A critical analysis of Eklund’s paper – Doing Gender in Cyberspace: The Performance of Gender by female World of Warcraft players (2011)

Eklund’s paper looks at discussions of femininity, identity, and the performance of gender by women in the online game World of Warcraft (Blizzard 2004-present). Her discussions of development of identity through a new, open, and experimental media platform such as this looks to understand exactly why and how women choose to present their gendered identities in this online space. Using World of Warcraft (WoW), a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG), is an excellent choice to look at gender in cyberspace, as the game provides a multitude of options and freedom to experiment with gender binaries and hegemonic gender norms.

Eklund relies heavily on Butler’s theory of gender performativity (1990) in supporting her argument. Although I cannot criticise her for choosing this as her main frame of research, gender performativity is perhaps relied on too much for the argument to be fully validated. The online form of the MMORPG does allow for a wide amount of gender performativity on the behalf of players (Hayes 2007, Shaw 2011), yet the existing hegemony and dominant perceived audience have a strong bearing on the notions of female gender performativity as well. ‘Multiple and coexisting identifications produce conflicts, convergences, and innovative dissonances within gender configurations which contest the fixity of masculine and feminine placements’ (Butler 1990: 67). Butler argues that playing with a range of gendered identities causes a conflict to the dominant binaries, which relates to the idea of the ‘female gamer’ rather than the ‘feminine gamer’. Eklund’s theory of gender is drawn directly from Butler, discussing that it ‘is not a stable identity, but rather a performative one.’ (2011:325). Her theory of the female gender identity through games being fluid and performative is supported by Hayes 2007 study, in which her findings concluded that ‘the multiplicity of ways of being and acting that adult women may bring to gaming that already challenge common stereotypes of so-called female abilities and preferences.’ (2007:47). Clearly, Eklund’s basis of gender performativity in examining gender identity in cyberspace environments is not misplaced and does have researched support, however, Eklund would have benefitted from a stronger theory structure to support her arguments.

Eklund mentions Halberstam and Flanagan in her theoretical overview (Halberstam in terms of her queer practice research, 2005). Had these been developed and carried through her primary research, the results could have been more detailed. Halberstam’s ideas of female masculinity such as, ‘how women have contributed powerfully and irreversibly to the constitutive terms of contemporary masculinity and how men have participated in integral ways in the foundations of contemporary femininity.’ (1998:48). The incorporation of female masculinity in examining the relationships between male and female gamers in online practices of gendered identity could have been fascinating, especially as multiple studies indicate that women do enjoy the violent and competitive sides of games at times, indicating masculine gender traits at play (Taylor 2003). Cunningham noted that women can prefer male game genres over explicitly female ones, and that ‘this violent and aggressive side of a girl/woman’s behaviour has to be repressed in conformity…playing violent games gives female players the chance to express this aggression.’ (2000: 223). Eklund could have examined the idea of female gamers embodying masculine identity traits in online practices, however she opts to focus on female identity in discussion with performativity and traditional gender theories, rather than exploring the male/female gender fluidity allowed by online games such as WoW. Flanagan’s ideas of knowledge affecting the implication of gender and gendered bodies, and in turn allowing freedom of expression, including in forms of gender, with ‘the obscuration of gender identity as allowed by technology’ (2000:438). Obscuration of gender identity is something greatly discussed in terms of MMORPG gender identity, as the game allows the ability to change gender, hide, or lie with regard to it. Eklund does use this somewhat in her research questions, however it is not developed. Eklund’s ‘article places itself in a feminist tradition’ (2011:324), as demonstrated by her reliance on Butler and the idea of ‘repetition in performativity’ (2011:325). Gaming and women is still highly contested area, especially when it comes to female gender identity, and Eklund does seem to realise this with her overview, yet taking a narrow view of the theory, Eklund limits the supportability for her paper and leaves it open to criticisms.

Methodology used by Eklund in her research paper is extremely fitting, and very well executed, both in terms of data collection method and treatment of participants. The paper itself is part of an ‘ongoing Swedish project about WoW gamers’ (2011: 326), with Eklund choosing to research this area which has subsequently arisen from the original study. All research methods used and the data collected from them is of a very good quality. The study is unusual in that it gives a great deal of detail about each of the participants, both in their personal details and in their gaming background. For example ‘Malin, 30 years old, is a promotion manager. She lives with her partner in an apartment and has always played games and has played WoW on and off since its release in 2004.’ (Eklund 2011: 326-7). Although this level of detail is seen in other studies, it is unusual that the participants are so well illustrated as individuals. Eklund takes into consideration their lifestyles and choices in making her assessments, which in turn gives the research an excellent ethical grounding, an importance discussed by Bryman (2012). Hayes conducts similar grounding, discussing the ‘identities and dispositions they [the participants] brought to playing’ (2007:30), however hers is much more limited and less is known about the lives of the participants. Shaw (2011) takes a similar approach in identifying and quantifying her subjects, however due to the broad nature of her research and the difficulties subjects faced in answering, her study is not as developed as Eklund’s in terms of participant engagement. However, Eklund admits to basing her study on ‘a phenomenological approach that focuses on participants own experiences’ (2011:326), inspired by a study from Cresswell. Cresswell highlights the importance of the ‘specific story of an individual’ (2012: 69). It is clear from reading Cresswell and the research collected by Eklund that she was influenced, however her decision to use his model as a basis for her research was well founded. Cresswell also notes that ‘phenomenology has a strong philosophical component to it’ (2012: 77), something which Eklund picks up on and uses to her advantage in the study, taking a broad outlook on the experiences of the gamers and viewing them as both collective and individual.

The main data collection method used by Eklund is qualitative interviews with her 8 participants. Considering the type of study and the type of data needed, qualitative interview was definitely the best choice, and this is reflected in many other gaming research papers, indicating it to be an excellent choice in this field of study. Kvale and Brinkmann also highlight the benefits of this research method as it ‘gives a good picture of a semi-structured research interview focusing on the subject’s experience of a theme.’ (2009: 25). Eklund wants the participants to share their experiences of gaming, and weaving these into a narrative from which to extract data is the most effective way of gaining data and allowing participants to feel comfortable. Eklund could have benefitted from observing gameplay of her subjects, to analyse in game interactions and performances of gender online between characters, examining the performance of gender identity through direct gameplay interactions and correlating it with the qualitative interviews with the participants. Hayes (2007), Shaw (2011) and Taylor (2003) carried out similar studies, albeit on a smaller scale, and the results of combined gameplay interaction and interview provided a much more in depth analysis of gender and gaming.

Eklund’s results did reveal that gender identity in online gaming spaces like WoW is more complex than first believed. She allies her findings of fluid identity with Nabeth’s ideas, who discusses that ‘The quality of these identities (representing the images of themselves that they project in these environments and therefore how they are perceived) has direct implications on the value obtained from these spaces and the quality of the interaction.’ (2005:2). Nabeth has a much deeper understanding of online identity than Eklund discusses, however, by framing her identity findings with this idea, she provides a strong backdrop for her own presentations. From the research gathered, Eklund notes that the female players are likely to embody femininity, and perform masculinity (similar to ideas from Royse, et. al. 2007). She discovered that female players were unwilling to reveal their offline gender identity at the risk of being targeted by male players (indicating the male normativity of WoW). Female players did not wish to be pigeonholed into stereotypes of women gamers as ‘bad’ or ‘useless’, instead preferring to play without revealing identity, or if revealing, by proving their worth in the game. This behaviour of hiding the offline gender or demonstrating strength has been noted by Stabile with ‘Online anonymity as a strategy that may also enable players to challenge gender ideologies and practises’ (2013:46). This implies that the performance of female gender online by women gamers is secretive, preferring to be seen as a gamer, a character within the game first and foremost, rather than as a woman playing. From this, it appears that gender neutrality is a rising trend amongst gamers (especially considering the preference of men to play as female avatars). One of the draws for the participants in Eklund’s study concerning WoW was that ‘sex has no influence on your level of mastery’ (2011: 336). Both male and female characters begin with the same story and power levels, meaning that each character begins on a completely even playing field, even with the overriding masculine and heterosexual norms pervading the games, and indeed, a vast amount of gaming culture. Salter and Blodgett noted the ‘othering of female participants in a male dominated space’ (2012:401) in their study regarding hypermasculinity and online culture, revealing that this is a concern that requires further attention.

Eklund’s development behind the reasons of performing female gender online are interesting, and her close analysis of the reasons her participants gave for their personal gender performance in the online space makes the study more grounded in research than theory. However, Eklund could have examined the role of the female non-playable character (NPC) in WoW, given that male players often learn how to interact with women in the game from these avatars. Female NPC’s are known, particularly within WoW, to be overtly sexual and often cast into two roles of either the fallen woman or a wife (Hancock 2012). This overview of embedded female characters as subjects for male uses or only being visible because of their connections to men would have been an interesting discussion within the research, given that all players can interact with these characters. Eklund’s discussion of online practices and online gender performance is good, however, she opts not to move further and discuss the online body, something very unusual given her study revolves around a game which is focused on bringing the body online. Links could have been made to the posthuman body (Toffoletti 2007), discussing how embodiment interacts with gender online, and what affect this has on the players, especially women, as they attempt to both evolve and remain within the familiar gender binaries. Haraway (1991) and the ideas of cyborg nature and the role of women in virtual spaces too would have made for an excellent link to the performance of gender online in gaming spaces, especially considering the male dominance and heteronormativity in these MMORPGs.

Eklund is primarily focused on the performance of gender online, and the findings she concludes are interesting with regard to Butler’s theory of gender performativity, although I still believe the paper could have been more developed and more links drawn to other theoretical ideas to make it stronger. However, her research and research methodology is impressive, and her results provide a good reference point for any further research on online embodiment or further work on online gender performance. Her weakest area is certainly her theoretical overview, however her research and results are very well detailed and discussed, with more expansion of authors and a better overview of her research with regard to the field. Development into the online/offline body relationship would have benefitted her research, especially given the conflicting areas of the online and the offline and how they are blending. Although she does have overreliance on Butler’s ideas, her findings with regard to research on female gamers and their thoughts and practices in this online space are original, and with development in the future into other areas, could prove very valuable to the field of gender online in video games.

Blizzard Entertainment (2004-present). World of Warcraft. Vivendi Universal, USA.

Bryman, A, (2012). Social Research Methods. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge

Cresswell, J.W. (2012 3rd Edition). Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing among five approaches. Los Angeles: Sage Publications

Cunningham, H. (2000). ‘Mortal Kombat and Computer Game Girls’ In Electronic Media and Technoculture. Ed. Cauldwell, J.T. New Brunswick: Rutgers

Eklund, L. (2011) ‘Doing Gender in Cyberspace: The Performance of Gender by female World of Warcraft players’ in Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Vol 17 (323). Sage Publications.

