Identities and the media (MEST 3)

A2, the 2015 exam will be the first to have a question about Identities and the media, instead of representation.

Below is a guide from AQA, explaining what this new question is all about;

Whatever I say I am: constructing identity in contemporary media

The new topic area for A2 Media Studies is ‘Identities and the Media’; a subject choice which reflects the importance of cultural identities as a concept in both the form and content of new and traditional media. The study of identity intersects with theories of representation, audience and ideology; not surprisingly as identity is a transdisciplinary concept found in cultural studies, the humanities and social sciences. The move to theories of identity, away from representation, is also indicative of developments in the academic discipline of media studies itself.

The study of identity signifies a move from analysing representations of groups, whether by gender, ethnicity, sexuality etc. in terms of difference and opposition, focusing instead on the concept of fluidity and performance. The limitations of representation theory in explaining the contemporary media landscape are apparent in its central method of research: the model of positive and negative images of a specific, definable group, constructed by a distanced producer and decoded by an audience. Today the line between producers and audiences is much more fluid; the range of identities available at different times during different media experiences much more extensive. The focus in representation theory on the interpretation by an audience of a product with a fixed meaning makes it inadequate in explaining the complex relationship between new media and diverse audiences. Theories of identity consider representation as one aspect of the intersection between media products, audience and identity – rather than a total theory of media.

The concept of identity can be studied in a variety of ways across a range of media forms. A useful starting point would be queer theory, which emerged out of the frustration with more traditional approaches where identity is fixed and essentialist – such as in feminist theory. The exploration of identities which used to be – in representational terms – characterized as marginalized or absent are now apparent in more mainstream contexts. Two recent examples illustrate the shift in defining identities and the way in which definitive and circumscribed categories are challenged. In February 2014 the British Film Institute announced that their festival, previously known as the ‘London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival’ would have a new title, ‘Flare’, in order to address the outmoded concept of fixed and single identities. In a similar development, Facebook announced that it was widening its definitions of gender in users’ settings from two to fifty-six (although several of these categories are actually synonyms it’s an impressively comprehensive list!). These examples are also relevant to the question of power and influence in the relationship between media producers and audiences. Are these cases of media organizations reflecting or shaping identities? Or perhaps they’re just forms of advertising and brand development.

The idea that identities are multiple and that individuals may select different identities at different times has led to the concept of identity as a performance – a persona which can be selected or discarded at different times. This concept is particularly well suited to exploration in social media, with its use of avatars and anonymity, and to games with the role-playing of gangsters, wizards, soldiers and suburban family members, moving between ethnicity, age and gender, which exist in a virtual world which may be based on actual historical or social events.  It isn’t just new media though which asks questions about how individuals experience and construct identities. In film, directors such as Sofia Coppola repeatedly examine the search for identity; The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, 2013) explores the identity crisis effected by celebrity culture, social media and self-representation. The recent film Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2014) continues the vampire genre’s interest in identity and otherness.

The concept of putting on an identity can also be placed in the context of audience theory. Beyond the opposition of active and passive audiences, the theory of prosthetic memory is an accessible way into discussing the relationship between audience and identities. Prosthetic memory characterises the experience of identifying with characters in films as a political one. In this context 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013) is not just a representation of the evils of slavery but provides the opportunity for the audience to share collective memories and to take on an identity based on an experience they did not have. As this example demonstrates, once the concept of identity as fluid and changeable is accepted, the possibilities provided by the range of self-identifications become an essential area for an understanding of the meaning and effects of media products.


Landsberg, Alison. Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture . Columbia University Press, 2004.

BFI Flare.” BFI Film Forever. February 2014

Weber, Peter. “Confused by All the New Facebook Genders? Here’s What They Mean.” 21 February 2014.

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