The Art of Critique-Why Media Criticism & Literacy is Quintessential

Posted: September 23, 2015 in Uncategorized

My name is Kelli Wright and I’m a Transfer student to Towson University. I, previously, attended both The Juilliard School and The California Institute of the Arts for theater. I am majoring in Mass Communication with a trek in Journalism and New Media. I have started this blog for my Media Criticism class here at Towson. I took Media Criticism not only because it is required but because I have a personal interest.

As an actor you’re constantly being accepted/rejected for roles. You wonder, what determines how companies cast to tell the visual story? Why was it certain actors did/didn’t fit into certain films visually?  Companies seemed focused on the image of their consumer. It’s very important to become an informed consumer especially if you ever plan to aid in the selling of a media image. No one wants to be an irresponsible member of culture. Media Criticism seems the perfect class to learn the symbols and signs portrayed in the media.

I remember reading in the course catalog that Media Criticism is the, “Theory and practice of media criticism intended for various audiences, including consumer oriented criticism, social criticism and scholarly criticism.” Dense. As Professor Nichols began peeling back the layers of the concepts, I have come to understand Media Criticism as a vehicle to becoming literate about the media by dissecting it into parts to create a whole picture of its positive/negative effect on our culture.

The media has become a hegemonic force. The people in power use media outlets to push images to the masses. They sell us images of who we should be. If there is no one to watch and judge whether these images are truly serving the good of the people, it could lead to a “zombie apocalypse” society where we do whatever we’re told with no questions, feelings or thoughts of why?

Media criticism is the conscious of society, making sure we are all aware of what signs and symbols mean and how it’s affecting the greater good of humanity.

A clock is a clock. A bus is a bus. We learn these shapes and symbols from childhood and carry them with us. By using the discourse of semiotics and structuralism, we begin to slow down the process of symbolic thought to analyze the sequence and construction of our culture. We can look at the paradigmatic (how the orderly sequence of signs is constructed) and the syntagmatic (used to understand the orderly chain that forms a whole) analysis of a situation to form meaning. Once we understand a texts meaning, we can begin to break down its parts.

Multiculturalism is necessary in all cultures seeking the positive identities and well-being of citizens. Clear dialogue cannot be had without a clear understanding of the symbols at work. Media literacy is important to gain the language to speak articulately about what is going on in a text.

In order to show how the media, particularly, television can form our awareness and shape our ethics and cultural values, I want to examine one of my favorite shows, Sex and the City (SATC) episode entitled “No Ifs Ands or Butts.” This show came in season three and was the first one to feature any Black characters. SATC is classified in television genre “Romantic Comedy” though it definitely tripped over and blurred the lines into a drama.

Its concept is simple. Carrie, the lead character, is a sex columnist writer who has three best friends, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda. Together, they navigate their personal lives in Manhattan. The show focused heavily on relationships and sex which is considered very risqué because wome are often shamed in our culture for promiscuity.

Their audience was mainly female ranging in age from 18-35. These ladies were older than your normal sexy heroine.

My clip from SATC focuses on the episode where they finally hired some African-American characters during its third season. They had faced a lot of criticism for making one of the most diverse cities in America, New York City, all white. They barely even hired black extras to be in the background. Samantha, the one with the biggest and most deviant sexual appetite decided to date a black guy name Shavonne. Shavonne’s sister, Adina deeply disproves of the relationship and the clip shows the two ladies meeting in a club and getting into a physical altercation.

I will be using the genre criticism approach I learned in the reading of John Fiske’s “The Codes of Television” to dissect the clip.

Genre is a French word meaning “type” or “category.” It’s a mixture of the use of formal, stylistic and substantive theories used to dissect the text.  Formal analysis is how the story begins, develops and ends. In the clip, the story begins with Samantha (Sam) and Shavonne in a club dancing and kissing when Adina comes to join them. It develops into a heated argument between Sam and Adina. It ends with Sam and Shavonne breaking up. Simple, right?