Flanagan, M. (2002) ‘Hyperbodies, Hyperknowledge: Women in Games, Women in Cyberpunk, and Strategies of Resistance’ from Reload: Rethinking Women and Cyberculture. Ed. Flanagan, M. and Booth, A. USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Halberstam, J. (1998) Female Masculinity. USA: Duke University Press

Halberstam, J. (2005). In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press.

Hancock, H. (2012). ‘Are All Female NPCs in WoW Wives or Fallen Women?’ Available from < http://www.mmomeltingpot.com/2012/05/are-all-female-npcs-in-wow-wives-or-fallen-women/> [1.3.2014]

Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books

Hayes, E. (2007) ‘Gendered Identities at Play: Case Studies of Two Women playing Morrowind’. Games and Culture, Vol 2 (23). Sage Publications.

Kvale, S and Brinkmann, S. (2009 2nd Edition). Interviews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research Interviewing. USA: Sage Publications.

Nabeth, T. (2005). Understanding the Identity Concept in Digital Social Environments. Centre for Advanced Learning Technologies. Available from <http://www.calt.insead.edu/project/fidis/documents/2005-fidis-Understanding_the_Identity_Concept_in_the_Context_of_Digital_Social_Environments.pdf> [1.3.2014]

Royse, P et. al. (2007). ‘Women and Games: Technologies of the Gendered Self’ New Media and Society, Vol 9 (555). Sage Publications.

Salter, A and Blodgett, B. (2012). ‘Hypermasculinity and Dickwolves: The Contentious role of Women in the new Gaming Public’ Journal of Electronic and Broadcasting Media, Vol 56 (3). Broadcast Education Association.

Shaw, A. (2011). ‘Do you identify as a gamer? Gender, Race, Sexuality and Gamer Identity’ New Media and Society Vol 14 (28). Sage Publications.

Stabile, C. (2013) ‘ “I Will Own You”: Accountability in Massively Multiplayer Online Games’ Television and New Media Vol 15 (43). Sage Publications.

Taylor, T.L. (2003) ‘Multiple Pleasures: Women and Online Gaming’ Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies Vol 9 (21). Sage Publications.

Toffoletti, K. (2007). Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body. London: I.B. Tauris.




The Legacy of Barbie: Beauty Spectacle, Timeless Memory, Endless Power

Since 1959, Barbie has held a position of power and influence, both in a global, economical and personal sense. Her power as an icon and cultural symbol, her memory in childhood and 20th century history, and her overwhelming spectacle as an epitome of Western beauty ideology, combine to demonstrate how mediated culture and the media can so surround and embed itself into the lives and culture of people. Supported by a network of neoliberalism and Western ideology, the white ideal for Barbie remains the most dominant – and therefore continues to promote a certain idea about white women and power, as well as white beauty and beauty standards in general, through the command of power, memory and spectacle in the media eye.

Barbie’s initial power is informed through her physical body and her beauty. Both are representations of the Western ideology that surrounds ideas of women and beauty standards. Her power is heavily invested in her body, in the first physical appearance. It has an ability to draw in the eye, and therefore the chain of power is reflected outwards onto the viewer. It is this very same beauty, which promotes and upholds her that turns and attacks her – her appearance is that which people recognize, and therefore it becomes the centre of criticism. ‘Power, after investing itself in the body, finds itself exposed to a counter attack in that same body’ (Foucault 1980: 56). The visual power she holds simply as being recognized is phenomenal, making her a presence in culture and embedded into memory. ‘Without her body, Barbie would be nothing’ (Nemani 2011: 124). This need for recognition by Barbie indicates the desire by Western ideology related to beauty to be a homogenous standard globally and being recognised as the most important version of beauty that is available and sustained via neoliberalist tendencies and white power policy. Barbie desires to be looked upon as it enforces her status as an object of neoliberalist and Western power. Yet similarly in a double stagnation, in looking upon Barbie and engaging with the image of her reinforces the idea that Western beauty standards are desired globally as a beauty standard. She is enabling ‘a set of emotive, polarized debates that create a context in which these debates become reiterated rehearsals of themselves’ (Evans and Riley 2014: 17). Barbie’s use of visual power and neoliberalist discourse presented within the body upholds her spectacle of femininity and the intensity of power she sustains through the act of a consumerist gaze. In a sense, through her ubiquitous nature globally in visual and physical senses, she has designed ‘A contemporary social bond tenuously located on the assumption of a common imagery’ (Jenks 1995: 15). The neoliberalist power she presents in terms of herself as an icon of spectacle and identifiable Western power as a body and icon of power is promoting ‘Barbie to consumers the way capitalists promote capitalism to people who least benefit from it. The discourse maintains that the limits come only from within you – you can be rich if you set your mind to it; you can turn Barbie into anything you want her to be.’ (Engin 2013: 24). She is a doll ultimately, with projections of neoliberalism, beauty, ideology and feminism placed onto her and reflected by her.

Barbie is a prime example of neoliberalism sustained in the market for a long period of time. Her continuing repetition of neoliberalist ideas and her reinforcement of Western and white beauty standards on global scale emphasises how influential and widespread Barbie’s power is. ‘For any system of thought to become dominant, it requires the articulation of fundamental concepts that become so deeply embedded in commonsense understanding that they are taken for granted and beyond question’ (Harvey 2007: 24). With her supportive network of neoliberalism and white culture becoming globally dominant, it is no surprise that in her adaptive nature Barbie has represented over 40 different ethnicities in her lifetime, making it clear about her intentions of global expansion within markets, and the popularity of her neoliberalist and white beauty standard message that she represents through her image based power. However, while she is globally available and accepted in terms of her spectacle and power, ‘Global circulation of products like ethnic Barbie creates a transnational space of contestation over questions of consumption, identity and cultural authenticity.’ (Hegde 2001: 130). By becoming the ‘ethnic Barbie’ this is often interpreted as a white racial stance over other cultures, which has resulted in poor sales particularly in India (Grewal 1999). Yet even if Barbie is masquerading as another ethnicity, underneath the doll remains relatively unchanged in structure, again reinforcing the Western and white ideology that she embodies in her spectacle and centralised power. Du Cille notes ‘Apart from their dye jobs, the dolls are identical: the same body, size, shape and apparel…colouring and other subtle differences’ (1994: 52). At her core, Barbie remains a white doll and an exaggerated example of white beauty standards and ideology depicted by neoliberalism. ‘When investigating the politics of whiteness through the cultural product of the Barbie doll, it can be recognized that whiteness itself is not only about race and racism. That is, whiteness can also be configured more broadly as a ‘normalizing technology’ that aids in the production and maintenance of socially constructed standards and norms’ (Kincheloe et. al. 1998:36). In terms of this normalizing technology of whiteness, it correlates with the traditions of white and Western ideology of creating a blanket of whiteness within culture, much the same as Barbie creates ands sustain and overwhelming sense of ‘acceptable’ beauty standards, reinforced by her power as a cultural icon and beauty spectacle of whiteness and neoliberalism.

White Barbie isn’t just the first and most popular Barbie. She sets a standard of what order the racial standing of the brand appears in, and therefore all ethnically diverse Barbies become Othered and exoticised (Said 1978). Hegde (2001) noted that an Indian model of Barbie (dressed in a traditional sari) was seen as an ethnic spectacle, and not as a genuine part of Barbie doll play as other Barbies (i.e. white Barbies). ‘Barbie‘s unwillingness to be transformed into anything but an American girl in Indian garb is part of the Barbie trademark. Regardless of what she‘s wearing, the internal, American, all-consuming Barbie still lies underneath’ (Nemani 2011: 125). Barbie’s refusal to move away from her white image could be argued as reducing the importance of cultural memory in the respective cultures, and instead promoting overarching whiteness and Westernization as the ideal and only option available – the only one ‘worth’ playing with. Here, Barbie’s agency of enforcing whiteness as the beauty standard and only spectacle ‘worth’ viewing, which again gives more precedence to the neoliberalist power she embodies, highlights that her power is diffuse because of her agentic nature. She has the ability to conduct her power through the mediums of white beauty and neoliberalism, meaning that it is far easier to spread herself as a global icon – and therefore overwhelm cultural codes. To see ‘Barbie as typifying hegemonic aesthetic ideals reinforcing the codes of patriarchal society, mainstreaming heterosexuality and white Anglo-Saxon values of the Western world.’ (Engin 2013: 26) reveals her as a symbol of cultural neutralisation and a rise of white culture on a global scale. As white neoliberalism and white beauty standards become more saturated in global culture The Ghanaian Barbie and many of the other ‘Dolls of the World’ collection (Magee 2005) all similarly stand out as commodities, made for the intention of showing the exoticness of global cultures, as opposed to wanting to celebrate and encourage the young consumers to embrace and engage with their respective cultures. It seems that the power of Barbie’s whiteness is so overwhelming that she ‘survives as an icon of whiteness and femininity wherever she travels.’ (Hegde 2001: 132). Rogers similarly noted that Barbie is ‘stubbornly white’ (1999:47). It is with this overriding sense of whiteness that causes the multiracial Barbies to become invisible behind the wall of white (Dyer 1997). Barbie’s skin colour serves as a form of power and spectacle for her, upholding the perfect white standard of beauty in miniature form. Not only that, but by rendering her counterparts as ‘secondary’ to her, she continues to enforce the idea of white beauty and white ideology being the most important the most prominent globally.

Her status as a cultural and global icon allows her a unique ability to be present in multiple memories, largely due to her diffused agency on a wide scale. Fascination with Barbie and her beauty spectacle stems from the sense of the human/inhuman line that she sits upon. It is here that her status as the perfect simulacra is best demonstrated. ‘She is the spitting image of the disciplined body Michel Foucault theorized’ (Rogers 1999: 112). Her body is perfectly disciplined and designed to appeal to the most spectacular aspects of Western beauty, which are unattainable. She ‘is a successive phases of image; it is a reflection of a profound reality; it masks and denatures a profound reality; it masks the absence of a profound reality; it has no reaction to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum’ (Baudrillard 1994: 6). The perfect white Western woman that she is copied from does not exist as a ‘reality’. Therefore, Barbie appeared in culture and memory as an ideal long before she was realised into doll form. Her spectacle of the simulacra is that which allows her to be visually present in the mind of a culture and remembered. In turn, this cultural memory becomes a recognised power which when coupled with neoliberalism and her representation of white beauty standards allows her to grow into a figure that is culturally recognised and acknowledged as being a powerful and memorable representation of white beauty. Being a simulacra, she exists as a copy, and yet simultaneously as a kind of ‘copy-original’. ‘Never again will the real have the chance to produce itself – such is the vital function of the model in a system’ (Baudrillard 1994: 2). There will never be an original Barbie, because there never was an original Barbie. She is a construct from ideology and hyper-real beauty, a dreamed cultural memory enforcing white beauty standards (and arguably is an oppressor of women’s expressive beauty practices). This indicates a dualism of memory; she is both remembered as an original and yet recognised as a copy of an idealised memory. She exists as an agent to diffuse ideas both on an individual scale and on a wider global or cultural scale, within the ‘figurations of the private individual and the figurations of the public sphere’ (Radstone and Hodgkin 2009: 5). These two figurations of how Barbie is inserted into memory indicates an expression of nostalgia (Baudrillard 1994); looking for the perfect Barbie that is set apart from all other memories of Barbie that are pre-existing. It is a sense of a false memory however, and the eternal search for the perfect Barbie only serves to demonstrate the power and influence of memory Barbie can hold over the audience.

