What Every Woman Wants?

Given all the recent political attention to the treatment of women and the diversity of our population, you might think that media over-generalizations about gender are passé, but I hear the phrase “Every woman…” (or “Every girl…”) with surprising frequency.

I suppose I can live with the mandatory Mother’s Day reporting that assumes all women want to be or are mothers.  When I was growing up, ninety percent of American women became mothers at some point in their lives.  These days, the U.S. Census says the figure hovers closer to eighty percent, but it’s still the vast majority of women, even if it isn’t me.

Other common claims, however, are more dubious.  In the past few weeks I have heard questionable generalizations from people who, measured by their audience numbers, are popular with the female demographic: Dr. Phil, Oprah, the Kardashians, and the network TV morning shows. They have declared that every girl deeply desires a tan (I guess girls of color or girls who know enough about skin cancer to stay away from tanning beds don’t count), every woman wants a great pair of lashes (they were referring to eyelashes…what were you thinking??), every woman dreams of a “fairy tale” wedding (I expect they meant with Prince Charming in a lavish, romantic setting rather than the being-cursed-by-a-wicked-witch thing), and every woman loves shoes (why do conversations about women loving shoes never include hiking boots?!?).

hiking-bootsWhat do all these generalizations have in common aside from the fact that they don’t in any way apply to me even though I am a proud member of the “every woman” clan?  For starters, they reinforce fairly sexist notions of womanhood, where attention is focused on appearance over accomplishment or authenticity. Not coincidentally, they also all promote consumer spending.

Interestingly, the tanning claim was part of a traditional TV ad, but the other declarations were made during “shows.” More in later posts about the power of repetition in shaping cultural norms and about how commercial media programs don’t just cut to ads, they are ads. In the meantime, listen carefully next time you hear a sentence that begins with “Every woman…”, ask yourself, “Whose truth is really being represented here and whose experience is being made invisible – and why?”

Personally, I’m waiting to hear sentences like, “Every woman wants to help achieve world peace in her lifetime” or “Every girl dreams of being President, serving on the Supreme Court, or working for a company that is committed to sustainable environmental policies.”  What do you dream of hearing?

May be reprinted for educational, non-profit use with the credit:  From the edublog “TUNE IN Next Time” by Faith Rogow, Ph.D., InsightersEducation.com 2016

Sixties Wisdom for the Digital Age

As a student in the mid-1970s I roamed my college campus with a button attached to my backpack, intentionally pinned upside down. It said: “Question Authority.”

question-authorityThe popularity of the slogan was, in part, a reaction to Watergate and the Pentagon Papers – each of which revealed substantial reasons to stop accepting the government version of events at face value. Added to that, one cultural upheaval after another – civil and women’s rights, the “sexual revolution,” a burgeoning environmental movement – led many of us to question the value of conforming to the largely racist, sexist, homophobic, materialistic reality that had been constructed by parents, employers, clergy, teachers, and media.

The button was actually a shortened version of a quote from psychologist and counterculture guru Timothy Leary: “Think for yourself and question authority.”  And though it wasn’t exactly his intention, Leary identified what would soon become the essence of media literacy education in the United States.

There were two major strands of early media literacy education. The film analysis side was focused on integrating and analyzing films in schools in ways that paralleled the study of literature. The other strand focused on viewing mass media through a critical lens in the hope that students would understand that very few real families looked like the Cleavers (on Leave It to Beaver), that real life heroes weren’t always violent or white men, and that buying the stuff in the ads wasn’t necessarily a great way to stay healthy or happy. In the U.S., it was this latter focus that came to dominate.

Through the Eighties and the decades that followed, media literacy educators developed a practice based on asking questions about the media we consume, use, and create. When most people’s media landscape consisted of a handful of national television stations, a couple of local newspapers, a smattering of magazines, a dozen radio stations, some billboards and store signs, along with dime novels and library books, it was easy to identify the media “authorities” and our questions were fairly simple:  “Who produced this?” “What was their purpose?” “What techniques did they use?” “Who is the target audience?”

Fast forward to the digital world – interactive and offering individuals unprecedented access to larger audiences and more information than at any time in human history. Lines between advertising and other content are frequently blurred, citizen journalism is intertwined with traditional journalism and propaganda, and participation often requires the surrender of privacy. In this world, identifying media authorities is much less clear cut. The sophistication of our questions and questioning needs to match the increasing complexity of the media at our fingertips. We can’t just question authority; we have to figure out how to question everything and still stay sane.

