Buckingham, D. (2003) 'Media Education and the End of the Critical Consumer', in Harvard Educational Review, Vol 73, No 3 [nb I acquired this electronically, and so there are no page numbers].
Whether we wish to call this postmodernity or not, changes have occurred in the way in which young people relate both to the media and to education. Technologies have proliferated, media have become commercialised and globalised, audiences fragmented and there is greater interactivity especially with digital media. Of course, access to these new opportunities are still polarized. However, 'The media can no longer be seen -- as they often are by media educators -- as "consciousness industries" inexorably imposing false ideologies or cultural values on passive audiences', especially with children and young people who are becoming 'a powerful consumer group in their own right'. Both parental and educational control is threatened -- 'However illusory this may be, the media increasingly offer children an experience of autonomy and freedom, a sense that they, and not adults, are in charge'.
These changes are part of a broader decline in established social institutions, increased mobility, and a greater cultural heterogeneity. Identity becomes a matter of choice, and it is increasingly influenced by the consumption of cultural goods. There is at least 'a subjective belief in the power and agency of the individual'. Again, children are most likely to be affected, as nuclear families decline and as consumerism aimed at them increases. This has led to a reaction and an increasing attempt to institutionalise childhood and control children, sometimes in the form of legal provisions such as (UK) parental control orders. There is therefore currently a struggle between control and the assertion of children's rights: the latter often overlaps uncomfortably with children's rights as consumers.
At the very least, this reopens the cultural gap between children's lives outside and inside school. Schools are little changed, and there is even a move to revert to 'educational fundamentalism'. There is thus an increasing need to negotiate between the two worlds, especially between consumer activity and educational passivity. Children's media culture itself celebrates the inversion of adult values in a carnivalesque way, and mocks the seriousness and earnestness of teachers and schooling.
This is the classic terrain of media education, which has always aimed to build bridges between these two worlds. Yet it is haunted by an underlying modernist project, 'effectively promised on the cultivation of rational thinking and the possibility of well regulated public communication... a distanced stance towards the immediate pleasures of the media'. For postmodernism, this is a redundant exercise, of course: indeed, the emancipatory claims of media education are 'merely another illusion of capitalist modernity'. Media education is often paternalist, or even colonising, still with undertones of a crusade to protect children. Education is still uneasy about how to manage pleasures and to reconcile them with a rational evaluation [and assessment]. On the other hand the new forms of media might facilitate a new kind of play for pedagogy and genuine participation, especially if encouraged by media production itself -- but there are still problems.
Teachers face a problem of not knowing enough about postmodern forms. As a result, they can no longer assume that media experiences are shared, among children and with teachers. It is unlikely that they will ever catch up, and 'personal preferences and investment in various media can easily be a liability in the classroom. Students are likely to reject what teachers enjoy, particularly if that is made clear to them' [Buckingham refers to some work with Sefton-Green to support this].
In teaching about one of the classic topics -- representation -- Funge has found that classic feminism with its interest in deconstruction 'simply fails to connect with contemporary gender politics -- as embodied, for example, in the notion of "girl power"'. Representations of female sexuality such as Buffy or Xena 'seem to combine a heightened form of "objectification" of the body with a powerful celebration of agency' [interesting, because Buffy has recently been recommended as a role model by British politicians]. Thus both the media themselves are different, and so are other ways of interacting with them. In particular, representations may now be much more open to 'multiple readings and ambivalent reactions'. In particular, it is no use relying on the 'outdated notions of stereotyping, negative images, and the male gaze': however, these are still enshrined in media education. There is some theoretical support as well in post feminist writing which stresses the idea of gender as performance [as in Butler]. However, it is not clear whether other identities, such as 'race' are as flexible as this, although Cohen has identified 'parody, mimicry and playful juxtaposition' in youth cultural representations. In these circumstances, the idea of 'correct' representations looks increasingly prescriptive: they also miss out on the positive aspects of flexibility.