As a form of cultural idealised simulacra, it is no surprise that Barbie embraces her status and power as a beauty spectacle. The repetitions of femininity that Barbie so readily embodies – ‘that style of looking and acting feminine that is most widely expected and enforced in a given society’ (Rogers 1999: 14) – are here blinding with femininity to the audience, constantly repeating her ideals of power and whiteness. Combining her ubiquitous whiteness, beauty and sense of ‘fakeness’, she has become ‘so pervasive in contemporary popular culture she hardly requires description’ (Toffoletti 2007: 57). The image of the Barbie itself is difficult to shake off from the memory, given its unique sense of beauty and surrealism (which is undoubtedly part of her power of attraction). Sen et. al. in two studies (2012) found that Barbie is incredibly pervasive in childhood for both boys and girls (for girls significantly more so). It is clear that the memory of Barbie is intensely influential, powerful and memorable. No doubt her repeated simulacra and beauty and cultural ideals leave a long lasting impression, particularly given the strength of her power in memory. As simulacra of memory and beauty tropes, unsurprisingly recycled stereotypes about women and femininity are used. ‘It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that there is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle’ (Baudrillard 1994: 13). Recycling out-dated representations onto something, which is already a copy, and reinforcement of unrealistic standards embeds a negative cultural memory. The discourse of Barbie’s power, taking into account her presence in memory and her impact of spectacle, implores an omnipresence of her represented ideals and values, supporting her status as an icon of influence in a cultural setting.

Barbie has a sense of pervasiveness that appears most present in childhood, when her sense of power and influence seems most prominent. Barbie in childhood creates a sense of collective memory (Halbwachs 1992), and having collective memories of neoliberalism, white ideology, and feminism in the form of a doll that embodies all these becomes an entrenched, very powerful memory of influence. As a form of collective conscious experience, ‘Cultural memory has its fixed point; its horizon does not change with the passing of time’ (Assmann and Czaplicka 1995:129). Barbie is a fixed point both in cultural time and as a point in many people’s childhoods. The memory of Barbie, with dress up and play, or in the activities known as ‘Barbie Torture’ (Rogers 1999), means she is established in childhood. In a sense, this entrenched sense of collective memory via play indicates a similarity to simulacra, as each memory is a copy of similar activities re-enacted time and time again by the ‘players’. The memory remains fixed and unchanged – consequently, so does the influence and initial response to Barbie. Being drawn to her representations of white ideology, given that these are so prominently represented, to see such a perfect miniature example is naturally going to be an attraction to the power representation. ‘If, on the contrary, power is strong this is because, as we are beginning to realise, it produces effects at the level of desire’ (Foucault 1980: 59). The embedded memory of a doll with everything a neoliberalist Western society promotes is incredibly powerful, and in having the beauty standards ‘required’ to achieve all this, she becomes a deeply affective figure, engendering desire and aspiration in the audience, whether or not this is negative or positive remains arguable.

With her spectacle of beauty at the forefront of her image, and her initial draw for audiences, Barbie has helped to perpetuate a specific beauty ideology through her brand. ‘The beauty myth is exported from West to East’ (Wolf 1990: 80). White beauty is by far the most visible beauty form in media today, and given the values associated with it – capitalism, neoliberalism, celebrity – it is no wonder that a doll that offers a small slice of this is so popular. However, ‘when interpreted as the epitome of racial and gender commodification, Barbie can offer little more than a harmful and exploitative image of femininity.’ (Toffoletti 2007: 61). Barbie is a master of exploiting her own femininity, and persuading others that the femininity she represents is the only femininity that has value. ‘Semiotics cannot proceed on the basis that signs mean different things to different people; on the contrary it depends on a cultural network that establishes the uniformity of responses to/readings of the sign’ (Jenks 1995: 15). Through her spectacle of femininity, Barbie sets the impossible bar for standards of femininity to be enacted in Western society. ‘Popular visual media representations are dominated by images of white feminine embodiment in which the subject possesses smooth, hairless, pore-less, and tanned skin; slender, elongated, toned limbs; pneumatic breasts; a whittled waist; and shiny, long blonde hair…these characteristics have been both naturalized and idealized in popular culture’ (Whitney 2013: 121). Barbie possesses an unavoidable presence of memory and power in media and in culture, and has a huge influence over the beauty standards and expectation of women. ‘The spectacle is the stage at which the commodity has succeeded in totally colonizing the social life. Commodification is not only visible, we no longer see anything else; the world we see is the world of the commodity’ (Debord 2002: 12). Barbie has commodified femininity (and therefore to an extent, women and beauty practices), completely demonstrating the spread of neoliberalist ideas into the very practices of people, as well as the prominence of Western ideology that centres on capitalist economics and the dominating influence that it has in the role of spectacle.

Commodification of beauty and femininity, combined with neoliberalist discourse, has led to an encouragement of the ‘Barbie Doll Look’. This is not to say that Barbie came up with the original tall, slim and blonde appearance, which is unmistakably the leader when it comes to Western beauty ideals, but she has repeated the representation so consistently over her 50-year career that it has become synonymous with her – she carries this memory much the same as her simulacra status is carried within her. There is increasing societal pressure to conform to a specific type of femininity via neoliberalist practices. ‘The doll’s presence in visual popular culture is used to define plasticity of the flesh as aspirational. Correspondingly, plastic and Barbie doll-like attributes are sought after, consumed, and written onto the feminine body.’ (Whitney 2013: 121). Barbie’s overriding placement within contemporary Western culture, particularly in terms of beauty and femininity continues to reinforce the spectacle of the doll and to use the power of being accepted in mainstream culture to promote a narrow image of femininity. There are many ‘astounding lengths to which contemporary women will go in order to obtain bodies that meet current ideals of attractiveness.’ (Gimlin 2000: 78). Women have many options, all dictated by neoliberal and white ideals, through which to shape their bodies into a more suitable spectacle (like that of the Barbie). Cosmetic surgery is now mainstream option and widely accepted as a route for women to undergo to have to fit into this incredibly narrow and unrealistic representation of beauty. Changed ‘attitudes toward cosmetic surgery is that exposure to media messages directly influences people’s knowledge and acceptance of cosmetic surgery’ (Delinsky 2005: 2013) have made achieving the Barbie spectacle much easier than ever before. Women are expected to carry out certain beauty practices, whether they find them pleasurable or not (Cahill 2003). They are expected to treat their bodies in such a way that they become a spectacle worth looking upon the same as Barbie.

That women are compelled to treat their bodies as commodities much like Barbie indicates a sense of self discipline and self surveillance; conforming one’s body to the societal norm because you are being asked to endlessly. ‘The individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed’ (Foucault 1995: 196). The Barbie appearance is sold as a commodity, as something that must be attained to a certain level in order to be acceptable and useful is tied closely into the idea of commodity fetishism, which arguably Barbie already promotes herself with the incessant consumer culture related to the brand. In the same vein as power, memory and spectacle see the body as something to be shaped, remembered or viewed, to commodify it only makes these concepts easier. ‘Various articulations of neoliberal subjectivity may thus feel “choiceful”, but they reiterate neoliberal constructions of idea subjectivity’ (Evans and Riley 2014: 6). Neoliberalism allows for the sense of commodification to feel empowering (which it may rightly be). However, at the same time, the person and the body is broken into a commodity that can be as influenced by economy as any stock can. The appearance of the self becomes something changeable – provided you can afford it. Therefore, the beauty spectacle of Barbie embodies not only Western ideological beauty ideals, but also acts as a front for neoliberal projections.

Barbie as a symbol of power, memory and spectacle in culture is divided into many options. Her representation as a body of discipline and a site of power of femininity, and how it is informed by her representation of a centre of white ideology and beauty standards, highlights her long standing and pervasive nature as a body in culture. In her status as a subject of simulacra and object in memory, Barbie becomes a site of remembrance and subjectivity, and a symbol of the long held cultural ideals surrounding white beauty and representations of women. In knowing the power of her memory and in particular her effect as simulacra, she can be recognised and placed more equally into culture than simply being seen as a long standing object of out-dated feminine stereotypes as. Finally, her affect on the beauty and commodification of image and the body, especially with regards to neoliberalist behaviours of image, indicates her influence of power on the memory and spectacle of audiences and viewers and their perception of the self. Barbie, as a site of these three key cultural aspects, represents how these three can be intertwined in the body of a single item of representation.


Assmann, J and Czaplicka, J. (1995)‘Collective Memory and Cultural Identity’ New German Critique, Vol 65 (1) p125-133

Baudrillard, J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Glaser, S.F. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Cahill, A.J. (2003) ‘Feminist Pleasure and Feminine Beautification’ Hypatia, Vol 18 (4) p 42-64.

Debord, G. (2002) The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Knabb, K. Canberra: Treason Press.

Delinsky, S. (2005) ‘Cosmetic Surgery: A Common and Accepted form of Self-Improvement?’ Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Vol 35 (10), p2012-2028.

Du Cille, A. (1994) ‘Dyes and Dolls: Multicultural Barbie and the Merchandising of Difference’ Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies Vol 6 (1) p47-68.

Dyer, R. (1997) White: Essays on Race and Culture. London: Routledge.

Engin, H.B. (2013) ‘Barbied Dreams, Barbied Lives: On our backs, in the attics of our memories, on the shelves’ International Journal of Social Inquiry, Vol 6 (2) p18-37.

Evans, A and Riley, S. (2014) Technologies of Sexiness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Ed. Gordon, C. New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, M. (1995) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison. Ed. Gordon, C. New York: Vintage Books.

Gimlin, D (2000). ‘Cosmetic Surgery: Beauty as Commodity’ Qualitative Sociology Vol 23 (1) p77-98.

Grewal, I (1999). ‘Travelling Barbie: Indian Transnationality and New Consumer Subjects’ Positions Vol 7 (3) p799-826.

