Critical Media Analysis and non-obvious interpretations

Critical Media Analysis and non-obvious interpretations

I’ve taught Critical Media Analysis (CMA) as a methods course for a few years now. Fun class. What we do, in short, is examine media “artifacts” as a way to better understand American culture and the relationship between media and society.

Students with backgrounds in literature and film studies tend to excel in the course because the method is interpretive. But CMA is more than mere interpretation. It is a critical interpretation supported by a strict methodology and preponderance of evidence. The method isn’t asking “how students feel” about a text as many low-level English courses might emphasize. CMA requires a deep familiarity with the culture that both produced the media and received it as audiences. So, CMA is critical cultural analysis using media artifacts as a means to identify collective meaning-making, the dominant ideologies that inform that process and broadly held cultural assumptions that give the “texts” power in society.

As with many undergrad courses in media, there is peril in teaching this method, particularly when setting students out to find “hidden meanings” or embedded ideologies in music, news, film and television.

A standard textbook for Critical Media Analysis from Stocchetti and Kukkonen mentions CMA’s aim of unearthing the “hidden agendas” embedded in media artifacts. But students can easily misunderstand the term hidden agendas in the age of fake news. Critical media analysis, as a method, is not simply about seeing the “bias” of news organizations or, say, the pro-Trump leanings of a Roseanne reboot. Critical media analysis aims to look beyond the surface meanings offered by media producers, directors and writers. At its best, CMA unearths the underlying assumptions and cultural beliefs that allow media to make sense to large swaths of a public. It takes time, good judgment and careful effort.

How hidden are these messages? How are they hidden? By whom are they hidden? The short answer is that these messages are not hidden by anyone. Media are unavoidably shaped by the dominant ideologies of the culture that produces and consumes media artifacts. Often, media producers will not even be aware they are buying into a given ideology as they shape narratives for the greatest possible public circulation. It is, after all, about ratings.

There are all sorts of media analyses floating in Internet backwaters that fail to meet methodological rigor. But critical media analysis is not a tool to lambaste a program for having a point of view. For example, politically conservative criticism of how the new Star Wars is actually feminist “porn” propaganda. Too much “critical” media analysis is simply pointing out obvious messages in major productions and being mad that media don’t reflect the critic’s own worldview.

Good analysis, by contrast, uses media as a way to reveal non-obvious themes or less visible ideologies that inform how we use media to make sense of the world. CMA projects seek non-obvious or latent meanings contained in media or how media rely on nearly invisible cultural assumptions on the part of audiences.

I’ll try to illustrate the difference between surface observations and deeper interpretations ideally provided by CMA by using the Batman universe. Note: I say “universe” because the Batman mythology extends across many media platforms: 1970s TV, 1980s films, 2000s films, videogames and, of course, comics. This list shows that Batman clearly has cultural resonance with American audiences and speaks to how worthwhile it is as a subject for analysis.

Batman: Obvious and Non-obvious Interpretations

An obvious interpretation of Batman is that the dark knight universe helps us see the American appreciation for justice, law and order. Gotham is a corrupt city. The mob has bribed the police and judges, so citizens can’t turn to “the law” for recourse. Injustice is rampant. The powerful prey on the weak. Gotham, as a metaphor for American cities, represents the fear that these evils (greed, muggings, mafia bosses extorting shop owners, violence against citizens, corruption) will go unpunished. Batman is the comicbook answer to these fears: overwhelming criminality and urban decay.

Looking at Batman as a media artifact, we can make the cultural observation that Batman is a symbol of righteous law and order. He is the answer to these fears.

But would any fan of Batman find this revealing? No. This is a justified but rather uninformative analysis of Batman as an expression of American culture.

A Non-obvious Batman

On the other hand, we might use a theoretical lens to highlight less obvious and even counterintuitive interpretations. For example, some have questioned the bond between Batman and Robin, highlighting the “queerness” of their relationship.


There is compelling evidence that, as a media artifacts, their relationship is ambiguous and potentially (latently) sexual in nature. With a sexuality theoretical lens, we see something non-obvious. While non-obvious to the casual media consumer, many have poked fun at the idea of latent feelings between the crime-fighting duo.

