Amy Stern (bigbrotherreads) wrote,
Amy Stern

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Media Literacy: A Reader (part 1: diversity)

Macedo, Donaldo and Shirley R. Steinberg, eds. Media Literacy: a Reader. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.

This one's different from the other books I've looked at thus far- a reader with fifty-something chapters from different authors with dfferent perspectives- so I'm breaking it down into categories and posting few at a time.

For the record, the main appeal of this book is seeing where there are holes to fill in. I've divided my reactions into "diversity" and "literacy"- not that they're perfect qualifiers, here, but they get the job done. My basic issue at the forefront, for this part, is that examinations of how to thoughtfully read media tend to spotlight unscripted media for its failures but ignore its successes.

Also, before I start, I should note that I'm concerned about all of this, because I'm aware of my privilege, and I'm sure no matter how hard I try I'm replicating societal racism, ageism, classism, etc. So, in the event that anyone reading this sees something I'm saying that's hideously offensive, please call me on it.


Chapter 18: Reading Race, Reading Power
C. Richard King

In late August 2006, the new season of Survivor became the subject of much buzz. For the first time, the reality show would feature an equal number of African American, Asian American, Euro-American, and Latina/o competitors. The producers, reportedly, building on the popularity of previous seasons devoted to "the battle of the sexes" or generational clashes, would divide the contestants into four racial "tribes." While the perennial popularity of Survivor- with its reliance on racialized notions of exoticism and savagery and banal reiteration of social Darwinism- should immediately raise questions about how most Americans read racialized media texts, the response to the 2006 fall season, in particular, highlights a range of common misreadings of race in the media.

The producers of the show have asserted and the vast majority of media users appear t have consented that race is a natural fact, creating fixed boundaries between groups and comfortable patterns of affiliation within groups. Within Internet chat rooms, on talk shows, and in the news media generally, efforts to unpack the racial significance of the show's narrative structure and naturalistic assumptions were dismissed, mocked, and trivialized with charges of irrelevance, appeals to the observable word, invocations of political correctness, the insistence that it was just entertainment, and the certainty that it was a publicity ploy meant to generate buzz and increase audience share (and hence profits). (199-200)

Media texts, more than parents, or even schools, increasingly teach about race and racism. Nevertheless, faculty, who dismiss popular culture, miss important moments in which they might "teach to transgress" (hooks, 1994). (201)

Chapter 26: Hollywood's Curriculum of Arabs and Muslims in Two Acts
Shirley R. Steinberg

The characterization of Arabs always has an underlying implication that puts them on the borderline between human and animal. In each film, whiteness is the standard to which all Arabs and Muslims are measured. (306)

Television had, for the most part, ignored, avoided, or just didn't bother with much in the way of Islamic or Arabic themes, characters, or even plots. (306)

Chapter 36: Television's Mature Women: A Changing Media Archetype: from Bewitched to The Sopranos
Myrna A. Hant

However, both women are "spinsters," presumably so they will have the time to pursue their cases rather than obsess over mothering and their grandchildren. (429)

However, with the politics of representation slowly changing on television, the debilitating stereotype of helplessness, fragility, and aimlessness can be replaced. It is not only older women who will benefit from a new paradigm but all of society as well. (431)

Chapter 51: Social Education and Critical Media Literacy: Can Mr. Potato Head Help Challenge Binaries, Essentialism, and Orientalism?
Özlem Sensoy

Numerous studies show that levels of religious discrimination against Muslims have increased significantly in recent years (see, for example, Sheridan, 2006; Nacos & Torrs-Reyna, 2002). We are concerned that the mass media and online discourse have played a central role in promoting this prejudice. As we will argue, if we are to teach young people to identify the stereotypes that serve to promote religious and racial intolerance, we need to prepare them to critically address the rapid and rampant information that comes with mass communication and new technologies. (604)

Unfortunately, the news media have largely projected a homogenous view of Islam, one that is foreign or alien to the normalized ideals of western society. (607)

it is our contention that young people may gain a more authentic understanding of Islam when they are able to interpret media texts in a manner that both uncovers hegemonic beliefs and allows for the creation of new meaning through informed and critical thought.

We believe this can be achieved through critical media literacy – that is literacy skills that enable individuals to "transform their passive relationship to the media into an active, critical engagement" (Bowen, cited in Media Awareness Network, 2006) and "examine the techniques, technologies and institutions involved in media production" (Shepherd, cited in Media Awareness Network, 2006). (613)

We believe that critical media literacy skills can act as a form of resistance to the hegemonic ideals that pervade representations of Muslims in the mass media. (621)

Or, in other words, criticizing reality programs is okay, but when unscripted television contradicts the assumptions of bias, it is strangely absent.

Actually, I think the overall point of what I'm saying here is that this is why there's a hole in curricula that needs to be filled. But it still led to me being the crazy person in the library who yells at the giant book I'm reading, because the double standard is offensive to me.