Is it possible to embrace the playfulness and pleasures of popular culture? Postmodernism now permits this, perhaps, and 'seriousness and rationality are replaced by irony and parody', subverting totalising discourses. The problem is that 'complicity with contemporary consumer culture' is also a possibility [Jameson is the inevitable source here]. Some teachers have tried to build upon this playful quality in their teaching, encouraging children to role-play and develop media images, such as those of superheroes, or musical groups, computer games, or movies. Some commentators think that children simply reproduce or imitate mainstreeam characterisations, but others have found that children need to develop 'quite tortuous negotiations in their efforts to align their use of new material with the rules of school writing' and, as a result, develop 'identity work where particular friendships and broader aspects of social identity, including gender, are being negotiated and defined'. Apparently, boys' media enthusiasm is particularly unlikely to fit in with school rules, because they can be seen to be celebrating 'both violence and stereotyping'. As a result, progressive educators find themselves both encouraging self-expression and having to constrain it. It is not always clear that such exercises lead to a deeper understanding of the media. As a result, it is equally not always clear why these activities are educational.
Mostly, production activities are more tightly controlled, and take the form of simulation or pedagogic exercise. In fact, 'Where imitation does occur, it frequently involves parody, that is, the self-conscious and exaggerated use of dominant conventions for the sake of comic effects or ridicule'. Parody can be a way of managing embarrassment and apologising for the lack of professionalism. In this sense, parody is 'the post-modern phenomenon par excellence. It rests on a kind of rejection of the fixity of meaning and of the seriousness of authorship.' However, it can also 'function as a post hoc rationalisation or justification. Parody potentially offers freedom in which nobody can be held accountable for what they say'. Buckingham confirms the problems with references to his own examples, where some of his students in media production produced a display of 'outrageous stereotypes': this was subversive in intent, but not exactly 'resistance', since members of the group actually supported some of the stereotypes. What is more, the students demonstrated an 'ability to co-opt the arguments that one might have used to challenge them'-- that is they admitted that they were using stereotypes and that their project was a simulation. As a result, the ambiguity 'effectively enabled them to subvert the teacher's ideological imperatives while simultaneously conforming to the requirements of the task'. Another example is given, which could be seen either as a 'parodic deconstruction of a dominant media form', or as the result of 'a rude and vigorous sense of humour and the shared sense of "having a laugh"'.
The problems emerged in particular when it came to assessment. The authors did not agree themselves on the 'target of the parody'. Some thought they were referring to media representations, but others to the real people themselves. The actual material 'could be seen as hopelessly sexist, yet it can also be seen as subversive'. Celebrating the pleasures of work like this 'fails to recognise that it can also reinforce existing inequalities and forms of oppression... It is difficult to ascertain what kind of learning might be happening here... [especially]... if that reflection is not at some point made explicit'.
Other media educators have explored the ambiguities of student work on horror. It is both politically incorrect, for example, and subversive in exposing the 'patriarchal values of the slasher movie'. It can be empowering, and could be 'the basis for more explicit reflection and analysis'. However, student efforts might not be capable of being reduced to such rationalistic conventions, characteristic of 'the modernist paradigm'. While such student projects might help to re-emphasise 'practical - moral knowledge' (Buckingham, quoting Bragg), and help to restore the notion of real students rather than idealized ones, there are still problems.
Overall, young persons in media do seem to be developing more 'playful... conceptions of knowledge and learning'. These do serve to question the conventions of schooling. Nevertheless, teachers still need to preserve some notion of responsible behaviour, and not 'merely celebrate the activity and energy of young people's relationships with the media... at worst... [this]... could be seen to represent a form of complicity with the assertions of young people's consumer sovereignty so enthusiastically promoted by the media industries'. As a result, 'Media Education cannot afford to abandon the modernist project of cultural criticism'. Media production does offer 'the space for play', but 'It is vital that students be encouraged to reflect upon these processes, to understand the conditions under which their own means and pleasures are produced'. A metalanguage, a 'critical discourse' is still required. 'Personally, I cannot imagine how education itself might be otherwise'.
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