But I don’t like that interpretation, frankly. I don’t, in part, because of the way it positions gay relationships as a punchline. Doing a bit of critical analysis of these gay readings, we might find the tendency to see homosexuality in Batman’s relationship with Robin as a restrictive cultural ideology: if a man loves a man, it can’t be anything but sexual. The tendency to deny men the ability to have strong bonds without sexuality the root. As Glen Weldon points out in Slate, this reading can conflate homosocial with homosexual.

So let me offer you my own reading. Batman (as Bruce Wayne) is a hyperrich man with near infinite resources for training and advanced equipment. He comes from a wealthy, respected family with a charitable “foundation” that tries to help Gotham. He is connected to political elites and can tap into his corporation when it suits his needs. Now, who does Batman often fight? You might immediately think of Joker or Bane, but these are actually rare “boss fights.” Most of the fight sequences in comics, films and the video game are of common “criminals” or goons that surround these bosses. They are sometimes tattooed. They are muscle bound and frequently have “tough guy” accents indicative of inner city education if any at all. At times, they are clearly mentally unstable. They are either seriously unstable or desperate enough to join a gang headed by a sociopath who paints his face. Regardless of the desperation or mental illness of these anonymous goons, Batman beats them severely.

What does this reading say about Batman as a popular symbol in American culture? One underlying message: the rich can and should, without relying on a legal system, physically beat those they personally determine are threats to society. How is “the criminal” constructed in Batman? Do we ever wonder if that bloodied underling took a job guarding a warehouse so he could afford Christmas presents for his kids? Or how that underling would pay for the broken clavicle the morning after some rich guy decided he deserved punishment?


Suddenly, Batman does not seem so heroic. He is more like a puritanical autocrat who decides to take the law into his own hands and mercilessly harm (but not kill because he is a good guy) anyone in his way. Why don’t viewers have any sympathy for the poor or insane that are roped into the Joker’s plans? What does this say about the American view of “criminals” that we so readily assume Batman’s foes are inherently evil?

This new reading is non-obvious and even subverts the dominant interpretation by exposing the underlying assumption we bring to the text to make it work.

In critical media analysis, we question the media artifact to expose the “hidden” messages about the wealthy, the criminal, law and order. If I asked a casual viewer of the films whether or not Batman was actually a villain, they’d say no. The best analyses are not impositions of one’s own ideology but the exploration of the ideologies that make media popular and, thus, tell us about the culture that gives media life.

“Evil in the sight of this Sun”

“Evil in the sight of this Sun”
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement

II Samuel 12:11, Evil in the sight of this sun


Best stories in the emerging genre of Hick Lit.


Chapter 1: Strangers in a strange land

In the months before Clayton’s death, we had begun to feel safe. Even superior to the normals in town. We felt the freedom of the woods.

He died here. In the woods. Among the sticks and stones. Fell through the dark near 70 feet, we estimated. You could see the flaring burn of his cigarette lofting in an arc out over the ravine like a swooping firefly. Then a rapid, straight descent. More like a meteor shooting toward the earth. They said he was dead on impact, but Jessica had cradled his head after we all sprinted down the dark hillside dodging tree trunks in our rush. She said the paramedics were lying to us. She said she wiped the blood away and looked into his eyes.


The ravines of southern Illinois marked the end of the last ice age. Glaciers, we were told, pushed south from the poles in some achingly slow geologic process and rippled the earth in an icy advance. The effect was like corrugating the land with irregular peaks and valleys.

This history left portions of the famously flat American prairie with low-elevation but sharp-angled slopes that funneled summer rains down brush-choked hillsides into rivulets which, in turn, poured into Kickapoo Creek. Each flow paid tribute. The Kickapoo to the Embarras River. Embarras to the Wabash. Wabash to the Ohio. On to the Mississippi. The Mississippi to the far off ocean.

Every time he drank enough, Devin would get serious about building a small armada of canoes and kayaks to float the entire tributary river system to New Orleans and out into the gulf.

