Producing and Negotiating Identities

Chapter Introduction

Media representations empower and disempower identities.

What is identity?

How do media empower and disempower identities?

How is media used to make collective identities?

How do marginalised identities use media to make themselves visible?


In this chapter we examine how media:

  • Are central to the ongoing process of constructing and negotiating identities.
  • Offer resources and spaces through which groups seek to develop, resist and reconstruct identities.
  • Afford certain identities the symbolic resources to articulate their narratives and ways of life.
  • Produce collective identities that are related to broader political and economic processes.

Cases & Activities

Apology in cinema and advertising

In his examination of the politics of apology Cunningham (2002) outlines several arguments against and in favour of apologies. The objections to apology, he suggests, are:

  • Apology is absurd if you can’t be held responsible for events you apologise for.
  • Apology is only a political gesture. It has no consequence and may even be immoral.
  • Apology takes the form of reduction ad absurdum. If we begin apologising for historical events, we would never stop because the human history is full of winners and losers.
  • Apology is associated with an attack on the integrity of the national identity and history. Apologies are the product of a ‘guilt industry’ working in favour of minority groups.

In response, Cunningham (2002) makes two arguments in favour of apology:

  • Apologies are symbolically important. They recognise and acknowledge past suffering that lives on in the present. We might not be ‘responsible’ but we acknowledge how our collective identities and contemporary social relations are a product of the struggles of the past.
  • Apologies have utility. Recognition and acknowledgement enables ‘better’ social relations.

In Australia, all of these arguments have been mobilised for and against an apology to indigenous people since Bringing Them Home put the idea of an apology clearly within the mainstream political debate in 1997. While progressive forces argued for the symbolic and practical importance of the apology, it has also been met with resistance and cynicism. Apologies can be seen as the product of a ‘guilt industry’ working in favour of those deemed to have been victimised by the old order. Apologising becomes a mechanism for demonizing former elites and thereby delegitimising their discourses.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to Australia’s Indigenous People, in part, stated:

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

How do Luhrmann’s advertisements mobilise the politics and gestures of apology?

How are the apology as a political gesture and the advertisements as a commercial text related? What are their similarities and differences?

Check out some of Australia’s post-apology films:

Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008)

Philip Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence (2002)

Paul Goldman’s Australian Rules (2002)

Rolf De Heer’s The Tracker (2002)

Ivan Sen’s Beneath Clouds (2002)

Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (2009)

Brendan Fletchers’ Mad Bastards (2011)

The television series’ First Australians (2009) and Mabo (2012)

Rolf De Heer’s Ten Canoes (2006) is significant as well as the first feature entirely in an Australian indigenous language.

Adding another distinctive element to post-apology Australian films are the recent ensemble comedies Brand Nue Dae (2009, Rachel Perkins) and The Sapphires (2012, Wayne Blair). These two films are musicals featuring a cast of indigenous popular musicians.

Many of these post-apology films have acquired critical acclaim and found large audiences in Australia. Critics have argued these films help to reimagine Australian national identity (Collins 2010, Haag 2010). The narratives and claims of post-apology cinema are contested. Some praise its engagement with indigenous culture and country and presentation of colonisation as illegitimate. Others see it as denying and demonising the achievements of settler Australia.

Which arguments for and against symbolic apologies do you find plausible?

Compare Kevin Rudd’s apology to the way apology is represented in the films and advertisements.

How are apologies a form of identity politics?

How do apologies reflect power relationships between identities?



Read the Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples.

Watch the Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples.

Watch Baz Luhrmann’s Come Walkabout advertisement.

New York version.

Shanghai version.


It gets better

Gay and lesbian activists have adapted to online social and identity networks. For instance, technology industry employees made a series of ‘It Gets Better’ videos assuring young gay and lesbian people that while being young and gay or lesbian can be difficult, especially if you grow up in regional or conservative areas, over time life gets better. The videos presented the stories of successful, well-educated, middle class gay and lesbian professionals. The videos demonstrated the capacity of activists to adapt their messages to new communication networks and styles by drawing on affective narratives within short videos that could be virally distributed through social networks.

How is It Gets Better an extension of LGBT activism?

How does It Gets Better use identity to make its message powerful?

What makes It Gets Better a creative tactical use of new media and identity?



It Gets Better YouTube channel.

It Gets Better website.


Terrorists on social media

Just like any other politicians, terrorists need to publicise their identities and activities to target audiences. Depending on the audience they can use mass media (like television), social media (like Twitter), non-mediated communication (like executions in a public space), or institutionalized communication (like Mosques and churches).  Or they can combine these – for example, executing someone in a public space and posting photographs of the executed on Twitter knowing that journalists will pick this up and distribute it to a wider audience on television. 

An example of this was the way Isis terrorists executed Syrian soldiers then posted photos of the mutilated bodies on Twitter.  Western mass media then distributed these images globally.   Like other forms of marginal identity politics terrorist organisations have been particularly effective at using new forms of interactive and social media to circulate content, ideas and build communities around shared identities and causes.

Identify the different audiences with whom Isis must communicate.

Identify which types of messages and which types of media would fit each audience.

Consider other conflicts. How do marginalised groups use a combination of media and violence to be seen and heard?

How do new media technologies change the way terrorists communicate?



Vice documentary on Islamic State.

Vice on Islamic State on social media.

The Atlantic on Islamic State on Twitter.

Australia’s Radio National Media Report on Islamic State use of media.

Further Readings

Each of the readings listed here takes up themes related to identity that we addressed in the chapter. The reading by Hall (1996) is a foundational reading in understanding the relationship between identity, culture and media. The readings by Aronczyk (2008) and Volcic and Andrejevic (2011) both consider the role that branding plays in the production of national identity. Bratich (2011) examines the role the US State Department plays in promoting identity politics around the globe. McRobbie (2004) considers the possibilities for feminist identity politics in a popular culture that appropriates critique and resistance. Gross (2001) offers a detailed account of gay activism and media in the United States.

Aronczyk, M. (2008). “Living the Brand”: Nationality, globality and the identity strategies of nation branding consultants. International Journal of Communication, 2(1): 41-65.

Bratich, J. (2011). User-Generated Discontent: Convergence, polemology and dissent. Cultural Studies, 25(4-5): 621-640.

Gross, L. (2001). Up from invisibility: Lesbians, gay men, and the media in America. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hall, S. (1996). Who needs identity (p. 1-17), in Hall, S. and Du Gay, P. (eds), Questions of cultural identity. London: Sage.

McRobbie, A. (2004). Post‐feminism and popular culture. Feminist media studies, 4(3), 255-264.

Volcic, Z., & Andrejevic, M. (2011). Nation branding in the era of commercial nationalism. International Journal of Communication, 5(1), 598-618.