Halbwachs, M (1995). On Collective Memory. Trans. Coser, L.A. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Harvey, D (2007). ‘Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction’ The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Vol 610 (21) p21-44

Hegde, R.S (2001). ‘Global Makeovers and Maneuvers: Barbie’s Presence in India’ Feminist Media Studies, Vol 1 (1) p129-133.

Jenks, C (1995). Visual Culture. London: Routledge.

Kincheloe, J et. al. (1998). White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America. New York: St Martin’s Press.

Magee, C (2005). ‘Forever in Kente: Ghanaian Barbie and the Fashioning of Identity’ Social Identities Vol 11 (6) p589-606.

Nemani, P (2011). ‘Globalization Versus Normative Policy: A Case Study on the Failure of the Barbie Doll in the Indian Market’. Asian-Pacific Law and Policy Journal Vol 13 (1) p97-126.

Radstone, S and Hodgkin, K (2009). 4th Edition. Memory Cultures: Memory, Subjectivity and Recognition. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.

Rogers, M.F (1999). Barbie Culture. London: Sage Publications.

Said, E (1978). Orientalism. London: Penguin Books.

Sen, M et. al. (2012) ‘Childhood Barbie Play and Conformity to Feminine and Masculine norms in Adulthood’. Available from < http://www.mayasen.com/BarbiePosterMUPRC2013.pdf> [1.12.2014]

Sen, M et. al. (2012) ‘I’m a Barbie Girl! Childhood exposure to Barbie and conformity to Feminine Norms’. Available from < http://www.mayasen.com/BarbiePosterMUPRC2012.pdf> [1.12.2014]

Toffoletti, K (2007). Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body. London: I.B. Tauris.

Whitney, J.D (2013). ‘Beauty Made Plastic: Constructions of a Western Feminine Ideal’ A Journal of Literary Studies and Linguistics Vol 3 (2) p119-132

Wolf, N (1990). The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are used Against Women. London: Random House Books.

Plastic Surgery – empowering or conforming?

Typically cosmetic plastic surgery in western society, as enacted by women, is deemed to be conforming to a certain aspect of sexualised femininity. However, many women who undertake plastic surgery procedures for cosmetic purposes cite their own personal confidence and desire to change certain aspects of themselves for themselves as their reasoning. It becomes an issue of are they changing to empower themselves or conforming to a certain beauty image, and feeling empowered as a result of becoming closer to this ideal?

Empowerment from plastic surgery is regularly cited as an effect women experience post surgery. Suddenly they are beautiful, without their flaw(s), and being these things means the world is their oyster. One such extreme example of this is model Victoria Wild, who spent £30,000 to ‘become the sexy, bimbo doll I had always envisaged in my head.’ (London 2014). There are numerous reports of women getting various cosmetic procedures and suddenly feeling like a ‘new woman’ who can ‘achieve everything and anything.’ This argument is heavily entrenched in the western ideology of attractiveness and beauty being equal to success, with things like ‘Improvements in the women’s self-esteem and sexual satisfaction were directly correlated with having undergone breast augmentation’ (Nauert 2007). Clearly, women are achieving psychological satisfaction from these procedures and enjoying the power they are taking over their bodies. However, while this appears to heavily support the idea of plastic surgery being a conforming practice, that these women are convinced that their new outlook on life has been achieved by their appearance highlights that for many women, looking better, younger etc. has a huge impact on their outlook in life and is something they do for themselves, despite the fact that it can be traced as conforming to the idea of happiness equals beauty.

Female empowerment can be linked to the idea of the body being a site of representation and practices of modifications, again things women are still exploring and entering into truly. Oddly enough, given that cosmetic surgery practises are there to create a more ‘uniform’ and ‘acceptable’ appearance, it is incredibly interesting that patients post-procedure see their scars as badges of pride. They endured this procedure, let surgeons alter them forever, and they are proud of it. ‘They invoked remembrance, triumph, and indeed pride, in the form of inscriptive scarification’ (Northop 2012:119). Interestingly this scarred pride ties very closely into body modification and modern primitives with scarification practises, who again seek pride through pain and beauty (Zpria 2005). Cosmetic surgery can be seen as a method of exploring body modifications in a more culturally acceptable way, and in a more feminine gendered activity.

Yet despite this emerging argument of cosmetic surgery in women being seen as more body positive and empowering, the strong underlying argument still remains that of these practises as highly conformative, and appealing to a specific Western beauty ideal that is near impossibly to achieve for the majority of people. In a particularly extreme view, cosmetic surgery can be seen as a ‘white’ effect – people seeking procedures to make them look more and more like the perfect White American Hollywood star, because that is the perfection they believe is demanded of them (Morgan 2009). Plastic surgery that is deemed to be conforming to perceived male sexual desires or to a Western beauty ideology is looked down upon, even though women are only carrying out the very messages they are constantly being told they must embody. It is a very confusing medium of messages mixing between feminine independence and control of the body over obeying the overarching rules of an appearance-obsessed society.

In the end, this is a debate which relies heavily on each individual to know their reasons for having cosmetic surgery and acknowledging them, without feeling pressured or that they will be mocked for doing so in saying yes or no. In my personal opinion, I see it as empowering. To decide to undertake such pain, to be forever altered and scarred, is a form of body modification, and taking charge over your flesh is incredibly empowering and knowing you actively made such a decision and decided to undertake this is as far from conforming to ideals as you can get.




London, B. (2014). “I’m a bombshell now, men adore me”’: Model, 30, has £30,000 worth of plastic surgery – including 3 breast enhancements – in order to look like a blow up SEX DOLL. Available from < http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2757612/I-m-bombshell-men-adore-Model-30-000-worth-plastic-surgery-including-three-breast-enhancements-order-look-like-blow-SEX-DOLL.html > [3.11.2014]

Morgan, K.P. (2009) ‘Women and the Knife: Cosmetic Surgery and the Colonization of Women’s Bodies’. Cosmetic Surgery: A Feminist Primer. Ed. Jones, M and Heyes, C.J. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Nauert, R. (2007). Plastic Surgery Helps Self-Esteem. Available from < http://psychcentral.com/news/2007/03/23/plastic-surgery-helps-self-esteem/703.html > [3.11.2014].

Northop, J.M. (2012) Reflecting on Cosmetic Surgery: Body Image, Shame and Narcissism. Oxford: Routledge.

Zpira, L. (2005) Onanisme Manu Militari II. France: Hors Editions

Interview on Asexuality with Mark Carrigan

As a part of my module for university, I was asked to conduct an interview with an expert relevant to my chosen dissertation topic, which is asexuality and Living Dolls. I was lucky enough to secure an interview with Dr Mark Carrigan, a well known and respected researcher within the field of asexual studies.

Transcript – Interview with Mark Carrigan on Asexuality

HA – Hannah Albone

MC – Mark Carrigan

JP – Josh Price

HA: First of all I’d just like to thank you for agreeing to this interview. I’m also joined by one of my tutors Dr Mafalda Stasi, and my colleague Joshua Price. I will be conducting the interview though.

MC: Yes that’s okay.

HA: So my first question to you is: asexuality could be thought of as a challenge to the hetero/homo binary and the westernised ideologies surrounding sexualisation. Do you believe this contributes to the creation and constraints of asexual visibility?

MC: I think there are two separate issues there because the extent to which asexuality is intrinsically counter-heteronormative I think is actually of the question. So if you look at the biographical experiences of asexual people, in many cases the extent to which they do fall under the LGBT umbrella is not clear, and so in asexual tumblr communities, there’s a lot of debate about whether and to what extent asexuality can be understood as queer. But in terms of sexualisation of culture, it’s hugely significant, because I think the very possibility of asexuality, and the visibility of that possibility, poses all sorts of questions in relation to how we assume sex is so central, and I think that assumption is a key aspect of sexualisation. Could you clarify by what you mean about the constraints on visibility?

HA: Well obviously when you’re discussing asexuality, it’s not the most visible in terms of it as a sexual rights movement, I feel asexuality is only just becoming visible in the last 5 to 10 years, since you’ve had the rise of AVEN and the work of it’s founder. I remember reading recently that they had their first float in the gay pride parade in San Francisco. That’s leading up to a visibility but I feel like in terms of the general media it is not nearly as publicised as much as LGBT, and it’s constrained because it’s this idea that, like you go back to the Western centric surrounding this idea that sex is central to the Western ideology, and this idea that because asexuality is ‘against’ the norm it’s constrained because in quotation marks ‘not normal’.

MC: I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I think there’s a risk of overstatement though. I’m very interested in the historical dimensions of this. So as you say, contemporary visibility activism only really came into being with AVEN, and yet there are obvious historical predecessors to an asexual identity. So if you go back to various points in North America, it is more common that it is here, as I understand it. You have the identities of celibate and political identities of celibate. So it’s important to disentangle the social identity of asexual in it’s contemporary form, from the experiences which lead people to seek out that identity, that allows that identity to do some work for some emotionally and psychologically. I think if you see it in that historical perspective, the claim about the inherently Western nature of sexualisation, it’s not that it’s wrong, but I think it’s more complicated than that, especially within Western societies, it has changed a lot.

HA: No I definitely agree that it’s not necessarily a stereotyped view but it’s a dominating view that we adhere to more than we should. This idea that sex is central to Western society.

MC: I think so, I think maybe, I guess I’m more inclined to phrase it in terms of capitalism, which obviously is tied up with Western ideology.

HA: Well yes, of course, everything comes back to capitalism in Western ideology. If you’re alright I’d like to move on to the next question?

MC: Yeah sure.

HA: So we’re talking about that asexuality has typically been feminised. How do you think this affects asexuality as an inhabitable identity category for all genders.

MC: This is one of the ones that I wasn’t sure how helpful I’d could be because I went into my (practical?) research expecting gender to be a salient thing , and was surprised that is wasn’t, and it’s possible that how I constructed my questionnaires and how I conducted interviews by having an advertently marginalised gender as a variable. But leaving that possibility aside, it didn’t seem as important to the experiences of asexual people as I had expected it to be. I think there’s something very interesting about intersectionality in relation to asexual and trans identities, so there’s a lot of evidence anecdotally and from the AVEN census that there’s a degree of intersection, far beyond that in other groups within other areas of the social world. I think that demands explanation. CJ Jason once suggested in a conversation with me suggested that that could be because of…there’s both aspects to someone’s identity leading to a relavitization of identity categories. So people who begin to realise that sexual categories don’t apply to them are more likely to be sceptical of gender based identity categories, and vice versa.

HA: That’s a very interesting take on that point.

MC: As I say, it’s CJ’s, not mine, but I think it is a very interesting argument, a hypothesis for future investigation.

