Media, Gender and Identity,

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  • Topic: Self-help, Self-help book, Books
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David Gauntlett:

Media, Gender and Identity, second edition

Media, Gender and Identity, second edition, is a book by David Gauntlett, published in 2008. The book’s website at offers a number of free ‘extras’. This is one of them. The text is © David Gauntlett, 2008; not to be reproduced without permission. If you use this material for teaching or research purposes, please include the information in this box, including the website address,

Self-help books and the pursuit of a happy identity
This article is a longer version of the discussion of self-help books from the book Media, Gender and Identity: An Introduction by David Gauntlett (2002, second edition 2008). For information about the book, and additional material, see Originally this was a whole chapter. That’s what you have here. It was subsequently compressed to just a few pages for the first published edition – because there wasn’t enough room in the book for all of the things that I wanted to discuss – and then for the second edition, I put some of this stuff back in, updated the statistics, and added some discussion of newer books (which you can find in the 2008 book but not here). If you want to reference this piece, I suggest you use the following: Gauntlett, David (2008), ‘Self-Help Books and the Pursuit of a Happy Identity’, extended version of material from Media, Gender and Identity: An Introduction (Routledge),

In the previous chapters on social theorists Anthony Giddens and Michel Foucault, and the ‘queer theory’ approach to identity pioneered by Judith Butler, we saw the emergence of an approach to personal identities which suggests that in modern societies, individuals feel relatively unconstrained by traditional views of their place in life, and carve out new roles for themselves instead. As a person grows and develops, they typically continue to work upon their sense of ‘self’ – their self-identity – and gradually modify their attitudes and self-expression to accommodate a mix of social expectations and also, importantly, what they themselves are most comfortable with.

(This text is © David Gauntlett, 2008; not to be reproduced without permission. Page 1 of 31)

It is anticipated that this role freedom will become even greater in the future. The media, as we’ve said before, gives us ideas about gender, and relationships, and ways of living. These ideas come over in TV and movies, as we’ve discussed above, and somewhat more clearly in magazines and pop music, which are discussed in later chapters. The most explicit carriers of advice about gender, lifestyle and relationships, though, are self-help books – also known as ‘popular psychology’ and in some cases ‘recovery’ texts – which are the focus of this chapter. It may not be obvious why we’d be looking at self-help books here. They may be popular as non-fiction books go – even a ‘publishing phenomenon’ – but a lot of people don’t read them. If they count as ‘popular mass media’ at all, they are on the margins. But there are two solid justifications for studying self-help texts: 1. The ideas in self-help books ‘trickle down’ into popular culture. Note the rise of ‘therapy speak’ in movies as diverse as The Mexican and HeartBreakers, as well as obvious places like Analyse This and any Woody Allen film. When Bette Midler says in What Women Want that men are from Mars, we all know what she’s talking about. In TV too, from the relationship-obsessed women in Ally McBeal to the trying-to-be-tough guys in NYPD Blue and obviously The Sopranos, the language of therapy and self-help can’t be avoided. Women’s magazines, in particular, both dissipate and assume a working knowledge of today’s self-help clichés. And Elayne Rapping (1996) observes that there are numerous successful TV shows, in the mould of Oprah in the US and Tricia in the UK, which have a very strong...
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