It’s not a revelation to learn we’re living in a society infused and inundated with media. In the articles we read, clips we watch, songs we listen to and so much more, stereotypes are pervasive. People from certain cultures are portrayed as negative or fetishized, those with non-heteronormative gender identities are commonly depicted with certain tropes, and people with disabilities are often used as “inspiration porn.”
Stereotypes can be damaging, and I want to draw your attention to a stereotype that may seem a little less serious, because it is less serious. However, this stereotype is a textbook example of how media constructions of an element of identity can have real-world implications.
Let’s talk about band kids.
Maybe you’re already laughing, but I want to talk about media portrays band kids and examine how those constructions have real impact on kids that fit that identity.
But first, a disclaimer
For full disclosure, I have been in band for over half of my life (read: I LOVE band), but I truly became a “band kid” when I joined my high school marching band. After eight marching seasons, two indoor percussion seasons, one stint as drum major in high school, and three instrument changes, I’m still in marching band.
In fact, the picture below is from less than two weeks ago. You won’t be able to find me, but I’m right near the 50 yard line at the top of the “A” formation.
Essentially, I’m the epitome of a band kid; I’ve been the section leader of the piccolo section (meaning I teach over 20 piccolos players how to play and march for over six hours a week) for three years in college alone. I’ve been performing in a high level ensemble for four years, so my life has been filled with a ton of band. You may be thinking that all this information is kind of embarrassing to admit.
That’s where media construction of identities comes in. Being passionate about an activity, identifying in a certain way, being from a certain place or looking different from other people is not embarrassing, bad or anything else. We as humans have accepted and internalized the constructions the media creates around certain identities. Using my band kid example, we’ll see that process in action.
Deconstructing the “band kid” construction
Let’s look at some examples in media to paint a picture of what today’s “band kid” looks like. When I think of “band kid” stereotypes, I immediately think of the famous line from “Mean Girls.”
In the movie, one girl is explaining the social hierarchy of the school to Lindsey Lohan’s character. She says, “You got your freshmen, ROTC guys, preps, J.V. jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, Varsity jocks, unfriendly black hotties, girls who eat their feelings, girls who don’t eat anything, desperate wannabes, burnouts, sexually active band geeks…”
Of course, this scene highlights many harmful stereotypes, but the line about “sexually active band geeks” has been culturally accepted as the picture of a high school band kid. Of course, not all band kids are sexually active, and not all band kids are geeks. Like any group, we’re not a monolith.
What the line in “Mean Girls” really gets at is the idea that band kids are in a separate, weird class of their own. Obsessed with band (“geek” meaning totally focused on a certain topic) and categorized by their “otherness,” band is viewed as something a regular person just can’t get into. If you happen to be a band kid, you exactly that–weird and “other.”
The idea that band kids are different from anyone else is false. A band student could be any other student. The only difference is that we know how to play an instrument and march in time while doing it.
Let’s look at another, less explicit example, this time found in a music video.
Part of Taylor Swift’s 2008 hit song “You Belong With Me,” is set at a high school football game. She is quite obviously depicted as a member of her high school band, and although she’s the star of the video, the idea is that the guy she wants to date is interested in a cooler, hotter, cheerleader. Taylor, the band kid stereotype, is undesirable, and that is understood in part because she’s a band kid.
On a similar note, the 2018 Netflix film “Sierra Burgess is a Loser” dives deep into the band kid = loser trope, when the main character, Sierra Burgess, is (you guessed it!) in band and seen as a loser. Her low social status is not only due to her band association, but it cements the idea that being in band, especially in high school, is not a very cool thing to do.
Even though both Taylor Swift and Sierra Burgess are the protagonists of their respective media, their depictions ignore that students in band do more than just that, and there are so many different students who are in music ensembles. Within a single band program, there are popular students, students who are more academically focused, students who do other sports, students who hate band (yes, actually), students in band to make friends, students in band to get better at music, and so much more. Like any group, there is no “one” depiction that is accurate, but that’s not what popular media tells us.
Does anyone like being a band geek?
In the name of absolute transparency, I recognize that this is a silly example of constructed identities in media. Someone thinks band kids are geeks who are obsessed with band; what’s the big deal? There are bigger issues in the world, and on one hand, whoever thinks band kids are nerdy might not be entirely wrong. I am obsessed with band, or I wouldn’t chose to go to band camp in 100 degree weather for eight consecutive years.
In fact, the idea of all of us being “band geeks” has become a point of pride in the marching community.
Because so many people simplify what we do down to sucking on reeds, missing notes and sitting in the corner of the band room, there’s a unity in knowing that we are so much more than that. Specifically in marching band, the work we put in is equal to the physical exertion of an athletic sport.
Beyond high school marching band, many people are entirely unaware that marching band operates at a professional level, Drum Corps International. The DCI groups tour the U.S. each summer, with over 100 competitions throughout the season, ending with the finals at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana.
In my definition of the activity, band also encompasses Winter Guard International, which includes color guard and indoor percussion ensembles competition at amazingly high levels. To even have a taste of the performance levels these groups experience is incredible–when you are surrounded by others dedicated to the activity that you give so much of your time to, it feels great to be unified.
In that way, being a “band geek” is being identified as “other” in a good way too. If you’re not in band, you won’t be able to fully understand why the activity means so much to us.
So is it good or bad, and why does it matter?
Despite the unification that a group can get by feeling “othered,” simplifying a group of people (any group of people) down to one collectively recognized image can have negative consequences.
Let’s get back into the band example and imagine an eighth grader who played an instrument in middle school but is worried about social perception in high school. Because they don’t want to be seen as a nerd, or even worse, a “sexually active band geek,” they quit music altogether.
In a doctoral dissertation by Kimberly Knighton at Argosy University/Sarasota that discusses the factors behind the turnover rate from middle school band students to high school band students, peer pressure is something about 60% of the students who were surveyed are concerned about.
Peer pressure, influenced by media depictions of band students, is a large factor in kids stepping away from music. Staying with music matters because playing a musical instrument has been linked to positive impacts in learning, motor skills, memory, verbal and non-verbal reasoning and mood.
The eighth grader who was reaping the benefits of using their brain so many different ways will lose out on those cognitive benefits in high school. They’ll also be sacrificing the joy and serotonin they get from playing their instrument.
As sad as that is, being in band is an aspect of identity someone can easily give up. Sure I love my band program, but I can step away from it at whenever I chose to. Race, sexuality, gender identity, cultural heritage and disabilities are aspects of identity that people cannot simply let go of.
If something as small as depiction of identity based on a hobby (what band is to most of us) can have negative impacts on people, what about depictions of aspects of identity that people cannot separate themselves from?
It’s easy to see how the media construction of something can be harmful, especially when a group is put into a box. Regardless of any positive implications (like the unification I referenced earlier), people are nuanced. Media needs to spend the time understanding the communities it constructs because these depictions are not without repercussions.