HA: So moving on to, I mentioned briefly that my dissertation topic is regarding a woman named Valeria Lukyanova. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with her, but she’s a Living Doll who’s modified her body to resemble the classic Barbie doll.

MC: Was there an exhibition in the Herbert?

HA: There was an exhibition regarding the art of the doll, I don’t know if she was directly involved in it or represented, but it would have been close to what she does in terms of a representation.

MC: Yeah it was really interesting.

HA: Now she has defined herself as asexual, despite her appearance as Barbie as such. Do you think this could be seen as a commodification of asexuality?

MC: I think it could be seen as a commodification of asexuality, I’m not sure if that’s how I’d see it. I think there’s an inherent value particularly given the relative lack of visibility, cultural explorations of asexuality and related idea are politically and socially valuable.

HA: Even if it could possibly be construed as a commodification, it’s still valuable in the sense that it’s raising awareness?

MC: Yes exactly, and I guess that the consequence would be what sort of awareness does it have for awareness. So if it promotes…if it entrenches widespread misunderstanding about what asexuality is, then that would be negative. Without being more intimately familiar with her work, I’m not in a position to judge whether that’s the case. But from what I do know, I suspect it could promote interesting dialogues, and if not the most important contribution to asexuality ever, nonetheless has some value to that end.

HA: Just flowing off the topic of celebrities promoting asexuality, what do you think about the increasingly number of celebrities who are now identifying as asexual, in the media that are now visible?

MC: To be completely frank, I wasn’t aware of that, so who are you talking about?

HA: Would you mind if my colleague Joshua Price jumped in here, because he’s more familiar with this topic than I am?

MC: Yeah sure.

JP: Stephen Fry recently, Mike Skinner from The Streets as well.

MC: Really? Sorry who was the first one?

JP: Stephen Fry.

MC: Really I had no idea about that.

JP: He claims celibacy so, in a way, it ties into an asexual identity. In recent years he’s moved towards an asexual identity.

MC: That’s really interesting. I’ve stopped really working actively so I’m reading a lot less. I think particularly if you’ve made that transition via a celibate identity, it indicate the sense in which an asexual discourse can be a way of expressing dissatisfaction with sexual normativity. So it’s not strictly speaking a case of identifying oneself in terms of an essentialistic conception of asexuality, but a more expressive notion of identity. It’s a way of saying I don’t quite fit into these narrow sexual categories.

HA: That’s all really interesting points, and it’s interesting, I mean I didn’t know about the Stephen Fry point either, but like you say it’s interesting to see that he’s moving away from this idea of a centralised sexuality binary as such.

MC: It sounds like quite a queer using of the category, and I think that’s quite interesting, given it’s central contribution to the discourse of asexuality.

HA: Yes. So if it’s alright I’d like to move on to another question. In your 2011 paper, you were analysing the AVEN community to a certain extent. Do you feel that an analysis of the offline embodied asexual community would yield different results to this online community analysis?

MC: I think potentially, and I doubt it’s a case of divergent findings leading to a completely different picture as much as offline works, helping flesh out arguments that have been overly informed and overly reliant on online spaces. Conceptually I don’t really buy the idea that online and offline are distinct spheres. I think that it’s the shorthand we use, but equally, there are clearly…AVEN is not just a virtual community, and because of the methodological ease in relying on AVEN to recruit participants, and because of some of the questionable assumptions social scientists make about the internet, there’s been a tendency to assume that the asexual community stops with AVEN, and stops with virtual spaces, and I think that’s the problem. There’s a paper written by an anthropologist in the US, Mark Smith, and I’m not sure if it’s ever been published, I read an unpublished draft of it, and that as far as I know is the first ethnography of asexual community spaces based around, if I remember correctly, participation in a pride rally, and that was really interesting, and I think it could importantly flesh out how we understand the community, because there is some evidence that these people who turn up to offline meetings, who don’t turn up to online spaces. This is recognising how difficult it is to not use the terms online and offline.

HA: Yeah, no I completely understand that. No that’s really interesting point actually, I’ll have to see if the paper’s been published yet, because it would be very beneficial to my research. My last question is that obviously you aren’t working actively in asexual studies any more, but what work do you feel remains to be done in the discipline of asexual studies?

MC: International work and historical work. If I ever do go back to the subject in an active way, I’d really like to look at the historical emergence of what I’d call sexual assumption. So could we be more precise about when and how this centrality of sex to notions of the good life came into being, and I suspect you could track that by looking at academic media and also popular media over the 20th century. I think there’s still not enough sense of historical context, especially about asexuality, and it’s kind of a parallel point in that there’s not enough international context as well. There’s some interesting papers coming out about asexuality in China, at some point in Sexualities in the next year or two, some of which are publishing. I reviewed it and said it was great and I didn’t hear anything contrary so I’m guessing it will be published. And I think more things like that, and particularly if we separate, or at least distinguish, asexuality as an identity category that emerged in a particular time and place, from social experiences which we have reason to assume are probably in variant. There have probably been people who don’t experience enough sexual attraction with enough ‘relative to socially mandated standards’ in every society. If that is the case, then there’s a lot of historical work to be done, trying to trace out the connections between contemporary asexual identity and other kinds of identity that we can find in history.

HA: No that’s all really interesting actually. Well thank you very much for your time, it’s really appreciated that you took the time out to do this interview with us.

MC: No, no problem at all. So what was the project that you’re working on?

HA: This is for my dissertation, like I mentioned I’m working on this woman Valeria Lukyanova, who’s known as the human Barbie. I’m looking at the doll asexual and asexual femininity. I’m still in the stages of planning it at the moment, but if you’d like to have a look at the research you’re more than welcome to see what I have so far.

MC: Yeah I’d really like to, I want to find out more about her work as well. I hadn’t seen the connection and it sounds really interesting.

HA: Well if you like I’ll formalise something for you and I’ll send it over to you via email. I know you’re going on holiday so no rush.

MC: No that’s really interesting thanks. I’ll get back to you on that.

HA: No problem, thanks very much for your time.

MC: No problem at all.



I Ride A Black Horse

A black horse of power, of strength,

Of emotion bound in muscle and sinew.

Straining and screaming for release, for the fight.

The champing of teeth, white foam and white eyes.

Dust stirred beneath feet.

Impatient yet waiting.

Untamed and docile at a touch, wild and flying

A rogue force of raw fury and nature.


Dark mane whips the eyes

Cold stinging fingers.

Tears race across tight pale flesh


The body aches, the breathing shakes.

Lungs bellow beneath and muscles churn.

Hold on

Just hold on.


A broken beast,

A wild stallion,

Held with grip and bound with will.

I shall bend and he shall break.

The dust around settles.

Darkness quivers, lying quiet,

No longer in wait.

Just quiet.

Whinnies from beyond echo.


Feet stir, muscles click to action.

Power and fury

Strength and speed.

Then peace.

Held by me at last.

I ride a black horse.


This piece is dedicated to the Time To Talk campaign. @TimeToChange and to The Samaritans.

#TimeToTalk #TimeToChange

Pledge to end the stigma of Mental Health http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/pledgewall

Samaritans http://www.samaritans.org/

Analysis of a PR Campaign in terms of discourse and power: PETA ‘I’d Rather Go Naked’

Through the structures of discourse and power displayed within media and public relations, the way in which campaigns are presented and used is revealed and presents a variety of different issues. Through the analysis of discourse and power, I will examine the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) campaign titled ‘I’d Rather Go Naked’, referring to the anti-fur movement that has been continued with varying levels of publicity since the 1990s. Breaking down the campaign into implementation of discourse, the power of the public with regard to a campaign, celebrity discourse and activism, and the panopticon, I will attempt to analyse and reveal the constructs of the campaign.

Implementation of discourses and the power embedded within them is the first step in securing the success of a campaign. Discourse is ‘a way of representing the nature of society and human beings. It is a framework of words and images through which we see ourselves at any point in time’ (Garner 2010:405). The discourse in place for PETA allows the campaign to create shock, a representation of the horror as the dominant framework is broken, and the audience accepts guilt on behalf of those creating horrors. Implementing this powerful shock-tactic allows the discourse to strike hard with the advertising, and the aggressiveness of the adverts themselves strongly supports this underlying discourse. Image examples such as Sophie Ellis-Bextor holding a skinned fox with the caption ‘Here’s the rest of your fur coat’ (PETA 2002), illustrates the affective response the discourse is trying to draw from the audience through the use of embedded discourse horror at animal deaths. ‘Using shock value such as naked women, gory photos and foul language anti-fur campaigns’ (Allisonsmf 2012) is obviously a well-established part of PETA’s mandate in these campaigns. By using such strong images, PETA has the ability to evoke an affective response from the audience, which hugely benefits their campaign to get support from the public and therefore more media attention.

‘Strategies and tactics of domination are often discursive – hidden beneath everyday language – and discursive tactics work to position the self and the other’ (Ringrose 2011:598). Ringrose points out the ultimate aim of the PETA campaign: to create an ‘us and them’ barrier between those for and against the wearing of fur. This ‘othering’ is clear in the implementation of the discourse, with celebrities used to guide the public feeling in the desired direction of the campaign, already placing the public below both the celebrities and the views of PETA, which in a sense separates the public and merely allows them to join in with the campaign rather than be seen as a driving force behind it. ‘Othering’, as Said noted, ‘is a specific kind of knowledge about specific places, peoples, and civilizations’ (1978: 203). The use of othering in discourse, particularly when related to such a morally difficult issue as fur, forces people to choose a side based on the knowledge available to them through the primary discourse – which more often than not is skewed in the favour of one party. People are drawn to what they find familiar or intriguing and PETA use this preference of the public for ‘the simplicity and emotional appeal of metaphors and narratives of a struggle between pure good and pure evil’ (Franz 2004: 91). This is illustrated as an obvious discourse in the ‘I’d rather go naked’ campaign, with images of innocence derived through nakedness and the evil of the animals skinned as the binary opposites. Levi-Strauss discussed binary opposition in social structures, as ‘For even in such an apparently symmetrical type of social structure as dual organisation, the relationship between moieties is never as static or as fully reciprocal’ (1963:135). Levi-Strauss indicates that even in social structures such as discourse and the receiving public (with the message carried by celebrities), the division of attention and the way in which is it perceived is in flux and not easily understood in terms of power divisions. Using this powerful discourse, such as in PETA’s campaign, leaves no choice for the audience other than to view, react, and accept the discourse as given.

