Every time I open a magazine or watch television, I’m getting some kind of message about sex or gender. Take this ad, for example (found in New York Magazine):
Sure, the advertisement’s overt message is about a specific shopping center. But there’s also a subtext to this image. What might you guess is the gender of the person portrayed here? The socioeconomic status? Ethnicity? I’d guess that the person is a white upper-middle class woman. What does this say about who engages in shopping? Women. But not just any women: this ad seems to imply shopping is the realm of the privileged, thus there's no need for them to bother appealing to people who have less privilege. Further, look at this woman’s stance. Is this a powerful posture? What does that say about how a woman (a white upper-middle class woman) “should” present herself? In my undergraduate days, one of my professors was teaching us to view media critically, and she pointed out that everything in advertising is intentional. No choice is arbitrary, because companies don’t just sell products anymore - they’re selling values, stories, ideals. In short, they are selling a particular culture (or perhaps, at least, the building blocks of culture).
Why is this important? Whoever they may be in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, ability, etc., my (future) students will likely be consumers of media. I live in America, and it is likely that I will be teaching in America. Here, media is ubiquitous, and my students will be constantly bombarded with something that, in my experience, they are rarely taught to question. And while some media can be pretty empowering, much of it seems to be doing more harm than good. For example, take body image and self esteem. Constantly seeing perfect airbrushed or Photoshopped bodies could make any regular person feel inadequate, next to this literally unachievable ideal. Unhappiness or depression seem to go hand in hand with low self esteem, so I'd call that pretty harmful.
How does this all relate to education? Well, I don’t think I have the power to completely overhaul the media industry or the entire lexicon of cultural symbolism. So, I think the next best thing is to educate people to become critical consumers of media, with the hope that this will defuse some of the nasty effects of the constant bombardment of media's narrow cultural representations. And, really, it’s not even fair for me to say “next best thing” because this kind of education is not less important than activism: I also think that helping my fellow humans to become more critical thinkers and consumers will help them to be generally more empowered to think for themselves about what’s best for them, not what will help them to fit in. Call me biased, but I think this is really important.
So if media literacy education is important (and it is! ;-) ), then how would I go about actually teaching media literacy, especially that related to sexuality? Thankfully there are at least a couple of fantastic resources on the web to help me in this endeavor! (Those resources, and more, are included at the bottom of this post.)
For this kind of education, I love the idea of taking an experiential approach. For example… I could start off by showing a video advertisement, and then ask my students questions about it, like the following: What or who did you see in this ad? Who didn’t you see? How was the person in the ad portrayed? What does this imply about people like the person in the ad (e.g., if the person in the ad is a woman, what does the ad imply about women?)? How might it affect people watching the ad? What messages about sexuality/gender does this ad send? Why is it important to think about that? And so on… Depending on the students and subject of the overall class, it might be appropriate to conclude my questions with something like: How do the messages you noticed fit in with (or contrast with) societal messages about the same thing? What can you do about it?
Of course, I’d also want to make a habit of asking students: What was the point of the ad? Ultimately, the answer should always be the same: “To sell the product/service.” I think it’s so important to remember that always, companies are advertising in order to sell something to consumers. They are not looking out for the best interests of their customers; they are looking out for their own profit-making. This is a point I’d want to drive home to students, but in this context, the main focus should be on the education related to sexuality, gender, etc.
In my travels (possibly on the Media Awareness Network, or somewhere else - I’m not sure, but if I find it, I will post it in the comments), I saw another interesting idea for media literacy in sex education, which involves bringing in a bunch of magazines, scissors, glue, and paper, so that students can create their own advertisements via collage (which could appeal to visual & spatial learners!) By creating their own ads, students would have the opportunity to see how ads don’t just sell the product; they also sell a story, a culture. It could also be empowering for students to create their own messages of what they would like to see represented in the media, instead of just consuming what is already out there.
How might you go about educating about media literacy pertaining to sexuality? What are your general thoughts on this subject?
Thanks for reading!
Media Awareness Network - Resource for parents & teachers. Has K-12 lesson plans on various aspects of media literacy (e.g. bullying, body image, and gender portrayal).
Center for Media Literacy - Similar to Media Awareness Network. A site to help educate about media literacy, as well as provide resources to educators.
Sociological Images: Seeing is Believing - Blog with posts not always, but often, about some portrayal of sexuality. Lots of images and analysis of the meanings of those images. Keeping up with/reading archives of this blog may help train you to have a more critical eye toward media. (This blog is a personal favorite!)
Teen Aware: Sex, Media, and You - An interesting spin on sex & media - teaching abstinence via media literacy.
Teen Sexual Health workshop module on Media Literacy - One handy outline of a lesson an instructor could use to teach about sex & media.
Sex Ed Library: Sexuality and Media - Links to a few lesson plans on, well, sexuality and media. (Overall, Sex Ed Library is also a helpful resource for lots of sexuality education lesson plan links.)