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Some Brief Thoughts on Media Violence and Critical Literacy

…and I do mean “brief” because, after all, the representation of violence in pop culture media, and its possible effects,will always be written about and discussed at length. It’s certainly a topic worth tackling perennially, and with all the depth and intellectual honesty one can muster. My intention here, then, is simply to point out how that conversation might be framed with young people without coming across as moralistic, heavy-handed, or condescending.

1. Acknowledge that the presence alone of violence in a text is not inherently “bad” or cause for alarm (of course age-appropriateness must always be taken into account). This may seem obvious, even a truism, but it can help set the tone for an authentic exchange about media violence, not simply one where young people mouth public niceties while living a separate, unarticulated, and private truth that they feel they dare not voice. (To be sure, media representations of violence can be made to seem gloriously appealing and “sexy”—we’ll address this directly in tips #4 and #5 below.)

2. “Try on” the belief that no media message by itself causes real-world violence. That is, there’s no question that visceral action-violence in pop culture can get an audience’s blood pumping and lead to increased feelings of aggression—but so can other sources of intense opposition or conflict such as heated political or religious debates, professional or amateur sports, and so on. More importantly, as an exercise in logic you might want to draw attention to the fact that millions of people can watch the same TV show or movie with violent content with perhaps only a single audience member then becoming “inspired” to act out; real-world violence, then, is an “overdetermined” concept: there are likely many factors interacting with each other. (On the other hand, pop culture texts can clearly function as a mirror for actual patterns of violence, an idea elegantly presented in this Op-Ed piece that you may want to share with students.)

3. Do not stigmatize pop culture as being innately more pandering to violent instincts than other art forms. Culturally, the depiction of “violence” (a too-broad term, really) has always played a key part in civilization’s meaning-making activities and media artifacts. Consider the catharsis of classical Greek tragedy or the spiritual lessons that have been drawn from the hideous sufferings of martyred saints. Want a more immediate, less abstract reason? For many young  people, pop culture is culture—so when we glibly invalidate it, we also cut an important connecting cord between them and the rest of society.

4. Ask questions that prompt critical thinking. Two days ago Henry Jenkins posted an incredibly rich exploration (referencing everything from Moby-Dick to Tarantino) of the following questions, a post that I urge you to check out directly: A Pedagogical Response to the Aurora Shootings: 10 Critical Questions about Fictional Representations of Violence.

  • What basic conflicts are being enacted through the violence?
  • Do the characters make conscious choices to engage in acts of violence? How do they try, through language or action, to explain and justify those choices?
  • What are the consequences of the violence depicted in the work?
  • What power relationships, real or symbolic, does the violence suggest?
  • How graphic is the depiction of violence?
  • What function does the violence serve in the narrative?
  • What perspective(s) does the work offer us towards the character engaging in violence?
  • What roles (aggressor, victim, other) does the protagonist play in the depiction of violence?
  • What moral frame (pro-social, antisocial, ambiguous) does the work place around the depicted violence?
  • What tone does the work take towards the represented violence?

5. To these questions, add a strong dose of visual literacy around topical subjects wherever possible (not that it’s absent from Jenkins’ analysis). This will help make such discussions concrete and specific, support you in reaching a range of learners and learning styles, and allow students to provide examples from their own experience and knowledge base—the latter speaking to the ultimate goal of all literacy education, media and otherwise: to extend habits of inquiry and critical thinking into students’ lives beyond school.

What might this look like?

Well, here are two marketing images that Warner Brothers developed for The Dark Knight Rises. Provide them to students, and then consider asking the kinds of questions found below.

