MCOM 352 Media Criticism BLOG#2
By: Jorge Brown-Ojeda
Enter the scene. A tall dark and handsome Caucasian male tenderly, yet firmly, holds his equally attractive lady friend close as the two fade to black and the word Dior is displayed in bright white letters as a woman’s voice seductively whispers it. You switch the channel and happen upon a case-of-the-week type show where the balance of civilized society is violently disrupted once police discover a brutal murder and begin a thorough investigation with the hopes of bringing the perpetrator to justice. You switch to the next channel where a shaky camera records a mockumentary of an adorable, lovable yet bumbling idiot boss attempts to guide his team of neurotic and flawed sales people through business life and all of the many hijinks they get into. Finally, with television to form your background noise, you look down at your laptop and discover an online forum overflowing with controversy as users accuse Vogue of racist intentions for displaying the first African American on their cover with a striking resemblance to a World War 1 propaganda poster which features a German soldier as an angry ape carrying a defenseless white woman away. People are naturally afraid of that which they do not understand, and because of that, many people choose to disregard these media texts and only look at it for their face value. However, if you are brave enough to escape your comfort zone and intelligent enough to know that these media texts are not only shaped by the culture they were made in, but also shape the culture of the future, then you are brave and intelligent enough to understand that Media Criticism is a legitimate field which requires your attention.
Hello, my name is Jorge Brown-Ojeda, and don’t let the name fool you, my Spanish is weaker than a wet noodle (although I can inquire about the nearest bathroom). I am a Mass Communication major in Towson University and am currently thinking about taking on Information Technology as a minor. But enough about me, this is about my class MCOM 352 Media Criticism and its importance to every individual that belongs to a culture that has any form of mass media.
What It Means to Me
Media criticism is to take any example of a medium, whether it is pushed on a micro or macro scale, and observe every explicit detail from the colors and language used, the people (if any) involved and the product (good or service), to the hidden implicit messages derived from the syntagmatic and paradigmatic aspects of the medium and how they relate to the culture they were derived in. It is not empirical research (quantitative) yet it is not opinionated; more so subjective and qualitative. Media critics seek to understand how potent media texts are in regards to how they influence the lives of you, I, and whoever else may be exposed to it. They seek to understand how media texts affect our consumption habits on a micro and macro scale. They seek to understand media texts and their affects as part of popular culture and to increase the media literacy of all who maintain a mind open enough for it.
Media criticism is an important field for media permeates every facet of first world life. Marketing ploys from countless marketing firms advertising for even more numerous businesses saturate our daily lives with a constant flow of images and sounds. Posters, commercials, TV shows and movies including the product placement within them, politically charged programming, etc. all push an ideal, service, or good. Thankfully, media criticism is an enormous bag of differing approaches and interpretations that can be used however the media critic likes. Semiotics, the study of how social production of meaning is created using signs, and structuralism, the study of a media text as a structure or “whole” due to its ability to make sense of how texts creating significance and two powerful ways to interpret media texts.
Semiotics depends on signs which can be symbolic, or arbitrary, in their connection such as a red light meaning stop, iconic which means that the sign resembles its meaning, such as a happy face, or indexical, which is the casual link between cause and effect such as waves on a lake mean that there’s a boat in the water. Semiotics is by nature subjective and while signs may bear a heavy resemblance, signs can always be interpreted in multiple ways which can make them unstable. Due counter this instability, one is encouraged to increase the number of viewpoints by taking a multiperspectival approach.
When using structuralism, one must realize that we create structure in order to better understand ourselves and other in order to achieve a sense of coalescence in that regard. Structuralism depends on language, action and narrative. This method also functions through levels from the smallest being the phonemic, or words and images such as gun, to the paragraph, or a longer unit of signs such as the scene or the episode, all the way to the highest level known as the familial level which deals with intertextuality, or the relationship people draw between one or more texts. A great example of this would be the comparison of the Hunger Games movie to the novel, and seeing Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss when reading future books.
It is common and encouraged to combine the strengths of semiotics with structuralism in order to form a better understanding of signs, their history, and their impact on the future.
Then there is the Narrative Criticism approach which, according to lecture, is defined as the study of texts and how they are formed into a cause-and-effect relationship with a beginning, middle and end. The narrative critic assumes that, not unlike structuralism, we create stories in order to make sense of others and our own experiences as well as the world around us through the structured sequence of events known as the syntagmatic and the common theme or charactaristics of each event known as the paradigmatic. The narrative critic focuses on the story the sequence of events, both obvious and not, the plot, elements of the story shown to us in the order intended, and emplotment, the “selection and arrangement of said plot into a uniform narrative, and understands the differences between the three.
