Girl Power: All Dolled Up. Directed by Sarah Blout Rosenberg. New York: Women Make Movies, 2011. 24 minutes.
Mickey Mouse Monopoly: Disney, Childhood, and Corporate Power. Directed by Chyng Feng Sun. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2001. 52 minutes.
Tough Guise 2: Violence, Manhood, and American Culture. Directed by Jeremy Earp. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2013. 78 minutes.
Documentaries can be effective tools for engaging students in questions about media, gender, and power. But the effects of the sounds and images also require that educators help students interrogate the documentaries themselves, as well as the provocative questions they address. Each of the films reviewed here can have great classroom utility, but each is also limited by its specific argument. As persuasive as they may be, these documentaries leave out some key aspects of audience experience that teachers should raise with their students.
Mickey Mouse Monopoly features such experts as Henry Giroux and Gail Dines dissecting the meanings and impact of Disney as a social and cultural force. A brief segment early on dissects Disney’s corporate history, including its rise to conglomerate status in the mid-1990s. But the majority of the documentary focuses on the representations of gender and race in Disney’s animated children’s films, particularly those of the 1980s and 1990s. Over clips from the films, the expert interviewees dissect the problematic imagery. Community activists and parents are included as expert voices, and they critique the emphasis on consumerism across the Disney empire as well as the representations of social groups.
While such critiques are convincing, they also fall a bit short in making this a compelling classroom tool. First, because it was produced in 2001, the examples of Disney products are quite dated. Students will wonder why recent animated films such as Frozen or the company’s efforts to address tween audiences with Disney Channel programming like Hannah Montana or High School Musical are not considered. This is a concern not only in terms of student interest, but also in terms of student receptiveness to the documentary’s message. Viewers may see the problematic representations as relics of the past, believing that the Disney products of their own childhoods are more progressive. Perhaps of even more concern are the ways that commentators neglect the appeal of Disney products, instead focusing exclusively on their troubling features. Because this critique pierces stories and characters dear to many viewers’ personal experience, those viewers may not be receptive to an argument that does not acknowledge that appeal.
A similar problem besets Girl Power: All Dolled Up. This video features interviews with three academic experts and a diverse group of pre-teen girls. The experts make clear how consumerist and sexualized ideals of femininity stand in for empowerment in contemporary popular culture. They dissect the appeals of such culture to girls and they explain the benefit of these conceptions of femininity to corporations. Most of the documentary, however, is made up of interviews with girls, a refreshing change from many such works, which rely on adult voices to describe children’s experience. The girls describe the appeals of princess culture and other feminized matters, like clothes, shoes, and make-up. Although their perspectives indicate that they are indeed swayed by this culture, the interviews reveal that there is more to the girls than this. They also voice criticisms of that culture, and they share dreams and plans for their own lives that embrace other aspects of their identities and passions.
While the girls demonstrate, to my mind, that the girl culture under critique is not as all-powerful as one might think, it is unclear whether or not director Sarah Blout Rosenberg intends audiences to take away such a message. The experts never acknowledge the ways in which girls might resist these cultural messages, nor do they validate the appeal of feminized culture. Because of this, one suspects that the audience is being encouraged to see the girls’ responses as evidence of their control by the capitalist and patriarchal forces the experts identify. Educators might draw student attention to the girls’ voices and help students see moments of resistance. Unlike many other works on young people and media, Girl Power at least offers to viewers those perspectives. But the dominant voice of the project itself does not allow the girls that agency.
Tough Guise 2 is focused on cultural constructions of masculinity rather than femininity, but it is as concerned with the impact of media on youth as the other two documentaries. Also like the other two, Tough Guise 2 does not account for much resistance to dominant messages on the part of audiences; it assumes that the cultural constructions it critiques have direct and unavoidable power over us. That said, it does conceptualize culture beyond media images, taking such factors as histories of masculinity and familial pressures into account. Still, because most of the film features clips from movies, television shows, news stories, and video games, it suggests that media are the primary sources of violent masculinity. Moreover, it offers only passing acknowledgement that audiences may read violent images in a range of ways, so it too often suggests that violent narratives promote violent behavior, or at least promote a kind of masculinity that sees violence as proof of manhood. This shortchanges the complexities of media messages and the interpretive actions of audiences.
The documentary begins by making the argument that most explanations of real-world violence—such as school shootings—do not take gender or culture into account, and that such factors are central rather than negligible features of such events. Educator Jackson Katz narrates, providing commentary and an antiviolence perspective. Many of the clips used to support his claims include disturbing imagery, especially those of real-world violent incidents and perpetrators’ self-made videos. This might make it tricky material for classroom use. It takes a clear stand against the culture of violence and seeks to work toward more peaceful and just conceptions of masculinity, but some might see its path to this message as sensationalistic.
Cultural constructions of gender clearly impact individuals and societies, but all three of these documentaries require a fair degree of educator intervention to help students grapple with the complexities of media and their impact on our senses of ourselves and others. The scholarly approach to media known as cultural studies is invested in questions of what audiences do with media rather than simply what media do to audiences. The scholarship of Henry Jenkins might be helpful in this regard, such as his collected essays in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Media Consumers in a Digital Age and the New Media Literacies Project website.1 On particularly gendered forms of popular culture, some might find helpful chapters in my edited volume, Cupcakes, Pinterest, and Ladyporn: Feminized Popular Culture in the Early Twenty-First Century.2 Furthermore, Ellen Seiter’s work on children’s media culture offers useful perspectives on kids as media audiences.3 Understanding the ways that audiences engage with media culture often challenges assumptions about the effects of media upon us and helps us to analyze media in more nuanced critical terms.
1 Henry Jenkins, Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2006).
2 Elana Levine, Cupcakes, Pinterest, and Ladyporn: Feminized Popular Culture in the Early Twenty-First Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015).
3 Ellen Seiter, Television and New Media Audiences (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) and The Internet Playground: Children’s Access, Entertainment, and Mis-Education (New York: Peter Lang, 2005).