I understand C. Richard King's criticism of the Cook Islands season of Survivor because in many ways, I shared it. Before the season started I was gleefully looking forward to how the show would be shooting itself in the foot with its portrayals of minority groups. (Anyone who says there's no schadenfreude in reality television is blatantly lying.) So I was both disappointed and pleased when it ended up subverting expectations by not being offensive. The tribes were divided by race, yes, but each tribe was shown experiencing friction from within because their race did not make them a monolithic group. (I think the Asian tribe's reaction to Cao Boi is the best example of that.) Moreover, the second half of the season featured an airtight final-four alliance, containing members from three of the four original segregated tribes, that made it to the end without once betraying each other and while liking each other, which is surprisingly rare on this show.

I do think Survivor's had a history of issues in portraying minority groups. In fact, the Cook Islands theme came about because they wanted to see more people of color on the show. But I would hardly use Cook Islands as an example there- what about the "lazy black guy" stereotype that showed up in several consecutive seasons? That's one that's exceptionally problematic, which Gervase even discusses in the commentary track for the first season.

I also think that the field of unscripted media has ballooned so quickly that it's nearly impossible to NOT hit on one or two of the broad stereotypes. This in no way excuses the fact that so many characters of color on these shows ARE stereotyped that way, fo course, but at the same time, every character starts out as a broad sketch of a person who is elaborated upon over the course of thirteen-ish episodes. People of color eliminated early remain nothing but stereotypes, but those who last are as finely-drawn as the white characters. Again, the problem here lies in the way there are so many more examples of white people than people of color. On the OTHER other hand, the problem largely comes from the way that proportionally, white people are much more likely to apply for the show. I realize this seems like an insane tangent from my topic, but I actually think that the portrayal of minorities on reailty television is an important thing to show, because they are frequently portrayed much less offensively than in scripted media. For one thing, they're portrayed at all.

This is the same problem I have with Hant's article, which ignores Survivor completely. Obviously, a short article in a book designed to be an overview of the topic isn't by any means expected to show a wide variety of texts, but at the same time, I can't help but be irritated at how cleanly Survivor upends the expectations stated as fact in the article. Hant doesn't define "mature" in the article, so I chose somewhat randomly while evaluating. A quick scan of Wikipedia- I know, great research skills- showed that, in the past 17 seasons, Survivor has had nine female contestants over fifty and an additional eleven between forty-five and fifty. This sounds kind of token, I'm sure, except that of the nine over fifty, two came in second and two more came in third, and out of the additional eleven, two finished second, one third, one fourth, and one fifth. Out of the twenty over-45 female contestants, nine came in one of the top five positions. I'm not saying there isn't a great deal to criticize in the portrayal of age and/or gender on Survivor- especially when in seventeen seasons, with at least sixteen participants a year, only twenty have been both female and over 45- but it's an issue that hasn't been touched.

Same with the portrayal of Islam, although that one's all Big Brother.

Kaysar Ridha is a Muslim, and he was very conscious of representing his religion on the show. His HOH basket included some specially-prepared meat that was acceptable with his religious practices, and he woke up each morning to pray. Kaysar is coded as smart, loyal, and honorable. His performance in the "chess veto," in particular, made him a clear hero of his season. Kaysar was eliminated very early in the sixth season, but America was allowed to vote for the re-entry of one of the first evicted houseguests. Up against two white males, Kaysar got 84% of the audience vote to return. Additionally, he was voted in as a fan favorite for the All-Stars season the following year.

Kaysar was not, by any means, a GOOD player of Big Brother (I would argue he was one of the worst in BB history, having been evicted an impressive three times before sequester), but the show clearly coded him as failing due to being a good person surrounded by sociopaths who could play the game better because they lacked morals and values. (No. Seriously.) I don't know how to fit this into any of the arguments I read about portrayals in the media.

There are definitely criticisms to be made about Kaysar and the portrayal of his Muslim identity. I can't remember where off the top of my head, but I remember at least one article which was intensely critical of how Kaysar's behvior WASN'T reflective of his religious beliefs- for example, how he spent a lot of time in a hot tub with bikini-clad women. It's one of those things that SHOULD be explored. But like the above examples, these are problems that aren't even addressed in the articles. It's whitewashed away- no pun intended- because reality television is, on some level, not supposed to be "good" or "good for you"- it's supposed to be flawed more than scripted media in every way.

It really bothers me that reality programs are erased from these discussions, because it seems to avoid so many questions. Eliminating unskilled competitive reality from the landscape when discussing gender, age, religion, race, and sexuality means removing a lot of the most provocative examples, for better or for worse. And again, I'm not saying the flaws in the portrayals in reality television shouldn't be covered, but I find it so problematic to claim to be looking for diverse portrayls of various groups and then to ignore one of the largest gold mines for that.

This entire post is a really long, pretentious way of saying that treatment of minority groups on reality television is a great way that shows like Big Brother and Survivor could faciliate the practice of media literacy.
Tags: media literacy: a reader, research: media literacy, topics: age, topics: gender, topics: race
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