The relationship between media and citizenship is contradictory and evolving. Since the rise of mass media, social scientists and critics have worried about its deleterious impact on democracy. Such concerns typically hinge on the assumption that commercial media trade on trivial pleasures, emotions, and consumer values that inhibit public participation in political affairs. However, mass media have also been understood as “citizen machines” (McCarthy 2010) that can be harnessed to guide and shape the citizenry (or segments of it) for democracy and public life—an agenda that gave rise to twentieth-century national public broadcasting systems (Ouellette 2002). The proliferation, fragmentation, and globalization of media culture in recent decades, and the development of new conceptual frameworks (such as cultural studies) to analyze it, have required a critical reevaluation of citizenship. While the marginalized and degraded state of “serious” news and public information remains a pressing concern for many, a growing body of critical scholarship recognizes the role of popular entertainment in constituting citizenship as a social identity and everyday practice that is not limited to the formal political sphere.
Citizenship has traditionally referred to the status of belonging to a political body and having rights and duties as a member or subject. The term stems from the Latin word civitas, or people of a city, the locus of organized government in ancient times (Bellamy 2008). With the rise of nation-states, Benedict Anderson (1991) famously argues, citizenship became bound to “imagined communities” that transcended local connections. The commercial printing press was crucial to this process: books, newspapers, calendars, and other printed materials standardized language and discourse, encouraging dispersed citizen-subjects to recognize commonalities and making it possible to govern within a national framework. For Anderson, this emergent “print capitalism” was pivotal in the shift from monarchy to democracy.
Founded on liberal ideals of self-government, early modern democracies like the United States continued to experiment with direct, face-to-face participation in political rule, as exemplified by the agrarian town hall. However, exercising citizenship on a national scale ultimately involved layers of mediation: the selection of representatives to “stand in” for the people, the distribution of symbolic resources (such as universal education and information) to steer public participation, and the construction of national identity itself. The speed and scale of industrial capitalism, waves of immigration and urbanization, and the solidification of consumer culture secured the mediated nature of modern citizenship. While mass media (penny newspapers, magazines, cinema, radio) were crucial to the development of mass democracy in the West, these mass communication technologies threatened the viability of democratic processes in the eyes of alarmed intellectuals and early media researchers. With each new mass medium, complaints about the distracting, “dumbed down” influence of entertainment on the populace surfaced, and by the 1920s, social critics like Walter Lippmann were questioning whether popular participation in democracy was desirable or even possible given the banalities and distortions attributed to media and modern life. Lippmann’s treatise Public Opinion (1922) called for a class of educated experts to “restore reason to politics” and relieve the masses from the burden of having an “informed” opinion (Ouellette 2002, 111).
Mass communication research codified this recommendation in the theory of the “two-step flow,” which identified a subset of “opinion leaders” who read newspapers and sought out public affairs broadcasts modeled after print journalism as the natural leaders of democracy. This rationalization soothed anxieties about the masses of consumers who preferred the cheap distractions churned out by commercial radio and the new medium of television. The equation of democracy with the printed word partly evidenced nostalgia for the era of print capitalism, but it also cast the socially legitimated tastes, habits, and dispositions of educated white men as prerequisites for “enlightened” participation in the political process.
This tendency was not unique to social science. The ideal of the rational and informed citizen has long been a trope in critical media analysis as well. This work often evokes the public sphere, theorized by Jürgen Habermas (1989) as public spaces separate from the market and the state, where people can act as citizens by deliberating issues, advocating positions, and forming “publics” with collective interests. Habermas cites the coffee houses of the eighteenth century, where learned men would gather to discuss and deliberate upon public affairs as prototypes; today such public spaces are often mediated and virtual. While public sphere theory points to the urgent need for independent media not beholden to market pressures, proponents have glossed over the bourgeoisie origins and dictates of the public sphere in practice. Rules of decorum and the emphasis on rational discourse over emotionally and bodily invested forms of participation (such as union meetings or protests) have historically excluded women, the working classes, and people of color from exercising agency in the “public” spaces described by Habermas, a problem abundantly noted by many feminist critics, Marxist theorists, and critical race scholars (see Fraser 1990).
