Saturday, February 2, 2013

Unlearning the Myths That Bind Us-Reflection

                In “Unlearning the Myths That Bind Us” (from Rethinking Our Classrooms) Linda Christensen discusses the ways in which children’s stories, be they in the form of cartoons; fairy-tales; or films; work to, somewhat insidiously, pass on society’s dominant ideologies. She also describes the way in which her classes have dealt with the idea of children’s stories as a way to teach children how to behave in-line with societal expectations. There was nothing surprising in this reading for me, as I’ve been pretty aware of the ways in which our media, whether directed at adults or children, works to try and create conformists of us all. However, it was refreshing to read the ways in which Christensen’s students attempted to take direct action against this “secret education” (126).

                One of Christensen’s students noted that “when we read children’s books, we aren’t just reading cute little stories; we are discovering the tools with which a young society is manipulated” (126). Omar hits the nail right on the head; taking a critical eye to stories and media aimed at children can prove to be very enlightening (and disheartening). Take, for example, one of the morals that Perrault offers for the classic fairy tale Little Red Ridinghood (the story, as well as the entire Norton collection of The Classic Fairy Tales can be found here):
                                From this story one learns that children,
Especially young girls,
pretty, well-bred, and genteel,
Are wrong to listen to just anyone,
And it’s not at all strange,
If a wolf ends up eating them.
I say a wolf, but not all wolves
Are exactly the same.
Some are perfectly charming,
Not Loud, brutal, or angry,
But tame, pleasant, and gentle,
Following young ladies,
Right into their homes, into their chambers,
But watch out if you haven’t learned that tame wolves
Are the most dangerous of all.

Perrault’s version of Little Red Riding is an incredibly common, and still told, version of the fairy-tale. This moral, a moral told to young children at the tail-end of a story meant to soothe them to sleep, not only perpetuates the idea that women must constantly be ever vigilant of men lest they get ‘eaten’ (also known as raped. Or, perhaps, even simply sexed before marriage) but it also highlights one of the (many) ways in which patriarchy is harmful to men as well as women. It depicts all men as being beholden to their carnal nature; it makes it sound like men are unable to control themselves and that they are inherently animalistic so all women just need to beware. This is a harmful idea to disperse not only because it feeds directly into our modern rape culture but also because it’s an incredibly insulting (and untrue) portrayal of men. It makes it seem as if all men are potential rapists (wolves) because they just cannot help themselves.  Now Little Red doesn't seem all that much like a “cute little story” does it? And it didn't even take the most critical eye to see the problem with this moral, it just took a mind open to questioning things that we've been taught to be comfortable with.

                Christensen spends some time addressing stereotypes, their prevalence in children’s stories, and the ways in which they are harmful. She states that “the stereotypes and worldview embedded in the stories become accepted knowledge” (127). This idea, coupled with her earlier quote from Beverly Tatum (“cartoon images…were cited by the children…as their number one source of information”) is particularly troubling when we take a look at many of the cartoons that our society’s children are watching. There’s no getting away from the racism and sexism that is prevalent in children’s media. Jafar, from Aladdin, a somewhat recent Disney film, is portrayed as far darker and more “ethnic” looking than the ‘good’ characters from the film. Whether or not that is a coincidence (which is doubtful), the message it sends is that ethnic=bad (as well as ugly and old=bad, which we also get from Ursula in The Little Mermaid, the crone from Snow White, the list could go on). 

                The stereotypes don’t stop once the images are no longer being targeted at children. Media is constantly pushing the dominant ideology on its consumers, whether the consumer is 3 or 33. This serves to ensure that the values that have been subliminally taken in stick with us. We have to be constantly bombarded with these problematic images otherwise we are more likely to hit that pane of glass in the river (for those that missed class on Thursday  this reference may be indiscernible, shoot me a message and I’ll clarify for you!).  Let’s use the past Black female Academy Award winners for example. All of these women were in films for adults. And they all portrayed common stereotypes of Black women.  Halle Berry, the only Black woman to have won an Oscar, won for Monster’s Ball in 2001 for playing Leticia Musgrove, a character that very much fits the common Black trope of the “Jezebel”. Five Black women have won Academy Awards for supporting roles. The first was Hattie McDaniel for playing the quintessential Mammy (known as…Mammy) in Gone with the Wind. Whoopi Goldberg won her Oscar for playing a Magical Nigress in Ghost. Jennifer Hudson was the overweight Black Diva in Dreamgirls (arguably the least offensive trope to have won an Oscar). Mo’Nique won her Oscar for her portrayal of Mary Lee Johnston in Precious; Mary Lee was an abusive, “welfare queen” who was a parasite not just on the system but also her daughter. And lastly to bookend the list we have the most recent Black Academy Award winner: Octavia Spencer for her role as Mammy Minny Jackson in The Help. All of these films are for adults. All of these films continue the “secret education” that we received as youths. The secret education starts early and it never stops, this is why we must be always be critical consumers. 

               In class next week  (or perhaps in the comment section of this post) I would like to find out what stories/shows/movies my peers once loved (or still love) that, upon critical analysis, they see as being incredibly problematic and simply stories that are acting as mediums for the dominant society’s message. Me first: I love Mulan, but unfortunately there is plenty of sexism and problematic racial portrayals in that film. I still will break out in song anytime someone says "Let's get down to business", but I no longer love that film unquestioningly. Furthermore, I’d like to talk about ways in which people feel like we can take direct action and work to counteract the messages that are being forced down our children’s throats. Christensen’s class did some interesting work, I’d like to see how we can further build upon what we've read in the text. 