A decade ago, NAMLE made an initial attempt to address the changes by shifting from recommending the teaching of specific questions to recommending the teaching of key categories of questions for analyzing media. Shortly after, Project Look Sharp developed a corollary grid for production activities. Future posts will explore the importance of the shift to categories. Today’s post focuses on how we teach, no matter what questions we use.

One of the major challenges is that even though many U.S. media literacy educators have been very good at teaching students to “question authority,” we haven’t always been very skilled at teaching students to become independent thinkers. Many media literacy lessons, either explicitly or implicitly, simply train students to replace acceptance of media authority with the views of selected cultural critics or teachers. Students learn to parrot what may be a more socially conscious perspective, but they never learn how to do the work necessary to develop their own informed opinions.

To teach students to think for themselves and question authority, the process of engagement is as important to success as the questions themselves.  Here are ten key practices for media literacy analysis in the digital age:

  1. The wording of questions should be plural. Not “What is the purpose?” but rather, “What are all the likely purposes?” This calls for more complex thinking and provides a path that leads beyond the notion that “there’s only one right answer.”
  2. It’s never about single questions, but rather, strings of questions. We probe to encourage students to expand or clarify their thinking: “What else did you notice?” or “Tell me more.”
  3. Evidence, evidence, evidence. Require evidence-based answers. Make friends with questions like, “How do you know that?” or “What makes you say that?” or even the obvious, “What’s your evidence?” Rather than looking for one “right” answer, look for strong evidence.
  4. Infuse teaching with the knowledge that every person interprets media through the lens of their own experience. That means your job isn’t to convince students to accept your interpretation. You can present your evidence and explain why it’s persuasive to you, and require students to do the same. You can even make a case that some readings are dominant and some are less common.     As long as interpretations are reasonable and evidence-based, respect them. Doing so will open space for diverse and authentic student voices. And modeling respect will demonstrate that it is possible to engage in civil discourse with – and maybe even learn from – people who see the world differently than you do.
  5. Reach outside the binary, especially when media don’t. Most significant issues have more than two sides, or they have two dominant sides each with a variety of important nuances. Guide students to think about why media – especially news media – so often present issues as two-sided.
  6. Remember that the goal is not for teachers to ask questions that they train students to answer. It’s about teaching students to ask sophisticated questions for themselves and to have them incorporate those questions into their routine processing of the media world (what NAMLE calls “habits of inquiry”).
  7. Ask questions about all media, not just the ones you don’t like. If you don’t, students may come to believe that you have an agenda that you’re trying to impose on them, and they’ll stop listening.
  8. Ask reflection and analysis questions about the media we make, not just media that others have created. That includes media we make for personal purposes, like a Facebook page or Snapchat post.
  9. Make implicit power relationships explicit. “Whose voices are privileged and whose are absent?” could be an excellent starting question. Follow-up with “Who benefits from privileging or silencing the voices you’ve identified?”
  10. Help students identify the origins of their ideas. Even the youngest children come to you with preconceived ideas about their world. If they get in the habit of identifying sources, they can learn to evaluate the quality and validity of those sources.

I don’t use a backpack much anymore, but I still have that Question Authority button, it is still pinned upside-down, and I still cherish its message. These days I also appreciate that my ability to question authority in public is a product of white privilege and living in a democracy, however flawed.  I hope that others will take delight in thinking for themselves as much as I do; it nourishes creativity and keeps democracy messy and strong.

You’ll find a deeper discussion of these ideas in The Teacher’s Guide to Media Literacy: Critical Thinking in a Multimedia World (Scheibe and Rogow, 2012)

May be reprinted for educational, non-profit use with the credit:  From the edublog “TUNE IN Next Time” by Faith Rogow, Ph.D., InsightersEducation.com 2016

When Did Names Lose Their Meaning?

I blame it on professional sports. I love it when team names are tied to their city’s identity, like the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Ottawa Senators. But when franchises are sold and moved without changing the team name, fans are often left with oxymoronic appellations like the Los Angeles Lakers (originally the Minnesota Lakers, Minnesota being the “land of a thousand lakes”). L.A. and lakes? Really? Or how about the Utah (nee New Orleans) Jazz?

The thing is, we depend on names to convey meaning, and the more they cease to do that, the more alienated we are from our surroundings and communities.

