Telemodernities: life advice television and transformations of selfhood in Asia
By Fran Martin and Tania Lewis
Didactic personal makeover shows from China’s CCTV promoting competitive individualism and middle-class consumption styles as markers of suzhi (‘human quality’); yoga gurus on Indian cable channels offering spiritual guidance to time-pressured urban professionals; Taiwanese comic-variety shows providing instruction on how to feng shui your apartment to maximise career success: recent years have seen a surge in lifestyle advice TV in Asia, targeting both the region’s growing consumer middle classes and more ‘ordinary,’ mass audiences.
This complex and deeply hybrid form of media culture is fascinating not just in itself, but also as a window onto far-reaching economic and macro-social developments in the region. Across East and South Asia, the past three decades have witnessed hyper-accelerated social, cultural and economic transformations. Consumer culture increasingly shapes everyday life as market economies and growing middle classes are fostered by post-socialist states like China and India, and a dizzying diversity of media and consumer goods continue to proliferate in ‘tiger economy’ nations like Taiwan and Singapore, where capitalism has been longer entrenched.
Economic and social policies informed by aspects of neoliberal thought are increasingly being adopted by statist regimes, as liberalization processes restructure both national economies and media industries and transform state structures. Governments increasingly address their citizens as individualised, sovereign consumers with reflexive ‘choices’ about their lifestyles and identities.
It is against this backdrop that we see a proliferation of locally produced lifestyle media aimed at instructing the citizens in matters of consumption, taste, wellbeing and ‘the good life’. From fashion blogs and self-help guides to makeover shows, contemporary lifestyle media can be viewed as twenty-first century etiquette manuals, offering a particularly useful site for examining how lifestyle- and consumer-oriented identities are being negotiated across our region.
Television, as the most powerful and ubiquitous media form in Asia today, plays a major role. In the broad global contexts of audience fragmentation and the rise of ubiquitous mobile media, audiences in Asia are now exposed to a wide range of global, regional and local lifestyle programming, from competitive cooking shows and home decor makeovers to health advice and spiritual wellbeing formats. The extant scholarship on lifestyle TV in western Europe, the USA, and Australia has seen the genre as marking a number of significant late-modern social and cultural developments in the west: the rise of a psychologised subject whose identity is seen as a project to be worked on and invested in; the increasing dominance of bourgeois norms of taste, cultural capital and lifestyle; and the growing prominence of feminised forms of identity in public life. Foucauldian scholars see lifestyle advice as working hand in hand with neoliberal strategies bent on devolving responsibility for once public concerns onto the self-regulating consumer-citizen. But how does lifestyle TV function beyond the Euro-American contexts where these theories were formulated? What is the social and cultural significance of the appearance of a licensed version of the BBC’s MasterChef in India, a country battling with ongoing issues of food security and malnutrition; or the popularity of a thinly disguised copy of Changing Rooms in China, where individualized, consumption-based models of identity are being actively promulgated by the (post)socialist state? Is lifestyle TV in Asia playing a significant role in shaping social identities and personal lifestyles in the region? Further, while media scholars often ask what impact transnational media flows from the ‘west’ to the ‘rest’ have on local media cultures, with China and India becoming increasingly significant media producers, an equally important question concerns how the experiences of these countries ramify for our wider understanding of global media culture today.
To investigate these questions, a team of researchers––Fran Martin, Tania Lewis, Wanning Sun, John Sinclair, and Ramaswami Harindranath––received funding from the Australian Research Council in 2010 to conduct a 4-year study of lifestyle television’s production, content, and consumption across China, India, Taiwan and Singapore (http://telemodernities.org/). The project’s aim was to explore how lifestyle advice television may be contributing to the shaping of social identity in the selected countries. The main focus was on China, India and Taiwan: as the region’s largest growing economies with rapidly expanding middle and wealthy classes, India and China were vital to include, while Taiwan was included as an example of a more established capitalist economy with a large and stable middle class, and also as a Sinophone media hub with significant TV exports to mainland China and Hong Kong, as well as to Singapore and other countries across Southeast Asia.
Over the four years of the project, the core members of the research team (Martin, Lewis and Sun) and their research assistants (Claire Tsai, Peihua Lu, Tripta Chandola, Kiran Mullenhalli, Vikrant Kishore, Amber Lim, Yajie Chu, Min Wang and Zhonghua Wu) conducted extensive interviews with both TV audiences and television industry professionals involved in the production of lifestyle advice content in each of these three countries. Professional interviewees ranged from executives and producers, with their “big-picture” take on the strategic significance of the genre in the context of national television landscapes in each place, down to professionals working on the lower rungs of the industry––stylists, buyers, production assistants––with their on-the-ground knowledge of the actual processes through which lifestyle television gets onto the screen. The team also conducted in-depth interviews with over a hundred and thirty viewers of lifestyle genres in the focus countries, and analysed hundreds of hours of recording from Chinese, Taiwanese, Singaporean and Indian free-to-air, cable, and satellite television. The findings of their study will soon be published as a book co-authored by Lewis, Martin and Sun: Telemodernities: Life Advice Television and Transformations of Selfhood in Asia, under contract to Duke University Press.
Analysing a wide range of reality, lifestyle and popular factual shows from folk-supernatural life advice programming in Taiwan (Fengshui Matters) to Chinese health and wellbeing shows (Zero Distance to Health) to Indian reality-lifestyle TV (MasterChef India, The Biggest Loser) and drawing on their extensive industry and audience interviews, the authors of Telemodernities argue that these shows offer critical insights into emergent forms of sociality and capitalist modernity in Asia. The book explores a range of pressing themes, including the changing nature of social relations in an era marked by the increasing cultural centrality of entertainment media; popular television as a litmus test of the shifting balance of power between states and markets in the direction of culture; the relationship between media pedagogies and the transnational reach of neoliberal modes of governance; and the role played by televisual norms and practices in shaping competing formations of cultural modernity. Following a general Introduction and a chapter situating contemporary formations of lifestyle television in historical and political-economic context within each of the three main focus countries, individual chapters examine the disjunctures between rural-regional and urban-metropolitan life advice programming in China and India; the way in which transnational cable channels like TLC enable audiences to identify with the ideals of cosmopolitanism and global mobility; the roles and personae of TV experts as cultural intermediaries; and the significance and audience reception of specific genres. Chapters consider religious, spiritual and supernatural advice TV in India and Taiwan as a means of navigating enchanted modes of capitalist modernity; the field of love and intimate relationships on television in China and India as a marker of a larger battleground where tensions over familial structures versus modes of entrepreneurial individualism are played out; and the social significance of new televisual pedagogies of femininity in women’s fashion, beauty and personal makeover genres in Taiwan and China. More than just another TV genre, then, the authors contend that contemporary lifestyle advice TV exemplifies key shifts in Asian modernities, offering a window onto broader transformations in the nature of public and private life, identity, citizenship and social engagement in the region today. Telemodernities will appear in late 2015 or early 2016.
Image: a middle-class family watching a reality-competition format in Delhi taken by Tania Lewis.
About the authors
Fran Martin is Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Cultural Studies, University of Melbourne.
Tania Lewis is Associate Professor School of Media & Communication RMIT University, Australia