As Lang and Lang point out in their paper “Mass Society, Mass Culture, and Mass Communication: The Meaning of Mass,” the term “mass” has a history rife with negative associations, particularly in recent decades. Acting as a site of convergence for multiple themes, the mass is subject to criticism from both Conservative and Liberal viewpoints as theorists point out the potential downfalls of a public that is homogenized, malleable, and pedestrian. Indeed, it seems as though some positions against mass culture contain an air of elitism (although this is not always expressed overtly), suggesting that those who criticize the masses have somehow managed to escape its thrall (and are better for it).
Although one cannot necessarily fault critics of the masses—as Lang and Lang note, the term took on a new set of meanings between the end of World War II and the Cold War as a reaction to world events—there has been an effort to rehabilitate the term, which also argues for a reconsideration of what “the masses” encapsulates.
Combining the work of Benedict Anderson—who famously wrote on the imagined community—with that of Gabriel Tarde and Paul Lazarsfeld, we begin to see an argument that speaks to positive (or, at the very least, functional) aspects of the masses. (We must of course recognize that both Anderson and Tarde wrote in cultural contexts that differed from each other and from the mid-century critics mentioned above.) For if we take Anderson’s description of the initials forms of imagined communities (i.e., those that were built on religion), we see that Lazarsfeld’s “opinion leaders” become the priests while media takes the place (or supplements) our religion. The idea that we form a sense of community based on notions of nationalism or belief in religion is a powerful one, for we begin to see that the very linkages that cause us to constitute a “mass” also allow for the development of a democratic state.
And although we cannot discount or ignore the potential power of the mass media, Lazarsfeld’s work speaks to the idea of a “two-step flow” or “limited effects model” of communication, which argues that individual people possess the ability to mediate the messages broadcast to the masses. If we grant Lazarsfeld’s work validity, we begin to see that, despite the fears of those who would consider the masses as mindless herds, the potential for agency does exist in audiences. The question, then, is whether we teach individual actors to exercise this power.
But we can also push beyond the notion of an imagined community to think about James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and how it attempts to unpack the notion of collective intelligence, offering insight into when (and why) the phenomenon works. Throughout his book, Surowiecki points out the dangers of groupthink, mass hysteria, and insufficient communication—some of the very things that we might think of when considering the downside of masses, the tendencies identified by Surowiecki might speak to movements that are best described as mob rule.
Despite these potential pitfalls, Surowiecki also notes that when collective intelligence works, it can produce some amazing results. The go-to example of Wikipedia aside, the 21st century has seen an incredible rise in distributed intelligence and crowdsourcing along with some equally incredible results, as evidenced by success with Foldit (a game designed to help discern the structure of a protein that makes up the AIDS virus).
If you were to come to my office, you might see a small whiteboard that collects ideas for these articles. Plastered with colored notes, the unassuming space holds an assortment of thoughts that run through my head in conjunction with sexual health education. The board constantly morphs, with new topics going up as I think of them and others coming down as I write. But, although I have been creating these entries for a while, there has been one square that has managed to remain untouched.
Leaning over, I felt a slight resistance as I pulled the note from the board. How would I even begin to talk about the presence of transsexuals (or transgender issues in general!) in popular culture? I was certainly aware of the trans community but I certainly did not have extensive knowledge of the subject.
So let’s start there.
A couple of years ago, it became apparent to me that transsexuals were the new token population in television. Shows like Dirty, Sexy, Money; America’s Next Top Model; Ugly Betty; and The Real World all began to feature transsexual characters and I honestly didn’t know how to feel about it. On the one hand, I was glad that this segment of the population was gaining exposure, but the cynical side of me suspected that these characters were being shown for shock value. Was this is how it had to be? Did minorities have to undergo this process in order to be accepted or were we just exploiting the culture?
While I’m still a little skeptical about the portrayal of transsexuals in media, I’m going to choose to try and see the good in what has happened. So gather around kids, and let’s get ready for some knowledge to be dropped.
Although there are countless variations in gender identity, one of the distinctions that I want to make is between the terms “transsexual” and “transgender”: the former refers to the belief that you were born the wrong sex while the latter applies to people who challenge the prevailing notions or definitions of gender. It makes sense, really, if you stick to the definitions of the root words and see “sex” as a physical manifestation and “gender” as a societal creation. To make things even more complicated, you can toss in sexual orientation, cross-dressing, and drag! While many people associate all of these terms together, they are actually all distinct categories, albeit with some overlap.
With all of this swirling around, it seems all too easy to label this population as “other” and just push it to the side. After all, it’s strange and defies convention, so it’s easier to refrain from thinking about it, right? But, like in real life, actually understanding what you face often makes it less scary. Confused? Just look at this Wikipedia entry for a brief primer.
While doing research, I came across this article, and all of a sudden, this global idea of transsexualism became more personal. The article told the story of Catherine Carlson, suddenly making it evident that the crafted personas on television represented real people—often with very real problems.
Reflecting on the article, it seems only natural to root for the underdog, to cheer for the one who has borne the burden of a life filled with hardship. The exuberance that I feel for this woman is both pure and selfish, for, if I’m honest with myself, it’s a life that I’m grateful not to have. I know that if things had turned out differently, I might have been in that situation, but while I’d like to think that I would rise to the challenge, I don’t know if I would have found the strength. So, Catherine, while I’m sure life is hard, know that I’m pulling for you with my heart breathing “Go, Baby, Go.”