Read What You Watch

Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.

Martin Scorsese, American film director, producer, screenwriter, and actor

I’ve been fascinated by the power of media for a long time. I actually am trying to pinpoint the exact time–I think it was when I was asked to take over teaching a course on multiculturalism and the American identity at Lebanon Valley College in 2005. I had just successfully developed and taught my first course in the American Studies program–Gender and Sexual Minorities in American Culture–and was fresh and ready to tackle a new project. The previous instructor had structured the course around film, so I started my research. Since then, I’ve taught courses on gender and sexuality in media, masculinities in media, psychology in film, and always find a way to incorporate the study of mainly film into almost all of my courses.

So, just to preface, I don’t have any real advanced study in film form and structure other than what I’ve taught myself, so I’m not really an expert compared to many; however, I have read and reflected a lot on the topic and published four book chapters applying these concepts to various social identity groups within the social justice landscape. I still have a lot to learn though!!

Why am I writing this essay now? It’s been brewing in my brain for a long time to be honest…but even more so recently as I’ve been taking more time to enjoy the things that I choose to watch (right now, it’s PBA Bowling on FS1 that I recorded from last night).

I want to center this essay through the framework of critical cultural studies, the foundational theory that I subscribe to. Douglas Kellner explores the concept in an essay from 2009. Kellner argues that there are three key elements that intersect and should be considering when we decode the media that we consume: political and production economy, audience reaction, and textual analysis. Benshoff and Griffin (2009) argue that when media creators develop their product, they are encoding various messaging within. This is both conscious and unconscious and is reflective of our social identity development and the contexts in which our development occurs. This encoding happens throughout the development of the media product–costumers and set designers, lighting and sound design, writing, directing, acting, editing…from soup-to-nuts, per se. Here’s a classic example- watch the opening scene to Jaws and consider the following questions:

  1. What does the choice of lighting convey to you?
  2. What is the sexual orientation of the characters? How do you know this?
  3. What happened before this scene?
  4. At 1:08, the shot shifts. And then at 1:27 we begin to hear something else. What does the music communicate to you?
Jaws (1975)

As you are reflecting on this, you are engaging in a process of decoding. What’s awesome about decoding is that this is again, context specific. What you are thinking, feeling, experiencing is potentially different than others! Maybe you’re feeling anticipation due to the music? Fear? Maybe you’re forgetting that you’re watching a film at all and you’re swept away by John Williams’ incredible score? Either way, your interpretation is just that, yours. Any of the encoders can tell you what they intended but that doesn’t mean that that is the only way to decode.

Okay, on to Kellner.

Production economy focuses on how the media product is made, the cultural context in which it is created, and who “owns” the media system in which the product is created. As an example, certain television shows could not have been made during a production era of broadcast network television because networks needed to appeal to a wide-ranging demographic to attract advertisers and develop revenue (Lotz, 2014). Shows that pushed the edges or delved into deeper issues might alienate much of the demographic, thus those shows were more difficult to get on the air. Compare that era to now—content that is broadcast through streaming services can be more narrowly focused and push the edge of comfort zones, because the company can generate revenue from direct subscription services (Lotz, 2014).

Linked with production economy is the notion of political economy: who has the power to control messaging that is embedded in media content? Individuals who have been subordinated by their myriad social identities lack the power (economic, political, structural, etc.) to bring about social change (Young, 2000) and have been pushed to the margins. As an example, consider cultural references to gay men in film. For a significant portion of film’s history, gay men were portrayed as effeminate sissies, inserted as a punch line to break a particularly tense moment (Benshoff & Griffin, 2009). While representation has expanded, many point to the lack of “happy endings” in films for a modern gay audience and a distinct lack of intersectionality, particularly around issues of race and homosexuality. Consider the film Making Love (Adler, Melnick, & Hiller) from 1982.

Politically, during this film’s release, America was in the middle of the Reagan 1980s, a return to hegemonic masculinity where there was no room to explore boundaries (Benshoff & Griffin, 2009). Hence, the introductory caution. Today, this caution isn’t necessary due to the changing political economy.

Audience reaction helps analysts consider who is consuming the media and what their thoughts are regarding content and form. This has significantly shifted in recent years with the explosion of social media and the ability to “click” to show your support. As an example, consider the ratings aggregator site RottenTomatoes.com. What had started out as a cool and hip way to display reactions has now become so powerful that companies use their scores in widespread advertising.