To be fair, the problem isn’t just sports teams. Businesses were once reliably named for company founders (think Sears or Nordstrom) or products (General Motors, International Business Machines, or American Tobacco). But in a world dominated by branding, it’s common for company names to be eminently brand-able nonsense words that convey no meaningful information whatsoever. Can you identify what companies like Altria, Syngenta, Xcerra, or Novartis do?

Even our civic space has succumbed. Street names once dependably identified residents or location, so River Road was the street that ran alongside the river and Smith Crossing took you over the creek to the Smith family farm. Today, real estate developers (often with no community ties) invent subdivision street names devoid of any real meaning. They attach idyllic-sounding suffixes like “dale,” “wood,” “brook,” or “field” to places that have no valleys, forests, small streams, or open landscapes, geology be damned. We end up with things like a neighborhood in the desert city of Las Vegas featuring streets designated as Ocean Terrace Way and Ocean Front Drive.  It’s branding run amuck.

ocean-drThere has always been reason to ask questions about things like street names. If you live in an older city, chances are that most street names honor the lives or interests of the wealthy white men who controlled the city’s development. That should prompt us to ask, “Whose history is omitted?” Such questions produce important insights and occasionally, really fun things, like the New York City subway map with the stops renamed for accomplished local women that is included writer/activist Rebecca Solnit’s atlas of NYC.

Now that names are more and more about branding, and more public venues (like stadiums) sell naming rights, asking questions about “authorship,” purposes, and effects is even more important. Next time you roam your community, tune in to the names on the streets, parks, buildings, businesses, schools, and stadiums. Who named them? Why did they choose that name? Do the names reflect anything authentic about your community’s history or character?  And what is the effect on the people who live there if they don’t?

Arguably one of the most interesting questions is asking whether or not a name is or has been contested? For example, just this month, UNESCO was widely criticized because, in an affront to  thousands of years of history, they passed a resolution that seemingly erased all Jewish ties to the religion’s holiest site, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. How? By intentionally referring to the site using only the Muslim name, Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharif.

It’s not just a matter of language, e.g., using English versus Arabic. Names are used to either reveal or re-write history, reinforce or challenge cultural hegemony. Consider, for example, ongoing disputes over the way the U.S. Park Service identifies a popular Wyoming national monument. Maps and signs currently use “Devils Tower,” even though that name is widely recognized as a mistake made by a U.S. Army colonel in 1875 when his interpreter mistranslated what locals were saying. Attempts by the Sioux and other tribes to correct the error and communicate their sacred relationship to the striking rock formation have faced considerable resistance by local political leaders. Efforts to officially change the name to “Bear Lodge” have failed. The public explanation for rejecting the request is that officials don’t want to waste the time and money spent on a marketing campaign designed to attract tourists to Devils Tower. So branding trumps an opportunity for accuracy, and perhaps a modicum of reconciliation. Hmmm.

Media typically render naming disputes invisible. My own town – Ithaca, NY – is a case in point. In 2006, in response to an initiative by people pursuing social and racial justice, the city voted to add Martin Luther King, Jr. Street as second name to State Street. Yet, Google maps still labels the thoroughfare only as State Street. This is not an entirely outrageous choice. The road has been called State Street for more than a century, and out of habit, many locals still use only that designation. But the result of the choice is that newcomers would never know there is a street in Ithaca named after MLK.

When journalists cover stories involving disputed names, they face even more difficult choices about which terms to use. Should they stick with the status quo? Use multiple names even if it means unwieldy prose? Use a newer name even if it may not yet be in common use? More importantly, once writers have made their choice, do they ever acknowledge that they’ve chosen a side, or do they leave readers/listeners/viewers inadvertently ill-informed because the absence of explanation conveys the false impression that there is no controversy? I wonder what would happen if (at least in online sources) reporters helped the public tune in by hyperlinking disputed names to background on the controversy and the criteria they used to choose terms?

No matter what journalists choose to do, we can tune in to news coverage of communities or conflicts by asking, What role do names play and what do they tell us about purpose, identity, and power? Which names do journalists use and what do their choices tell us about their perspectives and policies? Because, as it turns out, in spite of pervasive branding, names still do have meaning.

May be reprinted for educational, non-profit use with the credit:  From the edublog “TUNE IN Next Time” by Faith Rogow, Ph.D., InsightersEducation.com 2016