What is media criticism?
What does it mean to be a media critic? What does it mean to “think critically” about something like Modern Family or Survivor or Facebook games or Justin Bieber lyrics? And why would one want to bother putting thought into something that’s been created for the purpose of entertaining an audience?
I used to be a media studies professor. I left that profession, happily, for a number of reasons. One of the reasons was that I found it immensely difficult to teach many my students to critically analyze things that they insisted were “just entertainment.” While there were moments when I loved teaching, I found that overall, I lacked the talent to bridge the gap between students who came to my class in search of business-savvy communication skills and my desire to teach students to study the media as a way to develop critical thinking skills.
So here I am, five years later, starting a blog that’s primarily about media criticism. I’m hoping very much to attract others to my blog who will comment on whatever it is I say about the media. I hope they will agree with me, or disagree with me and provide alternative interpretations. But what I very much hope is that I don’t get people who say, “Get over it, Naomi! Why are you analyzing Modern Family? It’s just entertainment!”
So, let me start by going back to the original question I posed: what is media criticism? And what is it not?
- Media criticism is important. People spend a signficantly amount of their lives watching TV and movies, using the Internet, listening to music, reading books, and otherwise engaging themselves with media. These activities are a critical part of the human condition. Questions that we ask about what people learn from the media, or how the media affect culture, are therefore crucial.
- Media criticism isn’t about media effects. A media critic might argue that a show like Modern Family reflects our culture and reinforces attitudes and ideologies that we have about gender, race, gay marriage, child rearing, consumerism, and all kinds of things. That doesn’t mean that by plucking someone in front of Modern Family, they immediately absorb these messages. It just means that popular TV shows are one of the many ways that we learn about cultural norms.
- Media criticism is fun. Some people think that media criticism is about being a spoil sport. Why take something that’s fun and relaxing like Modern Family and “look into it too deeply”? if you don’t like something, they say, then just don’t watch it. Well, in my opinion, looking at the critical implications of media adds to the enjoyment of using it. Try it. If you don’t like media criticism, then don’t do it.
- Media criticism is NOT about finding hidden messages. I wrote an article once about what I thought about how Disney’s film The Lion King portrayed issues related to segregation. (You let the hyenas in, and your worst fears are realized — everything falls apart.) Does this mean I think Disney was trying to brainwash viewers into becoming racists? No, of course not. I doubt the writers thought about this issue at all. But messages aren’t physical things that either “in” a media text or not in a media text. Messages are up for interpretation no matter what the writers intended.
- Media criticism is NOT about stating the truth. Is Gloria on Modern Family an empowering representation of a Latina? Seems to me this is up for interpretation, and that different viewers could answer this questions in entirely different ways. If I answer this question in a blog post, I’m not claiming to be “correct,” as there’s no correct answer to this question.
So, I hope you’ll join along with me as I analyze the media — and include various other musings on related topics.