Ever wondered why you like what you like?
‘The theory of Representation’ is one of the staples for any Media Studies student and from a young age we automatically learn to identify and interpret the various ways that our society represents social groups in public consciousness. One of the essential values of studying Media Studies therefore, is to be able to avoid the marketing tricks, propaganda and manipulative images that inhibit the world around us. Nevertheless, our studies of representation are nearly always associated with external objects - I would like to encourage us to start evaluating our own ‘self-representations.’
Let’s take another hackneyed area of study in Media Studies as an example – Social Media. Can we honestly say that the representations of ourselves on our Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr (et al) profiles are really the people we are? My Twitter profile picture (above) contains a black and white photo of myself (looking terrifically better than I normally do) on a beach. Already there is so much that could be misinterpreted (which is obviously my intention) by the viewer. You could suppose that I am a surfer, you could suppose that I am quite artistic, you could assume that I am a fun and laid back guy…I won’t patronise you by going on and on because I think you can see what I am getting at – I am the first to spot and frown upon mass media’s misrepresentations but how often am I misrepresenting myself?
Pierre Bourdieau was a sociologist whose ideas laid the foundation for this interest in (self) representation and there are two theories of his that we can use to stretch our own understanding of, not only the world around us, but ourselves. The first theory is his concept of Habitus: this is the values, beliefs, habits and expectations of a certain social group which inform their experiences of everyday life. On a very basic level let’s take the stereotype of a middle class white British male in order to explain this. This gentleman may have been told (and by told I mean in all the ways a society can tell – signs, parents, TV, books etc.) that Da Vinci is the epitome of art while graffiti is art in its most base form. Which habitus would this man identify with more in order to be accepted in society - the habitus of Da Vinci lovers associated with foreign galleries, priceless paintings and western physical features? Or the habitus of graffiti art – associated with hip hop, crime and gritty urban commentary? Now we can look at Bourdieau’s second theory – his theory of taste. Bourdieau argued that taste is socially constructed and not a biological development. In other words, from the moment of our birth (perhaps even earlier), external factors in the social world around us contrive to create our own dislikes and likes. Obviously certain things in our distinct habitus might always be considered to be something to like or dislike such as Shakespeare, corruption, Chanel…The issue with this of course is that if we are unfortunate to be born into a lower social habitus, our tastes are likely to be in favour of tastes that aren’t be considered ‘tasteful’ by the socially dominant habitus or be so tasteful that they are unobtainable.
The comedian Chris Rock explained this clearer in his joke about how African-American people in America always spent money on ‘rims’ for the wheels of their cars instead of saving, thus preventing them from becoming wealthy and improving their habitus. Perhaps, by belonging to a minority, habitus often forces the individual to have a personal taste for material gain. Why - because it is a way of being accepted by the larger, more controlling habitus in society, and therefore improving our own self-representation. However, it is not even the desire for money to escape the habitus that is the driving force here but rather the desire to demonstrate wealth to others of our own habitus – to exclaim that one has escaped the habitus of the minority. On a trip to Africa a few years ago I witnessed large groups of people with the latest mobile phones – the only issue was that they couldn’t afford to use them – they took pride however in the material representation of having the brand new phone.
Another example of this actually occurred in one of my lessons recently. A younger student from another class came into the room to collect something for her lesson. One of my older students cried out, “Wow you’re so beautiful!” to her. The girl that had entered was mixed race with green eyes. The girl that had yelled out was Asian. She had been taught that beauty in the dominant habitus was ‘most beautiful’ when it was presented as a mixture of racial features. In his autobiography, Malcolm X wrote extensively about the trend of black people straightening their hair in order to look ‘more white’ - society had taught him that its taste did not favour African features except in his own habitus. A glimpse at modern ‘beautiful women’ demonstrates this social favouritism towards those who have a look of the mixture of racial features: Rhianna, Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Aishwarya Rai, Kim Kardashian, Rita Ora, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey and so on. How many times have we heard people favour a particular race when looking for a potential partner? This ‘taste’ is not an accident - it has been crafted by the society and habitus we exist in. What colour hair does a princess have? Blonde. Why? Because the dominant habitus in society was made up of blonde haired women who were seen as the height of beauty at the time.
Think back to that profile picture from my own Twitter page – now, being in the habitus I am, which despite my best efforts must be described as middle class, it is easy to see why I made the self-representation choices that I did for my Twitter photo. I have always been ‘told’ by my habitus that: arty photos must be in black and white in the manner of Robert Capa; the black shirt I am wearing is unsophisticated yet mysterious and brooding just like two of my favourite musicians - The Man in Black – Johnny Cash and Morrisey – who once sang, “I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside.” I even have the rockabilly hair cut in the photo. Why might I like them – because they are rebellion in a way that I can relate to without being outcast from my own habitus. Having Chesil beach in the background represents my free-flowing spirit and love of travel, which has its own connotations of romance and rebellion such as in Kerouac’s novel ‘On the Road.’ The sunglasses are the type that are now considered ironic or retro by my habitus, and wearing them creates an element of not taking myself too seriously and being hip.
But why would I or anyone do this? Well that’s easy and rather embarrassing to admit - I am hoping to manipulate others into liking me. I am hoping to be accepted as a person who is desirable in my habitus – a beautiful, intelligent, fun-loving and ‘cool’ person. Essentially I am dishonestly marketing and branding myself to the world – why might this be - well marketing is prevalent in our society; we are saturated by it to the point where it is embedded in our mind that we need to continually market ourselves. The sad thing is most of us are well aware when this happens in our external world and yet we still do it internally. Even more so perhaps it is a sad indictment on how truthful our society is.
I think you’ll agree that it’s time to change that profile pic .