Despite these critiques, the model of citizenship associated with the bourgeois public sphere continues to resonate well beyond the university. The notion of a rational public committed to debating differences and advancing common interests within predominantly national contexts retains currency, even as developments in late capitalism (including the intensification of market values, transnational cultural flows, and the proliferation of ever more specialized consumer niches) undermine this ideal. Since the 1990s, media scholars trained in cultural studies and political theory have questioned this definition of political citizenship, and tracked the shifting shape that citizenship takes in contemporary times. Some of this work situates the perceived failures of democracy within the broader tensions of liberal capitalist democracies. For example, Toby Miller (1993) has persuasively shown how the competing demands of the consumer economy (which encourages selfishness, pleasure, and hedonism) and the political order (which requires rationality, discipline, and responsibility) generate a perpetual sense of inadequacy. Because citizens are perceived to be perpetually “at risk” of failing to fulfill their duties and obligations, initiatives from public broadcasting to Univision’s Citizenship Month have operated as corrective cultural technologies or forms of citizenship training.
Other scholars have questioned the assumption that popular media impede rather than enrich the political process. Jeffrey Jones (2006), for example, rejects the hierarchy that values the democratic function of news over entertainment. Jones contends that the consumption of popular media can also foster political engagement and that satirical fake news programs like The Daily Show may encourage a more critical understanding of the “reality” of politics and the state than traditional news or public affairs media (380). Jones’s “cultural approach” to mediated citizenship offers an optimistic alternative to purists who lament the decline of newspapers and associate the ritualized consumption of television with antidemocratic attributes such as passivity, hedonism, and “distraction.” Along similar lines, Liesbet Van Zoonen (2004) contends that the convergence of politics and entertainment in recent decades—from the election of Hollywood icons for political office to the appearance of television dramas built around government officials like The West Wing and House of Cards—signals the “rejuvenation” of democratic citizenship, not its end point. While these perspectives reclaim an affirmative role for popular media in political culture, they themselves risk upholding the equation of democracy and citizenship with the official events, institutions, and figures of the political sphere.
Feminist and queer scholars have called for a more radical revision of what counts as “political” and where and how citizenship takes place. The robust scholarship on the daytime talk shows of the 1990s explored how these heavily stage-managed and ratings-driven television programs brought ordinary people and the intimacies of everyday life into the public sphere. While talk shows turned private experiences and problems into spectacles, they also presented a mediated forum for discussing social issues such as rape, poverty, mental illness, and discrimination from the ground up. The personal was (at least potentially) deeply political, and the rules of decorum and social exclusions of the white, masculine, bourgeois public sphere did not apply. For scholars like Joshua Gamson (1999), talk shows expanded the boundaries of political life and offered a rare opportunity for marginalized groups to “represent” themselves within the constraints of commercial television. As the political climate of the 1990s shifted, these shows gave way to authoritarian forms of citizenship training, epitomized by Judge Judy (discussed below).
Another intervention challenges the nationalist framework in which mediated citizenship has traditionally been conceived. Globalization, migration, and the transnational flow of media culture have encouraged “disjunctures” in national identity (Appadurai 1990) that require scholars to theorize citizenship in new terms. In his research on media use among diasporic communities, Stuart Cunningham (1991) argues that the national public sphere has given way to ethnospecific “sphericules,” or social fragments that provide a site for public communication and hybrid forms of belonging (often through commercially traded videocassettes, music videos, and other popular media forms) beyond boundaries of the nation-state. Lynn Spigel (2007) takes this further, arguing that nationalism “as a cultural dominant” is also losing currency in Western democracies like the United States, because it no longer fits with the economic and cultural practices of late capitalist media and society. As narrowcasting, niche marketing, and an appeal to subcultures have become “central to global capitalism,” media content has assumed a “culture that is deeply divided by taste, not one that is unified through national narratives” (640). The fragmentation of media culture in the age of five hundred channels also changes the contours of mediated citizenship, as evidenced by the rise of niche-oriented political brands like Fox News.
