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Youth culture, the mass media, and democracy

Bradley J Porfilio, Saint Louis University 
Paul Carr,
Youngstown State University

 Porfilio, Ph. D., is a Assistant Professor of Educational Studies, and Carr, Ed.D., is Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations.           


Youth culture is poorly understood by the mass media, and, in many cases, the lack of connection can lead to disengagement in the educational sector. Media (il)literacy is important for many reasons, and a light-hearted treatment of the effect of the mass media in the educational sector can lead to undesirable outcomes. This paper examines how two teacher-educators use the mass media in their teaching to stimulate reflection and engagement on the part of present and future teachers.


At today’s historical juncture, media culture has arguably become the most dominant force defining the sense of self, driving our understanding of the ‘Other,’ and providing “symbols, myths and resources” for generating a common culture (Kellner, 1995). Western corporate leaders have not only consolidated their power over the content, production, and distribution of cultural texts in the world of entertainment but they have also utilized their influence to create a “media oligarchy,” which allows them to propagate corporate and commercial interests as well as denigrating or ignoring what cannot fulfill their agendas (McChesney, 1999, 2008). Specifically, corporate leaders rely heavily “on mass media and global technologies to disseminate” (Richardson, 2007, p. 790) ideologies that often trivialize, demonize, or miniaturize the Other, while concomitantly reifying the socially constructed supremacy of Whiteness, heterosexism, patriarchy and capitalism (Fleras & Kutz, 2001). 


One of the major areas in which corporate leaders spawn their agendas and perpetuate hegemonic commercial and social ideologies is via youth culture. Today’s youth, whether through MTV, the Internet, the gaming world, the Western music industry, or Hollywood, consume myriad digitized texts and goods to embody the ‘cool’ lifestyles of Western pop icons, which marketers, advertisers and corporations configure to net the excess of dollars that children and their caregivers have increasingly spent to amuse themselves through marketed forms of leisure for the past 20 years (Muehlenberg, 2002; Schor, 2004). This spate of goods, texts, products, and trends collectively reinscribe to youth, throughout their childhood and into adulthood, dominant ideologies that do not represent a challenge to neoliberalism, which ultimately shelters the existence of racism, sexism, classicism, and homophobia (Kahn & Kellner, 2004). 


Yet, despite the power of corporate elites to infiltrate the lived, experiential worlds of youth, to sell their goods and services, and perpetuate their ideologies and practices, some youth have not only used Western cultural products as reflective tools to critique formations and values ensconced within their own society but they have also remade themselves out of Western media culture. By doing so, they have become firmly committed to challenging the structures, policies, and social actors responsible for denigrating their culture in the mass media, thus demonizing youths themselves for social and economic problems emanating, in part, from the mass media, and, importantly, exacerbating pain, suffering, and oppression across the globe. Mass media corporate giants and corporate leaders, such as Nike, Disney, Wal-mart, and Coca-Cola, which are responsible for a shift in media culture and how we perceive youths, have supported the neoliberal agenda for the past thirty years, which has facilitated the spread of corporate ideologies, logics, and arrangements to so-called Third World regions (McLaren, 2007). The latest stage of global capitalism has left men, women, and children to toil in inhumane conditions, where they produce goods and services for global consumption, including staples of goods targeted for today’s corporatized youth (Klein, 2005). Since their labor-power is deemed worthless from the bosses’ prospective, they are often left with the grim prospects of producing products in unsafe and unsanitary sweatshops, working the plantation or the mines, or relegated to sell their bodies through prostitution (McLaren, 2005).


We—two teacher educators who have mentored, supported and educated pre-service and in-service teachers and administrators from K-12 schools in North America for the past decade—believe that positioning our current generation of school teachers and administrators to become media literate citizens is essential to excavating social inequalities and, significantly, fostering a participatory democracy during the 21st century. Today’s media kids, along with their teachers, parents, and guardians, need to understand how knowledge is linked to power in order to recognize how dominant media representations are partially responsible for asymmetrical power relationships that exist inside and outside of mass media outlets. Similarly, they need to learn how to generate counter-hegemonic media products, which provide more authentic representations of self and Other as well as to provide voice to those who have been historically left silenced in social institutions. Therefore, we believe media literacy must become a key building block for transforming our social and economic institutions so that they are structured on the ideals of equity, diversity, justice, and freedom, instead of perpetuating greed, exploitation, and inequity (Macedo & Steinberg, 2007).


