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 interpretation supported by a strict methodology and preponderance of evidence for that interpretation. 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.
But there is peril in teaching this method, particularly when setting students out to find “hidden meanings” or embedded ideologies in media.
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.
So, 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.
But there are all sorts of analyses floating in Internet backwaters that fail to meet methodological rigor. Critical media analysis is not a tool to lambaste a program for having a point of view. For example, 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 their own worldviews.
Good analysis is a method that 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. (I say “universe” because the Batman mythology exists across many media platforms).
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 most of the police, 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, corruption, violence against citizens, anti-democratic mafia bosses extorting shopowners) will go unpunished. Batman is the comicbook answer to these fears: the sense of overwhelming criminality and urban decay. Looking at Batman as a media artifact, we can make the cultural observation that Batman is, therefore, 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 (repressed) 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.