Stylistic analysis refers to things pertaining to the setting like costumes and lighting and sound. Here we have the setting as a dark, hip-hop club. Sam is dressed provocatively in a dark dress that reveals cleavage and has two high slits. Adina is dressed in red, a color of passion and power. We hear loud rap music in the back with an aggressive beat. Substantive analysis deals with ideologies. We could look at the relationship between Sam and Shavonne being highly sexualized as the ideology of racism and the hyper-sexualization of the black culture in the media.

Using Fiske’s , “Levels of Codes”, I am going to demonstrate a semiotic case study of how television serves to create symbols that serve the governing needs of culture. I am going to break it down into clear categories so you can see how the levels work.

Level One- Reality

On level one there is ‘Reality.’ This has to do with appearances and setting. In the SATC clip we can see on a visual level how the story is being told and who is supposed to be the heroine versus the villain.

  1. Appearance/Dress– Sam, in appearance is an attractive, fit, middle aged woman. She matches the colors of the club wearing black and blue. Adina, walks into the scene dressed in red and obviously angry. The color red is a color of passion, warmth and intensity. Her dress isn’t as sexy as Sam’s and it is also very long for a NY nightclub. They portray Adina as angry and envious of Sam. Shavonne is wearing all black. He has on a dark black suit and tie which shows he is higher class though a very hot choice for a club. He also sports dark black glasses in the already dark club further blending him into the scene.
  2. Make-Up-Adina’s make up is dark. Very dark lipstick which makes her look older and angrier. Sams make up is light and natural. She appears a very fair contrast against the dark club.
  3. Dialogue/Expression– The dialogue is very bold. Carrie narrates all the episode and she blatantly calls Adina “a loudmouth bitch,” and Shavonne a, “big, black pussy.”  Shavonne asks the ladies what they would like to drink and they answer at the same time. High-class Sam says, “Champagne,” which is considered a cocktail of the rich. Adina asks for a margarita which is often not very expensive when you go out. We see class becoming an issue as well. Sam isn’t “down enough” to be in a lower income rap club in the middle of Harlem. She belongs in Manhattan. As she argues she leaves her hands by her side and flashes her long neck in the heat of argument. Sams expressions are elegant. Adina on the other hand is shown flailing her arms and rolling her neck while gyrating her hips. This is typical of the black female, aggressive attitude shown in the media. As Shavonne is breaking up the fight he says, “Keep it real. Keep it real.”  As an African American you’re not allowed to say articulate things like, “calm down, stop fighting.” Everything is a witty, concise catch phrase.

Level Two- Representation

            On level two we see where the visual reality being encoded technically for television. We can begin using technical language like camera angles and lighting, editing etc. to see how they send these social codes to us.

  1. The camera work is very aggressive. We see a lot of extreme close-ups between Sam and Adina. This is how we know there is a brutal confrontation brewing. Tight shot of Sam, calm and collected. Tight shot of Adina, flinging her arms and rolling her head. Adina and Shavonne are consistently filmed in shadow while Sam can be seen clearly in her shots.
  2. Though the lighting is very dark throughout the scene with blue strobe lights going in the background. You can see they are using what we call in the theater “realism lighting.” It looks like you’re in a real club except the lights are heightened (especially for Samantha) so you can see the characters faces. Blue is very cold color, matching the blue of Sam’s dress and the coldness of her blonde hair. The lighting on the African American characters often casts them in shadows.
  3. The music in the background is aggressive, beat driven rap music. It fuels the anger and tension of the scene. Rap music normally uses minor notes which gels perfectly with Fiske’s theory that villains often receive the minor key. Since it is an all-Black club and the villain (Adina) considers this “a place for black people,” it fits that the music would be minor.
  4. The casting of this is very interesting to me. Often in film and television, it is okay for the male to have dark skin. The woman cast as his sister however has very fair features and straightened hair. She looks like she could be of mixed ancestry where as Shavonne looks of pure African descent. All of the characters are attractive as would be the standard for anything involving high levels of intimacy. Samantha is the typical leading lady, middle-aged, white, blonde and slender. She oozes sex appeal and confidence. Fiske states that the villain and the hero are often just as likely to commit violence. Here we see that Sam comes back for a fight and when she receives it, she is shocked and surprised at being attacked. I mean she insulted the woman’s okra surely she insinuated the physical lashing that came next! Even as Shavonne gives her a gentle lashing, she is still in control sexually and easily changes his mind with a kiss. Sam get to walk away the hero even though by all intents and purposes she instigated the fight. Fiske also stated that the villain often has hints of non-Americaness and this is very clear in this scene.

