Review of Rethinking Popular Culture and Media by

Book cover for Rethinking Popular Culture and Media

My Media, Education, and Gender prof contributed an article to this book. He assigned the article as one of our readings, but he did not make us buy the entire book, providing a photocopy instead. I foiled his evil plan to save us money by ordering the book anyway, because I liked his article and a few others he used so much that I decided to see if the entire book was as awesome.

It is.

I took the Media, Education, and Gender course for two reasons. Firstly, I needed to take an elective, and it seemed like one of the best options. The philosophical nature of the subject implied the assignments would probably be like essays, or some sort of composition, and I’m good at that. Plus I like having discussions, and in that class some excellent discussions were had. Secondly, over the past five years I’ve become increasingly interested in feminism and gender issues. This course offered an opportunity to look at those issues in my chosen field, education. It was too good to pass up.

It’s one thing to say that one is aware of gender issues in society. It’s another to discuss those issues with other people, to bring up specific examples of media reinforcing stereotypes, to consider explicitly one’s own biases and privileges. Had I not taken that course, I could easily have continued to say I was “aware” of gender issues. But the course made me grapple with them in a deeper way. Similarly, every article in Rethinking Popular Culture and Media provides a new perspective on issues of culture, gender, media, and race—and it all relates to education.

Rethinking Popular Culture and Media, at 48 articles, is actually overwhelming. Some are almost expected, such as the articles that debunk the myth of Barbie’s proportions or decry the Disney princesses. Others, however, are very welcome surprises. My prof, Gerald Walton, contributes an article on bullying, homophobia, and Glee. Ann Pelo and Kendra Pelojoaquin tell how they removed Legos temporarily from a private school classroom until the students worked through an understanding of social justice issues and created fair rules for collaborative play. This book is far more than a simple “message” anthology to the tune of women’s issues. Rather, it’s a vast and inclusive resource. I’m not kidding—every article concludes with websites and books that teachers or parents might wish to consult for further reading or lesson ideas.

As a result of this highly diverse, inclusive approach, I found myself reading about things I wouldn’t necessarily seek on my own. For example, several authors write about the way media often portray minorities in history, including Rosa Parks, the treatment of indigenous peoples by Christopher Columbus, and the life of Hellen Keller. Some of these articles, particularly, the Keller one and about an egregious appropriation of indigenous history in the name of fiction, actually inspired some ire on my part. So I’m very glad this book exposed me to shortcomings of media I have overlooked until now.

This book is also overwhelming on a more personal level. If I talked about every article I loved in depth, this review would be far too long. As it is, I’m doing a great many of them an injustice by failing to mention them. Yet, as I’ve said, several of these articles caused some righteous indignation on my part. This is a good thing: content people rarely have a reason to challenge the status quo. Articles like “Miles of Aisles of Sexism”, which chronicles the stark gender differences in toy packaging and placement, make me wonder if we’re secretly still living in the nineteenth century. It’s 2012. We should not be having this conversation. Toys should not come in blue for boys and pink for girls. Politicians in the United States should not be putting women’s rights to control their own bodies up as an election issue. We are better than this.

The majority of these articles are by current or former teachers, and many recount experiences they had while teaching. As a teacher in training myself, I found these articles invaluable for their authenticity: there was no sugar-coating of the difficulties involved, nor were the tones of the articles dry or academic. It’s the real deal. In particular, I need to highlight “Race: Some Teachable—and Uncomfortable—Moments” by Heidi Tolentino. She recounts the discussions of race that arose from her Grade 11 class’ reading of The Secret Life of Bees. I found myself close to tearing up on a few occasions; that’s how much emotion and meaning Tolentino puts into the story. She gives us a sense of her personal stake, as an Asian American, in educating about issues of race. She also provides an open and very honest perspective on how these discussions develop and play out in a Grade 11 classroom. She doesn’t offer one-size-fits-all solutions or claim every situation will be the same. But her story highlights the involved process by which teachers negotiate these issues and how to address them in class.

Because we have to address them—it’s past time we stop arguing about that point. If my professional year at the Faculty of Education has done anything, it’s convinced me that education is inherently political and that, as an educator, I cannot really be neutral. My responsibility is to the children, to help them learn and prepare them for the real world—and that means I need to have opinions about the best way to do that. In this case, it means exposing them to the difficult cultural and social tensions that they are probably already dealing with anyway—I mean, really. Only the privileged have the luxury of assuming students don’t deal with discrimination and with even more subtle, systemic biases on a daily basis. It’s not enough to be aware of the problems. We have to take action.

We can’t stop now and say, “This is good enough.” Media continue to use gender and racial stereotypes, and our enjoyment of that media demands we critique it. And this is the important part: we don’t critique it to destroy it. We critique it to make it better. Not only should we critique the media we dislike; it’s imperative that we critique the media we love. Whether it’s a TV show like Doctor Who or books like A Song of Ice and Fire, which are both problematic in their own ways, the only way we can help make these media better is to say something about them.

So this book, while definitely for teachers, is not something only teachers would enjoy. Anyone interested in the role of media in these issues, particularly as they relate to children and to education, would benefit from reading this book. Not all of the articles are as stellar as my review of the entire book might make them sound—there are a few that pale dramatically in comparison to their co-stars. But there is no question that, overall, Rethinking Popular Culture and Media is a powerhouse of an anthology. It has reaffirmed, reinforced, and revised my opinions of how media shapes our perceptions of gender and race. And it offers ideas, strategies, and hope for how teachers and everyone else can address these problems.

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