Tag Article List: Popular Culture

Visuality of Race in Popular Culture: Teaching Racial Histories and Iconography in Media

Joni Boyd Acuff
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio, USA
Acuff.12@osu.edu

Amelia M. Kraehe
University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona USA
akraehe@arizona.edu

Abstract

The repetition of racist imagery from historical to contemporary popular culture is indicative of a lack of visual culture education among artists, designers, and other creative cultural producers working today. This paper addresses the dearth of resources for teaching visual codes and conventions of racial iconography that are recycled in popular media and contribute to the fabrication of racial differences, maintenance of racial hierarchies, and normalization of white supremacist ideology. Inspired by Critical Race Theory in art and visual culture education, the essay proposes teaching tactics and sites/sights that can support students in developing visual understandings of race in popular culture and the practices of racialized looking it invites. Because popular culture is contested terrain, students can learn to be race-conscious consumers of popular culture today. A deeper awareness of visual codes and conventions can foster critical interpretations and creative responses to popular racial constructions. We suggest key vocabulary for scaffolding dialogue and counter-visual strategies for deconstructing racial images and practices of looking.

Keywords: race, representation, popular culture, art, visual culture, racial literacy, critical race theory

Author(s) Bio

Joni Boyd Acuff, PhD is currently Associate Professor of Arts Administration, Education and Policy at The Ohio State University. Her research attends to critical multiculturalism, critical race theory, Black feminist theory, and culturally responsive pedagogy, teaching and curriculum development in art education. Acuff is co-editor of Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, published by Rowman & Littlefield. She is the co-author, alongside Amelia M. Kraehe, of the forthcoming Davis publication, Race and Art Education. For more about Acuff and her research, visit https://aaep.osu.edu/people/acuff.12

Amelia M. Kraehe, PhD is currently Associate Professor of Art and Visual Culture Education at The University of Arizona. She researches and teaches about social justice in education, the arts and creative forms of agency, racism and intersectional processes of self-identification. Kraehe is co-editor of Pedagogies in the Flesh: Case Studies on the Embodiment of Sociocultural Differences in Education and The Palgrave Handbook of Race and the Arts in Education. Her current book, titled Race and Art Education and also co-authored with Joni Boyd Acuff, is forthcoming from Davis Publications. For more about Kraehe and her research, visit https://art.arizona.edu/people/directory/akraehe/.

Suggested Citation

APA

Acuff, J. B., Kraehe, A. M. (2020). Visuality of Race in Popular Culture: Teaching Racial Histories and Iconography in Media. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 7(3). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v7-issue-3/visuality-of-race-in-popular-culture-teaching-racial-histories-and-iconography-in-media/

MLA

Acuff, J and A Kraehe. Visuality of Race in Popular Culture: Teaching Racial Histories and Iconography in Media. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 7, no. 3, 2020. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v7-issue-3/visuality-of-race-in-popular-culture-teaching-racial-histories-and-iconography-in-media/

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Hell You Talmbout: Mixtapes as method for online environmental justice pedagogy

Elspeth Iralu*
University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA
iralu@unm.edu

Caitlin Grann*
University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA
cgrann@unm.edu

*The authors wish to indicate that there is equal authorship on this article. 

Abstract

This paper takes on the mixtape as a pedagogical method for approaching urgent and critical topics within the undergraduate online classroom. Drawing on two case studies from different sections of an introductory course on environmental and social justice taught in an American studies department, we demonstrate how mixtape-inspired assignments offer a method for theorizing and enacting the connections between popular culture and critical scholarship around injustice in the humanities and social sciences while
also altering the space of the classroom to promote deeper student engagement, comprehension, and reflection. We argue that introducing popular culture as both content and method within an undergraduate course not only strengthens student understanding of key concepts and the relevance of these outside the classroom, but also acknowledges the importance of time and context within the space of the online course. Popular culture, a component of this context, enriches the online learning experience and responds to contemporary issues and events that students encounter in the material world. Mixtapes serve as a conceptual tool for understanding the contents of a syllabus and as a pedagogical tool for assessment. The practice of making mixtapes within a course on environmental and social justice opens the possibility for radical expression.

Keywords: mixtape, environmental justice, online classroom, online teaching and learning, popular culture, pedagogy

Author Bio

Elspeth Iralu is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the department of Community and Regional Planning at the University of New Mexico, where she teaches courses on Indigenous planning, environmental and social justice, and decolonial politics. Her research brings transnational American studies into critical dialogue with Indigenous geographies. Her writing has appeared in The New Americanist, the Journal of Native American and Indigenous Studies, and the American Association of Geographers Review of Books. 

Caitlin Grann is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Her current research explores the relationality of avant-garde and alt-country via a reimagined North American Southwest as it exists in the archive of artist Jo Harvey Allen. Caitlin makes photographic artist books in tandem with her scholarly research. Several of her pieces are in permanent collections of the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.

Suggested Citation

MLA

Iralu, Elspeth and Caitlin Grann. “Hell You Talmbout: Mixtapes as method for online environmental justice pedagogy.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 7, no. 1. 2020http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v7-issue-2/hell-you-talmbout-mixtapes-as-method-for-online-environmental-justice-pedagogy/

APA

Iralu, E. & C. Grann. (2020). Hell You Talmbout: Mixtapes as method for online environmental justice pedagogy. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 7(2). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v7-issue-2/hell-you-talmbout-mixtapes-as-method-for-online-environmental-justice-pedagogy/

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Zombie Literature: Analyzing the Fear of the Unknown through Popular Culture

T. Hunter Strickland, PhD.
The University of Georgia
Athens, Georgia, USA
thunterstrickland@uga.edu

Abstract

This paper will focus on how the rise in popularity of zombie literature in the 21st century is reflective of a western cultural need to address the fear of the unknown through popular culture. Through the flesh-eating zombie, we enter a parallel world where everything familiar in our communities becomes evil. The genre reflects the fear in Western society of the neighbor who has turned against you, survival in the midst of government collapse and the monster within. Zombie fantasy literature allows society a venue to deconstruct what is known while dealing with these fears and the unbridled hate of the unthinking zombie through a collective experience using popular culture. What this fantasy subgenre allows, the author will explain, is a monster that embodies an individual human’s greatest fears. At times, the zombie reflects the fear of social breakdown; at others, the zombie reflects aging and death. The versatility of this embodiment of fear allows it to be a genre that continues to evolve.

Using the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin on carnival and festive folk humor, the author will discuss how the zombie genre has provided fantasy lovers a desconstructive space to deal with fear, death, and hate in a genre that breaks down what western society has constructed for itself, and also allows readers to rebuild the future without constraint. Zombies, however, always leave room for humanity to hope for life and the future. This popular culture phenomenon goes beyond mere entertainment as it reaches into the heart of viewers and allows them to express their greatest emotions.

Keywords:Bakhtin, Carnivalesque, zombies, deconstruction, laughter, fear, popular culture

Author Bio

T. Hunter Strickland is a Clinical Assistant Professor of English Education in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at The University of Georgia. His research interests are in dialogic pedagogy and the use of young adult literature in both secondary schools and teacher education programs. Additionally, he is interested in using Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque in analyzing certain subgenres of young adult literature in order to engage with the themes of fear and laughter present in young adult texts and the students who read them.

Suggested Citation

APA
Strickland, T. H. (2019). Zombie literature: Analyzing the fear of the unknown through popular culture. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 6(3). www.journaldialogue.org/issues/v6-issue-3/zombie-literature-analyzing-the-fear-of-the-unknown-through-popular-culture/

MLA
Strickland, T. Hunter. “Zombie Literature: Analyzing the Fear of the Unknown through Popular Culture” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 6, no. 3, 2019 http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v6-issue-3/zombie-literature-analyzing-the-fear-of-the-unknown-through-popular-culture/

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“No te voy a dejar nunca” – Culture and Second Language Acquisition for Survival in Fear the Walking Dead

Sharon M. Nuruddin
Doctoral Candidate, TESOL & World Language Education Program
Language & Literacy Education Department
The University of Georgia, Athens, GA
snuruddin@uga.edu

Abstract 

Popular culture reinforces and shapes the beliefs and values of the individual, the community, and the masses. It can also transmit hidden messages about aspects of human behavior that are reiterated in scholarly research. In the field of education, particularly in world language teacher education, film and television can be used as an effective tool for examining how we acquire a second language. Using a symbolic convergence theory perspective (SCT) (Bormann, 1972), I employ Sellnow’s (2014) three-step process for the rhetorical analyses of mediated popular culture texts to reveal “covert messages” (p. 9) within the popular American Movie Channel (AMC) television series, Fear the Walking Dead (FTWD). These messages inform how second language and culture acquisition develop and serve as life-saving resources in extreme cases of cultural and linguistic isolation. In Season 1 of FTWD, Nicholas “Nick” Clark, embarks on an unintentional language and cultural immersion trip to Mexico. His experience reflects research on second language and culture acquisition, reinforcing the understanding that languages can be learned rapidly when it is a matter of survival. My analysis will show that while language learning can transpire through a formally-structured classroom experience, it can also transpire informally—through a Vygotskian (1978), sociocultural, “survivalist” language and culture learning experience—as reflected in FTWD. Applying Sellnow’s process and Bormann’s perspective can help teacher educators and their students find deeper meaning through new and engaging popular culture texts.  

Keywords: Fear the Walking Dead, zombies, second language acquisition, teacher education, Spanish language teaching, popular culture, survivalist language learning, symbolic convergence theory, rhetorical analysis, zone of proximal development 

Author Bio 

Sharon M. Nuruddin earned her BA in Spanish and Sociology from Villanova University and her MA in Translation from the University of Puerto Rico, with a focus on literary translation. Prior to pursuing her doctoral degree at The University of Georgia, she was a Spanish instructor at a university in Atlanta, Georgia. That experience sparked a desire to become a K-12 world language teacher educator determined to support pre-service teachers in their efforts to serve a new generation of bilingual students. As an emerging researcher, she fuses literary, literacy, and sociocultural theories to promote world language education in marginalized communities, and is interested in the intersections of SLA and popular culture. She is also a student of arts-based research methods and has published poetry and participated in poetry events with professors and fellow students. In addition to Dialogue, her work will soon be featured in an upcoming issue of Intersections: Critical Issues in Education. 

Suggested Citation 

APA

Nuruddin, S. M. (2019). “No te voy a dejar nunca” – Culture and Second Language Acquisition for Survival in Fear the Walking Dead. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 6(3). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v6-issue-3/no-te-voy-a-dejar-nunca-culture-and-second-language-acquisition-for-survival-in-fear-the-walking-dead/

MLA

Nuruddin, Sharon M. “‘No te voy a dejar nunca’ – Culture and Second Language Acquisition for Survival in Fear the Walking Dead.Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol 6, no. 3, 2019. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v6-issue-3/no-te-voy-a-dejar-nunca-culture-and-second-language-acquisition-for-survival-in-fear-the-walking-dead/

 

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Studying Silence in Popular Culture

Kathy Merlock Jackson
Virginia Wesleyan University
Norfolk, Virginia, USA
kmjackson@vwu.edu

Terry Lindvall
Virginia Wesleyan University
Norfolk, Virginia, USA
tlindvall@vwu.edu

Abstract

This article explains the impetus for and execution of a team-taught, interdisciplinary class in silence using popular culture materials and practices, such as silent film, music, meditation, and mime. The course identifies individuals as possessing characteristics of introversion and extraversion and explores the role of silence in the modern world, incorporating the following: (1) Foundations for the Study of Silence, (2) The History of Silence, (3) The Role of Silence in Spirituality, Creativity and Reflection, (4) Silence in Communication Study, (5) Silent Film and Silence in Film, (6) The Role of Silence in a Highly Technological, Mediated World, and (7) Student Research Presentations. The class made students aware of the media-rich environment in which they live as well as the choices they have to seek quiet..

Keywords: Popular Culture, Silence, Quiet, Introversion, Extraversion, Spirituality, Creativity, Silent Film, Meditation, Mime, Interdisciplinary, Undergraduate Teaching, Higher Education, Curriculum Development

Author Bios

Kathy Merlock Jackson is Professor of Communication at Virginia Wesleyan University, where she teaches courses in media studies and children’s culture. She is the author or editor of eight books, four of them on Disney-related topics, and over a hundred articles, chapters, and reviews. The former editor The Journal of American Culture, she is Vice President/President-Elect of the Popular Culture Association. 

Terry Lindvall occupies the C. S. Lewis Chair of Communication and Christian Thought at Virginia Wesleyan University. His publications include God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert (NYU Press, 2016) and Divine Film Comedies (Routledge, 2016).

Reference Citation

APA
Merlock Jackson, K. & Lindvall, T. (2019). Studying silence in popular culture. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 6(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v6-issue-1/studying-silence-in-popular-culture/

MLA
Merlock Jackson, Kathy, and Terry Lindvall.  Studying silence in popular culture. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2018. vol 6, no 1. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v6-issue-1/studying-silence-in-popular-culture/

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Teaching Technical Writing through Designing and Running Escape Rooms

Marijel (Maggie) Melo
University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona, USA
marijelmelo@email.arizona.edu

Antonnet Johnson
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana, USA
antonnet@purdue.edu

Abstract

​​While many instructors recognize how the integration of popular culture and student interests can enhance student engagement and learning, this pedagogical approach remains rare in technical writing courses. In this article, we provide an end-to-end outline of an escape room project assigned to junior and senior level undergraduates, including an overview of our pedagogical rationale, institutional context, instructional materials, and synthesis of work produced by students. By collaborating on a range of technical documentation, students learn through experience that can be leveraged beyond the classroom and in their professional pursuits. Moreover, we aim to provide teachers with an example of how they might develop and support non-traditional approaches to technical writing in ways that integrate possibilities for embodied learning, experiential knowledge development, and creative, critical thinking without compromising complexity or rigor.

Keywords: Technical communication, technical writing, project-based learning, experiential learning, popular culture, escape rooms, critical pedagogy

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Popular culture figures in television, movies, comics, video games and online videos have captured the imaginations of young people. The themes and characters of shows students watch regularly help shape

their views on contemporary issues, especially as they compare their experiences with those portrayed on their favorite shows (Duff, 2002). Lisa Patel Stevens (2001) points out that it helps to create student engagement to use non-print materials as pedagogical artifacts as students regularly engage in dynamic
multiliteracies through their personal media choices, the content of which constitutes part of their conversations with fellow students. 

This paper demonstrates how we organize a class employing an episode from South Park,
Proper Condom Use
, (Parker & Stone, 2001) to introduce topics relevant to literary analysis as a platform for using similar frames in analyzing more complex media, in this case, classic short stories.  Specifically, it describes an early in-class exercise designed to generate class discussion in weekend and evening classes at a Midwestern college.

These classes are populated largely by diverse adult students in their late twenties or early thirties, typically parents, pursuing associate degrees on a part time basis, including many who are the first in their families to pursue higher education.  Some are enrolled in this class because it is a degree requirement, not out of a desire to read literature, which is perceived as an elite activity with little relevance to their own lives and aspirations.

Our challenge is to bridge that gap—to show students that the tools of literary analysis are accessible to them by introducing analytical literary frames in a novel way. In a sense, we begin with what Dwight McDonald (1962) would characterize as a “mass culture” artifact, an episode of South Park, as a bridge to more “high culture” short stories traditionally explored in literature classes. We especially focus demonstrating the importance of providing specific textual evidence to support arguments in analyzing short stories.

Our experience in exploring this episode with adult students–nearly all of whom report having seen one or more episodes of South Park, Comedy Central’s most watched show—especially popular among the 18-49 age group, confirms it is an excellent way of generating lively feedback, while also introducing
students to literary analysis tools, including imagery, character, theme, genre, and audience. (See Hull (2003); Stewart (2007); Vasudevan (2010). This exercise takes 60 – 75 minutes to complete, including showing the 22-minute episode.

Pedagogical approach

To stimulate discussion and establish a premise for later class analysis, prior to viewing the video, we ask students to recall the content and student reactions to sex education classes offered them in junior and senior high school. We then introduce the conflict at the center of Proper Condom Use (Parker & Stone, 2001), which concerns how, when, and through what agents sex education should take place.  We tell students they will be analyzing Proper Condom Use as a literary text.  To do so,  we pause at intervals to ask them to answer questions about each segment that specifically highlight a means of examining literary texts in ways they will be using in analyzing the short stories we have assigned for subsequent analysis.

In this paper we summarize the plot of the episode, including representative dialogue, show where we stop the video, what questions we raise, and how we use this experience to prepare students for making similar analyses of the short stories they will be reading during the semester.

Visual and Aural Humor

We begin by asking students to identify visual and aural elements, the sights, sounds, colors, vocal inflections and actions (Nixon, 1999) that are key to South Park’s comedy.  In the opening scene Stan and Kyle are burning a Jennifer Lopez doll with a magnifying glass, during which Stan yells, “Scream for me bitch.” Cartman, the most controversial of the main characters, then shows them how to “milk a dog,” a technique taught to him by mischievous fifth graders.

In-class question:  Specifically describe the sensory elements—what you saw and heard–central this scene. Explain how they highlight the transgressive nature of the children’s behavior. As you watch the rest of the episode, consider how the opening scene foreshadows the children’s subsequent actions.

Parallel analysis: Read the first four paragraphs of both London’s “To Build a Fire” and Crane’s “The Open Boat” and explain how the description of colors, weather, and the environment reinforces the naturalistic themes of each story.

Character

We next introduce the concept of character, or persona, with definitions of protagonist and antagonist, which drive South Park stories.  We ask students to identify traits of their favorite character and explain the role that character typically plays, including what makes that character interesting.  We also ask whether this character is flat, displaying little change within or throughout episodes, or evolving, demonstrating growth and understanding. Students highlight that within the cartoon format of South Park characters typically remain largely flat, though they also point out that some characters admit to seeing the error of their ways at a particular episode’s end.

In-class question: With which character in Proper Condom Use do you most identify? What traits in this character’s persona make them likeable, funny, or annoying?    Describe actions and words from the episode that support your characterization.

Parallel analysis:  Describe Miss Brill’s persona at the opening of the story and contrast it with her persona at the end.  Cite specific passages that help explain the dramatic change in how she sees the world.

Themes

Experience vs. Expertise

We show subsequent scenes and ask students to analyze how elements of plot, motivation, tone, and values highlight specific themes within the episode, all of which can be identified in one or another of the short stories we analyze in subsequent classes.  For example, a major theme of South Park is parodying the reliance on expertise rather than trusting personal experience.  When Stan “milks” the dog, and when Randy and Sharon, his parents, observe his behavior, they say they will ground him for 10 months.  Yet they cannot bear to speak with Stan about sex: their notions about childhood innocence destroyed, they do not provide age-appropriate information.  Instead, they call a PTA meeting, assuming sex education at school is a “safe space” between their children, their children’s friends, and MTV–and that with comprehensive sex education, the children will subsequently engage in sexually responsible ways, and not in behaviors that lead to pregnancy and STDs.

Principal Victoria:  Okay, parents.  I know a lot of you want a chance to speak, but we have to talk one at a time.

Sharon:  Look, our kids are learning sexual things on the street and on television.  There’s no way we can stop it.  The schools have to teach them sexual education at a younger age.

Principal Victoria:  School policy has been to teach sexual education later.  In fifth grade.

Mr. Tweek:  It isn’t soon enough!

Stuart:  Yeah.  Why, just this afternoon our son was caught beating off our dog.

Chef:  Look, parents.  Do you really want your children learning about sex?  Part of the fun of being a kid is being naïve!  Let them be kids for a while.

Ms. Choksondik:  Naïve at what cost, Chef?  Parents, we have to face facts:  Children in America are having sex at younger and younger ages.  STD’s are affecting younger and younger kids all the time.  The only way we can combat that is by educating children before they have sex.

Chef:  The first thing that kids learn about sex shouldn’t be some bitch-scare tactic about STD’s.

