Media Use in Identity Construction

Katherine Hamley

In society today the construction of a personal identity can be seen to be somewhat problematic and difficult. Young people are surrounded by influential imagery, especially that of popular media. It is no longer possible for an identity to be constructed merely in a small community and only be influenced by family. Nowadays, arguably everything concerning out lives is seen to be ‘media-saturated’. Therefore, it is obvious that in constructing an identity young people would make use of imagery derived from the popular media. For example, it is becoming increasingly common for young children to have their own television and music systems in their bedrooms whilst also having easy and frequent access to magazines especially aimed at the ‘developing’ child and/or teenager. Such young people would also have a way of accessing the Internet be it at school or sometimes at home. However, it is fair to say that in some instances the freedom of exploring the web could be limited depending on the choice of the parents or teachers. So, if young people have such frequent access and an interest in the media, it is fair to say that their behaviour and their sense of ‘self’ will be influenced to some degree by what they see, read, hear or discover for themselves. Such an influence may include a particular way of behaving or dressing to the kind of music a person chooses to listen to. These are all aspects which go towards constructing a person’s own personal identity. By close investigation into the popular media, and by using two specific examples of a popular teen magazine and a recent ‘teenage’ hit single that got to number 2 in the British charts, I intend to illustrate the various ways in which young people make use of imagery derived from popular media in the construction of their identities.

Firstly, it is important to establish what constitutes an identity, especially in young people. The dictionary definition states the following:

State of being a specified person or thing: individuality or personality… (Collins Gem English Dictionary. 1991).

This suggests that an identity is something that occurs to a person, like a ‘state’ of drunkenness. However, I believe that identity is something that is constructed over a period of time and can constantly be updated or changed completely. Young people can be seen to change their identities throughout puberty and often have different identities at the age of 11 or 12 to when they hit mid teens to their early 20s. Throughout this period, they will be in contact with many different influences ranging from older brothers and sisters, what is deemed to be ‘cool’ in school to popular imagery derived from the media such as the ‘in colour’ this season. The importance of the media influencing the construction of identity is reflected in the following:

…individuals actively and creatively sample available cultural symbols, myths, and rituals as they produce their identities. For teens, the mass media are central to this process because they are a convenient source of cultural options. (Brown et al. 1994, 813).

This clearly shows that young people will actively make use of imagery available to them when they are constructing their identities.

Constructing an identity in today’s media-saturated world is not an easy task. With the multiple examples of identity found in the mass media it is clear that some people may have difficulty distinguishing between sorts. Society also adds pressure to young children when constructing their identities as there are certain expectations presented by society that individuals have to ‘live up to’, as to what is an acceptable identity to maintain and what is unacceptable. This is seen in the following:

A teenager does not experience the angst of constructing a self in a void but rather in the middle of a world of societal expectations and pressures that require public performances to "keep face" and, in some instances, to maintain physical and emotional safety. (Brown et al. 1994, 814).

Within this idea, it is important to remember that an identity is not a fixed thing and it is just as difficult maintaining one as it is constructing one in the first place.

The mass media provide a wide-ranging source of cultural opinions and standards to young people as well as differing examples of identity. Young people would be able to look at these and decide which they found most favourable and also to what they would like to aspire to be. The meanings that are gathered from the media do not have to be final but are open to reshaping and refashioning to suit an individual’s personal needs and consequently, identity. It is said that young people:

…use media and the cultural insights provided by them to see both who they might be and how others have constructed or reconstructed themselves… individual adolescents…struggle with the dilemma of living out all the "possible selves" (Markus & Nurius, 1986), they can imagine. (Brown et al. 1994, 814).

When considering how much time adolescents are in contact with the popular media, be it television, magazines, advertising, music or the Internet, it is clear to see that it is bound to has a marked effect on an individual’s construction of their identity. This is especially the case when the medium itself is concerned with the idea of identity and the self; self-preservation, self-understanding and self-celebration.

