Lessons learned from LeVar Burton

Last week I had the absolute privledge to meet and speak with acclaimed producer/director/actor/educator Levar Burton (I’ve linked to his new exciting project, RRKidz!). He came to Tufts University to receive the Eliot-Pearson Award for Children’s Media, organized by the CD department here at Tufts. After the award, there was a luncheon and workshop for friends and students of EP.

I was such a nervous wreck when I met him initially–he, alongside Fred Rogers & the Sesame Workshop, have really served as longtime heroes to me for their dedication to meaningful children’s programming. It was truly an honor to be in the same room with him, but to actually have a conversation with him? I am still so star struck! Not only was he the nicest guy, but you could really tell he loved what he was doing, and was excited for the future of children’s media.

I was very curious to hear his thoughts on physical vs. digital books. As someone who was so passionate about [physical] books, I asked “What experiences are we losing when we use interactive books vs physical books?” His answer: Not much.

In short, he mentioned the experience of sharing books together and the quality of storytelling was far more important than a physical book, which eBooks/apps can also provide. I think that’s something that a lot of people need to hear–there’s a plethora of potential that can come from a more interactive experience, so long as the experience is being shared.

Mr. Burton’s enthusiasm for the eBook industry and interactive media was refreshing. I absolutely loved it.

Here were some of the other most important takeaways for me.

1. View your work as your ministry.

Mr. Burton & Mr. Rogers both had spiritual pasts and studied in seminary schools within their own separate faiths. This translated to their work with television–with every job, you have the opportunity to couple it with a positive message or experience. By viewing your work as your ministry, you can make sure that your work has meaning. Every day.

2. Storytelling is an intregal part of the human experience.

Mr. Burton touched on a variety of points relating to the importance of storytelling.
-For children, proper representation/diversity in media is absolutely critical to positive development.
-If you have a moral to your story (as you should, always), let it take place through the storytelling–don’t be preachy.
-Kids have a built-in “BS meter”. If you’re not enthusiastic about the message, they won’t be either.

3. “Everything is educational. But the question is, what are you teaching?”

Similar to point one, Mr. Burton emphasized the notion that one must have a sense of responsibility with what you produce. This point made me really think about a lot of the programming/games out there… are there positive messages and skills within most popular apps or shows? If one has an opportunity to create something for kids, we should make sure that there’s time dedicated to addressing the developmental/educational opportunities that come with it.

4. Your time/talents are a gift to those you share them to: “The giving of your gift is the most important thing you can do”.

Self-explanatory. And oh so beautiful, isn’t it?

All in all, it was a fantastic day. Thank you Mr. Burton for continuing to be so passionate about positive growth and change. There is so much potential for positive learning through new and evolving tech. I can’t wait to be a part of it!

Restoring Sanity, Encouraging Media Literacy

Tens of thousands of people showed up to partake in the “Rally to Restore Sanity and Fear” in Washington, DC last weekend. And for some completely miraculous reason, I had the privilege of having cable TV and actually being able to watch it live! (Okay, I was at my parents’ house.. not entirely serendipitous nor magical, but exciting nonetheless.) The program had several big names, relevant talking points, and of course lots of “lolz”.

Personally, I found the rally successful in a variety of ways. It was poignant without being preachy. Lessons were learned.

Some may argue that this was preaching to the choir—and yes, while it is likely so, you can’t disregard the movement’s worth as a whole. Especially from a media literacy perspective. American politics are and forever will be fueled by media coverage—news outlets decide what to report on and what to deem as important. This is why people still believe Obama is Muslim and that a mosque is being built DIRECTLY ON “ground zero” (Thank you Sarah Palin).

One of my most favorite aspects of Colbert and Stewart in their programming in general is the incorporation and application of media literacy skills throughout their programming. Since it is essential a parody of formal television news, the replication of format and presentation allows viewers to witness and consider strategies used by media outlets to get a variety of messages across. Both individuals educate viewers on being media literate without even trying.

Although the whole appeal of the show is political satire, it truly is a program that encourages critical thinking about the politics that affect us. It subtly promotes awareness about the messages we are receiving, and where we are receiving them from. They always make an effort to compile news and demonstrate tools media outlets incorporate to manipulate what we automatically intercept as “truth”.

The idea that a fake news show is as substantive as real news programming, coupled with the fact that many young people are replacing ‘real’ news programming to learn of current events is both exciting and scary.

