Rethinking Popular Culture and Media


Few would disagree with the idea that good teachers ground curriculum in the lives of their students. But what happens when the lives of children and youth are thoroughly saturated by corporate influences that promote values of consumption, competition, hierarchy, sexism, homophobia, racism, and contempt for equality? What’s an educator to do? Rethinking Popular Culture and Media seeks to answer these questions. The articles collected here, drawn from the Rethinking Schools archive, offer insightful analyses of popular culture and media and suggest ways to help youth and adults reflect on aspects of life that they may just take for granted—what Sut Jhally, founder of the Media Education Foundation, would describe as “getting the fish to think about the water.”

In many ways, popular culture is the Polaroid snapshot or Facebook photo page that documents our lives in the social world; it is a backdrop of day-to-day life. And its power is both diffuse and indisputable. From Disney to Barbie to MySpace, youth today navigate a range of popular culture and media. The reality that children and youth interact with a vast amount of media—books, toys, video games, advertisements, etc.—requires teachers to become aware of and fluent with the diverse popular cultural materials young people read, view, and consume.

Corporate interests and marketing activities aimed at youth are nothing new; however, young people today are the objects of a corporate media landscape that circulates messages with an intensity and range that is increasingly sophisticated. According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood: “Children ages 2–11 see at least 25,000 advertisements on TV alone, a figure that does not include product placement. They are also targeted with advertising on the internet, cell phones, MP3 players, video games, school buses, and in school.” Similarly, a study published in 2010 by the Kaiser Family Institute reports that youth between the ages of 8 and 18 spend approximately 7.5 hours per day, seven days a week with media such as video games, TV, music, and books. It is important to note that time reading books has actually increased slightly rather than declined over the past 10 years—revealing some complicated connections between books and other texts. And as the authors in this collection demonstrate, the relationship among pop culture, media, and corporations, more broadly, is a messy one.

Given the increasing amount of media with which youth interact, Rethinking Popular Culture and Media is an important collection largely written by and for teachers. The authors of these articles consider how and what popular cultural artifacts (such as toys) as well as popular media (like films and books) “teach” and the role that these materials have in the everyday lives of students.

The decision to pull together this collection came out of our own experiences in classrooms and as teacher educators. The articles in Rethinking Schools have framed our own work with children, youth, and adults as they offer examples that critically examine and reimagine popular culture and media in relationship to education. The articles collected here complicate the idea that popular culture is either bad or good and instead invite readers to look at familiar movies, books, games, and so on as spaces where meanings are made and contested. Authors in this collection complicate the idea that children and teens are naive, agent-less, or disengaged. Rather, children and youth in these articles are actors who view, read, watch, play, and often instruct their teachers about popular culture and media. Most importantly, this book illustrates that young people are capable of critical analyses that disrupt the limited representations of race, class, gender, and sexuality offered up in mainstream popular culture and media.

What Exactly Is Popular Culture?
“Popular culture” is a challenging term to define. Writing a book about popular culture is an even trickier proposition given that culture is constantly changing and renders what was once popular soon to be outdated and perhaps quaint. With this collection, we offer an approach to popular culture. Even though the stuff of popular culture becomes dated almost as quickly as it is produced, this book focuses on the questions educators ask and the pedagogies they use to approach popular culture and media.

This book examines and takes on a variety of expressions of popular culture:

The articles in this collection help us to see the relationship between the many forms of popular culture and education.

What Is the Relationship Between Popular Culture and Media?
Whereas media of previous generations may have referred to newspapers, magazines, and books, today’s media include an explosion of online/global networking systems (Twitter, Facebook, Bebo, YouTube), as well as a music culture that has moved beyond musical exchange to include the marketing and selling of culture, lifestyle, and products. Cross-marketing between and among corporately structured partners has become the norm. Many movies (especially those targeting young audiences) are released not simply as movies, but rather as carefully orchestrated campaigns of online, print, television promotions, soundtracks, clothing lines, toys, keychains—and in the case of Hannah Montana, even shoelaces and granola bars. Youth live in an increasingly complex world that holds potential for increasing participation and citizenship via mediated culture (such as blogging and global networking) as well as increasing vulnerability to corporate maneuvering such as “embedded marketing.” From one of the earliest examples of embedded marketing—Reese’s Pieces in the 1982 blockbuster film ET—to more recent examples such as Coca-Cola’s ongoing sponsorship of the Olympic Games and the “Coca Cola Olympic Flame,” this increasingly sophisticated machinery demands that educators remain vigilant about the relationship between media, popular culture, and marketing.

In response to these challenges, the teachers in this collection share examples of their strategies to remain engaged. For example, in “Tuning In to Violence: Students Use Math to Analyze What TV Is Teaching Them,” Margot Pepper leads her students in a data-collection activity of children’s shows, after which they compile and analyze their data. Pepper’s students learn the importance of noticing the pervasiveness of particular kinds of media messages in their everyday environment. Pepper writes that she wants students to be in “the habit of asking ‘why’ about their world instead of merely consuming it—of making educated hypotheses then requiring multiple sources of supporting evidence.”

