Teachers who include media literacy in their classrooms often face issues that don’t arise in other subjects. Nothing illustrates this better than the issue of diversity in media. It’s not unreasonable for teachers to see the topic as a can of worms and be concerned about offending students and their parents – not to mention worrying about what the students themselves might say. At the same time, it’s a topic that is simply too important to be ignored: what we see in media hugely influences how we see others, ourselves and the world. As a result, an ability to analyze media depictions of diversity is not only a key element of being media literate, it’s essential to understanding many of the social issues and concerns that we face as citizens. That’s why MediaSmarts’ has developed That’s Not Me – a new online tutorial for professional development to help educators and community leaders approach this issue through key concepts of media literacy.
There are a number of principles for media literacy, many of which are formulated in different ways by different writers and educators, but a few are nearly universal:
- first, that media are constructions that re-present reality, created by individuals and shaped by their opinions, assumptions and biases;
- second, that media contain ideological messages, about such things as power, values, and authority, and which – because we base our view of reality in part on our media exposure – may have social and political implications;
- third, that because most media are created in order to make a profit, their creation generally has commercial implications;
- fourth, that media texts do not have a single fixed meaning but are interpreted by different audiences; and
- fifth, that each medium has a distinct aesthetic form, which may encompass things such as the influence of technical limitations on storytelling or the particular stock themes, or tropes, of a particular genre.
To better understand how these principles can help to frame discussions with youth about diversity, let’s look at them in more detail.
Media are constructions that re-present reality
The notion that media are constructions is best illustrated by examining the issue of stereotypes. This is likely the diversity issue with which youth will be most familiar, and students can likely describe a number of common stereotypes – whether about minority groups, particular types of people (athletes, “geeks,” and so on) or about young people themselves. It’s important for youth to understand, though, that just because they are aware of these stereotypes this doesn’t mean they don’t influence attitudes and perceptions: a 2002 study, “Why It Matters: Diversity on Television,” illustrated this by asking young children to “cast” a variety of roles. The children – many of whom were themselves members of visible minority groups – frequently cast African-Americans as criminals, with the explanation that “he just looks like the type of criminal that would probably steal or something.”
Media contain ideological messages
The above example illustrates as well the second principle that media contain ideological messages: as both individuals and a society, our views of different groups are based in part on how they are represented in media – and whether they are represented at all. Roughly one in seven Canadians, for instance, has a disability, but a 2009 study of American network TV found that only one in fifty TV characters did. (There are no similar statistics for Canadian TV, but it seems unlikely that the numbers here are much better.) This near-invisibility almost certainly affects how common we think disability is and how important we consider disability issues to be.
Media have commercial implications
The commercial implications of media creation are what frequently push diversity representation to the sidelines. Though various media have made significant improvements – both in how often and how they present diversity – these improvements nearly always stop short of the top: while supporting characters may be visible minorities, gays or lesbians, persons with disabilities or Aboriginals, the lead character seldom is. Commercial implications aren’t limited to a consideration of the audience: who owns media outlets can be a significant influence on whether and how diversity appears onscreen. Maureen Googoo, a reporter for Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, contrasts working there to being at a mainstream network by saying “the atmosphere at APTN National News is no different than any other newsroom… The difference is that the entire news staff is aboriginal and the primary goal is to cover issues and events important to Aboriginal Peoples. I report on these issues… without being questioned about bias or objectivity.”
Audiences negotiate meaning
Identity can influence not just how media products are created but how they are interpreted as well. The small number and peripheral status of minority characters has led to a tradition, in many communities, of reading against a text – either “assigning” an identity to ambiguous characters (such as the long-running campaign to have The Simpsons’ Mr. Smithers come out of the closet) or by ascribing greater importance to secondary characters (Bruce Lee, who played Kato on the TV series The Green Hornet, received top billing when that show aired in east Asia, and in some cases it was even renamed The Kato Show.) The principle that audiences negotiate meaning can also help students understand how different groups might view the same character or storyline differently. To mainstream audiences, for example, the character of Artie on Glee – a member of the glee club who participates in club activities despite being in a wheelchair – is seen as a positive, empowering portrayal of a young man with a disability, but many members of the disabled community feel that he embodies many of the clichés and stereotypes associated with disability.
Each medium has a distinct aesthetic form
Understanding the unique aesthetic forms of different media can also help students understand how problematic depictions of diversity can occur. Many media and genres contain tropes, repeated themes and images, which may be decades or even centuries old. While the heroes in the Disney movie Aladdin, for example, have basically Caucasian features, the villain is depicted with exaggeratedly Semitic features – embodying a trope that is at least as old as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice.”
In our digital age, nearly all of us are not just media consumers but producers as well – whether we create videos, remixes, blog entries or just Facebook status entries – which means that to be responsible digital citizens, young people need to learn how to recognize and engage with diversity issues in media. That’s Not Me provides teachers and community leaders with tools to help them do just that.
That’s Not Me is part of the Diversity and Media Toolbox: a comprehensive suite of anti-hate resources produced by MediaSmarts for schools and communities. The Toolbox contains classroom lessons and an interactive student module to complement the That’s Not Me tutorial.