Sheila:  No, she’s right!  With all the teen pregnancies that are out today, I think my boy does need to know about sexual education.  From the school. (Parker & Stone, 2001),

Students point out that this dialogue represents support for the view that common sense and experience lead to better decision-making than its opposite: relying on so-called experts.  The parents forfeit their traditional roles of teaching their children about sex themselves based on their knowledge of their own children’s readiness for such information and naively assume the South Park school teachers are better agents for this education.

Students volunteer that this proves to be a false assumption. Miss Choksondik, an advocate for teaching sex education to the fourth grade children whom parents may presume has been licensed by the state as an expert in the subject matters she teaches,  admits she has had little sexual experience. Chef, who represents the voice of experience and a character who has a reputation for having sex with many women, serves as a foil to this groupthink, asserting, unsuccessfully at this point in the episode, that sex education should not be taught in schools, especially to 8-10 year-old children.

In-class questions: Can you relate to the experience the South Park children have when you look back at your reactions to sex education classes you took during your elementary and secondary education? Recall a specific conversation you had with a fellow student about one of your lessons.  How did what you learned in the classroom compare with what you had learned from other sources? What were the differences?

Parallel analysis:  Explore how the theme of experience vs. expertise is developed in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Why does John fail to understand the impact of his wife’s postpartum depression on her feelings, thoughts, and behavior?  How does his medical expertise inhibit his ability to come up with a more effective treatment plan? Explore the theme of experience vs. education in Walker’s “Everyday Use.”
Identify the differences in how the mother and her well-educated daughter view the mother’s possessions?

Scare tactics and unintended consequences

Another theme students highlight is the ineffectiveness of fear as a way of changing behavior.  For example, when Wendy and Bebe indicate they believe the lessons will be fun, Miss Choksondick, responds with “scared straight” rhetoric.  “Fun, you think this is going to be fun! Well, let’s start with our first lesson then, shall we?  She writes SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASES on the blackboard, asserting, That’s right, because unless you get boys to wear condoms you can and will get a sexually transmitted disease from them! …Gonorrhea, herpes, chlamydia, HPV, syphilis, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, the list goes on and on (Parker & Stone, 2001).

This scene satirizes sex education classes.  The lessons are inappropriate for this age group:  the scare tactics about negative consequences lead to fear of sex rather than a lifelong commitment to responsible sexual behavior, the program’s stated purpose. This scene allows for a conversation on the effectiveness of fear appeals in reducing harmful behavior. Many students report having experienced similar fear appeals in high school about sex education, and about smoking, driving and texting, and drug use as well (Stewart, 2007).

A related theme is the role of unintended consequences. In her second presentation on sex education, Miss Choksondik stresses the traumas of pregnancy.

Alright girls.  Yesterday we went over the myriad of diseases you can get from boys, but today we’re going to talk about the most horrible thing they can give you of all.  Pregnancy!  That’s right, since you girls have decided to be sexually active; teen-pregnancy is at an all-time high!  You seem to think it’s gonna be fun and neat to have a baby, well let’s watch a little video shall we? (Parker & Stone, 2001).

During a video a narrator intones, “…later the contractions are happening closer together.  Mom sure is in a lot of pain.  Now we can see the crown of the baby’s head, stretching the vaginal walls in ways never before thought possible by Mom.  Finally, the miracle happens, and the baby is born.  But mom’s not done yet!  She still has some afterbirth to push out of her” (Parker & Stone, 2001).  This terrifies the girls who later run away from the boys when they meet in the cafeteria.

Students observe the children have too little relevant experience to understand the materials being shared.  Having learned about STDs and AIDS, fear replaces friendship, and their reaction is to reject the boys unless they wear condoms.

Wendy:  Stay away from me Stan!

Stan:  Why?

Wendy:  Are you wearing a condom?

Stan:  A what?!?

Girls: [all screaming loudly] AAAAAAAGGGHHHHHH!

Bebe:  Do any of you have your condoms on?

Kyle:  No.

Girls:  AAAAAAGGHHHHHHHH!

Wendy:  Don’t you know that without wearing a condom you could get a disease?

Kyle:  Nun. Uh.

Bebe:  yeah huh.  If you don’t wear a condom, you’re gonna get AIDS!

Wendy:  You guys have to wear condoms.  Now, please, just, just go away.  We don’t want your AIDS. (Parker & Stone, 2001).

The girls are terrified of having sex–and of boys in general. In response, the boys attempt to buy condoms at a drugstore.  While the older pharmacist is hesitant to fulfil this request, his assistant explains, “Kids are going to do what they do, and it’s up to us to make sure they’re protected. We just got in the new Gladiators for kids.  ‘Lil Mini’s.  They’re specially designed for kids under 10, and they’re only $5.95 for a box of fifty (Parker & Stone, 2001).” When the boys attempt to wear the condoms, Butters supplies rubber bands to make the condoms “stay on.”  He exclaims, “there isn’t nothing’ that’s getting’ in my wiener through this thing!  And it’s even got a little reservoir at the end so you can pee in it!” (Parker & Stone, 2001).

The teachers find out about the condom purchases and almost gleefully agree to start teaching sex ed. to kindergarten students–oblivious to their part in motivating the girls to fear sex and pregnancy and then insisting that the boys purchase condoms.

These scenes are used to generate conversation about experiences students have had when they believe their voices were not heard at home or in the classroom. Students point out that the children do not seek these remedies.  It is the parents who abdicate their responsibility to assess their children’s readiness to talk about sex, ask them questions about their experience, or see if the children have questions for them.

Students laugh at the unintended consequences of the sex education program: This spoof of the promotion of sex education from kindergarten through high school results in the boys and girls coming into conflict, each believing the other to be responsible for spreading disease.  They skirmish, with the girls protecting themselves behind a steel fortress and the boys, riding in battery operated cars, on the attack, using water guns to break through this defense.  In this battle, Kenny, hiding in his jacket, dies, a South Park plot convention, when struck by a boomerang. His death shows that the children are not the idealized innocents of their parents’ imaginations, another fruitful area for class discussion.

Nonetheless, while ignorant of carnal knowledge, the South Park children can be cruel and can experience fear, regret, anxiety, and especially in Kenny’s case, be subject to repeated extreme violence—and students can reflect on bullying they experienced in school and the emotional stress it created.

Similarly, some students report that like the South Park parents, their parents seemed only dimly aware their children were experiencing negative emotions.  This recognition serves as a source of the parents’ feelings of inadequacy, resulting in their histrionic outrage and grief over evidence that their children are leaving the Garden and facing uncertain and terrifying consequences which the parents cannot control.

In-class questions:  Recall how fear appeals were used in school programs about sex, drugs, tobacco, and driving?  As you remember student reactions to them, do you recall any unintended consequences, such as students mocking the presenter or the presentation?  What did they say and what was the reaction to their comments?

As a series, South Park suggests that parents don’t really understand what’s going on in their children’s lives. Do you agree? Explain your answer with reference to your own school experiences, including bullying and being excluded from favored groups.

Parallel analysis:  Identify symbols in Jackson’s “The Lottery” that contribute to the imagery the story uses to develop the atmosphere of fear that builds until the story’s shocking resolution.

What are the unintended consequences of the grandmother’s actions in O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find? Identify text from the story that supports your analysis.

Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is another prominent theme of Proper Condom Use.  When Miss Choksondik and Mr. Mackey have unprotected sex, they are transgressing the lessons they promoted in the classroom. In fact, Miss Choksondick is so desperate for sexual contact, she offers Mr. Mackey a drink, strips naked, lowers her head off-screen, and is later portrayed with disheveled hair.  Students point out that his illustrates the limitation of education as a predictor of behavior:   while the teachers tell parents that sex education will lead their children to make responsible decisions, the teachers themselves fail to practice what they preach.

In-class prompts: Did you observe teachers or administrators practicing some of the actions the school discouraged in students, such as speeding or smoking? Did this affect your perception of the credibility of what was being taught?

Parallel analysisIdentify scenes in “Young Goodman Brown” where the protagonist increasingly grows disillusioned when he discovers the hypocrisy of adults he has known and trusted.

Genre

We point out that this South Park episode, a monolog, which we teach is a convention of satire and burlesque, lampoons the idea that if evil influences are not headed off early, a social apocalypse will occur—and the naive hope that experts can fix all issues children face. The monolog is delivered by Chef, the voice of experience, in which he calls for rationality and truthfulness from parents.

Chef:  Schools are teaching condom use to younger students each day.  But sex isn’t something that should be taught in textbooks and diagrams.  Sex is emotional and spiritual.  It needs to be taught by family.  I know it can be hard, parents, but if you leave it up to the schools to teach sex, you don’t know who they’re learning it from.  It could be from someone who doesn’t know, someone who has a bad opinion of it, or even a complete pervert.

Miss Choksondik:  He’s right.  I never knew how special and personal sex was until just recently.

Sharon:  This whole mess started because we couldn’t talk to our boys ourselves.

Sheila:  It’s easier just to leave it up to the school, but it’s just not a school subject.

Principal Victoria:  Then it’s decided:  no more condom classes in grade school.

Stan:  But Chef, when is the right age for us to start having sex?

Chef:  It’s very simple, children.  The right time to start having sex is…seventeen.

Kyle:  Seventeen?

Sheila:  So you mean seventeen as long as you’re in love?

Chef:  Nope, just seventeen.

Gerald:  But what if you’re not ready at seventeen?

Chef:  Seventeen!  You’re ready!

Stan:  Well, I guess we got a while to wait before we have to worry about sex and diseases, huh? (Parker & Stone, 2001).

When the parents see the error of their ways, they show they can reflect on their actions and learn from experience. We point out viewers sympathize with them because they realize their behavior springs from a positive motive to protect their children from future harm, in Kenneth Burke’s words, “a comic corrective” which serves as a relief valve from the tensions of the war between the girls and boys.

Consistent with South Park’s transgressive nature, the episode ends with Cartman again “milking” the dog, indifferent to what he now knows is objectionable to the parents, as he finds it personally gratifying. Students point out this is another indication of a self-absorption and “will to power” that defines his character.

Discussion Prompt:  What purpose does the ending monologue, a convention of burlesque and of South Park, serve in this episode?

Parallel analysis:  Identify specific passages in Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” that reveal to the reader that the story is actually satire.

Audience Analysis 

After students have viewed the entire episode, we address the issue of audience analysis, asking students to identify what they find compelling in this episode and also how they see it appealing to other viewers (Duff, 2002).  Students identify plot elements that support differing value sets. The scriptwriters present a traditional perspective of morality—that parents, not schools, be the primary sex education teachers. Yet they mock conventional moral values by showing characters in highly degrading situations that stretch the limits of what is acceptable on television.  Chef presents a secular world view declaring the age seventeen is the right age to have sex–outside of love and marriage.  Finally, they reflect a populist perspective that implies gaining carnal knowledge from older adolescents during puberty is preferable to teaching it to elementary school children before they have the experience or physical maturity to understand its role in human society.

In-class prompt:  Why do you believe South Park resonates so strongly with a young and primarily male audience?  What plot elements and devices did you observe in Proper Condom Use that this demographic might find particularly amusing?

Parallel analysis:  Why do you believeThe Things They Carried” resonates so strongly with military combat veterans?  What plot elements and devices did you observe that this demographic might find particularly compelling? Justify your reasoning.

Conclusion

Within South Park’s ecosystem, the children remain ageless, indulging in the pleasures of childhood immaturity.  They serve as outsiders, spectators to the futility of parents and others who try to impose adult burdens on them.  Students laugh as they learn to identify specific evidence to support their analysis of the unintended consequences of the adults’ decisions and share similar stories from their own experience.

Our students report that they like this way of introducing them to basic literary concepts. They also enjoy it because it offers them the opportunity to reflect within a familiar learning space on something they have experienced in their own lives:  the use of fear appeals and worst case thinking intended to change young adult behavior–whether it be warnings about underage and unprotected sex, as in Proper Condom Use, or tobacco, alcohol and marijuana abuse as in South Park episodes Butt Out and My Future Self ‘N’ Me. In short, this exercise allows students to reflect thoughtfully as they share stories about their own school experiences with fear appeals while teachers can introduce literary concepts and how to document claims with specific evidence in an easily understood and relatable format.

Endnote

[1]  An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the Hawaii International Conference on Education, January 2017.

References

Duff, P. (2002, March). Pop culture and ESL students. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 45, no. 6, pp. 482-488.

Hull, G. (Nov, 2003). At last: Youth culture and digital media: New literacies for new times. Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 229-233.

McDonald, Dwight. (1962). Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture (NY: Random House).

Nixon, H. (1999, September 1). Adults watching children watch South Park. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 12-16.

Parker, T. (Writer & Director). (2001, Season 5, Episode 7). Proper Condom Use. In T. Parker & M. Stone (Executive Producers). South Park. Comedy Partners; Comedy Central. Los Angeles: South Park Studios.

Stevens, L. (March, 2001). South Park and society. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 44, no. 6, pp. 548-559.

Stewart, J. (2007). The Rhetoric of South Park, MA, University of Cincinnati, Dept of Communication.

Vasudevan, L., Schultz, K., & Jennifer Bateman, J. (October 2010). Rethinking composing in a digital age: Authoring literate identities through multimodal storytelling.  Written Communication, vol. 27, no.4, pp. 442-468.

Author Bios

Marijel (Maggie) Melo is a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona, where she taught first-year composition and technical communication. Her research centers on the rhetorics of innovation and maker culture. She also co-manages UA’s makerspace, the iSpace. She is an incoming assistant professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Antonnet Johnson is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Purdue University, where she teaches Business Writing, Intro to Professional Writing, and Games and User Experience. She is also the Founding Director of the University of Arizona’s Usability and Play Testing Lab. Her research areas are game and play studies, rhetoric in pop culture, and professional and technical communication.

Reference Citation

APA

Melo, M., & Johnson, A (2018). Teaching Technical Writing through Designing and Running Escape Rooms. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(2).
http://journaldialogue.org/v5-issue-2/teaching-technical-writing-through-designing-and-running-escape-rooms/

MLA

Melo, Marijel, and Antonnet Johnson. Technical Writing through Designing and Running Escape Rooms. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2018. vol 5, no 2. http://journaldialogue.org/v5-issue-2/teaching-technical-writing-through-designing-and-running-escape-rooms/

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Appendix A: Assignment Overview and Roles

Unit III: Technical Documentation to Support a User-Driven Experience

Project Overview

For this project, you will work collaboratively to research, design, construct, and run an escape room experience. An escape room is “a physical adventure game in which players are locked in a room and have to use elements of the room to solve a series of puzzles and escape within a set time limit”. Part of this process entails writing and compiling the escape room’s accompanying technical documentation (detailed below). Because this project has many components, you will negotiate and select roles for each team member based on the descriptions below. If you are in a team of four instead of five, we will negotiate how to divide the responsibilities.

 

Logistics/Operations Manager
Responsibilities Deliverables
Plans and manages logistical/operational components of the escape room.Ensures safety and protection of users and space (this isn’t legal liability; it’s just being thoughtful about the implementation)Serves as operational expert in terms of developing the puzzles in accordance to the space. This means taking responsibility for materials needed and space required for the puzzles (in context of the iSpace).  Conducts and shares research on escape rooms with team (a document that synthesizes sources and information on escape rooms).Writes and delivers the introductory script/spiel to participants.Create the rules for escape room attendees (conduct, moving things, materials that are off limits, etc.)

 

 

User Experience Managers (Two per team)
Responsibilities Deliverables
Develops overarching narrative/story of the escape roomIntegrates escape room theme across deliverables (e.g., puzzles, props, video, etc.)Ensures puzzles and escape room follows a storyline trajectory (clear beginning, middle, and end)

 

Storylines, films, edits, and renders narrative video (no longer than 90 seconds in length) to be shown to participantsDevelops layout/plan of the escape room (works with logistics) and creates map of escape room with locations of puzzles and props clearly illustratedOutlines intended sensory experiences (props, music, lighting, etc.). Consider, for example, how you will bring your theme to life through these elements.

 

Deliverables Specialist
Responsibilities Deliverables
Organizes team’s documentation/deliverables (e.g. Google drive folder)Stores all documentation in a central location for team and instructor to view and accessStreamlines all documents to ensure consistency in branding and formatting

 

Writes project proposalCompiles all team documentation into a well-organized, easy-to-navigate final project portfolioCreates a technical document template and formats all documentation accordingly

Prepares team documentation (including project manager’s project summary) into a project portfolio.

 

Project Manager
Responsibilities Deliverables
Oversees team communications, meetings (agendas and notes), and deadlinesReports any problems and provides project status updatesDiscerns how to acquire props and materials (budget)

 

Writes project overview/summaryCreates meeting agendas and records meeting minutes during team meetingsRecords workflow and team assignments through a project management program (e.g. Trello, Asana, etc.)

Conducts and completes needs assessment form on behalf of their project team

Team deliverables:

Technical documentation for each puzzle (description of puzzle, solution, estimated time to solve, number of participants required to solve, associated hint(s), and any relevant visuals). Teams will be responsible for the creation of 4 – 5 puzzles.

List of materials needed from iSpace/Library for day of event. Your group is responsible for conducting research on the materials/resources offered and available.

Due: Teams will be running their escape rooms on either December 5th or 6th.

All deliverables will be submitted before 11:59 PM on 12/6.

Escape Room Table

 

 

Deconstructing Proper Condom Use as an Introduction to Literary Analysis 1

Julie Stewart
University of Cincinnati—Blue Ash
Blue Ash, Ohio, USA
stewajl@mail.uc.edu

Tom Clark
Xavier University
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
clarkt@xavier.edu

Marilyn Clark
Xavier University
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
clarkm@xavier.edu

Abstract

Popular culture figures in television, movies, comics, and video games have captured the imaginations of young people. The themes and characters of shows students watch regularly help shape their views on contemporary issues, especially as they compare their personal experiences with those portrayed on their favorite shows. This paper examines how Proper Condom Use, an episode of South Park, one of the most popular shows among young viewers, can be used as a springboard for in-class discussion of tools for literary analysis through an exposition of this episode’s visual and aural humor, themes, characters, audience, and genre.

Our experience in exploring this episode with adult students confirms it is an excellent way of generating lively feedback, while also introducing students to concepts relevant literary analysis, including imagery, character, theme, genre, and audience.

Keywords: Popular Culture, Visual Culture, Media Studies, South Park, Literary Analysis, First Generation Students

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Popular culture figures in television, movies, comics, video games and online videos have captured the imaginations of young people. The themes and characters of shows students watch regularly help shape
their views on contemporary issues, especially as they compare their experiences with those portrayed on their favorite shows (Duff, 2002). Lisa Patel Stevens (2001) points out that it helps to create student engagement to use non-print materials as pedagogical artifacts as students regularly engage in dynamic
multiliteracies through their personal media choices, the content of which constitutes part of their conversations with fellow students. 

This paper demonstrates how we organize a class employing an episode from South Park,
Proper Condom Use, (Parker & Stone, 2001) to introduce topics relevant to literary analysis as a platform for using similar frames in analyzing more complex media, in this case, classic short stories.  Specifically, it describes an early in-class exercise designed to generate class discussion in weekend and evening classes at a Midwestern college.

These classes are populated largely by diverse adult students in their late twenties or early thirties, typically parents, pursuing associate degrees on a part time basis, including many who are the first in their families to pursue higher education.  Some are enrolled in this class because it is a degree requirement, not out of a desire to read literature, which is perceived as an elite activity with little relevance to their own lives and aspirations.

Our challenge is to bridge that gap—to show students that the tools of literary analysis are accessible to them by introducing analytical literary frames in a novel way. In a sense, we begin with what Dwight McDonald (1962) would characterize as a “mass culture” artifact, an episode of South Park, as a bridge to more “high culture” short stories traditionally explored in literature classes. We especially focus demonstrating the importance of providing specific textual evidence to support arguments in analyzing short stories.