What to Do with Popular Culture and Media?
When we consider youth culture and the media that children, tweens, and teens find popular, the task of defining popular culture becomes even more difficult because as adults, we often dismiss what children and teens adopt as childish or in opposition to the “good” values of adults—as inferior to “adult” culture. Throughout this collection, readers are encouraged to think about popular culture and media in all its complexity. For example, rather than simply critiquing “popular” or “kid” culture as anti-intellectual, entertainment, or fluff to pass the time, we can ask questions like the ones the authors in this collection take up, including:

The articles in Rethinking Popular Culture and Media begin from the premise that the “popular” in classrooms and in the everyday lives of teachers and students is fundamentally political. Critiquing media is not simply an intellectual activity but often a larger social standpoint of resistance against corporate-produced popular culture. Steven Friedman and his students discover this in “Taking Action Against Disney” when he and his students protested the working conditions of employees in Central American factories that make Disney products. After Friedman published a list of “guilty companies” in the school’s weekly newsletter, the school’s director asked him to stop. He writes that he was told that “by becoming a political activist, I was perilously close to muddying my role as a neutral educator.” Thus, when educators make the choice to critique what is “popular,” whether it’s Disney or Nike, they enter into a high-stakes game in which power, privilege, and corporate interests are the rule. The articles in this collection make visible the limits and possibilities of teacher autonomy and the increasing role of corporations in classrooms. They also highlight the challenges of facilitating dialogue with students about the politics of popular culture and media.

What to Do About Popular Culture and Media?
How can teachers resist the pedagogies and corporate interests of popular culture and media in which the social world is simplified in ways that limit our understandings of complex social histories, identities, and structural inequities? In Herbert Kohl’s “The Politics of Children’s Literature” and Bill Bigelow’s “Once upon a Genocide,” we learn how complex social histories such as segregation, genocide, and military interventions are often diluted and reorganized into simplistic plots of good vs. evil that are common in popular culture and mainstream narratives of exceptionalism and meritocracy.

One of the key approaches to understanding the relationship between popular culture and media has been media literacy. Media literacy is a term that often comes up in educational contexts and has several different meanings. As the Rethinking Schools editors point out, teachers need to move beyond “what has come to be known as media literacy….to delve into the tough issues that lurk underneath. In short, these issues are commercialism and democracy.” We agree that media literacy needs to extend beyond content analyses. It should include a critical examination of the production and circulation of media, as well as analysis of the motivations for distribution.

The educators in this collection recognize the importance of using and engaging with popular culture and media. We define this approach as a critical media literacy approach. It is increasingly hard to “protect” children and youth from commercial messages and popular culture; these materials appear on cell phones, Facebook pages, billboards, and buses. In our view, students can become capable critics and revisers of culture who don’t always need to be protected from popular culture and media.

Writers here use a critical media perspective in which texts (including blogs, film, music, and so on) are up for critique to uncover power and commercialism as well as embedded messages. For instance, Barbara Ehrenreich critiques Disney princess products, but she also highlights how corporate power and interests obscure problematic capitalist dynamics. She writes, “Disney, which also owns ABC, Lifetime, ESPN, A&E, and Miramax, is rewarded with $4 billion a year for marketing the masochistic Princess cult and its endlessly proliferating paraphernalia.”

In this and other articles collected here, teachers and students ask critical questions about the relationship between power, media, and schooling. In each of these articles the authors critique and rethink the connections among race, class, gender, sexuality, power, and schooling. From this framework, the articles in this book are grouped around five ways to do critical media literacy with popular culture and media. The articles do not fit neatly nor exclusively into each category, but the categories provide a useful organizational framework.

Part 1: Study the Relationship Among Corporations, Youth, and Schooling

The line between education and big business has become increasingly blurry. The authors in this section draw our attention to the ways corporations use advertisements to sell and define what is “popular.” Schools have also been targeted as a place to teach students brand loyalty through Scholastic book orders, “free” copies of Sports Illustrated for Kids, and corporate-sponsored curricula such as the “Feeling Good: More About You” program provided by Procter & Gamble (which includes a health instructor, “Feeling Good” girls’ booklet, and sample pads and tampons all delivered in one class session). And it is not just Procter & Gamble that is out to get the “consumer in training”; it is also Colgate, Kellogg, DuPont, Anheuser-Busch, and Dow, to name just a few.

According to a Canadian national survey, many schools receive additional income by entering into exclusive product sale agreements. This financial support from corporations rarely comes in the form of an anonymous donation; rather, teachers and students are bombarded with product placement within the school from corporations such as Coca-Cola and media conglomerates such as Fox. In a time of ongoing school budgetary cuts, these relationships are increasingly complicated.

Corporations also seek to define the tastes of children and adolescents through how they market toys and other children’s culture. Authors in this section point out how ideas created in a marketing boardroom such as “age compression” or the decision to package Disney princesses together have implications for teaching. Specifically, they question whether or not to take up these media as objects of curriculum as well as the pedagogical dilemmas that emerge when popular cultural texts enter the classroom.

