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Survivor Skills: Authenticity, Representation and Why I Want to Teach Reality TV

May Friedman
Ryerson University
Toronto, Ontario, Canada



This paper will consider the pedagogical potential in constructing a class on the phenomenon of reality television by exploring the possibilities and pitfalls of a shared viewing of these “texts” as a site of critical engagement with popular culture. A course on reality TV would require a deep analysis of the topics of representation, authenticity, and audience reactions. The course I would like to teach would also consider the ways that reality TV is simultaneously emblematic of, and contributes to, the foregrounding of neo-liberal discourses. This paper addresses some of the pedagogical implications of an analysis of reality TV by considering the above themes in greater detail.

I see the creation of a post-secondary class on reality TV as pedagogically radical in both form and content, as a site where new ideas can be applied to shifting and unstable terrain. In challenging the primacy of high culture as the only worthy area of analysis, in viewing one of the most debased forms of popular culture as academically rich, I hope to help my undergraduate students build bridges between what they think about in school and what they do at home. I see such a class as an exciting explosion of the binaries of high and low culture, public and private space, and truth and fiction.


Reality Television, Engaged Pedagogy, Popular Culture, Representation, Authenticity, Neoliberalism, Social Work, Critical Discourse Analysis


As an avid consumer of popular culture and a teacher of critical social work, I am always on the lookout for how these two domains overlap. Yet the overlaps should, in fact, be fairly obvious. In teaching my students how to “do” social work, I do my best to help them deconstruct their lives and their worlds. Yet one of the single biggest impacts on the public imaginary of my students, popular culture, is often curiously absent from social work education. An examination of popular culture gives a particular lens to understanding the specific interests and structural factors that aid in the creation of their surroundings. As always, however, the pedagogical lesson begins with personal moments and experiences.

Many years ago I went to school to achieve a Master’s in Social Work. Our cohort, like many before us, bonded through the frustrations of graduate school and the often-difficult emotional work of confronting our own biases and specific life circumstances in order to become qualified and self-reflexive social work practitioners. We found a unique way of blowing off steam at the end of the day. While we heard that the law students would gather round the TV to watch Law and Order and assumed that the med and nursing school pupils had a weekly date to watch ER, the social work students in my cohort would group together to witness a strange new phenomenon: reality TV, in particular the spectacle of the show Survivor. In watching the specific interpersonal challenges of groups of people uniquely selected for their capacity to engender conflict and be subjected to contrived situations of privation and stress, we laughed, analyzed, and shouted at the TV every Thursday night.

When I look back at that period of my life, there are tangible lessons I can remember from being in the classroom and powerful insights I can draw from my experiences in the field. At the same time, I recall less specific moments of learning that resonated with me and that changed my approach in both my private and professional life. Those Thursday nights have stayed in my memory as a particular way that my fellow students and I could take our formal learning and apply it to an analysis of popular culture, specifically to reality television. Our watching allowed us to simultaneously assess the same artifact and learn, to our alarm and delight, that we were often experiencing the “same” moments very differently. It allowed us to discuss human emotions and stressors very specifically in ways that our student placements—each at different agencies, and bound by both laws and ethical constraints of confidentiality—could not. Yet our analysis went further: those Thursday night goof-off sessions allowed us to see dominant discourses of racism and whiteness, of gender and sexuality, and of the ways that stereotypes are easily embedded in neo-liberal notions of individual agency. Those Thursdays remain an example of some of the most critical and delightful learning I have undergone. As I grow as an educator, and as I now observe my own students in social work classrooms and field placements, I wonder if there is a way to harness the magical critique of those early heady days of reality TV and apply them to the glut of reality television that has followed since the millennial days when Survivor was a strange and new media artifact.

My analysis of reality TV as a teaching tool thus draws from my own experiences as a student and educator, but it is disingenuous to suggest that my desire to bring this aspect of popular culture into the classroom is borne exclusively of thoughtful pedagogical analysis. Rather, my leisure time continues to be spent in part as a viewer of reality television in many different forms and contexts. On the one hand, my love of reality TV is my dirty little secret, the low culture hiding in my web browser’s history, silently standing alongside the scholarly texts that grace my bookshelf. On the other hand, I continue to observe the ways that viewing reality TV hones my critical lens, allowing me to consider the dominant discourses that shape my world as well as the commerce that foregrounds certain discourses while muting others. It gives me an entry, albeit one that is heavily mediated, into worlds that I could not otherwise see. Reality TV, like my other passions – memoir and blogs – gives me access to raw emotion and takes me beyond my own neighborhood and experiences. I have found that reality TV provides me with tremendous opportunities to apply the analyses contained in those scholarly tomes, to apply the critical theories that I hold so dear.

This paper will consider the pedagogical potential in constructing a class on the popular culture phenomenon of reality TV, suggesting that “reality shows can be seen as significant cultural objects whose production and consumption reflect and reveal norms and ideologies of contemporary culture” (Montemurro 84). I will explore the possibilities – and some pitfalls – of a shared viewing of these “texts” as a site of critical engagement with popular culture. To argue that reality TV provides a useful site of theoretical analysis, however, requires an examination of some of the key themes. A course on reality TV would require a deep analysis of the topics of representation, authenticity, and audience reactions. Finally, the course I would like to teach would consider the ways that reality TV is simultaneously emblematic of, and contributes to, the foregrounding of neo-liberal discourses. This paper addresses some of the pedagogical implications of an analysis of reality TV by considering the above themes in greater detail.


Even a facile engagement with reality TV elicits discussion about issues of representation. If reality TV is meant to showcase reality, I would like my students to consider whose reality is being put forth and through which epistemology such a reality is constructed. Reality TV obviously perpetuates stereotypes and still skews toward the same normative tropes that exist in other sites of popular culture but, alarmingly, it does so under the guise of presenting the truth. Williams suggests that “the line between news and entertainment, documentary and reality TV is constantly blurred and shifting” (550). For many viewers, the clearly mediated “truths” of reality TV may provide as much information about communities and systems as more traditional news media and other expert discourses. For example, Morris and McInerney suggest that seventy-two percent of survey respondents who were pregnant for the first time saw popular pregnancy and delivery shows such as A Baby Story and Birth Day as important sources of information (134). As the authors go on to show in detail, these shows present a great deal of misinformation and may perpetuate myths about pregnancy and childbirth.

Likewise, dating shows such as The Bachelor and The Bachelorette suggest that fairy tale love is largely restricted to white middle-class couples (Dubrofsky and Hardy); Montemurro shows that, “among the women contestants, whiteness was privileged and racial others were either exoticized or assimilated, depending on what seemed to best serve the storyline” (96). Reality shows that center on tropes of personal transformation, such as The Swan, deliberately seek less normative participants at the outset but with the explicit motive of achieving normativity as the desired outcome. As Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer note:

Plastic surgery shows often select as their subjects a “certain class” of woman, which translates frequently into working-class women. The selection of working-class subjects contributes to the seemingly inexhaustible ideology of the American dream where those of a lower socio-economic class can succeed at becoming middle-class subjects, and the media audience participates in this transformation by tuning in to watch. (266)

This affiliation may be particularly keen for viewers who do not see themselves reflected elsewhere in popular culture. Skeggs and Wood suggest that working-class viewers may find the unpretentiousness of participants “like them” appealing in the absence of many other sites of representation (“Labour of Transformation” 567). Finally, popular “game-docs” such as Survivor and Big Brother purport to pick diverse contestants but generally only manage to achieve “overplayed typecasting … with their ever present Gay Man, Wild Woman, Single Mom, Yuppie, Everybody’s Friend, Redneck, Slacker, Victim …” (Kerrigan 22).

Given the tenacity of both the stereotypical permissible diversities of much reality TV as well as the very explicit exclusions on many shows, how can these shows serve as a useful pedagogical tool? Leaving aside for the moment issues of authenticity, how can the deliberate selection of specific bodies over others, the deliberate creation, through editing, of specific “characters” associated with stereotypes, provide a launching point for analysis in the classroom? Is there anything to say about reality TV beyond a critique of its obvious limitations?

Using reality TV allows students to consider that “television talk is always a part of the broader conversational culture” (Aslama and Pantti, “Flagging Finnishness” 62). While it is certainly alarming to consider the implications of paternalistic shows such as A Baby Story standing in for empowered feminist obstetric knowledge, these shows did not single-handedly create the culture they reflect. Rather, expert-driven and reductionist approaches to information (about childbirth and beyond) are the norm. By amplifying some of the tropes of dominant discourses into sensationalized formats, reality TV may provide a point of entry for students to consider the failings of representation more broadly. As a result, they may develop a critical lens that extends beyond their analysis of these leisure-time shows toward sites that are more concretely presented as truth: an analysis of reality TV may engender a degree of skepticism about reality. Likewise, an analysis of who is missing from many of these shows may allow for a conversation to develop about which bodies are rendered invisible in the public sphere, or only visible in particularly virulent and narrow ways. For example, an analysis of The Biggest Loser may allow students to embark upon a more ambitious conversation about size acceptance and the scope of both the ignoring of fat bodies and the ways they can only be seen in the context of transformation (Cooper 35; Murray 155).

If there are lessons to be learned by an examination of the specificity with which particular bodies are represented, there is also pedagogical value in an analysis of people who are presented as simultaneously ordinary and bizarre. The subtype of reality TV shows that purport to provide a documentary lens on ordinary, unusual people has gained great traction over the last decade and provides a paradoxical story. On the one hand, people like JimBob and Michelle Dugger, with their nineteen children (and counting!), “little people” Matt and Amy Roloff and their family, or Alana “Honey BooBoo” Thompson are presented as people “just like us,” suggesting that difference is illusory or only in the eye of the beholder. At the same time, such shows present a latter-day freak show wherein audiences eagerly consume the mundane details of non-normative lives. Andrejevic’s assertion that, “by democratizing celebrity, such programs help reinforce the notion that a surveillance-based society can overcome the hierarchies of mass society” (“The Kinder, Gentler Gaze” 253) resonates here in its presumption that, by learning about difference, we may lose sight of our limitations and biases. Thus, an examination of the ways that non-normativity is specifically taken up in reality TV in deliberate ways may be productive for students grappling with both the limitations of their own experiences of difference and their own titillation by the gentle sensationalizing that occurs in these shows.

Reality TV may be taken up as a useful site of analysis on the basis of race, and significant scholarship has considered the ways that reality TV continues to maintain a commonsense and unyielding whiteness. Bell-Jordan suggests that “race continues to be constructed in superficial, reductive, and often hegemonic ways—and this process has increasingly come to define the genre” (369), while Dubrofsky and Hardy argue that these shows are “recentering Whiteness without calling explicit attention to this fact” (376). There is no question that the performance of race on reality TV is deeply flawed. In examining these flaws, however, many of the abiding archetypes of race (such as Hill Collins’s analysis of the Mammy, Jezebel and the Matriarch [69]) are so amplified that skeptical students may finally have a context in which to understand what many racialized students may have known, implicitly and explicitly in their bodies all along. It becomes harder to deny or minimize racism when its machinations are so explicitly exposed.

While an analysis of race reveals the dominant discourse of whiteness that invades nearly all reality TV, there is nonetheless a valuable lesson to be gained on the topic of agency and specificity in these shows. Shows that deliberately seek out ethnically or racially specific participants (such as Flavor of Love [Dubrofsky and Hardy], the Finnish show Extreme Escapades [Aslama and Pantti, “Flagging Finnishness”] or the Canadian version of The Bachelor) present their own deep flaws in maintaining stereotypical tropes about the populations they present. At the same time, an analysis of the specifics of these sites opens conversations about insider and outsider presentations, nationalism and globalization, and the ways that the colonizing influence of reality TV is nonetheless mediated through the specifics of particular populations. Dubrofsky and Hardy highlight this by examining the ways that participants on Flavor of Love were held to a very different standard than participants on the “mainstream” romance show The Bachelor, arguing that while The Bachelor was centered on hegemonic and unselfconscious whiteness, Flavor of Love promoted an almost ironic hyper-performance of Blackness. While maintaining an awareness of the limitations of these performances, students may benefit from delving into a more nuanced analysis of dominant discourse and reality TV that complicates a discussion of representation and thus interrupts the idea that all non-normative performers are naïve dupes. Likewise, an analysis of sexual and gender orientations and disability could be usefully undertaken by considering both the agency of particular actors/subjects and the constraints within which such performances occur.


Despite the generic moniker of “reality” in reality TV, at this stage of its development, it is arguable that few viewers would perceive such offerings as genuinely presenting reality. Indeed, as the prior analysis of representation suggests, much of the offering of reality TV is neatly packaged in response to concerns about production and commerce, leaving “reality” far, far behind. Yet such an analysis relies on positivist notions of reality and does not extend to a more nuanced analysis of authenticity and emotionality as key characteristics that are exemplified in reality TV. As Kavka argues, “reality TV relishes contradictions. It shamelessly mixes the generic attributes of fact and fiction” (179). In so doing, a collective analysis of reality TV begs interesting questions about truth, fiction, performance, and our own assertions of what constitutes the real.

For example, one assumes that critical viewers might see the lives portrayed on MTV’s 16 and Pregnant or Teen Mom as inaccurate and heavy-handed representations of the lives of young mothers and the particularities of their experiences (for example, see Guglielmo). While we are critical of the ways that young motherhood is packaged on these shows, we may nonetheless see through the moralizing discourses to view the real structural challenges experienced by younger mothers. Furthermore, the capacity to unpack the grey area between fact and fiction in a classroom context takes postmodernist and poststructuralist concepts of truth out of the realm of inaccessible theory and instead asks students to consider which truth they would accept as authentic, which story they would deem an adequate representation. In this context, the course might usefully be bolstered by contrasting viewings of documentary films (including those with a reality bent, such as the 7-Up series) and considering the limitations of subjectivity.

Fundamentally, such an analysis allows students to call their own performances into question. If, as Dubrofsky and Hardy argue, “participants on reality TV shows perform for the camera, either unwittingly or explicitly, just as people perform in their daily lives to suit the imperatives of a given situation” (375), a shared viewing of reality TV guided by critical pedagogy would allow students to tease out their own unwitting and/or explicit performances. This is of obvious value to me in teaching social work students who are not only grappling with more obvious sites of performance such as professionalism but also negotiating with the many performances (e.g., race, gender, and ability) that may be beyond their control. Thus, while students may begin their analysis by taking for granted reality TV as inauthentic, our shared viewing may evolve into a more nuanced reckoning with the notion of authenticity itself. This follows Kavka’s assertion that “discursively, reality TV makes claims about ordinariness, authenticity and the social value of accessing private lives” (179).

