This week at the Community Media Makers Zoom Drop-In, we’ll be chatting about how the focus on personalities and personas in media have a limiting and marginalising effect on social engagement. By focussing on a narrow type of persona, industrially produced media limits the way that we can express ourselves, solve problems and engage in discussion about the many challenges that climate crisis and the great disruption are forcing on us. Is conformity to a middleclass form of persona and reputation management denying people who might speak differently from contributing to media discussions about social change?
The purpose of community media, or any form of media for that matter, is often encapsulated or represented in the character and the persona of the people who carry out the most visible roles. The presenters and reporters we see on television, hear on radio, and read about in the press. Too many of these media personalities and celebrities, however, and in my view, feel over-packaged, over-processed, and over cooked.
We tend now to accept that the personas of media celebrities are going to be magnified, projected and thoroughly amplified to fit with the tight expectations that the public are supposed to hold about what forms competent media personalities and performances. These expectations are determined, in the first instance, by the agents and managers of the industrial communications system that makes celebrities and performers on a world stage and across multiple platforms. These managers have the capacity to offer many flavoured varieties of their products, which is otherwise much like any other standardised product offered to the media market.
People are packaged as personalities, and become one product among many that can be referenced among many similar standardised products. The orthodox model for mass production of consumer-focussed media products, is to offer simulated authenticity, from which we are expected to differentiate each product as per our individual tastes, without the realisation that these products are part of a global industrial production process. No wonder politicians love the PR and industrial media industries, because presentation, when it’s manufactured, is a whole lot easier than policy development and delivery.
I had a friend once who took a temporary job packing at a crisp factory. When his employer found out that he was a trained chef, he was asked to work in the R&D department. One day he was sent on a mission to get products that are related to pizza. On his return with a bag of garlic, mozzarella, beef tomato, olive oil and anchovies, he was met with some consternation. The expectation from his bosses was that he would gather other mass-produced products that are themselves pizza flavoured, such as frozen pizza, pizza flavoured pancakes, and so on. The customer of the crisp manufacturer, it was believed, was unable to differentiate the difference in taste between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ pizza, as theses consumers don’t have a discriminating pallet built up over generations.
A similar process is at play in our industrial and corporate media, with the projection of persona and personality taking precedence over character and purpose. Our media is dependent on highly processed and artificially assembled personalities, that can be projected into the public domain at rapid speed and with almost total fluidity. Considerable effort is put into easing the projection of personalities into the collective consciousness, to the extent that the manifestations of personality have to be normalised in sophisticated ways, so that they are intuitively felt by the consumer to be the only form of personality that is viable, and therefore able to sit within popular and public discourse.
Once established, these personalities are difficult to dislodge. Alternatives must be impressed on the collective consciousness in quite forceful ways. Considerable effort must be expounded when introducing new personalities to the public. Those who are the carriers of this novel personality are expected to introduce their character in relation to existing personalities. Many people who are looking for a media career find it easier to enter the public mind if they reflect or imitate, already well-known characters, only developing their ‘own’ personalities over time.
The net effect is that the public maintains a preference for media personalities that are reassuring, dependable and predictable. For example, and after watching many episodes of Ru Paul’s Drag Race during the Covid-19 pandemic, I would suggest that it’s easy to trace how individuals often start on a discordant note when they first enter the public domain, but end up resorting to established media-types because, either they, or the producers, have worked out what category of persona tickles the indignation of the viewer, or similarly fuels the appreciation of the watching audience.
To butcher a phrase, familiarity breeds repeat viewing, which is why soap operas often have a cooky-cutter approach to characters. They may come and go, but they follow patterns and conventional personality characteristics. The rogue, the winsome dreamer, the staunch family matriarch, each drawing on an ancient dramatic tradition whereby they are subject to the whims of fate. As Carl Jung said, “for every archetype, at its first appearance and so long as it remains unconscious, takes possession of the whole man and impels him to play a corresponding role” (Jung, 1968, p. 478). It was once thought to be the gods that impelled us to play our role, though now it is the producer of reality television who have their hands on our fate!