Our experience in exploring this episode with adult students–nearly all of whom report having seen one or more episodes of South Park, Comedy Central’s most watched show—especially popular among the 18-49 age group, confirms it is an excellent way of generating lively feedback, while also introducing
students to literary analysis tools, including imagery, character, theme, genre, and audience. (See Hull (2003); Stewart (2007); Vasudevan (2010). This exercise takes 60 – 75 minutes to complete, including showing the 22-minute episode.

Pedagogical approach

To stimulate discussion and establish a premise for later class analysis, prior to viewing the video, we ask students to recall the content and student reactions to sex education classes offered them in junior and senior high school. We then introduce the conflict at the center of Proper Condom Use (Parker & Stone, 2001), which concerns how, when, and through what agents sex education should take place.  We tell students they will be analyzing Proper Condom Use as a literary text.  To do so,  we pause at intervals to ask them to answer questions about each segment that specifically highlight a means of examining literary texts in ways they will be using in analyzing the short stories we have assigned for subsequent analysis.

In this paper we summarize the plot of the episode, including representative dialogue, show where we stop the video, what questions we raise, and how we use this experience to prepare students for making similar analyses of the short stories they will be reading during the semester.

Visual and Aural Humor

We begin by asking students to identify visual and aural elements, the sights, sounds, colors, vocal inflections and actions (Nixon, 1999) that are key to South Park’s comedy.  In the opening scene Stan and Kyle are burning a Jennifer Lopez doll with a magnifying glass, during which Stan yells, “Scream for me bitch.” Cartman, the most controversial of the main characters, then shows them how to “milk a dog,” a technique taught to him by mischievous fifth graders.

In-class question:  Specifically describe the sensory elements—what you saw and heard–central this scene. Explain how they highlight the transgressive nature of the children’s behavior. As you watch the rest of the episode, consider how the opening scene foreshadows the children’s subsequent actions.

Parallel analysis: Read the first four paragraphs of both London’s “To Build a Fire” and Crane’s “The Open Boat” and explain how the description of colors, weather, and the environment reinforces the naturalistic themes of each story.

Character

We next introduce the concept of character, or persona, with definitions of protagonist and antagonist, which drive South Park stories.  We ask students to identify traits of their favorite character and explain the role that character typically plays, including what makes that character interesting.  We also ask whether this character is flat, displaying little change within or throughout episodes, or evolving, demonstrating growth and understanding. Students highlight that within the cartoon format of South Park characters typically remain largely flat, though they also point out that some characters admit to seeing the error of their ways at a particular episode’s end.

In-class question: With which character in Proper Condom Use do you most identify? What traits in this character’s persona make them likeable, funny, or annoying?    Describe actions and words from the episode that support your characterization.

Parallel analysis:  Describe Miss Brill’s persona at the opening of the story and contrast it with her persona at the end.  Cite specific passages that help explain the dramatic change in how she sees the world.

Themes

Experience vs. Expertise

We show subsequent scenes and ask students to analyze how elements of plot, motivation, tone, and values highlight specific themes within the episode, all of which can be identified in one or another of the short stories we analyze in subsequent classes.  For example, a major theme of South Park is parodying the reliance on expertise rather than trusting personal experience.  When Stan “milks” the dog, and when Randy and Sharon, his parents, observe his behavior, they say they will ground him for 10 months.  Yet they cannot bear to speak with Stan about sex: their notions about childhood innocence destroyed, they do not provide age-appropriate information.  Instead, they call a PTA meeting, assuming sex education at school is a “safe space” between their children, their children’s friends, and MTV–and that with comprehensive sex education, the children will subsequently engage in sexually responsible ways, and not in behaviors that lead to pregnancy and STDs.

Principal Victoria:  Okay, parents.  I know a lot of you want a chance to speak, but we have to talk one at a time.

Sharon:  Look, our kids are learning sexual things on the street and on television.  There’s no way we can stop it.  The schools have to teach them sexual education at a younger age.

Principal Victoria:  School policy has been to teach sexual education later.  In fifth grade.

Mr. Tweek:  It isn’t soon enough!

Stuart:  Yeah.  Why, just this afternoon our son was caught beating off our dog.

Chef:  Look, parents.  Do you really want your children learning about sex?  Part of the fun of being a kid is being naïve!  Let them be kids for a while.

Ms. Choksondik:  Naïve at what cost, Chef?  Parents, we have to face facts:  Children in America are having sex at younger and younger ages.  STD’s are affecting younger and younger kids all the time.  The only way we can combat that is by educating children before they have sex.

Chef:  The first thing that kids learn about sex shouldn’t be some bitch-scare tactic about STD’s.

Sheila:  No, she’s right!  With all the teen pregnancies that are out today, I think my boy does need to know about sexual education.  From the school. (Parker & Stone, 2001),

Students point out that this dialogue represents support for the view that common sense and experience lead to better decision-making than its opposite: relying on so-called experts.  The parents forfeit their traditional roles of teaching their children about sex themselves based on their knowledge of their own children’s readiness for such information and naively assume the South Park school teachers are better agents for this education.

Students volunteer that this proves to be a false assumption. Miss Choksondik, an advocate for teaching sex education to the fourth grade children whom parents may presume has been licensed by the state as an expert in the subject matters she teaches,  admits she has had little sexual experience. Chef, who represents the voice of experience and a character who has a reputation for having sex with many women, serves as a foil to this groupthink, asserting, unsuccessfully at this point in the episode, that sex education should not be taught in schools, especially to 8-10 year-old children.

In-class questions: Can you relate to the experience the South Park children have when you look back at your reactions to sex education classes you took during your elementary and secondary education? Recall a specific conversation you had with a fellow student about one of your lessons.  How did what you learned in the classroom compare with what you had learned from other sources? What were the differences?

Parallel analysis:  Explore how the theme of experience vs. expertise is developed in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Why does John fail to understand the impact of his wife’s postpartum depression on her feelings, thoughts, and behavior?  How does his medical expertise inhibit his ability to come up with a more effective treatment plan? Explore the theme of experience vs. education in Walker’s “Everyday Use.”
Identify the differences in how the mother and her well-educated daughter view the mother’s possessions?

Scare tactics and unintended consequences

Another theme students highlight is the ineffectiveness of fear as a way of changing behavior.  For example, when Wendy and Bebe indicate they believe the lessons will be fun, Miss Choksondick, responds with “scared straight” rhetoric.  “Fun, you think this is going to be fun! Well, let’s start with our first lesson then, shall we?  She writes SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASES on the blackboard, asserting, That’s right, because unless you get boys to wear condoms you can and will get a sexually transmitted disease from them! …Gonorrhea, herpes, chlamydia, HPV, syphilis, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, the list goes on and on (Parker & Stone, 2001).

This scene satirizes sex education classes.  The lessons are inappropriate for this age group:  the scare tactics about negative consequences lead to fear of sex rather than a lifelong commitment to responsible sexual behavior, the program’s stated purpose. This scene allows for a conversation on the effectiveness of fear appeals in reducing harmful behavior. Many students report having experienced similar fear appeals in high school about sex education, and about smoking, driving and texting, and drug use as well (Stewart, 2007).

A related theme is the role of unintended consequences. In her second presentation on sex education, Miss Choksondik stresses the traumas of pregnancy.

Alright girls.  Yesterday we went over the myriad of diseases you can get from boys, but today we’re going to talk about the most horrible thing they can give you of all.  Pregnancy!  That’s right, since you girls have decided to be sexually active; teen-pregnancy is at an all-time high!  You seem to think it’s gonna be fun and neat to have a baby, well let’s watch a little video shall we? (Parker & Stone, 2001).

During a video a narrator intones, “…later the contractions are happening closer together.  Mom sure is in a lot of pain.  Now we can see the crown of the baby’s head, stretching the vaginal walls in ways never before thought possible by Mom.  Finally, the miracle happens, and the baby is born.  But mom’s not done yet!  She still has some afterbirth to push out of her” (Parker & Stone, 2001).  This terrifies the girls who later run away from the boys when they meet in the cafeteria.

Students observe the children have too little relevant experience to understand the materials being shared.  Having learned about STDs and AIDS, fear replaces friendship, and their reaction is to reject the boys unless they wear condoms.

Wendy:  Stay away from me Stan!

Stan:  Why?

Wendy:  Are you wearing a condom?

Stan:  A what?!?

Girls: [all screaming loudly] AAAAAAAGGGHHHHHH!

Bebe:  Do any of you have your condoms on?

Kyle:  No.

Girls:  AAAAAAGGHHHHHHHH!

Wendy:  Don’t you know that without wearing a condom you could get a disease?

Kyle:  Nun. Uh.

Bebe:  yeah huh.  If you don’t wear a condom, you’re gonna get AIDS!

Wendy:  You guys have to wear condoms.  Now, please, just, just go away.  We don’t want your AIDS. (Parker & Stone, 2001).

The girls are terrified of having sex–and of boys in general. In response, the boys attempt to buy condoms at a drugstore.  While the older pharmacist is hesitant to fulfil this request, his assistant explains, “Kids are going to do what they do, and it’s up to us to make sure they’re protected. We just got in the new Gladiators for kids.  ‘Lil Mini’s.  They’re specially designed for kids under 10, and they’re only $5.95 for a box of fifty (Parker & Stone, 2001).” When the boys attempt to wear the condoms, Butters supplies rubber bands to make the condoms “stay on.”  He exclaims, “there isn’t nothing’ that’s getting’ in my wiener through this thing!  And it’s even got a little reservoir at the end so you can pee in it!” (Parker & Stone, 2001).

The teachers find out about the condom purchases and almost gleefully agree to start teaching sex ed. to kindergarten students–oblivious to their part in motivating the girls to fear sex and pregnancy and then insisting that the boys purchase condoms.

These scenes are used to generate conversation about experiences students have had when they believe their voices were not heard at home or in the classroom. Students point out that the children do not seek these remedies.  It is the parents who abdicate their responsibility to assess their children’s readiness to talk about sex, ask them questions about their experience, or see if the children have questions for them.

Students laugh at the unintended consequences of the sex education program: This spoof of the promotion of sex education from kindergarten through high school results in the boys and girls coming into conflict, each believing the other to be responsible for spreading disease.  They skirmish, with the girls protecting themselves behind a steel fortress and the boys, riding in battery operated cars, on the attack, using water guns to break through this defense.  In this battle, Kenny, hiding in his jacket, dies, a South Park plot convention, when struck by a boomerang. His death shows that the children are not the idealized innocents of their parents’ imaginations, another fruitful area for class discussion.

Nonetheless, while ignorant of carnal knowledge, the South Park children can be cruel and can experience fear, regret, anxiety, and especially in Kenny’s case, be subject to repeated extreme violence—and students can reflect on bullying they experienced in school and the emotional stress it created.

Similarly, some students report that like the South Park parents, their parents seemed only dimly aware their children were experiencing negative emotions.  This recognition serves as a source of the parents’ feelings of inadequacy, resulting in their histrionic outrage and grief over evidence that their children are leaving the Garden and facing uncertain and terrifying consequences which the parents cannot control.

In-class questions:  Recall how fear appeals were used in school programs about sex, drugs, tobacco, and driving?  As you remember student reactions to them, do you recall any unintended consequences, such as students mocking the presenter or the presentation?  What did they say and what was the reaction to their comments?

As a series, South Park suggests that parents don’t really understand what’s going on in their children’s lives. Do you agree? Explain your answer with reference to your own school experiences, including bullying and being excluded from favored groups.

Parallel analysis:  Identify symbols in Jackson’s “The Lottery” that contribute to the imagery the story uses to develop the atmosphere of fear that builds until the story’s shocking resolution.

What are the unintended consequences of the grandmother’s actions in O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find? Identify text from the story that supports your analysis.

Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is another prominent theme of Proper Condom Use.  When Miss Choksondik and Mr. Mackey have unprotected sex, they are transgressing the lessons they promoted in the classroom. In fact, Miss Choksondick is so desperate for sexual contact, she offers Mr. Mackey a drink, strips naked, lowers her head off-screen, and is later portrayed with disheveled hair.  Students point out that his illustrates the limitation of education as a predictor of behavior:   while the teachers tell parents that sex education will lead their children to make responsible decisions, the teachers themselves fail to practice what they preach.

In-class prompts: Did you observe teachers or administrators practicing some of the actions the school discouraged in students, such as speeding or smoking? Did this affect your perception of the credibility of what was being taught?

Parallel analysisIdentify scenes in “Young Goodman Brown” where the protagonist increasingly grows disillusioned when he discovers the hypocrisy of adults he has known and trusted.

Genre

We point out that this South Park episode, a monolog, which we teach is a convention of satire and burlesque, lampoons the idea that if evil influences are not headed off early, a social apocalypse will occur—and the naive hope that experts can fix all issues children face. The monolog is delivered by Chef, the voice of experience, in which he calls for rationality and truthfulness from parents.

Chef:  Schools are teaching condom use to younger students each day.  But sex isn’t something that should be taught in textbooks and diagrams.  Sex is emotional and spiritual.  It needs to be taught by family.  I know it can be hard, parents, but if you leave it up to the schools to teach sex, you don’t know who they’re learning it from.  It could be from someone who doesn’t know, someone who has a bad opinion of it, or even a complete pervert.

Miss Choksondik:  He’s right.  I never knew how special and personal sex was until just recently.

Sharon:  This whole mess started because we couldn’t talk to our boys ourselves.

Sheila:  It’s easier just to leave it up to the school, but it’s just not a school subject.

Principal Victoria:  Then it’s decided:  no more condom classes in grade school.

Stan:  But Chef, when is the right age for us to start having sex?

Chef:  It’s very simple, children.  The right time to start having sex is…seventeen.

Kyle:  Seventeen?

Sheila:  So you mean seventeen as long as you’re in love?

Chef:  Nope, just seventeen.

Gerald:  But what if you’re not ready at seventeen?

Chef:  Seventeen!  You’re ready!

Stan:  Well, I guess we got a while to wait before we have to worry about sex and diseases, huh? (Parker & Stone, 2001).

When the parents see the error of their ways, they show they can reflect on their actions and learn from experience. We point out viewers sympathize with them because they realize their behavior springs from a positive motive to protect their children from future harm, in Kenneth Burke’s words, “a comic corrective” which serves as a relief valve from the tensions of the war between the girls and boys.

Consistent with South Park’s transgressive nature, the episode ends with Cartman again “milking” the dog, indifferent to what he now knows is objectionable to the parents, as he finds it personally gratifying. Students point out this is another indication of a self-absorption and “will to power” that defines his character.

Discussion Prompt:  What purpose does the ending monologue, a convention of burlesque and of South Park, serve in this episode?

Parallel analysis:  Identify specific passages in Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” that reveal to the reader that the story is actually satire.

Audience Analysis 

After students have viewed the entire episode, we address the issue of audience analysis, asking students to identify what they find compelling in this episode and also how they see it appealing to other viewers (Duff, 2002).  Students identify plot elements that support differing value sets. The scriptwriters present a traditional perspective of morality—that parents, not schools, be the primary sex education teachers. Yet they mock conventional moral values by showing characters in highly degrading situations that stretch the limits of what is acceptable on television.  Chef presents a secular world view declaring the age seventeen is the right age to have sex–outside of love and marriage.  Finally, they reflect a populist perspective that implies gaining carnal knowledge from older adolescents during puberty is preferable to teaching it to elementary school children before they have the experience or physical maturity to understand its role in human society.

In-class prompt:  Why do you believe South Park resonates so strongly with a young and primarily male audience?  What plot elements and devices did you observe in Proper Condom Use that this demographic might find particularly amusing?

Parallel analysis:  Why do you believe “The Things They” Carried resonates so strongly with military combat veterans?  What plot elements and devices did you observe that this demographic might find particularly compelling? Justify your reasoning.

Conclusion

Within South Park’s ecosystem, the children remain ageless, indulging in the pleasures of childhood immaturity.  They serve as outsiders, spectators to the futility of parents and others who try to impose adult burdens on them.  Students laugh as they learn to identify specific evidence to support their analysis of the unintended consequences of the adults’ decisions and share similar stories from their own experience.

Our students report that they like this way of introducing them to basic literary concepts. They also enjoy it because it offers them the opportunity to reflect within a familiar learning space on something they have experienced in their own lives:  the use of fear appeals and worst case thinking intended to change young adult behavior–whether it be warnings about underage and unprotected sex, as in Proper Condom Use, or tobacco, alcohol and marijuana abuse as in South Park episodes Butt Out and My Future Self ‘N’ Me. In short, this exercise allows students to reflect thoughtfully as they share stories about their own school experiences with fear appeals while teachers can introduce literary concepts and how to document claims with specific evidence in an easily understood and relatable format.

Endnote

[1]  An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the Hawaii International Conference on Education, January 2017.

References

Duff, P. (2002, March). Pop culture and ESL students. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 45, no. 6, pp. 482-488.

Hull, G. (Nov, 2003). At last: Youth culture and digital media: New literacies for new times. Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 229-233.

McDonald, Dwight. (1962). Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture (NY: Random House).

Nixon, H. (1999, September 1). Adults watching children watch South Park. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 12-16.

Parker, T. (Writer & Director). (2001, Season 5, Episode 7). Proper Condom Use. In T. Parker & M. Stone (Executive Producers). South Park. Comedy Partners; Comedy Central. Los Angeles: South Park Studios.

Stevens, L. (March, 2001). South Park and society. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 44, no. 6, pp. 548-559.

Stewart, J. (2007). The Rhetoric of South Park, MA, University of Cincinnati, Dept of Communication.

Vasudevan, L., Schultz, K., & Jennifer Bateman, J. (October 2010). Rethinking composing in a digital age: Authoring literate identities through multimodal storytelling.  Written Communication, vol. 27, no.4, pp. 442-468.

Author Bios 

Julie Stewart teaches communication courses at the University of Cincinnati—Blue Ash and has experience teaching traditional, non-traditional, and adult students in weekend and evening classes.  Her research focuses on media, popular culture, and communication.

Thomas Clark teaches written, oral and interpersonal communication skills classes at Xavier University. He is author of numerous scholarly and pedagogical articles as well as author of Power Communication and co-author of The Writing Process. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Thomas_Clark10

Marilyn Clark has taught in the English Department at Xavier University for 14 years—much of that time in the Weekend Degree Program, one that enables adults who work full time to obtain a college degree.  Clark is a playwright, whose play, Mrs. Cratchit’s Christmas, has become an annual production of the Sharonville Cultural Arts Theatre in Cincinnati.

Reference Citation

APA
Stewart, J., Clark, T., & Clark, M. (2018). Deconstructing roper Condom Use as an introduction to literary analysis. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(2).
http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-2/deconstructing-proper-condom-use-as-an-introduction-to-literary-analysis-1/

MLA
Stewart, Julie, Tom Clark, and Marilyn Clark. Deconstructing Proper Condom Use as an Introduction to Literary Analysis. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2018. vol 5, no 2. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-2/deconstructing-proper-condom-use-as-an-introduction-to-literary-analysis-1/

“If you want to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man”: Masculinity and the Rise of Professional Wrestling in the 1990s

Marc Ouellette
Old Dominion University
Norfolk, Virginia, USA
mouellet@odu.edu

Abstract

This paper traces the relationship between the shifting representations of masculinity in professional wrestling programs of the 1990s and the contemporaneous shifts in conceptions of masculinity, examining the ways each of these shifts impacted the other. Most important among these was a growing sense that the biggest enemy in wrestling and in day-to-day life is one’s boss. Moreover, the corporate corruption theme continues to underscore the WWE’s on-screen and off-screen coverage, well into the second decade of the twenty-first century. Thus, the paper provides a template for considering a widely consumed popular cultural form in ways that challenge the determinism of sex, violence and fakery.