If reality TV can be seen as an obvious contrivance of fact, what are we to make, as viewers, of the presentation of emotion on these shows? Can the rage, heartbreak, and passion presented in this context yield further lessons about authenticity of emotion, even as the machinations of editing and production suggest that such raw emotions are slickly incorporated into a discrete message? Skeggs and Wood suggest that “[w]hilst the staging of events on ‘reality’ television complicates any ontological claim to the ‘real,’ it can make a claim to the ‘actual’—the camera tells us this ‘actually’ happened as a response to an unscripted, if contrived, actual situation” (“Labour of Transformation” 559). Kavka extends this in arguing that “authenticity is confirmed by the … emotional intensity of the participants’ interactions” (181). In this respect, reality TV presents an interesting blurring of the public and private in presenting emotions (and, indeed, seeking out these high emotions through inevitably “shocking” twists and turns) that were, prior to the rise of this genre, largely inaccessible in the realm of mass media. Aslama and Pantti suggest that reality TV has resurrected the theatrical monologue, in which a lone character shares her or his thoughts with the audience privately (“Talking Alone” 178). At the same time, they note the inherent contradiction in this style of conversation: “The paradox of an individualized society is that while one is talking alone about one’s deepest emotions, at the same time one is selling one’s authenticity to viewers” (“Talking Alone” 181). Skeggs and Wood argue that this blurring of the public and private has implications for an analysis of traditional gender roles, suggesting that “‘[r]eality’ television, by sensationalizing women’s domestic labour and emotional management of relationships, displays the new ways in which capital extends into the ‘private,’ in which capital is engaged in the socialization of affective capacities ” (“Labour of Transformation” 560) and that “[t]he space and practice of intimacy becomes like other social goods and exchange-values that are socially distributed and allocated” (562).

Students may benefit from having to grapple with both their own reactions to the strong emotions foregrounded in the viewing and with the ways that particular emotions are routinely assigned to particular bodies. Both Pozner and Dubrofsky and Hardy suggest that the aggressive and larger-than-life personalities often assigned to racialized bodies may lead to the inability of such participants enjoying any longevity on such shows. Referring to a feisty racialized contestant on the show Road Rules, Andrejevic and Colby argue that “the reason she had to leave was the reason for her being recruited to the show in the first place” (207). In other words, stereotypical racially or culturally ascribed characteristics may bring often-ignored bodies to the fore, but they do so at the price of maintaining stereotypes and cultural misunderstanding. As Aslama and Pantti suggest, “This dilemma of managed and unmanaged feelings can be seen at the core of reality television. However without doubt it also celebrates the loss of emotional control, emotional conflicts and the very emotions that are considered inappropriate in society at large” (“Talking Alone” 171). Arguably, the explicit portrayal of emotion is rarely available for analysis in the classroom, positioned as an unemotional and academic milieu. Yet it is also arguable that viewing a variety of strong emotions, perhaps particularly those that are garnered through contrivance and intersected with dominant discourses of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, age, and so on, is of great academic interest. Certainly, such an analysis would allow our classrooms to evolve beyond a vague analysis of, for example, how service workers may behave, to a tangible discussion of the limits of what we feel comfortable accepting and why. This exercise would remind us that “television participants and audiences are located within extended ‘circuits of value,’ helping us to see why it is that vitriolic reactions ‘stick’ where they do, and why certain figures and bodies are loaded with more invective than others” (Skeggs and Wood, Reacting to Reality Television 9). These moments may tease out our students’ (and our own) deeply held notions of where lines rest between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in both public and private contexts in meaningful and dramatic ways.

Critical Discourse Analysis and the Impact of Audience

Students may benefit from examining reality TV as a microcosm of broader cultural discourses. An examination of reality television programming, however, may also expand students’ capacity to undertake discourse analyses. While the underlying goal of critical and transformative pedagogy is always the growth of strong analytical skills, the specific practice of closely examining elements of discourse may sometimes be given only brief space in methodology courses. As a result, students may view their critical research skills as distinct from their capacity to critically engage with their surroundings. By creating a classroom that can act as a discourse analysis laboratory, students could be encouraged, through both teaching and assignments, to formalize their critical analytic skills. To achieve its transformative potential, however, such a class would need to move toward critical discourse analysis (CDA), which considers both the broader political contexts in which discourses are created and offered and the power relationships between discourse and people’s lived experiences: it is, van Dijk argues, “discourse analysis, ‘with an attitude’” (96). Furthermore, a true reckoning with critical discourse analysis would empower students to truly consider the ways that discourse is dialogically undertaken. Instead of solely poring over transcripts of programs, thus reducing television to a flat medium, students would be encouraged to consider the implications of audience and the ways that audience reactions are mediated across time and space, and through axes of difference.

There are a number of pedagogical implications in pulling back the camera further and allowing for an analysis of audience and reception. While students, particularly those in critically reflexive disciplines such as women’s studies and social work may be familiar with the exercise of implicating themselves in the consumption of media and discourse, a class on reality TV would take the contrivances of this genre and explore the peculiar alchemy that occurs between the producer’s intention and the audience’s reaction. Montemurro suggests that “[g]iven the popularity of reality television … the study of how these programs are consumed is essential” (98), yet it may be tempting to begin an analysis of these programs, as indeed, I have done, based on what “they” “say” or, at most, how we, as individuals, react. As an alternative, a course on reality TV would allow students to explore the dynamism between objects of cultural production and their consumption, to consider how “viewers make sense of these shows” (Williams 541). An exploration of intertextuality would consider the ways that individuals encounter culture, suggesting that “when individuals encounter media texts, rather than comprehending them in isolation, they position these representations in relation to other texts and cultural knowledge” (Williams 543). This would be well accomplished through access to scholarly texts that increasingly consider the implications of audience reaction (for example, Skeggs and Wood, “Labour of Transformation” and Skeggs and Wood, Reacting to Reality Television) but also through the tangible exercise of viewing cultural products in the classroom. As students grapple with the nuances of unique programs, the surface themes of representation and authenticity within these programs become complicated, and the deviations between the different ways the programs are offered and experienced may emerge. Skeggs and Wood discerned such differences in their analyses of focus groups of viewers grouped by distinctions of class and ethnicity. Their work suggests that television provides unique opportunities for interactive analyses, “demonstrat[ing] a complex interaction between television texts and subjectivity which was more dynamic than the relationship implied through the analogy of text-reader relations” (“Labour of Transformation” 562). By analyzing interactions together in the classroom, we may evolve beyond generalized discussions to a more targeted analysis of specific moments that may encourage reflexivity on the basis of populations, rather than merely individuals. At the same time, Skeggs and Wood caution us to ensure that an analysis of audience does not devolve into an undermining of the real concerns about oppressive representations within reality TV. They argue that “a great deal more serious attention needs paying to exactly how reality television works not only with audiences but with evaluating personhood more generally” (Reacting to Reality Television 233). By engaging in a politically accountable response of the complications of reality TV and the ways in which this genre interacts with systems of capitalism, judgment, and personal value, students may begin to explore the strengths of a critically discursive methodology and the implications of audience and reception.


If, as Kavka asserts, “reality TV is a genre in flux” (182), is there truly value in constructing an academic context for its consumption and analysis? Is such a course merely a means of pandering to students by allowing entertainment to masquerade as education? Ironically, such an argument betrays some of the same political ideologies as reality television itself, suggesting that educational models should emphasize measurability, empirical knowledge, and individual hard work over sites of non-standard, messy, and (heaven forbid!) enjoyable learning. The same ideology that presents a wearying slog as the only valuable form of education is likewise amply exposed in much reality TV: the ascendant and inexorable tropes of neo-liberalism.

The problematic representations explored above are of concern not only because of their overreliance on stereotypical notions of difference but also because they maintain the expectations that communities are, fundamentally, merely groups of individuals “surviving” for individual gain. The laughably popular insistence of reality TV participants that they do not join programs “to make friends” ensures that any collegiality is overlooked in favor of a race to the fittest. Deery surmises that commerce underpins this foregrounding of solo struggle, suggesting that “an individualistic Darwinian struggle produces better drama—and therefore higher ratings and therefore more revenue—than, say, utopian harmony and cooperation” (12). I would suggest, however, that the foregrounding of capital as the primary motivator is itself a value of neo-liberalism. In the world of reality TV, production is pursued to a means of maximum capital, but likewise, in the context of popular “game-docs” such as Survivor and The Amazing Race, monetary reward is what engenders the suspense and narrative push that allows for high ratings (and thus corporate financial gain). This capital spiral rests on another powerful “truth” of neo-liberalism—the notion of a level playing field: “These programs are a retelling, in other words, of the American dream wherein any individual can make it big—which usually translates as rich—never mind their initial circumstances. In tune with this ideology, we notice that these shows assiduously avoid raising any larger sociopolitical issues and instead focus on the personal and individual” (Couldry 13).

Beyond the level playing field, neo-liberalism emphasizes what Skeggs and Wood identify in reality TV contexts as a spirit of indefatigability (“Labour of Transformation” 565). Not only will hard work yield individual reward but also individuals will be praised for the hard work of endlessly aspiring toward the mean, thus negating any critical politics of difference. Pozner identifies this trend in America’s Next Top Model in which the narrow beauty myths used to evaluate participants provide limited and inconsequential responses to ethnic and racial diversity (196). Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer, in looking at makeover shows, expose a more explicit race toward normativity: “… using a reframed rhetoric of individual choice, technological transformation, and celebration of the body, the individual women featured claim to be freeing themselves of their earlier lives. In fact, what is happening is a more intense policing of the body, a body that is ever more docile as it is literally reshaped according to a set of dominant norms” (263).

While an exploration of the prevalence of neo-liberal themes in reality TV is beyond the scope of this article (and has been well undertaken by Couldry), a viewing of reality TV as an accessible site of exposure of these themes is of great pedagogical importance. By positioning the problematics of representation and authenticity within an analysis of neo-liberalism, students may be challenged to unpack difficult ideologies that inform their lives and social contexts. The rhetorics of neo-liberalism have become so commonplace that they can be as difficult to expose as the air we breathe; arguably, this may be heightened for students in institutions of higher learning that may be even more steeped in neo-liberalism’s mores than the society at large. An examination of reality television thus allows students to begin to view the overarching framework that governs the discursive structures informing everyday life. In other words: though I talk about neo-liberalism and I teach about neo-liberalism, an examination of reality television allows me to stand before my students and say “That is neo-liberalism,” not in the context of the difficult-to-understand welfare state or in the realm of social policy, but in the framework of the “mindless” indulgence of last night’s viewing.

While a pedagogical analysis of reality TV may meet students “where they are at” and encourage the development of a critical lens that extends even to leisure activities, I concur with Pozner who suggests that, “… becoming critical media consumers isn’t enough. We can’t afford to see media literacy as the means to an intellectual end. Instead, let’s use it to prepare us to take on Goliath .… Structural changes are needed to achieve the creative, diverse, challenging media we all deserve, and we’re going to have to fight for such shifts” (325–26). Pozner follows her argument with a list of tangible suggestions for how to respond to the limitations and discriminations present in much reality TV. She also actively encourages the practice of culture jamming, in which a reclamation of primary discourses of entertainment and information is taken up as a form of activism. I see the provision of a course on reality TV as a fun way of being deeply critical, of holding up a magnifying glass to one’s distorted reflection of the broader society, while at the same time holding ourselves accountable for what we see. I would love to see students take up a critical autoethnography of their engagement with reality TV, such as that undertaken by Boylorn, as a final assignment, and would love, in provoking students toward Pozner’s suggestions for culture jamming as transformative change, to “jam” both culture and academy. I see the creation of a class like this as pedagogically radical in both form and content, as a site where new ideas can be applied to shifting and unstable terrain. In challenging the primacy of high culture as the only worthy area of analysis, in viewing one of the most debased forms of popular culture as academically rich, I hope to help my students build bridges between what they think about in school and what they do at home. I see such a class as an exciting explosion of the binaries of high and low culture, public and private space, and truth and fiction.


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—-. Reacting to Reality Television: Performance, Audience and Value. London: Routledge, 2012. Print.

van Dijk, Teun A. “Multidisciplinary CDA: A Plea for Diversity.” Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis. Eds. Ruth Wodak and Michael Meyer. London: Sage, 2001. 95–120. Print.

Williams, Johnny E. “Sustaining Power through Reality TV Discourse.” Critical Sociology 32.2–3 (2006): 541–55. Web. 11 Jan. 2013.



May Friedman lives and works in downtown Toronto. A faculty member in Social Work and Communication and Culture at Ryerson University, May looks at the intersections of non-normative identities, especially in relation to popular culture. Much of May’s research focuses on maternity, inspired in part by her three children.

Social Media:

Twitter: @drtiredmama

Reference Citation:

Friedman, May. “Survivor Skills: Authenticity, Representation and Why I Want to Teach Reality TV. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 2.1 (2014). Web and Print.

Friedman, M. (2014). Survivor skills: Authenticity, representation and why I want to teach reality TV. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2(1).

“Can you imagine, a real, live Indian right here in Walnut Grove?”: American Indians in Television Adaptations of Little House on the Prairie

Amy S. Fatzinger
University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona, USA



Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House novels have been adapted into two major television series:  Michael Landon’s well-known series, which aired from 1974-1983, and a more recent Disney adaptation, which aired as a miniseries in 2005. The premier movie, which preceded Landon’s series, and the Disney miniseries both focus on the events in Wilder’s 1935 novel, Little House on the Prairie, which covered the period from 1869-1871 during which the Ingalls family lived among the Osage in Kansas Indian Territory. Wilder’s portrayal of the Osage in her novel is controversial, but she does also include some literary devices that allow for a slightly more complex reading of the relationships between Native and non-Native settlers on the Kansas prairie. While adaptations of novels sometimes revise problematic or controversial content to better suit the perspectives of modern viewing audiences, the adaptations of Wilder’s novels alter the Native content in ways that do not move it beyond the realm of stereotypes. Both television adaptations present Native themes in ways that initially heighten the sense of fear associated with Native characters, then resolve the issues through happy endings and heavy-handed moral lessons that diminish the seriousness of the historic tensions between Native and non-Native residents of the frontier. The changes made to Native themes in the adaptations do, however, call attention to the challenges associated with adapting autobiographical and historical content and raise questions about how to prioritize more respectful portrayals of Native people when working with people’s life stories.