Radio plays out these archetypal roles in similar ways. Personalities are sharpened to conform with audience expectations, so they fit neatly in the mosaic of adjacent personalities. Radio personalities fit like jigsaw pieces and are designed to integrate seamlessly into the bigger picture of the programming service. Industrially produced radio has dominant ‘stars’ who capture attention over time. In television a dollop of spectacle is needed. However, good looks or physical prowess is not necessary with voice-led audio media, so something else has to be present. Geniality, companionship, intimate fraternity.
Perhaps the clearest example of this is BBC Radio Two, where schedule changes are few and far between. The line-up of presenters is stable, and presenters have been kept in place for decades. Once the public is familiar with an individual presenter, and they have a grasp of their idiosyncrasies, then changing them for another personality is almost impossible. BBC Radio One, in contrast, is able to do this more often, as the station has the remit to renew its youth-focussed audience continually. So, Radio One changes its presenters regularly, because the younger audience that it targets has a shorter life span when compared to more mature audiences. This means we see more personality-churn with Radio One than we do with other BBC stations.
The role of the radio presenter, then, can be defined in two distinct ways. With the first we must account for the function of personality and persona, and with the second we must account for the role itself as a fulfilment of the archetype it is aligned with. As Carl Jung explains, where there is a role there is an archetype. We should not, therefore, mistake the enactment and presentation of the persona with that of the character of the person carrying forward the role. To undertake a role is a solemn undertaking. The teacher, the healer, the jester, all come with a heritage and set of boundaries that have been established for as long as we have records of human cultural activity.
The archetypal nature of the social role, therefore, is something that is well-defined in the collective consciousness, and has precedent roots that are shaped through generations of social interaction, cultural representation, and institutional initiation. Roles are lived, though they are defined within the civilisation and the institutions that we share. In contrast, however, the postmodern notion of personality suggests that public personas are largely a display of semiotic identity and behaviour, based on an awareness of the social setting.
As Erving Goffman notes, the persona is a performative function that is dependent on the situation in which it is enacted. In our avowedly materialistic society, the individual is no longer rooted in traditions, cultures and civilisations, but is free to be reinvented through a deconstructive play of signifiers of identity, to the point where there is even a disavowal of biology as a representative feature of social reality. Goffman notes that
“The kind of control upon the part of the individual reinstates the symmetry of the communication process, and sets the stage for a kind of information game – a potentially infinite cycle of concealment, discovery, false revelation, and rediscovery. It should be added that since the others are likely to be relatively unsuspicious of the presumably unguided aspect of the individual’s conduct, he can gain much by controlling it” (Goffman, 1990, p.20).
We’ve become accustomed to the suggestion that personality is a performance, and that we should expect to see people switch between their public and private expression of their self, much in the way that an actor changes costume and plays a number of parts. We admire the skilfulness, though we have lost site of the social virtue that roles embody. Jung, however, referred to psychological types, as grounded in empirical observation. We are not free to become anything we want, but have to remain embodied in nature and experience at all times
Typically, we are encouraged to be the ‘best versions of ourselves’ by life coaches and therapists, as if our character can be reconfigured for each social situation we encounter. Impression management is the core postmodern virtue that carries with it the opposing impulse as an anxiety that we can never meet the expectations that are placed on us by external actors – our employers, clients, colleagues, families. No one is free from the defects of their character. Indeed, the definition of character is simply those things that define us, imperfections especially. One of Boris Johnson’s more truthful moments recently was when he was reported to say that he can’t change his personality at his age. This is true, though by now we are aware of the character of the man, which is different from his personality.
