The awesome and terrible power of mass media has been cause for both hope and despair since radio gripped millions of Americans like no other medium ever had. Cultural critics have vacillated between singing the praises and possibilities of truly democratic communication and decrying the deterioration of high culture, garbled and made meaningless through ignorant, automatic consumption. Ever the optimist, I tend to gravitate towards the former. As the arguments have moved from radio and news reels to television and the internet, the great question of what mass media does to mass society continues to be re-articulated and the answers continue to unfold.
As a critical media scholar, it is my job to highlight the ways in which media productions oppress, silence, and marginalize both minority groups and minority opinions. At the same time, individuals have the intellectual capacity to determine what messages they will accept: we have as much power to create meaning as producers have to create programs. My favorite medium, television, has a rich history of subverting dominant norms and presenting alternative narratives that more accurately represent the experiences of Americans.
Public broadcasting’s Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gave disenfranchised children access to diverse educational programming that their struggling schools couldn’t provide. A steady stream of shows in the 1960’s and 1970’s shifted conversations: The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour reveled in protest and dissent; All in the Family thoughtfully presented the absurdities of bigotry; Mary Tyler Moore and Cagney and Lacey changed the way Americans thought of women in the workplace. Even the nightly news became a site of contested meaning. Political discourse was still subordinate to ratings and advertising dollars, but the waking consciousness that swept through American society began to permeate the airwaves.
Activism ebbs and flows with the economic and cultural tides of generations. Our current climate has yet to reach the frenzied pitch of Kent State and the 1968 Democratic Convention, but I believe the millennial generation isn’t given enough credit for our political understanding and un-ironic optimism. We see what needs to change: our frantic attempts at wedding grassroots organizational processes with web 3.0 technologies have allowed momentary glimpses into the brilliantly democratic future we intend to construct.
It is this boundless positivity and unshakable confidence in our ability to enact change that gives us a sense of entitlement, even responsibility, to engage with and interrogate cultural products. MTV is an example of the constant struggle between corporate, capitalist interests and an urge to create programming that is meaningful to viewers. MTV ownership is notoriously conservative, but the network has always embraced a young and edgy persona. I want to be clear that the vast majority of programming is deeply normative and reproduces harmful stereotypes about gender, sexuality, class, ability, etc. From True Life to Teen Mom, MTV has regularly failed to produce anything transformative or even controversial. In many of these simultaneously frivolous (who really needs to watch these things?) and utilitarian (just how much money are they making off of them?) shows, however, there are glimmers of subversion. Frighteningly honest moments that we might miss if we weren’t so engaged.
Girl Code is my latest guilty pleasure from the music television network. The half-hour reality comedy series (á la Best Week Ever or the I Love the… series) is technically a spin-off of MTV’s Guy Code. While my list of complaints grows with every episode (Guy Code backdrops include crossword puzzles and baseball scorecards, we get shoes and paper dolls; a bad transgender joke here; a biological determinism argument there), I am continuously reminded of the political gravity of many of their statements. The women and men that are being asked to speak to the realities of gendered experiences are acutely aware of the arbitrary and oppressive structures that surround them.
Topics range from lighthearted (dancing in clubs) to life-saving (practicing safe sex and understanding your vagina), but there is (almost) always a nod to the work of feminist activists and theorists. Even a segment concerned with the comically vulgar question of when it’s okay to fart in front of your significant other attacks the very real cultural ideas that female dispositions are too refined for natural bodily functions and that female bodies require more policing than male ones.
They unabashedly embrace female sexuality. When they border on slut-shaming, it is typically to lament the social consequences of acting on your sexual desires. The ultimate answer to the question of whether to have sex on the first date: Girl Code #1984 – Do it if you want it. While the lesbian comedians could use more air time, they are there. The Kinsey spectrum is alive and well in their conversations about experimentation and exploration. When they insist you should make out with your girlfriend for yourself, and not for the guy at the end of the bar, they’re talking about the male gaze.
A conversation about female athletic uniforms uses the word “misogynist,” yet their extensive discussion about women “being crazy” blatantly avoids the terrible history of women’s physical and psychological oppression. There is much room for improvement, but the fact that the foundations of feminist theory and activism are creeping into a quick and dirty MTV summer filler show bodes well for our future.