Little House on the Prairie, American Indian Studies, Pioneer Literature, Historical Fiction, Adaptation Studies, Television Studies


In Theory of Adaptation, Linda Hutcheon reminds readers that in Adaptation Studies it is necessary to push beyond the usual tendency of contrasting a film to its source text and listing ways that it inevitably falls short of or deviates from the text; rather, she argues, “multiple versions of a story in fact exist laterally, not vertically: adaptations are derived from, ripped off from, but are not derivative or second-rate” (169). The more familiar (and beloved) the source text, though, the more difficult it can be to resist the temptation to find adaptations only a diminished version of the original, and Hutcheon acknowledges that “part of both the pleasure and the frustration of experiencing an adaptation is the familiarity bred through repetition and memory” (21). Few source texts could be as familiar to, and evoke such strong memories for, a viewing audience as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House novels. As John Miller points out, the deep personal attachment readers feel toward Laura defies a logical explanation:

There are few American writers or historical figures who command the same sort of devotion and interest that Wilder does. People make pilgrimages to all of the historical sites associated with her. They read her books, not once or twice, but many times. Plausible explanations for her popularity can be suggested: the concrete, visual imagery contained in her books; her effective use of language; the simplicity of her moral vision; her emphasis on family values; nostalgia for frontier times; realization that these are basically true stories; and so forth. Still, the depth and continuity of Wilder’s appeal remain elusive. (Miller 24-5)

The personal attachments readers feel to Laura inadvertently ascribe a significant amount of power and authority to Wilder’s voice among both American and international readers. Her opinions, therefore, on subjects such as politics, women’s rights, Native issues and westward expansion of the American frontier are likely to influence her readers in both small and significant ways.

Despite the challenges of adapting stories beloved by generations of fans and the liberal deviations from the original stories, the Little House on the Prairie television series (aired from 1974 to 1983) acquired a fan base nearly as loyal as Wilder’s readers.  Although fans of Wilder’s novels may have appreciated visual adaptations which closely followed the texts, Julie Sanders suggests that there may be important reasons for adaptations to deliberately part ways with the source text, including opportunities to de-marginalize oppressed characters, more responsibly address cultural contexts, or make political statements (98, 140). A timeline of more than a century extends from the time that actual events in Wilder’s life occurred, were recorded in the novels, and were recreated visually in both the original television series and a later 2005 Disney miniseries. Such a far-reaching timespan alone suggests good reason for rethinking portrayals of controversial subjects such as Native characters and themes, which have earned the novels some considerable contemporary criticism in juxtaposition to their otherwise near mythic status. Logic would suggest that portrayals of Native characters in Wilder’s texts would be the least well-rounded and that such portrayals would steadily improve in more recent iterations of the story. Such is not the case, however. The Native characters and themes in adaptations of the Little House story often continue to rely on old stereotypes, such as the “savage” and “noble savage,”[1] and tend to be oversimplified and more didactic than in Wilder’s texts. Such lost opportunities for revising problematic content pertaining to Native people in contemporary adaptations raise larger questions about how such portrayals might be improved upon, particularly in complex situations involving biographical and historical content.

Overview of Native Content in Wilder’s (1935) Little House on the Prairie Novel

When Mary enthusiastically exclaims, “Can you imagine, a real, live Indian right here in Walnut Grove?” in a 1977 television episode of Little House on the Prairie (“Injun Kid”), it would seem that the Ingalls family’s attitudes toward Native people have evolved considerably since they first appeared in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1935 novel of the same name. In the novel, Wilder’s depictions of Native characters are often associated with negative imagery and fear; Laura’s sister, Mary, and their mother, were particularly terrified by even the prospect of encountering Native people. Fans and critics alike will recall times that Native people—most likely Osage men—visited the Ingalls home, nights the family stayed awake in terror as they listened to the “Indian jamboree” nearby, and Laura problematically longing for a papoose of her own—the epitome of non-Native appropriation of Native culture—as the Ingalls family watches the long line of Osage people file past their “little house.”

In the novel Little House on the Prairie, however, Wilder does also employ some literary devices that add some more complex dimensions to her portrayal of Osage people. First, she emphasizes repeatedly that the Ingalls family is intentionally going to “Indian Territory”—the region of the Midwest designated by Congress for Native people who were removed to the west from their eastern homelands—suggesting that they should have found the Osage presence there somewhat less surprising. At the end of the novel, it is the Ingalls family who must leave the area because the land still belongs to the Osage. Wilder also frequently juxtaposes Ma’s negative comments about Native people against Pa’s opinions which are usually more accepting and similarly juxtaposes scenes in which Native men steal from the Ingalls family with Native men who make neighborly social calls to the Ingalls home. Apparently visits from the Osage or other Native neighbors occurred with such frequency that Wilder stops describing them in detail but still emphasizes the various personalities of the Native people she saw: “Indians often came to the house. Some were friendly, some were surly and cross” (Wilder 275). Unlike many pioneer women on the frontier, however, Ma apparently never meets any of her female Native neighbors. Though even “a woman who headed westward with trepidation regarding Native Americans could, and often did, become sympathetic to those very Indians” (Riley 133) especially after meeting local Native women, Wilder does not describe any such opportunities for Ma. As a result, perhaps, Ma’s opinion of Native people remains static, and she serves a foil against which other characters’ perspectives on Native people can be juxtaposed.

In addition to reinforcing the idea that the Ingalls family had made its way deliberately into Indian Territory and juxtaposing at least some of negative or frightening portrayals of Native characters with more positive images, Wilder also takes several approaches which stand out as highly unusual in the context of women’s frontier literature, in both fiction and non-fiction genres. First, the plot of Little House on the Prairie is driven by the child protagonist’s desire to see Native people—particularly a papoose. In most frontier narratives of the time, female protagonists take a position more akin to Ma’s—a position characterized by an absolute terror of encountering Native people. While Ma’s position on Native people is justifiably problematic for contemporary readers who demand more respectful treatment of ethnic issues in literature, it does more or less accurately express the sentiments of many housewives who felt forced into journeying west with their husbands. In journals women recorded, sometimes sheepishly, their initial reactions to the Native people they met on the trail or on their homesteads. Women, and men, too, were so paranoid about seeing Native people that they often imagined them where none existed. Families on the trail were frequently frightened by members of their own traveling party, children, deer, stray dogs, cattle, escaped piglets, tumbleweeds, a colt, and owls, all of which were mistaken for Native people by frontier travelers on one or more occasions (Riley 101-8). In some cases, reactions to false alarms were so extreme that men shot and destroyed their goods, livestock, and companions because they momentarily believed them to be Native people (Riley 112).

Wilder’s decision to offset that all-too-familiar perspective with Pa’s generally more tolerant point of view, and Laura’s outright anticipation of meeting a Native person is most uncommon. But Wilder’s third unusual tactic pushes the issue even further. Wilder uses the voice of her protagonist to ask obvious but generally unspoken questions that ring throughout frontier literature. Laura first asks her mother why she does not like “Indians,” then follows up with her two most important questions, “This is Indian country, isn’t it? . . . What did we come to their country for if you don’t like them?” (Wilder 46-7). Ma has no satisfactory reply to any of these questions. Wilder thus draws attention to the absurdity of pioneer families who deliberately went to Indian Territory, appropriated land from Native communities, and then lived in terror of encountering any Native people—even those who had the grace to sociably visit their non-Native neighbors under such circumstances.

Notably, Wilder appears to have gone out of her way to include Native characters in her story. The Little House series is based on events in her own life, though she often reordered or otherwise altered them to create continuity in her narrative. The events contained in Little House on the Prairie took place when she was about two years old, but the protagonist in the novel (who ages throughout the series) is about six. Wilder was so young when the events occurred, in fact, that she did not fully remember them all. Wilder’s correspondence reveals that she and her daughter Rose made a special effort (albeit with limited success) to research the Osage and fill in the gaps in the story, and Wilder appears to have specifically wanted to include Native people—and with some accuracy and cultural specificity—in her fictionalized life story. Beyond that, Wilder’s intentions regarding her Native characters are largely unknown. Her narrative point of view is strictly limited to the third-person perspective of her six-year-old protagonist, and both her established point of view and the conventions of Depression-Era children’s literature would have prevented her from stepping from behind her narrative curtain and offering a more mature or enlightened perspective—if she had wanted to. Inasmuch as she found some ways to avoid an oversimplified or didactic approach to Native issues, nevertheless there remain numerous problematic passages that raise concerns for contemporary readers.

For those interested in adapting the Little House story into a visual narrative, then, there is much to work with; there are positive aspects to build upon and some more negative areas that could be addressed with increased sensitivity in adaptations. As Sanders suggests, the study of adaptations in an academic context has in part been spurred on by the recognized ability of adaptation to respond or write back to an informing original from a new or revised political and cultural position, and by the capacity of appropriations to highlight troubling gaps, absences, and silences within the canonical texts to which they refer. Many appropriations have a joint political and literary investment in giving voice to those characters or subject-positions they perceive to have been oppressed or repressed in the original. (98)

And yet, the adaptations of the Little House story have not fully taken advantage of opportunities to provide more well-rounded portrayals of Native characters and themes; on the contrary, they have often taken more simplified and didactic approaches to complex themes. Though Mary, perhaps is capable of imagining an Indian in Walnut Grove in 1977, adapters of the Little House story have yet to imagine a sophisticated and sensitive way to portray Native characters and themes in their visual narratives.

Creation of the (1974-1983) Television Series and Premier Movie

Wilder, who never saw much value in television and never even owned a television set herself, would likely be surprised to see adaptations of her story replayed in syndication numerous times throughout the day in the United States alone. Roger Lea MacBride, the adopted son of Rose Wilder Lane and Libertarian candidate for the 1976 presidential race, became the literary executor of the Little House series upon Lane’s death in 1968. In a 1978 interview with William Anderson, MacBride explained that he had been careful “to refuse offers to bring it to the screen or to the movie screen by persons who didn’t understand what they were all about” (Lytle). Eventually he decided to form a partnership with Ed Friendly, who was a Vice President of several networks together, and they produced a pilot episode based on the Little House on the Prairie text. MacBride believed Friendly was “a man of profound understanding of what the books are all about” but they were unable to sell their pilot episode to a network until they received help from Michael Landon (Lytle). Together they made a new pilot film, which they sold to NBC, and “as it was the biggest success that NBC had ever had,” NBC followed through with the television series (Lytle). Landon was already well known, especially from his role as Little Joe on Bonanza; his involvement initially helped garner attention for the pilot, but when NBC agreed to carry the series, “immediately thereafter Mr. Landon said he would like to make the series his way. And when he outlined ‘his way,’ it was to take the basic characters of the Wilder books and the basic setting in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and create out of that cloth, the series of wholesome and appealing stories” (Lytle). MacBride and Friendly had had a different view in mind, wanting to adhere to the content of the texts a closely as possible, “concentrating on the real life adventures that Laura and her family had and to adapt them as best as could be done to television, and [they] thought that could be done quite faithfully, and in fact, have a saga treatment” (Lytle). As it turned out, “Mr. Landon didn’t see it that way.” MacBride recalled that Landon “didn’t think we could adapt it successfully” as a saga, and they disagreed on a variety of additional points, ranging from whether or not the family would be shown in their sod house by Plum Creek, to whether the Ingalls girls would attend school barefoot or wearing shoes (Lytle). According to MacBride,

These differences piled up until the point until we had to say to the network: really, you have to do it either our way or Mr. Landon’s way, but not both. And we knew, of course, in advance, what the answer would be, because a popular and very capable star, such as Mr. Landon is worth many millions of dollars to a network, whereas producers are highly expendable. And the result was that we were expended before the first series show ever appeared on the screen. (Lytle)

From the first, it was clear that the Little House show would be a reinterpretation, not a recounting, of Wilder’s stories. Even the target audience had changed; while Wilder envisioned a child audience for her novels, the target audience for Landon’s series was women in their forties. For this reason, according to Alison Arngrim (who played Nellie Oleson in Landon’s series), Landon (who played Charles Ingalls) was scheduled to take off his shirt about once every three episodes (Arngrim). Whether children or their mothers are the intended audience, however, the obligation to portray Native people and issues responsibly and respectfully remains the same.

The time span of more than one hundred years, which occurred between the actual events in Wilder’s life, when Wilder recorded them, and when they were revised for television is a significant factor in interpreting images of American Indians in both the texts and television shows. During the hundred-year span, the political relationship between Native Nations and the federal government underwent several major transitions, as did public sentiment toward Native people, which undoubtedly inspired—or might have inspired—changes to the presentation of Native people and themes in the adaptations of the Little House story. At the time the Ingalls family’s covered wagon arrived in Indian Territory in1869, federal policy was in the Reservation Era, a time characterized by rigid assimilation policies for reservation residents, where both policies and boundaries were strictly enforced by federal agents. By the time Wilder wrote about her experiences in Indian Territory some 60 years later in 1934, policy had shifted several times and was entering the Reorganization era. As Wilder drafted the third novel in her series, Little House on the Prairie, the Indian Reorganization Act acknowledged the importance of maintaining, rather than eliminating Native cultures, but was couched in paternalistic approaches that prevented Native communities from being fully in control of their own affairs. In 1975, as the Little House television series was in its second of nine seasons, Congress passed the Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act that marked the beginning of the Self-Determination era. The Disney adaptation of Little House was released in 2005, a time in which Native people’s rights to autonomy and self-governance were more fully recognized than they had been for centuries.

With each version of the Little House story emerging in such different political climates, there is reason to expect changes, and even improvements, in the treatment of Native themes. Yet Sanders raises a point of no small significance when working with an adaptation that “uses as its raw material not literary or artistic matters but the ‘real’ matter of facts, of historic events and personalities. What happens, then, to the appropriation process when what is being ‘taken over’ for fictional purpose really exists or existed?” (138). The challenge of adapting autobiographical material, historical facts, or even historical fiction, presents some special considerations, even in terms of simply adding and deleting content which is a process inherent to adapting a text into a visual narrative. Retouching a life story, or recontextualizing moments in history, in order to present a more respectful approach to Native content—while remaining true to the subject’s life experiences and story—is undoubtedly a delicate business. But both Landon’s and Disney’s television adaptations added substantial Native content that had no foundation in Wilder’s novels or life story. Yet they did not manage to move the issues beyond stereotypical representations.