“Imagine it. It would be easy to mount Matt’s picnic table on sealed barrels. The barrels are out at Jesse’s farm. They are just sitting out there rusting. Jesse’s dad wouldn’t care. Make em airtight, lash em to the legs and have a communal spot for gear storage and eating together without having to go to shore.”

“A floating picnic table. How novel.” Deb seemed unimpressed.

Seven of us of sat drinking after clearing brush from some forest line. Leaf had designed an open-air shelter and enlisted us to help cut away the nettles and blackberry bushes that had overtaken the plot. We were sweat drenched and full of holes from the thorny detritus we had moved to the burn pile.

Luke laughed. “Look at Huckleberry over here,” gesturing to Devin. “Gonna find himself a N*gger Jim and light out for the territory.”

I cringed, then gritted my teeth. Luke and I had talked about that word. He was normally good about not saying it. At least when I was in ear-shot.

“Luke!” I yelled a little too loud. “Unless you are a black dude or a racist hick, don’t say shit like that. And you aren’t a black man, so . . .”

“I’m quoting literature, man. You should dig that,” he said ingratiatingly.

Devin shut us up before I could say anything else. “Focus people. It’s possible. I’ve mapped it out. We could stop for supplies every two or three days like we do at Greenup when we go down the Embarras. What was that? Like five hours?”

“Six hours in late summer. Uh . . . Four and a half in spring,” Leaf piped up, raising his hand to his eyebrows to look up at the sunny sky.

Leaf was usually quiet. When he spoke, everyone listened. The kid had retained a speech impediment into his late teens despite the public school system trying to drill it out of him for years, but that did not affect the respect everyone had for him. At least the country folks. People in town were less forgiving. He was rarely showered and had a wardrobe one would expect from a reclusive serial bomber. But Leaf lived in the country and he knew the rivers. He knew the wilderness better than most of us. Luke, Tully and Deb knew it too. I didn’t know shit. I was the cityboy they tolerated because they could tell I loved the woods. I only felt accepted after Leaf taught me to juggle the burning coals of a dying fire.

Devin went on, emboldened by Leaf. “Fuck yeah. I’m telling you guys. We could do it. It would be epic. After Greenup, we could stop in Newton. We’ve got New Liberty, The Chauncey Preserve, and Lawrenceville for stops too. Once we are on the Wabash, I’ve got a cousin in Mount Carmel. We can set up on his property for a couple of days.”

“Do you have any relatives once we are on the Mississippi?” Deb’s tone was incredulous. You could almost feel her eyes rolling in how Deb punctuated her words. She often played the skeptic when Devin got on his flights of fancy. Where Devin was loud and blunt, Deb was thoughtful and incisive. “Is every farmer gonna be happy to see a long-haired drunk like Luke wandering onto his land from the river?”

Spring Summer 2016 069

“We could find something,” Leaf said. “There’s a lot of beach along the wriver banks. And there arwe small islands where no one would bother us with plenty of driftwood for fiwres.”

“Easy,” Devin went on. “Once we get to bigger water, we could fish for food rather than having to go into town all the time.”

“We can’t fish for beers, brotha. Beers cost money.” Luke was giving the idea more thought than he had in the past. He threw the can he had just emptied into the mound of unburnable trash. An old two-by-four with the words “RECYCLE ONLY!” burn-etched was nailed to the tree nearby.

“Hell,” I said. “We could get sponsorship. Some kayak company that wants a bit of good press.” No one responded. I realized right away that had violated the spirit of the trip we were imagining. “I’m just saying we could make the trip less expensive. It’s gonna cost money.”

“Not really,” Devin said dismissively. “Sandwiches and the occasional 24-pack of Miller High Life would be our main expense. My tent and Luke’s could fit 10 people easy.”

“It’s actually my mom’s tent,” Luke added.

As evening came on, we watched the fire grow brighter. Devin took to adding to the burning brush and then taking a running leap over. Luke’s brother had mysterious, clear whiskey that smelled like nail polish remover but burst like a flame thrower when he spit mouthfuls at Devin’s fire. Leaf and I tossed smoking embers back and forth. An evening moon appeared as if hastening the sun’s departure.