Personally, I find that fake news has been an absolutely fabulous tool for encouraging civic engagement in our communities. Yet the subject of apparent media bias has to be taken into account as far as education viewers on specific issues. These shows have a very liberal slant–do you think people are entirely aware of this as they are watching? And if they seek these programs as a primary source for current events, do you think viewers are missing out on a whole realm of important subjects and perspectives? Do you think any awareness on current events is better than none at all? Lastly, do you think it has helped or hurt politics in America?

Weighing in on weight & pop culture

When we think about stereotypes in the media we consume, I’d assume that for most of us the immediate focus on race and gender. It is likely the easiest way to think critically about popular culture–in casual conversation or even for those term papers. But when we begin to think even deeper than those two descriptors, that is where we can further explore the subtle cues that subconciously serve as signifiers of what we should associate as “important” in our own lives.

One of the most “important” things the media teaches us is the definition of beauty. We’ve seen lots of efforts related to the concept of rethinking beauty. Some awesome, some not so much (all important)… but if you do some channel surfing, you will likely find the characters to be attractive in a very similar way. Namely, by being physically attractive. And by physically attractive, I mean thin.

This morning I came across a great article about something that gets pretty overlooked in popular culture–the issue of weight. Primarily the notion of size as a definer of character.

Queen Latifah & Nikki Blonsky

Queen Latifah & Nikki Blonsky

Plus-sized individuals have their own stereotype in most media–just like every other individual that does not fill the white American heterosexual type. As a media minority, the article suggests that heavy-set characters almost “hurt” the entertainment industry: People don’t like seeing overweight people on screen. We are responding to the media messages we hear over and over again that tell us being overweight is ugly.

When I first heard the popular song ‘Just the Way You Are’ by Bruno Mars, it immediately made me think ‘Aw, this song is so cute. And this guy could be singing this to a REAL (aka a girl with physical features songs don’t sing positively about: plus sized, braces, crutches, bald, freckled) girl.’ But alas, the video fails to demonstrate otherwise. Instead, he chose to sing to a VERY beautiful girl. Damn. There was so much potential there!

All in all, the article made me consider my own media habits. On a personal note, I’ve had issues with weight my whole life. Relating that to my own media usage, perhaps these programs aren’t successful because maybe others (like myself) almost avoid programs that attempt to provide a ‘it’s okay to be the way you are’ agenda because we have long-developed a ‘no, it is not okay’ mindset. There are a few plus-sized characters and celebrities that do allow me to feel slightly more empowered (ie. Mercedes in Glee, Queen Latifah in general-Love her). But overall, movies &TV don’t necessarily cut it as far as encouraging self-esteem.

So readers, consider the roles heavy set individuals play in your favorite programs. You’ll notice that weight is almost always an element of plot or characterization. & it almost has to be. An overweight individual’s appearance on screen almost always has to be justified in some way. Are there any examples out there that incorporate plus-sized characters without any explanation for their purpose, or mentioning of their size? When we think of films like Precious and Hairspray, would their characters be perceived (and received) any differently if they were thinner? Discuss.

KGOY & The Case of Willow Smith

It has only been a day since the release of Willow Smith’s video for her debut single “Whip My Hair”, and yet everyone I know has not only seen the video, but developed some sort of opinion relating to it.

I had heard this single a month or so ago and was shocked to find that this was the product of a 9 year-old. My feelings went from shocked to slightly disappointed when I came to discover she was the daughter of superstar Will Smith. Inspired by Rihanna (oh dear), Willow has become an overnight sensation–slightly similar to “Bieber fever”, she already has developed a large group of supporters online and off.

Sure, she’s cute and sassy. But pretending like I’m entirely supportive of this is just like when a friend gets a fugly haircut and asks how it looks–you have to be nice to their face, and keep your actual opinions to yourself.

Honestly: have we not observed the pitfalls and struggles of child pop stars over and over again? Let’s think about Michael Jackson, Britney, Lindsey Lohan, Drew Barrymore, Miley Cyrus… Children who get involved in show-business too early almost always develop some serious complications later on in life. Growing up is hard enough–so to add issues of money and selling a product and travel and homeschooling and issues of socialization in the mix? Dangerous.

Many scholars agree with the belief that kids are getting older younger–KGOY. Coined by scholar Henry Giroux, his theory involves the idea of childhood being threatened by the current global obsession to “adultifying” youth, becoming what he called an “endangered species”. One of the core elements from Giroux that can be applied to many current child stars is the notion that “marketing the sexual child is a part of the United States”. We’ve seen this in pageants and shopping malls–so of course, the entertainment industry is no different.

Willow is definitely a primary example of KGOY. She is a straight-up commodity. She’s a new product for kids to enjoy and for parents to spend money on. Her video doesn’t suggest otherwise–expensive clothing, glamorized hair-dos, makeup and self-described swagger… she is behaving exactly how she believes she has to in the entertainment industry.

