Friday, July 10, 2015

I'm White, Oh So White by Patty Larkin (1990) Offers Humor to Address the Representation of Whiteness

With good reason, we talk (and joke) a lot about what it means to be Black, or Native American, or Hispanic or Asian, or a member of any given historically disadvantaged racial or ethnic group in the United States. But how often do we explore what it means to be white, in humor or in social studies?
Folk singer Patty Larkin laments being "a bit uptight... on account of I'm white."

One punch line answer to that question is, “All the time,” of course, since history and popular culture in America are dominated by white privilege. However, it’s rare to call out being white as an identity with its own stereotypes, group commonalities and limiting expectations—and rarer to do it in a funny and self-deprecating way, as (white) folk singer Patty Larkin does in this 1990 live track. An analysis of this song could make an interesting opening activity for a unit on racial and ethnic identity in a high school or college media class for mostly white groups of learners as well as for mixed groups or groups with mostly one other ethnicity (perhaps a welcome change to see a white person aware, and mildly critical, of her whiteness).

Click on highlighted lyrics above for discussion ideas, or sign in to Genius to add your own comments to the annotation.

[AFTER THE JUMP, some backstory on how this song came up recently, and a brief reflection on the importance of studying media representations of white identity]

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Norway Women's Soccer Satire Slams Stupid SI Sexists: Learn to Use Irony to Make Haters Look Silly

When mainstream media spews ignorant views, what can you do? Well, the Women's Soccer national team from Norway decided to show just how stupid it is to assume that women can not compete in sports as compelling entertainers and dynamic athletes. They made this hilarious video (below) in response to commentary from a Sports Illustrated columnist about the Women's World Cup not being worth watching, (and going further to say all women's sports are not worth watching). The video demonstrates a classic creative tactic for dealing with dummies--just pretend all the absurd assumptions are true by dramatizing the idiocy to reveal the ignorance for what it is--and it is truly hilarious.
This video makes a merry model for media literate civic engagement that advanced teens and young adults could enjoy trying out as a way to address ignorant views on issues they care about. I recommend analyzing this video by focusing on these two questions:
  • What ignorant assumptions about women soccer players and athletes are ironically portrayed in the video?
  • What techniques does the video use to deliver the irony (discuss each joke)?
Satire often involves flawlessly portraying a respected style of communication, here an investigative news report expose', and requires characters to perform absurdity as if it were commonplace (which isn't so hard since it so often is!). There are many excellent guides on the web for composing satire (get started with this or this). After analyzing this video, I think it would be a blast to ask your learning group to make their own satirical video or skit to make the haters look silly (call the assignment: Make the Haters Look Silly).

Check out ideas for making satirical takedowns of haters after the jump, but before that, I just have to say that this flagrant sexism from Sports Illustrated isn't a huge surprise. Still, it's especially infuriating amidst the most exciting FIFA Women's World Cup yet (and this is from a die hard Michelle Akers fan who has been following since its inception in 1991). The U.S. women just found their groove tonight in an inspired win over Germany to advance to the final, and my whole household of extended family was rockin! My brother made us all jerseys with different players (mine is an Akers throwback and my two year old daughter wears Wambach!), and we have loved seeing women from all over the world leave it all on the field in dazzling displays of passion and skill. So, this next video isn't as great for media literacy development (the style is simple snarky sarcasm rather than elaborate satire), but the snark is so satisfying to see after enduring the news about mainstream media missing the boat (and worse), again. As a special treat, just for the laughs and retribution, enjoy this clip reuniting ex-SaturdayNightLive news anchors Amy Poehler and Seth Myers in a rant against ignorant attitudes about women's sports.
[AFTER THE JUMP, ideas for creating your own satirical responses to ignorant views prevalent in media and society]

Monday, June 29, 2015

ML4ML Joke of the Week: From a Fortune Cookie, "You deserve respect and will eventually get it"