Despite the implementation of discourses with power as often seeing the public as a weak and submissive force before the strength of discourse, the influence and importance of the public in PR campaigns is underestimated. ‘The human subject is placed in relations of production and of signification, he is equally placed in power relations that are very complex’ (Faubion 1994: 327). That is, while the public submit to the discourse, they also have the ability to make or break the success of a campaign. PETA encouraged people to take their own photos inspired by the campaign in order to join in and become themselves embedded in the discourse, indicating that alongside their celebrity testimonials, they also have the everyman behind them (Scher 2013). Political and media discourses have led the public to accept dominant hegemony, which in turn allows them to play with the discourses present, consciously or not. In turn, this play initiates power to influence and shape a campaign. ‘Symmetrical communication reflected a balance in the relationship between the organization and publics in contrast to asymmetrical’s focus on changing public behaviours and attitudes’ (Coombs and Holladay 2012: 882). This idea indicates that while the public typically have a lack of faith in their own power, they are actually capable of striking a balance. The PETA shock/gore discourse of the anti-fur campaign strikes an ‘emotional chord’ with the public, causing them to voice their solidarity with the ideals of the campaign, and ultimately make it successful. Coombs and Holladay illustrate that the public have the power to break out of their belief of powerlessness and take a more active role in discourses as communication methods shift in their favour. This also closely relates to Foucault, as ‘power is concerned, it is first necessary to distinguish that which is exerted over things and gives the ability to modify, use, consume, or destroy them… it brings into play relations between individuals (or between groups)’ (1982:786). Foucault highlights that power is exerted, but then is dependent on interactions between individuals in order to sustain the power of the discourse. This is where the agreement with Coombs and Holladay is confirmed, creating a blend of the public and power.

Despite PETA’s presentation in this campaign as an elitist attack, it is the public who decide whether or not this campaign is successful, and whether or not the campaign is worthy of entering the public sphere, thus being carried on to the media sphere. ‘Activists have taken to the Internet to pressure for corporate reforms…to pressure corporations to change their behaviours’ (Coombs and Holladay 2011: 2). They react to the catalyst provided, they push the campaign forwards into media attention, and overriding public opinion leads to the changes of dominant political discourses. ‘Both capacity and right being seen to rest on the consent of those over whom power is exercised.’ (Hindess 1996: 1). Hindess demonstrates that although the public themselves may not have full awareness of their influence and abilities, producers and controllers of PR campaigns are fully aware of this, and recognise the power the public have in deciding the fate of a campaign. A campaign like PETA’s ‘I’d rather go naked’ has a strong emotional chord, as above, that may resonate with the viewers and their reaction to the stimulus. There are a variety of reactions with the power of the campaign when it is realised and unleashed by the campaign organisers.

In the cultural changes since the 1980’s, and the consequent shifts in power and discourse presenteed in the public and media spheres, ‘neoliberalism…advocates a programme of deliberate intervention by government in order to encourage particular types of entrepreneurial, competitive and commercial behaviour in its citizens, ultimately arguing for… individualistic, competitive, acquisitive and entrepreneurial behaviour’ (Gilbert 2013:9). In terms of normative framework discourse, the campaign urges the public to react, to take steps to enact their emotional responses into physical actions, and to stand alongside the campaign, which briefly closes the gap of power between discourse creator and the public, as both must bond to make the change to political discourse – to essentially believe in neoliberalism and uphold their believed independence, however non existent this feels for them the majority of they time they are living under dominant discourses. Were the public not to stand with PETA’s campaign, to reject the discourse or to simply not react, relating to slacktivism and it’s often little impact (Christensen 2011), the power would still lie with the public in their choosing not to react, and the campaign would disappear due to a lack of public support.

Celebrity activism is an absolutely crucial part of the discourse of the PETA ‘I’d rather go naked’ campaign.  Celebrity activism, as discussed by Corner and Pels (2003), links together consumerism and politics, using celebrity as a midway in order to communicate the message of the discourse constructor in a more appealing way. Since it’s beginnings in 1991, many celebrities have posed in support of the PETA campaign, many of them using the literality of the campaign and posing naked to demonstrate their opposition to wearing fur. Although ‘The campaign keeps the public’s attention by using naked celebrities purely as a means to recognize the abusive practices used on animals’ (Scher 2013), it is likely that the use of naked celebrities is linked to Friedman’s ideas of corporate social responsibility. ‘Social responsibility is frequently a cloak for actions that are justified on other grounds rather than a reason for those actions.’ (1970:61). Use of naked celebrities is a visual, and their vulnerability before the public in being naked to support the campaign is a defiant message to the fur industries and fur advocates, however, it is just as likely that PETA chose to use naked celebrities (primarily women) to appeal to dominant male hegemonic discourse, and used the cover of the campaign to use such brazen images (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005). This is still a form of celebrity activism as the images are memorable to the public, particularly those where they have been photo-manipulated to have animal-print skin, but it can be argued that using celebrities to support the campaign undermines the power of it. The discourse of celebrity places them in a state of power and influence over the public, making them figureheads. Examining the discourse of celebrity in these terms places the celebrities of the campaign into Foucault’s idea of power/knowledge. ‘Between a relationship of power and a strategy of struggle there is a reciprocal appeal,’ (1982: 208). Here, the power is played between the anti-fur activists (PETA), who have the power hegemonically (in terms of news coverage, widespread popular opinion etc.) and those carrying out fur trades and practises, who are in turn placed outside the hegemonic circle and shunned. By using celebrity discourse and their influence over the public and media spheres, the power relationships are brought down to a more accessible level, as the celebrity campaigners provide knowledge and access to the public, making the campaign’s efforts more widespread through the power of their discourse.

Considering the prominence of celebrities and the fascination of sex and sexuality within Western culture, as Attwood describes ‘the explicit has become so familiar and sexual transgression so mainstream… linked to youth and consumer cultures; sexual discourse is increasingly organized by new cultural intermediaries’ (2006:80). It is not surprising that PETA took this route for a successful campaign, combining their own campaign discourse with that of the dominant cultural ideals. ‘The particular effect of celebrities on public discourse that marked them as more than just well-known people, but as ones who additionally stimulated consumerism, enthusiasm, public debate’ (Babcox First 2009:22).  Babcox First highlights that celebrities are more than just ‘famous people’; that they have the ability to shape discourses and be shaped by them. ‘Cultural meanings are generated as the celebrity becomes a key site of media attention and personal aspiration, as well as one of the key places where cultural meanings are negotiated and organised (Marshall 1997: 72–3, quoted in Turner 2012:6). The celebrities in the campaign shape the cultural outlook of it, by bringing their images and histories to their motion of support, which in turn allows the public to relate through the celebrity images to the campaign itself, creating a chain of power. Celebrities are visible at all times, making them ideal for campaigns like this, where they are not only visible in the literal sense through the images and their support of the campaign, but also in the sense of discourse.

The PETA campaign is aggressive in its execution, and the use of poster-style images makes it a source accessible from a multitude of media platforms with these powerful pervasive images. Yet the images themselves, and the way in which they have been distributed (mostly through print and online) links to the ideas of the panopticon and self-surveillance, as discussed by Marwick (2012). Particularly with the rise of social media and slacktivism, the PETA campaign is channelled through image sharing on social media, as well as the traditional media outlets. By using social media the users have the choice to click and share the images, which encourages neoliberalist tendencies. Neoliberalism, as a ‘conceptual apparatus has to be constructed that appeals almost naturally to our intuitions and instincts, to our values and our desires’ (Harvey 2007:24), provides the audience with the feeling of involvement, much as with their relationship to the celebrities involved who bring the message. By taking advantage of neoliberalism, PETA ensure that the public feel active and engaged with the campaign (through image sharing etc), ensuring it’s long-term success as they guide the campaign in the way they wish with their own policies of discourse. PETA look to create ‘individualistic conception of human selfhood and of the idea of the individual both as the ideal locus of sovereignty and the site of governmental intervention.’ (Gilbert 2013:11). In these terms, PETA presents its ideological discourse to the public, to motivate them as individuals to work together for the campaign.

The theme of the panopticon comes through the focus of viewing social media and being viewed by it. To not share or ‘like’ an image relating to a campaign like PETA’s, which is both long-running and has widespread support, may result in being looked down upon by peers for not engaging with such an important issue. This, in turn, generates image sharing out of not wanting to be seen as uncaring about such a moral issue, indicating internalisation of the panopticon from fear. ‘Communities are characterized by both watching and a high awareness of being watched’ (Marwick 2012: 379). Using the threat of the panopticon and the fear of being shunned by lack of engagement, PETA ensures that they continue to hold power over the public and that the discourse of the campaign continues. They push their prominent discourse onto the power (which is largely based on the threat of guilt through inaction), consequently leading the audience to internalise the discourse.

Discourse and power, in discussion with the PETA ‘I’d rather go naked’ campaign, reveals a surprising force behind the campaign, and in turn illustrates the huge role or power and importance placed on the public by the activist movement, although this is often not realised by the public, instead choosing to view the celebrities as a ‘game changers’, not themselves. PETA have a great awareness of their standing in society and what is expected from their campaigns and discourses, which naturally leads them to take a powerful stance and tackle strong moral issues like the fur trade without fear of their discourse failing or their standing of power being questioned. What is most interesting is the variety of methods implied by PETA, allowing the public to be controlled carefully through a multimedia platform effort, and through a number of ideas implemented within their discourse. It is clear that celebrity activism and the related discourses, as well as the power of the public, are the key motivators behind the success of PETA’s campaign, and are what will continue to push the campaign forwards into the future, although how the discourse will shape and change in the future with a greater move towards online, digital, and social media platforms will be interesting to observe.


Allisonsmf (2012) Rise of the Anti-Fur Movement. Available from <http://allisonsmf.wordpress.com/2012/03/03/the-rise-of-the-anti-fur-movement/> [21.2.2014]

Attwood, F. (2006) ‘Sexed Up: Theorizing the Sexualisation of Culture’. Sexualities, Vol 9 (77). London: Sage Publications. Available from < http://sex.sagepub.com/content/9/1/77.full.pdf+html> [25.2.2014].