Landon’s series went on to air 183 episodes over nine seasons. In the first episode, “Harvest of Friends,” the Ingalls family settled in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where the Ingallses remained for the majority of the show’s run. Thus the show became the story of a nineteenth-century town, rather than the story of the frontier experience or of a pioneering family who firmly believed in self-reliance. As the show shifted the focus of the Little House story from the frontier experience to a well-established town, there is little room for a Native presence after the premier movie. As in many frontier women’s narratives, the Native people simply recede into the shadows with little or no explanation about what happened to them. Only thirteen of the 183 television episodes contain any references to Native people at all. Native issues are the central focus in only four episodes, while in the other nine Natives are off-handedly mentioned as part of a story from bygone days, used as mascots, or non-Native characters on the show pretend to be Indians. In almost every example, the Native characters are either assisted by or outsmarted by non-Native characters, which reinforces stereotypes about Native people as sidekicks and/or unintelligent people. For the sake of continuity, the discussion of Native themes that follows will be limited to the time the Ingalls spent in Kansas Indian Territory from 1869-1871, which is reflected in the novel Little House on the Prairie, the premier movie which preceded Landon’s television series, and the entire 2005 Disney miniseries.

Native Content in the Premier Movie (1974)

Like Wilder’s novel, the premier movie begins with the Ingalls family’s preparations for leaving the Big Woods of Wisconsin and ends with their departure from Indian Territory. In between the two wagon trips, many of the basic events from the narrative are included. The family arrives in a seemingly vacant territory after an uneventful wagon trip; Pa and Ma build a log house; Pa encounters a wolf pack while out riding on the prairie; some Native people  visit the house when Pa is away; Pa helps some cowboys round up stray cattle in exchange for a cow and her calf; and their neighbor Mr. Edwards makes Christmas special for the Ingalls girls. A prairie fire nearly burns down the Ingalls home; the terrified family listens to the drumming and “war cries” coming from the Osage camp; the Osage leave; and eventually the family receives word that they must leave because they settled three miles over the line into Indian Territory. As much as the events in the premier movie are similar to those in Wilder’s novel, the framework for making the trip in the first place is quite different. In the text, for example, it is Pa’s irritability at having neighbors too close that moves him westward, along with his foot that is always “itching” to head west no matter what the conditions. Though it is unclear if Indian Territory is open for settlement, Indian Territory is the specific destination mentioned repeatedly, and the family clearly expects to encounter Native people. In the premier movie however, Pa’s justification for moving west is that they were barely able to sustain themselves in Wisconsin: they had been scraping by on a “hand-to-mouth” basis. This contrasts sharply with the abundance of foodstuffs described in detail in Little House in the Big Woods. In Wilder’s novels, as the Ingalls’s move west, they never achieve the same abundance they had in Wisconsin, which in itself challenges rather than perpetuates the usual mythology associated with westward expansion. By suggesting that Pa must move his family west in hopes of survival rather than for purely adventurous reasons in the premier movie, however, Pa downplays the Ingallses’ responsibility for participating in the process of westward expansion.

In the premier movie, the adjustment in the Ingalls’ motivation for going to Indian Territory is compounded by the fact that “Indian Territory” is not emphasized as the family’s destination to the extent that it is in the novel.  Rather, the family seems to expect only the one hundred and sixty acres “free and clear from the government” that will enable Pa to be “beholden to no man.” As the family leaves their home in the Big Woods of Wisconsin amidst good-byes from their relatives, Laura’s voiceover explains, “though it made me sad, I thought it was a fine thing to go where there had never been a road before.” The Ingallses discount the presence of Native people altogether and there is just one mention of Native people along the way, as Laura again looks forward to seeing them as she did in the text.

As in the text, the Ingallses build a home in Indian Territory and Laura asks Ma why they came to Indian Territory if she does not like Indians. This time, Ma is a bit more responsive. She laughs and says mildly, “I suppose it does seem pretty foolish, coming to Indian Territory and hoping not to see an Indian.” Once settled in, it is not long before the Ingalls family receives its first visit from their Osage neighbors. As soon as Pa leaves the house one day, two presumably Osage men arrive and enter the house. The men are dressed in full buckskin and have masses of thick black hair, inconsistent with Osage clothing and hairstyles of the time. Rather than entering, eating Ma’s cornbread, and leaving peaceably as they do in the “Indians in the House” chapter of the novel, the Osage in the premier movie are considerably more frightening. One tears up a feather pillow and maliciously sends feathers fluttering all over the house, while the other approaches Ma and fingers her hair. Ma, clearly terrified, thrusts a box of tobacco at them, but her demise seems imminent until she reaches behind her and hands them a cutting board with a piece of cornbread on it. They take the bread, and Ma’s knife, too, before leaving. When Pa goes to town shortly after this event, Ma observes Native people watching the Ingalls house from a distance and that night her behavior mirrors that of other pioneer women who were nearly frightened senseless by Native peoples’ presence. Again, the fear in the scene is exaggerated as compared to the text as Ma rocks slowly in her chair, clutching a rifle balanced across its arms and singing a hymn in a voice wavering with fear. When horses whinny outside the door, Ma, appearing half-crazed and shaking with fear, cocks the gun and aims it at the door, and continues to aim it even as Pa enters. Only then does she finally collapse in his arms.

As much as the sense of fear is exaggerated in the premiere movie, the exaggeration helps to make the family’s realization that their fears are unfounded all the more poignant. The next visit from the Osage occurs when Pa is at home. In the text, it is a fairly uneventful incident; an Osage man arrives at the house, he and Pa exchange greetings in the form of Hollywood “hows,” and eat together before the man leaves without further incident. Pa surmises that the man was Osage, and that he was “no common trash”; they later learn he is Soldat du Chêne. In the premier movie, Pa hospitably invites the man into the house and they both smoke from Pa’s pipe (a conjuring of the proverbial peace pipe). Laura is fascinated, but not afraid, and she asks whether Soldat du Chêne’s necklace is a bear claw. Miraculously, Soldat du Chêne seems to understand her English, though he supposedly speaks only French. Instead of being too terrified to function, Ma understands his French and tries to interpret. As Soldat du Chêne leaves, he slowly unties his bear claw and ties it around Laura’s neck, gently touching her check. Soldat du Chene’s loving gesture makes him worthy of Laura’s and Pa’s sympathy for him because, as the family discusses, he will soon have to move west with the rest of the Indians. Mary is glad the Indians must leave, but Laura declares, “It’s not fair! They were here first.”

From the time she receives the necklace (which does not appear in the text), Laura wears it proudly, although Ma wishes she “wouldn’t wear that dirty thing.” Laura and Pa think the necklace is a “sign of a good hunter and it will bring protection and good luck.” Laura considers herself practically an Indian because of it—an idea that Ma clearly disapproves of. Ma remains jittery about Indians, particularly when the drumming begins in the nearby Osage community that lasts day and night. When little Carrie begins to sing along, “Boom! Boom!” Ma shouts at her hysterically. As in the text, the Ingalls family spends several days and nights in terror, listening to the drums and cries from the Osage camp. When the drumming stops, Soldat du Chêne comes by the Ingalls house to personally explain via an interpreter (after convincing Pa to stop aiming a gun at him) what has transpired between the Osage and the other Native Nations. He indicates that the other Natives in the area had wanted to kill the white men, but Soldat du Chêne had convinced them that they would be killed by soldiers if they killed their white neighbors. Ma absurdly declares that it must have been the bear claw that brought them good luck in deterring the massacre.  As Ma thanks Soldat du Chêne for saving their lives, it is clear that her opinion of him has changed and she no longer fears him.  It is somewhat difficult to determine, however, whether she has gained a newfound respect for Native people in general or a new inclination to believe in chiefs’ lucky bear claw amulets.  While the invention of the bear claw necklace in the premiere movie is distracting in its absurdity, the changes to this scene in the premiere movie are significant to Ma’s character development.  In the novel, the conversation between Soldat du Chêne takes place away from the Ingalls home, and when Pa recounts it to the family, Ma’s reaction is not noted.  Situating this scene in the Ingalls home in the premiere movie affords Ma’s character an opportunity to express her gratitude to Soldat du Chêne and suggests she is able to change her heretofore rigid opinions about Native people (or at least one of them) in a manner never achieved in the novel.

While the bear claw necklace and Ma’s interactions with Soldat du Chêne are scenes added to the storyline in the premiere movie adaptation, Landon was more inclined to cut Native content than add to it.  Most of the scenes in the novel in which the Osage are portrayed negatively, and those that add to the complexity of the issues in the texts are omitted from Landon’s adaptation. Laura’s quest to see a papoose is left out of the premiere movie entirely, for example, and there is no visit to the nearby camp to collect beads. There is little attempt to juxtapose various positive and negative perspectives about Native people or the frontier in the premier movie, and Mr. and Mrs. Scott’s characters are omitted so Pa and Ma have no opportunities to counter their narrow ideas about the only good Native people being dead ones. Ma only reminds Laura once about wearing her sunbonnet so that her skin will not get “brown and leathery,” but there is no association between the bonnet, dark skin, and Native people as there is in the novel. Significantly, there is also no long line of Osage leaving the area to emphasize the significant Native presence in the area nor the magnitude of their removal.

After the good luck from Laura’s bear claw necklace apparently saves the family from massacre, things quiet down on the prairie and the farm starts to bear fruitful. Soon, however, soldiers arrive to inform Pa that he will have to move on. Pa blinks back tears as he declares that he never would have settled there if that “blasted politician” had not said that all of Kansas was open to settlement. The sense of adventure prevails though, as the family drives away in the loaded wagon and Laura’s voiceover repeats the lines from the opening of the movie about the “rivers to cross and hills to climb” and her rejoicing at the prospect of seeing the “fair land.”

Overall, the additions and deletions to the Little House on the Prairie premier movie result in a notable simplification of the Native themes as compared to those in the text. The message in the premier movie is that Indians seem frightening and different from white people at first, but they turn out to be good people once you get to know them. They might even be inclined to give away a powerful object to a child, and even someone whose fears are as out of control as Ma’s are can quickly overcome her prejudices. The message in Landon’s interpretation is not an entirely negative one, but it is rather different from Wilder’s experience and probably shows more of a romanticized view of what cultural collisions on the frontier could have looked like instead of what actually happened in many frontier homes. The messages about Native people are not only simplified, but viewers need not search very hard for them as the music and lighting let the audience know how to think about each situation. In the premier movie, the importance of overcoming prejudices is difficult to miss, but the trade-off for tying up all the loose ends and emphasizing a clear moral, perhaps, is the implication that cultural encounters on the frontier usually went fairly smoothly.

Native Content in the Disney Television Miniseries (2005)

Disney introduced its adaptation of the Little House story in spring of 2005. Aired as a five-part miniseries, the Disney interpretation of Little House on the Prairie brought still another perspective to the original story and dramatic changes to the presentation of Native themes in particular. Disney’s version of the story replicates the events in Wilder’s story to a remarkable extent, and at times, even dialogue among the characters is copied verbatim from the text. Disney’s depiction of the events, however, is significantly more action-packed, and most scenes have an added element of danger or suspense. Like Landon’s adaptation, the Disney adaptation also contains new scenes about the Osage that were not in the novel.

Disney’s story of the Ingalls family’s trip to Indian Territory opens just before the family decides to leave the Big Woods. In this version, many people mill about in the snowy woods, and a hunter almost shoots Laura when he mistakes her for game, suggesting that the Big Woods are overcrowded. Pa, moreover, is tired of “working for the man,” and when Ma sees her husband belittled by his boss, she proposes the trip to Kansas. Pa is delighted and tells his family excitedly that they will be “going to where no one has been,” and there will be “land, as far as the eye can see!” As in Landon’s adaptation, there is no discussion about the fact that Native people already live there, and there is no repeated emphasis on the place name, “Indian Territory.” The Ingallses’ journey is considerably more exciting than in Wilder’s original story, and the family narrowly escapes several catastrophes. The family reaches the place where Pa wants to build a house, and as they climb out of the wagon and hold hands in a thankful prayer, and Native people ominously watch from a nearby hilltop.

As the Ingallses settle into their new home on the prairie, the events from Wilder’s narrative are inflated dramatically. When Pa and Mr. Edwards meet for the first time, for example, they mistake each other for Native people and nearly shoot each other. Later, Pa nearly falls off of the top of the house as he stretches the wagon cover across to make a temporary roof. The drama continues as Pa almost succumbs to the poisonous gases at the bottom of the well (instead of pulling himself out hand-over-hand as he does in the text). In another modified scene, when Pa goes to help the cowboys round up the cattle, Laura goes along and serves as a cook for the cowboys. When Pa encounters the wolf pack, instead of simply managing to escape as he did in the original narrative and in Landon’s premier movie, this time the wolves attack him. In the scene from the book in which Pa investigates what turns out to be a panther screaming in the night, only in the Disney interpretation does the panther attack Pa— and Soldat du Chêne arrives in time to shoot the panther and save Pa’s life. The Ingallses’ fear of massacre is also intensified as in the Disney version they, along with Mr. Edwards take shelter at the Scotts’ house for several days. Unlike any such scene in the texts, the petrified neighbors all barricade themselves inside the Scotts’ home to wait out the anticipated attack from the Osage. Inside the house Mrs. Scott succumbs to a fit of hysteria in which she first aims a gun at Pa, and then shoots a hole in the roof as her husband tries to wrest the gun away from her.

