Class & Lecturer: Thurs 12:00-3:00pm, Kai Soh
Student (SID) : Jony Sun (430068410)
For those who are unaware of the phrase mentioned in the title, one may think what I’m about to write has to do with empowering social movement regarding pets or animal rights. This phrase is actually a common catchphrase used within the community of Lady Gaga fans. They called themselves “Little Monsters” and seemingly as the leader figure, Gaga is referred intimately as “Mother Monster”. These are all examples of cultural capitial and by using this relationship, this post will explore the notion of cultural capital and its multifarious facets in the context of a fan community.
(Hair (Instrumental), Lady Gaga)
Simply put, cultural capital has to do with group dynamics and the sense of belonging to a particular group or institutions. Bourdieu describes it as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (Bourdieu, pp. 248-249). There are three key concepts to take away in this definition: firstly, “culture capital” can be potentially indefinitely accumulated, which can be thought of as data accumulation of a database; secondly, such accumulation should have spanned across a period of time and hence, spontaneous groups that are formed for a temporary purpose are not considered; lastly, there should be a sense of intimacy and mutual acknowledgment within the network in question. If put into the framework of Deans’ affective network, cultural capital can be view similarly as the notion of “drive”, which is described as an “acephalous force” that keeps members of a networking from leaving it (Žižek, as quoted in Dean, p. 3). To an affective network, the interaction and engagement, specifically enjoyable ones, among members are both the source and result of the “drive” (Dean, p. 25). Similarly, cultural capital gives members of the network a “collectively-owned capital” and depending on the nature of the network, enjoyment can be derived from being entitled to its cultural capital.
One type of cultural capital within a fan community is the fan objects. These may range from books and publications to media and shows and even the celebrities themselves (Sandvoss, as cited in Click, Lee, Holladay, p. 363). With its constant production of media, the entertainment industry is an apparent source for fan objects. What’s also offer is the notion of “imaginaries”, which is the result of “congealing emotions and sentiments into recognizable sounds, images, and personalities that work to maintain the intensity of emotions” (Marshall, as cited in Corona, p. 727).
In terms of visuals, Gaga’s “elaborate performances and sartorial experimentation” (Corona, p. 726) on various occasions, from music videos to award appearances, has produced numerous diverse styles that is then picked up by fans and used as fan objects. It is important to note that the objects themselves do not carry any connotations, instead its meaning are created through fans’ interactions with them (Sandvoss, as cited in Click, et al., p. 363). The main reason that Gaga’s aesthetics are considered as fan objects is that these visuals are often distinctively unique so they can be taken to signify and represent the fan community. Furthermore, the interaction fans have with these fan objects is visualized when they display their desire to embody and imitate these styles while attending her concerts, which has gradually become a norm within the community. Since the uses of these fan objects has led to the formation of an institutionalised practice, they are thus considered as cultural capital as they contribute to the durability of the network.
Aside being described as the accumulation of material resources, cultural capital is also understood “socially instituted and guaranteed by the application of a common name” (Bourdieu, p. 249). In this case, this is referring to the name shared by both Gaga and her fans: monster. The term is traditionally used with a negative connotation as it invokes the notion of monstrosity, but in the context of this fan community, it has become “a positive point of identification for followers who wish to celebrate their differences and find strength through association with other monsters, including Lady Gaga” (Click, et al., p. 370). Gaga’s identity as the “Mother Monster” summarises her relationship with her fans: “she is both a maternal safe haven and an eccentric symbol drawing on the current cultural preoccupation with the monstrous” (Click, et al., p. 361). As a form of cultural capital, this sentiment is hence what members of the fan community is entitled to (Bourdieu, p. 249) when they identify with the common name “monsters”.
