Return to Syllabus   Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378

Gray, J. (2005). Television teaching: Parody, The Simpsons, and media literacy education. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 22(3), 223-238.

Note: These comments are not designed to "summarize" the reading. Rather, they are available to highlight key ideas that will emerge in our classroom discussion. As always, it's best to read the original text to gain full value from the course.

Gray argues that certain television texts, such as The Simpsons, can be as useful a means to increase media literacy as traditional education. Among several definitions, he suggests that media literacy seeks to provide “to develop an awareness of how media are constructed, by whom, and with which meanings privileged or excluded, how consumers engage with them, and to what individual or societal effects” (p. 224). Thereafter, Gray describes contemporary debates among educators about their roles in the development of media literacy. Should they “inoculate” students from the occasionally harm effects of media? If so, how certain are we that they are without a trace of the same disease? In contrast, some educators seek to employ media as part of the classroom, using “students’ own experiences of and responses to media texts as a touchstone for education” (p. 225). From that perspective, media texts offer more than an opiate; they may reveal useful insight into students' worlds and values. At this point, Gray turns to his notion that intertextual parody found on some television shows can be as useful as they lessons of any media literacy course.

Intertextuality refers to the idea that all signs are defined in relation to other signs. Thus, we cannot know the meaning of a police officer’s badge without correlating it to other signs such as a weapon and a uniform, not to mention cop shows and other texts. Gray adds that intertext derives much of its meaning from genres (or, in a broader sense, discourses, as Foucault would call them). These provide containers of rules and expectations. For example, when sampling from the genre of American “action-adventure” film, you know you’ll generally see an explosion or gunshot. Putting these two concepts together -- intertextuality and genre -- we watch a film starring an action star and relate our experience of that film to previous action-adventure movies. Of course, we expect the film to fit within its genre, and we might be disappointed if it fails to do so. But some films that are ostensibly located within a certain genre nonetheless manage to stretch our expectations of that genre. One way this can happen is parody: “using the genre’s force against itself” (p. 227). This may be termed critical intertextuality.

From this background, Gray turns to the heart of his analysis: advertisements on The Simpsons. Among the strategies employed by the show, the author focuses first on ironic juxtapositions, such as when the Catholic Church is portrayed as re-branding itself in an absurdly sexual manner. Doing so, we recall similar re-branding efforts in the real world and view them more critically than we might have before seeing the episode. We also encounter Simpsons episodes that mock the ethical compasses of advertisers (such as Krusty the Clown) willing to do anything for a buck, and episodes that mock the “invasion” of corporate sponsorship in all aspects of public and private life. Central to Gray’s analysis is how The Simpsons reveals and ridicules the manner in which advertisements are encoded, as well as their effect on presumably passive viewers (eg., “Homie the Clown”). Of course, Gray adds that even the Marxian critiques of the media’s inoculatory power -- recalling the writings of Adorno -- are themselves ridiculed in that episode and throughout the show: no one is as dumb as Homer. Gray concludes with a reminder that, despite its mocking tone, The Simpsons rarely cuts too deep in its critique. Even so, we leave the show with an appreciation for its many levels: high culture pastiche and low-brow yucks. Somehow, The Simpsons manages to stay relevant after all these years.

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