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Consciousness and consciences

Graduate students Thomas Johnson and Emanuelle Wessels are using critical media studies to fight media illiteracy

THOMAS JOHNSON AND EMANUELLE WESSELS know that critical media studies can sometimes be a tough sell. As graduate students in the department and emerging scholars in the field, they are working to convince skeptics that slasher flicks or WWF wrestling matches aren't just opportunities to escape reality, but powerful influencers that shape how we think about everything from women's rights to criminal intent.

That task, they say, is a difficult one. "People are resistant to the idea that politicized messages are encoded in media," Wessels says. "They don't want to approach media texts critically."

Johnson agrees. His research has focused on the ways gender is represented in televised sports, but he's reluctant to share his thoughts with fellow football fans-particularly when they are huddled around a television set watching Monday Night Football.

The two aren't giving up, though. As they move from the department's master's degree program into their doctoral work, both are continuing to study how viewers interpret the media they encounter and how those media, in turn, influence their behavior in other contexts.

Johnson has long been fascinated by the way sports broadcasts frame gender, often presenting women as sexual objects and male players as warriors. "I'll be watching a football game and notice the way they pan across the cheerleaders, usually from a low angle. Or the way they frame the game like a battle when, in reality, it's just a football game," he says. His observations led him to think about how viewers might internalize gender messages in the context of the media framing and surrounding belief systems.

After surveying undergraduates at the University, Johnson was able to show significant correlations between National Basketball Association game viewership and conformity to masculine norms. His data showed that those who regularly watch NBA and NFL broadcasts were more likely to place a premium on winning, think that women should be subservient to men, or want more than one sexual partner.

It's not that Johnson, himself an avid sports fan and former three-season athlete, wants young people to stop watching sports. But he does want them to be able to separate the socially positive messages, like teamwork and discipline, from harmful cultural baggage such as gender stereotyping.

Education for media literacy is the answer, not censorship, says Johnson: "We need to teach students how to become critical, active consumers of the media rather than listless, passive consumers."

Examining Subtexts

That's where the University comes in, says Emanuelle Wessels. Under the guidance of department chair Ed Schiappa, Wessels decided to study whether the University's own courses were cultivating media literacy in students.

To find out how well the University measured up, Wessels screened films like Land of the Dead and Resident Evil for undergraduates who had taken advanced coursework in critical media studies and for those that had not. The films, she says, represent strong women as those who were most able to emulate their violent, militarized male counterparts-not those who work to create larger-scale social change.

In post-screening focus groups, Wessels says, she was able to see just how crucial the undergraduate courses in the department are in promoting media literacy. Just as Wessels suspected, those who had done advanced coursework were better at "reading" the films' take on gender.

"Folks who had taken courses on feminism, film studies, gender studies, and other critical media classes were more receptive to reading the films critically. They were less likely to tell me that these movies were only made for entertainment's sake and that it's ridiculous to read so much into them," she says.

Wessel's project "helped to document that media courses do, in fact, make students more critical viewers who are able to analyze the subtextual messages of fictional films," says Schiappa, noting that critical media studies can play a crucial role in promoting an engaged and reflective citizenry.

That role is especially important, Wessels says, in an age when the line between news and entertainment is becoming increasingly blurred. With a ratings-conscious news media increasingly relying on the strategies used in more popular forms of entertainment, critical media studies gives students more than just the ability to recognize politics in Monday Night Football or Resident Evil. It allows them to see the politics at play in their news sources.

By emphasizing to students the utility of what they're learning in critical media studies courses, Wessels says, she's upending some of the resistance she typically encounters when she encourages students to look at popular texts with a critical eye.

"We try to get students to realize that learning how to read popular texts critically isn't a drag; it doesn't ruin the fun," she says. "We tell them, 'These courses can open your eyes to levels of reality that you never knew existed.'"