Media Non-Literacy and Representational Authoritarianism

Following some links from a discussion of the visual imagery in some computer games, I ended up at the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, as well as a short BBC news item on the study.

I’m going to leave aside the side of the task force concerned with documenting the effects and extent of such sexualization, save to say that I have the same skepticism about those arguments that I have about most “media effects” claims. Such claims are habitually reductionist in their understanding of how expressive culture is interpreted, used and productive of consciousness. They’re almost always slippery in the way they infer the scale or size of the effects observed from laboratory or survey contexts that do not scale at all well to the complexity of the overall social world, and also ignore contradictory trends at the overall level that shouldn’t be possible. (In this case, for example, the report argues that sexualization in media is at an all-time high and argues that this makes women less able to self-actualize and pursue professional and aspirational goals, but shouldn’t that lead us to look for the steady retreat of women from professional or working life?) Such studies are also largely uninterested in the complexities of the longer-term history of the images and effects they describe: they’re hopelessly presentist, envisioning a state of crisis which is uniquely aggravated at this exact moment in time.

It’s the other side of the argument that gets my goat more this time: the proposed solutions. All the stuff about teaching girls to value themselves for who they are and all that is great, fine, valid. It’s also been around for a long time, is well-distributed in a variety of well-meaning media contexts as well as a lot of educational and institutional settings. Like all ABC Afterschool Special messages, it has less meaning as a maxim and more meaning if it’s just a quietly lived and demonstrated philosophy. In fact, I suspect such well-meaning ethical propositions become less and less effective the more we attempt to teach them as external dicta.

What bugs me more is the suborning of the concept of “media literacy” to the delivery of a single dogmatic reading of media images. A media-literate person, man or woman, should be able to look at a representation and understand its hermeneutical, historical, contextual complexity, to decode its power, and even to playfully defenestrate or reimagine the image in question. And that kind of literacy is not a simple function of education, something that’s best left for the Right Kind of People. That’s what I usually hear back from media-effects critics when I say, “But some people can look at what you term a ‘sexualized image’ and see it in many ways, or be unaffected by it, or reuse it”. What they’ll always reply is, “That might be true in the household of the Right Kind of People, but we’re worried about what those images are doing to the proles”. Media literacy is about about means, not ends. It’s about a toolkit. What people build with it is up to them.

Eileen Zurbriggen, one of the Task Force members, is quoted as saying in the press release, that “we need to replace all of these sexualized images with ones showing girls in positive settings—ones that show the uniqueness and competence of girls”. We need to replace. There’s so much wrong with that simple sentence. It’s just not how culture works, whether we’re talking about a premodern agrarian village or contemporary global popular culture. You don’t go out and just say, “We need to get rid of all the bad images and make a lot of good ones instead”, whether you’re the United States government trying to promote liberal democracy or the APA Task Force trying to go after sexualized images. Expressive culture is path-dependent, an organic product of history. It doesn’t turn on a dime. The APA is, as most modern professional institutions as well as governments are wont to do, speaking a top-down language about a quintessentially bottom-up problem. You want a different culture than what you got? Make it, don’t call for it. And make it so it sells, so it comes out of what has already been rather than out of some idealized conception or antiseptic utopian alternative to what has already been. Cultural consumption as Heroic Duty works when you’ve got a gulag and some commissars, but in the here and now it’s just a way to pave the way towards being a target on the next season of South Park.

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3 Responses to Media Non-Literacy and Representational Authoritarianism

  1. Jmayhew says:

    I had a similar reaction to that BBC story. I kept waiting for them to offer up some evidence of harm, but the story ended with a mere reiteration of the fact that these images are out there. There is no description of the mechanism by which the actual harm is supposed to occur. It’s supposed to be self-evident from the presence of certain images in the mass media.

    It’s not that I believe or know the images to be innocuous either. I just want more of an argument, less of a simplistic assertion.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    If you read the Task Force report, it does in fact cite a number of studies by psychologists. I would want to read them before making any serious judgement, but I would be very surprised if they did not have the same methodological problems that I see through most of the “media effects” literature, which makes very bold pronouncements from very limited kinds of data.

  3. Western Dave says:

    As a teacher at a girls school, we get a lot of this stuff thrown at us. Here is what I thought was an interesting correlation. Girls at girls school tend to stayin the culture of middlebrow girldom longer than similar girls at co-ed schools. Examples of this include things like knowing all the lyrics to Broadway musicals past and present, choosing American Girl Dolls vs. Bratz, not listening to Top 40 radio and so on. Girls who go to girls schools are also statistically more likely to have their first sexual experience later, less likely to do illegal drugs (and if they do try them later), more likely to have their first consumption of alcohol later and so on. Now, I realize there is a cause and effect problem here. Parents that choose girls schools are probably very vested in not letting their kids have Bratz dolls, pointing out how awful they are on tv and so forth. I know any parent that allowed her kid to bring a Bratz doll to the daycare my children attend would get a stern talking to from the director and nasty, nasties from the other parents (including me).
    One downside to girls schools. The girls are statistically more likley to have eating disorders although that may change as we do a better job of parent education on the subject. To wit, it is not appropriate to discuss the diet you are on or your reasons for being on it with your 6 year old. Yes, it is ok to have candy or cupcakes for in-school birthdays, etc..

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