Works Cited

Christensen, Linda. "Unlearning the Myths That Bind Us." Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for
Equity and Justice / [editors ... Bill Bigelow ... Et Al.]. By Bill Bigelow, Linda Christensen, and Stan Karp. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, 2007. 126-37. Print.

McDaniel/Spencer Image found on CNN


  1. I think you did a really good job writing this blog. I like how you talked about the black academy award winners playing stereotypical roles and that these stereotypes and messages are seen in both children's and adult's media. I had to write a paper for my gender and society class a few semesters ago analyzing a movie using the "scwaamp" method we talked about in class. Before I wrote it, I didn't think about which movie would fit the model best, I just figured I would pick a movie I've seen a bunch of times and see if it would work. I picked Legally Blonde and it did work :/ I liked that movie but it was way too easy writing that paper. There were a lot of examples in that movie of straightness, whiteness, property holding, etc being dominant messages. I think if we took the time to analyze most media, we would see problems with it.

  2. i loved your blog i understood the reading and i can't wait to read it. :)

  3. Wonderful post. Like you, Mulan is the Disney movie near and dear to my heart, but as you pointed out on my blog, it does have its problematic aspects (which I will be paying more attention to the next time I watch it). I like that Sarah pointed out Legally Blonde, because I really enjoyed that movie when I was younger, but upon catching parts of it on TV the other night, I noticed several of the parts she noted. As far as correcting the problem, besides making note of it and letting our voices be heard, I always romanticized the idea of re-drafting stories to improve them (message-wise); I'm of the variety that if you don't like what you're seeing/watching, make your own. This is EXTREMELY difficult to do, obviously, and likely the ideas would be bastardized if they reached production level (by the producers), but, in my mind, it's something to strive for. After all, that is how Milestone Comics was formed by the (unfortunately) late but (eternally) great Dwayne McDuffie (and his associates Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek D. Dingle, amongst others). They felt that comic books failed to include minority and female characters, so they decided to create the books that *they* would want to read. They new that having only one or two characters of color and female characters in a book would tokenize the characters, so they needed to create a fictional universe with many characters of color. And thus we were graced with the character (as touched upon in my blog): Static Shock (as well as many others). In fact, in the 1990s when Static came out, one of the storylines (which I have, unfortunately, yet to read, but have read about), included LGBTQ issues surrounding his friend Rick Stone (in the animated series known as Richard Foley), who was gay. But... yeah. I ramble. I think change is hard, and can only be achieved with extensive pushing and prodding and making voices be known (at least in regard to the media). And... in conclusion, fantastic post!

  4. Love this post. As I sit here and read your I find myself getting more upset that I actually missed a lot of these points in my post. To give a brief start on your comment section, I talked about the movie Cinderella both Disney one and the Cinderella that BET made. My point was that yes, in life it is always easier to go about things In a revengeful way. What I mean by this, is Cinderella from Disney had a white princess but the Cinderella in the bet movie was black. Basically the idea of role switch. But my question was, does that solve any problems at hand? We live in a world where nothing can be considered right. If we switch roles we prove one point but discourage another. I'm lost for words.

  5. Yo, I'm so glad you brought up "The Help" as "secret education"!! I hate seeing these movies about White People saving the world one black (or other minority group) person at a time. I have never seen the movie, but I've read enough about it (and lets be real the trailers give a lot away) to know that it perpetuates horrible black stereotypes that make me cringe! Movies that I haven't seen but LOATHE are any Tyler Perry films. I can't stand the dude. Everyone praises him for his ~diversifying Hollywood and being a great representation for black artists. But his movies are filled with black stereotypes as well, doing the "secret education" that white producers and film makers also sneak into their movies. I wish people could see that just because Tyler Perry is black doesn't mean that he still has some covert racism that he needs to work on. Okay enough of that. I loved this post and you're fantastic.

  6. I love your writing. You make several different points, but they all intersect perfectly. Your connection between childrens' media and Adults' media is very well done.
    I think another poignant part of the racism of the Awards you mentioned is that Hattie Mcdaniel was not allowed to attend the Premier of her movie, as the theatre permitted only whites.
    As a history students, I think that it is incredibly important to put the common "tropes" that African American women are filed into.
    As for my Movie that I now look at critically, it's the Little Mermaid. Which has just about every negative trope imaginable. Racism, sexism, agism.

  7. I agree with what you said about the Cinderella and the white princesses and also Chela with the black BET Cinderella. but there are a lot of movies that could have been talked about that even i didn't talk about, like the Lion King movie it was originally suppose to be about an African family but they didn't want to have a cartoon about black people so they turned them into animals so they can put it on TV. lol some of the things they do are just degrading but nobody knows about it

  8. i agree with you and the omar quote. When we are children and sometimes don't really know what we are doing and just being kids we watch and follow tv programs and get tuned in to what entertains us. we let this media influence us. Young minds are manipulated to view what is supposed to be a fantasy world. But sometimes these fantasy worlds turn into reality and children think this is what they are supposed to be like which this isn't necessarily the truth.