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Within the framework of the 21st Century, western society is increasingly exposed to images and ideologies of the embodiment of ‘success’ and ‘happiness’. The media is rife with these conceptualisations and affects us all on varying levels of influence and intensity. The very basis of the study of the social sciences (that various spheres of the expression of societal values are interconnected and incomplete apart) is the foundation for the claim that ideologies associated with the modern capitalist value system strongly and wholly affect the understanding and expression of our identity through the management and aesthetics of our bodies.
To understand the origin of this claim, and to further explain the phenomenon it identifies, several steps need to be taken. Firstly, the values of the modern capitalist framework have to be identified and adequately compared to the contemporary understanding of the body and of sexuality. Secondly, expressions of the body and sexuality will be explored, to adequately assess the influence these values have through visual media. Finally response to these values and images will be considered, in order to critically analyse the true degree of agency that has been successfully exercised within this complex association of cause and effect.
As established throughout the second section of this course, the complex and influential structure of capitalism lies in the celebration of the individual, and not of the society. (Loy 1997). Characteristics inherent in capitalism are the importance of the individual; the necessity for competition among these individuals to justify the importance of the individual; and the desire to embody wealth, success and happiness through financial means. Also pivotal to the success of capitalism is the illusion of freedom of choice and agency within society for the individual to construct a unique identity (Loy 1997, Cox 1999). What is perhaps most important in terms of the relationship between capitalism and the expression of identity and sexuality through the body is the concept of commodity aesthetics, the beautification of any object to increase it’s desirability to the consumer. (Sarup, 1997)
The relationship between these values and the understanding and expression of our bodies can be explained in terms of the research done by Rohlinger (2002), whereby a complex study into the representations of men in advertisements was conducted to assess the ‘objectification’ of men that he identified as prominent. While the implications of this study are more in-depth than the conclusions discussed here, the results belie, in part, the beautification of men in the media to create desire for not only the image, but also the product associated with the image.
The biggest category of depiction of men he identified was the so-called ‘erotic male’, whereby a male, of often indeterminable sexual preference, was portrayed sexually, thereby appealing to both straight and gay men, thus following the dual advertising method (Rohlinger, 2002). It would thus appear as if men have been ‘beautified’ in order to increase desire for the product associated with the model. While it may seem to be a leap in logic to equate the ‘erotic’ male with the ‘beautified’ male, the reasoning behind this premise lies in the conceptualisation of beauty in modern society. While it can be argued that advertising affects these values, and that the values in turn affects the advertising, I would suggest that the attractiveness of a male or female lies wholly in terms of sexual appeal, and thus by an erotic portrayal, the beautification process – however atypical – occurs.
If the example of Rohlinger’s research is further employed and employed as it was intended, it becomes clear that through advertising techniques, the capitalist framework has blatantly influenced media portrayals of the body and sexuality, and thus has direct influence on our own expression of sexuality and identity through our bodies. Within the work of Susan Benson (1997), the degree of identity expression through the body is discussed. The capitalist influence has (seemingly) autonomously decided what bodily images determine varying aspects of an identity. (Benson, 1997) In order to appear healthy and in control, a well-toned and slim body is essential. Bodies that do not conform to these characteristics thus display an out of control and unhealthy person, negatively reflecting on his or her identity.
In terms of the influence of structure and agency and the way in which symbols are given value to construct an identity (Jenkins, 1996), the outward display of an identity and any agency in play, is manifested in the aesthetics of the body through the use of symbols that appeal to the senses of those who would validate the identity. These symbols can be clothing, fragrances, language and body language. It is for this reason that the media – ironically, a manifested construct of the very society it attempts to influence and control within a capitalist framework – seeks to associate a type of identity with various commodities to be marketed, increasing not only the desirability of the product, but of the identity as well.
If the claim that gender and sexuality have long been two of the few certainties in one’s identity (Segal 1997), then evidence to suggest increasing blurring of the line of distinction between what expresses the embodiment of being a man or a woman, would indicate a critical turning point in social history, emphasising a shift towards the androgynous and sexual ambiguity. Rohlinger’s research further identified the depiction of men in advertisements as having an ‘unknown’ sexual orientation (2002) thus fulfilling appeal to both a heterosexual and homosexual male community, yet in very different ways. This type of depiction allows for the viewer of the advertisement to identify with a particular interpretation of the male model – further developing the idea that the agency it appears we are exercising is indeed limited within the structures we find ourselves in.
