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Feb 10, 2008

A Mainstream Minority

Normal is a word that I don't like. What is normal? If I try to translate it into Spanish I obtain the same result: normal. It looks like it's not allowed to move outside the imaginary boundaries. It looks like what is not normal is wrong or dangerous. But normal is not only associated with something common or average, but also with a cultural and social meaning. If we say "Is not normal to find these kind of apricots in winter", the "normal" word is unnoticed. But if we say "that person is not normal", automatically that person is turned into a monster, a poor, a sad, or a "different" person. I personally think that everyone is different. Luckily.

The mainstream could be defined as an homogenization of a particular view. Larry Gross has dedicated a special chapter called "Out of the Mainstream: Sexual Minorities and the Mass Media", in his book "Remote Control: Television, Audiences and Cultural Power" (1989). He states that in current society prevail "centralized" sources of information. In this context, the sexual minorities (the abnormal, for many views), are not as easily identifiable by the rest of people as the ethnic minorities. And they seem to be the most punished of all minorities by the mass media. So once they are noticed they are a "threat to the natural order of things", and this is an urgent problem still to be treated by the mass media eighteen years after Larry Gross published his book. Television -mass media by excellence- is continually taking care of that boundaries of the normality. But the sexual minorities are not quiet, and they have different ways to react. Larry Gross defined five main roles of mass media:

a) Mass media play a fundamental role in the economic, political, and social integration of the modern society. In this way, the telecommunications function as a nervous system. This concept reveals how important is the mass media in current industrial society.
b) The representation in the mediated reality through massive culture is very powerful. So minorities kept in their places as invisible experiment a "symbolic annihilation", as George Gerbner said.
c) The elites that define the public agenda are mostly white, middle-aged, male, middle and upper-middle class and heterosexual, opposed to sexual minorities.
d) The different forms and content of media "share underlying similarities of theme, emphasis and value" (homogenization). In this way, the conventions adopted in the different media allow efficacy on audiences, and a mutual support in packaging and diffusing common values. This makes even more difficult to resist and subvert a medium in particular.
e) The mainstream film and television are almost always seen as "transparent mediators of reality". Under this fake reality lie inaccessible sources of individual motivation and subcultural life. So, the representation of the mediated reality seems to be the power in itself.

Once the roles played by mass media are stated, we see how the minority groups are distant from the lives of the large majority of audiences. As the telecommunications evolved, mass media has become the primary source of information that create and maintain a world and a system of values. How to react to it? How to fight against the stream? In the last decades, the concept of cultivation has grown. It refers to the influence that television has on the viewer's conceptions of reality, not only about social behaviors, but also about scales of values. Mainstream television helps to the cultivation of a commonality through patterns in the viewer's values. Unfortunately, not all the minorities have the same option for resistance and the development of alternative channels. Some of them are in fact supportive of the main and dominant ideology, while in other cases the values are simply incompatible with the mainstream. "These last cases which present radical challenges to the established order will not only be ignored, they will be discredited", said Larry Gross. Here begins the enforcement of the mainstream view of normality in the representation of sexual minorities, because the definitions of what is normal (and what is natural too) support the existing social power hierarchy.

Again, the sexual minorities are seen as a menace. An example of it is that most of gay films are not targeted to the gay community, but for mass audience. The gay character is negatively stereotyped as overacted victims or villains (or simply invisible), encouraging the sexual majority to stay on their gender-defined reservation, and trying to preserve the sexual minority quietly hidden and out of sight. Another worst, sad(istic) and raw example that flood the movies is the AIDS tragedy, shown mostly as a problem for the sick gay's family instead of centralizing the drama in the dying person itself. But, even with a mainstream that seems to be every day stronger, the fight established by the sexual minorities (and ethnic minorities too) in the last decades, has lighted a hope. Now the gay issue in mass media must be processed to be acceptable for the gay community and still be palatable to general audience. After years of fighting, the n-word has been replaced by afro-american, and abominable slavery stories move our souls. Before making a movie about the nazi holocaust, filmmakers and producers think about it a hundred times to avoid hurting susceptibilities in the jewish community. Larry Gross defined four categories to response to the mainstream media:

a) Internalization. This is the less powerful and effective, but still adopted by a part of the sexual minorities. Assimilationist strategies seems to promise a mobility inside the mainstream, though at the cost of cutting their own roots. Gay men and lesbians know how to pass, but the security attained in this case is fragile and illusory, because it doesn't provide a strong support in resisting the pressure of the straight culture.
b) Subversion. This is the most ambitious: appropriation of mainstream media. The idea of infiltrate in it and take a role of public defiance, "undermining the hegemonic power of media images." In this way, the minority takes a clear position outside the mainstream, consciously, separating themselves from the dominant ideology.
c) Secession. Elevating an own voice, this is the most effective form of resistance. Speaking for oneself, being included in recognizing positions that are acknowledged by the mass. In this way, gay community achieve a higher degree of legitimation. The success of minorities in pressuring on the mass media can be reflected in the care of which images and representations are being used. Most important of all, the minorities must become the producers and not merely the consumers.
d) Resistance. The most obvious but difficult. Being indifferent to the mainstream is an individual strategy, but to accomplish a big shift is necessary a general strategy. Due to the absence of equivalent programming, this response should be based on the creation of alternative channels.
e) As an extra category, I find a mix between the internalization and the subversion, that could be a long but effective process. Once inside the mainstream, supposedly assimilated, this silent mobility could be turn into subversion.

Identity formation for lesbian and gay requires in itself the strength and determination to swim against the stream. But the sexual minorities can take advantage of it cultivating alternative and challenging channels, and continuing pressing the media with fair claims for diversity, equity and respect. "The goal cannot be easily achieved and will require overcoming formidable obstacles", says Larry Gross finishing the chapter. I find this last message amazingly positive and there is no doubt that independent and critical thinking is slowly but firmly mining the mainstream. Because we all are humans that deserve the same treatment. Because we all are different. Luckily.


More info:
Larry Gross @ USC Annenberg
Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks (includes Larry Gross' Out of the Mainstream)

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