Level Three- Ideological Codes

                                    Now we have arrived at my favorite and final level. Now we can begin to discuss the ideology behind this episode. What does it say about race, class, materialism and patriarchy? I like this level because you get to put the other two levesl together and form a solid opinion of what the episode was trying to tell us about our society.

Watching this video, we become apart of it. We are unknowingly accepting the ideological codes it is feeding us about race in America. We can pinpoint three narrative devices, just as Fiske did in his article to show how race is the main conceptual practice being put to use.

The first narrative device is the constant references to the female anatomy the ladies use to insult one another. It’s almost as if the women are battling over whose race has the better organs. Adina tells Sam to take her “little white pussy” away from her brother. A little pussy is synonymous with a tight vagina which is desirable in our culture. No man wants a big, loose vagina, right? This is why Sam leaves Shavonne at the end because he mimics a big black vagina which isn’t sexy or fun or desirable.  Sam tells Adina to get her “big black ass” out of her face, another play on what is considered a typical black woman feature. ”

The second device seems to be the winning of Shavonne. Shavonne seems a metaphor for who is more attractive and desirable to men. Who is more feminine and deserving of a mans attention? White women are considered to be the cream of the crop. During slavery, if a black man looked at a white women he was lynched. Black women were raped repeatedly and considered to be non threats to the mistresses of the house. We see the lusting of the black man for the ever youthful, thin and blonde woman to the point where his sister becomes a non entity. Shavonne grabs Sam during the fight, he doesn’t protect his sister.

The third vehicle is Adina’s red dress. The red can be associated with woman’s period which is a time when all women are considered undesirable in our country. Literally, a red stain on society. She is also sporting an African necklace that mimics the neck rings worn by African and Asian tribes to extend their necks for beauty. The necklace looks like the phallic symbol which represents manhood. She is not feminine not elegant. It symbolizes her want to be beautiful like Sam. Sam is held as the idea of perfection.

Keep in mind as I render this criticism, I LOVED THIS SHOW. It didn’t matter to me that all the characters were Caucasian, it appealed to my sense of feminism. Women should be as free as men. We should be able to choose whether we want to be promiscuous like Sam or traditional like Charlotte. Women come in all shapes and sizes! It never occurred to me that women come in different colors too. By using Fiske’s method of breaking down the episode and using semiotics and structuralism, I have been able to recognize how this show was teaching me what is culturally acceptable and what is not. It made me lust after clothing and shoes I couldn’t afford. It made me an uninformed consumer. My hope for you is that every time you watch a show, you attack it with the same criticism so we can form a truly fair and free society!

  1. sphill11 says:

    I enjoyed reading someone else’s opinion on a show that I also watch myself. It was neat to see how you view media criticism seen as though you have a background in acting. I liked how you used your personal experience as an actor to explain the importance of being media literate and as you put it an “informed consumer”. I also think that you did a great job at delivering the message of the importance of media in our culture today and how it affects us in many different aspects of our lives. One thing that was brought to my attention from reading your blog was that Sex in the City faced a lot of criticism for making one of the most diverse cities in America all white with the cast that they used. I never noticed this before or thought anything about the demographics of the cast until you brought this to my attention. These situations in its self shows how society can be watching a show and not even realize how off the demographics of the show is, and the message it is sending to society. One thing that I think is very important to this show is material culture and how it influences the women’s behavior within the show. I believe that you touched on the topic briefly but this is very important to this particular show and can be explored much deeper during your critique. Here is a link to an article that highlights the importance of this issue to the show . The only improvement that I would make in your discussion is including more information on the importance of material culture in this show and the message it is sending to society. I agree with the critique that used “Fiske’s ‘Levels of Codes’” to critique the episode and show the reader the hidden messages within this show.