Sure, there is an overwhelming element of fun involved, but it still makes me uncomfortable to witness Willow (unwillingly?) sacrifice her childhood for some fame. Am I the only one? Probably not. (This isn’t ‘hatin’ either Willow, it is all in an effort to protect your well-being!)

In the next year, we’ll have to just watch and see what happens with Willow as her popularity will surely continue to rise. Til then, let’s hope that the presses and fan base will continue to play nice.

Love [Shouldn't Be] A Battlefield: Eminem & Domestic Violence

I apologize for the lack of posts as of late!

Here is a modified excerpt from a paper I wrote recently, and I felt it to be appropriate considering that October is Sexual Assault Awareness Month at Tufts, not to mention Domestic Violence Awareness Month nationally. [More info on SAAM at Tufts can be found here]. This post is talking about domestic violence in popular culture, inspired by a truly thought-provoking discussion on Feministing.

The song “Love the Way You Lie” is Eminem’s most popular song from his album so far, likely due to the controversial undertones associated with it. With Rihanna’s public involvement as a member of an abusive relationship, her decision to be included in the song “Love the Way You Lie” has taken the song to a powerful new element. The song evolves from a cliché “love is hard” anthem, to an intense foray into the dynamics of domestic assault.

He compares their relationship to a drug, but not in the generic romantic sense. His comparison emphasizes both pain and addition:

“Drunk from the hate / It’s like I’m huffing paint / And I love it the more that I suffer”.

The chorus has Rihanna singing a similar story, saying, “I like the way it hurts”. This verse comments on two disheartening realities of domestic abuse: victims can be manipulated in a way to somehow justify their abuse, and not everyone leaves their abuser. It makes it clear that despite her being the victim in the physical sense, she has also been emotionally victimized, as she does not see a problem in his treatment of her.

Eminem begins the song by explaining the cyclical nature of this sort of relationship, admitting that “Cause when it’s going good, it’s going great … But when it’s bad, it’s awful”. He then admits to hitting her, saying he just “snap[ped]”. Within the same breath, however, Eminem immediately admits that this is wrong to do so and claims it to be out of character:

“Who’s that dude? I don’t even know this name [...] I’ll never stoop so low again / I guess I don’t know my own strength.”

This section describes the inner stresses and thought process of many of the individuals that are involved in domestic assault, according to the An Abuse, Rape and Domestic Violence Aid and Resource Collection (AARDVARC): Participants continually making excuses while continuing on the theme of feeling both trapped and addicted to the situation.

Eminem further explores this by rapping, “So they say it’s better to go your separate ways,” but then argues to stay together despite having a relationship of violence: “[the incident] was yesterday / yesterday is over”, adding that “next time [he’ll] show restraint.” Yet the cycle continues, as several times he claims that he will control his anger the next time there is an argument, yet he fails to not harm her each time. He resorts to being violent both verbally and physically because he “love[s her] too much”. Eminem defines their relationship as one of dangerously powerful love and admiration, yet one can argue that this is another method of manipulation. One can see a bit of the manipulation unfold when he begins to partially blame her for their fighting:

“But your temper is just as bad as mine is / You’re the same as me [...] When it comes to love / You’re just as blinded”.

The most chilling aspect of this song is the last rap verse. After one listens to the pain of this relationship and the heartache that seems to be coming from Eminem’s involvement in the relationship, within one line he completely shatters all potential hope for the situation. Despite him rapping about self-hatred and claiming an interest to better himself throughout the song, he ends the song with a painful:

“I just want her back / I know I’m a liar / If she ever tries to f$cking leave again / I’mma tie her to the bed / And set the house on fire”.

This all ties together and gives a deeper dimension to the song’s title, “Love the Way You Lie”. By Rihanna singing this line in the chorus, it provides another glimpse into the role of a victim involved in this type of relationship. She is aware that the idea for a healthier relationship is not realistic, all while convincing herself that this situation is deserved and inescapable.

I think the overarching question for readers here is this: what is the purpose of the song (if any)? What is the message here that Eminem is sending, especially considering the last verse? Was Rihanna’s involvement intentional?

PS: Did you know 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime? Learn more information and related resources here for DVAM.

Cybersnooping: How far is too far?

At this very moment, my emotional state is a combination of completely terrified mixed with a whole lot of gratitude that I am no longer an adolescent. All with thanks to a familiar lil pup from Chicago– Scruff McGruff.