Because the Disney adaptation does follow the text closely in terms of the basic events—albeit a dramatized presentation of them—most of the Ingallses’ encounters with Native people from the text are included. Conversations between Laura and her parents juxtapose ideas about Native people and their expected removal, and Mrs. Scott’s character offers extensive negative opinions on Native people. Mrs. Scott declares, for example, that “treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to the folks who’ll farm it” and “why bother with treaties? Just kill them.” In one scene Mary contradicts Mrs. Scott, repeating a line she heard her father say, that some Indians are good and some are not, just like all men. The scene in which the Osages file past the Ingalls home is also included in the Disney version, though they appear to be leaving the area permanently, not for a hunt. Laura’s interest in seeing a papoose, and later, her desire to have a papoose, however, are omitted. Ma’s character is also revised to the extent that she embodies the pioneer spirit and even initiates the trip to Kansas.  None of the female characters in the Disney adaptation wear sunbonnets, which is notable as a pioneer “woman’s pale complexion often signified privilege, shelter, protection, and confinements; it was also an external indicator that she did not belong to one of the darker-skinned races” (Romines 58-9). Ma and the girls are either bare-headed or they wear straw hats and thus risk “getting to look like Indians” (Wilder 122). As in the text, Ma first encounters Native visitors while Pa is away, and although there are three Native people instead of only two, she handles the situation with aplomb, and later defends Laura’s interest in wanting to learn more about her Native neighbors.

In addition to the changes in Ma’s character that impact the overall presentation of Native themes, there are several significant Native scenes added to the Disney version. The added scenes fit into one of two categories: scenes that add to the hype of the story (e.g., drama, fear, or excitement); and scenes that play upon stereotypes of Native people as exotically spiritual in a manner that is reminiscent of Disney’s version of Pocahontas. The narrative offers a viewpoint that extends beyond Laura’s limited scope of vision and knowledge in the texts and occasionally shows scenes in the Osage camp. The glimpses of men singing, drumming, and dancing, however, usually contribute more fear to the story than a balancing of perspectives. There are, for example, no conversations between Native characters that help viewers to relate to their position, and the shots of the Osage camp while usually vibrantly colorful are also accompanied by frightening music. When Pa and Mr. Edwards, in this version of the story, spy on the Osage camp, their fear only increases. A specific scene added to the Disney adaptation that significantly adds to the frightening portrayal of Native people is the destruction of Mr. Edwards’s cabin. While he is sleeping soundly one night, several Native men enter his home and drag him out by his feet before setting fire to his cabin and touching him with a coup stick. It is the torching of Mr. Edwards’s cabin that prompts the neighbors to create the makeshift fort in the Scotts’ home. While in the Scotts’ home, Laura also has a nightmare about nearly being clubbed to death by a Native man.

Alongside these events, which heighten the drama of Disney’s Little House on the Prairie, are several other Native scenes which did not occur in Wilder’s novel: Jack, the family’s brindle bulldog in the novel, for example, is transformed into a “spirit dog,” and Laura finds nearby Native children to play with. When the entire family is stricken with malaria (“fever and ague” in the text), Dr. Tann nurses them back to health. Dr. Tann informs Laura that her dog is a “spirit dog” because it has two different colored eyes, and he assures her that a spirit dog is a good source of protection because local Native people fear such dogs. Dr. Tann’s prediction proves accurate when, in another invented scene, Laura encounters an Osage man while alone and he raises his toothed club as if to strike her, then turns away when he sees her dog. Early in the miniseries, Laura encounters a young Native boy while out playing alone, and watches him, fascinated, until he suddenly vanishes into thin air. During this scene, and other scenes involving “mystical” encounters with Native people, the frightening, intense music is replaced with what sounds like an angelic children’s choir singing “hey-ya, hey-ya; hey-ya, hey-ya” repeatedly. The next time Laura sees the boy, he is accompanied by three friends. Laura soon sees him a third time, and this time she follows him and his friends to the Osage camp, where she sees women picking berries and working with quills—and this is where her spirit dog saves her from being clubbed by a mounted Osage man. Each of these scenes are exclusive to the Disney adaptation of the Little House story, yet none serve to de-marginalize oppressed characters, more responsibly address cultural contexts, or make political statements (Sanders 98, 140).

In slight variation to the original story, it is Dr. Tann who brings word to the Scott fort that Soldat du Chêne and the Osage convinced the other tribes to cease plans to massacre the citizens. Pa decides to search for Soldat du Chêne to personally thank him and encounters a small party of Osage instead. One man who speaks English tells Pa that he wants to be remembered as the “last of the Osage to agree with du Chêne” and delivers a speech that explains why the Osage, not whites, have a justified presence on the land. Nevertheless, the Scotts soon arrive with word that the Native people will be leaving the area for good, and Ma and Mrs. Scott head indoors to celebrate over tea. In a rearrangement of scenes, the visit Laura, Mary, and Pa make to the nearby Native camp to collect beads is positioned here after the Osage’s final removal, apparently making the process of appropriation complete.

Predictably, however, soldiers visit Pa and inform him that the family must move on because he has settled three miles over the line into Indian Territory. The ensuing scenes reinforce the idea that the Ingallses are blameless, that they settled in Indian Territory by mistake, and that they would have filed a land claim with the homestead office but it had not yet opened. In this version of the story, Pa does not accept his family’s fate quietly—he is furious that the government is “making an example” of him and initially refuses to leave unless he is thrown off the land. Eventually Pa decides to leave before the soldiers literally drive him away, and Ma reassures him that all is well, since she did after all, fall in love with a man with “wanderlust.” Ma tells Pa, “We’ll go and find another home. If we get kicked off of that one we’ll find another after that,” and Pa agrees, declaring that he’ll build an even bigger house next time. The series ends as the family drives off in their wagon, with Laura, who placed a bead from the Osage camp on the windowsill of her family’s empty home before leaving, looking forward to a new adventure.

The especially frightening images associated with Native people in the Disney adaptation, and the addition of the mystical elements, reinforce stereotypes rather than diminish them. Ma’s makeover as a friend to her Native neighbors makes her a likeable character but raises questions about manipulating the personality of a historic figure to rid her of prejudices. The overall portrayal of Native themes in the Disney adaptation does not advance in sophistication beyond that of the novel as would be expected, given Disney’s apparent willingness to add and modify content from the source texts; the seventy-years’ worth of progression in both federal policy and public sentiment toward Native people since the time the texts were written; and the importance of portraying Native people accurately, respectfully, and responsibly


The adaptations of the Little House story serve as examples of the challenges of representing Native people and issues in both text and visual narratives. Whereas the original story is criticized for its inclusion of negative language about Native people, even removing such language and replacing it with didactic messages about the importance of positive multicultural experiences, as in Landon’s adaptation, does not necessarily result in messages about Native people and the frontier that are more positive overall, nor does creating a frontier town in which the Native presence has already been eliminated. Similarly, adding mystical elements and showing more Native people without contextualizing the images, as in the Disney adaptation, do not help to create a more balanced understanding of the events. The adaptations present the Native themes in ways that leave little room for interpretation or discussion and weaken the likelihood that the audience will leave the show with increased understandings of either Native people or the Frontier. In this sense, to use Hutcheon’s terms, it is possible to readily see the adaptations laterally in relation to the source material rather than vertically (169), as there is no significant progression from worse to better (or vice versa), at least in the portrayal of Native themes. The challenge to “imagine a real live Indian right here in Walnut Grove” demands strategies beyond magic necklaces and spirit dogs, and beyond disingenuously altering historic figures’ perspectives on Native people in order to simplify the story or render it more comfortable for contemporary viewers. The Little House story, therefore, continues to challenge adapters to find ways to contextualize Native content in more responsible, and respectful ways; when children are in the audience, the stakes for telling the story with care are at their highest.


End Notes

[1]For a discussion of common stereotypes about American Indians and the development of the concepts of the “savage” and the “noble savage,” see Robert F. Berkhofer’s essay “White Conceptions of Indians” in the Handbook of North American Indians.


Works Cited

Arngrim, Allison. Interview with Patrick Loubatière. Little House on the Prairie. Dir. and prod. Michael Landon. Collector’s edition DVD special feature, Season 5 Disc 3. DVD.

Berkhofer, Robert F. “White Conceptions of Indians.” Handbook of North American Indians. Ed. Wilcomb E. Washburn and William C. Sturtevant. Vol 4. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1988. 522-547. Print.

Cunningham, David L. Little House on the Prairie. Walt Disney Productions and Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2005. DVD.

Hutcheon, Linda, and Siobhan O’Flynn. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Lytle, Bob, producer and director. Ingalls of DeSmet. South Dakota Public Television, 1978. VHS.

Landon, Michael, prod. and dir. “Premiere Movie.” (1974). Little House on the Prairie television series. Time Life Video, 1992. DVD.

Miller, John. “Approaching Laura Ingalls Wilder: Challenges and Opportunities.” Ed. Dwight M. Miller. Laura Ingalls Wilder and the American Frontier: Five Perspectives. New York: UP of America, 2002. 29-44. Print.

Pocahontas. Dir. Eric Goldberg and Michael Gabriel. Perf. Mel Gibson, Irene Bedard. Walt Disney Video, 1995. DVD.

Riley, Glenda. Confronting Race: Women and Indians on the Frontier, 1815-1915. 1984. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 2004. Print.

Romines, Ann.  Constructing the Little House:  Gender, Culture, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Amherst: U of Massachusetts Press, 1997. Print.

Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie. New York: Harper, 1935. Print.



Author Bio:

Amy Fatzinger is an assistant professor in American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona where she primarily teaches courses in Native literature and film.


Reference Citation:

Fatzinger, Amy. “‘Can you imagine, a real, live Indian right here in Walnut Grove?’: American Indians in Television Adaptations of Little House on the Prairie. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2.1 (2014). Web and Print.

Fatzinger, A. (2014). “Can you imagine, a real, live Indian right here in Walnut Grove?:” American Indians in television adaptations of Little House on the PrairieDialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2(1). ‎

Review “Indy Classical Innovation: yMusic” at USC’s Southern Exposure New Music Series

Peter B. Kay

Spartanburg, South Carolina, USA


Quiet fills the concert hall. A young man, about 30 years old, stands in front of the audience. With him are a number of musicians in what appears to be a traditional ensemble, but with a few interesting and unusual changes. The young man is stylishly dressed, his clothes a mix of fashion and formality. His hair is a bit long and a little unruly, but this is the trend for young artists and musicians. The audience, mostly made up of 20-, 30-, and 40-somethings, do not seem to notice these small departures from tradition. They are simply eager to hear what this new composer has written.

The music is edgy and exciting. The composer pushes to the edge of convention, incorporates modern, popular music rhythms and instrumental techniques, and drives forward with youthful energy. The concert is a success, and the audience is eager for the next new work by this young man – this young man whose name is Ludwig van Beethoven. The year is 1800.

Photo Mar 21

Just as we tend to forget that our parents were ever children, we also forget that the great masters of classical music were at one time on the cutting edge of innovation. They were as inspired by their contemporaries as their predecessors, and composers, even Beethoven, often borrowed ideas from the pop music of his time. Sadly, for obvious reasons Ludwig van Beethoven has not written anything new since 1827, and his music has become part of the old tradition. So, let us instead look to those living composers who are writing music for our time.

Familiar with the size of the University of South Carolina School of Music recital hall, and the typical “sold out” nature of this series, my friends and I arrive at the show thirty minutes before the doors open. We wait with the eager crowd of patrons who know that the concerts are typically standing-room-only. There is an air of restlessness until 7:00, and Director Michael Harley gives the thumbs up to begin letting people inside. We move quickly to claim our spots. A large number of seats are reserved for donors, but these are free concerts – no tickets necessary – so the rest of the hall is fair game.

Within minutes, the concert hall is filled to capacity. I glance around the room, and it appears to be a wonderfully diverse audience, covering a broad spectrum of age and background.

Set in an academic recital hall, complete with a pipe organ backdrop, there is the customary classical music atmosphere – a bit stiff with ceremonial undertones. Yet, the pale blue and orange lighting, the array of microphones and instrument pick-ups, and the electric guitar sitting next to the horn, suggest a very different concert ahead.

The lights dim, and yMusic walks out onto stage to waves of applause. Their clothes are trendy and tasteful – jeans and neckties, colorful dresses and collared shirts – nothing flashy, nothing boringly conventional. They appear more like an indie pop band than a concert hall ensemble, and this impression is quite fitting. I soon find in the program notes that the musicians have often, as a group or as individuals, backed and collaborated with bands such as The National, Bjork, Bon Iver, Dirty Projectors, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon. . . and the list goes on and on.

There is a moment of silence as the musicians pick up their instruments and prepare to play.

The concert opens with Beautiful Mechanical, the title track from the group’s debut album released in 2011. Written by composer Ryan Lott – perhaps better known by his alt hip-hop name Son Lux – the piece is first on the album as well as the first piece ever written specifically for this ensemble, so it seems a good place to begin.

Having never seen yMusic live, my knowledge of the piece has been restricted to that studio recording, one which, to my great delight, does not do full justice to the wonderful blend of colors, rhythms, and structures that are evident in the performance.

Lott’s piece opens with an energetic solo cello line that sets the stage for the edgy, rhythmic piece ahead. The ensemble’s usual cellist, Clarice Jensen, was unable to make this show, but in her place is the young, but overwhelmingly accomplished, Gabriel Cabezas. Cabezas launches into the work with intensity and passion, driving the pace from the start. His tempo is noticeably faster than the studio recording, but his playing is precise, exact, and clear.

Nadia Sirota, viola, flashes a grin at Hideaki Aomori, clarinet, just before his entrance, as if to say, “here we go!” Aomori effortlessly joins Cabezas, matching his speed and intensity, and one by one, the rest of the ensemble stacks on top of the aggressive cello line and staccato clarinet. The piece grows and flows with practiced ease, albeit appreciably faster than the album version. Now, every time I listen to the album, I’ll think of this charming interplay between the musicians.

yMusic is a curious blend of timbres, mixing a violin, viola, and cello with a bass clarinet, flute, and trumpet/horn. One might think that the wind/brass would overpower the stringed instruments, yet with delicate precision and powerful playing, the ensemble finds an excellent balance.

There is a modicum of amplification that may be contributing to the excellent balance. Yet, recording engineer Jeff Francis does such an artful job that the result is wonderfully subtle.

Rob Moose, violin/guitar, introduces a newer work that has not been in the studio yet. Andrew Norman’s Music in Circles begins with the lightest wisp of the bowhair on the viola, playing thin, very high notes. The violin makes soft, crunchy glissandi. There is a rapid explosion of noise from the instruments, and then a return to the scratchy sound effects. The winds begin to blow pitchless air though their instruments.

Chairs are squeaking, paper programs are rustling, and there are more than a few coughs. The audience is audibly uneasy. Unfortunately, there is a stigma about extended techniques these days, and it appears that many here at the concert are not fans.