Popular media has experienced a great deal of technological expansion during the last century, which in turn has had an immense impact on the construction of identity. As Debra Grodin and Thomas R. Lindlof state:

With a simple flip of the television channel or radio station, or a turn of the newspaper or magazine page, we have at our disposal an enormous array of possible identity models. (Grodin & Lindlof 1996)

Such models provided by the television, radio and indeed the Internet have not always been available for use to young people growing up. Nowadays, it is quite common for children when they come home from school to switch on the television and watch the programmes especially designed for them. Such an example is Grange Hill which is a long running drama about a comprehensive school and all the trials and tribulations of the pupils who attend that school. This was a popular programme when I was at school and still has a great following. This sort of programme shows a particular type of school not unlike those attended by children all across the country and therefore they are able to identify with the characters portrayed on screen. When I was around ten years old I was not allowed to watch Grange Hill as my parents thought it put forward a bad example of how to behave in the classroom. This suggests that they believed it would be possible for me to copy the behaviour portrayed on screen and use it in school, somehow constructing my identity from aspects of the characters in the drama.

Similarly, magazines can also be seen to have a great influence on the formation of an identity, not just in young people but with adults too, to an extent. For example, there are constant complaints made about the portrayal of thin models in fashion magazines that apparently encourage young women to want to be as thin as the fashion models they see in such magazines. I shall return to this point later. Adverts seen in magazines, on billboards, on television or even the Internet and the imagery such advertising campaigns put forward can also be seen in influence a young person constructing their identity. This can be anything from the ‘correct’ labeled trainers to buy to which mobile phone is the smallest and therefore most popular to which beauty treatment to use. The list is endless. Furthermore, young people are also able to gain material to construct their identities from listening to music and especially when they pay close attention to the lyrics of songs. Sometimes, a young person is able to find a certain line of a song which completely sums up how they feel, and this can go towards making them feel more secure in themselves and therefore enabling them to pursue a specific area of their personality further.

The same can be said of the Internet. I believe the Internet is an especially interesting medium for young people to use in order to construct their identities. Not only can they make use of the imagery derived from the Internet, but also it provides a perfect backdrop for the presentation of the self, notably with personal home pages. By surfing the World Wide Web adolescents are able to gain information from the limitless sites which may interest them but they can also create sites for themselves, specifically home pages. Constructing a home page can enable someone to put all the imagery they have derived from the popular media into practice. For example:

…constructing a personal home page can be seen as shaping not only the materials but also (in part through manipulating the various materials) one’s identity. (Chandler 1998)

This is particularly important as not only are young people able to access such an interesting and wide ranging medium, but they are also able to utilise it to construct their own identity. In doing this, people are able to interact with others on the Internet just as they could present their identities in real life and interact with others on a day to day basis.

Young people choose to read magazines for a variety of reasons. Not only do the magazines reflect the interests of a certain age group but they are also a form of enjoyment. They contain varied topics, which interest young people as the articles are written on their level and such articles can be used for light reading and can be read over and over. Magazines have been popular for many years but since World War II they have been increasingly popular with young people. They have been:

…developing in tandem with the expansion of particular commodity markets, records, fashion, make-up and toiletries, targeted at the newly discovered affluent youth market. (Willis 1990, 53)

Magazines are unlike newspapers in that young people regard them as interesting as they are written on a somewhat one to one basis, and a person can exercise control over the magazine in what they choose to read. The fact that magazines are often kept and referred back to is also important in the construction of an identity, especially when a young person may be looking to the magazine for advice.

One of the most prominent images in popular teen magazines, especially those aimed at girls is the image of the model. This in turn is linked to which clothes are fashionable at a particular time and what is deemed to be ‘cool’ to wear. A great many young girls would look as these images as a source of inspiration as to what to wear and would think that they were inadequate to some extent if they could not wear those clothes or did not look like the models featured. For young women:

Figuring out how to dress their bodies requires that they learn a subtle symbolic system, and then decide which of its components fit with, express and develop in desirable ways their identity. (Willis 1990, 55)

By close study of a magazine entitled Mizz published by IPC (International Publishing Corporation) it is clear to see that a thin model wearing fashionable clothes is central to the magazine. (I have included a copy of this magazine). On page 54-57 it is clear to see that the young model is obviously thin and portrayed to be happy as a ‘cute’ young girl wearing pink. She is smiling in every picture, which tends to suggest to a reader that by wearing pink they too will be happy and content. Young people could look at these images and wish to be more like the model pictured. They may take to wearing pink all the time, not only because it is a fashionable colour but also because they wish to be more like the model in the picture. By doing this, a young woman would be constructing her identity from imagery derived from a popular media.