This week's joke of the week came to us from a fortune cookie I cracked open after a decent meal of moo shoo pork following NAMLE 2015 (National Association for Media Literacy Education conference. I cringed and cackled as I read the message that struck to the heart of both the hopes and fears of my identity as a media literacy advocate. An existential masterpiece!
Fortune hits home for media literacy advocates
I think this fortune has the quality I most highly esteem in humor: sentiment that is both ironic and sincere at the same time. If I may paraphrase others paraphrasing Mark Twain, the surest sign of a rare intelligence is the capacity to consider contradicting notions simultaneously as valuable and valid. Do you feel respected and/or disrespected and/or lacking respect as a media educator, all at once? I sure do! I can't count the times I have been patted on the back for doing something "so important" and "so necessary" for learners of all different age groups and settings, feeling good for a few minutes, and then realizing that the pat on the back comes with no room in the curricula, no funding, no supporting efforts and no growth in the participatory community for doing and expanding media literacy. Like much of the best comedy, this fortune cookie delivered hope, some hidden truth, and a slap in the face all in one neat little package.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Alpaca Cartoon Satire of Economic Inequality Issues:
Funny, yes, but does this ML Award Winner
promote ML?

Friday night, the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) awarded the collection of short films We the Economy its "Media Literate Media" honor. The award is "designed to interest mainstream media in doing, covering or including media literacy in their work by recognizing outstanding contributions made by mainstream media professionals with national reach." At the awards ceremony, the short film, The Unbelievably Sweet Alpacas by Adam McKay, co-founder of the Funny or Die website. I loved the film short, but I was puzzled about its connection to ML. Take a look at the video let us know your thoughts on this question in the comments below:
  • How is this short film "doing, covering or including" media literacy? What makes this "Media Literate Media?"

Just to make sure I wasn't totally crazy and out on my own with being confused about the media literacy connection, I asked the people sitting near me at the NAMLE 2015 awards ceremony what the film short had to do with media literacy, and the answers I got ranged from "I don't know" to "Nothing."
"If media literacy means anything that's critical and media, then yes, it includes media literacy." 
-- Dr. Grazi-Prego
Because I like the video itself so much, I watched it with some other colleagues and friends the next night, after the NAMLE conference concluded, and posed the question above. The first response got a lot of laughs among our group, from future long time ML4ML guest pundit, Dr. Grazi-Prego, "If media literacy means anything that's critical and media, then yes, it includes media literacy. They're only posing one perspective. I almost saw it as the opposite of media literacy. But what do I know, I'm just a doctor [of Media & Communication]." Certainly, the video would make a great text for media literacy analysis because of its clever techniques in delivering a complicated message about important issues, but I had to agree that the video itself seemed to be promoting the transmission of knowledge from a particular perspective with strong appeals to authority ("most economic experts agree").

Maybe we're missing something (we usually are). What's your take? [Share in comments below].

[After the jump, I share a funny exchange with colleagues and friends upon a second viewing after the NAMLE conference, and I consider whether our puzzlement is a troubling symptom for the field]

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Classic Daily Show Satirizes Apophasis in News: The Rhetorical Art of Asserting by Denial in Media

I'm not saying you're an idiot if you don't use this post to teach about my favorite rhetorical device, but I think you'll find this classic Daily Show clip from 1999 both hilarious and useful for making media literacy learners aware of apophasis, or assertion by denial, if you're not an idiot (see what I did there!). The comedy in the clip comes from correspondents ironically critiquing news media for focusing on critiquing news media, for example: "Media talking about media makes me sick." See if you can note each instance of apophasis in the clip, and I'll list my notes after the jump below.

I remember a philosophy professor explaining the power of apophasis in relation to the power of suggestion as he told us, "Don't think of pink elephants." And, of course, everyone did. Linguistic signifiers of negation may frame our understanding, but they do not negate our attention to the images we see or hear expressed. Becoming sensitive to persuasive rhetorical devices supports learners in developing heightened awareness of such media techniques, but I wonder whether this awareness has any mitigating effect on the persuasiveness of the message or whether it affects our view of a speaker's credibility. Once you start to notice apophasis, you see it and hear it everywhere, particularly in political discourse. And, as the clip above shows, you can use its simple irony to great humorous effect. However, I don't think I'd have learners practice using the rhetorical device themselves since it ultimately seems deceitful to me. Perhaps the way to go would be to start a discussion about how learners feel about the use of apophasis in communication--is it ethical, deceitful, effective, justifiable, etc.? Then, maybe you could use a tool like Mediabreaker to expose egregious uses of apophasis in politics, news, or advertisements.

