XOXO, Shopper Girl

Um, like, BTW you guys? Chuck is totally channeling some Twilight action here...better watch that bare leg, S.

Um, like, BTW you guys? Chuck is totally channeling some Twilight action here...better watch that bare leg, S.

First of all, my apologies for the unannounced week-long Thanksgiving-related hiatus this blog just took. However, given my upcoming schedule, I’d imagine more unexpected lapses may be imminent.

With that said, this afternoon, while reading “A Propaganda Model” by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky for a class, I came across a discussion that reminded me of something I’ve found interesting for a while now. The article discusses the propagandizing motives driving mass media—their roots and their consequences. In one section, Herman and Chomsky make the point that the mass media are not only interested in attracting particular audiences, but specifically in attracting audiences with “buying power.” In a mass media structure supported and sustained by advertising revenue, they point out, programming which appeals to and attracts affluent audiences, audiences with money to spend and desire to spend it, attract greater ad revenue. This is a rather logical, even obvious point, but one I’d never really considered at any great length, and it made me rethink something I’ve wondered about for several years.

While studying abroad in Ireland during college, I started to notice that Irish and British sitcoms and soap operas represented a very different reality, a different set of values, than American shows. While American sitcoms and soap operas by and large represent a kind of “aspirational” standard, portraying predominantly upper middle class and wealthy characters whose lives do not represent that of the “average” American (think Gossip Girl, 30 Rock, Entourage, or any of the daytime soaps—most of which, from what I can tell, kind of look like Dynasty). Granted, there are many notable exceptions like The Office and My Name is Earl, but even these are cleaned up in certain ways, made less gritty and “realistic” through production techniques, strategically exaggerated or stereotypical wardrobe choices, etc. The point is, though, British and Irish TV shows are a very different affair. The actors of these shows are, as a whole, older and rougher around the edges. They look like they are really being filmed in their East End row house, wearing clothes they bought at the thrift shop down the street. Crooked teeth and bad perms abound. Clearly these people are not intimately acquainted with the plastic surgeon’s scalpel or the Botox syringe. They look like real people I pass on the street or stand in line behind at Target.

When I first began to realize and think about this, I came to the conclusion that it must have something to do with different sets of cultural values and different ideas about what was cathartic, interesting, and enjoyable to watch given these different values. I had an interesting conversation with a friend around this time that I felt reinforced this reasoning. She told me about an article she had read which argued that one reason that Americans are often so comparatively unwilling to acknowledge or condemn white collar crime and so accepting of the privilege and preference given to the wealthier members of our society, through tax breaks and the like, had to do with aspiration and the American Dream. The article argued that part of why Americans were so accommodating of rich people, corporations and their CEOs, etc. was that a little part of each of us secretly hopes (and, furthermore, is encouraged to hope) that we may someday achieve that kind of “success,” someday reach the highest echelons of wealth and achievement, and if (when) that happens, we don’t want anyone taking away a piece of OUR pie. Is anyone else thinking of Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher (yes, I just went there), the plumber-but-not-really-but-now-soon-to-be-author who was outraged by the idea that Obama’s proposed tax plans would increase taxes on a tax bracket he wasn’t even a part of, a bracket he apparently aspired to enter after buying a plumbing business from his boss which wasn’t really even for sale?

Pseudo plumbers aside, while acknowledging that the premise of the article my friend described was overly simplistic and reductionist, I found the some of the ideas it suggested really interesting and it informed my understanding of the cultural difference/preferences evidenced by American versus British TV shows. At the least, it seemed to me that what a culture considers entertaining, what a society desires to see in its leisure time, represents some interesting things about underlying cultural values. While I still think that’s true, Herman and Chomsky’s point made me realize something rather obvious: what is on television is not necessarily shaped only, or in fact even primarily, by the tastes and desires of viewers. In fact, quite often, the system works in reverse, with media companies dictating public tastes according to profit-driven agendas. Of course, this is not to say they can feed television consumers just anything, but it’s definitely a two way street. Herman and Chomsky’s point about networks seeking to appeal to those with “buying power,” those most desirable to advertisers, puts a new spin on the archetypes represented on American shows. Perhaps, this suggests, the programming is not meant to appeal to the “average” American at all, or at least the average American without money to blow. It’s meant to draw audiences with some resemblance to, or at least affinity for, the lifestyles represented by these kinds of shows. I’m sure, as with most things, that the complete truth is more complicated than either of these theories can suggest. But it’s interesting to consider the many ways that we self-select a set of values through the choices we make in our media consumption and, more disturbing, the ways in which this is engineered for us, often without our awareness, and used to commodify and consumerize us.

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About Katie Heimer

I'm a graduate student of media studies at the New School. My main academic interests in the field center around issues of women in the media (both in terms of representations of and access to) and the overlapping issues of media reform and education. This website will serve as a chronicle of my progress and growth, both intellectually and personally, as I navigate my master's of media studies.
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2 Responses to XOXO, Shopper Girl

  1. Anne says:

    Hi Katie! I saw your blog on facebook, so I thought I’d take a look. I lived in England for two years, so I’m interested in this comparison between British and American TV shows.

    I agree that American and British shows are different in the ways you’ve described. At least in my last few months living there, American TV shows were some of the most popular shows in England. Most Americans, however, have not heard of many, if any, popular British TV shows. It could just be because America has produced so many more shows than the UK. I’d have a hard time believing that it has anything to do with the Brits wanting to be more like Americans! Any thoughts on this??

  2. Katie Heimer says:

    Hey Anne! Thanks for the comment. Your point is really interesting and the truth is I’m not sure what the answer is, but I have a couple of thoughts. First of all, I think in part it has to do with American attitudes about the rest of the world versus the rest of the world’s attitudes. While the British may not love Americans, especially after the last eight years, I don’t think there’s the same kind of attitude toward Americans that Americans display toward everyone else, including the British–the attitude of complete disinterest, almost disdain for anything outside of the US displayed by even those in the seats of power (Sarah Palin is an easy example). I think that attitude pervades not only diplomatic and political relations, but culture as well. Americans in so many ways have this insular attitude about everything that makes us not even want to know about or explore the output of other countries, whether that’s TV shows or whatever. So it seems to me that that plays a big part in what you’re talking about.

    Secondly, to a lesser degree I just think it has to do with, as you said, the fact that Hollywood is just such a huge machine and just inundates the rest of the world by sheer bulk of output. Because of this, too, Hollywood has unparalleled resources, monetary and otherwise. That means that lots of Hollywood entertainment is glossier, more aesthetically pleasing (at least from a certain point of view), has more special effects, produces more big, glamourous stars, and all the rest. As a result of all of this, and as a result of the many ways the world is “shrinking,” with the result that you can go into a KFC in New York or Podunk, Mississippi or in Shanghai, Johannesburg, Liverpool, wherever, and get the same meal. You can go into a store in any of those places and buy the same DVD or CD, too. Many parts of the world, particularly “developed” countries, are homogenizing and, since America/Hollywood is the most powerful nexus of entertainment and has the most resources for disseminating their output, those are the cultural icons that become the norm.

    I said, I’m sure all of these issues are more complicated than any one explanation could account for, those are just some thoughts/ ideas that occur to me in relation to your point.

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