Babcox First, S. (2009) The Mechanics of Renown; Or, The Rise of a Celebrity Culture in Early America. Michigan: University of Michigan.  Available from <http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/63642/sbfirst_1.pdf?sequence=1> [22.2.2014]

Christensen, H.S. (2011) ‘Political Activities on the Internet: Slacktivism or political participation by other means?’ First Monday, Vol 16 (2). Available from <http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3336/2767#p3> [25.2.2014]

Connell, R.W. and Messerschmidt, J.W. (2005). ‘Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the concept’ Gender and Society, Issue 19, (6) p829-859. Available from <http://gas.sagepub.com/content/19/6/829.full.pdf+html> [22.2.2014]

Coombs, W.T. and Holladay, S.J. (2012) ‘Privileging an activist vs. a corporate view of public relations in the U.S.’ Public Relations Review Issue 38 (3). Available from <http://mafaldastasi.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/coombs-and-holladay-2011-activist-pr.pdf>  [21.2.2014]

Coombs, W.T. and Holladay, S.J. (2012). ‘Fringe Public Relations: How activism moves critical PR towards the mainstream’ Public Relations Review, Issue 38 (5), p880-887. Available from <http://241communicationpractice.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/coombs-and-holladay-2012-activist-pr.pdf> [22.2.2014]

Corner, J. and Pels, D. (2003) Media and the restyling of politics: Consumerism, Celebrity and Cynicism. London: Sage Publication

Foucault, M. (1982) ‘The Subject and Power’ Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Foucault, M. (1994). Power. Ed. Faubion, J.D, Rabinow, P. Trans. Hurley, R et. al. New York: New Pres

Franz, D. (2004) ‘Bibliographic Review: Discourse and Democracy’. The Hedgehog Review. Available from < http://www.iasc-culture.org/THR/archives/Discourse&Dem/6.3KBibliography.pdf> [21.2.2014]

Friedman, M. (2002) ‘Legitimacy and Responsibility: the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.’ Critical Concepts in Philosophy Ed. Chadwick, R. and Schroeder, D. London: Routledge

Garner. (2010) Foucault Primer. Available from <http://mafaldastasi.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/garner-2010-foucault-primer.pdf> [21.2.2014]

Gilbert, J. (2013) ‘What kind of thing is this neoliberalism?’ New Formations: A Journal of Culture, Theory & Politics, Issue 80-81, p7-22. Available from <http://241communicationpractice.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/gilbert-2013-what-is-neoliberalism.pdf> [22.2.2014

Harvey, D. (2007) ‘Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction’ The ANNALS of The American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol 610 (1), p21-44. Available from <http://mafaldastasi.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/harvey-2007-neoliberalism.pdf> [22.2.2014]

Hindess, B. (1996) Discourses of Power: From Hobbes to Foucault. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

Levi-Strauss, C. (1963). Structural Anthropology. Trans. Jacobson, C. USA: Basic Books.

Marshall, D.P (1997) Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. From Turner, G. (2012 Second Edition) Understanding Celebrity. London: Sage Publications. Available from <http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/57767_Turner__Understanding_Celebrity.pdf> [22.2.2014]

Marwick, A.E. (2012) ‘The Public Domain: Social Surveillance in Everyday Life.’ Surveillance and Society, Volume 9 (4), p378-393. Available from <http://library.queensu.ca/ojs/index.php/surveillance-and-society/article/viewFile/pub_dom/pub_dom> [22.2.2014

PETA (2002). Available from <http://www.mediapeta.com/petauk/Images/page/600-sophie-ellis-bextor.jpg> [22.2.2014]

Ringrose, J. (2011) ‘Beyond Discourse? Using Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis to explore affective assemblages, hetereosexually striated space, and lines of flight online and at school’. Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol 43, (6) p598-618. Available from <http://www.academia.edu/1472909/Beyond_Discourse_Using_Deleuze_and_Guattaris_schizoanalysis_to_explore_affective_assemblages_heterosexually_striated_space_and_lines_of_flight_online_and_at_school> [21.2.2014]

Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.

Scher, E. (2013) ‘Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur’, available from <http://blogs.uoregon.edu/petaj350/2013/06/09/rather-go-naked-than-wear-fur/> [21.2.2014]

Discuss McLuhan’s proposition of extension and amputation in relation to new convergent digital media platforms, and the developments in the consumption of content traditionally the domain of television

To many people traditional institutions define media: television, radio, newspapers, etc. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that media forms are more allied to the digital world and relevant platforms than they are to traditional outlets. Not only has the habit of media consumption been on a gradual path of change since the 1980’s with the advent of the Internet, but audiences have also shaped the media products and the ways in which they use them and consume their media. Since McLuhan’s writings on media and audience in the 1960’s still hold such incredible relevance today, perhaps even more so than they did at the time of publication, the way in which platforms are used, media is consumed, and how audiences react to media products is evolving into an issue that is ever more complicated in a fast moving digital media landscape.

Television is widely regarded as one of the most influential and dominating media forces, no matter how much it may have declined in the last decade with the advent of online viewing options. As a well established media form that is expected to be used and owned by everyone since the mid 1960’s, television has the benefit of being a long standing media platform which has ready access to many channels and, in more recent years, to link content to online mediums as well.  Television does not simply provide the audience with a means of media consumption though. It enables producers to stream their content directly to the home at the ease and convenience of the audience. Television made audiences increasingly accessible to producers and as such the benefits of television were quickly realised with the availability of the commonplace television set. ‘The economic function of a television program is not complete once it has been sold, for in its moment of consumption it changes to become a producer, and what it produces is an audience, which is then sold to advertisers’ (Fiske 1989:26). What Fiske says is true, for producers do utilise the full extent of television audiences for advertising purposes. However, what Fiske proposes is a totally passive audience, much as the Frankfurt School first theorised in the 1920s, with the Effects Model on audience. The presumed passivity of audience with the Effects Model and the control of the producer links closely to Lasswell’s Model of Communication, with the stages directly placing the producer in the seat of power over the audience, dictating the channels of the media and how the audience should be receiving it. ‘ “Who, says what, to whom, in what channel, with what effect?” Attention should be focused on senders and receivers of messages, on the message itself and the channel through which is travelled from its source to its destination, and the effect, if any, that is produced’ (Graber 2004:46). While Lasswell’s Model of Communication is still applicable to television and other media resources today, audience passivity and the total power of the producer is far less assumed than in historical context.

Audiences can no longer be sectioned into those who know of the extensions and those who know of both extension and amputation. Audiences are typically aware of both, but the flow of information from the media product moves rapidly, making it difficult for the audience to pinpoint the moment at which they decide to identify the extension and amputation. ‘In this electric age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of the consciousness.’ (McLuhan 1964: 63). Despite this apparent recognition of the audience of the range of power of media texts (therefore placing them into the active role), audiences are still happy for producers to feed them media messages, which ties into the idea of passivity and possibly lack of awareness of media producer power. The extensions and amputations McLuhan identified with regard to television adheres to this, as the idea of ignoring the amputation and focusing only on the extension is very closely related to audience passivity and the power of producers, something still present in modern day media. Producers still, on some level, expect passivity from the audience in their viewing, because ultimately producers want to see viewing figures and economic success. A passive audience is also less likely to be vocally active online, thereby interfering with the producer’s view of the product. ‘There is a complicated interaction between the technology of television and the received forms of other kinds of cultural and social activity (Williams 1975:44). Although Williams is writing well before the advent of social media and online content, this idea is still relevant today, although often not fully understood by television producers. Incorporation of online platforms with television programmes appears to be more of a response to the massive success and audience utilisation of these, rather than actively trying to integrate the two platforms. It is ‘A model of “one-way influence” (the passive audience)…an odd alliance of exploitative communicators and mass culture critics’ (Biocca 1988:55). Producers seem more interested in treating their audiences as passive, adding in small amounts of evolution to their media platform, and retaining the sequence of power whereby television (and other traditional institutions) are deemed as the most influential and powerful forces within media. However, they do not seem overly keen to fully accept the new forms of media consumption by audiences, particularly with regard to disruptive and revolutionary media forms.

Convergent culture, with traditional institutions such as television and new digital forms like social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc) is often a clashing system. An example of this is the use of Twitter hash-tags in popular television programmes, to allow the audience to interact about the programme over an online platform with live broadcast media as a focal point of discussion. However, rather than this being an aspect of the programme that enables audience inclusion (i.e. seeing the impact of their social media interactions directly affecting the television programme), it is more of an empty gesture by producers than true engagement with the convergent culture. Jenkins views convergent culture as ‘where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways’ (Jenkins 2006:2). Although convergent culture is a largely unexplored area of media, there are still attempts to bring old and new media into a symbiotic relationship. For example, Twitter provides concise information on how producers can utilise their social media platform to enhance television and audience experiences (https://media.twitter.com/best-practices). Twitter views the audience as a totally active and participatory body with their own culture – prosumers within an audience. Audiences, suddenly given the variety of choice with their visual media content, can be unprepared for the convergent nature, and have to return to a more familiar setting to normalise the interactions. In a similar experiment based on audience interactive media ‘People came to the new situation with existing communication patterns based on their experiences in everyday face-to-face situations…people initially borrow behaviours from other, more familiar situations.’ (Carey, O’Hara 1995:227). This experiment indicates that audiences are capable of dealing with new media situations, however at first they rely on familiar media forms of communication until the new one can be fully adopted.

This apparent rejection of the new convergent culture by producers is contradictory to Jenkins’ work, and to an extent, McLuhan’s extensions and amputations. ‘The circulation of media content – across different media systems, competing media economies and national borders – depends heavily on the consumers’ active participation’ (Jenkins 2006:3). Jenkins takes the view that nowadays media cannot survive without audiences pushing it along and shaping the media text to suit them, rather than obeying the producer in the old style of the Effects Model. With regard to McLuhan, the slow acceptance of the convergent culture by media producers is interesting, as audiences are typically quick to adapt to extensions and amputations of new media, often realising both but ignoring the amputations in favour of the extensions. However, it seems that in the case of convergent culture, media producers are able to see the entirety of both extensions and amputations and make their judgements accordingly, although this could merely be a reflection of conservative media power ideals regarding traditional institutions as ‘better’ over new ones. Active audiences are becoming a more definitive part of modern media and how audiences use media is increasingly becoming determinative of media success, across multiple platforms and in general.

This argument is strongly illustrated in the nature of viral videos. Viral videos achieve their success because they appeal to the mass audience, usually based on a direct two-dimensional emotional response to the video itself. Acting as a producer and attempting to force a video to go viral is an exceptionally difficult task, even with a target audience. As experienced by my group and I in our attempts to create a successful viral video, we turned to Twitter, knowing that cross platform and convergent audience culture was the best avenue to take for potential success (television can play its part in such success, with shows like Rude Tube [Cushing 2009]). However, despite setting up two Twitter accounts for promotional material surrounding the video, we were unsuccessful. We relied heavily on the audience to be active enough to share a video without help, and despite using the already established base of Horse e-Books Twitter account and the surrounding controversy (D’Onfro 2013), our video failed to gain viral status (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gF4a0pfg1E). This example highlights over-reliance new media producers can have on the active audiences. However, as television continues to view itself as the main platform and social media as an addition to an already well-established institution, it potentially enables a win-win scenario for producers and audiences. Failing to engage with a social media audience does not take away from the original programme (as audiences have little to no impact on the original content). This reflects McLuhan’s extensions and amputations theory exceptionally well, as the audience will gain an extension for their media habit whatever way they choose to interact with it, although the producer risks more of an amputation than the audience. However, achieving engagement with a convergent culture that brings old and new media together allows another level of audience and producer engagement with a text, but this engagement is not the life-or-death of the text; only helpful. The situation with convergence culture regarding social media and television indicates that convergence culture can work and be accepted by producers and audience, however total reliance on the modern active audience can be unsuccessful.

