by Ellen Gillingham
The cultural production of power and disempowerment within texts, performance, and popular culture create a spectacle that is consumed in the public and popular culture. The multiple identities like gender, sexuality, class, and race that play large roles in the lives of women and men every day are in conversation with popular and mass-consumed texts. Images, ideas, and common-sense notions are consumed concerning gender. Spectacular consumption and gender have an intricate and dependent relationship. The two concepts work together to inform our knowledge of culture through gender and performance.
If I had to tell a friend how this works, I would start with a definition of popular culture as a high frequency of a cultural image that becomes popular by the nature of the frequency, also a product for mass consumption. Popular culture produces a certain type of subconscious ideas. For example, 90210 produces an idea that beach living is the life. This is because the beach has attractive people, leisure. However, we enter a world of leisure, but our life is not leisurely, so popular culture creates an imagination of a world that often does not exist, but it is a world nonetheless to which we set as a standard. Popular culture interests the mass public.
Additionally, popular culture constantly changes. Different demands are produced. For example, because the economy is so bad people feel like they are inundated by advertisements. Companies know that people are not spending money on brand name products as much. Simple products that everyone is going to buy, like tissues, some people may sacrifice and buy the cheaper tissue and not the name brand. Companies advertise to create a move to produce a necessity for the brand.
What is popular tells us a lot about people. What is understood as popular tells us who is in the society and what they privilege. For example, reality television is the most popular genre in the United States right now. Reality tells us that our present moment is because society is fascinated with the spectacle. This is the process of identification. On one level, we want to identify, see real people’s real lives, right in front of us that look like ours. Reality television shows us people who we find commonality with, so our lives become spectacle by comparison. In addition, we think that we are more than we actually are. If we see a reality television star with a product similar to what you have, we do a process of identification. This is a significant element of reality television as a part of popular culture.
To connect further the idea of popular culture to that of spectacular consumption I would give a friend the example of Bratz Dolls. In Matthew Mcallister’s article, ‘‘Girls with a Passion for Fashion,” he defines spectacular consumption as the result of “an advertising campaign—the promotion of the ‘humanity of the commodity’ —reaches such a mediated and popular breadth that it transcends the confines of the traditional 30-second television commercial, even as that commercial already appears during highly visible venues” (McAllister 245). Popular culture’s symbols become integrated into the larger culture through combinations of media forms and are found throughout everyday life.
To communicate the idea that commercial and promotional aspects of popular culture make up the ideology of spectacular consumption to a friend I would give specific examples with which they are already familiar. Everyone has seen commercials and products produced by the Bratz brand. Popular culture phenomena, like the Bratz Dolls become a part of spectacular consumption when licenses are sold, as they become a part of people’s conversational capital. This leads to a cultural status “that usually is only reserved for the most beloved of popular culture” (McAllister 246). It is important to recognize the relationship between gender and spectacular consumption because social meanings may be connected to and altered by spectacularized consumer products. This relationship is responsible for the consumerist form of girl power that is characteristic of Bratz and other brands.
In relation to the social meaning behind gender, some women receive the idea that purchasing products will empower them because of symbols of feminism in advertising. They also imply that commodities can provide feminist achievement. The Bratz brand includes symbols from society to connect with their target audience. For example, they utilize symbols of hip-hop with the ‘z’ in Bratz, girl-power icons that often equate sex with power, Japanese visual media such as anime as seen in the design of the dolls’ faces, and an emphasis on ‘fun consumption’.
In explaining this example to a friend, I would say that the Bratz dolls are encouraging young girls to be consumers. The nature of the dolls is influential for forming tween identities and the image is displayed in products and on television. The doll brand is well-known and influential. Integrated Spectacular Consumption is a term that explains the commercial scope and nature of Bratz. It shows the importance of “image-oriented communication forms such as television” (McAllister 245). This is related to gender as the brand is marketed towards “Girls with a passion for fashion” (McAllister 244).
Additionally, many of my friends are interested in hip-hop, so considering my audience I would expand on this example to show how when consumer culture is integrated in America it becomes spectacular consumption. In hip-hop, consumption and ownership are emphasized parts of being an American. Popular hip-hop songs encourage listeners to “stay fresh” with products. As Bill Yousman notes in his article “Blackophilia and Blackophobia: White Youth, the Consumption of Rap Music, and White Supremacy,” rap music is now the “ubiquitous soundtrack for advertising campaigns that push everything young people might purchase, from sporty automobiles to fizzy soft drinks” (Yousman 367). Male rappers show their listeners that in order to be like them they need to buy new products especially shoes. This creates a culture of shoeheads, people who are in love with shoes and feel obligated to buy certain pairs of shoes. One can see that through popular hip-hop songs, like “My Adidas” by Run D.M.C. communicates that this product enables them to “lay down law,” and “[take] command” (Simmons and McDaniels). These socially accepted and normative masculine qualities are connected through spectacular consumption. As seen in Hip-Hop Beyond Beats and Rhymes, hip-hop shows representations of masculine standards, which creates issues in popular culture, so it is important to make sense of what spectacular consumption is informing us about gender norms(Hurt). Thus, my friend should have an applicable understanding of what spectacular consumption is and how it relates to gender.
