Entertainment television shows are no longer just sources of entertainment. They are also sources of social, cultural, and political information. Shows like David Makes Man and Queen Sugar on the Oprah Winfrey Network and Saturday Night Live on the National Broadcasting Company network attempt to insert their own discourses into the public sphere. They do so by addressing and sometimes even taking a stance on relevant political and social issues such as police brutality, racial disparity in incarceration, voting access, and more. However, development in the media effects tradition has taught us that audiences are not just passive consumers, thus making obsolete the hypodermic model. As David Morley (1995) notes, “A variety of approaches has been developed, which lay more stress on media consumption as an active process, in which audience members are not only understood to actively select from the range of media materials available to them, but also to be active in their different uses, interpretations and ‘decodings’ of the material which they consume” (p. 293).
What Does it Mean to Be ‘Woke’?
The term ‘woke’ is an African American vernacular English word that arose in the mid 1900s to refer to an African American’s consciousness of social and political injustices facing that community. The term, in its vernacular connotation, first appeared in print in the 1962 New York Times article “If You’re Woke You Dig It” by novelist William Melvin Kelley in which he discusses the shifting vocabulary or slang of black New Yorkers and its appropriation by white beatniks. ‘Woke’ became popularized in the 2008 song “Master Teacher” from the album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) by Erykah Badu, co-written by Georgia Anne Muldrow. To “stay woke” connotes a continual up-to-date awareness of the political and social issues facing the African American community.
In recent years, the term ‘woke’ has become more closely associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly on social media through the use of the hashtag #staywoke and the non-profit organization entitled Stay Woke, started by popular leaders of B.L.M. One of the Stay Woke planning team members, well-known activist and protester Deray McKesson, has talked about how he “woke up” during his time as a school teacher. In a 2016 interview with the YouTube lifestyle channel Complex Hustle, McKesson contends “People aren’t born woke. Something wakes them up.” In other words, a black person’s state of consciousness, or wokeness, is not an inherent characteristic of blackness, or being black. Someone can be black and be either unaware of, in denial of, or nonchalant toward issues facing black America. Thus, we see one way in which the definition of ‘woke’ has changed in the twenty first century. To be ‘woke’ is a state of political consciousness that results from some situation or event (or a series of such) that causes a black person to not only become critically aware of the injustices that black people face, but to care about them in a way that pushes that person to action. Thus, to be ‘woke’ requires action. So when someone tells another person to “wake up” or “stay woke” it is always a call to action.
The term ‘woke’ has also been culturally appropriated (or even used by black people themselves) to refer to people of other racial and cultural backgrounds who are conscious of current social or political issues facing disenfranchised America, and not just black America. A recent NPR article written this past October discusses the shift in how white liberals think about race in America. The article states, “These days, white Democrats (and, in particular, white liberals) are more likely than in decades past to support more liberal immigration policies, embrace racial diversity and uphold affirmative action” (Khalid, 2019, n.p.). Furthermore, the term ‘woke’ has been widely used in consumer culture to refer to support of green, sustainable companies. Thus we can see how the term ‘woke’ has further changed in the 21st century.
Since being ‘woke’ requires action, as discussed earlier, some actions people take as a result of waking up or being woke can take many different forms and occur on both large and small scales. For instance, some woke black people choose to only buy products from black-owned businesses in order to help close the racial wealth gap in the U.S., support black culture, and/or foster job creation for other black people. Some woke people choose to participate in large-scale activist movements, such as B.L.M., by attending protests in their city or across the country. Other woke people choose to buy products from only sustainably-sourced businesses. Some people may choose to vote for representatives who support policies that align with their ‘woke’ attitudes. Though the term ‘woke’ was originally used to refer to black consciousness, my conception of ‘woke’ takes into account the ways in which the term has shifted in its use. Thus, I use the term ‘woke’ to refer to people of various racial and cultural backgrounds who not only maintain an up-to-date awareness of the political and social issues facing disenfranchised people in America, but use their various platforms (even digital) to enact change.
What Exactly is Woke T.V. and Woke Consumption?
In light of this definition of ‘woke’, what exactly is woke T.V. and woke consumption? Woke T.V. refers to television shows that are broadcast in America and which are contextually situated in relation to American society by consistently addressing current political and social issues facing a diversity of people in America. For instance, I would consider a show such as Queen Sugar ‘woke’ because it weaves into its plot current political issues facing black America, such as racialized police brutality. Another example is Saturday Night Live, known for it’s comedy sketches which often parody contemporary culture and politics.
Woke consumption refers to the situated practice of television consumption in which consumers critically view, engage with, and respond to entertainment television, particularly as it relates to current political and social issues facing people of various sociocultural backgrounds. It does not limit their consumption to woke T.V., but refers to any entertainment television program they might watch that addresses or brings attention to people’s social and political issues. Woke consumption can be considered a subset of the active audience theory within the media effects tradition. The first era, “the powerful effect of media,” took place in the early 1900s and is characterized by the hypodermic needle model. This model suggests that audiences are passive receivers of the messages injected by the mass media.The second era of media effects, “limited effects,” largely introduced by Paul Lazarsfeld, suggests that the mass media does not have as great an impact on people as the previous era suggested. The third era of media effects studies, “powerful but limited,” sought to understand the short and long term effects of mass media. My entrance into this tradition uniquely extends theorization of the active audience by specifically focusing on the ways in which the intersections of the multiple aspects of our identity affect the interpretations of messages and the meanings we construct from them. Thus, I conceptualize that media consumption is not a “one size fits all” process, but is unique to individuals based on their sociocultural backgrounds.
Complex Hustle. (2016, November 7). Deray McKesson: “People aren’t born ‘woke’ – something wakes them up” [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8c3Y0SEWJM
Morley, D. (1995). Theories of consumption in media studies. In D. Miller (Ed.), Acknowledging consumption: A review of new studies (pp. 293-323). London: Routledge.