Lastly, but oftentimes the first and only approach to analysis, is the text itself. How does the media’s form help construe the image and messaging that the writers, directors, sound editors, lighting technicians, and everyone else who has had a hand in the production of the content, have encoded within. I referenced this earlier with Jaws. What’s important about textual analysis is that we can examine these quantitatively or qualitatively. Let’s consider Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film, The Wolf of Wall Street (Aziz, DiCaprio, McFarland, Scorsese, Koskoff, & Scorsese), as an example. As a researcher who examines construction of masculinity, I could analyze the number of times the word “fuck” is uttered in this piece (506 according to Rolling Stone’s Kory Grow in a 2014 piece) and extrapolate meaning behind Scorsese’s choice to include it as often as he did, then recount how the use of this word historically connotes strength and dominance and how these are modern masculine norms.

Instead of using this quantitative method, I could instead choose to examine how women are portrayed in the film as sex objects or conquests for the men, namely Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Jordan Belfort, which reinforces modern notions of masculinity. Qualitatively, one of the first female characters in the film is actually a blonde head performing oral sex on Belfort as he drives to work in the morning, later identified as his wife, Naomi, “the Duchess of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, a former model and Miller Lite girl.” The second woman is a prostitute that Belfort is seen snorting cocaine off of, and the next few (other than his wife) are strippers. Belfort’s narrative at the beginning of this film is modern masculinity to the extreme—lists of what he owns, how much money he has, the color of his vehicle, and the women he sleeps with.

So, why am I bringing this up?

Media is a powerful force, y’all. The media we consume shapes our attitudes and, speaking from social psychology, our attitudes influence our behaviors. Attitudes form and shift our biases, which influence discriminatory actions. In a culture of 24/7 cable news, exploding streaming services, billion-dollar grossing films, product placement, ratings systems, fandoms and cosplay bringing new opportunities to explore, and now health pandemics and conservatives rallying behind calls against “cancel culture,” to be a passive media consumer, is well, to me at least, a tad bit irresponsible.

Media has the power to shift entire generations. Many can remember the iconic picture of John Jr. saluting his father, President John F. Kennedy’s coffin as it passed him, or the images of the space shuttle Challenger exploding shortly after its launch into the heavens, and, for so many, the crumbling of the World Trade Center on 9/11/01.

Others will discuss when they found out who shot J.R. Ewing on Dallas, or the series finale of M*A*S*H or Roseanne or The Sopranos or Dexter or Game of Thrones, or the footage of Princess Diana’s funeral as pivotal moments for them.

And still others will cite how they felt when watching Citizen Kane (I still haven’t forgotten having to watch that in ENG 120: Introduction to Literature and HATING IT), the reveal of Darth Vader being Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back, the touching tribute to love of UP, or when Captain America was worthy of lifting Mjolnir in Avengers: Endgame.

As my students have told me before, once you turn on this critical media literacy lens, it can be hard to turn it off because you start seeing the messages everywhere. I promise you that you can–that it is okay to watch things not for some intentional learning experience, but rather for pure entertainment. Just don’t believe that your brain isn’t still learning while you’re laughing at the hysterical hijinks of the Scooby Doo gang, reveling in the music and majesty that is Belle and the Beast’s “love” story, the stoicism and transformation of Michael Corleone in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, or the celebrations to be had in the upcoming NCAA March Madness tournaments!

  • Adler, A. J., Melnick, D. (Producers), & Hiller, A. (Director). (1982). Making love. [Motion picture]. United States of America: 20th Century Fox.
  • Aziz, R., DiCaprio, L, McFarland, J., Koskoff, E. T. (Producers), & Scorsese, M. (Producer and Director). (2013). The wolf of wall street [Motion picture]. United States of America: Paramount Pictures.
  • Benshoff, H. M., & Griffin, S. (2009). America on film: Representing race, class, gender, and sexuality at the movies (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Brown, D. & Zanuck, R. D. (Producers), & Spielberg, S. (Director). (1975). Jaws. [Motion Picture]. United States of America: Zanuck/Brown Productions.
  • Grow, K. (2014, January 3). “The wolf of wall street” drops 506 f-bombs, setting a new record. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from: http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/the-wolf-of-wall-street-drops-506-f-bombs-setting-a-new-record-20140103
  • Kellner, D. (2009). Toward a critical media/cultural studies. In R. Hammer & D. Kellner (Eds.) Media/cultural studies: Critical approaches. (5-24). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishers.
  • Lotz, A. (2014). Cable guys: Television and masculinities in the 21st century. New York, NY: NYU Press.
  • Young, I. (2000). The five faces of oppression. In M. Adams, W. J. Blumenfeld, R. Castaneda, H. W. Hackman, M. L. Peters, & X. Zuniga (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice: An anthology on racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and classism. New York, NY: Routledge.

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