If I had to give a brief presentation to another class focused on popular culture, I would explain this relationship to my peers with more examples. First, I would draw from Susan J. Douglas’s The Rise of Enlightened Sexism, to enforce the idea that women are shown conflicting messages by the media and popular culture. Douglas indicates that youth are bombarded with advertising their entire lives while being caught up in trivial connections between gender, popularity, and conspicuous consumption (Douglas 15).
For example, popular culture gives us shows like Laguna Beach, a show about empty-headed girls alongside power and policing. Shows like this are fundamentally about competition. However, consumerism is present as the “privilege and delight” in their lives (Douglas 15). The laid-back lifestyle depicted in shows such as this have a basis in lots of consumption. We also see this concept in 90210. These shows work in conversation with each other to teach the audience that conspicuous consumption is a primary path to true self-actualization as a woman in society. These teachings come with girls policing one another and themselves by reinforcing norms.
There is also a process of dis-identification in popular culture. A connection happens between dis and identification. You identify some things, but realize that you can disassociate yourself from the thing. You identify the regularity of life, things that are real and present within our lives. Then situational moments disrupt and cause a friction in identification. For example, we may connect to the characters in Laguna Beach and 90210 because we have our group of friends and are going through school. However, we are not living on the beach in a life of wealth and luxury. In this way, we recognize the familiar, but at the same time being disenchanted and disappointed in the process.
Shows that focus on a white cast are especially problematic in society. Stereotypical White features are held up as the pinnacle of unattainable, unapproachable feminine beauty while Black women are simultaneously situated as not as aesthetically appealing as White women are, but more sexually available and free. “When “Black” models are used, they often are actually women of mixed racial background or women whose features, eye color, or hairstyles come closest to White norms” (Yousman 384). To communicate this point to peers I would draw from Beyoncé, who is constantly lightened in all of her pictures. In 2008, L’Oreal was accused of digitally lightening her skin and last February, Beyonce was seen stepping out with a black mini-dress and much paler skin (Sweney). These images have continued to echo in U.S. media. It also shows how hegemonic whiteness affects their conditions of labor, including earnings, employment opportunities, and erotic embodiment (Miller-Young). Additionally, this trend in spectacular consumption indicates that images of Black women are sexuality exploited by the media are distorted reinforcing myths about Blackness and gender so much, so that it is affecting self-esteem.
To conclude with a relevant example, I would draw from J. Jack Halberstam’s book, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal. After showing the video for Telephone by Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, I would ask the class to ponder how it shows a lot about gender and spectacular consumption. I may provide examples. For instance, how the scene in a women’s prison with butch prison guards and tranny inmates shows the prison of representation in terms of stereotypes and images in institutions with otherness. The plot is about a feminism that focuses on knowing and unknowing, hesitation, and “embracing your darkness” (Halmberstam 62). It asks for transformation by placing women in a nonnormative gender scheme being in control of the relationship instead of the man.
Although, normally celebrities transform into a fixed image, which is indicative of what pop culture is doing, or what our culture is doing. For example, stars like Usher, Flavor Flav, and 50 Cent were once lyrical geniuses, indicative of a noncommercial passion to create music, turned into static images of consumption with reality shows and music for the purpose of consumption. This is not to say that there are not anomalies, moments that you cannot quite frame the actual performance or artist within the moment. They act outside of the moment. In the process of not understanding them, they become understandable. For example, Lady Gaga is more understandable as a reference to Modanna or Grace Jones. In this moment, we live in a culture of forgetting, historical memory is becoming a demonized art. In this way, Lady Gaga is fresh and new. This is a moment where spectacular consumption works in the interest of gender transgressive representations. Ultimately, telephone imagery speaks to gender and spectacular consumption by serving as a symbol of heterosexuality as a push and pull, but fixed in place, not mobile, and restricting.
The relationship between spectacular consumption and gender seems unconscious in societal systems. However, we do not live in a blind society, in reality, there is a conscious evident moments of inequality exposed in analysis of popular culture. We see materialized representations of systemic structuring. Spectacular consumption informs our knowledge of culture by creating a systemic understanding of the world, as it is not. It is important that we understand the ways that systemic ideas and ideologies have permeated various facets of our lives in ways that we have now began to live in a new moment. Examples show us what resistance to critique has created.
To tell a friend how this works, I would need to appeal to his or her interest in hip-hop music because I base my friendships off connections through similar tastes and a passion for music. He or she should be quick to recognize the inherent relationship between consumer culture in hip-hop and gender ideologies. To give a brief presentation to another class focused on popular culture, I would explain the relationship by pulling from popular examples in the media to define popular culture, spectacular consumption, and its innate relationship with gender.
Spectacular consumption is often framed around consuming troubling, problematic, and stereotypical images. Popular culture shows us how dominant privileges are something our society is now able to buy into and how our society is entertained. This culture of entertainment involves some things that are shifting and changing. However, as seen in the innovation and improvisation of Gaga Feminism, popular culture can be used as a critique in transgressive, complicated, and productive images.
Simmons, Joseph and Darryl McDaniels. “My Adidas.” Raising Hell. Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. By Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. Queens, 1986. Web.
Sweney, Mark. “Beyoncé Knowles: L’Oreal Accused of ‘Whitening’ Singer in Cosmetics Ad.” The Guardian 8 August 2008. Web.