But we live in an age when impression management prioritises social proficiency and emotional sincerity above many other significant values. When one has learned to fake sincerity, so the adage goes, we’ve got it made. Giving the impression of virtue is more important than being virtuous. One must be attuned to the collective dynamics of group virtue in order to embody the persona of a virtuous person in the habitus. Being able to correspond and align with the moods of one’s peers is more important than being correct or principled in one’s ethical outlook. What is better, a crook who accepts they are a crook, or a saint who denies that they are crooked and just like the rest of us all?
Reflecting the shared vibe of the group, such as in the workplace, is now often more important than any measure of clarity of perception which contributes to the ethical resilience of each individual. In the modern media, as in the modern workplace, any abrasiveness is massaged away. All honesty is minimised within the boundaries of acceptable group expression – will it pass muster on a Zoom call with the people in the HR department or the press office? We are all lazy, incompetent, and limited in our knowledge and social understanding, because we are all human. Though while these defects form the interesting qualities of our human character and nature, the demand is for more conformity, and less individuality.
And yet, the public demands that people who operate in the industrialised media offer a public persona that is free from any compromise or acceptance of human nature. Any individual that hasn’t learnt the skill of masking their all too human idiosyncrasies, in whatever form they may take, is likely to be marginalised both in the public domain and in the workplace. In our media and across the social networks we are now expected to maintain a suitably agreeable social presence. Look how YouTubers start as dysfunctional fumblers and fools, yet relatively quickly turn into slick and proficient media personalities.
The marginalisation of difference is ruthless and is pernicious. If one is unable or unwilling to shape an acceptable bourgeois social persona, probably based on flattery and telling people what they want to hear, then you run the risk of being passed over and side-lined. Middleclass institutions, such as universities, schools and professional employers, are all proficient at massaging our differences away, and eliminating any discordant traits that people my bring with them.
When there is an excess of honesty or direct speaking in an organisation, and between a group of people, we can depend on the middle-managers to ruthlessly deal with the perpetrators in the name of reputation management, and regardless of this potentially amount to the repression of one’s class identity. The homogenisation of personality around indicators of agreeableness, community-fit, and the need to represent an organisation adroitly, in no way reflects the capacity that individuals have for doing their job, finding problems and solving them, or ensuring that everyone feels included in the process.
I have encountered many middleclass people who are vile, and who have acted unethically in their role as middle and senior managers. I have also met many working-class people who are brilliant thinkers, who have a capacity to assess and look at situations without the need to save face, and thereby get to the heart of the problems that need dealing with. Being blunt and direct is not a sign of cognitive deficiency, it’s might just be a sign that middleclass bullshit is indifferent to action and change.
This obsession with narrow and conforming forms of personality are, without a doubt, a hindrance to improved social and organisational effectiveness. If placing value on the extent of one’s vocabulary, and the way one uses those words in the company of middle-managers, is the priority for success in an organisation, then we are really going to struggle to deal with some of the challenges that climate crisis and the great disruption placing on us and future generations. As Carl Jung wisely notes
“To round itself out, life calls not for perfection but for completeness; and for this the ‘thorn in the flesh’ is needed, the suffering of defects without which there is no progress and no ascent” (Jung, 1968, p. 159).
Yes, we need a wider representation of voices in our media, complete with defects and idiosyncrasies. However, diversity can’t be based solely on external, visible and physically demonstrable characteristics, as essential as these are, such as ethnicity, gender, disability, sexuality, gender, and so on. Media must also include diversity of character and purpose as well. We need to learn to sort out what is morally and ethically viable if we are to make claims to action that are realistic and sustainable.
We have to consider that it is not just the way that claims for social change look, but that they are empowering for all to participate in and take responsibility for. So, rather than fostering middleclass and self-regarding assumptions on to the rest of the population, we need to look at the deeds that people undertake, the activities they would incorporate if only they were empowered to do so, and the perseverance one’s character brings to social challenges when the pitch is queered against you.
Goffman, E., 1990. The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin.
Jung, C. G. (1968). Psychology and Alchemy (Second ed.). London: Routledge.