Examining Media Violenced

How can we help students to think about the relationship between media images and violence?

By Bakari Chavanu

“Overwhelming Hate,” “Why I Like Disturbing Music,” “Eminem: Rapper or Hypocrite?”: these are not necessarily typical titles of student English essays.

The essays were written as part of a nine-week unit in my 11th grade English class on violence in society. In the unit, we address a variety of topics – from domestic violence, to urban poverty, to racist police policies in communities of color. One of the unit’s more popular sections involves violence and the media, in particular sexist violence. The most useful resource I have found for this section is the program Beyond Blame: Challenging Violence in the Media, produced by the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles.

The producers of Beyond Blame recognize that “media violence is not the sole cause of violence in society.” But they go on to note that “more and more we’re coming to understand that they [the media] do reinforce the myths and images, beliefs and attitudes that support a culture of violence.”

Beyond Blame is not a single resource but is a comprehensive packet of articles, lesson plans and worksheets, and a video of excerpts pulled from films, television, documentaries, and other media texts (see box). These materials provide sufficient background and resources for a week to two-week presentation by teachers, parents, or community organizers. (In the two times I’ve used this program, I have yet to cover all the material.)

Some of the most provocative debates in my class have grown out of the program’s discussions about media violence and sexist images of women, and about the media’s glorification of violent solutions to conflict.

One especially useful activity, “Damsels in Distress: Women and Violence,” centers on a selection of videotaped images of women in music videos typically found on popular cable channels such as MTV and BET. Before showing the clips, I use the program’s handout, “Beauties and Brutes,” that asks students to circle the adjectives that describe how men and women are depicted in music videos.

Students identified both genders as “sexy,” “hot,” “crazy,” and “active.” But for the women in the videos, my students mostly circled “teasing,” “sweet,” and “provocative.” For the men they circled “tough,” “angry,” and “strong,” with few students describing the men as “passive” and “remote.” Helping the students to recognize these different depictions became an important lesson in itself.

After an initial showing of the video selections, I replay them without sound. While this irritates some students, I point out that they might “see” more without the music to distract them. I then have the students pair up, one male and one female together, to discuss the video clips and answer questions from the Beyond Blame program guide.

One student, Haniyyah, told a particularly interesting personal story in her essay, “Are Women Disrespected in Music Videos?” She wrote: “After the release of the music video, ‘Holla Holla,’ in the summer of 1998 or 1999, my three brothers changed tremendously in their attitudes towards women. They watched this sexually provocative video and would run around the house singing the lyrics, talking about sluts and whores. On one occasion, I stopped them to tell them to watch their mouth and attitude, especially towards the women in their life.”

What is the role of the media in perpetuating the view that all cultures are violent in one way or another and that violence is part of human nature?

To address this issue, I use the Beyond Blame activity entitled “Media Heroes, Real Heroes.” The activity begins by having students call out descriptions of a typical media hero. Their descriptions include: “good looking,” “strong,” “fearless,” “always wins in a battle,” “saves people,” “good at using a gun,” and so on. Next I ask them to describe people they consider heroes or heroines in real life. That list includes: “caring,” “always there when you need them,” “provides good advice,” “supportive,” “a mother, a father, a friend,” and “helps keep you out of trouble.” They could easily see a contrast between media heroes and real heroes.

As a follow-up, I show an extended segment from the 1994 TV special, Kids Killing Kids. The excerpt illustrates how a violent resolution to a conflict between two young men might have been resolved non-violently. I then ask the students what it means when the media rarely presents dramatic stories in which conflict is resolved without violence. One of the questions that came up is whether the media can make non-violent films that are dramatically satisfying. Opinions varied. One student wrote: “I think the media could make non-violent dramatically satisfying films. I think they should. It would teach people how to resolve things without violence. Children could learn how to communicate instead of fight.” Another student, who disagreed, perhaps unwittingly realized that relationship between violence and ratings and wrote: “Without violence, TV would be boring. And the media would not have any ratings.”

Above all, the unit showed the need for increased study of such a powerful institution. As the founder of the Center for Media Literacy, Elizabeth Thoman explains in her essay, “TV Violence: It’s Time to Break the Circle of Blame”:

“In the past 20 years, we’ve learned to make different choices around smoking and cholesterol and buckling up your seat belt. Media literacy proposes that, with different information, viewers might make different choices or engage in different behaviors.”

Bakari Chavanu teaches English at Florin High School in Sacramento and is a founding member of the Association for a Media Literate America, an organization committed to promoting media literacy education that is focused on critical inquiry, learning, and skill-building.