lit•er•a•cy |ˈlitərəsē; ˈlitrə-| – noun – the ability to read and write; competence or knowledge in a specified area
Critical Media Literacy
In a previous incarnation, I taught for a course on “gender and popular culture.” The first assignment given to the students was to visit the Toys R Us store in the local mall and write a short analysis of what they saw in terms of gender issues. This was generally a real eye-opener for the students, who were shocked and dismayed by what they observed. While they were for the most part familiar with issues of gender discourse and sexism in TV and movies (this was a university course), they were often stunned at how extensive it was, all-pervasive even, in children’s lives – in everyday stuff like toy packages, the styling of kids’ bicycles and even the layout of the store.
In the remainder of the course we focused on more traditional media studies material – film, television and advertising (principally in magazines), but I like to think that the impact of that more unexpected beginning focused the students’ attention and also helped them to think more broadly about the issues we were raising. While our particular focus was gender – the analysis of gender discourses contained in popular culture texts – the intellectual tools that we were trying to develop in the students, particularly their critical media literacy, had general applicability, which we tried to highlight along the way.
Critical media literacy might be defined as the ability to not only read and make sense of the more overt and obvious messages of media texts, but also to be attentive to the connotations, the buried and implicit meanings conveyed by particular texts, as well as to the larger structures and discourses within which those texts are located. For instance, when reading an article in a newspaper, in addition to the basic content, one should pay attention to the language and structure of the article – do union officials always “claim,” while company representatives “explain”? As well, it is important to think about the newspaper as a whole – who owns it, what is the overall balance of the material it publishes, what kind of articles do they publish? who gets to write these articles and how? – and about the broader discourse of “news” and the media landscape of which that particular newspaper is a part.
Let’s look briefly at a concrete example, focusing on those “connotations” and sticking with the gender focus of that course. A current Lowe’s ad features a couple shopping for paint and then using it to paint a room in their home. [Unfortunately, while a variety of Lowe’s ads are available through YouTube, at the time of writing this ad wasn’t one of them.] The overt, surface (denotative) meanings of the ad concern Lowe’s range of products and helpfulness, and secondarily the value of the paint, Valspar, featured in the ad. “Shop at Lowe’s and you will got good service and products.”
The hook of the ad concerns the “calming green” color of the particular paint that the helpful Lowe’s employee has sold to the couple. We see the couple’s children running around the house wildly, but when they come into the room that the couple is painting with the “calming green,” there is sudden silence; the wife turns around and we see the two children sitting quietly and reading. The humor of the moment helps make the ad memorable, and the dramatic quality of the change in the children’s behaviour speaks to the efficaciousness of the Valspar paint, and by extension the quality of the sales advice at Lowe’s.
We get all of that pretty easily. But look a little deeper and there are other messages in this ad – what I have referred to as the connotations, the connotative level, the buried, covert messages. Most obviously, when the two children are shown sitting quietly, the boy is reading “War and Peace” while the girl has “Sense and Sensibility.” The structural similarity of the book titles – two nouns joined by an “and” – sets them up as comparable, equivalents. But while the nouns in the title of the boy’s book concern active, public things, the world of politics and all that, the girl’s book sticks to the traditional feminine sphere of feelings, of interiority. So the ad embodies and reinforces a very clear, traditional discourse of gender.
Stepping out from the specific content, both denotative and connotative, of the ad, we might consider the range of ads by Lowe’s as a whole – how is home improvement depicted? what kind of people are shown and in what way? For instance, the couple in this ad is white, heterosexual, and upper middle class, with a traditional “white picket fence” sort of home. Do Lowe’s ads feature a diverse range of people in their ads or, for instance, do we only see African-Americans where barbecues are being sold, or as less competent parents or homeowners? Do they ever show home improvement in a more urban setting? And we could step further out to consider things like TV advertising or discourses around home improvement more generally. At the broadest level, all ads tend to “sell” a basic discourse of capitalism and materialism, about happiness and fulfillment as something you get through things, something you can buy.
Because we think we understand ads, and because their basic message is so clear and simple (“buy me”), most people don’t look closer, at what else they are being sold, along with their paint, pills and toilet paper.
Critical media literacy is about looking closer and thereby getting some distance on those covert, connotative meanings – critical distance, the ability to criticise, respond, reject. It’s an important skill regardless of your political or social beliefs. Even if you think capitalism is just the bee’s knees, you might not want your kid to swallow all the various other messages that are embedded in the media and marketing aimed at her or him – like those messages and values that the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood discusses, the sexualization, the commercializing of play, violence, obesity and body image.
And, of course, critical media literacy isn’t just for kids, and isn’t limited to making sense of ads. As I tried to suggest above, the skills of critical media literacy can be vital to actually making sense of the news.
In subsequent posts, I hope to further explore the issue of critical media literacy in general and with particular reference to “kids and kommercialism,” drawing on my own experiences as a parent and teacher, as well as my academic background in popular culture studies.
In the meantime, here are some places to begin looking further into the topic of critical media literacy:
- The Critical Media Literarcy site at Syracuse University – old and apparently abandoned but useful
- Lesson plans for secondary school kids on critical media literacy through the Read•Write•Think website developed by the National Council of Teachers of English
- A more academically-oriented definition and explanation of critical media literacy, with a particular focus on issues of race, developed by students and faculty at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
- The work of Douglas Kellner, currently a professor in the education school at UCLA, who is one of the foremost academics working on the topic – and in whose work I first encountered the term
- “Critical Media Literacy in Times of War” – a project at Virginia Tech
- Media Literacy at Ithaca College – Project Look Sharp
UPDATE: A portion of this Lowe’s ad is now available on YouTube: