Critical Media Literacy

The winter holidays are quickly approaching, and stores have wasted little time in their attempts to nudge shoppers into the festive spirit through elaborate store displays, special deals, and of course, the always-too-early appearance of holiday music. While many of us are trying to mentally prepare ourselves for this time of the year, as a classroom teacher I am also making preparations. Namely, I am looking at how I can prepare my students to think critically about the barrage of media texts about to come their way, each vying for their attention in new and imaginative ways. Children mean big money for many companies over the holidays. Just as we analyze non-media texts such as books, graphic novels, and magazines in language class, I feel that it is equally important that we take the time to analyze media texts as well. There is no better time like the present to begin looking at how companies advertise to children, and to put on our “media glasses” in class to explore how companies make us want to buy their products.

Media literacy is a part of critical literacy – that is, actively asking questions about what we are reading. Texts are not created neutral, and even innocent looking texts can raise some very interesting critical questions. Two years ago, a colleague of mine was given a book called Meet Smurfette for her young daughter. She showed it to me because she was concerned about the message of the book. In Meet Smurfette, the first female Smurf is made by Gargamel to infiltrate the Smurf Village. The Smurfs are somewhat confused by this new creature, particularly noting her odd choice of house colour (no surprise – it’s pink). Although the evil Smurfette tries to do Gargamel’s bidding, the Smurfs pay her no mind, as she is pushy, aggressive, and not particularly good looking.

Upset, Smurfette goes onto Plan B – flood Smurf Village by breaking the dam. She almost succeeds, but is swept away by the raging waters until she is saved by Papa Smurf, who takes pity on her. He “smurfs” up a potion that turns Smurfette into the blonde, high-heeled Smurfette that we all know, and now all of the male Smurfs are all smitten with her. I presume we then live happily ever after.

When my colleague showed me this book, I had to have it. Many kids assume that books have positive morals and messages. I’ve read this book to students on a few occasions, and every time the answer has been the same – “this book is about how it doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside, it is what is on the inside that counts.” We train kids to look for these positive morals, so this is what they see at first, despite the fact that in this case, the book is actually claiming the exact opposite message. The only thing that matters is what Smurfette looks like. Her change from evil to good is directly related to how she looks. How quickly the gender stereotypes are imparted onto our children, and how easily they believe in the positive messages these characters are presumably giving to them!

I tell this story because it is directly related to how companies advertise their toys to children. A quick browse through the Toys R Us website gives us a plethora of fascinating and imaginative toys – all of them separated into their respective sections. The boys section is, of course, all blue. It includes toys such as tools, action figures, and superhero costumes. The girls section of the website is pink, and includes toys that will help young girls prepare for a future in the kitchen and playing dress-up. The language used in advertising is also very telling. Take a look at the “girls toys” and see how often you see words such as “powerful” or “amazing”. Come to think of it, that might make a very good class lesson.

There is more to critical media literacy than looking at gender-based stereotypes. I also want my students to look at the advertising tricks used to make toys look more exciting than they really are. We have all had the experience of waiting months for an amazing looking toy, only to find out that it did not perform nearly as well as it appeared to on television or in print ads. For me, this experience came with those electric race tracks that propel the cars through various loops and up and around your bedroom wall. What is not shown is the amount of time spent stepping over the track to pick up the car that just derailed for the eleventh time in the first lap. Looking out for these tricks can become a quite fun classroom game, and once you put on your critical literacy media glasses, you can’t take them off. We begin to realize that no, chances are we won’t be playing with those dinosaur action figures in an actual jungle like the kids on television. That remote controlled race car may look pretty cool going through that rugged terrain, but will it look as exciting on the living room floor?

Media is everywhere, and our students are exposed to it every day. There are many studies that make reports on how many advertisements kids see in a day, a week, or a month. Because there are so many, I won’t try to wade through them here to try to find the most statistically appropriate or accurate; I presume that our common experience will suffice. What is important is that we recognize that kids are a target demographic to somebody beginning the day they are born. As our media becomes more embedded into our culture, it becomes increasingly important that we teach our students not only to read texts, but to think critically about what the author wants us to think. This applies to written texts, but is applies equally to visual media as well. Critical media literacy is an important part of my curriculum, and I would suggest that it should be a strong component of language programs everywhere.

Paul Lacey, Spec. Hons. B.A., B.Ed. (P/J), OCT
Grade Two Teacher
Children’s Garden School