In cultural studies, the term “media culture” refers to the culture that resulted from American corporate consumer ideology and mass media (Thomas, 2012, p. 30).
This culture emerged and developed in the 20th century. The term points to the immense impact of the media on social norms, public opinions, tastes, and values.
Media culture plays a significant role in shaping our consumer culture, hence the alternative term “consumer culture.”
In such a culture, individuals are encouraged by capitalist-oriented media to buy more and more, regardless of their actual needs (Ritzer, 1999).
Definition of Media Culture
To understand what media culture is, we must also define the terms it often gets conflated with: mass culture and image culture.
The alternative term “mass culture” is based on the idea that media culture emerges from the masses themselves (Adorno & Rabinbach, 1963/1975).
“Media culture,” on the other hand, is based on the idea that such culture is the product of mass media. This term is often used interchangeably with “image culture” (Jansson, 2002).
Some scholars argue that popular media culture is:
“…a debased, trivial culture that voids both the deep realities (sex, death, failure, tragedy) and also the simple spontaneous pleasures… The masses, debauched by several generations of this sort of thing, in turn come to demand trivial and comfortable cultural products” (Rosenberg & White, 1957).
However, contemporaneous scholars such as John Fiske have tended to emphasize the productive features of new media culture. It enables young people to be active content creators and have influence on their world; it improves access to information; and enables people to try-on different online identities and connect with other people in their own subcultural groups.
Theoretical Approaches to Media Culture
Different theories look at the effects of media on society in different ways:
- Hypodermic needle theory (aka magic bullet theory) sees media consumers as passive and easily manipulated;
- Critical theory / conflict theory proposes that media attempts to entrench power structures, and encourages media literacy to challenge it (Fiske, 2011);
- Postmodernism / poststructuralism believe in the power of individuals to use media messages in ways that subvert the way it was intended, and they can influence media culture by acting as media producers in the social media era.
|Theory||Approach to Media Culture||Assumptions about the consumer|
|Hypodermic Needle Theory||Assumes a passive and direct effect of media on audiences, as if they are injected by a message||Consumers are passive and easily influenced by media|
|Critical Theory||Examines power structures in media, and the impact of media on social and cultural norms||Consumers are capable of critically analyzing media messages|
|Poststructuralism||Deconstructs and challenges fixed meanings in media, and highlights the role of language in shaping our understanding of reality||Consumers actively participate in creating meanings in media|
See Also: How to Conduct a Media Analysis
Effects of Media Culture on Society
Media culture shapes the way we look at political and social issues (Altheide et al., 1991).
There is a danger that comes with this: as research shows, media are often biased (Ho et al., 2011). This means that public opinion may be subject to distortions through the influence of mass media.
1. Body Image
One of the most prominent effects of media culture is its influence on our understanding of beauty and body image.
Research has shown that exposure to images of thin, conventionally attractive actors and actresses in television and film can lead to negative body image and self-esteem issues among individuals who do not conform to these standards (Groesz et al., 2002).
Similarly, music videos and other forms of media are often characterized by sexually objectifying images of women, which can contribute to the normalization of sexism and misogyny.
2. Gender Roles
Media culture also plays a significant role in shaping our understanding of gender roles. In fact, post-structural scholars argue that media constructs gender.
Men and women are often portrayed in stereotypical ways, with men being portrayed as strong and independent while women are often depicted as submissive and dependent (Dai & Xu, 2014).
This can reinforce harmful gender stereotypes and make it more difficult for individuals to break out of these roles.
3. Race and Ethnicity
Media culture also has a significant impact on our understanding of race and ethnicity.
People of color are underrepresented in the media and when represented, they are often depicted in stereotypical ways (Entman & Rojecki, 2001), leading to the reinforcement of harmful stereotypes.
Media Culture Examples
- Representations of beauty and body image in fashion and beauty advertisements: Mass media promotes and advertises specific views and standards of beauty. This can lead to self-esteem issues and problems with body image for the consumers.
- Representations of consumer culture in advertisements: Advertisements often promote luxurious lifestyles that are inaccessible to most members of society. Not only can this lead to psychological problems and in extreme cases deviant behavior, but it can also induce people to buy and spend more and more, regardless of their actual needs. In other words, advertisements can “manufacture” needs that weren’t there before (for example, tobacco, soda drinks, etc.).
- Representations of gender roles in television and film: Media culture often reinforces traditional gender norms through the characters and storylines in television shows and films. Men are frequently portrayed as strong and independent, while women are often depicted as submissive and dependent. This can reinforce harmful gender stereotypes and make it more difficult for individuals to break out of these roles.
- Representations of politics and social issues in mass media: News media shapes our understanding of the world. As research shows, the media is often biased (Ho et al., 2011). This means that public opinion may be subject to distortions through the influence of mass media.
- Representations of race and ethnicity in the media: People of color are often underrepresented in the media, and when they are represented, they are often depicted in stereotypical ways. This leads to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes.
- Representations of sexuality in music videos and movies: Media culture often portrays sexuality in a highly objectifying manner. More specifically, this applies to depictions of women in mass media. This can lead to the normalization of sexism and misogyny.
- Representations of technology and its impact on society: Media culture often depict technology as a panacea, capable of solving all of society’s problems. This can lead to unrealistic expectations and a lack of critical thinking about the potential negative impacts of technology on society.
- Representations of the environment and climate change in the media: Media culture often underrepresents the issues related to the environment and climate change, or presents them in a way that minimizes their importance. This can lead to a lack of public engagement and political action on these critical issues.
- Representations of violence in video games and movies: Media culture often portrays violence as an acceptable and even necessary means of resolving conflicts, which, some argue, can desensitize individuals to the consequences of real-life violence.
- Social Media and the representation of self: Social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter have created a new culture where individuals are curating their online self-representation. Social media has made it easier for people to present an idealized version of themselves, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem among those who feel their online presence doesn’t match up to the curated images of their peers. (See also: pros and cons of social media)
The term “media culture” refers to the culture that developed in the 20th century as a result of American corporate consumer ideology and mass media (Thomas, 2012, p. 30).
Media culture is a multifaceted concept that encompasses a variety of issues, including representations of beauty and body image, gender roles, race and ethnicity, political and social issues, the impact of new technologies, propaganda, and consumerism. Theorists of media culture suggest that mass media increasingly influences other institutions (Altheide, 2016; Diggs-Brown, 2011).
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