Keywords:

Masculinities, Gender, Popular Culture, Television, 1990s, Cultural Studies

 

Men in their Underwear

Especially in terms of its plots, professional wrestling was transformed radically in the mid-to-late 1990s. Not only did this coincide with a contemporaneous reconsideration of masculinities, the change in wrestling adopted, portrayed and ultimately reinforced the concurrent shift in masculinities. In the 1990s, the most easily and readily identifiable enemies were corporations such as Enron, Merck, WorldCom, Adelphia, Kmart, and Arthur Andersen, companies known for corruption and whose officers have been indicted for illegal activities. During this period, the “sports entertainment” industry achieved unprecedented box-office success along with unprecedented critical condemnation. During the height of their competition, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW) typically placed four of the top five programs in the Nielson ratings for basic cable networks (Canoe).1 Even a change in the network that hosts WWE’s top-rated show, Monday Night Raw, had little effect.2 Audiences responded to a greater emphasis on plot development than on muscle development. This fact in becomes even more significant given the staying power of wrestling since promotions stopped denying that the action is staged and given the rise of mixed martial arts fighting as a competing media draw. In a rare television interview during wrestling’s rise, on TSN’s Off the Record, WWE owner Vince McMahon explains that without its storylines, or “angles,” professional wrestling would be “just two men, in their underwear, fighting.” Many critics condemn wrestling for exploiting women, for obscuring reality and for portraying violence, yet this obscures the importance of the plots to the success of the formula.

So important are the stories that even WWE video games contain a storyline feature which allows players to create their own ongoing plot. Although wrestling depicts “men in their underwear,” it also relies on plot structures borrowed from other genres, most notably westerns and action films. Beginning in the 1990s, wrestling writers began to adapt these themes to broader contemporary social themes in order to attract viewership among the male demographics.3 Curiously, part of wrestling’s past and current appeal derives from critical denunciations which reinforce — even duplicate — the underlying narrative, which depicts the powerful corporate leader as the principal enemy of the hero. The pleasures of wrestling, then, compensate for the perceived diminishment of and threats to traditional forms of masculinity in North American culture at the end of the twentieth century. Moreover, the corporate corruption theme continues to underscore the WWE’s on-screen and off-screen coverage, well into the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Men in their Underwear: Wrestling Plots

Like action and western films, wrestling reflects the culture that produces and consumes it. For example, the post-war era featured “German” wrestlers, most notably the “von Erich” family. Similarly, the 1970s and 1980s saw an increase in “Soviet” and “Iranian” wrestlers. However, the threats posed by the enemies of the Cold War and World War II are not part of the immediate experience of contemporary culture. Threats became more varied and not as easily defined; indeed, the largest organizations have largely avoided post-9/11 themes and characters. Therefore, a formula more complex than a simple good-vs.-evil dichotomy has developed. In his study of action movies, especially Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo series, William Warner proposes that “in the seventies and early eighties the rise of the hero film offered audiences a pleasurable way to work upon an insistent historical problem — the perceived decline of American power both in relation to other nations [following Vietnam and the oil crisis], as well as a recent, fondly remembered past” (672). Warner’s view is echoed by Susan Jeffords, both in The Remasculinization of America and in Hard Bodies, as well as Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner in Camera Politica. Wrestling, westerns, and action movies such as the Rambo and Missing in Action series are often dismissed because they lack “authenticity”: the movies for their lack of historicity and wrestling for its “fake” action. This type of dismissal obscures and ignores their intrinsic appeal, especially in the case of professional wrestling, and overlooks the fact that any theatric production has a predetermined outcome. The majority of fans know the action — billed as “sports entertainment” performed by “sports entertainers” — is staged. As well, the current variety of professional wrestling places as much emphasis on plot as it does on spectacular action. The key difference is that the decline is domestic — inside the borders of both the United States and the home — in terms of shifting employment and economic patterns, especially based on the pattern of corporate “downsizing” amid record profits and executive salaries, many of which came as a result of accounting and trading fraud.

In “Looking at the Male,” Paul Willemen suggests that male heroes in western movies perform in two distinct but inter-related ways: first as spectacle and second as a physically beaten body. Paul Smith, in “Eastwood Bound” adds a third and final stage occurs when the hero triumphs. Eventually, action films supplanted westerns, but as William Warner points out in “Spectacular Action: Rambo and the Popular Pleasures of Pain,” the genres’ appeal

depends upon subjecting hero and audience to a certain masochistic scenario — the pleasure of intensely felt pain, and crippling incapacity, as it is written into the action, and onto the body of the hero. Secondly, each [production] supports the natural virtue of the hero through a display of technology’s magic. Finally, each [production] wins the audience an anti-therapeutic relief from confining subjectivity by releasing it into a vertiginous cinematic experience of spectacular action. (673)

Professional wrestling depends on just such a structure and has since the 1990s. Indeed, such a reality is reflected in wrestler Ric Flair’s motto, which forms the first part of the title of this article. The highly structured and ritualized matches position the wrestlers as both spectacle and beaten body. Each wrestler’s entrance is announced and accompanied by music. Convention dictates that several momentum shifts occur during matches. The outcome necessitates spectacular action: slams, jumps, landings, and chairs over the head. These involve actual physical exertion and actual physical contact even if the move is scripted. In a move known as “blading,” the wrestlers cut themselves on the forehead with a razor blade kept in the tape around their wrists. Thus, the blood, the sweat, and the tears are often real. Moreover, the action almost always produces a victor. While there are several possible results for a match — pinfall as in amateur wrestling, submission, disqualification, or time limit draw — there is always a winner in the minds of the fans.

Wrestling programs function more like serials than complete cinematic productions, which interferes with the third stage mentioned above — hence the cliché of wrestling as “soap opera for men.” The recent change in the role of women in the industry further complicates (an examination of) the narrative framework. Currently, characters portrayed by female body builders and fitness models, often with “masculinized” physiques, can and do “compete” physically with the men. Regardless, since former WWE mainstays, “Diesel” and “Razor Ramon,” left to join WCW, plots have depicted masculine diminishment. The wrestlers, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, respectively, appeared under their own names and called themselves “The Outsiders.” Wrestlers usually adopt a ring name and a persona to go with it. In the case of Nash and Hall, WWE actually owns the trademarks “Diesel” and “Razor Ramon.” The Outsiders were so-named because of a (real life) contract dispute with WWE’s owner, Vince McMahon. They then appeared, without invitation, at WCW events although the latter’s officials denied having signed them to contracts. Eventually, they were joined by several prominent “heels,” or bad-guys, to form “The New World Order,” or “NWO.” The format, and the NWO, were so successful that WWE reintroduced the unit and its storyline following the takeover of WCW. The purpose of NWO was to destroy the existing structure of WCW and to take over the corporation. They were among the most sadistic rule-breakers in the history of wrestling. They rarely, if ever, engaged in matches, but rather interrupted matches involving other wrestlers to “punk” everyone, regardless of affiliation.4 Frequently, they would force one combatant (or set of combatants) to leave the ring while they singled-out a fan-favourite, or “babyface,” to assault.

When WCW’s then president, Eric Bischoff, revealed his membership in the group, the implications of the NWO’s on the narrative structure became clear: the “fix was in,” because the boss sold out his employees. Professional wrestling now follows the conventions of

a series of films which took up an old theme of American film and culture — the individual’s struggle against an unjust system — and gave that scenario a distinct new turn. The protagonist did not challenge the system by teaming up with an ambiguous woman to solve a crime (as in film noir), or organizing the good ranchers against the Boss who owns the whole town (as in some Westerns). (Warner 675)

The contemporary character is almost always a loner. While he does take on the boss, who also owns the whole corporation, and the boss’s henchmen, the hero does so with neither female companions nor male allies. A further shift away from westerns and film noir is the increased violence in action movies and professional wrestling. In addition, Warner perceives a more important alteration in action films as opposed to westerns, one that reflects changes in social and technological configurations. He observes:

 Now the System — sometimes a state, sometimes a corporation — is given extraordinary new powers of surveillance and control of the individual. The protagonist, almost entirely cut off from others, endures the most insidious forms of manipulation and pain, reaches into the primordial levels of self, and emerges as a hero with powers sufficient to fight the System to the point of its catastrophe. (675)

According to Warner, the 1980s variation on this theme manifests itself in movies such as the  Rambo, Missing in Action and Iron Eagle series. These films were intended to redress the powerlessness caused by the perceived national failure of the Vietnam War. Indeed, according to Warner, “this is the crux of the [films’] explicit discursive project: not only to reclaim the American vet [. . .] but further, to discover that what Rambo is and represents (pride, strength, will) is precisely that which is most indispensable for America today” (674). While the Vietnam veterans finally have been acknowledged, the current generation of men is faced with another perceived failure.

Susan Faludi’s contemporaneous study, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, details the contemporary situation of (North) American men at the close of the last century. Stated briefly, her premise is that instead of a lost war, the powerlessness and failure North American men feel stems from losing “a useful role in public life, a way of earning a decent living, [and] respectful treatment in the culture” (40). In addition, Faludi finds that this situation causes many men turn to “the fantasy realm [of a] clear-cut controllable world of action movies and video combat, televised athletic tournaments and pay-per-view ultimate-fighting bouts” (32). The writers for the professional wrestling organizations are cognizant of this trend and incorporate it into the stories; the writing is so important that WWE has hired script writers away from Conan O’Brien, MTV and elsewhere (Leland 51). Further evidence of the emphasis on the stage-play can be gleaned from the box office success of wrestling stars, including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, John Cena, and Stacy Keibler. When the WCW began to lose ground to WWE in the ratings, Eric Bischoff was reassigned. In his place, Turner Broadcasting poached Vince Russo and Ed Ferrara who had been the head writers for WWE. Following WWE’s takeover of WCW, Russo and Bischoff were both hired by Vince McMahon to reinvigorate the company. Whereas the old stories pitted a character like Sergeant Slaughter, a gruff-voiced United States Marine Corps drill sergeant (played by Robert Remus, an actual former Marine), in feuds with all of the stereotyped enemies of the United States — from Baron von Rashke, a Nazi, to Nikolai Volkoff, a Soviet, to The Iron Sheik, an Iranian who later became the Iraqi Colonel Mustafa during the Persian Gulf War — Remus himself now doubts “whether his All-American babyface character could have achieved stardom in this generation” (Marvez, 27 May 2000). Unlike the post-war or Cold War eras, but like the Vietnam War, there is no obvious enemy of the state.

Indeed, the American “war on terrorism” has had no influence on wrestling’s storylines. While Sadam Hussein fit the bill as a villain who (supposedly) sent Colonel Mustafa and General Adnan to defeat America (and its wrestlers) in 1991, he receives no mention today. There was a brief memorial which included the sounding of the ring bell following the attacks of 11 Sept. 2001 (as there was following the in-ring death of wrestler Owen Hart), but neither Osama Bin Laden nor his cohorts rates a wrestling persona. Furthermore, no one is winning the current “war” that Faludi documents. For wrestling, this means that today’s “All-American babyface,” played by a former Olympic Gold Medalist in freestyle wrestling and multiple WWE Champion, Kurt Angle, can be hated by the fans; he often plays a “heel.”5 The irony is that Angle was a “real” wrestler who combined athleticism and hard work to achieve his Olympic dream — another popular plot — but upon his entry into WWE, Angle was given an immediate “push,” or promotional emphasis, before “proving” himself against the competition. Thus, he has not “earned” his position at the top. The fans most resent Angle’s sense of entitlement. Angle has parlayed his status into being the most-hated heel in WWE, “whose arrogance overshadows his patriotism” (Marvez, “Babyface”). The proverbial “boy next door” is an arrogant phony and braggart. Angle associates with a group known as “Right to Censor,” which “attempts” to rid WWE of its foul language and sexual content. Currently, Angle heads “Team Angle,” which features two more former amateur wrestlers. The members of Team Angle sport red, white and blue singlets, wave the American flag and wear their medals to the ring. Needless to say, Team Angle constantly tries to curry favour with the boss, Vince McMahon.

In a Newsweek article about wrestling’s surge in popularity in the 1990s, Jean Paul Levesque, better known to wrestling fans as WWE wrestler Hunter Hearst Helmsley, or The Game, explains that the reason for this dramatic change in focus is that “in the post-cold-war era, ‘there is no horror now. To the average person, the real-life enemy now is their boss’” (qtd. in Leland 54). Susan Faludi finds the same perspective among the men she interviews. According to Faludi

The handful of men plucked arbitrarily from the anonymous crowd and elevated onto the new pedestal of mass media and entertainment glamour [are] unreachable [not] because they [are] necessarily arrogant or narcissistic, though some would surely become so; they simply [exist] in a realm from which all lines to [other men] have been cut. [The others become] unseen backing for the corporation’s real star: its brand name. (33)

The Kurt Angle storyline, like many others, exemplifies the situation. He does not deserve his status. It has been given to him as the corporation’s chosen star. Merit never enters the equation in such storylines. The corporation’s only allegiance is to its brand name, not physical prowess. Thus, the ability to enact masculinity is not necessarily the measure of the man.

Rather than taking care of its employees, the corporation only takes care of itself. McMahon has famously double-crossed several wrestlers, most notably Bret Hart, in real life. This often makes its way into the plot. R.W. Connell finds the corporate setting to be an important site of masculine formations:

The corporate activity behind media celebrities and the commercialization of sex brings us to [another] arena of hegemonic masculinity politics, the management of patriarchal organizations. Institutions do not maintain themselves; someone has to practise power for power effects to occur. [But] the fact that power relations must be practised allows for divergence in how they are practised. (215).

Instead of a “patriarchy,” Connell suggests that different modes of “hegemonic masculinity,” each with different methods of deployment, vie for power. Despite criticism to the contrary, this occurs because “There is no Patriarch Headquarters, with flags and limousines, where all the strategies are worked out. It is common for different groups of men, each pursuing a project of hegemonic masculinity, to come into conflict with each other” (Connell 215). Relationships and personal ties are no longer important in an era in which there is no greater common purpose, or more likely, a greater common enemy. Competing forms of hegemonic masculinity — here, economic and physical — come in contact with each other. In professional wrestling plots, this competition results in arbitrary deployments of power and enacted rage.

At any given time, several angles involve a wrestler (or group of wrestlers) as the victim(s) of the evil corporation and its “boss.” The basic plot remains consistent to the present day and indeed has been refined since the WWE split its “brands” into the Smackdown and Raw offerings. Whereas Eric Bischoff and Vince McMahon previously appeared on camera only as announcers — for many years McMahon’s ownership of WWE was hidden — they are now central characters in the plots. In a plot mimicking a current corporate trend, the NWO replaces the older, hardworking, loyal, traditionalist wrestlers, those who rely on their performance in the ring and the classic good vs. evil construction, following a hostile takeover. The message is clear: get with the New World Order or be beaten up and “downsized.” As if the hundreds of methods of beating on a human anatomy are not enough, the NWO spray-paints their logo — graffiti qua branding in the corporate as well as physical sense, because this is how the logo appears on the T-shirts they sell — on the defeated body of the victim. Finally, since the entire proceedings are always videotaped and photographed, “the System” has extraordinary powers of surveillance built into it. One of the most familiar scenes is a supposedly candid scene featuring a wrestler “back-stage,” watching the in-ring proceedings on a monitor. He never likes what he sees, so he smashes the monitor, but not the camera that is filming him. This act seemingly symbolizes resistance: he uses the features of the system against itself by watching without being seen and then smashes the equipment that makes this possible. Such an act is typical of the action movie genre. For example, in Running Man, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character destroys the “Cadre” satellite TV network. Similarly, Rambo machine-guns the computerized reconnaissance systems that guides, or controls, him on his mission. Warner concludes that “by destroying, or interrupting, the operation of the system, the audience is left [. . .] with a freeze frame image of Rambo as a nuclear subject, a self etched against a landscape where no supporting social network seems necessary” (676). He is alone against the system and self-sufficiency is his best method of resistance. No supporting social network exists in wrestling; all that exists is subjection. Smashing the surveillance equipment is a futile act since a camera is still present, watching the wrestler as he watches. Moreover, destroying the monitor does little to stop the action that so upset him. He only thinks he has control, when the corporation has complete control.

While the NWO’s treatment of the older wrestlers is exaggerated and (physically) violent, it echoes the treatment the same generation of workers — the spectators — are receiving from the large corporations that employ them. Downsizing, outsourcing and forced early retirement do not cause bodily harm, but they do create violent disruptions in people’s lives on a large scale. Faludi lists some of the larger examples:

The deindustrialization and “restructuring” of the last couple of decades [has] scythed through vast swaths of industrial America, shuttering steel and auto plants across the Midwest, decimating the defense industry, and eliminating large number of workers in corporate behemoths: 60,000 at Chrysler, 74,000 at General Motors, 175,000 at IBM, 125,000 at AT&T. Though going “postal” [is] an extreme reaction, downsizing [is] a violent dislocation, often violently received. Yet those prototypical workingmen [are] taking their bitter disappointment with remarkable gentility. (60-1)

Daimler-Chrysler later cut 28,000 more jobs world-wide. Nortel Networks eliminated 50,000 of its 90,000 positions in a two-year period. These cuts affect workers at all levels of seniority. The remaining workers must be available to work all of the time. Legislators are moving to enforce what had been mere business practices.6 Monitoring and surveillance of employees actually are increasing through the use of passive means. According to an American Management Association study, “About 74% of companies do some form of electronic monitoring of employees.” Companies monitor employees’ computer use through “firewalls” on the servers which prohibit the reception or transmission of “inappropriate” materials and catalogue attempts to do so. John Cloud wonders, “Which is more stifling, the paternalistic company with its gold watch as a reward for lifetime service, or the new paradigm: all work, all the time, all your life?” (54). Given this type of unsettled environment, it is not surprising that many employees act out their frustrations. Professional wrestling capitalizes on this situation by virtue of its inherent structure: the co-workers are necessarily rude and belligerent; the boss is completely unreasonable and occasionally gives his workers ultimatums of “win your next match or lose your job;” each wrestler is hated by a significant proportion of clients, or fans, who chant epithets, spit, and throw objects at the wrestlers. Where the average worker might be reduced to tears, wrestlers are supposed to seek revenge by damaging either the competition, the equipment or the boss.

Eventually, professional wrestling’s most recognizable and most marketable performer, perennial fan-favourite, Hulk Hogan, became Hollywood Hogan when he joined the NWO. This was a major coup for the NWO and a major departure for Hogan since he had preached a gospel of “say your prayers and take your vitamins” to all the “little Hulkamaniacs” for well over ten years. Hogan’s entrance music, “Real American,” with lyrics proclaiming that he “fights for the rights of everyone” was replaced by Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (slight reprise).” This indicates that the “American” way of life no longer matters in the new world order. Hollywood and Bischoff became the leaders of the NWO. Hogan’s new moniker and transformed behavior symbolize his allegiance with the corporatized world, or what Faludi calls “a culture of ornament” (40). In such a culture, “manhood is defined by appearance, by youth and attractiveness, by money and aggression, by posture and swagger and ‘props,’ by the curled lip and flexed biceps, by the glamour of the cover boy and by the market-bartered ‘individuality’ that sets one astronaut or athlete or gangster above another” (Faludi 40). The colourful ring attire many of the NWO members traditionally wore was replaced by a uniform of black pants and a black shirt with the NWO logo on it. Thus, in the New World Order, individuality ceases to exist, and their motto, “NWO for life,” is a constant reminder.7 This is a simplified — black and white, if you will — version of the current world order, but the basis of the storyline clearly resonates with audiences and accounts for a great deal of wrestling’s popularity.