Still, studying apophasis raises a perennial issue in media education about studying harmful media messages in order to recognize (to avoid) and perhaps mitigate them, a dilemma captured in Vance Degeneres's comment,
"I have a clip, but I should warn you, it involves shocking sensationalism that should not be shown except as an example of what not to show.
I suppose the solution to the pedagogical dilemma around whether or not to show bad media to "innoculate" learners lies in balance and shared agency. I think that we need to learn to question and recognize techniques in all sorts of media messages, and that we might be better off selecting texts for analysis and messages/modes for media productions collectively, with our learning group, or at least taking turns, with an eye for balancing our exposure to positive and negative models of communication, and for developing ways for determining such value. It's tough to keep learning open, collaborative, reflective, creative and critical, but I think it's worth the effort, not that I'm saying you're a lazy disgrace to the profession if you don't try to do so.

[AFTER THE JUMP, my list of examples of apophasis from the classic Daily Show clip above] 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Louie Juxtaposes High & Low Brow Performance Inspiring Perspective on Each

Why are we watching sitcoms and reading comics in class? Am I really learning something important by talking about movies and memes? Students can be just as confused about the prospect of studying popular culture as teachers committed to the canon of great literature in a given discipline.

Rather than arguing the case or justifying pop through analysis, I suggest jumping into the confusion with a clip from Louis CK's show that puts the pleasures of high art in sharp relief against a backdrop of grotesque burlesque. Use the clip below from Louie to discuss the following important questions for media literacy (that can apply in any media analysis):
  • How and why do different people find pleasure (or revulsion) in this media text?
  • What does pleasure from this media text afford the individual (do for you or for other people)--personally, socially and culturally?
  • How might this media text appeal differently to members of different taste cultures or discourse communities (groups with identities built around common ways of thinking, appearing and communicating; e.g., fans of Louie, art aficionados, homeless advocates, high school teachers, media literacy educators, etc.)? Why?

Now that is a way to kick off a discussion about taste cultures! Asking these sorts of questions lead to discussion of how culture constructs identities and the role our tastes play in the friends we make, the jobs we pursue, and the parts of the world we explore or avoid. In addition to using the questions above to examine the contrast between each of the performances in the clip, the violin player's and the homeless man's, it's also worth exploring how each comments on the other through their juxtaposition. For me, the classical beauty of the violin piece creates an almost operatic, tragic quality to the homeless man's bath, and gives me ethical pangs about how we can enjoy and spend money on such high art while people we pass everyday on the street continue to suffer such indignity. The homeless bath also has its own beauty and honesty, and absurdity that is as hard for me to turn away from as it is to look at. It makes me think of all the ways we find pleasure in watching others suffer, especially in online video, and the presence of the violinist makes me wish I could overcome or transcend those impulses--but the honesty and brazen display of vulgar and debased humanity in the homeless man's public shower makes me marvel at his resilience and value his display as somehow noble, and I begin to re-imagine my sickened guffaw as a new kind of laughter, rather than laughing at him, laughing with the homeless man at the absurdities of elevated culture and taste itself. Anyhow, you can see how articulating responses to the clip might get interesting and lead to some discovery about your own and others' tastes.

[AFTER THE JUMP, I suggest having learners create their own high/low culture video mashups, and discuss moving beyond historical tension in media education]

Friday, June 19, 2015

Performing Race... A little Too Well: Nightly Show Satirizes Black Community Views on Rachel Dolezal

If you are teaching a media studies, sociology or arts course that considers theories of race, identity or performativity, and you don't take time to discuss the Rachel Dolezal NAACP fiasco in the news, well, then either your syllabus is too rigid or you are a fool. Fortunately, we suffer fools gladly at ML4ML, and have just the clip to kick you into a wisely foolish discussion of this fascinating case of a woman born of White parents, who identifies as Black, and became the Vice President of the Spokane, WA chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. As you watch the clip below, consider using the following analysis prompts:
  • What are the three settings/personas selected to represent the views from the Black community, and what aspects or archetypes of Black culture do they satirize?
  • How do the correspondents question or support the host's race identity/performance at the end of the clip, and what do these jokes have to say about how we judge racial authenticity?

