Feminist media pedagogy is a critical teaching practice and body of scholarship concerned with the lives and relationships of both women and men as mediated through cultural forms and institutions. Primarily, feminist media pedagogy focuses on the processes of teaching and learning about the politics of teaching and learning, especially as they are related to media production, content, reception, and consumption.
Emergence Of The Field
This critical teaching practice emerged from feminists’ concern both with the portrayals of women in media as well as with the uncomplicated critiques of power in critical and radical pedagogy. Feminist media pedagogy is an interdisciplinary body of scholarship, with contributions coming from the fields of film studies, communication, education, English, women’s studies, among others. Its theoretical foundations are equally eclectic, with contributions from cultural studies, neo-Marxist, poststructuralist, postcolonial and psychoanalytic feminist theory, as well as well-known educational theorists and philosophers such as John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Paulo Freire, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Henry Giroux, Gayatri Spivak, bell hooks, and many others. Feminist educators from around the world, working in a variety of contexts, from international grassroots and NGO efforts at media literacy with adult populations to undergraduate and postgraduate classrooms, focus their pedagogical work on the tenuous and complicated relationships among media critique, consumption, pleasure, and production.
From these theoretical and practical concerns, feminist media pedagogy has developed a strong orientation toward both interaction in the classroom and broader critiques of media and educational institutions. It has also developed some tensions and contradictions in its analyses of power dynamics. Nonetheless, feminist media pedagogy can be distinguished by its willingness to confront the complexities of power in a world where teachers are not always powerful while students remain powerless, and where interactions with the media and their institutions may be occasioned by choice and agency among viewers. Thus, feminist media pedagogy offers an emphasis on classroom dynamics that necessitates a more complex reading of power as shifting and changing, located completely neither in the teacher nor in the student.
Feminism is defined by its focus on patriarchy as it shapes all aspects of women’s lives. From this assumption, there have developed multiple feminist theories, each of which posits power, identity, and discourse differently. Each of these perspectives positions both the teacher and student as agents, capable of making small or radical changes in their lives and communities. The feminist theories that apply particularly to feminist media pedagogy are, broadly speaking, liberal, socialist, and poststructural, although other strains of feminism critical of these areas are also influential (e.g., black, queer, radical, postcolonial, and transnational feminisms). Liberal feminism is often defined through its vision of equality for men and women in the workplace, home, and politics. Its proponents do not look to make deep structural changes in society, as much as they argue for equal representation within existing institutions. Here, the concern lies with educating students about the disparities in employment and pay between men and women working in media industries, as well as in media ownership. Liberal feminist pedagogy often focuses on the numbers: how many women are portrayed in the media and in what roles? Students are taught to analyze representation within current programming and institutions in the hope of increasing access for women to better roles in front of as well as behind the camera.
Socialist feminism in media pedagogy is closely tied to political economic theory and class analysis in media representation. From this perspective, attention is concentrated on the ownership and hierarchization of media industries, the class implications of media policies, as well as analysis of media representations and the slippage between their use and exchange value. Students are encouraged to become active outside the classroom in boycotting certain programs and advertisers and creating opportunities to influence government regulation of the media industry.
Poststructuralist feminism is also influential in teaching about the media. Whereas in other forms of feminism, identity may be viewed as essential – based primarily on a common understanding of what it means to be female, poststructuralist feminists see gender as a performance of femininity or masculinity that is dependent for its meaning on the contexts in which it is enacted. In fact, all aspects of the “self ” are constructed in this manner, and so identities can never be stable or unified in their meaning. Indeed, an individual can take on performances of race, gender, class, etc. that may be contradictory from one moment to the next. The media accordingly address viewers in terms of the performances with which they hope they will identify. Poststructuralist feminist teachers, thus, might ask, who do the media think you are? And, in turn, who are you when you interact with particular media?
Feminist teachers concerned with the media focus their efforts in several areas: on the level of institutional power in ownership of multinational media conglomerates that hierarchize production, distribution, and programming power in the hands of a few (western, white males); on the representation of gendered, sexualized, raced, classed, able-bodied, aged images in those programs that reach the widest range of people; and on the ways people make meaning of those mediated images and stories in their everyday lives. The variety of feminist approaches to pedagogy encompasses a wide range of topics and approaches to teaching those topics inside and outside the classroom.
Role Of The Media
Feminist media pedagogy brings to pedagogical theory and practice an emphasis on the intersection between media studies – of production, effects, and content – and the everyday lives of women. Building on Freirean concerns about the relationship between the word and the world, it asks how both are constituted in the media as cultural common sense. In other words, the media use symbols and language practices (words) to represent the past, present, and future social world. The social world created through the media, much like the everyday world of social life, is created through relations of power that situate women and other groups in the minority in positions of lesser moral, political, cultural, and economic value. Although distinctions are made among for-profit and not for-profit media ventures, as well as between mass-marketed and private or independent media productions, all media traffic in the symbol systems that tell our most pervasive cultural stories of identity, relationships, justice, and community.