  2. […] The first blog that I looked at was Kelly’s blog, which touched on media criticism in regards to the text “Sex in the City” and she used “Fiske’s ‘Levels of Codes’” to critique the text.  Below I have provided the feedback that I left Kelly and here is a link to her blog post. […]

  3. amanda roschli says:

    Hey, Kelli! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading your blog. Your theatre background really comes alive in your writing, as it is very creative and witty. You really draw the reader in by explaining complicated concepts, such as hegemony, in way that is both intriguing and easy to understand. I like how you gave a clear introduction of John Fiske’s Codes of Television before you jumped right into dissecting the codes in the Sex and the City scene. I, too, used the Codes of Television for my blog and I now have an even better understand of the concept after reading your blog. I thought it was a nice touch adding a video clip of the scene because it helped me to gain a visual perspective of the text and further understand your ideas, as I could also see them firsthand. Your use of bold and italicized words, headings, and pictures are strategically placed throughout your blog, giving it an organized and professional feel.

    I learned a lot from your blog. I have always noticed how women are portrayed in the media but I never paid much attention to the ways in which different races were portrayed. After reading your blog, I learned that the media is somewhat responsible for utilizing stereotypes and perpetuating these stereotypes (that manifest into ideologies) into our culture. Dissecting the ideologies of race, through John Fiske’s Codes of Television, was a relevant approach to critiquing this media text. African Americans are still underrepresented in the media and we must learn to critique these texts to ensure that the characters are accurately and fairly portrayed. I would have liked for you to go into more detail about the issues of class as they relate to race in this episode. I found an article that also expresses the issues of race and diversity in Sex and the City.

    Overall, your blog assignment is terrific. My only criticisms would be to make sure that all of your paragraphs are fully developed with ideas. In some cases, I think you could have joined the short paragraphs to the following ones and avoided having one-sentence paragraphs. I also noticed a few grammatical errors, such as missing a word or not using apostrophes to show possession with a singular noun. You really did a fantastic job!

  4. Melissa Darrin says:

    Hi Kelly!
    Reading your blog post was seriously a joy! First and foremost the structure was clear and very easy follow (I REALLY appreciated this, haha). Your transition about being an actor and knowing that casting directors are looking for a certain image to portray a certain message, or what have you, is what really pulled me in. Right off the bat, I was able to see that you could interpret this sort of subject at a different level than most.
    I like that you used genre criticism to analyze Sex and the City, but what I liked even more is your additional comments about race and sexuality before your break down of genre criticism. You made a point about SATC not having any black characters even as extras until season three.. OMG!… SATC is one of my holy grail, binge watch on a Saturday afternoon, shows and I had never noticed this.
    You also describe the scene of Samantha and Adina ordering drinks and you made a point that I thought you might be able to add to… Not only did Adina order a drink that’s typically not as expensive as a glass of champagne, but it’s also a drink typically associated with Mexican restaurants— could it be argued that they had her ordering a drink thats closely associated with another minority group on purpose? Just a thought I had while I was reading, but I’m really glad you pointed out the significance of the drinks, I wouldn’t have caught that otherwise.
    Your conclusion which mentions your connection to the feminism expressed in the show is really deep, for lack of a better word…. I really connected with your post as a whole, but your personal connections made it all the more intriguing.
    Thanks for a great read!

  5. […] To Kelly Wright on The Art of Critique-Why Media Criticism & Literacy is Quintessential: […]

  6. ztf1 says:

    Kelli, I really enjoyed your post. First off, I think you did an exceptional job breaking down the steps of genre criticism and how they pertained to the seen in SATC. The example that stood out to me the most was the one about the way the characters were dressed in the fight scene and how the background music helped play into social stereotypes we have of the black community and the hip-hop community. I thought that, that was incredibly profound because I know I wouldn’t have looked that deeply into the scene even having taken this media criticism class. Your conclusion also resonated with me because I watch movies that may either pick on other cultures or a show like Big Bang Theory, where there are no characters that look like me but I still love the shows because they have a certain appeal to me. Even though these shows have an appeal to me, it is still my job as an informed person of the ways of the media and the subliminal messages they try to put out there to notice it and not be blind to it just because of my like for the show. I wish I had a criticism for you so I could feel like I did my part but I couldn’t find one. Great insight!

  7. aholtzblog says:

    […] Hey Kelli! […]

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