For a second viewing, consider these prompts:
  • What does the Black Emergency Technician's focus on Dolezal's hair say about the performance of race?
  • What are the White Amnesty Advocate's arguments for accepting the "world's first Black convert" on a "path to Black citizenship," what makes them funny, and how do they relate to real issues and views?
  • How does the White-Black-Woman Hunter's claim that "this is a conspiracy that white people have been hiding for years... fake Black people are everywhere" relate to reality?
Learners are likely to have strong reactions to the Dolezal story. I suggest asking all to write down their opinions of her situation in response to a straight news clip or in depth article about the fiasco, and then to phrase their opinions in the form of a question. This can take the sting out of some inflammatory views, and sometimes turn strong reactions into curiosity [but be prepared to redirect persistent confrontational simplifications, like "Why is she so crazy?"]. Then, once everyone has a basic idea of the news story, take a look at some comedy versions, like the Daily Show and Nightly Show, to see what is funny to people and why. 
"You can’t just appropriate persecution just because it’s ‘cool...
We don’t need oppression cosplay. We need allies, not replacements.”

--Jessica Williams (left), Daily Show Correspondent 
I think it's important to privilege Black comics' views (and news sources) in this inquiry since Black identity has been subjugated historically, and dominant media representations are still ultimately controlled predominantly by wealthy white men. It's also key to consider Dolezal's own voice, and the NAACP organizational response. Then, if it suits your learning situation, it'd be great to look at this news story, and its satirical critiques, through lenses of identity theories, which I have found to be useful to learners in discussing race.

However, I'd be a bit wary in how I'd use this clip in relation to performative identity theories; I'd guess that learners might easily conflate performance with lying, or pretending, as many may see Dolezal as consciously putting on airs to deceive. To help give learners some language and concepts for discussion and analysis of the issues raised by this news story, I'd probably use a cocktail of Stuart Hall's notion of race as floating signifier and racial permutations of Judith Butler's gender performativity theory (or research like this), balanced by more pop culture and biological perspectives as explored by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s Finding Your Roots series on PBS.

How do you feel about using humor to address this issue? [Doesn't it seem inevitable?] How would you design inquiry and discussion of the Rachel Dolezal news story?

McTucky Fried High: Cartoons Create Unique Opportunities to Discuss LBGTQ Issues in MLE

Much like puppets, cartoons can offer opportunities to examine complicated and controversial issues through comedy and allegory that offer critical distance from the embodied engagement with human actors in video. McTucky Fried High is a compelling, often funny, new animated web series that uses fast food characters to portray LBGTQ issues among teens at school. Viewing this series may not fly in socially conservative educational communities, but in moderate or progressive communities, the series offers media literacy educators of teens and young adults an opportunity to laugh about and discuss the trials and tribulations around sexual identity in high school. The following Vialogue post invites discussion while modeling prompts for media literacy inquiry useful for exploring gay identity representation and for discussing how the McTucky Fried High culture relates to your learners' reality, with the following key questions:
  • How do students assume gay people are oppressed at McTucky High? How are they actually oppressed? 
  • How does it seem they are supported? 
  • How is gay identity exploited by students? 
  • How do these representations of oppression, support and exploitation compare to the reality at your school?

I was especially excited to see these cartoons after reading parts of Lauren Berliner's dissertation, Making It Better: LGBT Youth and New Pedagogies of Media Production (2013), where she critiques identity-based youth media production projects like the It Gets Better Campaign for "interpellating queer youth into fixed, homogenous, subject positions" and "conflating video visibility with action, expression, and power" (p. 230). Part of her critique called my attention to the power of remaining unseen or unnamed (as gay, or what have you), which well-meaning youth media production activities may disrupt by making learners perform or embody their beliefs on video. The McTucky Fried High web series offers not only a rich media text for analysis of LGBTQ issues from a variety of points of view, which students may or may not take up at their own discretion, but it also suggests animation as a medium for youth production activities addressing identity issues.

[More after the jump on how cartoons allow learners to confront identity issues with distance from embodiment in media literacy analysis and production; and a bit on the tension in MLE around educators taking up particular political positions]

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Puppets Tell Tales of Tinder Horror

Puppets, especially puppets portraying adult situations, can create a heightened sense of awareness about the construction of narrative and character as well as about our own meaning making and communication processes. I guess that's in part why therapists use them, and why they make storytelling funnier, as they certainly do in this series of web videos, Tales From Tinder, on stories from people's personal experiences of using the Tinder dating app--often with calamitous results.

