Accepted paper:

Representations of heterosexual identities in popular culture: The case of urban middle class young people in Johannesburg, South Africa


Letitia Smuts (Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam)

Paper short abstract:

The paper discusses the tensions between what is communicated about sexualities in local popular culture and the experiences of young middle class men and women living in Johannesburg, South Africa. Instead, these individuals believe that the western media has largely shaped their sexual identities.

Paper long abstract:

South Africa's repressive sexual practices and laws during the apartheid years meant that sexualities were rarely questioned or debated in public, which led to strict heteronormative conceptualisations of sexuality. Since the democratic transition in 1994, messages about, and representations of, sex and sexuality have become more visible by means of circulation through television, movies, magazines, advertisements, and on-line social networking. However, the focus is more often directed at heterosexual individuals in lower socio-economic classes due to their high risk to HIV-infection and sexual violence. This paper is based on an ethnographic study and considers how young 18-28 year-old middle-class men and women view and shape their own (hetero)sexual identities with particular reference to what they are exposed to in popular culture. The findings show that contemporary local media is in conflict with middle-class realities as they claim that they cannot relate with what is being communicated. As a result, they draw more heavily from what they are exposed to in popular culture from the West. For instance, celebrities like Kanye West and Beyoncé are noted to be role models for the ideal heterosexual man and woman. These exposures set them apart from the majority of young South Africans who fall within the lower class and opens up re-imaginings of how heterosexuality is performed within everyday life. This paper also shows the constant interplay and tensions with the legacies of the past in conjunction with the new-found sexual opportunities and freedoms that contemporary democratic South Africa has to offer.

panel P109
Fashioning sexuality in popular culture