Reading Media: How are Students Watching?


In teaching media and communications in high school for nearly 12 years now, the meaning generated by popular media such as film and television always seems to be a barrier for students. Unlike English studies, which students embrace as legitimate, the conversation of television programming, mainstream film or popular music, continues to be viewed as entertainment. It’s undeniable that we are entertained when watching Luke Cage dismantle thugs on Netflix or when a squad of cowboys bring justice in The Magnificent 7, but within all of this, its urgent to ensure that meaning is extracted.

Recently in conducting an interview for a teacher resource that I developed titled “The Catholic Film Reader” for the Catholic Curriculum Corporation, I had an opportunity to conduct an on-camera interview with Anne Lancashire, professor emeritus of English and Cinema Studies at University of Toronto. In chatting with Dr. Lancashire (who single handedly developed contemporary cinema studies at the UoT in the early 80s), we exchanged similar stories of students’ refusal to look at popular media beyond entertainment and within the realm of the political. However, as Dr. Lancashire notes, popular film lives out of the political conversation.

Here’s a video below of Dr. Anne Lancashire addressing this very notion.

When it comes to our students, are we teaching them to read when they’re watching or listening for that matter?

Recently I took Grade 11 and Gr. 12 Communications Technology students to a screening of Antoine Fuqua’s re-make of The Magnificent 7. The opening film of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, its premiere and consequentially marketing was grounded in the conversation of diversity. The goal of the screening was to challenge the students’ respective and understanding of genre filmmaking and whether or not the film was as progressive as the folks at TIFF proclaimed.

The students read the film as forward thinking for these main reasons:

1. The leader/hero was a black man; whereas the typical western has a white hero.

2. There was a strong heroine who was not afraid to fight like a man.

3. There was an indigenous person who was a hero.
From the student lens, deeper reading can take place.

1. Yes, although Denzel is the leader he becomes entrapped within the “black man as mentor ” role that’s typical of action cinema. Because of his life experience he’s both father and teacher. This is evident in films such as the Lethal Weapon series, Rocky series and Denzel’s most recent Antoine Fuqua collaboration The Equalizer. Furthermore, it’s really Chris Pratt’s white hero who sacrifices himself (literally) to protect his friends and the innocent townspeople. In this, the idea of black heroism is not as deep as marketed.

2. Yes, the female heroine holds a gun and uses it with proficiency. However, she in dress and camera framing is a continuous subject of attraction. As such, although she uses a rifle she is very much sexualized and positioned within the male gaze of both camera and cultural context.

3. Significantly, much has been said about the progressive narrative of indigenous representation in the film. However , at deeper reading, the narrative is still trapped in stereotype. From being a pun of ‘savage’ jokes at dinner and comedic references to “scalping” at a card game to being predominantly voiceless, the character is still trapped within a characterization of action. Not much is known about him, other than his loyalty and warrior ability. This character really represents a lost opportunity for the filmmakers to place the frame of the narrative in a unique voice. Rather than merely being a support to the team, this character could have retold the story in flashback and spoke about how the the narrative impacted him. Instead, his sole purpose was to jump rooftops like a comic book character and shoot bow and arrows with the proficiency of an Avenger or Justice League member. Like Tonto of The Lone Ranger, the character is nothing less than a “trusty sidekick.”

As noted on the Media Smarts website under Common Portrayals of Aboriginal People,
“For over a hundred years, Westerns and documentaries have shaped the public’s perception of Native people. The wise elder (Little Big Man); the drunk (Tom Sawyer); the Indian princess (Pocahontas); the loyal sidekick (Tonto)—these images have become engrained in the consciousness of every North American.”

Post – Screening:

With the aboriginal voices as the focus of the screening conversation, a Skype call was held with Elizabeth Edgar Webkamigad (Baawaating Family Health Team Manager) with the goal to ground the indigenous representation of the film to colonial history and the impacts of discrimination in Canada. As an indigenous woman, mother, educator and mental health professional, Elizabeth’s Skype call, which took place directly in the movie theatre, challenged students to be empathic and also aware of the stereotypes that exist both within the Canadian cultural landscape and importantly within popular culture. The conversation forced students to recognize that the representation of the indigenous character in the film is layered and rooted in real history.

Here is an excerpt from the Skype call.


In the end, its urgent to ensure that real conversations are taking place and that students within media-based courses are not just watching; that they’re reading and making viable connections. These connections shape who we are and how we see the world.

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