“Stylin’ and Profilin’”: Ric Flair

The foremost example of the cruel corporation vs. the solitary male involves Ric Flair and Eric Bischoff as the principle players in a strange mixture of art and life. Flair is one of the greatest performers in the history of wrestling. However, even Ric Flair can fall victim to the New World Order and the new corporate reality. This should not have come as a surprise given that the convention involves what Warner describes as:

a version of the fable of self and system which dichotomizes fictional space into two positions. The self, often associated with nature and the erotic, becomes the locus for the expression of every positive human value, most especially “freedom.” Opposite the self is the System, which in its colorless, mechanical operations, is anathematized as a faceless monster using its insidious powers to bend all human effort to its own service. (676)

In stark contrast to the NWO’s austere uniform and amateurish logo, the flamboyant Flair is known for his outlandish robes, one of which “has 7,200 rhinestones and weighs 45 pounds,” countless colourful sayings, and his entrance music: Also Sprach Zarathustra (AP). He could not be more closely associated with nature since his nickname throughout his entire career has been “The Nature Boy.” Flair is so-named because he seems natural in the ring; that is he “sells,” or makes the actions seem real, better than anyone. Flair’s association with the erotic is ensured by more than his platinum blonde hair, perennial tan, and brief wrestling attire. He has always portrayed, even at fifty, a playboy. In his words, Flair is a “stylin’ and profilin,’ limousine-riding, Learjet-flying, wheeling-dealing, kiss-stealing, love-making, heart-breaking son-of-a-gun.” Of course, sexual freedom is one of the ultimate freedoms.

The plot began with a “real-life” dispute between the wrestler and WCW. Flair’s contract allowed him flexibility in terms of his performance schedule. Thus, Flair decided to forego a WCW event in order to go the AAU national amateur wrestling — that is, real wrestling — championships so that he could watch his nine-year-old son, Reid, compete in the tournament. Nothing could be more natural than wanting to watch one’s son. Apparently, Eric Bischoff did not agree because in a “suit filed by World Championship Wrestling [the company] claims Flair’s failure to show up at a series of bouts this year played havoc with ‘story lines’ planned out for the performances” (AP). The lawsuit was settled eventually, but not before Flair’s entire family was drawn into the action when the script was changed to include elements that occurred outside the ring. When Ric Flair had a heart attack — a “work,” or well-guarded part of the script — Eric Bischoff appeared to have a change of heart and called Ric’s wife Beth, along with sons Reid and nineteen-year-old David, to the ring so that he could say he was sorry. In a classic heel move, Bischoff said that he was sorry that Ric Flair is an old, broken-down man who cannot provide for his family and rudely kissed Beth Flair. An NWO thug then held Reid while Bischoff  beat David. A few weeks later, on the night of Flair’s triumphant return to WCW following his (actual) reinstatement, Bischoff crashed the proceedings fire Flair. Flair responded, “You can’t fire me, I’m already fired” and condemned Bischoff’s “abuse of power” (Gardner). When Bischoff entered the ring, Reid Flair, with his AAU medal hanging around his neck, tackled the president. In other words, the boss is not man enough to defeat a child. Nevertheless, Bischoff’s hubris led him to challenge Flair to a winner-takes-all match for the presidency of WCW. Naturally, Flair won, but triumph is not complete until the wrestler is champion of the world. In the weeks leading up to the title match between Hollywood Hogan and Ric Flair, Bischoff and the NWO made Flair’s life miserable. Of course, Flair won the title. However, at the moment when Flair was both president and champion, he turned heel by abusing his power and refusing title matches. Thus, the continuity of the narrative is never in danger.

Beating the Boss: Stone Cold Steve Austin

While WCW’s plots involving Ric Flair and the NWO present the new approach to sports entertainment, Vince McMahon has seemingly perfected the ruthless boss vs. employee format. The longest running such feud involves McMahon and Stone Cold Steve Austin and is detailed in the video, Austin vs. McMahon: The Whole True Story (AvM). It is interesting to note that the video has the feel both of a work and of an actual documentary, including narrator Jim Forbes of VH1’s Behind the Music documentaries. Fans consider the Austin-McMahon feud, now more than five years old, “The greatest feud in sports entertainment history” (AvM).8 Forbes summarizes the phenomenon that is the angle: “WWE fans have embraced a new attitude in the past two years, leading to explosive growth in our industry. And, the happiness these fans feel is in large part due to hatred; hatred between two men: Vince McMahon, the owner of WWE, and Stone Cold Steve Austin, his most popular and rebellious employee. [. . .] Their conflict changed the face of sports entertainment” (AvM). Former wrestler turned WWE booker Terry Taylor explains the heart of the angle: “You’ve got a guy like Stone Cold, who says, ‘To hell with the boss,’ and makes the boss the target — which has never been done” (AvM). WWE announcer and Vice-President in charge of talent, Jim Ross, puts it, “Stone Cold will never be employee of the month” (AvM). In the characterizations of Vince McMahon and Steve Austin, WWE writers encapsulate current corporate trends and their impact on employer-employee relations and the resultant impact on masculinities.

In keeping with the archetype of the hero, Stone Cold Steve Austin is a white heterosexual male. As mentioned earlier the protagonist in this form is a loner. Austin is no different and this is reflected in his nicknames and character. Like Ric Flair, Austin’s nom de guerre, “Stone Cold” more than implies his association with nature, in this case at its harshest and most heartless. He is not like “stone cold;” he is stone cold. In addition, Jim Ross gave Austin the nickname, “The West-Texas Rattlesnake,” or simply, “The Rattlesnake.” Such a nickname enhances Austin’s connection to nature and signifies several aspects of both the man and the form of masculinity he represents, all of which are connected to popular American myths. The rattlesnake is a species peculiar to North America but is especially associated with the southwest, which is in turn associated with the rugged masculinity of the frontiersman and the cowboy.  The rattle indicates that the snakes wish to be left alone; they are not aggressive but will defend themselves with deadly force, if necessary. As well, Texas is the “Lone Star State” which gained independence in a purportedly rebellious war with Mexico which featured the legendary battle of the Alamo. As the story goes, Texas stood alone against tyranny then and Austin does so now. Austin further removes himself through his philosophy of interpersonal relations: “D.T.A.: Don’t trust anybody.” He frequently repeats this line and it has appeared on T-shirts. On the rare occasions when Austin has accepted the help of a partner, it has been forced upon him by circumstances beyond his control and then accepted only begrudgingly. Finally, he has no romantic life. While certainly indicative of Austin’s independence, his approach also reveals his self-destructive streak.

For Austin, relenting to McMahon’s demands or accepting help from a partner means giving up freedom. In dichotomizing the self and the system, the producers of action movies create what Ryan and Kellner find to be the genre’s “essential ideological gesture, [by which] no middle ground is allowed [. . .] anything that departs from the ideal of pure individual freedom (corporations, but also socialism) is by implication lumped under domination” (256). Warner surmises that “Such a fiction no doubt has deep roots in American populist paranoia about global conspiracy” (676). In Austin’s case, a partner precludes his total independence. Austin will ultimately have to suffer alone.

Austin’s solitary style has a doubly detrimental effect: it incites the wrath of his vindictive boss and eliminates any possibility for help. In hero films, “the exchanges of self and system are given the insistently Oedipal configuration of a struggle between overbearing fathers and a defiant son” (Warner 676). In the action genre, however, the father possesses added authority because his “authority is linked to the state” (Warner 676). It is worth recalling that Warner posits that corporations can take the place of the state. Plot suspense, then, “pivots upon a personal drama, meant to allegorize the struggle of every modern person who would remember their freedom: a contest between the system’s agenda for the self and the self’s attempt to manipulate the system to his own ends” (Warner 676). On several occasions both Flair and Austin attempted such a manipulation. During a broadcast from Minneapolis, his hometown, Ric Flair enlisted the aid of the city’s mayor and local sports heroes John Randle, of the Vikings, and Kirby Puckett, of the Twins, to remove Eric Bischoff from the arena. Similarly, in Chattanooga, TN, Steve Austin turned the tables on Vince McMahon and had the boss “arrested” by local police after McMahon admitted to having assaulted Austin the previous week. In both cases, the victory was only temporary. Although these manipulations temporarily even the score, Warner finds that victory does not suffice: “two ideas are developed about loss [. . .] Both emphasize the cruel sadistic sources of this pain and loss: ‘we were unfairly beaten [. . .] and experienced loss’; ‘others were responsible for that loss, and they should now be punished’” (Warner 677). Wrestling operates around these two ideas. Rather than the state, the source of the pain is now the corporation and its chief executive. Instead of Vietnam, the loss is at home, in the battlefield of the workplace. This is not an entirely new viewpoint, especially when one considers that many magnates of the early twentieth century — Henry Ford, William Randolph Hearst, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie — were reviled for their (violent) treatment of workers. To an extent, World War II and the Cold War overshadowed worker-boss enmity. Labour unions have lost much of the power, where they exist at all. The fact that the site of the dispute is now on North American soil means that the enemy is within — a traitor, as it were — rather than from without makes the scenario more sinister. This framework contains a third idea “which is never allowed to reach consciousness [. . .] but nonetheless motivates and informs the narrative diegesis: ‘I am responsible for the losses, and I should be beaten” (Warner 677). The result is that “unconscious guilt for failing [. . .] is deflected away from consciousness, but it motivates that defiant and risky behavior which repeatedly throws [the hero] into the position to receive punishment for failing” (Warner 677). As mentioned above, both Flair and Austin attempt to use the system to their advantage. However, their efforts invariably fail. Since the boss — either Bischoff or McMahon — is allied with the system (and is the system), he will always have greater access to power. Each small victory for Flair and Austin results in massive retribution by the corporation. Thus, in a palpable way, Flair and Austin are the sources of their own pain through their defiant behaviour toward their bosses. By continuing to be involved in the feud, they ultimately are submitting to pain and defeat.

One of the most dramatic and revealing series of episodes in the Austin-McMahon feud occurred during the fall of 1998. At the September pay-per-view, McMahon conspired with  “Undertaker” and “Kane” to beat Austin and retrieve the WWE Championship Belt. Following the match, in typical McMahon style, he reminded Undertaker and Kane that they might both be over seven feet tall and weigh over 300lbs but he is the boss and they owe their success to him. With his power, McMahon can reverse the fortunes at any time. This is an expected feature of many storylines. Once Undertaker and Kane turned away from McMahon following Austin’s removal from the ring, he mouthed the words, “Fuck you!” and flipped his middle fingers at the pair. Unfortunately for McMahon, Undertaker saw the gesture and with Kane retaliated by “breaking” McMahon’s leg by “crushing” it between the metal ring steps. The pummelling forced McMahon into hospital where he was assaulted by Austin, who was disguised as a doctor. The routine began as slapstick comedy, with Austin hitting McMahon over the head with a bedpan and zapping him with a pair of defibrillator paddles. However, the scene ended in a more disturbing fashion. Austin grabbed McMahon, the latter clad only in his underwear and a hospital gown, and bent him over the bed. Austin positioned himself behind McMahon and lifted WWE owner’s gown, saying “I’ve always known you were full of shit, Vince, so let’s find out how full of shit you really are” (Raw). Austin then appeared to slam an enema tube violently into McMahon, while shouting, “This is going to hurt you a lot more than it’s going to hurt me, I can tell you that” (Raw). The scene fades to black as the tube disappears, McMahon screams, and Austin ends up belly-to-back with McMahon.

The bedpan is reminiscent of a beer shower Austin gave McMahon in Chattanooga and serves to level the playing field. The effect is to say “You might be the most powerful man in sports-entertainment, but you still have to piss and shit like the rest of us.” McMahon is so enfeebled — that is, less than a complete man — that he is confined to a bed and needs a bedpan to relieve himself. McMahon also looks silly and clumsy in his underwear and hospital gown because his frailty is exposed. He may as well be naked, because he has been stripped of his power, or at the very least, it is useless to him in the hospital; you cannot buy unbreakable bones.  Moreover, in this context, McMahon’s power does not stem from any intrinsic ability. He has not earned it and he is not “man enough” in a tangible, physical way, to hold power, but Stone Cold Steve Austin is. The defibrillator paddles also symbolize McMahon’s reduced power. An actual jolt to a functioning heart could seriously harm a person. The effect is to say that McMahon, and by extension, all corporate leaders, do not have a heart in both the literal and the metaphorical sense. He is only interested in the “bottom line.”

Finally, the insertion of the enema tube into McMahon serves a greater function than to ensure that the boss is no longer “full of shit.” Given that the tube is forced into McMahon, the scene evokes anal rape. This point is reinforced by the positioning of the pair when the scene ends. Both men are at an angle to the camera, facing the bottom-right of the screen. The probe disappears into McMahon as Austin’s belly slams into WWE owner’s backside. Whether or not Austin’s body or a phallic object is penetrating McMahon’s is of no significance since the effect is the same. It is still Stone Cold who controls the “phallus” and who uses it. Again, McMahon appears as something less than a man. As Connell writes, “Anal sexuality is a focus of disgust, and receptive anal sex is mark of feminization” (219). Austin is physically doing to McMahon what the boss figuratively does in business: “fucking him up the ass.” It is worth recalling that neither the boss nor the wrestler is fixed in the position of spectacle or beaten body. Instead, the genre depends on an oscillation not just between good and bad, but between beating and being beaten. Whenever one of the players triumphs, the third and final part of the formula, it is temporary and fleeting. However, the difference is that Austin is able physically to assume the role of the sadistic abuser while McMahon must use manipulation and deception, practices typically projected onto femininity, to achieve a similar result. Corporate power, then, is illegitimate power since it is obtained through means that are not essentially masculine.

As male heads of patriarchal organizations, Eric Bischoff and Vince McMahon can be considered the figurative fathers of their respective federations. When Austin attacks McMahon with the enema tube, for instance, he is figuratively raping his “father” in a violent revision of the Oedipal configuration. Such a formation is typical of action films. As Warner observes, “pain becomes the occasion for pleasure through an encounter with figures of ‘the father’ — but not the mother. In each film that father is bifurcated into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fathers, so each becomes emblematic of public aspects of America” (677). The major difference in the contemporary is that the absence of the “good” father. As held by McMahon, Bischoff, and CEOs of aforementioned companies, the position traditionally occupied by the good father, the provider and head of the household, becomes the domain of the bad father, the “entirely cynical bureaucrat [and] duplicitous organization man” (Warner 678). Rather than a complete break with the formula, McMahon and Bischoff represent a progression of the type. In the films on which wrestling is based, “there is enough evidence of the complicity between [the] rival fathers to suggest that they are in fact two sides of one father” (678). McMahon and Bischoff represent two important progressions: first, bad fathers currently control the order of things; second, good fathers can become bad fathers at any given moment. This attitude reflects a lack of trust in institutions and leaders. This is hardly an original observation, given the critical view that postmodernity is marked by a lack of faith in institutions and “grand narratives” and a resultant tribalization of society. However, one must also consider that patriarchies have reproduced themselves seemingly without interruption during this same period and that the current lack occurs on a microcosmic scale.

Standards and Practices: The (Actual) Effects of Criticism

According to William Warner, Rambo, and other action films construct “a subject position — one which is Western, white, and male — which hails spectators to an ethos for being in the world [that] values isolated self-assertion, competitive zeal, chauvinist Americanism, and the use of force” (675). Although the hero in professional wrestling is a Western male, he is not necessarily white in the currently popular formula. What is telling in Warner’s analysis is the popular reaction to the criticisms of the Rambo films, which decried the films’ overt “Reaganism;” that is, their endorsement of Ronald Reagan’s policies. He explains:

by reading Rambo as a filmic expression of Reaganism, an approach used repeatedly by film critics and cultural and political commentators [. . .] the film hero and the president become each other’s latent cultural truth. This reading uses the popularity of Reaganism to gloss, explain, and (for many commentators) discredit the popularity of Rambo. In a complementary fashion, Rambo becomes the dream-fantasy in film, the “truth” of Reaganism, now blatantly exposed as in various ways mendacious. (675)

Critiques of Rambo and of professional wrestling very successfully point out the social ills the forms glorify, especially violence and sexism. However, as Warner recognizes critiques of Rambo and Reagan had a

paradoxical effect within the political culture of the 1980s: [they] helped Rambo become a generally recognized cultural icon. [C]ritical condemnation of Rambo, almost as much as the film itself [. . .] allows Rambo to emerge as a cultural icon in the mid-1980s. Thus, Rambo as a cultural icon includes the idealized filmic projection, and its scathing critique, condensed in one image. (675)

The people who watched Rambo then and the people who watched wrestling in the 1990s — and continue to do so now — consume the productions in spite of and because of the critical reaction to them. In fact, the turn of critics to the extreme, sanctioned, and real violence of mixed martial arts events has allowed wrestling to mimic its competitor while receiving reduced attention. Criticism, especially from sources perceived as elitist or self-righteous, makes wrestling more attractive. Fans take dismissals of wrestling as dismissals of themselves, which adds to the list of oppositions (in fans’ minds) which led to the popularity of wrestling. Even for those who refuse to become consumers of the shows professional wrestling, with its “icon[s] of the masculine, the primitive, and the heroic, becomes the site of a (bad) truth about American culture” (Warner 675).  Rather than enlightening viewers, critics become class enemies.

Much of the criticism of wrestling looks at what is “wrong”: authenticity, violence, and subject matter. Conversely, wrestling as a text — how it functions, how it is consumed, and why it remains popular despite condemnation — remains ignored. Michael Jenkinson, of the Edmonton Sun recognizes, “the debate isn’t really about the validity of wrestling [. . .] but a broader one about who defines acceptable forms of culture. [. . .] It’s really a debate over who sets the canon — the elites or the populists. And pro wrestling is one of the quintessential expressions of mass populism” (“Wrestling Studies”). Several recent events highlight the paradoxical effect of criticisms. One centers around the doll of “WWE character Al Snow, complete with a tiny severed female head in one hand. He’s holding it by the hair. Lovely” (Haskins). Following several protests, the doll was pulled from stores, including Walmart and Toys-R-Us, across North America. Eventually, WWE recalled all of the dolls and absorbed a considerable loss to appease critics like Sabrena Parton, of Kennesaw State University, who claims that the doll, and the character , “promote the brutalization of women” (qtd. in Jenkinson, “Feminists”). An Edmonton Journal editorial suggests that when WWE “produced and sold a doll whose gimmick was to carry around the severed head of a woman, they showed their true colours. [The doll] is a horrifying toy with a violent message” (qtd. in Jenkinson, “Feminists”). Psychologist Lori Egger claims that Al Snow depicts a “television image [that] draws a link between sexuality and violence and implies it’s normal male behaviour” (qtd. in Jenkinson, “Feminists”). In a line of defense frequently adopted by wrestling fans, both then and now, the critics are accused of never actually having watched the WWE, otherwise they would notice that the character is a “lunatic” who has escaped from an asylum. He carries the detached head of a mannequin named “Head.” Snow only calls it Head, which furthers the notion that he is crazy. Within the story, he, and everyone who watches, knows it is a mannequin, yet he still believes the mannequin talks to him. Truth be told, the Al Snow doll, along with Head, is among the least violent of the toys WWE sells.9 Al Snow belongs to the “J.O.B. Squad,” which refers to the wrestling slang, “to job,” which means that one is paid to lose. Snow then becomes a lovable loser.

This is not to suggest that the character is flawless but to point out that superficial analyses and knee-jerk reactions produce an opposite reaction among the wrestling fan souls that are supposedly in need of saving. In the words of Michael Jenkinson, fans see the critics as “humourless, politically correct busybod[ies]” (“Feminists”). The critics of the entertainment become the enemies of the fans; upsetting the critics is definitely part of the enjoyment for the fans. Vince McMahon has exploited this phenomenon in two recent storylines: a gay wedding and a “hot lesbian action” match. In both cases, protesters were active at wrestling matches. In fact, McMahon’s daughter, Stephanie, disguised as a prototypical “feminazi,” led the protests. Stephanie, according to the plot, wants to wrest control of the company from her father and used the protests to help. Actual protesters were completely duped by the plots and their own involvement in them. Once again, academics and cultural police appear to be talking only to themselves. They merely cause fans to resent the critics and the “establishment,” the perceived powers that would be.

