How do you identify yourself? And, what is the most important part of your identity? Is it your sex, your race or ethnicity, your sexual orientation, your class status, your nationality, your religious affiliation, your age, your political beliefs? Is there one part of your identity that stands out from the rest, or does your identity change depending on who you’re with, what you’re involved in, where you are in your life?
The answers to these questions clearly depend on many factors. They prod us to think about our identities in singular terms (I am female), but also as multiple and intersecting parts (I am an African-American teenage girl from South Los Angeles). Most importantly, these questions lead us to consider the meaning of identity. Beyond “who am I?” these questions frame our individual identities in a broader social historical context and in relation to other groups. Part of understanding our identity, therefore, means understanding how we fit in (or don’t) with other groups of people. It also means being aware of the fact that some groups have more social, political and economic power than others.
When we think about identity, we may focus on external markers (what we can see), on our biology or physiology, or how we were born; however, it’s also important to understand that our identities are comprised of ideas, ideologies, and ways of seeing the world around us. Our identities, therefore, are socially constructed, and the way we were born is only part of who we are.
But, where do these values or ideologies come from? Again, the answer is not clear-cut. In many cases, we’ve learned and internalized these values over the course of our lives from family, peers, role models, organizations, government, etc. The media also plays a prominent role in creating meaning, shaping our values, and defining who we are. These values are powerful because they generally come from places of power, but also because we internalize them and take them for granted, because they seem natural and the way things should be, and further because they can shape the way we see and understand the people, objects, practices, and institutions in our lives.
If our identities are socially constructed, then they are not neutral. In fact, our gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and class can play a significant role in determining whether we have social, political and economic power, how we get that power, and how we use it. Our identity can fundamentally shape our life experience, how we’re treated, whom we meet and become friends with, what kind of education and jobs we get, where we live, what opportunities we’re afforded, and what kind of inequities we may face.
Given the role our identity plays in the way we experience and accrue power, it’s important to understand the potential obstacles, discrimination and oppression that some groups experience over others. For some, the experience of being a particular sex or sexual orientation, from a particular racial or ethnic group or socio-economic class, involves recurring and even systematic or institutional prejudice. This prejudice can manifest in unequal opportunities, rights, or wages, as well as being stereotyped, marginalized or persecuted.
Sexism. Racism. Heterosexism. Classism.
These terms reflect beliefs that posit the superiority of one identity over another: men over women; whites over non-whites; straight over gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender; wealthy over other classes. Historically, the terms have been used to call attention to discrimination and bias. They further challenge ideologies that perpetuate hierarchical structures and limit a subordinate group’s opportunities and freedoms.
Feminism. Civil Rights. Gay Liberation. Occupy Wall Street.
These social movements have called out sexist, racist, heterosexist and classist ideologies and clamored for social justice and change. Some of the calls for change have been significant. We can point to major changes in law and policy (Title VII also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title IX, etc.). However, it’s also important to point out that these legal changes do not necessarily eradicate the underlying problems tied to endemic sexism, racism, heterosexism and classism. That is because the bias and prejudice at the root of sexism, racism, heterosexism and classism run deep, and are not easily fixed. They are part and parcel of our culture and our ideologies.
So, where and how does change happen, and what does it look like?
In addition to the legal and policy avenues that address sexism, racism, heterosexism and classism, grassroots movements have tackled these problems. A grassroots or bottom up approach to change can come in many forms, including parades and marches, boycotts and sit-ins, public service announcements, watch dog groups that monitor institutions (from the government to media industries), and increasingly, citizen journalism and social media.
The media can be both a site of change, but also fundamentally a site that perpetuates ideologies and norms. The media uses representations—images, words, and characters or personae—to convey ideas and values. Media representations, therefore, are not neutral or objective. They are constructed and play an important role in imparting ideology.
One question we might ask, then, is whether media produce ideologies or simply reflect them, mirroring what’s already happening in society. This is another difficult question to answer. The line between mirroring reality and producing reality is difficult to discern.
Regardless of where ideologies originate, the media plays a key role in conveying ideas and giving them weight. With the media, we tend to see the same images and representations over and over again. Media rely heavily on genres, conventions and stereotypes. As certain images and representations are repeated, they become familiar and natural. But are these representations really “natural”?
Think about what goes on behind the scenes. Screenwriters, directors, casting agents, set and costume designers all make choices that help audiences understand who a character is and what they care about. These behind-the-scenes players use clothing, hair and makeup, the way characters speak, and how they move as shorthand in their storytelling. It’s important to look at these elements of the story, rather than take them for granted. Think about the choices made in creating characters and telling stories (even in non-fiction news, documentary, and advertising). It’s also important to consider whether or not a character is round and whole or more of a caricature and stereotype.
Understanding and critically examining what goes on behind the scenes can help us see that media representations are constructed and not natural. If identities in the media are constructed, should we accept them at face value? Or can we question them? And, even change them?
Read the overviews on gender, race and ethnicity, class, and sexuality to get a better idea of the way values and meanings are specifically tied to each of these individual facets of our identities. The overviews serve as building blocks to frame the media examples on this website. Each media example and the accompanying questions, in turn, prompt you to dig deep and critically think about the way media creates meanings, values, and expectations tied to our identities. Note that most of the media examples and the overviews are written from an American perspective or vision of the world. Once you familiarize yourself with the critical tools to analyze identity in the media, you can apply your knowledge and approach to any number of examples, including media from across the globe.