The thin issue does not end here in this particular magazine. Not only are all the models portrayed thin and very ‘girly’ looking but the front cover declares a heading of ‘Fat- are YOU at risk?’ which tends to suggest that all young girls should have perfect thin bodies like the girls in the magazine. It completely loses sight of the fact that the young women reading this magazine are all aged between 11 and 15 and that their bodies would still be in a developing stage. The featured article (pp52-3) takes a slightly different stance however, trying to promote exercise if there is any ‘danger of you becoming fat’. The images presented in this article include a photograph of a young girl slouched on a sofa with pizza and a television remote in her hand, representing the ‘fat’ side of the argument, which is contrasted by two girls on roller skates. These girls are obviously a great deal older than the 11-15 year old intended readership, and are both smiling which would suggest that their form of exercise is not only good for you but great fun as well. Young people reading, or even flipping, past this article would see these images and compare themselves to them. They would find similarities between themselves and one of the pictures and this would influence their identity and sense of self. They would either think themselves too fat or too thin but most probably not a happy medium as young women and even older women are strongly effected by such weight-related images presented in the popular media.

Other features of popular teen magazines are exemplified in Mizz. For example, there are the usual problem pages for young women to refer to for help with their personal problems or worries, which are considered to be of paramount importance when young people are constructing their identities:

The advice columns in magazines rend to be much read and provide young women with symbolic materials concerning their personal and family lives. They can also be much criticized and parodied in their symbolic work and creativity. (Willis 1990, 55)

There are also the usual star sign features, real life articles and posters of popular teenage male icons. Even a young person’s choice of whose picture they put on their bedroom wall reflects the popular media being utilised in the construction of their identities. Their personal preference for one famous person over another reflects what the owner of the poster looks for in a relationship. If they chose a television actor, for example, the individual may be admiring the personality presented by that character in their particular television show. Posters are not just a means for making a bedroom a personal space as a great deal more can be read into them which is reflected in the following:

Pop stars are, to some extent, symbolic vehicles with which young women understand themselves more fully, even if, by doing so, they partly shape their personalities to fit the stars’ alleged preferences. (Willis 1990, 57)

Consequently, it is clear that when reading popular teen magazines, young people make use of the symbolic resources on offer to them in the construction of their own identities.

Just as the images on offer on magazines are open to wide interpretation, the same can be said of popular music. Popular music nowadays can be seen as a kind of theme-tune to young people’s lives as they are growing up. A song can always take you directly back to the moment you attribute it to, and this is especially the case for young people in the process of constructing their identities. The importance of this point is reflected in the following:

Popular music is always listened to within specific social settings and locations, and used as a background to any number of activities from courting and sexual encounters, dancing in clubs, to surviving in work, or defeating boredom in the home. (Willis 1990, 71)

Therefore, it can be said that music can be seen to permeate everything we do either during our youth or when we are older. Music is also a means of communication for some young people, which also goes towards the construction of an identity. For example, if adolescents are able to talk passionately about their favourite genre of music, they are able to share their own thoughts and feelings, which in turn would reflect their personality type.

Young people can also show a great deal of interest in the lyrics of certain songs. Sometimes a phrase or even a few words in a song can sum up completely how you feel at that moment and this can all go towards the construction of an identity.

Songs are made somehow to really speak for a listener. As Paul, a dedicated fan of Bob Marley, points out, ‘A lot of people relate to Bob Marley, and I can see why, you know, ’cause a lot of the things he sings about I’ve been through myself’. (Willis 1990, 70)

This can be said of many songs. The music can be seen to chronicle the feelings and experiences of a great deal of young people and this in turn can make them feel better about a situation, then encouraging them change to the way they feel about themselves. This is the case with a recent hit single entitled Teenage Dirtbag by a band called Wheatus. The lyrics (Appendix 1) describe how a ‘teenage dirtbag’ is in ‘love’ with a popular girl in school but is never noticed by her. This is something a great many adolescents could identify with. The song continues to talk about his lusting after this girl with an anthemic chorus of:

Cause I’m just a teenage dirtbag baby. Yeah I’m just a teenage dirtbag baby. Listen to Iron Maiden baby with me. Ooohoo Hoo Hooooooo. (Wheatus. Teenage Dirtbag. EMI Music Publishing Ltd. 2000).