I came across a computer program this week by the team behind the crime-preventin McGruff. Its called the McGruff SafeGuard to help parents “take a bite out of Internet danger”. According to the web site, the product is essentially my 13 year old self’s worst nightmare:

“McGruff SafeGuard goes way beyond typical website blocking services. Those products try to control WHERE your kids can go on the Internet. We help you see and understand exactly WHAT your kids are doing on the Internet. And WHO they are doing it with!”

Pardon my language, but HOLY CRAP.

This is taking internet safety to a whole new [read: absolutely terrifying] level.

I have so many issues with this. By having a program that goes “way beyond” other programs to monitor kid’s internet usage is personally far too unethical for me to understand. For lack of better words, it is completely unfair for children. Reading a particular FAQs on the site was also deeply concerning to me:

Q: What if I don’t want my child to know that SafeGuard is installed on his or her PC?

A: When you install SafeGuard, an icon will appear on the desktop you are monitoring. You can delete this icon and SafeGuard continue to work. It does not appear in the Windows system tray, Windows Programs or show in the Windows Task Manager list. Your child should not know that this software is installed.

The idea of monitoring your child with the child completely unaware could have some serious implications. This is a serious invasion of privacy! Perhaps I can’t grasp the need for this service because I am not a parent. BUT I will say that this kind of supervision could easily create a barrier between you and your child. Informing your child of the monitoring is one thing, but intentionally hiding that fact? There are so many things wrong with that.

Oh mannnn I feel like there is so much to say on this topic. Thoughts?

The Blogosphere as a Gender Neutral Construct

Last weekend I attended ‘Podcamp Boston’, a conference dedicated to social media workshops and conversations. The relaxed approach allowed a variety of topics to be discussed in and outside the confines of a conference room. Although all the in-room panels were useful and relevant to my interests, the most thought provoking moment for me stemmed from an informal lunchtime session.

This conversation, entitled ‘Girl power’, was intended to be just that: a meaningful, inspiring conversation about women and technology. Boy was I wrong. Within minutes it transformed from an effort about female empowerment to essentially a conversation about how we need to understate the fact that we are a woman in order to be active participants in the technological world.

Wait, what?

The feminist inside of me was sorely disappointed. Surely, there were lots of opinions—spoken and not (I chose to listen versus contribute)—and I do get arguably over-involved with gender issues, but this raised a very important question for me to consider: Could the blogosphere ever be gender neutral? I say no: So much of our personal experiences are shaped by the way we were raised, and we were often raised with techniques based on our gender.

As a woman active in the technological sphere (with an avid interest in gender studies and feminist theories), this question raised several points of note for me.

1. Look in the mirror.

[And for simplicity's sake, let's assume your gender corresponds with your biological components.]

Instead of trying to hide the fact that we are female, maybe we should just accept it and “deal”. It is human nature to initially describe someone based on their gender, we do it on a daily basis without even realizing it. By identifying as female, you are not automatically perpetuating stereotypes or feeding into the patriarchal system. You are not automatically an advocate of women and technology. If people automatically associate stereotypes with you and your blog, that is beyond your control.

2. Writing without a lil personality is boring.

If you’re writing a blog about something technical, then maybe your gender isn’t important to your writing. In every other case though, it should be. You’re writing based on your own perspective. And while your perspective can be based on a whole lot of experiences, surely the fact that you’re female has shaped your life in some way. Surely.

3. I am woman, hear me roar!

Why does being a woman in technology have to have a negative connotation? Why do people have the idea that being a woman will make your message less important? The blogosphere is still a relatively new frontier with new social constructs to be developed. Your message is just as important, and as long as you treat it as such from the beginning it should be interpreted as such.

As with a lot of conversations related to gender constructs on the internet, I do think the overarching topic here is looking at self-identity. Could I ever train myself to not identify myself first as a woman? Probably not. And so more questions arise: What is the difference between being a female blogger versus a blogger? What do we even mean or hope to accomplish by deeming things ‘gender neutral’ as far as writing goes? Discuss.

How to Train Your[self to Not Freak Out About Disabilities]

Today’s post will talk about a movie I still can’t stop talking about: ‘How to Train Your Dragon’. (What a wonderful film, right? LOVED IT!) If you have yet to see it, you’ll have to wait just a few weeks longer or so for the DVD release.

So why am I talking about it now? Several conversations as of late have reminded me of my fascination with the movie, so why not? SPOILER ALERT! If you have yet to see this movie and don’t want a significant incident to be revealed, stop reading!

Assuming that you have in fact scrolled down after reading the SPOILER ALERT, I will ask this: Did anyone else find the movie’s last few minutes a little too intense for a kid movie?

