Media Criticism, Why Its Important, And a Demonstration

First Off:

Hey everyone, I am Julio Gonzalez, and major/minor concentration focuses primarily on careers in media. With an Electronic Media & Film major coupled with Mass Communication minor, the job fields I plan to go into deal with media behind the scenes and how it is made. It’s a big responsibility because of how our culture is surrounded by media and our daily lives encounter media all the time. It’s powerful because media has the ability to connect us all and inform us of information that may not be available without media. However, that is why Media Criticism, is an important course to study. Media Criticism is a structured thinking process that is used to understand all of Medias forms as sociocultural forces. This helps us understand how the power of media can shape culture and each of our lives, by helping us become media literate. That’s another part of Media Criticism, showing that media literacy is a legitimate skill and that media is a legitimate area of study because we are all in an environment that is bombarded with media messages that can shape culture.


Having taken media influenced courses throughout my years at Towson, Media Criticism is vital knowledge that everyone needs to know and its tools to help dissect media, as Berger says, like a detective does when looking for clues.  For example, Television was a dominating force in media and can entertain, educate, inform, socialize, as well as interpret information. While it is a great medium, it’s an industry that people like me do for profit. We have the responsibility to provide truthful information, but the messages are fragmented and disjointed, and while we create the media it’s also upon the consumers of the media to take responsibility as well. Now Television isn’t a bad thing and brings a lot of good as well, but knowing how to understand the media can greatly improve the knowledge of all sources seen on television and will help but these fragmented messages together. Though it may seem like the traditional form of television is dying because millennials are more focused on the internet, it has slowly seeped into this internet culture with subscription content such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and even television streaming services that allow you to watch television stations through internet connection.

Some Background Info For You:

Douglas Kellner was the one who called out the importance of media literacy and its power to shape lives and one of his main points was the focus on identity issues. Kellner looks at Media Criticism not just academically, but as a way to discover ways to inform/empower the marginalized and look at Media’s role in oppression.

Now For What I’m Going To Be Using:

That’s why I think the show Orange is the New Black, a comedy-drama, is perfect to demonstrate the tools that media criticism provides to analyze media messages. For those that don’t know Orange is the New Black, it is one of Netflix’s original series about a woman, Piper Chapman, who gets sent to prison because of a crime that she had committed a while ago. This is one of those television-like shows that are put on streaming websites and though there may not be commercials while you are watching the show and all the episodes for each season is released at the same time, the show is less fragmented than an actual television show on TV. That doesn’t mean the messages are less powerful because people may be doing other tasks and are not focusing on the show primarily or may not be dissecting the messages that are being shown. Now since the show is on Netflix and everyone may not have a Netflix account, I’ve decided to use the trailer for the first season to analyze its media messages. For those who haven’t seen it, you may watch it at the bottom of this post.


As far as its demographic and audience, it seems to be more directed towards women but the age of 18-30’s due to its content and explicit language, however Netflix has millions of subscribers and like all Netflix originals series, its displayed as soon as you log in. For this analysis, I’m going to be using semiotics/structuralism.  Semiotics is the discipline for interpreting and analyzing texts while structuralism is the study of its whole text by each part and how they are associated with one another.

Time To Dive In:

For a semiotician, one that finds production of meaning through a system of signs, they analyze how codes (the signs) are commonly interpreted in society. Let’s begin with the first 12 seconds of the trailer: the sign, which is the signifier, in this scene is the dialogue and the happy shots of her taking a shower/bath. The meaning of this, the signified, is how showers were a special place of happy moments to this main character. The process, which is the signification, is what these mean all together. You get a sense of a gentle woman who finds showers to be intimate and soothing, then it breaks to how it has changed since then, in a way having sympathy for this person because something they loved so much has been taken away from them.


Now part of Media Criticism is knowing that everyone can interpret meaning differently, and there are different ways to read media text. A dominant reading would be to decode meaning as it was intended and in this case it seems like we are supposed to sympathize with the main character. Now the next 8 seconds shows another character commenting on her breasts and insinuating that they are perfect. She doesn’t explicitly say that, but based on symbolic meaning, a form of signs, she comments “you got them tv titties”, saying that they are good enough to be on television. We are supposed to know that through cultural conventions and it is based on an arbitrary connection. By looking at this we are getting a message that breast like Piper’s are seen as perfect. Media can have all kinds of signs which can make it unstable and it really depends on who is making the text as well as who’s interpreting it. That is just one interpretation to these first few seconds.


If we go on further, we start to see identity play a role in the development of the plot for the show. Using Structuralism helps study the whole text based on its parts, and there are two basic approaches to this. Syntagmatic, which is understanding all the signs and their meanings, and Paradigmatic, which is understanding each event and how they are associated to one another. Up to about the first minute we get lots of fragmented scenes how Piper being in prison. Using syntagm to look at the orderly sequence, we see she gets to the prison, says bye to her boyfriend, is having a hard time adjusting, and doesn’t fit into the prison life until she finds a group of people to be with. Using Paradigm to look at how these group of signs represent general ideas, we see that it is a prison because of the chained fence, she looks out of place because of her facial expressions, the guards talking down to her, the fighting between inmates and how she backs up, along with the various groups giving her dirty looks. These can be seen using iconic signs, like when she gets her prison photo taken it’s explicit in what it is.


When you break it down using structuralism you get a good sense of what the show is about. Now as far as the messages, we can see the signs being everyone has a clique, which means that you have to fit into only one group, and in this case it’s mainly based on race. We see signs on fighting between different races and we also see signs of how authority figures treat the inmates at the facility. Even though Piper just arrived at the Prison and hasn’t done anything in the trailer to show that she deserves to be treated that way.

In Berger’s article “Maiden with a Snake”, he dissects an advertisement for all important signs and potentially significant signs because a detective would do the same thing and as semioticians we have to look at all clues because as he states the importance of all texts is everything in it and as Kellner believes, Media Criticism can help identity issues and those who may be put down because of it. We see some gender issues put into play during the trailer like Piper’s lesbian relationship that started the events. What’s significant about this is that her mother cares more about her love relationship than the fact that she smuggled drug money. We see it again when Piper mentions having a prison wife. We also see talk of putting down the criminals at the prison by Pipers mother, and a lot of racial division between the people in the prison. It is not until the end that we start to see the prisoners get along more and Piper accept what she has done, that she is just like anyone else in the prison.

Final Message!:

We get these bombardment of messages in even the smallest of media texts like this and the thing is not many people are reading them consciously. But we are still obtaining the messages unconsciously and these signs eventually become learned cultural conventions, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to make sense of any of it. Media Criticism is again important, because it can help those who may be marginalized educate themselves and see how media can be oppressive. Media is not bad, because it can teach and change conventions that may have oppressed people, but it is always good in taking an active role to know what we are consuming so we may better monitor it and know when it may be creating messages that can hurt people. Thanks for reading!


Orange is the New Black Trailer (watch the show, it’s good):




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