Allison's Book Bag

Is Media Just Entertainment?

Posted on: April 15, 2013

The best courses leave a lasting impact. Last spring, when our school library put out a box of books marked “Take Me” and included in it ones on intercultural education, I immediately grabbed them because of the impact of a course on that same topic. Now I’m finally reading one of those books: The Children are Watching or How the Media Teach About Diversity by Carlos E. Cortes. The book is part of a Multicultural Education Series, meaning it’s a textbook. As such, there are academic parts which I skimmed and personal parts which I most enjoyed.

Cover of "The Children Are Watching: How ...

Cover via Amazon

In the prologue, Cortes tells how in the 1970’s he gave a year-long training course on multicultural education. As part of that course, he visited communities, spending about two days with a group of about seventy teachers and administrators. Their obligation was to try something new and multicultural in their classroom, critique it, and discuss the results. One teacher decided to present a unit on Gypsies. Why? Because her city had a sizeable community of Gypsies, but the school where she taught didn’t have any Gypsy students. And so she figured she could “provide the proverbial slates onto which she could etch Gypsy knowledge and initiate the process of intercultural communication”. To her surprise and dismay, her ten-year-old students already knew quite a lot about Gypsies, but all of it was based on stereotypes: Gypsies moved around a lot, sang, danced, stole, were dirty, told fortunes, kidnapped children, and used crystal balls. If these descriptions reveal how you would also view Gypsies, the media has taught you a lot that needs to be unlearned.

What lessons have you learned from The Lion King or from Pocahontas? For those of you like me who are from an older generation, what have you learned from shows starring Shirley Temple? One study which Cortes undertook involved recording the reactions of his two grandchildren to television. From Shirley Temple, the girls learned that one crying is the way to get help if you’re a girl. The Lion King, which has enjoyed one of the highest sales of any movie, received criticism when it first aired for being sexist, racist, and even homophobic. None of these issues effected Cortes’ granddaughters, but they were nonetheless impacted by the movie. For example, they wanted to know why Scar wanted to kill his brother. After all, neither sister wanted to kill each other. Cortes reports that quite abruptly, the girls stopped watching The Lion King because Scar scared them. When they finally resumed watching it a few months later, they told their grandfather that Mufasa wasn’t really dead. “He’s coming back later. It’s the circle of life.” As for the movie Pocahontos, the girls started out simply by remarking on differences between Indians and the sailors, but eventually began outright disliking the Indians. Admittedly, not all of these examples are about multicultural education. Cortes provides them to show that media, whether we recognize it or not, influences our values.

Myself, I have a mixed view of Gypsies. Part of my impression comes from media and fits the description I gave above. My more accurate knowledge comes from a book called The Gypies by Jan Yoors, who ran away at the age twelve to live with a group of Romanies (Gypsies), travelling with them for several months. When he finally returned home, he received permission from his parents to spend part of each year with the Romanies, which he did until age 18. As for movies, thanks to The Lion King, I developed an affection for meerkats and warthogs but also now struggle more to feel fondness for hyena.

What about you? What positive or negative values have you learned from the media? In his book The Children are Watching or How the Media Teach About Diversity, Cortes doesn’t set out to preach against the media, but to bring awareness to educators of the effects of what we often refer to as “just entertainment”. If media is impacting our beliefs on a daily basis, how do we bring counterbalance the negative effects and encourage the positive effects?

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