Fluidity of identities and the decline of tradition
We have seen various ways in which popular ideas about the self in society have changed, so that identity is today seen as more fluid and transformable than ever before. Twenty or thirty years ago, analysis of popular media often told researchers that mainstream culture was a backwards-looking force, resistant to social change and trying to push people back into traditional categories. Today, it seems more appropriate to emphasise that, within limits, the mass media is a force for change. The traditional view of a woman as a housewife or low-status worker has been kick-boxed out of the picture by the feisty, successful 'girl power' icons. Meanwhile the masculine ideals of absolute toughness, stubborn self-reliance and emotional silence have been shaken by a new emphasis on men's emotions, need for advice, and the problems of masculinity. Although gender categories have not been shattered, these alternative ideas and images have at least created space for a greater diversity of identities.
Modern media has little time or respect for tradition. The whole idea of traditions comes to seem quite strange. Why would we want to do the same as previous generations? What's so great about the past? Popular media fosters the desire to create new modes of life - within the context of capitalism. Whether one is happy with capitalism, or seeks its demise, it must surely be considered good if modern media is encouraging the overthrow of traditions which kept people within limiting compartments.
The knowing construction of identity
Not only is there more room for a greater variety of identities to emerge; it is also the case that the construction of identity has become a known requirement. Modern Western societies do not leave individuals in any doubt that they need to make choices of identity and lifestyle - even if their preferred options are rather obvious and conventional ones, or are limited due to lack of financial (or cultural) resources. As the sociologist Ulrich Beck has noted, in late modern societies everyone wants to 'live their own life', but this is, at the same time, 'an experimental life' (2002: 26). Since the social world is no longer confident in its traditions, every approach to life, whether seemingly radical or conventional, is somewhat risky and needs to be worked upon - nurtured, considered and maintained, or amended. Because 'inherited recipes for living and role stereotypes fail to function' (ibid), we have to make our own new patterns of being, and - although this is not one of Beck's emphases - it seems clear that the media plays an important role here. Magazines, bought on one level for a quick fix of glossy entertainment, promote self-confidence (even if they partly undermine it, for some readers, at the same time) and provide information about sex, relationships and lifestyles which can be put to a variety of uses. Television programmes, pop songs, adverts, movies and the internet all also provide numerous kinds of 'guidance' - not necessarily in the obvious form of advice-giving, but in the myriad suggestions of ways of living which they imply. We lap up this material because the social construction of identity today is the knowing social construction of identity. Your life is your project - there is no escape. The media provides some of the tools which can be used in this work. Like many toolkits, however, it contains some good utensils and some useless ones; some that might give beauty to the project, and some that might spoil it. (People find different uses for different materials, too, so one person's 'bad' tool...