This eroticising effect on the male image – and similarly on the female image – in the media is thus adopted by those who find the identity and image desirable (which returns us to the circle of desirability between the product and the identity associated with the product) and is then outwardly displayed through the appearance of the body. This adoption of a particular identity extends to the sexuality that may or may not be displayed within the advertisement as well, causing the blurring of distinction between male and female sexuality. The portrayals of men and women have become increasingly similar in society (Benson 1997) and thus too have the expressions of masculinity and femininity, weakening previous concepts of gender roles (Hearn 1999).
The by-products of these influential depictions of men’s and women’s identities in contemporary society range from liberal movements gaining acceptability within a sexual context, to the increase in eating disorders, body building, and the supplement industry in an attempt to achieve a ‘healthy’ body, thereby conforming to the acceptable and desirable identity of contemporary society.
The increase in support for the gay and lesbian right’s movements, as well as the continued evolution of the feminist movement, are all examples of responses to the effects of capitalism on society through the media. As in the previous section, the manifestations of various identities increasingly depict an androgynous sexuality, appealing to hetero- and homosexual members of society. (In part due to the increasing wealth of the homosexual consumer) With this subconscious validation of homosexuality in the media, it appears it has become increasingly socially acceptable to either be homosexual, or support the movement and to adopt its value system. (Rohlinger 2002; Hearn 1999; Benson 1997)
This type of liberal movement, while an apparent display of agency in the determination of an identity, appears to be yet another type of conformity to the current desirable identity. Thus the response – albeit in later years – is not one based in agency, but in passive acceptance of a contemporary trend. Similar criticism can be levelled at the development of the feminist movement in current culture. While the view of Rohlinger (2002) may be considered somewhat sensationalist and one-sided, her idea that even feminism and women’s liberation has been commodified and a purchasable identity to the movement ascribed, is one that contains some validity. So far reaching is the grasp of capitalism, that it is able to commodify that which inadvertently opposes the values of capitalism, by advocating freedom of expression and a resistance to the values of the patriarchal society in existence today (Bhasin, 1993). An example of this trend would be a television advertisement for a popular drink with the tag ‘Girls Night. No Boys Allowed’. This blatant commodification of the independent and liberal woman as an identity, critically wounds the credibility of the movement it seeks to ascribe itself to.
The increased phenomenon of female and male eating disorders prevalent among teenagers (certainly the most influential target group in modern society) further illustrates the growing trend in conformity to the desirable body image in at attempt to embody a certain identity. At the other end of the scale (so far removed, it has perhaps come full circle) is the bodybuilding trend: whereby men and women seek to become the pinnacle of strength, power and fitness.
This trend identifies not only the blur in distinction between masculinity and femininity (“active/passive” – Segal, 1997) as women attempt to embody a previously masculine identity, but also seeks to display, perhaps, a resistance (Castells, 1997) to the threat of androgyny and supposed equality of men and women in society, as men attempt to over-emphasise their physical – ergo societal – strength and dominance. In perhaps the most obvious sign of a symbiotic relationship within these two forces, the dietary and health supplement industry is booming, as it convinces millions each year that the healthy body – therefore identity – is contained within a capsule or a milkshake.
In this brief and general exploration into the relationship between the capitalist society and the expression of identity through the body image, it appears clear that the values of capitalism have directly affected the expression of identity and sexuality in modern society. So influential is the media that social actors feel compelled to conform and duplicate these images in order to maintain a sense of acceptance within society. It is also evident that very little real resistance has developed to this trend, and that even those who do not physically manifest their response to this trend, appear to have adopted the ideology in more subtle ways – tellingly, purchasing products associated with the identity they subconsciously want to adopt. Thus the construction of our identity and sexuality is clearly outwardly displayed through the expression of our body, and the media of capitalism is singularly successful by directing it’s influence on our continuing desire to express our identity through outward appearances and symbols.