The bow begins to bounce across the strings of the viola, and suddenly there is harmony. Then, a scant progression appears. Gradually, each instrumental line grows from nothing; they are like a breeze, then squeaking pitches, then tones, then melody. As the tempo increases and the intensity builds, the voices of the instruments seem to crash and collide with one another. The strings furiously hammer their instruments, and the winds crescendo in waves of sound. Distinct patterns and clear harmonies emerge, and the seemingly chaotic, stunningly beautiful music pushes onward.

Norman builds tension so perfectly in this work that I am literally on the edge of my seat.

A clear melodic passage develops. CJ Camerieri, trumpet/horn, plays both an upward leading line and a downward leading line, alternating from one to the other in expanding intervals. The flute, played by Alex Sopp, echoes the trumpet. This would-be canon is broken by rhythmic differences that wonderfully disrupt expectations. Each of the instruments take up the material, while at the same time getting softer and softer until again we are left with the solo viola.

The viola continues, upward and downward, alternating, thinning, slowing, and fading away until the last note – an exact quotation of the first. In stark contrast to the opening of the piece, the audience is completely silent and perfectly still for the last few minutes of the piece. We are thoroughly captivated, mesmerized by the music, and breathless from the intense energy of the work. Applause, when it comes, is abundant and genuine. This is the highlight of the concert: a gorgeous, electric, and powerful piece.

Then, the lights dim further and a warm blue light is cast across the stage. The band begins to play Jeremy Turner’s The Bear and The Squirrel, a warm and inviting piece, lush with traditional harmonies and a lovely compliment to the previous three works.

Throughout the evening, it is difficult to distinguish the classical traditions from the modern pop, indie rock, alt hip-hop influences. Two fascinating and colorful works, Year of the Horse and Year of the Dragon, originally by electronica singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens and arranged by Rob Moose and Nico Muhly respectively, illustrate the ease by which these extraordinary musicians incorporate both worlds.

Judd Greenstein’s piece, Clearing, Dawn, Dance is an extraordinary work of art. With a pervasive sense of perpetual motion, the lively rhythmic exchanges between the six instruments create compelling melodic lines and delightful harmonies. Then there is Marcos Balter’s mysterious and hauntingly beautiful work, Bladed Stance, which saturates the sounds of the instruments (and a few performers whistling) with copious amounts of added reverb. Though this music is born from classical traditions and is not rejecting its heritage, it has grown into something new – something that challenges the conventional “classical music” label.   This New Music is less about genre-bending and more genre-blending.  Every piece reminds me: music in the concert hall can be alive, connected, current, and thriving.

UPDATE:  New Amsterdam Records released yMusic’s album, Balance Problems on Sept. 30, 2014.  The record features several of the works from the March concert including Music in Circles by Andrew Norman, The Bear and The Squirrel by Jeremy Turner, and Bladed Stance by Marcos Balter.  This link also includes audio and video excerpts from Music in Circles.

Hosted by the University of South Carolina, the Southern Exposure New Music Series brings ensembles of the highest caliber to Columbia, SC. Each year, the award-winning concert series offers four free concerts of cutting edge contemporary works.



Author Bio:

Peter B. Kay is a composer, performer, and scholar from the upstate of South Carolina.  He received his DMA in Music Composition from the University of South Carolina.  His compositional style is eclectic, both familiar and new, and includes everything from atonality to minimalism, neoclassicism to blues, and folk music to pop.  He is currently the Artistic Director / Curator of Treefalls, a New Music chamber concert series in Spartanburg, SC.  His Publications include, “Music and Humor: What’s So Funny?” (2006) and “Musical Humor and Beethoven’s Symphonic Scherzi” (2013).


Social Media:

Twitter: @peterbkaymusic, @treefallsmusic;


Reference Citation:

Kay, Peter. “Review: Indy Classical Innovation: yMusic at USC’s Southern Exposure New Music Series. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2.1 (2014). Web.

Kay, P. (2014). Review: Indy Classical Innovation: yMusic at USC’s Southern Exposure New Music Series. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2(1)

Girls, Guns, and Zombies: Five Dimensions of Teaching and Learning in The Walking Dead

Anthony Neely
The University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas, USA



Rooted in sociocultural theory, this article utilizes a conceptual framework derived from Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds’ four topographical dimensions of learning: who of learning, what of learning, where of learning, and when of learning. Situated learning (Lave and Wenger) is presented as a fifth dimension to address how learning occurs in communities of practice absent of formal schooling. Content analysis (Elo and Kyngass) is used to analyze a teaching and learning event from an episode of The Walking Dead based on the five topographical dimensions of learning listed above. Findings provide insights for pedagogical application for grades 7-12 by addressing the potential benefits of contextualized and scaffolded situated learning activities, gender equity, and authentic high-stress high-risk tasks in secondary level curriculum design.


Popular Culture, Teaching Methods, Gender Equity, The Walking Dead, Socioculturalism, Situated Learning, Apocalyptic Media, Interdisciplinary Research, Communities of Practice, Contextualized Curriculum


The television series The Walking Dead (Darabont et al.) has become a phenomenon in American pop culture. Set in a post-apocalyptic Southeastern United States, the series follows a small group of survivors as they strive for existence on a zombie-infested planet. The zombies, referred to as Walkers, are relentless in their pursuit of human flesh, with the unfortunate soul who falls victim to their attack becoming a Walker himself. With characters living in a world devoid of any formal schooling and yet totally dependent on the development of skills for survival, The Walking Dead is ripe with examples of teaching and learning outside of the traditional classroom setting. In this article a teaching and learning event from The Walking Dead will be analyzed through a topographical interactive framework comprised of five dimensions of learning.

Prior to addressing the conceptual framework on which this article is built, it is critical to discuss what learning is in order to contextualize how learning occurs within a society absent of formal schooling. It is
difficult to define learning due to the existence of a broad spectrum of theoretical explanations for the concept. While many learning theories share overlapping elements, there are also numerous irreconcilable
differences among these frameworks. Thus, rather than attempting to produce a universal definition for
learning, Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds provide nine principles to describe the concept as derived from commonalities among salient learning theories.

The first principle the authors propose is that learning is change. From learning how to crawl to analyzing complex mathematical theories, humans are constantly changing, adapting, and evolving. This change not only influences individuals but also the entire system in which they exist. Next, the authors contend that learning is inevitable, essential, and ubiquitous. To state it simply, to live is to learn. Whether one learns not to touch a hot stove or how to quickly analyze traffic patterns on the highway, humans are kept alive by their ability to recognize and decipher environmental stimuli. The inevitability of learning does not, however, suggest that learning is irresistible. Consider the alcoholic who receives multiple infractions for driving under the influence. Despite his awareness that driving under the influence of alcohol may result in negative outcomes (e.g., court dues, imprisonment, loss of license), he continues to drive while intoxicated. The previous example segues into Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds’ proposition that some learning may be disadvantageous. Although learning is generally viewed as a positive endeavor, in certain contexts the object of learning may not be beneficial (e.g., the experience of overdosing on drugs).

Next, the authors propose that learning can either be tacit and incidental or conscious and intentional. For example, there are contexts in which learning occurs without conscious awareness (e.g., recognizing that stubbing a toe hurts), while in other contexts learning is an intentional and active pursuit (e.g., learning to fly fish). The sixth principle in the model proposes that learning is framed by our humanness. The authors contend that the biological features of our bodies (e.g., senses, cognition, psychological attributes) make learning central to the human experience.

Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds present learning as both a process and a product. As such, learning is an active event that also has some type of output. Consider the student who goes through the process of learning to play the guitar. In addition to her procedural efforts (e.g., practicing scales, researching chord variations, developing hand dexterity), she will be able to produce a product as evidence that learning has
occurred (e.g., the ability to play a song). The eighth principle presented by the authors is that learning is
experienced in diverse ways, depending on the time and context in which it occurs. What and how one learns can be shaped by social, cognitive, and biological factors throughout his or her life (e.g., age, level of maturity, life experience, sociocultural environment). Finally, Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds contend that learning is interactional. Learning does not occur in a vacuum, but rather as a scenario in which “learners are
influenced by, and at the same time push back, take from, change, control, and create the environment in which learning is situated” (180).

The authors’ last principle allows the act of learning to be anchored within a sociocultural framework. Socioculturalism, a theoretical framework of learning and development based on the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, proposes that higher level mental functioning finds its origins in the shared experiences of society. Vygotsky contends that only after a concept exists outside of the individual
(i.e. externalized) can it exist within the individual (i.e. internalized). One way in which this process (externalization √ internalization) can be illustrated is as a continuous spiral referred to as the Vygotsky Space (Gavalek and Raphael; Harre). The Vygotsky Space uses two overlaying dimensions, public √ private activity and social √ individual activity, to represent the externalization √ internalization process. When observed as a series of quadrants, these dimensions show that the construction of knowledge originates within the sociocultural context, is then transformed by individuals within society, and is ultimately reintroduced to society for the cycle to begin again. As described above, the foundation of Vygotsky’s theory is that learning cannot be decontextualized from one’s sociocultural surroundings because learning does not occur in isolation.Socioculturalism proposes that social interaction influences development because novice learners are dependent on the assistance of more knowledgeable others for sociocognitive progression. Vygotsky supports this stance in his writings on the zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development refers to the distance between one’s ability to complete a task on her own (i.e. actual development) and her ability to complete a task with the assistance of a more knowledgeable other (i.e. potential development). As learners are continually challenged to work with others beyond their own current level of development, Vygotsky suggests that their zone of proximal development will continually shift so that “What a child can do with assistance today, she will be able to do by herself tomorrow” (87).

Drawing from the literature of Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds this article is built on a topographical interactive model of learning that seeks out common ground among multiple salient learning theories. The model proposes four dimensions of learning (i.e. who of learning, what of learning, where of learning, and when of learning) that are in constant interaction and provide context for describing a teaching and learning event.

The first dimension, who of learning, explores the agents involved in a teaching and learning event. This dimension contends that learning is directly influenced by the biological, cognitive, experiential
(e.g., individual and cultural), and affective (e.g. motivational and emotional) characteristics of participants (Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds 184). The who of learning is critical to understanding learning because, as Lakoff and Johnson argue, the learning process is highly influenced by the learner involved. The second dimension explores what is being learned. Within this dimension the authors propose an interweaving of the types and levels of learning that occur during a teaching and learning event. These may range from unconsciously acquired habits and tacit knowledge (e.g., recognizing that dropping a bowling ball on your foot is painful) to intentionally pursued higher order knowledge and skills (e.g., an aspiring carpenter learning to cut dovetail joints). The third dimension addresses the ecological context in which learning occurs. While some aspects of the ecological context are concrete and easily recognizable (e.g., physical setting and tools used to mediate learning), others require greater investigation due to their abstractness (e.g., historical and cultural context). Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds place the when of learning as their fourth dimension. By understanding the interrelatedness of timing, duration, and cultural shifts that occur during a teaching and learning event, one can provide critical insights into the context of the event itself. In other words, skills and knowledge that are seemingly irrelevant today may be critical to one’s very survival in the future. For example, the ability to start a fire using only sticks and grass may be considered an inconsequential skill until one is unexpectedly shipwrecked on an island.

Although Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds do not include a dimension to address the how of learning, it is important to discuss because it describes the process by which learning occurs. In this article, Lave and Wenger’s situated learning framework explains the how of learning. In Lave and Wenger’s model, a novice advances knowledge through varying levels of participation with more knowledgeable others in a community of practice as opposed to learning through decontextualized means (e.g., direct lecture or reading a textbook). Situated learning can manifest itself in two ways: participation and apprenticeship.

In participation the novice learns through situatedness within a community of practice. For example a person who grows up in a farming community, although not a farmer himself, may gain knowledge regarding the norms and practices of farming that far exceed an individual who lives in an urban environment. Thus, participation can be viewed as learning by proximity. The second classification of situated learning is apprenticeship. In this article, apprenticeship is defined as a dyadic relationship between a more knowledgeable other and a novice for the purpose of sharing wisdom and promoting skill development through active co-participation (Lave and Wenger). This framework suggests that the optimal avenue by which one
(e.g., a novice plumber) learns a skill (e.g., replacing a rusted pipe) is not through decontextualized instruction on the topic (e.g., classroom lecture), but rather through active participation with one who is more experienced with said skill (e.g., assisting a master plumber with such a repair).

Situated learning is provided as the fifth dimension of learning in this article for two reasons. First, this framework aligns itself with socioculturalism in that it focuses on the learner having membership in a community of practice as opposed to existing in a vacuum (Lave and Wenger). Through participation in a community of practice, the learner develops an identity of membership by which she is socialized to the jargon, norms, and skills associated with the community. This development of identity within a community of practice is critical to situated learning because learning “implies becoming a different person with respect to the possibilities enabled by these systems of relations” (Lave and Wenger 53). Second, situated learning is a contextually appropriate framework for analyzing The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead takes place in a world absent of formal schooling. As a result, the characters in the show are co-dependent for survival and help each other develop essential skills through active participation in communities of practice.

Through content analysis, a research method in which various forms of media are organized into concepts or categories for the purpose of deriving new insights and inferences about a given phenomenon (Cole; Elo and Kyngas; Krippendorf), this study explores a teaching and learning event in Season 2: Episode 6 of The Walking Dead. The teaching and learning event being analyzed is situated within an ongoing storyline regarding a worldwide outbreak of unknown origins that has turned the majority of humans into Walkers. Human survivors discover early in the series that the only way to stop a Walker is to destroy its brain. Although there are a variety of tools that can complete this task (e.g., ax, sledgehammer, hunting knife), risk of death makes the possession of and skill set to effectively use a firearm a valuable commodity. In this post-apocalyptic setting, a gun not only represents increased likelihood of survival but also is symbolic of power within the social hierarchy.

After several mishaps with firearms occur on the survivors’ farm, the two primary community leaders, Rick and Shane, declare that any individual who has not been formally trained to use a firearm must surrender their weapon until formal training has been completed. As a result, very few individuals in the community are permitted to possess a firearm. For community member Andrea, the ability to once again wield her revolver has two levels of importance. First, it is an opportunity to break the gender roles that have been constructed in the community (i.e. men are community protectors and women maintain domestic responsibilities). Second, the gun serves as an artifact linking Andrea to happier times before her sister Amy was killed by Walkers.