Initial audience theories regarded them as undistinguished, mass bodies that were easily receptive to texts and the ideas of producers. Audiences were not considered to be able to differentiate or be aware of their own needs with regards to media texts. However, in media nowadays audiences are considered as active, educated forces of aware prosumers, who know how to use media to suit their habits and identify the ways in which they want to use media. Katz and Blumler with Uses and Gratifications (1973) changed this way of seeing audiences as blank slates to project onto, and instead saw audiences as individuals who are able to utilise texts. With the rise of convergent culture and increasingly interactive online media forms, audiences today can be seen as more active than ever before, particularly with the advent of the prosumer. Prosumers, as first discussed by Toffler are able to utilise media to a far greater extent than they are presumed to have knowledge of doing so. ‘We see a progressive blurring of the line that separates producer from consumer. We see the rising significance of the prosumer. And beyond that, we see an awesome change looming that will transform even the role of the market itself in our lives and in the world system.’ (Toffler 1980: 263). Toffler refers to the idea that the audience and the producer have the potential to blend into a creative-receptive body of media. Audiences do have the platforms necessary to create and share their media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram) but only on a small social scale within a limited circle of influence. However, it does enable the audience to find the media they want that suits their personal media needs and tastes, relating back to Katz and Blumler with Uses and Gratifications clearly at work here within the audience.

Audiences are responsible for the changes in media, particularly within the area of disruptive media. Piracy within media (via torrenting and streaming online) is a problem perpetuated by consumers. Again, it is the extensions and amputations as said by McLuhan. Audiences want their media to be easier and cheaper to access. When it is readily available online for free, naturally they are going to choose it. This is an amputation for the media industry itself, but for the consumer it is an extension. However, although the audience can be deemed responsible for causing the breakdown of sustaining media through reliance on disruptive media forms, the audience will refuse to be blamed and media producers, those usually of traditional platforms, are scapegoated. Whether or not this shift of blame to the producer is consciously done by the audience is another matter. ‘In the history of human culture there is no example of a conscious adjustment of the various factors of personal and social life to new extensions’ (McLuhan 1964:71). Audiences are not actively deciding to subvert and bring down the traditional media institutions; they are simply reacting to what options their media environment provides them.

When considering the audience as an active body of prosumers aware of their media choices, I return to my previous example of the viral video myself and my group were unsuccessful in making popular. We provided the necessary means for audiences to share the video easily, and provided additional material in order to support the video. We attempted an artistic, surrealist movement in the video, hoping to tap into the audience curiosity about such things, as well as building on a previous movement of surrealism known as Horse e-Books. With hindsight, and with the study of the six second video sharing site Vine, a video that was comprised of a singular emotional response to content, being short in length and requiring no intellectual or emotional engagement would have been far more likely to succeed in the viral market (Bowen 2013). Had we incorporated the ideology and platform of Vine we might have garnered more success, especially given Vine’s close links to Twitter (rather than having the separate Twitter and YouTube accounts as we did). A marketing strategy we attempted was to contact opinion leaders (linking to Two Step Flow [Katz 1955]) for further promotion of the video in viral terms, although to no avail.  Audiences, no matter how active they can be considered as prosumers etc, are still much keener on having media pushed towards them by opinion leaders. This apparent laziness on behalf of the audience is an odd notion considering the prominence of the active audience and the eagerness for new extensions of media, and could link back to audiences scapegoating producers in order to avoid blame for their own actions. Audiences seem to regard their label as being active or being prosumers with a great level of flexibility and are still keen to avoid being fully labelled producers. ‘The prosumer is clearly not the self-motivated creative originator and developer of new content…but simply a particularly well informed, and therefore both particularly critical and particularly active, consumer’ (Bruns 2009:3-4). The audience, no matter how active they can be considered by themselves or by producers, in terms of McLuhan or others, still prefer to hide behind the shield of media producers in order to avoid blame and continue to consume media however they wish. The impact of disruptive piracy-based media is particularly key to this idea of the blameless audience.

With audiences being considered more and more important to new media forms, particularly in terms of social media, and traditional media producers aiming to incorporate more interactive aspects into old media, the future of media platforms is uncertain. Audiences are clearly going to continue seeking the next new platform that enables them yet another level of social connectivity and media consumption, and producers will be forced to catch up as disruptive media once again shapes the media and audience market. Already audiences are starting to move beyond the boundaries that producers set them, with crowdsourcing projects such as KickStarter becoming increasingly popular to audiences, as they fund the media they want, rather than being offered a selection and choosing from it. What ‘Kickstarter invites fans to do is to take this step further and become involved in projects from the beginning, allowing the fans to be, rightly so, part of the artistic process. These intimate connections provide artistic projects…to be funded by the entire audience’ (Casey 2013). Audiences are seeking their own media now, bypassing producers and traditional funding. However, such developments are only possibly because of new media platforms and raised audience awareness of their activity and their own power in the media. Postman’s theories are being rolled out into reality it seems. Culture is being surrendered in order to embrace the newest advances of technology. Vine is one such example. Putting aside emotionally engaging character and plot developmental longer texts in exchange for a six second snapshot indicates that audiences are more excited by a new technology (an extension) than they are by what culture loss they experience (the amputation). ‘Technocracy gave us the idea of progress, and of necessity loosened our bonds with tradition…Time, in fact, became an adversary over which technology could triumph. And this meant that there was no time to look back or to contemplate what was being lost.’ (Postman 1993:45). Audiences are excited by future prospects, whether they are evolutionary or revolutionary media forms, and little care is given to what is lost. Postman and McLuhan’s ideas on the loss of culture, either through technology or amputation of culture, ties into this strongly.

However, although audiences are becoming increasingly active and aware of their activity and impact on media forms, the study of audience and new media uses is catching up, and it seems likely that producers will gradually learn how to once again manipulate audiences around media products once again. This is already beginning to happen, with the use of Facebook and other social networking sites as free bases of advertising, condoned by Facebook to be used freely by advertisers. Facebook accepts the sale of its audience to advertisers, and users seem barely aware of their manipulation by the site. Facebook will ‘allow the company to target you in Facebook ads tailored to what it knows about you … and tailored to what Facebook knows about you.’ (Koetsier 2012). This tailoring allows specific manipulation by producers, and yet the audience do not seem to really register the depth of what they are being sold from information they provide for free. Producers once again are utilising Lasswell’s Model of Communication to control audiences – directing them through particular channels and modes of access to gain the media effect that they wish.

However, given the producers awareness of audience power, and audience self awareness, it seems likely that media producers will take a guerrilla approach to marketing and designing new products – hence the incredible rise in viral marketing projects. Cloverfield (Dir. Reeves 2008) had a particularly well developed and detailed viral marketing campaign that used the audience a platform through which to spread the message of the film. This reliance on audience activity and online media habits indicates that producers are once again learning how to take over the active audience and regain a level of passivity. Postman’s theory of the surrender of culture to technology is true in part, as is McLuhan’s extensions and amputations, however producers and audiences continue to evolve around such developments, giving and taking of power from each other.

Convergent digital media platforms coincide with many other new media ideas. Disruptive and evolutionary media, viral marketing, developments within social media all tie into the key ideas of audience and producer. Media consumption habits are changing rapidly, with television being side-lined in favour of online video sites like YouTube, or for convenient viewing with online platforms like iPlayer or piracy based avenues of consumption. Extensions and amputations become clearer in an age where audience in favour of new developments, are disregarding old media, and the producer, based in these institutions, becomes worried and fearful even of the new active and aware audience. However, given the fluid nature of the media and the power play within these spheres, it seems likely that producers and audiences will fall back into a hierarchy of power, although the gap between audience and producer will be much smaller than in previous times. The audience however, needs to become more educated and aware of the media situation regarding their power, otherwise extensions and amputations will become more rapid and have more lasting consequences on media and culture, and media consumption habits will be irrevocably changed by audiences, whether they are choosing to move in this direction or not.


Albone, H et. al. (2013) ‘Origins of Horse e-Books: The Duck’ Available from <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gF4a0pfg1E> [21.10.2013]

Biocca, F. (1988) Opposing Conceptions of the Audience: The Active and Passive Hemispheres of Mass Communication Theory. Sage Publications: California

Blumler, J and Katz, E. (1973) ‘Uses and Gratifications Research’ from The Public Opinion Quarterly, P509-523. Public Opinion Quarterly: Oxford

Bowen, S (2013). Five Secrets of Vine Success. Available from <http://www.cedarcom.co.uk/news/five-secrets-of-vine-success.html> [26.11.2013]

Bruns, A. (2009). ‘From Prosumer to Produser: Understanding User-Led Content Creation’ Available from Transforming Audiences 2009. Available from <http://eprints.qut.edu.au/27370/> [27.11.2013]

Carey, J and O’Hara, P. (1995). ‘Interactive Television’ in Transmission: Towards a Post-Television Culture Ed. d’Agostino, P and Tafler, D. Sage Publications: California

Casey, C. (2013). Why KickStarter is the “New” Audience. Available from <http://www.visionintoart.com/why-kickstarter-is-the-new-audience/> [27.11.2013]

Cushing, J. (2008-present) Rude Tube. October Films, Channel 4.

D’Onfro, J. (2013) Twitter’s Favourite Spam Account, Horse_ebooks, Is A Big Fake. Available from <http://www.businessinsider.com/horseebooks-spam-account-is-fake-2013-9> [26.11.2013]

Fiske, J. (1989). Understanding Popular Culture. Unwin Hyman: London

Graber, D. (2004) ‘Methodological in Political Communication Research’ in Handbook of Political Communication Research Ed. Kaid, L. L. Lawrence Erlbaum Associate: New Jersey

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York University Press: New York

Katz, E. (2006 edition) Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communications. Transaction Publishers: New Jersey

Koetsier, J. (2012). New Facebook ad tech will let advertisers match your Facebook with their customer database. Available from <http://venturebeat.com/2012/08/30/new-facebook-ad-tech-will-let-advertisers-merge-your-facebook-identity-with-their-customer-database/> [27.11.2013].

McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Routledge and Kegan Paul: UK

Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Random House: New York

Reeves, M. (2008). Cloverfield. Paramount Pictures, Bad Robot.

Toffler, A. (1980) The Third Wave. William Morrow & Company: New York

Williams, R. (1975). Television, Technology and Cultural Form. Schocken Books: Berlin