Serious content has become a trend in many films aimed at kids–Pixar’s ‘Up’ and the topic of grief/grieving is a prominent example. But what was so particularly striking about this particular ending was the long term severity of its consequences for the main character.

I’m going to stop talking in generalities and go into specifics: In a nutshell, as the film approaches its end, the audience watches a battle take place, and the dragon [Toothless] saves the boy [Hiccup] from death.

The scene changes, and we are now a day or so after the battle. It is bright day in the village, and yet the movie takes a rather dark turn: as the child removes his blanket to get started with the day, we learn that the battle resulted in him losing a leg.

Yep, I repeat: We learn the boy has become [permanently?] disabled. This ties in to the fact that his dragon friend Toothless was also “different”, where he was missing a part of his tail.

Dealing with disabilities is not a subject that can be easily delved into. It was almost glossed over–when it ends, you get the feeling that it is a happy ending. There is no discussion whatsoever related to the injury.

A permanent disability is a very traumatic incident to include in a children’s film. We’re talking about life long physical and psychological implications.

To present the subject so briefly was confusing at best: What was the thought process or motive with the inclusion of this incident? Did it encourage conversation about disabilities? Not much that I’m aware of. I was surprised I didn’t hear much [if any] discussion related to this conclusion while it was running in theatres amongst disability activists and the disabled.

This is more “food for thought” than anything–as more movies are including sensitive subjects, maybe we should all begin to think more about how to use these situations as opportunities for learning.

‘Eternal Sunshine’ Is Forever a Good Story

Hello! Last post was a brief look at my life as a serial rerunner. While thinking about this realization, I decided to pick a favorite movie of mine and talk about what makes it a good story. My choice? ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’. I chose this movies because, honestly, I have seen this movie dozens of times. But why? Let’s take a look!

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I would argue this is one of the greatest love stories ever told. In my eyes, it is one of the greatest stories ever told, period. Some key points:

- it feels real. The characters and their interactions (regardless of the fact that the events in the movie are implausible) are completely believable.

- it is visually stunning. Although the movie is set in modern day America, we are transported to other dimensions of reality and love every minute of it.

- it is engaging. The plot is familiar because you enter the film knowing it is a “love” story (other fans of the movie may argue this point), yet it is still very distinct and an unfamiliar way of approaching the boy-meets-girl tale.

- the soundtrack is phenomenal. Composer Jon Brion really sets the tone of the film. It is a combination of somber melodies and fantastical tunes. Truly a great score.

- there is a conflict, then it is resolved. Sounds obvious, but not all movies end with a definite conclusion (Inception, Once, Life During Wartime). There is a journey, there is a trial of strength, and then the conflict is resolved. This is comforting to many people (including myself).

Although I could go on, I think it is important to realize there are several elements here that could be applied to other movies I watch with frequency (‘Lucky Number Slevin’, ‘Never Been Kissed’, ‘High School Musical 3′… to name a few). The plot, characters, design, audio, etc. all play a critical role in how each story is told. Perhaps some of your favorite movies are comprised of this formula as well! Interesting how that works.

True life: I’m A Serial Rerunner

This week’s lecture in media literacy focused on the idea of storytelling. As we were looking at various themes and concepts relating to storytelling, the question of why people watch re-runs came up. I had a hard time answering that question, primarily because I watch re-runs all the time… it never occurred to me that there was some psychological association related to this phenomena I have been partaking in all my life.

Watching movies over and over again is a normal part of my life. It is a characteristic my friends catch on to eventually, and a trait that my last boyfriend found both inexplainable and slightly [read: very] annoying. My excuse was always the same: I didn’t want to waste my time delving into the unfamiliar. What if I didn’t like it? That would be a complete waste of my time.

Realizing that my re-run habit was/is slightly out of the ordinary, I seriously have to think about why I watch them so often. Once I find something I like, I generally stick with it. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, ya know? I enjoy the familiar. [Note: this is completely unrelated to basically every other aspect of my life.]

1. Getting emotionally involved with anything [ESPECIALLY things that are fake] is quite exhausting

I’m a crier. I get scared. Sometimes it is good to know in advance that things will be sad or scary in order to prevent a scene.

2. When I want a pick-me-up, I enjoy a good story with a happy ending [regardless of how predictable it may be]

Similar to a toddler, I enjoy quality storytelling and happy endings. They are an easy way to relax and enhance my mood.

3. My 13-year-old self still wants to believe in things like true love

Pretty self-explanatory.

So what makes a good story?

This will be continued on the next post!