Beyond the social and cultural factors which attended the rise of professional wrestling in the 1990s, an increase in men’s involvement in bodybuilding corresponds to the rise in wrestling’s popularity. Not surprisingly, this contemporaneous trend also reflects the then prevalent sense of masculine diminishment. Sport sociologist Philip White suggests that this “preoccupation with muscularity is [. . .] best explained as a response to contemporary male feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness. Men individually and men in general are experiencing a crisis of masculinity and are drawn to areas of social life where they feel comfortable and safe” (116).10 While it may be argued that men remain(ed) the privileged gender, White notes that

with the growth of large and impersonal bureaucracies, whether public or private, there has been a transfer of power away from individual males [. . .] Power has shifted into the public domain, leaving many men feeling privately powerless — small cogs in large machines. Consequently, because men feel increasingly confused and insecure about what “real men” are like in a time of shifting expectations, they are also impelled to seek out ways of bolstering and validating their masculine identities. (116)

White also contends that due to advances in technology and a shift away from a production-based economy in the last quarter of the twentieth century, “[North American] men are increasingly doing work where physical strength is not needed and where women are steadily breaking barriers to occupational mobility and success” (117). White suggests that in conjunction, “these factors represent threats to traditional masculinity and have made symbolic representations of the male body as strong, virile and powerful more prevalent in popular culture. A man may have to increasingly compete with a female colleague on an equal basis in the competitive world of work, but he can still display his muscles in a compensatory display of masculine power” (117). Connell notes that the military-industrial trends of the twentieth century have led to a “split in hegemonic masculinity. Practice organized around dominance [is] increasingly incompatible with practice organized around expertise or technical knowledge” (193). This split often results in competition between and/or among different versions of hegemonic masculinity.

Connell describes the schism between management and labor, economically, socially, professionally, as a chronic problem for corporations and for the state. Connell concludes that eventually a polarity “developed within hegemonic masculinity between dominance and technical expertise. However, neither version has succeeded in displacing the other” (194). This plays out in the wrestling ring and in the workplace as the opposition between those who “know,” the bosses, and those who “do,” the workers. Exacerbating this situation is the widely held sense among workers that those in positions of power have not earned their place through hard work—that is, physical work, which remains the essence of the “honest” day’s work. Sadly, the statistics seem to support the suspicion. In a contemporary survey of American corporate executives, USA Today found that 63% of male executives landed their job through networking. This compares with only 13% who turned to classified ads or search agents.11 In other words, privilege begets privilege. The myth of America as a meritocracy is just that. Like wrestling, the match is fixed, the outcome is predetermined. The workers have no chance. Wrestling, then, exposes the boss as undeserving through his weakness in the ring.

Another trend arising in the 1990s and continuing in professional wrestling makes it another site of the growing power and presence of females in areas that traditionally have been the strongholds of men. Moreover, the presence of women as wrestlers furthers the sense of powerlessness that men feel, especially when the women win. Former WWE star Chyna, a.k.a. Joanie Laurer, best exemplifies this situation. She is physically as large as, and as strong as, most of the men in WWE. She has held the Intercontinental Championship belt, which signifies the top-ranked contender for the federation’s World Championship. While Laurer has undergone several surgeries to enhance her feminine attributes (several were necessary to correct a serious underbite with which she was born), she has maintained all of the muscle and all of the wrestling ability. It is arguable that Chyna’s enhanced beauty might be for “eye candy,” but her mat skills are not. Thus, she and the women who have followed in ever-growing numbers pose a significant threat to masculinity because she can be a sexually desirable woman and at the same time, can assert her power over anyone. More importantly, there is also the possibility for a male-to-female cross-gender identification among the identification processes involved in the consumption of a visual medium like a televised wrestling match. Chyna has been placed in the same type of situation as Austin and Flair, and it results in a similar viewing process.

Professional wrestling is not a fantasy-world in the same manner as professional sports, or even as the Ultimate Fighting Championships. These most often are purely masculine domains that depend on actual fighting. Professional wrestling is fiction, the audience knows it and, since the 1990s, the corporations have admitted it. Wrestling is not fantasy, but meta-fantasy. Herein lies one of the greatest ironies of this form of entertainment. Despite the notions of class revolt it might appear to exhibit, in terms of content and consumers, the multiple layers of containment ensure this possibility never occurs. First, the action occurs between character types rather than actual class constituents. The ring literally boxes in the action and television, the usual method of transmission, further mediates the content and adds another layer of containment. Finally, the outcome is predetermined, but more importantly, it changes nothing. When the bell rings, Vince McMahon still owns the company. The fact that criticism has no effect indicates that McMahon continues to win the fall, as it were. Professional wrestling is not necessarily the nostalgic look back to a lost era that some (or most) westerns are, nor is it altogether the reclamation project William Warner outlines in his analysis of eighties action films. Nor is it necessarily of the type Connell describes: “The imagery of masculine heroism is not culturally irrelevant. [. . .] Part of the struggle for hegemony in the gender order is the use of culture for such disciplinary purposes: setting standards, claiming popular assent and discrediting those who fall short. The production of exemplary masculinities is thus integral to the politics of hegemonic masculinity” (214). Instead of a project of maintaining hegemonic masculinity, professional wrestling should be seen as exemplifying the reifying reach of commodity capitalism. Masculinity and class revolt, both inside and outside the ring, come pre-packaged and staged. Every pay-per-view purchase confirms the consumers’ consent and containment. Given the poignancy of the plots and the increasingly threatening female presence — not as a companion, but has competitor — professional wrestling might yet be a small acknowledgment of a possible new order and the increasing impossibility of an old one. Masculine privilege is no longer a certainty because masculinity is tenuous rather than dominant. One of the ultimate lessons of the cultural shifts of the 1990s, shifts exemplified by the rise of professional wrestling, is that men can be replaced.

Works Cited

Anderson, Arn. “Pro Wrestling Demographics.” Arn Anderson Forever, Aug. 1999, www.arnanderson4ever.com/demograp.htm. Accessed 14. Sept. 1999.

American Management Association. “Are you being watched?” USA Today, 23 June 2000, www.usatoday.com/snapshot/life/lsnap/169.htm. Accessed 19 Oct. 2000.

Associated Press. “WCW – Flair lawsuit reveals truth.” SLAM! Sports, 24 Apr. 1998,  slam.canoe.ca/SlamWrestlingArchive/ apr24_flair.html. Accessed 28 Mar. 2000.

Canoe. “TV Ratings.” SLAM! Wrestling, 26 Aug. 1999, slam.canoe.ca/SlamWrestling/wrestlingratings.html. Accessed 26 Aug. 1999.

Cloud, John. “When Will We Finally Get a Gold Watch?” Time 21 Feb. 2000, p. 54.

Connell, R.W. Masculinities: Knowledge, Power and Social Change. California UP, 1995.

Faludi, Susan. Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. Morrow, 1999.

Gardner, Matt. “A Return With Flair.” SLAM! Wrestling, 15 Sept. 1998, www.canoe.ca/SlamWrestling/Archive/sep15_flair.html. Accessed 27 Mar. 1999.

Haskins, Scott. “WWF has a firm chokehold on bad taste.” SLAM! Sports, 9 Nov. 1999, slam.canoe.ca/SlamWrestlingGuestColumn /home.html. Accessed 9 Nov. 1999.

Jenkinson, Michael. “Wrestling studies are a real mindbender.” Edmonton Sun, 16 Aug. 1999, slam.canoe.ca/SlamWrestlingGuestColumn/ Jenkinson_99ug16.html.  Accessed 9 Nov, 1999.

—. “Feminists lose their heads over a doll.” Edmonton Sun, 8 Nov. 1999, slam.canoe.ca/SlamWrestlingGuestColumn/Jenkinson_99nov8.html. Accessed 9 Nov, 1999.

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—. “TV’s Raw is War a ratings victory.” Windsor Star, 30 Sept. 2000, p. E8.

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Notes

1 During the period of growth, there were two wrestling corporations, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW). WWF has purchased its competitor. As well, it was forced to change its name to “World Wrestling Entertainment” (WWE) by the World Wildlife Foundation. WWE operates as if the latter change never occurred. Fans do not seem to have noticed either. Neither major corporate change affected the stories. Therefore, I use “WWE” throughout for the sake of consistency.

2 In Sept. 2000, Raw moved from USA Network to The National Network (TNN) in a deal worth a reported $28 million per year, over four years. The latter broadcaster had only recently changed its name from The Nashville Network, and modified its format — originally, a schedule based on outdoors and country and western shows and aimed at a specific, regional audience — to a content mix aimed at a more diverse audience. The plan, according to Brian Hughes, Senior Vice-President of TNN Sports and Outdoors, is to “position some programming that fits within the 18-to-49-(year-old) demographic” (qtd. in Marvez, “TV’s Raw”). WWE fans followed Raw to TNN. In its first week it drew a “5.5 rating, which translates into an average of 7.14 million people in 4.28 million households” in North America (qtd. in Marvez, “TV’s Raw”). When Hughes mentions the target demographic the unstated focus is on males, who comprise the vast majority of professional wrestling’s viewership.

3 Former wrestler turned advertising consultant, Arn Anderson, reports that approximately 63% of professional wrestling’s adult viewers are male and 70% are between the ages of eighteen and forty-four. Half of the 69% of the viewers who are employed work in “blue collar” jobs (Anderson). This statistic also indicates the youth of the viewership since 22% of them are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, ages at which many still live with parents or custodial guardians.

4 This practice, known as the “run-in” ending, usually takes the form of a “save,” in which a wrestler is rescued from a defeat or a beating. For the NWO a run-in serves neither purpose. They “punk” or beat on everyone with an array of chair-shots, slams through tables, and other moves. They then leave their victims in the centre of the ring in a display of might-makes-right.

5 In fact, the WWE attempted to give a serious “push” to a babyface character known as “The Patriot” shortly before the terrorists attacks occurred. The character wore an outfit of stars and stripes, waved the American flag and defended the helpless. Despite the push, the character never “got over” with wrestling fans and disappeared from storylines mid-way through a feud.

6 The Canadian province of Ontario is among the most aggressive in this regard. The province’s Bill 147 increases the work week from forty to sixty hours and removes employees’ rights to choose overtime and be paid for it. Bill 74 expands the definition of “essential services” beyond police, fire, and medical workers, and forces Ontario’s teachers to be available at all times to supervise children.

7 Shortly after Turner Broadcasting (now part of Time-Warner/AOL) purchased WCW, Vince McMahon briefly attempted to play the family-owned WWE as the little guy fighting the massive multi-national conglomerate. These included parodic skits with bumbling characters based on wrestlers who left for WCW. Ironically, McMahon lured most of his talent, including those he parodied, away from other promoters at the expense of many small, often family-run, independent and local organizations. In any case, McMahon first employed the “us vs. the corporation” narrative to attack Turner. Eric Bischoff subsequently elevated the structure, but McMahon may have perfected it with the Stone Cold Steve Austin plot as will be shown later.

8 Angles involving Austin were suspended after the arrest of Steve Williams, who plays Austin, in the summer of 2002, on charges of domestic assault. Williams then entered a rehabilitation program to treat addictions to alcohol and to pain-killers which allegedly stem from his several knee, back, and neck injuries. In a case of reality mimicking a fiction that mimics reality, WWE has no employee benefits program and has a history of quickly dropping performers who have medical and/or legal problems. Some are welcomed back once they have completed treatment. Thus, all that matters is the ability to make money for Vince McMahon. For example, Austin returned for the next “Wrestlemania,” in mid-2003 and remains a regular.

9 I acquired the dolls at a factory outlet for less than one-third of the original price. Even in the doll version, the mannequin’s status as just that — a mannequin — is emphasized.

10 This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail, 25 Nov. 1992.

11 Equally telling are the statistics for female executives. While 41% of them found their jobs through networking – indicating that the “old boys’ club” might function for females – more than two-and-a-half times as many, 31%, found their jobs through the classifieds or search agents – which suggests that the club is not actively pursuing new members.

 

Author Bio

Marc Ouellette is an Assistant Professor of English at Old Dominion University. He is currently the Learning Games Initiative Research Fellow. Twitter: @burnedprof

 

Reference Citation

MLA

Ouellette, Marc. “‘If you want to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man’”: Masculinity and the Rise of Professional Wrestling in the 1990s.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 3, no. 2, 2016,  http://journaldialogue.org/issues/if-you-want-to-be-the-man-youve-got-to-beat-the-man-masculinity-and-the-rise-of-professional-wrestling-in-the-1990s/.

APA

Oullette, M. (2016) “‘If you want to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man’”: Masculinity and the Rise of Professional Wrestling in the 1990s. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 3(2). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/if-you-want-to-be-the-man-youve-got-to-beat-the-man-masculinity-and-the-rise-of-professional-wrestling-in-the-1990s/

Lady Gaga Meets Ritzer: Using Music to Teach Sociological Theory

Kenneth Culton
Department of Sociology
Niagara University
Niagara University, NY, USA
kculton@niagara.edu

José A. Muñoz
Department of Sociology
California State University, San Bernardino
San Bernardino, CA, USA
munoz@csusb.edu

 

Abstract

This paper presents methods for instructors to deal with student anxiety over theory courses. The method is an interactive class exercise that provides instructors with direction as to using popular music.  The paper accomplishes this through the use of several cases for including music in order to spark discussion and suggestions for helping students to interpret the theory presented.  Additionally, suggestions for incorporating writing assignments with the exercise are provided here. A table linking music to a theorist is also provided.

 

Keywords:

Music, Sociology, Theory, Teaching, Student Anxiety, Subculture, Class Exercise, Undergraduate, Popular Culture

 

The challenges involved with teaching an undergraduate Social Theory course are oft reported. Lowney (1998) notes that students often enroll in Social Theory simply to fulfill a requirement for their major. Others cite the mental and emotional obstacles students face. Students are often “anxious and fearful” of Social Theory courses (Ahlkvist 471; Hickson and Stacks 262). Research into lowering student anxiety in theory and other core courses is a critical question explored by many scholars (Ahlkvist, 471; Ormrod, 191; Schacht and Stewart 329). From our anecdotal experiences and writings by Julie Pelton (107), we find students regularly report theory to be the most difficult Sociology course taken. Rumors tend to spread, thereby enhancing the fear and anxiety associated with courses in Social theory. Cases were discovered where instructors work around their students’ difficulty in understanding complex concepts by constructing a theory course that is both fun and enjoyable, resulting in students feeling more comfortable with theory (Flanagan and McCausland 311). As in many courses, the patience and willingness of the instructor to put extra work into a theory course goes a long way in regard to students conquering their fear of theory. One suggestion is looking to contemporary examples and current events as a method for simplifying concepts (Hickson and Stacks 263). This can involve strategies that incorporate intensive writing where film (Pelton 107) or other popular culture content serves to engage students.

Employing popular music in Sociology courses has been lauded by both instructors and students alike (Albers and Bach 237-238; Martinez 260). To date we know of no systematic exercise integrating popular music in a standard Social Theory class; however, in the field of Criminology and Economics scholars have used music to teach key theoretical concepts in their courses (Rothe and Collins 227; Hinds-Aldrich 7; Van Horn and Van Horn 65). This is surprising because courses in Social Theory are important universally required and central to the discipline (Orum 95). Jarl Ahlkvist made an effort to integrate music when teaching classical theory in his introductory Sociology courses (473-478). Ahlkvist used “Progressive Rock” bands Pink Floyd, Yes, and ELP (Emerson, Lake, and Palmer), to illustrate the theories of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber respectively (476). The music served as a “concrete organizing framework” to which students could “easily link abstract social theories.” (Ahlkvist 476) In short, the use of music enhanced students’ learning of social theories; however, there were some stated limitations. Notably, Ahlkvist found that his presentations of conceptually dense progressive rock actually decreased student participation relative to other introductory course topics (476). Moreover, he states, “most [students] initially dismiss this music from the 1970’s as largely irrelevant for understanding our current social environment” (Ahlkvist 480).  Ahlkvist writes that “A more ambitious extension of this technique might include the use of popular music that emerged in the aftermath of progressive rock.”(481) This paper does so, not entirely eschewing music from the 70’s, while still moving forward and presenting an interactive exercise that integrates various styles of popular music in the Social Theory classroom.

The musical tastes and stylistic preferences of youth have become more fluid and there is an “essential eclecticism of post-war youth culture” (Bennett 600). Musical tastes are less collective and genre based, reflecting what Bennett calls “neo-tribal sensibilities,” mirroring aspects of “late modern consumer society” (Bennett 614). Like other patterns of consumption, young people are clearly accustomed to individualizing, and even personalizing, their choices. Albers and Bach find that using popular music in the classroom “bridges the gap between the professional and the personal” (Albers and Bach 238). The personal in this case, the world of popular culture and mass media, is a common immersion for most students. The professional is represented by the structured norms apparent to students and emblematic of the typical classroom environment. Material culture in the classroom allows for instructors to achieve their goals by sparking curiosity and limiting defensiveness and conformity (Groce 80; Hoefel 71).

Drawing from the above-referenced experience, using music in Ken Culton’s introductory courses endeavored to bring music into the Social Theory classroom as well. As faculty members we are the bearers of institutional norms, and as faculty who may have chosen to teach Social Theory, we are often that much further culturally from the traditional college student. Using music and other forms of popular culture allows instructors to appear to be less intimidating and as such should be especially advantageous in the Social Theory classroom, where we commonly find students to be prone to intimidation (Pelton 107; Albers and Bach 239; Hickson and Stacks 262). Less fearful students are more apt to active engagement in the classroom. Martinez finds that “music has always been a springboard for discussion of issues, provoking students to use a certain amount of ‘sociological imagination’” (Martinez 415). The use of music in the classroom allows for “creating an active role for students” that involves the routinization of participation, thereby working to alleviate anxiety about a theory course (Macheski et al. 45). Finally, music in class can be used to create a “common language of discourse,” given that the students take course material and apply it to the music played in the classroom (Macheski et al. 46).

Albers and Bach explain that playing music provides an “opening” or “back region” that allows students to make important breakthroughs in their understanding of the material (239). The authors go on to state that “If students perceive themselves in a backstage environment, they are more comfortable, and they are thus inclined to interact with one another and with us” (Albers and Bach 239). Additionally, Martinez points out that with students’ connections to music culture, they discover that the concerns of social theorists are echoed by the artists they currently listen to—thereby altering their relationship to the entire enterprise (415). The ball is now on their side of the court, so to speak, since the invitation to participate has been delivered on their terms. It has been made appropriate for them to now speak, not as seasoned theorists, but as defenders and as translators of their own cultural artifacts. All of this, again, serves to bridge the gap between faculty members who are well versed in theory and comfortable talking about social theory and students who are not. We feel that bringing music into the classroom can help to alleviate this fear and anxiety. 

Scholars who study various music genres and subcultures observed that music and lyrics often serve to reveal hidden truths about society (Assante 10; Wood 4; Gaines 177-192). The insight may add value and depth to the music, as such in the eyes of young students whose development can be seen as a search for truth in the face of myriad contradictions put forth by power holding adults (Hine 45).

The Exercise

A great challenge in Social Theory courses, and many other courses for that matter, is getting students to read and think critically about the reading before class begins. Therefore, the teaching technique we describe in this paper involves beginning each class (or new theory) by displaying the song lyric and playing the song selection that corresponds to the listed theory in its entirety (See Appendix). In most cases the instructor would have come to class ready to play music either by using one of our suggestions or finding their own music. Additionally, the instructor could encourage students to bring in their own music. If the instructor plays a music video such as one may find on YouTube, then this video could add a visual dimension to a particular song before discussion. The lyrics can be posted on Blackboard for an ongoing discussion beyond the classroom. This approach, beginning each class with a song, was applied successfully by Albers and Bach (240). They noted greater student participation in sociological topics at the introductory level. The paper provides discussion having to do with how to extend this approach to sociological theory courses.