The Office (U.S. Version)
There are many great media texts to choose from. Some that I described in the first paragraph include CSI, The Office, and the Vogue cover with Lebron James in 2008 that was deemed racially insensitive. For now, I’d like to focus on The Office, a mockumentary focusing on the daily lives of salesmen and women and other office people involved with Dunder Mifflin in Scranton, Pennsylvania. As I described before, every employee there is heavily flawed and highly neurotic, and while their clashes in personality tend to push tensions to unbelievable heights, their caring for one another is evident. At the head of it all is Michael Scott, a loveable yet abrasive and mostly offensive Regional Manager that tries his best to keep his underlings working together. The American version of The Office is a sitcom mockumentary intended for a very wide demographic range of 18-49 year old adults.
For this media text, I will be using the narrative analysis approach, delving into the overall story of The Office as a whole and from episode-to-episode, and how it helps us to understand the show.
The story, as a whole, follows the development of Michael Scott on a personal level, as he learns to leave his old flame behind for a new and more stable love and on a professional level since he visibly matures over the course of the series until his eventual departure. The relationship of Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly grew from a very brief affair into a budding and natural relationship full of the ups and downs that are expected. Every major character and most of the minor ones attain a full sense of development. Even Dunder Mifflin as a paper company has its downs, in the form of a buyout as an alternative to bankruptcy, and its ups, in the form of the Scranton branch becoming a sales power house in the local community.
The plot can be seen from episode-to-episode. Typically, the group or an individual is confronted with something unusual or requiring action from the last episode which is followed by one of many testimonials where the character gives us insight. In a case-of-the-week style, the Dunder Mifflin crew must adapt and overcome the new obstacle or problem within their ranks and move on. An example of a convention that The Office typically employed would be a character giving a testimonial about a recent experience where the character would usually down-play or exaggerate something that happened to him or her. This would promptly be followed by “captured footage” of what really happened which would more often than not contradict what the character said, giving us a better feel for the character’s personality and how they view their own life experiences. This is a great example of why Narrative Criticism exists in the first place.
Three Sub Approaches
There are three approaches within the Narrative Analysis of The Office that we can use to decipher the implicit signs and meanings. The Aristotelian Approach focuses on a narrative through the lens of the components of drama, such as the contents (plot, character, and theme) and the vehicles (language and performance). The Visualist Approach focuses on the narrative through the actual lens, but interpreted as a narrator. In the approach, we examine foreground and background, color, lighting, etc. What I discussed in the preceding paragraph briefly illustrated the Aristotelian approach. The Visualist approach can be a very rewarding style. The white down lighting, the cabinets and sticky notes in the background with common office supplies in the foreground and thee neutral colors exhibited by the staff convey not only an office environment but also a place where everyone is more-or-less the same or on the same level. The small office space only offers minimal elevation to Michael Scott who is the (best dressed) superior and the accountants who have their own space. Finally, we can use the semiotic structuralist approach which studies the overall emplotment of each episode and season and how the storyteller developed a uniform sequence of events to create signifieds or meanings.
One structural theorist, Claude Levi-Strauss, looked over the more obvious syntagmatic in favor of the more complicated paradigmatic. In other words, instead of focusing on the sequence of events, he focused on the deeper meanings within each event. For example, when Kevin Malone spoke to Jim Halpert without using articles like “the,” we could either disregard and look no further, or we can understand Jim and Pam showed great concern for Kevin where Oscar and Angela did not. Jim and Pam are parents, and this implies that they are especially proficient at nurturing. Pam is pregnant; therefore she might be emotionally drawn to possibly injured individuals that might need medical attention. Does this make Jim and Pam better people, or does this make Angela and Oscar wiser and more experienced when dealing with Kevin? Angela is a very seemingly prim and proper woman with very sleek business attire; therefore she must be very strict. The fact that Oscar and Angela are accountants must imply that they are responsible individuals capable of knowing when Kevin is being serious or not or if he actually needed medical attention. The beauty of media criticism is its multitude of interpretations.
Media criticism is an incredible tool for any media literate person to use. Not only is it a powerful field of qualitative research, but an individual may also choose any path he or she wants in order to decode the messages that are hidden and in plain sight! The approaches, as illustrated through the narrative critical approach, are all related to each other and can be used within one another. Not only is media criticism fun and easy to understand, but it also allows the individual to research however one sees fit and spread the understanding to newcomers through new theories.