  • In both images, how is violence implied without actually being shown?
  • If one hasn’t yet seen the film, how does this implication act as a promise? That is, to use a common reading comprehension skill that can easily be applied to visual texts, what predictions about the film can be made based upon these images?
  • Aesthetically, how does the contrast between the stationary and the kinetic work in each image to heighten its visual drama (and make it look “cool”)? To be specific, what does the debris in the air signify and what may have caused it?
  • In the first image, what might standing atop a smashed and apparently abandoned police car symbolize? How does the fact that the ostensible “hero” is doing so suggest a moral complexity in which elements of the antihero archetype might be present?
  • Radically apply the classic media literacy question of “How might others experience the media message?” to both images simultaneously. That is, suppose there was a child or teen who grew up with no prior knowledge of the characters Bane or Batman—how would such a person be able to distinguish between the hero and villain from the images alone? And what might the difficulty of that task say about the problematic nature of violence and fear in the film itself?

6. Finally, and most importantly, encourage reflection and introspection. On some level virtually all of us thrill to the vanquishing of the Other in pop culture, which usually happens as a result of violent struggle. For grand, spectacular versions of this in escapist entertainment, think about the climaxes of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings epics. In these cases and almost all other hugely successful pop culture works, the audience is gradually positioned such that we come to see violence as a moral right or necessity, not a thing to be shunned; and this positioning occurs as a consequence of the various textual strategies that Jenkins covers in his critical questions.

The trick, then, is to help make young people aware of how pop culture can change their views and valuations of violence. Have them examine their own responses, whether they’re ones of excitement or revulsion. How were these triggered? And how might subsequent real-world behavior or opinions be altered as a result?

In the end, such an approach is aligned with one of the key purposes of all art and culture: to help us understand ourselves and our internal workings by a) first succumbing to and then b) reflecting upon an external object that powerfully engages and, one hopes, illuminates them. It’s just a matter of allowing that light to penetrate the depths and truly teach us something.

About Peter Gutierrez


  1. Great post! Within #6, there is a production opportunity as well. What if students, after thinking critically about the violence in a series of works, had to assess/evaluate where the violence might be integral to the plot and where violence might be excessive? Students could then re-write/storyboard a scene with gratuitous violence (a judgement that they would make), resolving the conflict in another way. For #5, they could create their own posters for the film that did not depict violence. They might then ask which would be more effective and why. Media production can help to further develop and explore the ideas discussed in a concrete way.

    • Peter Gutierrez says

      I *love* the idea of working production into this, something I don’t do nearly enough in these posts. I also really like the combination of creativity and critical thinking in your two ideas. The one thing I’m concerned about, despite the fact that students would determine what constitutes “gratuitous violence,” is that the overall message that might be heard is that violence is inherently/usually “bad” or unnecessary in media messages–“Let’s see how we can do without it or make it go away.” I’m not saying I’d have kids add violence to texts, but I do think such activities run the risk of undermining the main point of this post.

  2. This is a really fascinating post, Peter. It makes me think more about how media vs. violence is so engrained in our pop culture. I often believe that it’s not so much the violence we see, as much as it’s about how media outlets can overstate them. Whether it’s a war or a local crime scene, many media sources want to over exaggerate the outcomes. The thing with violence in our entertainment is how we should view it ourselves, not how media should tell us to. The example of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is a good one. I loved this movie, so much, I’ve seen it twice in the past week. Yes, it was violent, but that doesn’t make me want to go out and buy a gun. But there are people out there who would be influenced to do so. That’s not the fault of the movie or it’s makers, but the fault of the person who’s too mentally unstable to enjoy entertainment for what it is; entertainment. I really wish media outlets would stop holding movies, video games, books, tv shows at fault for the violent acts of psychopaths who want to blame something other than themselves for their heinous actions.

  3. Peter, Great post. It quite clearly sets up an academic structure by which educators can analyze many media properties (movies, video games, and eve some music). I would hope that the teachers using it would be mindful to “know their audience” and effectively tailor this tool to suit the class. I

    With respect to who is negatively affected by violent films, I would add to that list people who have not been given guidance is making good choices. That would include those who heave grown up surrounded by violent acts, and shown an air of indifference to same. Though they may not be mentally unbalance, how we evaluate such acts is influenced by the values, or instructions we receive — especially from family, what is percieved as family, or peers.

    Again, nice work.