While the nation remains the basis of legal citizenship, the practice of citizenship has—for better or worse—become more consumer-oriented. Today, our sense of belonging is often rooted in our consumption practices and brand communities as much as in formal political bodies. Drawing from the cultural theorist Néstor García-Canclini (2001), Sarah Banet-Weiser contends that if the nation-state retains currency as a basis for membership and belonging, its definition has come to hinge on interpretative communities of consumers. Within the current context of proliferating media channels, narrowcasting, globalization, and transnational cultural flows, she contends, the “shared identity of consumers is increasingly one of the most meaningful national connections among members of a community” (2007, 10). Banet-Weiser sees the shift toward what she calls consumer citizenship as a reconciliation of the competing demands of the consumer economy and the political order theorized by Miller. Increasingly, brands (including media brands like Fox, MTV, and Bravo) encourage us to actualize our rights, duties, and sense of belonging as citizens within the sphere of consumption. The children’s cable network Nickelodeon, the focus of Banet-Weiser’s study, claims to “empower” its viewers to exercise their right to make consumer choices and simultaneously escape adult rules through membership in the Nickelodeon Nation. The network fuses the promise of political and cultural power—and cleverly connects both to participation in and identification with the niche-oriented Nickelodeon brand.
The rising currency of corporate social responsibility, which has largely replaced state regulation of the public interest in media culture, stitches political citizenship into consumer culture and brand communities in more explicitly political ways. Most media conglomerates, including Disney and Time Warner, now pursue robust “socially responsible” agendas as part of their corporate brand strategies. From encouraging volunteerism and charitable giving to inserting prosocial messages into television content, media corporations pursue citizenship training to bolster their corporate image, which can translate into profit. My own work on media ventures like Oprah’s Big Give and the ABC TV network’s Better Community Campaign (Ouellette 2012) shows how corporate social responsibility stitches the demands of the political order into the symbolic boundaries of media brands, which then become venues for traditional forms of civic belonging as well as newer forms of consumer membership. Within this context, the pursuit of “good citizenship” does not contradict the aims of the consumer economy, but is folded into them.
In recent years, a burgeoning strand of media scholarship has tracked the offloading of duties and services historically performed by the state onto corporations and individual consumers. The shift from the regulation of the public interest, which assumes public oversight, to corporate social responsibility is one example; the surge of media devoted to transforming individuals into more enterprising, responsible, self-reliant, and marketable versions of themselves is another. Reality TV has received particular attention as a “technology of neoliberal citizenship” that translates shifting ideas about democracy and government into regimes for everyday living. Reality TV gained visibility and currency in the early 2000s, in the wake of attempts to privatize public institutions and downsize the postwar welfare state. Neoliberal policies and discourses that apply market logic to every dimension of society were gaining hold in political discourse and the policy sector, and reality programming in the United States was one of the clearest cultural expressions of this political shift. Scholars have noted how reality TV competitions, makeovers, docusoaps, and interventions equate “good citizenship” with personal responsibility (see Ouellette and Hay 2008), while also offering marketoriented social identities, behavioral norms, advice, and templates for self-maximization and personal entrepreneurship. Scholars around the world, especially in Europe, have observed similar neoliberal tendencies in reality TV, as market logic has intensified and programs of privatization and welfare reform have taken hold on a global scale.
The growth of the Internet, social media, and interactive mobile devices (including phones) in the past decade has intensified the long-standing debate over media and citizenship—with no clear resolution. Some scholars are pessimistic about new media’s capacity to undo problems of commercialism and political passivity. We may be able to “vote” for our favorite TV idols, share political information and opinions (as well as GIFs, memes and the contents of our lunch) at the touch of a button, or even participate in new forms of “clicktivism” and hashtag activism, but doing so—they argue—is merely a new form of distraction that prevents substantive participation in democracy and stymies political change (see J. Dean 2010). Other scholars, however, are cautiously optimistic about the extent to which social media, mobile devices, and other new media technologies afford opportunities to redefine the pub lic sphere, formulate mediated publics around diverse issues and identities, and develop new forms of political engagement. Such possibilities are not automatic or inherent to new technologies, but they can manifest under particular social and political conditions. One thing is clear: just as earlier activists understood the pivotal role of mass media in their efforts to transform political life, as suggested by the infamous slogan “The Whole World Is Watching,” today’s social and political movements recognize the centrality of interactive digital media platforms. From WeChat’s role in political activism in China to the use of Twitter by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, new media technologies are equally integral to contemporary demands being made on the nation, the public, and the state.