Part 2: Critique How Popular Culture and Media Frame Historical Events and Actors

Popular culture and media are an important place to critique the politics of seemingly straightforward storylines, plots, characters, and images. For many of us, popularized accounts of history are familiar. For example, Schindler’s List is often used to teach about the Holocaust. The articles in this section examine the politics of popular historical children’s literature, popularized biographies of Rosa Parks, Christopher Columbus, and Helen Keller, as well as children’s films and toys.

Authors focus on the representation of history within popular children’s picture books and novels, films such as Disney’s Mulan and Pocahontas, and the popular American Girl dolls and books. Authors such as Debbie Reese and her colleagues point out misrepresentations in popular cultural texts such as Scholastic’s “Dear America” series and the ways in which certain parts of a history are foregrounded (such as the “happiness” of Native American students in residential schools) while others remain in the background (such as the colonial legacy of genocide for indigenous peoples). In casting the government boarding schools in a positive light, popular narratives elide the effects of residential schooling on native peoples and the obligations to redress and remedy the history of colonization in North America and around the globe.

Part 3: Examine Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality, and Social Histories in Popular Culture and Media

Popular culture and media relentlessly reproduce existing relationships between dominant and subordinate groups. In this way, culture produced for mass consumption seeks to erase difference and make certain sexist, racist, classist, and colonial representations seem natural. Because much of this representation is widely circulated as normal and natural, the authors in this section attempt to make visible the ideas about race, class, and gender that masquerade as authoritative and fixed. Authors challenge gender stereotypes and racist representations in various media locales such as music videos, movies, toys, and cartoons and connect these discussions to existing curricular goals. Contributors also offer a variety of strategies, including sending students on a toy store field trip, giving students surveys, and offering content analysis of popular texts, and guiding discussion questions. By sharing strategies and explanations for how this work occurs with students, the authors in this section do not simply uncover bias; they also illustrate how this type of work can occur with students as they model the kinds of critical engagements that can be taken up in classrooms.


Part 4: View and Analyze Representations of Teachers, Youth, and Schools

From Blackboard Jungle to Freedom Writers to High School Musical and Glee, teachers and students are regular subjects of film and TV. These texts capture our shifting anxieties about adult/child relationships and about the desires we hold for teachers to “save” students. These are familiar stories in which a caring—usually white—teacher saves students in an under-resourced school. Kids in popular film and television are usually presented as uncivilized, uneducated, and in need of adult protection. The critiques offered in this section are important because they draw our attention to the political nature of schooling as a place of ideological struggle.


Part 5: Take Action for a Just Society

Popular culture and media present an opportunity for teachers and students to take action in and beyond the classroom. In this section, authors describe the ways that teachers and students resist corporate incursions into everyday life as well as how educators might use popular culture and media to examine issues such as exploitation, violence, power, and privilege. One of the most interesting examples is Ann Pelo and Kendra Pelojoaquin’s “Why We Banned Legos” and the resulting backlash their article received from Fox News and other right-wing outlets. The authors begin with the assumption that even young children are “political” and that they, too, can understand and question inequity. Their story illustrates how doing critical media literacy from a social justice orientation often aligns with “being political,” but in reality it draws attention to the false neutrality of schooling. As such, the best “defense” is to anchor resistance work in a strong theoretical and conceptual framework. We believe that this collection offers such a grounding for any critical media literacy and resistance work teachers may want to take up in their classrooms.


Part 6: Use Popular Culture and Media to Transgress

In this section, the authors examine how popular culture and media provide the space and materials to break the rules and challenge the status quo. Media such as zines, fan fiction, blogs, graffiti, and so on offer avenues to represent transgressive ideas and identities. To provide just one example, on fan fiction sites authors, illustrators, and filmmakers revise familiar storylines and images from popular cultural texts.

In the articles collected here authors use a range of media—poetry, graffiti, film, and anime—to teach about and encourage resistance. Renée Watson uses poetry with a group of middle school students to explore the realities of racism and police brutality in the Bronx. Watson reminds readers that “for centuries poets and writers have put ink to paper to celebrate, encourage, heal, challenge, teach, and even chastise their world.” She introduces students to Willie Perdomo’s “41 Bullets off Broadway” about Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old Guinean immigrant, who in 1999 was shot 19 times when police fired 41 bullets at him. Watson ties this to the contemporary 2006 murder of African American Sean Bell, a 23-year-old; police shot 50 bullets at the unarmed Bell and his two friends. The middle school students create their own poems about Sean Bell that put to paper the marginalized perspectives and experiences of kids of color as they are consistently targeted by law enforcement.

Popular culture, then, is also a way for adults, children, and teens to reposition themselves, from cogs in the machine to social actors intent on jamming, resisting, and/or rewriting the status quo. In this way, the authors give us examples of a critical media literacy in which critique makes way for revision and protest and where students and teachers have access to and power over the everyday media we consume, read, and view.

While corporations have quickly jumped to the blackboard to school youth in lessons of consumption, in many ways educators have been playing catch-up. The realities of the classroom and school politics—not to mention the spotlight on standardized testing that often results in more heat than light—make doing critical media literacy work challenging. We believe this collection of essays offers strong conceptual critiques and relevant pedagogical strategies for educators at every level to engage with the popular.

by Elizabeth Marshall and Özlem Sensoy