For an adult learning group or college class, a discussion of how using puppets to tell these personal stories of dating misadventure offers an opportunity to examine the communication technique as well as the pitfalls of dating apps like Tinder. The audio is from interviews with Tinder users from around the world of different genders and sexualities. The themes are mature, for sure, and some of the language is profane, so be warned. However, it is fascinating to ask:
  • How does the use of puppets affect the story and the storyteller?
  • How does this web series comment on Tinder and other digital apps for dating?
  • How do you feel about mixing dating and digital media?
Sharing stories of misadventure in social media, and dramatizing the story and storytelling with puppets could make for a fun media literacy lesson as well, empowering learners to reflect on and share experiences through production while creating a collective examination of protectionist themes around the potential dangers of digital media use. My previous post on the muppets offers more reflection on how puppets and parody may support media literacy, and an earlier post about Tinder offers some ideas for creating critiques of new media. Thanks to the Junkee blog for pointing us towards this fascinating Tales from Tinder project from Melbourne-based TV producer Emma Watts.

How the Muppets Made Me Media Literate
(& Why I am Psyched for their Return to TV this Fall)

The Muppet Show is back this fall in primetime on network TV and poised to call our attention to all the media production techniques our current popular sitcoms use to make us laugh and reinforce our notions of personal and cultural identity:

The original Muppet Show was appointment TV every week for my family in the late 70s, but it wasn't until this particular moment (below) in The Muppet Movie that I realized how those fuzzy puppets had been teaching me all along about the construction of media and representation of culture and identity. Use this post to prompt the following questions:
  • How did you become media literate? 
  • What popular media supported your media literacy development?
  • How does parody call attention to media techniques and representations? 
In anticipation of the return of The Muppets to primetime network TV this fall, I reflect on this pivotal personal moment of critical distance, and discuss why parody in puppetry can be effective for media literacy development, as the new version of the show plans to lampoon confessional-style sitcoms like The Office and Modern Family while using the format of TV production sitcoms like 30 Rock that call attention to the making of a late night comedy show.

But first, let's set the scene. A darkened movie theater in Baltimore, 1979, I was six years old, and completely enthralled in the journey of Kermit the Frog (and his "weirdo" friends) to Hollywood with their goal of "making millions of people happy" and the love story between Kermit & Ms. Piggy that had unfolded over the past 45 minutes, which was falling apart before my eyes on the screen. And then...

Aha! This is all a movie, and a movie made by the characters on screen, no less! My young mind was blown! At that moment, I had a flood of awareness about all the ways that the movies and shows I watched were made to tell stories to audiences. I noticed the people around me in the theater watching, just like the muppets on screen watched the movie they had made in the story on screen. For the first time, I wanted to make a movie myself--at that moment, one where Piggy and Kermit would just be friends and go play with the other muppets (because the romance was making me a little uncomfortable!).

Parody Pulls Back the Curtain

This moment was the key for me that unlocked the constructed-ness of many other shows and movies, starting with the original Muppet Show, which was a parody of the most popular TV format of the 1970s, the variety show, but it offered backstage scenes of the producer (Kermit) and cast with audience commentary (remember the two old guys, Statler and Waldorf, wisecracking in the balcony, and the call and response moment in the opening theme song with the audience singing, "Why don't you get things started"). I began to see how the muppets were always making fun of how entertainment was made, always showing the seams in the otherwise seamless media representations in which TV and movies immersed me. Whether by singing slightly off key or subverting my expectations (like Gonzo's failed trumpet blast to start every show), the muppets always called my attention to my own expectations about how stories should unfold and I started to realize that those parodied TV shows and movies created those expectations, and that you could play with them and do things differently. I started to see how everything that the muppets did was making fun of popular culture, which I often encountered for the first time through their comedy. I think this had the effect of making me see everything as made by someone for some purpose, and that the purpose could be subverted or changed--and that subversion is fun!

[After the jump, more on pop culture parody as provocateur of critical autonomy, how the muppets made me question notions of race and gender, and ideas for making puppet parodies for ML]