but think of this again when reviewing a televised debate between Australian Prime Minister candidates Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott. According to popular opinion, the event’s most memorable moment came when Abbott, a former boxer, asked of Kevin Rudd, “Doesn’t this guy ever shut up?”. Rudd responded with a blokey ‘we’re having a debate mate’. I thought the whole incident amounted to a pretty weak effort at macho theatre. Certainly, it fits within a history of male-centred television narratives, as the article explains, by drawing on cultivation theory.
Rudd was there because he had successfully deposed Australia’s first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, as leader of the Australian Labor Party (although I should point out that she had deposed him as PM back in 2010). The details of the Rudd/Gillard conflict are complex, and it isn’t true that Gillard failed just because she was a woman. But it is true that while in office, she was subjected to an unprecedented level of gender abuse.
The common link between these stories, is that both contain an underlying sentiment that women don’t count for much. 1D fans have been ridiculed for their passions, and this is a way of saying that they don’t matter as people. Similarly, one of the lessons of the Gillard story is that even if you become a high flying lawyer and even the leader of your country, men will still laugh at you. Bullied at school because of your appearance? Ain’t gonna change.
The questions this week are:
- Do Australian girls who are fans of 1D think these stories are connected?
- If they do, will they say, ‘that’s just how things are’, or…
- Will they want to change things?