The authors feel that it is important for this exercise to be open-ended. The addition of rules and procedures, for the sake of appearances, merely reproduces the institutional imperative and undermines our collective purpose. Students desire involvement and they are less likely to participate if they fear their answer may fall beyond the scope of what the instructor finds acceptable. Under the most unspecified conditions student anxiety may still exist, but in this paper the argument is that it is mitigated by a true commitment to a sort of structured informality. In short, students are challenged, or forced into thinking, while being given the leeway to think critically. The essence of what the paper proposes is simply process: play a song, present a lyric, and ask students to discuss how it relates to Social theory. The four examples below outline this structured informality in practice; there is an introduction of a song and lyrics followed by comments about how an instructor could incorporate the music into class discussion.

The song “Meat is Murder” by The Smiths¹ is a pointed example of an effort to redefine the commonly held definition of a symbol, in this case “meat.” The vocalist, Morrissey, croons the following passage from the song, “Heifer whines could be human cries, closer comes the screaming knife. This beautiful creature must die. This beautiful creature must die. A death for no reason and death for no reason is MURDER.”

After presenting the lyrics, the instructor can begin the discussion by asking students in an open-ended fashion, to consider how the song relates to symbolic interactionism.² The notion of symbol can arise from this discussion. The instructor might then ask, “What symbol is this song about?” After establishing that “meat” is the major theme, the instructor can then ask, “What is the author trying to say about meat being murder?” Once students engage with the symbol topic, the instructor can ask, “How the meaning of symbols is generally determined?” and “How do most people view this symbol (meat) most of the time?” There is plenty of room for tangential discussions here (ex. ecological cost of eating meat), and they should be welcomed. Vegetarians in the class may certainly weigh in, as well as those who find these ideas foreign.  Students may conclude that many symbols in a complex society hold meanings that are subject to revision, often through the contention of various actors, just as observed in the classroom.  The instructor may also choose to revisit this and other songs during the course to illustrate theoretical paradigms, such as critical theory.

The song “No” by Vivian Girls is a droll anthem of sorts with an entire lyric comprised of just one word: No. “No” is repeated in various melodies and harmonized in a pop whimsical fashion throughout. In this case, the song itself may function as a “breach,” where the usual social order is disrupted. Similar situationally to Harold Garfinkel’s “breaching experiments” (Garfinkel 44-49), the song elicits breach filling behavior on the part of subjects who, when faced with the true chaotic nature of the social world, are compelled to correct it or fill the breach. The puzzle is for students to figure out this very fact. Some students may at first be confused and even offended by the lack of more traditional lyrics. This confusion will only contribute to the breach and thus strengthen the example by bringing forth more frustration.

One conclusion to draw from the exercise is for students to think more critically about their preconceived expectations. What counts as an acceptable song lyric? Why is the use of one word troubling? Students should be challenged to consider what makes a song lyric acceptable. If Garfinkel and other ethnomethodologists are ‘correct’, then the world is much more chaotic than realized. The ensuing discussion could be an attempt to find other examples where our expectations override our ability to see situations clearly. This discussion could begin with music, where the instructor might ask, “What are some other examples of music that challenge our sense of what is normal?” and “How did you react when you first heard (death metal, gangsta rap, etc.)?” The sounds used in a composition may allude to, or upend, our expectations.  

Known to be an empowering, uncompromising, strong, and likely feminist figure in popular music, Lady Gaga espouses the virtues of acceptance in “Born this Way.” In the bridge of “Born this Way,” Lady Gaga sings “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen, Whether you’re broke or evergreen, You’re black, white, beige, chola descent, You’re lebanese, you’re orient. Whether life’s disabilities, Left you outcast, bullied, or teased, Rejoice and love yourself today, ‘Cause baby you were born this way.”

Though postmodernism is a regularly debated concept, George Ritzer describes it to be “more accepting of the stranger,” where, unlike modernity and its attempts to eliminate ambivalence, the postmodern world is seen to be “more tolerant” (228).  Ritzer states that “The postmodern world is destined to be a far more uncertain world than modernity, and those who live in it need to have strong nerves.” (228)

Before attempting to grasp postmodernity, students need a sense of modernity as a project of intensifying bureaucratization, social stratification, and order. The instructor might ask students, “What are some ways in which (modern) society is segregated or stratified?” Next, “How dodes Lady Gaga’s song respond to this trend of stratification?” From here, the instructor may choose his or her own emphasis. One obvious direction is to question how “postmodern” a society is or is not. This could be effectively framed by asking students “Are we or are we not living in the world described by Lady Gaga?” Postmodernism has also been characterized as “a lack of concern, playfulness, and self-centeredness” (Ritzer 228). This is reflected in the exhortation to “be a queen” and the emphasis on “I” in the lyric above. Students might be asked to consider if these proscriptions are in fact the best way to better the world? Or, is there something more, namely collective action, missing from Gaga’s utopic vision?

“Okie from Muskogee” by Merle Haggard is a classic country tune that many students will find humorous. ³ It is emblematic of an era, specifically a prideful affirmation of “small town” values and rejection of the amoral other. Ferdinand Toennies’s Gemeinschaft or community is certainly on display here, described by Peter Kivisto as based on “habit, tradition, shared beliefs, and affective bonds” (91). Though some tend to dismiss Gemeinschaft as the increasingly passé social arrangement in favor of Gesellschaft, or society, “both types coexist at any particular point in time” (Kivisto 91). This may resonate with students of a conservative ilk, who may find a sociological ally in Toennies, a theorist whom, like Emile Durkheim, clearly favored tradition and the collective over instrumental rationality. Some students may be able to offer examples of modern country songs that extend this trope; these types of lyrics will serve to strengthen the case while also making the classroom more inclusive.

Peter Kivisto brings forth a more nuanced interpretation of Toennies that recognizes both Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft as the outcomes of a social world that is “willed” (91).  “Natural will” or wesenwille leads to actions that are “less consciously chosen, predicated instead on tradition, habit, or emotion” (Kivisto 91). Deconstructing the lyrical text below can uncover the mood or tap into the unsaid and reveal the implicit agreements made between Merle Haggard and his likeminded audience. Students might be asked to explain if residents of Muskogee in fact see their predilections as natural?  Discussion could also be encouraged by asking students to identify the role of emotion in this natural will for Toennies to give birth to the Gemeinschaft social formulation.  The following passage fits this argument: “We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street; We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee, A place where even squares can have a ball. We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse….We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy, Like the hippies out in San Francisco do” (Haggard).

The lyric loses explanatory power if applied to Gesellschaft. The hippies of San Francisco, though derided here, may also consider themselves both then and today a community of people with “shared beliefs” and “affective bonds” (Kivisto 91). Here again is an opportunity to further parse the theoretical terrain through probing questions. Perhaps ask students where they would not expect to see Gemeinschaft? The Gemienschaft discussion can also be used to illustrate Durkheim’s organic solidarity, though the concepts are not interchangeable. Is it the anomic city? On a rural campus such consensus may surface, but it is understood that cities are home to numerous tight-knit collectives. The instructor might end with the realization that Gemeinschaft, in one form or another, is almost universally desired, and Gesellschaft feared. The implications of this in a globalizing world is one of the many issues worth exploring.

The use of music lyrics as a class exercise allows for the students to think about the material in greater depth and connect through shared experience. Beyond the discussion based method proposed here, instructors may consider these alternative applications. One suggestion is small writing assignments where students answer a list of questions in light of the lyric and theory presented in class. For example, this could take the form of a brief memo, reflection paper, or as a unique way to begin a journal entry (Coker and Scarboro 219). For those instructors that wish to incorporate technology, adapting Paul Dean’s visual analysis assignment could serve as another outlet for students(1). Students could be given a writing assignment where they would blog about a song of their choosing and make their own connections to a theory presented in the course. Such an assignment would fit Pelton’s argument for using “low stakes” or practice writing assignments (111); these assignments have value for reducing anxiety and building confidence.  Instructors could also incorporate findings from this exercise in exams as a short answer or essay question. Finally, and ideally for smaller classes, students may be asked to prepare individual or group presentations where, again, a sociological theory is illustrated through an analyzed lyric. This last alternative approach is more advanced, as it puts the student firmly in the instructor’s role. This should only be attempted if the instructor has time to offer ample support for the student as s/he develops the presentation.

This paper presents a method for instructors to deal with student anxiety in theory courses. The method included is an interactive exercise that provides instructors with direction as to using popular music in the classroom. The paper accomplishes this by supplying four cases for including music in order to spark class discussion as well as suggestions for helping students interpret the material. The classroom exercise can be reinforced through student reflection by writing short papers, keeping a journal, or alternatively for smaller classes, students may create group presentations where song lyrics are part of the final demonstration. Apart from courses that assign theory, the exercise may be employed in courses such as Sociology 101, Sociology of Gender, Visual Sociology, and Social Movements. For example, one of the co-authors used music on a regular basis in his Sociology 101 course.  He teaches at a small private Catholic university that offers BAs in Sociology, which is usually populated by 10-20 students who are predominately white.

The other instructor teaches at a medium sized state university and Hispanic Serving Institution that offers a BA in Sociology. The Sociological Theory course size at this university ranges from 45 to 55 students and are racially and ethnically diverse. The exercise occurred in the final weeks of the introductory Sociology course, where the students were asked to find a song of their choosing and discuss the song’s lyrics in light of some topic discussed in Sociology 101. It was found that each year several genres of music are applied in these small papers. Rap/hip hop, hard rock/heavy metal, pop, and country are always represented in classes of 30 to 40 students each. Finally, we want to address the fact the limited scope of some of the examples used in this paper. For example, it is beyond the scope of this paper to provide examples for every aspect of postmodernism and modernity. To be clear, the Lady Gaga example does not address every aspect of postmodernism. 

Endnotes

¹The song samples chosen are not all new. Older songs can be integrated into the course, although it is recommended that at least some newer popular music be used. There is also value in using a variety of music that may appeal to diverse student interest. Students who are unfamiliar with a particular song will only expand their cultural awareness through this process. The use of one musical genre such as the progressive rock use by Ahlkvist is not recommended.

² Ideally students will have been introduced to the theory through prior reading. Introducing theory in this way may coax students to read more and more carefully.

³ The instructor should be careful not to reinforce stereotypes that may unfairly denigrate a particular group, community, or state. The existence and persistence of these stereotypes however, can and should be discussed.

 

Appendix

Theory/Theorist Song Artist
Functionalism “Don’t worry about the government” Talking Heads
Conflict Theory “Take the Power Back” Rage Against the Machine
Symbolic Interaction “Meat is Murder” The Smiths
Postmodernism “Born this Way”“No Future” Lady GagaThe Sex Pistols
Baudrillard “Fake Plastic Trees” Radiohead
Globalization/Neo-Liberalism “Globalization (scene of the crime)” Dead Prez featuring Mumia
Foucault (Panopticon) “I’m Being Watched by the CIA” Anti Flag
Modernity “Fitter Happier” Radiohead
Toennies (Gemeinschaft) “Okie from Muskogee” Merle Haggard
Veblen (Conspicuous Consumption) “Royals” Lorde
Marcuse (One-Dimensional Man) “She Watch Channel Zero”“Bullet in the Head” Public EnemyRage Against the Machine
Ethnomethodology “No” Vivian Girls
Feminist Theory “FYR” Le Tigre

 

 

Works Cited

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Ahlkvist, Jerl A.“Sound and Vision: Using Progressive Rock to Teach Social Theory.” Teaching Sociology 29.4 (2001): 471-482. Print.

Albers, Benjamin D., and Rebecca Bach.“Rockin’ Soc: Using Popular Music to Introduce Sociological Concepts.” Teaching Sociology 31.2 (2003): 237-245. Print.

Assante, Molefi, K. It’s Bigger than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip-Hop Generation. New York: St. Martin’s, 2008. Print.

Bennett, Andy.“Subcultures or Neo-Tribes? Rethinking the Relationship Between Youth, Style, and Musical Taste.” Sociology 33.3 (1999): 599-617. Print.

Coker, Frances, and Allen H. Scarboro. “Writing to Learn in Upper-Division Sociology Courses: Two Case Studies.” Teaching Sociology 18.2 (1990): 218-222. Print.

Dean, Paul.. “Online Video Analysis.” Sociology Cinema Assignments.

http://www.thesociologicalcinema.com/assignments. 2012.  21 Jun. 2014. Web. Date of Access.

Donaghy, Mary. “Simulating Television Programs as a Tool to Teach Social Theory.” Teaching Sociology 28.1 (2000): 67-70. Print.

Flanagan, Nancy A., and Linda McClausland.”Teaching around the Cycle:Strategies for Teaching Theory to Undergraduate Nursing Students.” Nursing Education Perspectives 28.6 (2007): 310-314. Print.

Gaines, Donna. Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998. Print.

Garfinkel, Harold. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Malden: Blackwell, 1991. Print.

Groce, Stephen B. “Teaching the Sociology of Popular Music with the Help of Feature Films: A Selected and Annotated Videography.” Teaching Sociology 20 (1992): 80-84. Print.

Hickson III, Mark, and Don W. Stacks. “Teaching the Introductory Communication Theory Course to Undergraduates.” Communication Quarterly 41.3 (1993): 261-268. Print.

Hinds-Aldrich, Matt. “Teaching Theory Analogically: Using Music to Explain Criminological Theory.” Journal of Criminal Justice Education 23.4 (2012): 481-499.Print.

Hine, Thomas. The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager. New York: Harper Perennial, 2000. Print.

Hoefel, Roseanne.”Theory Matters: Cultivating a Critical Space.” College English Association Critic 62 .1 (1999): 61-72. Print.

Kivisto, Peter. Key Ideas in Sociology: Second Edition. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge, 2004. Print.

Lowney, Kathleen. S. “Reducing Social ‘Theory Anxiety’ Through Puzzles.” Teaching Sociology 26.1 (1998): 69-73. Print.

Macheski, Ginger. E., Jan Buhrmann, Kathleen S. Lowney, and Melanie E.L. Bush. “Overcoming Student Disengagement and Anxiety in Theory, Methods, and Statistics Courses by Building a Community of Learners.” Teaching Sociology 36.1 (2008): 42-48. Print.

Martinez, Theresa A.“Popular Music in the Classroom: Teaching Race, Class, and Gender with Popular Culture.” Teaching Sociology 22.3 (1994): 260-265. Print.

Martinez, Theresa A. “Where Popular Culture Meets Deviant Behavior: Classroom Experiences with Music.” Teaching Sociology 23.4 (1995): 413-418. Print.

O’Hara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More than Noise. Edinburgh: AK Press, 2001. Print.

Ormrod, James. S. “Practicing Social Movement Theory in Case Study Groups.” Teaching Sociology 30.2 (2011): 190-99. Print.

Orum, Anthony. “On Teaching Social Theory to Undergraduates.” Teaching Sociology 8.1 (1980): 95-103. Print.

Pelton, Julie A. “Seeing the Theory Is Believing: Writing about Film to Reduce Theory Anxiety.” Teaching Sociology 41.1 (2012): 106-120. Print.

Rothe, Dawn L., and Victoria E. Collins. “Teaching Criminological Theory: The Power of Film and Music.” Critical Criminology 21.2 (2013): 227-241. Print.

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Schacht, Steven P., and Brad J. Stewart. “Interactive/user-friendly gimmicks for teaching statistics.” Teaching Sociology 20.4 (1992): 329-332. Print.

Van Horn, Robert, and Monica Van Horn. “What would Adam Smith have on his iPod? Uses of Music in Teaching the History of Economic Thought.” The Journal of Economic Education 44.1 (2013): 64-73. Print.

Wood, Robert T. Straightedge Youth: Complexity and Contradictions of a Subculture. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2006. Print.

 

Discography

Burris, Roy and Merle Haggard. “Okie from Muskogee.” Okie from Muskogee (Live). Capital Records, 1969, 2001. CD.

Laursen, Jeppe, and Lady Gaga. “Born This Way.” Born This Way. Interscope, 2011. CD.

Morrissey, Steven. “Meat is Murder.” Meat is Murder. Rough Trade, 1985. CD.

Vivian Girls. “No.” Vivian Girls. In the Red Records, 2008. LP.

 

Author Bios:

Kenneth R. Culton is Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology at Niagara University. His interests include deviance, social movements, music, and youth culture. He teaches a course called Youth/Music/Subculture where students are encouraged to explore various music and non-music subcultures and consider the relationship between marginalized people and the perceived mainstream. He continues to look for ways to incorporate popular culture when teaching sociology.

José A. Muñoz is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at California State University, San Bernardino. He received his PhD in Sociology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. José’s research and teaching areas include social movements, immigration, globalization, qualitative research, and sociological theory. He has authored papers in the Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, Social Movement Studies, the International Review of Modern Sociology, Sociology Compass, Migration and Development, and the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. As part of José’s current interests in expanding into the area of evaluation research, he was selected for the first cohort of The Annie E. Casey Foundation Leaders in Equitable Evaluation and Diversity (LEEAD) program. http://joseamunoz.weebly.com

 

Reference Citation:

MLA:

Culton, Kenneth and Muñoz, José. “Lady Gaga Meets George Ritzer: Using Music to Teach Sociological Theory.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 3.1 (2016). Web and Print.

APA:

Culton, K. and Muñoz, J. (2016) “Lady Gaga Meets George Ritzer: Using Music to Teach Sociological Theory.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogyhttp://journaldialogue.org/issues/lady-gaga-meets-ritzer-using-music-to-teach-sociological-theory/ 

A Framework for Using Popular Music Videos to Teach Media Literacy

Jordan M. McClain
Drexel University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
mcclain@drexel.edu

 

Abstract

This article discusses the use of popular music videos as a tool for teaching media literacy. First, the article addresses the importance of music videos as popular culture, what other music video research has examined, and what features make music videos a good fit for in-class work investigating media and popular culture. Then the article details a single-class activity for introducing and teaching media literacy through the use of music videos. To achieve this objective, the article also proposes a set of original music video-specific discussion questions. Finally, a particular music video is considered to illustrate possible results of this activity and the broader issues that may arise from class discussion.

 

Keywords:

Communication, Media, Media Studies, Popular Culture, Pedagogy, New Media, Digital Media, Media Literacy, Media Education, Music Videos

 

Although popular music videos have long been criticized for their superficiality, fast edits, and sensational content, features like these help make the videos an excellent teaching tool, effective for getting students’ attention and exploring broad issues. Many educators may be skeptical about or may have never thought about the benefits of using music videos in the classroom—thus the shortage of research on this approach. Cayari wrote about students creating music videos in order to learn music and technology skills.  Maskell discussed the use of music videos for teaching English, saying the content has “huge potential for use across the entire English curriculum” (54). There is still, however, much to uncover about the myriad possible uses of music videos as a pedagogical instrument.

With a focus on popular music videos, this essay discusses their importance, describes an activity using them to teach media literacy skills, offers some new music video-specific ideas for introductory media literacy exercises, and shares example results of the activity. This information may appeal to a wide range of educators, especially media and popular culture scholars teaching undergraduate college courses such as Media and Society, Media Literacy, or Introduction to Popular Culture.

Although the pedagogical value of music videos remains formally under-recognized, many have thoroughly established why music videos are an important and potent way to learn about life around the globe. “Music television deserves serious attention from students of popular culture” (Goodwin and Grossberg ix), proclaimed the introduction of Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader, the influential collection edited by Frith, Goodwin, and Grossberg. Supporting this call to study music videos, Austerlitz saw them as a “fascinating oddity” (1) and a “compelling marker of cultural history” (1). He concluded that the music video’s “triumphs render it a subject worthy of deeper study and attention” (1). In summarizing the state of music video research and demonstrating why they are more than just entertainment, Straw wrote, “music videos are increasingly seen as elements within complex assemblages of image and sound that circulate the world and are recombined within a variety of diasporic media, from satellite television networks through DVD and Internet video clip sites” (3176).