The teaching and learning event being examined in this article focuses on the training Andrea undergoes in order to reclaim the right to possess her weapon. Andrea’s training occurs in four stages:
(1) small group instruction at a makeshift firing range, (2) private instruction with Shane in the woods,
(3) cooperative action on a search and rescue mission with Shane, and (4) supported action on the search and rescue mission.

Having addressed the context of the episode, findings will now be presented as they emerged during analysis of the teaching and learning event. The constant comparative method of coding (Corbin and Strauss; Boeije) was followed during analysis to seek out emerging elements from the teaching and learning event as related to the five topographical dimensions listed above (i.e. who of learning, what of learning, where of learning, when of learning, how of learning).

Dimension 1 — Who of Learning, addresses all who are affected by the teaching and learning event in this episode (i.e. learner, teacher, and community at large). Designated as the primary learner, Andrea is portrayed as an attractive young woman who was a successful lawyer prior to the outbreak. Intelligent and headstrong, Andrea is initially an asset to the community, showing leadership skills and the ability to think on her feet. After the loss of her sister Amy to a Walker attack, Andrea becomes introverted and severely depressed to the degree that many perceive her as suicidal. This perception is one of the catalysts that lead to Shane and Rick’s decree that only those who have been formally trained may possess a firearm. Although the firearm is presented as the predominant tool for survival in the earliest episodes of The Walking Dead, possession of this tool does not appear to be as significant to Andrea until she is no longer permitted to wield one. Initially opposed to the decree, Andrea eventually accepts the mandate and agrees to undergo formal training, having been forced to use a screwdriver to protect herself during a Walker attack.

Somewhat cocky and self-assured at the beginning of the teaching and learning event (i.e. small group instruction at a firing range), Andrea displays advanced proficiency by successfully shooting targets more difficult than those assigned to her. As a result, Andrea is extended the opportunity to move beyond group instruction into a dyadic apprenticeship under Shane’s guidance.

However, it becomes evident during her first lesson with Shane (i.e. private instruction in the woods)
that when placed in a more contextually realistic scenario (e.g., moving target, heightened stress levels), Andrea is not as skilled a marksman as she previously believed. Frustrated by her inability to master the skill of shooting a moving target (i.e. a log suspended by rope from a tree), Andrea is easily flustered by criticisms from Shane. Although she portrays herself as outspoken and independent, it is evident that Andrea is psychologically scarred by the loss of her sister. The mere utterance of Amy’s name during private instruction with Shane causes Andrea to cease participation in this phase of the teaching and learning event.

Despite her conflict with Shane over the use of her deceased sister as an instructional tool, Andrea shows that she is dedicated to advancing her firearm skills by agreeing to assist Shane on a search and rescue mission to find a missing child. This mission is Andrea’s first opportunity to assume the role of community protector since arriving at the survivors’ farm.

The instructor during this teaching and learning event is Shane. A former sheriff’s deputy, he serves as the proverbial alpha male and first community leader. The appearance of Rick, who was long assumed to be dead, leads to multiple internal and external conflicts for Shane. To understand Shane’s mental state during this teaching and learning event, it is imperative to examine his trajectory throughout the series. Prior to the outbreak, Rick and Shane were partners and best friends. During an altercation with a fugitive criminal, Rick is shot and falls into a coma, resulting in long-term hospitalization. Optimistic his friend will make a full recovery, Shane stays at Rick’s bedside until Walkers overtake the facility. Assuming that Rick’s unconscious body will be consumed by Walkers, Shane flees the hospital to collect Rick’s wife and son and to seek safety. In the months that follow, Shane and Rick’s wife Lori develop an intimate relationship. When Rick miraculously appears at the settlement, Lori returns to her husband, leaving Shane both heartbroken and jealous.

While publicly Shane helps maintain the community and follows Rick’s leadership, in private his persona becomes much more neurotic. Although Shane contemplates leaving the community to fend for himself, he ultimately stays due to his love for Lori. As a result of this emotional turmoil, Shane becomes increasingly combative, which is evident in his lessons with Andrea. During the teaching and learning event, Shane displays both sides of his personality by being hypercritical of Andrea and yet aware of socioemotional boundaries (e.g. “I crossed the line when I brought Amy into it. So yes. It’s an apology” (Darabont et al.)). While Shane is experienced, exhibits a high degree of leadership, and is adequately skilled to survive when Walkers attack, he is, like Andrea, emotionally unstable, which adds an interesting dynamic to their apprenticeship.

The third who to be considered in this teaching and learning event is the community at large. The majority of the community is neither formally trained survivalists nor experienced combatants. They are average men, women, and children with no spectacular attributes, aside from the fact that they are still alive. For this reason, former sheriff’s deputies Shane and Rick are well credentialed to serve as the more knowledgeable others who provide firearm training. Knowing that such training can improve chances for survival, a large proportion of the community participates in the initial training session at a makeshift firing range on the farm.

The second topographical dimension, What of Learning, addresses Andrea’s intended learning objectives in the episode. Actively participating in increasingly contextualized settings (e.g., firing range, woods, suburban neighborhood invaded by Walkers), Andrea seeks to develop her intended skill set within an apprenticeship model. At its most basic and overt level, this teaching and learning event focuses on Andrea expanding her skills with a firearm. There is also a deeper level of abstract learning that occurs within the episode.

By acquiring a new skill set, Andrea is revising her identity within the community. Throughout the series, Andrea expresses a desire to circumvent the community’s socially constructed gender roles (i.e. men are community protectors and women maintain domestic duties). Andrea views the possession of a firearm as a gateway to transcending her prescribed role in the community. Rather than washing clothes or preparing food, the possession of a firearm allows its owner multiple options including the ability to leave the farm on supply gathering missions, participate in Walker hunting expeditions, and serve as a night watch. Thus, success in this endeavor may not only provide Andrea with a new identity in the community but could also serve as a catalyst for sociopolitical shifts in power for all females on the farm.

Within the psychosocial realm, Andrea is also learning how to accept the death of her sister Amy. Since the loss of her sister to a Walker attack, Andrea has fallen into a manic, often suicidal, state. Andrea resists talking about this element of her psyche and temporarily abandons instruction with Shane due to his use of Amy’s death as a motivational tactic (e.g., “You’re too damn emotional. You need to shut it down. Take all that guilt, that fear, that being pissed off…That’s the Walker that got Amy. Now you shoot that son of a bitch! You shoot him!” (Darabont et al.)).

Dimension 3 — Where of Learning, examines the physical and sociopolitical environment in which the teaching and learning event occurs. The setting of this episode is a community of survivors living on a farm outside of Atlanta, Georgia. The survivors have temporarily settled at the farm after experiencing numerous Walker attacks in other temporary settlements. Hopeful they will find a larger community unaffected by the outbreak, the survivors are semi-nomadic, settling in areas considered safe for habitation. The farm offers community members a sense of life as it was before the outbreak due to its various amenities such as clean drinking water and private bedrooms. At the farm, survivors live communally, sharing food, supplies, and various responsibilities.

In addition to the setting of the teaching and learning event, it is also important to examine its timing and duration; thus, the When of Learning is designated as the fourth topographical dimension. Although the characters involved in this episode bring a lifetime of experiences to the teaching and learning event, the event itself occurs within the span of a single day. This is displayed through several pieces of evidence within the episode. First, at the firing range Rick arranges for Andrea to receive personal instruction from Shane after the conclusion of the day’s group lesson. Next, after Andrea becomes angry and abandons her private lesson, Shane finds her walking down the road and invites her to join him as backup on a mission to locate a missing child. The teaching and learning event concludes as the two narrowly escape a Walker attack.

On a broader scale, this teaching and learning event occurs within the context of a post-apocalyptic world. Prior to the outbreak, the skill set being learned (i.e. mastery with a firearm) was critical only for those whose career put them in harm’s way. After the outbreak however, it is essential for survival in a Walker-infested world. For Andrea this event occurs at a psychosocial crossroads between wanting to end her life and desiring to transform her identity within the community.

Having explored the context in which the teaching and learning event is situated, focus will now shift to analyzing the pedagogical approach Shane utilizes to guide Andrea’s development in this episode. Dimension 5 — How of Learning, emerges in a series of four scaffolded stages during the teaching and learning event: (1) small group instruction, (2) private instruction, (3) cooperative action, and (4) supported action.

In the first stage of learning, small group instruction, Andrea is an active participant in a community of practice at a makeshift gun range. Taking aim at bottles and old road signs, participants receive constant feedback from more knowledgeable others (i.e. Rick and Shane) regarding their technique and marksmanship. Of the four instructional stages in the episode, Stage 1 is the least contextualized, exhibits the lowest level of stress on participants, and is the most risk adverse. Although the firing range is a situated learning activity (e.g. participants are shooting firearms instead of reading a book about shooting firearms), the targets are stationary and nonthreatening. Hence, this phase of instruction does not accurately simulate the context of a Walker attack. The no stress-no risk environment of Stage 1 births in Andrea a false sense of self-confidence regarding her ability to use a gun.

During this stage, Andrea receives direct feedback from community leaders Rick and Shane. At first Shane believes Andrea has missed her assigned target (i.e. a glass bottle). Upon closer inspection he realizes that she was not shooting at the bottle, but rather had placed three bullets through the O in a No Trespassing sign. Impressed by Andrea’s apparent proficiency at the firing range, Rick proposes that she receive advanced training from Shane. With her acceptance, Andrea becomes an apprentice under Shane’s guidance. No other participants in the episode, male or female, are extended an invitation to enter an apprenticeship.

The second stage of Andrea’s learning occurs via dyadic private instruction with Shane in a wooded area on the farm. As Shane seeks to further situate the training within the context of a Walker attack, he increases the difficulty of the task by requiring Andrea to shoot a moving target (i.e. a log suspended from a tree). This task proves to be beyond Andrea’s current ability level and leads to numerous complaints from the learner. In response to Andrea’s grumblings, Shane takes on an aggressive drill sergeant-like tone and interlaces instruction with statements explaining that the task is designed to simulate real life combat (e.g., “Now you stand here. You point your weapon. Point it like you point your finger. Do not think about it. I’m talking about muscle memory girl. Muscle memory!…You think a Walker is gonna’ hold still for you?” (Darabont et al.)).

Although this pedagogical strategy does not appear to progress Andrea’s shooting ability (i.e. she is still unable to hit the moving target), Shane continues his tactics by employing gender negative criticisms (e.g. “God you shoot like a damn girl…You’re too damn emotional” (Darabont et al.)). At this point, Andrea not only challenges Shane’s methods but also his abilities as the more knowledgeable other (e.g., “Stop badgering me…Right, and you’re so calm?” (Darabont et al.)). Shane responds to Andrea’s critique by effortlessly shooting the log and expressing his ability to separate emotion from task completion (e.g., “See? I can be pissed off, I can be whistling Dixie, and I always hit the target.” (Darabont et al.)).

After reaffirming his role as the more knowledgeable other, Shane orders Andrea to try again. Shane continues his harsh tone and places Andrea under heightened levels of stress until she ceases the lesson due to his mentioning of Amy’s death (e.g., “That’s the Walker that got Amy. Now you shoot that son of a bitch! You shoot him!” (Darabont et al.)).

Although there is no risk involved in this stage of instruction, the stress level is significantly higher than that of Stage 1, which results in Andrea’s choice to abandon the lesson prior to successful task completion.

After their altercation at the end of Stage 2, Shane finds Andrea walking down the road alone and seeks to make amends by explaining that his pedagogical method in the previous stage of instruction was both strategic and intentional (e.g., “Hey look. I’m just trying to get you rattled. Alright? Just giving you an idea of what it’s like when the shit starts to fly.” (Darabont et al.)).

Despite her failure to show mastery of the intended skill in the previous stage, Shane does not suggest that the two return to the woods or shooting range for further training. Instead, he extends an invitation for Andrea to join him on a mission to search for a missing child, thereby moving into a third stage of instruction based on highly contextualized cooperative action. Shane takes on a new pedagogical approach by ceasing the aggressive tone and placing Andrea in a high-risk situation in which her ability to hit a moving target
(i.e. a Walker) could determine whether she and Shane survive the mission.

After a short duration of exploring the neighborhood where the missing child is assumed to be, Andrea and Shane are attacked by a herd of Walkers. Shane acknowledges that the two must work cooperatively in order to successfully reach their vehicle (e.g., “You cover that street. I’ll clear the car.” (Darabont et al.)). Although Shane has taken on the more difficult task by assigning himself an area with a greater number of Walkers, the two are ultimately co-dependent for a successful escape.

Quickly clearing his designated area, Shane notices that Andrea is still unable to shoot her targets in the head, the skill he was attempting to teach her in Stage 2. Shane provides Andrea with backup, allowing her to practice shooting at Walkers. This stage is high stress, as both Andrea and Shane’s lives are endangered; however, Andrea’s risk is fairly low due to Shane’s active support.

The third stage of the teaching and learning event segues directly into Stage 4, supported action, when Andrea’s pistol jams with Walkers quickly approaching. Initially, Shane provides coverage and supportive guidance (e.g., “Focus now. Clear the jam. Focus” (Darabont et al.)); however, as Andrea becomes more frantic and panicked, Shane lowers his gun as a sign that he is allowing her to engage in a sink or swim moment. Although he offers words of encouragement, Shane allows a Walker to get just outside of arm’s length from Andrea without raising his gun to stifle its progression. At this point, Shane transitions from being an active co-participant to supportive observer in the teaching and learning event. It is worth noting that Shane places Andrea in this high-stress high-risk situated learning environment after she has failed to successfully hit a moving target during the previous two stages. Andrea, aware of Shane’s instructional decision, questions his method while continuing to attempt the task (e.g., “Are you kidding me?” (Darabont et al.)). At the climax of the scene, Andrea successfully clears the jam and shoots a Walker moments before it attacks her. In this stage, Andrea’s inability to execute the skill would have meant certain death, making it the most high-stress and high-risk of all four stages of instruction. After eliminating her most immediate threat and successfully completing the task, the stress associated with the learning event rapidly dissipates, as shown by a regained air of confidence.

The teaching and learning event in this episode of The Walking Dead provides multiple insights for improving curricular and pedagogical design in formal classroom settings. First, this teaching and learning event shows that contextualized active participation in a community of practice is critical to learner development. If Andrea had simply read a book about shooting a firearm or attended a lecture on clearing a jammed gun, she may not have survived the Walker attack during the mission with Shane. As shown in this episode, contextually appropriate experiential knowledge can allow learners the opportunity to reach their potential development more rapidly than decontextualized instruction. Thus, in classroom instruction it is critical that teachers forego decontextualized drill-and-kill style assignments and instead provide students the opportunity to be active participants in situated learning activities.

