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Representation and Media Literacy

A brief explanation of media literacy can be found at the Media Literacy Project’s website. In a quick summary, it is basically the ability to “read” media in the same way we expect individuals to read books – the ability to develop a synopsis, analyze the material, and in some cases even establish your own materials in order to create a story. It seems as simple as watching a movie and being able to tell it back to a group of people, but in reality, there is so much more than that. We must have access to media, first, like that of books, but other formats, such as newspapers, shows, movies, music, YouTube, social media, etc.

In many ways, I believe media literacy can serve as a reminder to students that they can express themselves in ways that are non-traditional. We often enforce rules of literacy by how many words people can read, the way they write sentences, the number of books they read, or how well they can write a paper. I am, in no way, saying that we should not encourage these skills or that we should refuse to hold them as standards. And for that matter, we should absolutely be pushing the importance of literacy and reading books. However, these should not be the only ways that we measure literacy. If an individual struggles with literacy – be it because of a lack of resources, learning disabilities, or they were never taught – why should we discourage them from an education? We should be encouraging literacy in the way we typically think of literacy, but in conjunction with other methods of expression and “reading”.

Media literacy is also a huge reason why representation is so important. Because it deals directly with analysis, we must have representation in various forms of the media so that individuals of all backgrounds can connect with characters, feel proud of their heritage, and can find new and exciting ways to learn and display what they have learned. These students deserve a way to depict their feelings, ideas, and lessons, despite being oppressed into believing their views aren’t worthy because they cannot construct a sentence according to “typical” standards.

My daughter is 3. She just turned 3 this month and her favorite movie is currently Moana (2016). My husband is Latino and our son came out as light as I am. However, our daughter’s skin tone is much more like that of my husband and many of the shows she watches have white main characters. Near the end of the film, in her loud whisper while inside the theater, she exclaimed, “Mommy, she’s brown like me!” My heart both sank and was filled with joy. She found a character of a big time movie with whom she identified. Yes, there are characters out there who she could potentially look up to, but are there really all that many that should cause us to be surprised that she didn’t connect with some of the protagonists of her favorite movies sooner?

If my 3 year old can recognize this, imagine the many older children who see a lack of representation in their textbooks, fiction novels, science fiction books, and other pieces of educational material that they are forced to read. When showing movies in class, we’re bombarded with films that have predominately white casts. History discussed is typically white history. How do we expect to connect with students if we deny them the right to learn beyond the white construction we believe is history? Media literacy and representation go hand in hand when it comes to truly educating our students.

Going further, we cannot only encourage more representation, but we must encourage media literacy so that students can begin contributing to media from their own perspectives as well. A prime example of how representation can encourage others is the recent Oscar win of Moonlight (2016); when it won, the internet erupted with joy and excitement. People felt represented in a film.We need to see this more often in both production as well as award ceremonies, (which have been very white in past years.) We need to see representation everywhere around us of people of all backgrounds – different abilities, neurological diversity, race, gender, sexuality, you name it. We need to see more people as they are, not just what society thinks it “should” be or “is” – white, straight, cisgender.

Let’s start encouraging media literacy so students can not only critique the media we currently have, but so they are also empowered to create their own media and contribute to the world around them.

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