Although most feminist media pedagogues analyze the media as an “object” to be represented and understood, others are interested primarily in the ways people create meanings for the media and communicate through media in their everyday lives. Where the former are primarily interested in the media as symbolic object and artifact, the latter are primarily concerned with symbolic processes of meaning-making that rely, more or less, on media in constructing modes of being and doing in the world.
Concerned foremost with the media’s power to represent identities and maintain dominant groups’ versions of common sense, those feminist pedagogues who analyze the media as object examine the ways people (primarily oppressed groups) are portrayed in the media. They work with their students to unpack the motivations behind such representations and try to envision and construct (via production of alternative media stories and forms) narratives that reverse or alter the relations of power. Examples of this type of pedagogical work abound, and many are associated with efforts to promote media literacy. For example, studies that examine Disney narratives and the resistance among students to critique and/or construct alternative narratives that empower women exist in both the feminist media pedagogy and the media literacy scholarship.
On the other hand, those teacher-scholars interested in the media as mediator of common sense look at the ways in which discourse in the media becomes part of common sense in the classroom. They ask how students come to compare their bodies, relationships, lives with those they see in the media. For example, has reality television increased or lessened the distance between real (immediate) and mediated events? Do images of the ideal mate portrayed in the media make their way into everyday stories about dating and relationships? Moreover, can pedagogy as an intervention into discourse-as-usual change student awareness of the pervasiveness of media? How might female students in particular gain both self-awareness and the motivation to resist unhealthy media images and messages?
Responses to these questions can be found in the attempts by some teachers to incorporate community action projects into their courses, asking students to develop media projects in coordination and consultation with women’s groups. For instance, the grassroots media literacy movement takes feminist pedagogy out of the classroom and into the streets, barrios, and countryside – where the idea of media developed by and for poor and/or rural women is becoming a reality (Riaño 1994). In these examples, there are few differences between media literacy projects and feminist media pedagogy; however, as we discuss in the section to follow, feminist media pedagogy focuses more on the process of teaching and learning while media literacy often focuses on the outcome.
In addition to its similarities with media literacy, feminist media pedagogy also shares many of the characteristics of critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy concentrates on what is learned, how it is learned, who defines what is learning, and in whose interest knowledge is defined and achieved. Critical pedagogy is concerned with schooling as an oppressive institution that stifles learning and creativity. As a body of theory it promotes empowerment of students through recognizing and respecting their knowledge and experience. Critical pedagogy deconstructs schooling as a tool of the government and multinational corporations to reproduce a corporate citizenry focused on dreams of individual material wealth at the expense of true democratic community. While not all critical pedagogues espouse these goals, they are all critical of an institutional structure and curriculum that maintains the power of the dominant culture.
Feminist media pedagogy builds on these ideas and also critiques them, mindful of the ways gender, “race,” class, and sexuality position some teachers and students differently from others in the classroom. Where critical pedagogy situates the traditional teacher as powerful and the student as powerless, feminist pedagogy paints a more complex picture. Teachers and students are situated in discourse, in interaction, and through the power relations that construct various episodes in the classroom as teaching and learning, desire and resistance. Authority may be upheld or contested and both teacher and students negotiate status in conversation; such as when an open discussion is cut off or closed down, or when a lecture is interrupted by a student disagreement. Moreover, feminist pedagogy is concerned with the embodiment of teaching and learning in their performance – in the gestures, actions, and bodies that make a “good” teacher or a “difficult” student and in the spaces that contextualize these performances.
In other words, pedagogy in a feminist frame concentrates on the relationship between the teacher, the student, and the knowledge that they together produce (Lusted 1986). Feminist teachers work to create an atmosphere of safety in the classroom, where women especially can feel encouraged to give voice to previously silenced experiences of oppression or marginalization. Feminist educators are also concerned by the division of mind and body in western philosophy, where mind is equated with rationality and with men and body is equated with emotions and with women. In the classroom this division often plays out in the discounting of emotion and the discipline of the body. Critical knowledge encompasses embodied experience – past, present, and future – as well as desire for and resistance to alternative curriculum. In this vein, resistance is not viewed as noncompliance or as the teacher’s lack of control over her class, but as the logical extension of experience. Resistance, thus, is not not knowing, but is knowing differently, or knowing “other than” the dominant epistemology.
When the focus of feminist pedagogy is on media, attention turns to the relationship between performances of identity on the screen or in magazines and actual interaction in the classroom and everyday life. Feminist media pedagogy differs from critical pedagogy and from media literacy in its focus on the complications and messiness of bodies in the classroom – bodies disciplined by educational and media institutions and bodies interacting in the process of teaching and learning.
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