This is clearly a chorus that would be sung by teenagers in a variety of settings as they too feel like a ‘teenage dirtbag’. The climax of the song states that ‘…she doesn’t know what she’s missing’ which I think is particularly clever. Teenagers listening to this song whose love was unrequited could think that the other person indeed did not know what they would be missing. By doing this they would be making themselves feel better about the whole situation and consequently build their own self-esteem.

The end of the song culminates when the ‘dirtbag’ is at the Prom and the ‘girl of his dreams’ propositions him. This would be any teenager’s dream; to have one’s identity accepted by the most popular person in school. Wheatus’ web site also focuses attention on a teenager that does not fit in with the rest of school as can be seen in appendix 2. By focusing on this, the idea of Wheatus’ debut single can be introduced and young people are given the idea that they too can achieve that ‘happy ending’. This plot is an echo of the film from which the song originates. Appendix 3 is a plot summary of the film Loser, and clearly shows the similarities between the song and the film. Both end with the ‘teenage dirtbag’ getting together with the girl of their dreams. This is a theme which can be seen to permeate much of the popular media aimed at young people suggesting that even if a teenager does indeed feel like a ‘dirtbag’, they can, by listening to such tales and taking notice of them, ‘come good’ in the end.

In conclusion it can be seen that the popular media permeates everything that we do. Consequently, the imagery in the media is bound to infiltrate into young people’s lives. This is especially the case when young people are in the process of constructing their identities. Through television, magazines, advertising, music and the Internet adolescents have a great deal of resources available to them in order for them to choose how they would like to present their ‘selves’. However, just as web pages are constantly seen to be 'under construction’, so can the identities of young people. These will change as their tastes in media change and develop. There is no such thing as one fixed identity; it is negotiable and is sometimes possible to have multiple identities. The self we present to our friends and family could be somewhat different from the self we would present on the Internet, for example. By using certain imagery portrayed in the media, be it slim fashion models, a character in a television drama or a lyric from a popular song, young people and even adults are able to construct an identity for themselves. This identity will allow them to fit in with the pressures placed on us by society, yet allow them to still be fundamentally different from the next person.

Appendix: Web Site Propaganda linking the film with the song

Have you ever been overlooked for the guy or girl with the neat hair-do instead of the mullet you opted for? Have you ever been the center of attention (and not with your consent) because of the pimple resembling a plateau of the Himalayas? Have you ever been ridiculed with the L-shape hand gesture (meaning ‘Loser’) and been too scared to do your own hand-gesture back?

If you answered yes to any of the above, read on ‘cause you’re not alone!

Wheatus introduce their first single "Teenage Dirtbag". This scratch-inflected anthem is for anyone who has ever been a loser-in love but with a happy ending…’cause the ‘loser’ in this track uses his geek appeal to win the girl of his dreams over!

"Teenage Dirtbag" is featured in the film Loser, starring Mena Suvari (American Beauty) and Jason Biggs (American Pie). The video for "Teenage Dirtbag" also features both Mena and Jason and you can catch a preview here.

‘Teenage Dirtbag’ Lyrics- Wheatus

Her name is Noel, I have a dream about her.
She rings my bell, I got gym class in half an hour;
Oh how she rocks in Keds and tube socks,
But she doesn’t know who I am; And she doesn’t give a damn about me.


Cause I’m just a teenage dirtbag baby.
Yeah I’m just a teenage dirtbag baby.
Listen to Iron Maiden baby with me.
Ooohoo Hoo Hooooooo

Her boyfriend’s a dick; He brings a Gun to school
And he’d simply kick my ass if he knew the truth;
He lives on my block; He drives and I rock;
But he doesn’t who I am and he doesn’t give a damn about me


Oh yeah, Dirtbag; No, she doesn’t know what she’s missing.
Oh yeah, Dirtbag; No, she doesn’t know what she’s missing.

Man I feel like mold; It’s prom night and I am lonely;
Lo and behold, she’s walking over to me;
This must be fake; my lip starts to shake;
How does she know who I am; and why does she give a damn about…

I’ve got two tickets to Iron Maiden baby;
Come with me Friday, don’t say maybe,
I’m just a teenage dirtbag baby like you… Ooohoo Hoo Hooooooo

Oh yeah, Dirtbag; No, she doesn’t know what she’s missing.
Oh yeah, Dirtbag; No, she doesn’t know what she’s missing.


April 2001