I interviewed an old family friend named Fran. Fran is in her late 50s, is quite eccentric, and has very skeptical views about the media. She’s kind of a conspiracy theorist about pop culture, echoing Adorno about the ways in which media brainwashes people. Fran’s experience with media as a teenager, however, provides some examples on how media has the ability to create (or at least project) ideologies that influence the way people think and act.
Fran grew up in Japan and moved to the United Sates when she was thirteen. She recalls being fairly sheltered from movies and TV as a child. “My parents didn’t let us consume to much media, Thank God.” When she moved to the States however, Fran didn’t need to actively watch films to be affected by America’s gender norms. “I still didn’t watch much TV,” she said, “But I can give you this: When I moved to America I remember feeling very short.” In our culture, one can simply walk through the streets of a city to understand what characteristics are valued in women. The length of the women featured on billboards and other advertisements is the characteristic that struck Fran the most vividly. She remembers thinking, “When am I going to get tall?”
Adorno’s theory of media is, no doubt, extremely radical. But he makes a very valid point when he says, “The consumer is not king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object”(Gauntlett 24). Objects are acted upon, rather than acting. Fran, new to American culture, had no influence on the gender norms portrayed in the advertisements she consumed. Thus she was very much a passive consumer of American media that “reflect[ed] the values of the established system”(24). In Fran’s teenage experience, the media she consumed did indeed engrain an ideology in her developing mind. She was led to believe that tall was beautiful and short was ugly.
The media projected traditional American ideals of beauty on to Fran and these values influenced the ways in which she saw herself. Fran’s identity was shaped to include “shortness” in it. One of the main ways in which the media is considered dangerous is that ideology is intrinsically linked to action. Therefore, the media does more than “takes up so much time in peoples everyday consciousness,” it also influences the ways in which people behave. Adorno believed the media promoted conformity to the status quo: “It proclaims: you shall conform, with no instruction as to what; conform to that which exits anyway, and to which everyone thinks anyway as a result of its power its power and omnipresence”(25). The ideology Fran adopted concerning the beauty of tallness influenced her behavior to conform to this norm. As a result of thinking of herself as short, she “wore high heels throughout high school.”
I asked Fran if the whiteness of traditional portrayals of femininity affected her self view as a colored woman. She said that although she recognized that white skin was/is seen as a marker of beauty, she never adopted that ideology. “I never wanted to dye my hair blond or anything. My parents did a good job of making me proud of my heritage.”
As a young adult, Fran was very politically active. She was involved in the Civil Rights Movement and got arrested for participating in a sit-in. She was also vehemently anti the Vietnam War. Fran told me she felt powerful: “I felt like I was part of something big and it was exhilarating.” I asked her about the media coverage of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. Fran said there was much propaganda surrounding both issues, but also a lot of informative coverage. After thinking about it, Fran concluded that, for the most part, media coverage was helpful. “I think the fact that people could see the realities of the Vietnam War and the treatment of colored people from their TV screens accelerated the movements to end those awful practices.” (Media isn’t always bad, eh Fran?)
Fran’s experience with media as a teenager highlights the ways in which media can project ideologies that encourage people to conform to the status que. This aspect of the media persists in much the same way today. Fran was told that tall is beautiful, so she wore high heels. Today women are told that sexiness is empowering, so we objectify ourselves by shaving, wearing makeup, and constantly monitoring our bodies. In this way, media is a powerful and oppressive tool. But as much coverage of the Vietnam War and Civil Right Movement shows, media can also be a tool for social action and change. In this way, media is a powerful and uplifting tool.
After catching up for a while, I asked Fran if she watches any TV shows these days. She tries not to. “I only watch Stephen Colbert,” she laughs, “and Eric [Fran’s boyfriend] has it set up so that we can forward through those nasty ads.” Cheers, Fran. I love Stephen Colbert.