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Struggling with the Medium

Written by Larissa Pahomov
July 24, 2011

The first time I taught this unit, one of the most memorable moments came after we watched a short clip of “The Notebook” in class. Several young men in the class registered themselves as conscientious objectors to the film.

 “That movie is ruining our lives,” they complained. “It’s setting the bar way, way too high for how boys are supposed to treat their girlfriends.”

A faction of young women in the class immediately chided the boys and proclaimed their love of the movie. Other students of both genders dismissed it as “corny,” which made the believers even more adamant in their defense.

Going into the project, I would have immediately sided with the critics. Most romantic comedies strike me as highly cheesy. They still do. But the more we discussed the “reality” of these texts, the clearer it became that there was no way to separate our beliefs about romantic love from the endless media examples that fill our lives. Even the students that were rejecting “The Notebook” were refining their notions of love and partnership based on what it shouldn’t look like. Moreover, the project showed us that nobody was isolated from this genre. even the most cynical students swooned over films like “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” and I’ve been watching “High Fidelity” since I was a teenager myself. We were all wrapped up together in a diverse but connected web of romantic texts.

The more sobering discovery, however, was how hard it was for students to detach from these films emotionally and analyze them as reflections of society. Having now taught this unit twice, I am beginning to see the outline of what it means for all of us as media consumers.

When reading a novel in class, I’m thrilled if students become invested in the fates of the characters, but later I will expect students to balance that visceral connection with a more removed consideration of issues like authorship, theme, and audience. In this unit, however, I was surprised (and a little frustrated) at how students flat-out avoided answering a question that was posed to guide their conclusions: What do these portrayals show us about society’s attitudes towards courtship/dating? Many students wrote about the movie characters as though they were real people, and their conclusions spun the themes they had identified into commentary resembling relationship advice. At best, students pointed out how their modern film showed more equality between the genders than “Shrew,” but these comparisons were also using the texts as stand-ins for real world examples.

In a way, this trend was its own response to the questions posed at the beginning of the unit — there is no division between the text and the people who consume it, because the audience either considers the text to be real, or at least an adequate facsimile thereof, and award it as much value and influence as they would any “real” personal experience. 

This discovery terrified me. Didn’t students know how many of these films were callibrated for profit, not honesty? But I knew that we were hitting up against one of the most basic understandings of Media Literacy. Students had been trained to approach written fiction in a particular way, but little or no suggestion had ever been made to them that the same methods could be applied to the fiction they watched. 

I felt like Marshall McLuhan was in the room, shaking his head at us. I keep coming back to one of his aphorisms: “we shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.” What will it take for students to deconstruct visual mediums the same way they do books? And if film is a tool, what function does that tool serve? The best literature inspires the soul as well as gives us something to sink our critical teeth into. Here’s to hoping that students can eventually have that same experience with film in the classroom.