Consideration of certain music video research trends indicates their diverse potential. One major trend adopts a media effects perspective and examines how music videos influence the ways audiences think and behave, especially younger groups like adolescents, teens, or college students. Studies have looked at music video effects in terms of sex, such as how kids imitate the content (Ey and Cupit), how they sext (Van Ouytsel, Ponnet, and Walrave), and what their attitudes are toward sex (Aubrey, Hopper, and Mbure; Beentjes and Konig; Kistler and Lee; Zhang, Miller, and Harrison). Others have researched music videos’ effects on perceptions of rape (Burgess and Burpo; Sprankle, End, and Bretz). There is also much work on the influence of music videos on how people think about gender-specific ideas related to misogyny (van Oosten, Peter, and Valkenburg) or bodily self-perception (Mischner et al.).

Overlapping with work that emphasizes effects, there is a trend of research interested in representational patterns in music videos. Gender often emerges as a main focal point, such as Wallis’s content analysis of differences in gender displays. Many have also tied race to genre, with rap being a dominant line of inquiry (Balaji; Conrad, Dixon, and  Zhang; Zhang, Dixon, and Conrad). Overall, work on representation has spanned topics like sexual objectification (Aubrey and Frisby; Frisby and Aubrey), sexuality (Turner), and violence (Aikat; Smith and Boyson; Thaller and Messing).

Such trends show the utility of music videos in media research, popular culture studies, and beyond. In addition, music videos are characterized by a combination of features that make them an ideal fit for in-class activities about media and popular culture:

  1. They are conventionally short, compared to a full movie or television episode.
  2. They are often familiar, which benefits group discussion because many students bring background knowledge.
  3. They are common online, which makes it simple for instructors to find multiple good examples.
  4. They are easy to access, such as the free official content available on video-sharing sites like YouTube or hosting services like Vevo.
  5. They are often controversial, working as a compelling catalyst for critical discussion and thus able to help students identify important issues, then articulate their views on social or political matters.
  6. They are commonly imitated on the Web, as evidenced by remakes, parodies, satires, and mash-ups that have become a common way for lovers and haters—including amateurs, professionals, and people in between—to express themselves online.1
  7. They are popular culture, as a collective form and as individual artifacts, which gives them instant student appeal and significance as a teaching tool. 

Activity: Popular Music Videos and Media Literacy

The following activity is a productive way to use music videos to introduce and teach media literacy. This exercise is intended to occur in class and requires the instructor’s use of an Internet-connected device that can play music videos viewable by the whole class at once (e.g., via projector or on a large monitor). Objectives include these:

  1. The exercise will (A) strategically use music videos as a teaching tool, (B) demonstrate the importance of critical thinking about music videos, and (C) demonstrate the importance of critical thinking about popular culture.
  2. Students will (A) strengthen media literacy skills and (B) increase comprehension of popular music videos as a significant form of entertainment media. 

Preparation: Prior to class, carefully select a popular music video accessible online and useful as a teaching tool. Billboard charts and YouTube’s “Popular on YouTube” section are helpful starting points. The instructor should select something that will resonate with students; this can be based on recency or the interests and personalities of the class. I suggest watching the video many times before class. It is also essential to research the video’s production background and popular reception. Immediately before class begins, it is smart to prepare the music video for easy start-up and test all necessary technology—video connection, audio levels, video start function, video end point.

Execution: Once class begins, start the activity by announcing its order (i.e., discuss media literacy, watch music video, analyze video alone and then together) and expected outcomes (i.e., enhance media literacy comprehension and skills).

Part 1: Introduce Media Literacy and Music Video-Specific Follow-Up Questions

First, I explain media literacy and the following five key questions of media literacy, using visual aids like PowerPoint slides and the Center for Media Literacy’s website, medialit.org:

  1. Authorship: “Who created this message?”
  2. Format: “What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?”
  3. Audience: “How might different people understand this message differently than me?”
  4. Content: “What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?”
  5. Purpose: “Why is this message being sent?”

As justified in the rationale above, we then briefly discuss why music videos are media content worthy of critical thought.

Next, to successfully analyze popular music videos and expand on the preexisting five key questions of media literacy, I propose the following set of original follow-up questions that are music video-specific—four follow-ups for each of the main questions—to help prompt critical thought and advance media literacy about popular music videos:

  1.  Authorship: “Who created this message?”
    1. Who is explicitly identified as a creator?
    2. Who created the song?
    3. Who created the music video?
    4. What are some major components of the music video that people created?
  2. Format: “What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?”
    1. What techniques are used in the music?
    2. What techniques are used in the music video?
    3. How does this music video seem influenced by popular culture?
    4. How has this music video seemingly influenced popular culture?
  3. Audience: “How might different people understand this message differently than me?”
    1. Who do you think are some target audiences for this music video?
    2. What components of the music video indicate its target audience?
    3. What parts of the music video seem open to interpretation?
    4. What parts of the music video seem controversial? To whom?
  4. Content: “What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?”
    1. How does the music video convey this?
    2. How do you think this relates to the music video’s creators?
    3. How do you think this relates to the music video’s target audience?
    4. What may have caused these representations and omissions?
  5. Purpose: “Why is this message being sent?”
    1. Why was this music created?
    2. Why was the music video created?
    3. Why was the music video created for this format? (I.e., cable television, the Web, DVD, etc.)
    4. Who would benefit from the music video’s popularity? 

Part 2: Watch a Music Video

After focusing on media literacy questions, introduce the music video by identifying the song and performer. I find it useful to informally survey how many students know the song or artist and how many like the song or artist. It is crucial to establish the significance of studying this artifact. For instance, instructors should cite facts about awards the artist or song has won, sales information like albums or singles sold, rankings from Billboard/Nielsen chart data, concert grosses, YouTube views, and social media metrics (e.g., how many likes or followers an artist has online). It is best also to show students visuals like a Twitter feed or Billboard.com article to support those claims. This will help students recognize the significance of putting popular culture under the microscope—this is not just a song but a social phenomenon that deserves to be studied, and the class is learning a system for accomplishing that.

Here it is helpful to notify students that after watching the video once, they will need to answer and discuss the five media literacy questions and music video-specific follow-ups. Thus, as they watch, students should think about answers to the questions, which they may wish to quickly review before watching the video at this point.

Part 3: Practice Media Literacy Skills by Discussing the Music Video

Solo: After watching the video, students should individually write answers to each media literacy question and the follow-ups. When dealing with time constraints for this in-class activity, I advise students to focus on answers that come easiest, instead of straining to complete all questions (i.e., quality over quantity). This is a good time to encourage optional Internet use for those with enabled devices. Answers are possible with only a pencil and paper, but Web-based research will probably strengthen responses.

Small groups: After the solo work, students form pairs or triads and share their findings with each other. They should consider what they learned from peers to expand their answer list and prepare for a full-class discussion.

As a class: After the small group work, reconvene as a class and watch the video for a second and final time. This provides a chance to see more, helps solidify what students learned so far, and refreshes memories for the following discussion.

I then lead a Q&A through each of the five key media literacy questions and follow-ups. Instructors should seek many answers to each question, solicit like and unlike observations across the group, and play devil’s advocate to help students form their opinions.

Activity Results

This activity results in valuable dialogues, which will vary based on the video(s) examined. One highly recommended music video to choose for this activity is Katy Perry’s 2013 hit, “Roar” (Lipshutz; Perry, “Katy Perry – Roar”) 2. Using this video would give the instructor a chance to talk about Perry’s many Grammy nominations, MTV Awards, Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, and Guinness World Records. The instructor could also discuss her remarkable billion-plus views that place this song in the top ten most-viewed YouTube and Vevo videos (Jang; Lane; “Vevo Top Videos”) and made Perry “the first artist to ever have two videos with over 1 Billion [sic] views” (“Katy Perry – Vevo”; “Roar10xCertified”). Students respond well to these kinds of arguments for a video’s significance and facts like Perry’s status as the most-followed Twitter user—with over 75 million followers, she ranks above people like Justin Bieber and President Obama (Perry, “Tweets”; “Twitter Top 100”).

Discussing Perry’s “Roar” video would likely cause students to answer the media literacy questions and follow-ups in ways that lead to fascinating conversations about the major media literacy concepts. “Authorship” would relate to the song being co-written by a team of professional hit makers including Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and Bonnie McKee (Hampp; Seabrook). “Format” would connect to sexualization, familiar pop song ingredients, and the use of visual effects. “Audience” would lead to concerns about young fans, PETA’s objections to the video’s use of animals (Boardman; Palmer), or the video’s twist ending. “Content” would tie to portrayals of selfies, makeup use, and heterosexuality or sexual orientation. “Purpose” would relate to product sales, promotional culture, the modern music industry, free YouTube content, conspicuous use of Nokia merchandise, and celebrity branding.

This kind of popular music video analysis, based on the five key media literacy questions and follow-ups, enables discussion of many broad issues. In particular, this includes:

  1. How race, class, age, and ability are represented in music videos.
  2. How gender, sex, sexuality, and sexism are treated in music videos.
  3. How beauty norms are reflected in music videos; how this impacts body image, self-esteem, or eating disorders outside music videos.
  4. How celebrities appear in music videos; how musicians are positioned as celebrities in music videos.
  5. What music videos tell us about censorship, evolving moral standards, political correctness, and cultural taboos.
  6. How product placement shapes music videos.
  7. How genre affects music videos.
  8. How new and digital media impact music videos.

By using this activity, I have found that students thoroughly enjoy practicing and developing critical thinking skills through the study of everyday media and popular culture. The classroom becomes a space where fun and learning can logically and productively intersect. Students become more consistently engaged with class topics and discussions, searching for such intersection. Their media literacy skills improve—instantly and long-term—through the type of practice and collaborative critique that this exercise facilitates. As a result, students are more sensitive, informed, and skilled critical consumers of entertainment media.

This essay expands on general media literacy principles and produces original music video-specific questions, enabling systematic use of music videos as effective resources for teaching media literacy and critical thinking about media and popular culture. The five key media literacy questions are a valuable framework for studying popular music videos and exploring the broader issues they raise. Without the media literacy framework, this exercise might allow only surface-level scrutiny. Using the media literacy foundation strengthens, deepens, and formalizes this learning process, enhancing student comprehension, analysis, and evaluation of popular music videos as important media content.

The in-class activity described in this essay is ideal for undergraduate courses, but can be adapted by prefacing the work with level-appropriate lectures about media and popular culture for a variety of potential student audiences, such as tweens, pre-college teens, or graduate students. One alternative to the in-class activity is to remake it as a written test, which would benefit from a rubric used to grade answers. For example, instructors may choose to teach the five key media literacy questions first, then, on the same or a different day, show a music video and require students to answer the five questions and music video-specific follow-ups as a test of knowledge and skills. Other possibilities include a student presentation (individuals or groups pick a modern video, argue for its significance, analyze its content using the music video-specific follow-ups, and consider the implications); a reflection paper (students address the extent to which media literacy about music videos will impact how they think about such entertainment); or a self-produced video essay (students use the media literacy questions and music video-specific follow-ups as prompts for a prepared, recorded oral critique of a popular music video; bonus points to those who share their video essay on YouTube).

Popular music videos have many educational uses, which span disciplines. These videos are excellent instruments, effective for getting students’ attention, and helpful for teaching about many complex and meaningful concepts. Educators should therefore embrace and experiment with music videos as a powerful teaching tool.

Notes

1. By way of illustration, consider the many humorous takeoffs on The Black Eyed Peas song, “My Humps,” which inspired popular online videos by alt-rock celebrity Alanis Morissette, gender-role-defying electronic musician Peaches, and pre-teen remix video YouTube-star MattyBRaps.

2. Here are some other recommended popular music videos that work well for this activity: Michael Jackson, “Thriller”; Madonna, “Erotica”; Shania Twain, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”; One Direction, “What Makes You Beautiful”; Robin Thicke, “Blurred Lines”; Pharrell Williams, “Happy”; Taylor Swift, “Shake it Off”; Drake, “Hotline Bling.”

Works Cited

Aikat, Debashis. “Streaming Violent Genres Online: Visual Images in Music Videos on BET.com, Country.com, MTV.com, and VH1.com.” Popular Music and Society 27.2 (2004): 221-240. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Aubrey, Jennifer Stevens, and Cynthia M. Frisby. “Sexual Objectification in Music Videos: A Content Analysis Comparing Gender and Genre.” Mass Communication and Society 14.4 (2011): 475-501. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Aubrey, Jennifer Stevens, K. Megan Hopper, and Wanjiru G. Mbure. “Check That Body! The Effects of Sexually Objectifying Music Videos on College Men’s Sexual Beliefs.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 55.3 (2011): 360-79. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Austerlitz, Saul. Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video, from the Beatles to the White Stripes. New York: Continuum, 2007. Print.

Balaji, Murali. “Owning Black Masculinity: The Intersection of Cultural Commodification and Self-Construction in Rap Music Videos.” Communication, Culture & Critique 2.1 (2009): 21-38. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Beentjes, Johannes W. J., and Ruben P. Konig. “Does Exposure to Music Videos Predict Adolescents’ Sexual Attitudes?” European Scientific Journal 9.14 (2013): 1-20. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Boardman, Madeline. “PETA: Katy Perry’s ‘Roar” Music Video is Cruel to Animals.” HuffingtonPost.com. The Huffington Post, 15 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Burgess, Melinda C. R., and Sandra Burpo. “The Effect of Music Videos on College Students’ Perceptions of Rape.” College Student Journal 46.4 (2012): 748-763. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Cayari, Christopher. “Using Informal Education Through Music Video Creation.” General Music Today 27.3 (2014): 17-22. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Center for Media Literacy. “Five Key Questions Form Foundation for Media Inquiry: Keywords and Guiding Questions Help Build Habits of Critical Thinking.” MediaLit.org. Center for Media Literacy, n.d.: Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Conrad, Kate, Travis L. Dixon, and Yuanyuan Zhang. “Controversial Rap Themes, Gender Portrayals and Skin Tone Distortion: A Content Analysis of Rap Music Videos.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 53.1 (2009): 134-56. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Ey, Lesley-Anne, and C. Glenn Cupit. “Primary School Children’s Imitation of Sexualised Music Videos and Artists.” Children Australia 38.3 (2013): 115-123. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Frisby, Cynthia M., and Jennifer Stevens Aubrey. “Race and Genre in the Use of Sexual Objectification in Female Artists’ Music Videos.” Howard Journal of Communications 23.1 (2012): 66-87. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Goodwin, Andrew, and Lawrence Grossberg. Introduction. Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader. Ed. Simon Frith, Andrew Goodwin, and Lawrence Grossberg. New York: Routledge, 1993. ix-xi. Print.

Hampp, Andrew. “Katy Perry, ‘Roar’: Track Review.” Billboard.com. Billboard, 12 Aug. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Jang, Meena. “YouTube’s 10th Anniversary: Watch the Top 10 Most Viewed Videos to Date.” Billboard.com. Billboard, 14 Feb. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

“Katy Perry – Vevo Certified Artist.” Vevo.com. Vevo, 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Kistler, Michelle E., and Moon J. Lee. “Does Exposure to Sexual Hip-Hop Music Videos Influence the Sexual Attitudes of College Students?” Mass Communication and Society 13.1 (2009): 67-86. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Lane, Laura. “These Are the Most-Watched YouTube Videos Ever – Have You Seen Them All?” People.com. Time Inc., 30 Apr. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Lipshutz, Jason. “Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ Music Video: Watch the Singer’s Jungle Adventure.” Billboard.com. Billboard, 5 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Maskell, Hayden. “Using Music Videos.” English in Aotearoa 74 (2011): 54-57. Print.

Mischner, Isabelle H. S., Hein T. Van Schie, Daniël H. J. Wigboldus, Rick B. Van Baaren, and Rutger C. M. E. Engels. “Thinking Big: The Effect of Sexually Objectifying Music Videos on Bodily Self-Perception in Young Women.” Body Image 10.1 (2013): 26-34. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Palmer, Chris. “Katy Roars, Elephant Whimpers.” Peta.org. PETA, 10 Oct. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Perry, Katy (katyperry). “Tweets.” Twitter account. Twitter.com. Twitter, n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Perry, Katy. “Katy Perry – Roar (Official).” Video file. KatyPerryVEVO. YouTube.com. YouTube, 5 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

“Roar10xCertified.” KatyPerry.com. Capitol Records, 6 July 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Seabrook, John. “The Doctor Is In: A Technique for Producing No. 1 Songs.” NewYorker.com. Conde Nast, 14 Oct. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Smith, Stacy L., and Aaron R. Boyson. “Violence in Music Videos: Examining the Prevalence and Context of Physical Aggression.” Journal of Communication 52.1 (2002): 61-83. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Sprankle, Eric L., Christian M. End, and Miranda N. Bretz. “Sexually Degrading Music Videos and Lyrics: Their Effects on Males’ Aggression and Endorsement of Rape Myths and Sexual Stereotypes.” Journal of Media Psychology 24.1 (2012): 31-39. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Straw, Will. “Music videos.” The International Encyclopedia of Communication. Ed. W. Donsbach. 2008. Print.

Thaller, Jonel, and Jill Theresa Messing. “(Mis)Perceptions Around Intimate Partner Violence in the Music Video and Lyrics for ‘Love the Way You Lie’.” Feminist Media Studies 14.4 (2014): 623-39. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Turner, Jacob S. “Sex and the Spectacle of Music Videos: An Examination of the Portrayal of Race and Sexuality in Music Videos.” Sex Roles 64.3-4 (2011): 173-91. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

“Twitter top 100 most followers.” Twittercounter.com. Twitter, 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Van Oosten, Johanna M. F., Jochen Peter, and Patti M. Valkenburg. “The Influence of Sexual Music Videos on Adolescents’ Misogynistic Beliefs: The Role of Video Content, Gender, and Affective Engagement.” Communication Research 42.7 (2015): 986-1008. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Van Ouytsel, Joris, Koen Ponnet, and Michel Walrave. “The Associations Between Adolescents’ Consumption of Pornography and Music Videos and Their Sexting Behavior.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 17.12 (2014): 772-78. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

“Vevo Top Videos Most Viewed All Time.” Vevo.com. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

 

Wallis, Cara. “Performing Gender: A Content Analysis of Gender Display in Music Videos.” Sex Roles 64.3-4 (2011): 160-72. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Zhang, Yuanyuan, Laura E. Miller, and Kristen Harrison. “The Relationship Between Exposure to Sexual Music Videos and Young Adults’ Sexual Attitudes.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 52.3 (2008): 368-86. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Zhang, Yuanyuan, Travis L. Dixon, and Kate Conrad. “Rap Music Videos and African American Women’s Body Image: The Moderating Role of Ethnic Identity.” Journal of Communication 59.2 (2009): 262-78. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

 

Author Bio:

Dr. Jordan M. McClain is Assistant Teaching Professor of Communication at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. He enjoys researching and teaching about framing in music journalism, celebrity, the intersection of television and music culture, and consumer culture. For the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association (MAPACA) he serves on the executive board,  as Music area co-chair,  and as Journalism and News Media area chair. For the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA), he chairs the Professional Development area.

Social media:

Academia.edu: https://drexel.academia.edu/JordanMcClain
LinkedIn:  https://www.linkedin.com/in/jordan-m-mcclain-72304163
Twitter: https://twitter.com/j_mcclain

 

Reference Citation:

MLA:

McClain, Jordan M. “A Framework for Using Popular Music Videos to Teach Media Literacy.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 3.1 (2016). Web and Print. 

APA:

McClain, J. M. (2016).  A framework for using popular music videos to teach media literacy. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 3(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/a-framework-for-using-popular-music-videos-to-teach-media-literacy/ 

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