Second, the analysis shows that it is possible to scaffold knowledge within a situated learning activity. Actively participating in the act of shooting during each stage, Andrea moves through four scaffolded stages of instruction in the episode. Throughout the teaching and learning event, Andrea transitions from a controlled group setting that emphasizes basic skills with a firearm to personalized instruction meant to refine those skills. Andrea then assists Shane in a cooperative activity that requires her to display mastery and task completion in an authentic context. Likewise, classroom teachers can work with students on scaffolded learning activities. As students gain experience and master lower level skills, the teacher can allow students to assume greater autonomy in future endeavors. By way of illustration, a computer science instructor can facilitate a situated learning activity with a class of novice programmers in three scaffolded stages. During the first stage, the teacher could utilize a computer-mediated activity to help students learn a programming language (e.g., Java, C++, Python). After the students have shown proficiency with the programming language, the teacher and students could cooperatively write code for a program that was designed by the instructor. Finally, the teacher could challenge students to design and write their own programs, providing assistance as the more knowledgeable other when needed.

Third, the teaching and learning event displays the empowerment and motivation associated with gender equity in the learning environment. From the pilot episode to this one containing the teaching and learning event, Andrea becomes increasingly depressed and neurotic, resulting in the destruction of numerous interpersonal relationships. Despite her psychosocial troubles, an interest in becoming a community protector motivates Andrea’s pursuit of formal training with a firearm. Regardless of her aspirations, there are sociocultural norms that have to be overcome for Andrea to transcend the community’s socially constructed gender roles. As Andrea receives training and assists Shane on a mission, she is able to take steps toward obtaining the identity of community protector. The receipt of appropriate credentials (i.e. formal training with a firearm) allows Andrea’s role in the community to transform where she is no longer expected to participate in tasks she considers demeaning and menial (e.g., preparing meals and washing clothes). As a result,
Andrea experiences a renewed sense of purpose via a meaningful contribution to the community.

This example is important to classroom teachers in two ways. First, while socially constructed roles may be prevalent in society, gender marginalization does not have to extend into the classroom. By promoting equity in the learning environment, students of all demographics can have the opportunity to experience empowerment and motivation that otherwise may not be available in other social contexts. For example, teachers can enrich social studies curriculum, which traditionally emphasizes the contributions of dominant populations (e.g., wealthy, whites, heterosexuals, males), by intentionally incorporating content that gives prominence to the pivotal roles played by historically underrepresented populations (e.g., females, people of color, LBGTQ). By doing so, teachers not only disrupt dominant narratives that undermine the salience of these populations but also encourage diverse students to embrace their heritages and identities.

Second, like many students, Andrea suffers from severe psychosocial scarring that results in social isolation and decreased motivation. After being offered the opportunity to participate in an activity relative to her interests and goals, Andrea is able to work through her emotional issues and experience a renewed sense of community membership. This finding displays the importance of allowing students to have a voice in curricular decisions. Instead of assigning students tasks that do not align with their interests, which may result in decreased motivation and psychosocial health, teachers could utilize strategies that increase their knowledge of students’ personal goals and affinities (e.g., interest inventories). By helping teachers craft curriculum that corresponds with students’ passions and aspirations, the information gained from these activities can increase the meaningfulness of classroom instruction.

Finally, this episode shows that concurrently increasing stress and risk levels may be beneficial to student development. In the four stages of Dimension 5 — How of Learning, Andrea reacts to context as a catalyst for her development. During the three initial stages, as Andrea faces no stress or risk or unbalanced levels of stress and risk, she is unable to move beyond her actual development level with a firearm. In the final stage however, Shane places Andrea in a high-stress high-risk scenario where survival is determined by the ability to exhibit skill mastery. Although Shane could help Andrea fend off the Walkers, he lowers his weapon symbolizing that Andrea is responsible for completing the task, making both the risk and stress levels of the activity high. When Andrea is placed into this concurrently high-risk high-stress environment, she not only successfully completes her given task (i.e. shooting a Walker in the head) but also replicates task completion by slaying numerous other Walkers in the vicinity.

While many primary and secondary level education programs seek to decrease the risk and stress associated with learning, this episode provides a case in which development does not occur until risk and stress are concurrently high. From this example it can be said that learning outcomes devoid of stress and risk may fail to motivate students’ advancement beyond current development levels. Likewise, when there is an imbalance of stress and risk, students may rebel, act out in class, or fail to successfully complete assigned tasks. However, if a student is challenged to complete a task beyond her current development level and is informed of consequences attached to failure, she may be motivated to successfully complete the task. For instance, a student who aspires to become a published poet, but does not write consistently, might propose an assignment to her teacher requiring submission of an original poem each day prior to recess. The two may negotiate a consequence that requires the student to write during recess, rather than play with friends, on days in which she fails to complete her task. By incorporating stress (i.e. submission deadline) and risk (i.e. loss of play time) the student may be compelled to incorporate writing into her daily routine, a critical habit for any aspiring author.

It is worth noting that the author of this essay does not consider the term high-risk to be synonymous with high-stakes (e.g., state mandated standardized exams that are used as quantitative measures of student learning) for two reasons. First, high-risk assessments are relative to individual goals established and voluntarily pursued by the learner. Second, high-risk assessments are authentic in that they are contextually bound by an individual learner’s aspirations. To correspond with a student’s goals, consequences should be mutually negotiated by the student and teacher to encourage dyadic ownership of tasks and learning outcomes (Anderson). Inversely, high-stakes activities utilize decontextualized, often quantitative, means to measure a population’s competency regarding topics chosen by legislators and administrative officials (Giroux and Schmidt). Differing from high-risk learning endeavors, high-stakes activities mandate the participation of a broad student population and offer learners no voice in what or how content will be assessed.

Although some critics dismiss popular media as a mere cultural novelty that stifles the intellectual progression of today’s youth (Bauerlein), it has proven to be an invaluable tool for exploring best practices in teaching and learning. Gleaning insights from an episode of The Walking Dead, this article contributes to extant literature on the use of apocalyptic media as an instrument for analyzing instructional practice. Ripe with examples of teaching and learning in communities of practice, The Walking Dead is a valuable resource for examining the construction of knowledge in a society absent of formal schooling. As a result, future research may identify and analyze skills pursued by other characters in the series or perform longitudinal studies of characters’ development throughout the series at large. Additionally, researchers may choose to explore teaching and learning in various popular television series, films, video games, and other media through the five topographical dimensions of learning presented in this article. Regardless of the direction taken in future studies, the continuation of research on teaching and learning in popular culture is essential to the evolution and proliferation of the field.


Works Cited

Alexander, Patricia A., Diane L. Schallert, and Ralph E. Reynolds. “What is learning anyway? A topographical perspective considered.” Educational Psychologist 44.3 (2009): 176-192. Print.

Anderson, Rebecca S. “Why talk about different ways to grade? The shift from traditional assessment to alternative assessment.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 1998. 74 (1998): 5-16. Print.

Bauerlein, Mark. The dumbest generation: How the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future (or, don’t trust anyone under 30). Penguin, 2008. Print.

Boeije, Hennie. “A purposeful approach to the constant comparative method in the analysis of qualitative interviews.” Quality and Quantity 36.4 (2002): 391-409. Print.

Cole, Frank L. “Content analysis: process and application.” Clinical Nurse Specialist 2.1 (1988): 53-57. Print.

Corbin, Juliet M., and Anselm Strauss. “Grounded theory research: Procedures, canons, and evaluative criteria.” Qualitative Sociology 13.1 (1990): 3-21. Print.

Darabont, Frank, Laurie Holden, Andrew Lincoln, Jeffrey DeMunn, Sarah W. Callies, Jon Bernthal, Steven Yeun, Chandler Riggs, Robert Kirkman, Charles Adlard, and Tony Moore. The Walking Dead: The Complete Second Season. Beverly Hills, CA: Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2012. Film.

Elo, Satu, and Helvi Kyngäs. “The qualitative content analysis process.” Journal of Advanced Nursing 62.1 (2008): 107-115. Print.

Gavelek, James R., and Taffy E. Raphael. “Changing talk about text: New roles for teachers and students.” Language Arts 73.3 (1996): 182-192. Print.

Giroux, Henry A., and Michèle Schmidt. “Closing the achievement gap: A metaphor for children left behind.” Journal of Educational Change 5.3 (2004): 213-228. Print.

Harré, Rom. Personal being: A theory for individual psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984. Print.

Krippendorff, Klaus. Content Analysis: An Introduction to Its Methodology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2012. Print.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999. Print.

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Author Bio:

Anthony Neely is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching at The University of Texas at San Antonio. His research explores youth and popular culture as instructional tools, affective teacher-student relationships, and reverse mentoring in secondary level classrooms. Prior to pursuing his doctorate, Anthony earned a Master’s degree in Educational Theory and Practice at Arkansas State University and a Bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education at Tennessee Technological University.

Social Media:



Twitter: @anthonydneely


Reference Citation:

Neely, Anthony. “Girls, Guns, and Zombies: Five Dimensions of Teaching and Learning in The Walking Dead. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2.1 (2014). Web and Print.

Neely, A. (2014). Girls, guns, and zombies: Five dimensions of teaching and learning in The Walking DeadDialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2(1).

“καλὸν ἀνθρωπίνου βίου κάτοπτρον”: Popular Culture as a Pedagogical Lens on Greco-Roman Antiquity (Essays in honor of Kirsten Day)

Kirsten Day and Benjamin Haller

The contributors would like to dedicate this volume to Associate Professor Kirsten Day of Augustana College. Kirsten’s outstanding research and often-unheralded labors have made the Classical Representations in Popular Culture area of the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association (SWPACA) a vital force for scholarship and teaching in the field of Classics.

Under Day’s leadership, the Classical Representations in Popular Culture area at SWPACA became a veritable symposium of ideas, sparking collaborations that pushed the scholarly conversation in new directions. We, her fellow contributors, wish to take this opportunity to express our tremendous respect and gratitude.

Diu verba et facta sapientium benignarumque vivent postquam corpora nostra pulvis et umbra inanis fient.
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Wounds That Will Not Heal: Heroism and Innocence in Shane and the Iliad

Carl A. Rubino
Hamilton College
Clinton, New York, USA



George Stevens’ film Shane, which dates from 1953, remains an especially successful version of the heroic paradigm that is established in Homer’s Iliad. Just as Achilles, the hero of Homer’s poem, considers abandoning the war at Troy in favor of a long and uneventful life at home, the film’s mysterious hero makes a futile attempt to abandon his violent past for a “normal life” as an ordinary farmer in the American west. In the end, however, the threatened status of the domestic world Shane is trying to enter makes it impossible for him to renounce his heroic nature and violent past.  Because he wishes to save his newfound friends, Shane, like Achilles, is compelled to become a hero once again. As a result, once Shane succeeds in rescuing his friends from danger, he is compelled to leave the community he yearned to join and for whose sake he risked his life.

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O Homer, Where Art Thou?: Teaching the Iliad and the Odyssey through Popular Culture

Mallory Young
Tarleton State University
Stephenville, Texas, USA



Like so many of my academic colleagues, I spend an inordinate amount of time lamenting our students’ lack of engagement, discipline, and preparation. The problems are naturally exacerbated when the subject is literature and the literature in question is, by its nature, far removed in time and place from students’ daily lives. At the same time, requirements to study literature have become compressed, if not eliminated entirely. Ancient Greek works, in particular, seem to pose special problems for unmotivated or unprepared students. As our students become less likely to have a prior context from which to approach ancient texts, the challenge of introducing those texts in a one or two-semester Western literature course becomes greater. And yet, how can we omit foundational works like the Iliad and the Odyssey from a general education? If we do include them, how do we remain true to the works while spending only two or three weeks considering them? Even after decades of teaching, I have not, I admit, fully managed to answer that question to my satisfaction. But I will share two approaches – one to the Iliad, the other to the Odyssey – that can be used successfully, I believe, in undergraduate survey courses on Western literature and culture. The two interpretive strategies, while different, share two central elements: each is based on a single theoretical framework that is easily accessible to lower-level undergraduate students, and both incorporate popular culture. In the case of the Iliad, I have used the twentieth-century lens of the Vietnam War provided through Jonathan Shay’s study, Achilles in Vietnam. For the Odyssey, I have drawn on two contrasting movies, each focused on an Odysseus-like character placed in a twentieth-century setting: Ulee’s Gold and O Brother, Where Art Thou?
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The Odyssey and Its Odyssey in Contemporary Texts: Re-visions in Star Trek, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and The Penelopiad

Mary Economou Bailey Green
Ryerson University
Toronto, Ontario, Canada



Homer’s The Odyssey is the archetypal quest story. The dialogue began with Homer, and contemporary texts and popular culture media have continued the tradition of deconstructing and recreating stories, addressing issues related to the human psyche. As Hardwick and Stray note, the relationship between ancient and modern is “not merely inherited but constantly made and remade,” one that we see in the following varied genres and versions that retell the Odyssean myth, relating re-visions of characters, relationships, structures, and themes. The original Star Trek episode “Who Mourns for Adonais” is an allegory of the Odyssean quest for human knowledge, while Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife presents a modern magical story of love, and Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad is a story of “slippery truth,” debunking the heroic and romantic. Continue Reading →

Theseus Loses his Way: Viktor Pelevin’s Helmet of Horror and the Old Labyrinth for the New World

Alison Traweek
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA



This article explores the relationship between the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, and Viktor Pelevin’s 2006 adaptation of it, The Helmet of Horror, particularly how it can serve as a case study for the nature and significance of adaptation. It examines the idea of memory, a central theme of the novel, and considers how three aspects of the original myth – the Minotaur, Ariadne’s thread, and the labyrinth itself – shape and inform Pelevin’s retelling. Each of these is unique to this myth in antiquity, and together, they structure the story. Each is also fundamentally connected to the idea of memory: the Minotaur is a living reminder of Pasiphae’s transgression, Ariadne’s thread is the mnemonic that allows Theseus to escape, and the labyrinth is a structure whose very nature is designed to challenge memory by creating confusion. Continue Reading →