On Media Literacy

by | November 20, 2011
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

In my last post I talked about the argument sometimes made that analyzing pop culture, advertising, and media is “unimportant”. I contended that arguments of “unimportance” shut down productive discussion and imply there is an objective way to evaluate what’s important and what’s not.

In this post I want to make a case for why I feel analyzing pop culture and media is important, and why I believe it is complementary to dealing with more material measures of inequality like poverty, violence, and active discrimination.

The pop culture analysis we have on this blog is a way for us to do media literacy. According to the Canadian Media Awareness Network:

Media literacy is the ability to sift through and analyze the messages that inform, entertain and sell to us every day. It’s the ability to bring critical thinking skills to bear on all media— from music videos and Web environments to product placement in films and virtual displays on NHL hockey boards. It’s about asking pertinent questions about what’s there, and noticing what’s not there. And it’s the instinct to question what lies behind media productions— the motives, the money, the values and the ownership— and to be aware of how these factors influence content.

Why not just mindlessly enjoy what media we’re consuming? Because media both reflects our society and influences it. While it has the potential to make transformative change and influence public opinion, all too often media reinforces existing inequalities. The organization About-Face argues that the “toxic media environment”, including strong messages about idealized women’s bodies, is “contributing to a host of girls’ and women’s ills, including low self-esteem, depression, persistent anxiety over weight and appearance, extremely unhealthy diets and exercise regimens, and eating disorders.”

While negative body image issues are one of the most obvious examples of why we should care what’s on TV, there are numerous others. Name It. Change It., a project by the Women’s Media Centre points out that many women are discouraged from running for office partly because of the negative way women politicians and candidates are presented in the media.

If we aren’t looking at media critically it can exercise undue influence on our views about people from different backgrounds, on what products we choose to buy, and on what behaviour we consider appropriate or inappropriate. As Leah Wilson, editor of Smart Pop Books said on the Geek Girl Con panel on media literacy: “The only dangerous media is unexamined media.”

Women, Action & the Media argues that “Power and privilege is about who gets to speak and who is listened to.  Most of the time, it is not women.” WAM! sees analyzing media/gender issues as a critical component to their advocacy movement for gender justice in the media.

Another way media analysis ties into material concerns is that looking at media with an uncritical eye can lead to unquestioning acceptance or rationalization of inequality. As Jennifer Pozner points out in her book Reality Bites Back, reality shows focused on people becoming wealthy or famous, like American Idol and similar talent competitions, can be easy to read as a story of how if anyone tries hard enough, they can succeed and become wealthy in our society. Hence, it becomes okay for some people to be worse off than us because they aren’t trying hard enough. Media literacy helps us learn things like that Idol and other talent TV show contestants are subject to insanely exploitative contracts, which means many end up struggling like many other artists. Developing critical analysis of media messages can help us see media reflections of our society’s inequality, which we can then fight more effectively.

Part of media literacy is asking who is creating this and why. It’s asking where the funding is coming from and whether that’s influencing the message. It’s asking what it means when the majority of the messages we’re receiving in mainstream media are coming from similar interests.

It’s also asking, “How does this make me feel?”, “Are there people who aren’t being reflected here?”, “What pieces of our society does this reflect?”, and “Is this part of a larger pattern in pop culture today?”

In addition to some people making the argument this type of analysis is “unimportant”, others react defensively, seeing the analysis as an attack on something they really like.

At a few panels I attended at Geek Girl Con, this subject came up and people were quick to point out that if someone does a critique of pop culture doesn’t mean they hate it. Kjerstin Johnson of Bitch Magazine and “Surly” Amy Davis Roth argued that in order to critique something to that level, you usually have to really love it or care about it enough to think it’s worth your time to try and change it for the better. That definitely applies when you look at the stuff I’ve written on Bridesmaids or SVU, for example.


Writing blog posts about pop culture is a way of doing media literacy, but not the only way. Media literacy is easy and happens all around us. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency said, “I think we are being media literate when we have conversations with our friends.” It’s not something that belongs to the university-educated, or even just to adults. A 7-year-old girl responded to the sexed-up recreation of Starfire in the DC relaunch in her mom’s blog on io9:

“Is this new Starfire someone you’d want to be when you grow up?”

*she gets uncomfortable again*”Not really. I mean, grown ups can wear what they want, but…she’s not doing anything but wearing a tiny bikini to get attention.”

“So, you know I’m going to put this on my blog right? (she nods) Is there anything else you want to say?”

“I want her to be a hero, fighting things and be strong and helping people.”

Chances are you do media literacy already in some way, but if you want to kick it up a notch and get some tips for how to look at media more critically, the Media Literacy Project has laid out a series of basic and advanced questions that you can use as a checklist when you’re watching shows or reading magazines or otherwise consuming media. And Jennifer Pozner has some great suggestions for how to make media literacy fun, including reality TV drinking games and mad libs.


(Photo in the public domain as a work of the US Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.)



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