There is more to the “monster identity” and this links to another aspect of cultural capital: the profits of membership. The incentive and rewards of being associated as part of the network are the core features that makes membership possible in the first place (Bourdieu, p. 249). One of such profits is symbolic profits, which are derived from association (Bourdieu, p. 249). A main characteristic to the Little Monster identity is “the acceptance and endorsement of Lady Gaga’s messages of empowerment”(Click, et al., p. 368), in which her history of being bullied and messages about “appearance, gender, and sexuality have struck a chord with fans” Click, et al., p. 361) Hence, the aforementioned motherly protective role of Gaga is “based upon a shared experience of being outcasts in society” (Click, et al., p. 368), which is a status that Gaga vehemently and candidly celebrates and endorses (Corona, p. 726; Click, et al., p. 370) Therefore, the symbolic profits of this fan community is then a sense of belonging and acceptance, where Gaga “emphasizes her oddities to give shelter, support, and solidarity to her fans” (Click, et al., p. 361). The monster identity is then for those who “articulated a desire to have their worth affirmed, and to take on Lady Gaga’s strengths to overcome challenges stemming from their own difference and marginalization” (Click, et al., p. 372). This “borrowing” of strength also echoes Sandvoss’ notion that fan objects are mirrors of self-reflection. By invoking courage under the term ‘monsters”, fans are eliding “the boundaries between self and object”, ultimately making this fan object a part of themselves (Sandvoss, as cited in Click, et al., p. 363). This feeling of acknowledgement, which stems from common struggles, and Gaga’s strength are hence highlighted as the symbolic profits offered for the members of this fan community.
Hinton has remarked that “it is important to acknowledge that social media contains offline modes of engagement: it is never entirely just an online phenomenon” (Hinton & Hjorth, p. 3). Although the monster identity promises such positive environment for social outcasts, it will easily fall apart and become an illusion if there’s nothing concrete to back those claims up. Cultural capital may function as a motivation for participants to become a member of the network, but it doesn’t guarantee everlasting membership. Hence, there’s a need for offline interactions so to sustain the symbolic profits brought by the community’s cultural capital. In February 2012, Gaga and her mother launched the Born This Way Foundation in a joint venture with Harvard University (Click, et al., p. 361). Its founding mission is to leverage “rigorous academic research and authentic partnerships in order to provide young people with kinder communities, improved mental health resources, and more positive environments – online and offline” (“About the Foundation”, 2016). Recently, Gaga has also appeared in a video with Prince William for the Heads Together campaign, which aims to “end stigma around mental health” and change the conversation on this issue by encouraging people to speak up about it (“About Heads Together”, 2017). By being so vocal and open about her personal struggles with mental issues in the video and in her open letter, Gaga becomes a “surrogate voice” (Grossberg, as cited in Click, et al., p. 369) for her fans that has been affected by the stigmatization of mental health issues. These offline mode of engagements thus reinforces the ideals that the monster identity encompasses and furthermore, creates more incentives to be part of the community.
Using Gaga and her fan community, ranging from Gaga’s numerous visuals, messages of acceptance and empowerment, their shared common name and her extensive offline social engagements, this post has illustrated the many aspects and functions of cultural capital. It is not simply just material and immaterial resources that are collectively-owned, it also plays a vital part in the fostering and maintaining of a network since it encompasses the incentives to attract new members and also desirable affiliations that ultimately creates and determines an identity that members voluntarily associate with.
Word Count: 1298 (excluding in-text citations and captions)
About Heads Together. (2017). Headstogether.org.uk. Retrieved 20 April 2017, from https://www.headstogether.org.uk/about-heads-together/
About the Foundation. (2016). Born This Way Foundation. Retrieved 20 April 2017, from https://bornthisway.foundation/about-the-foundation/
Click, M., Lee, H., & Holladay, H. (2013). Making Monsters: Lady Gaga, Fan Identification, and Social Media. Popular Music And Society, 36(3), 360-379. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03007766.2013.798546
Corona, V. (2011). Memory, Monsters, and Lady Gaga. The Journal Of Popular Culture, 46(4), 725-744. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5931.2011.00809.x
Dean, J. (2010). Affective Networks. Mediatropes Ejournal, 2(2), 19-44.
Hinton, S., & Hjorth, L. Introduction to Social Media. Understanding Social Media, 1-6. http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781446270189.n1
Pierre, B. (1986). Forms of Capital. In J. Richardson, Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (1st ed., pp. 241-258). New York: Greenwood Press.
On a side but related note, do have a listen to this song Princess Diana by Gaga regarding mental health.
(Click here to back to the top if the music has not finished yet and the song title again to return here)