In this paper, we highlight how we guide many of our students to become media literate through a critical examination of youth culture within the context of a corporate, presumably neutral and apolitical, mass media. We also document how we employ the cultural work of some enlightened youths, who hold the critical capacity along with the courage to confront the social actors and institutions responsible for exploiting childhood for their own gain while exacerbating social inequalities, to position our students to remake themselves and join other transformative scholar-practitioners, activists, and youths in the struggle to build egalitarian schools and a more socially just world. In sum, understanding how media (il)literacy affects the prospects for transformative education is fundamental to our analysis (Kincheloe, 2008). 


Exploring the socially constructed nature of youth: From labor power to commodities

Our initial foray into guiding pre-service and in-service teachers, school administrators, and other school personnel to critically understand the role the mass media plays in their own identity formation, in cementing unjust power relationships, and in impacting youths’ social, emotional and intellectual development, centers on reexamining their assumptions about youth. Rather than viewing youth as merely individuals whose differences are marked by cultural and personal factors, students learn that youth is a social creation or construction, which was developed by manufacturers after World War II, for the purpose of luring “more young people into Britain’s training programs designed to produce a workforce conducive to the capitalist imperative” (Malott & Carroll-Miranda, 2003). With this insight, we call on students to reflect upon how governments and the business sector have utilized the mass media and other policies and practices to create a similar vision of youth in the post-World War II era in the US. Some of our students recall that the social landscape changed for youth during this time-period.


As was the case in Britain, youths were considered to be returning soldiers who could be trained to work in various industries as well as being conditioned to purchase goods and services. However, they are not generally cognizant of how the mass media served as an essential instrument for US political leaders, as it ensured that youths from the dominant society and large-scale corporations were the chief benefactor of the wealth generated in the Post-World War II era. United States government officials and business leaders not only instituted unjust policies such as “redlining, blockbusting, restrictive covenants, and municipal incorporation, as well as (resorted to) outright violence” to Whitewash communities across the US, they also tapped various media outlets, such as Hollywood films, to vilify urban youths for social and economic problems and for urban decay, which, in reality, emanated from entrenched social inequalities, such as racism, poverty, joblessness, and geographic isolation (Avila, 2004). Many White youths bought into media-generated stereotypes associated with supposedly socially dislocated “chocolate cities”, and took advantage of unearned entitlements provided by their government, such as low-interest loans and aid to build racially-segregated wealthy communities outside of urban contexts. 


The mass media’s false depiction of urban decline has also helped to convince White suburbanites to support law and order policies as an antidote to cure problems situated in racialized communities, such as violence, drug abuse, and poverty. Similarly, political and economic leaders have utilized television sound-bites and advertisements to lull White voters to believe that urban social problems are rooted in the “cultural deficiencies” associated with the Other, which are thought to be quelled by policies bent on surveillance and control. The elite leaders conveniently exclude information from media outlets that could force voters from the dominant (and majority) society to reflect upon supporting politicians whose raison d’être is to address the social, economic and historical forces and systemic barriers responsible for perpetuating social inequalities in urban contexts in the post-World-War II era (Avila, 2004).

Next, we ask our students to further question how political and corporate leaders utilize the mass media at the present time to generate a conception of youth aligned with their agendas, all the while targeting youths themselves as a site to cement their wealth and power. Kincheloe and Steinberg’s Kinderculture (1997) has proved instrumental in unveiling the social conditions and macro-level forces responsible for corporations altering their relationships with today’s youths. For instance, Kellner’s (1997) contribution in that book examines the cultural phenomenon of Beavis and Butthead, which highlights for our students how corporations and the mass media capitalize on the contemporary social conditions facing youths. Many youths in North America, especially individuals who are marginalized by their racial and class status, face the prospect of taking care of themselves and their families, draconian conditions within schools, and the prospect of working dead-end, service-oriented jobs (Steinberg & Kincheloe, 2004).


Since manufacturing jobs have been outsourced to less “developed” countries, and corporate leaders have instituted the processes of automation, integration and networking, which have resulted in “massive erosion, deskilling and demeaning of work,” corporations consider youths more as an outlet to sell products and services than a pool for garnering loyal workers (Millar, 1998). Corporations take advantage of the fact that stark social conditions prod many youths to fill social and emotional voids through many “teaching machines,” such as computers, television, video games, and music. These are the very sites that condition youths to become loyal to specific brands and products. (Kellner, 1997). To this end, corporations are now highly sensitized to their ‘branding’, seeking to shower the market-place with goods, such as running shoes (Nike, Puma, Adidas, etc.), cell-phones (I-Phone, etc.), video-games (Play Station, Wii, Nintendo, etc.), and a host of other commodities that help define the consumer, materialist, individualist nature of the youth experience (Klein, 2005). 

Many of the contributors of Kinderculture and several other critical scholars also help us unveil to our students the cultural pedagogy generated for youths through “the juggernaut of corporate and media influences” (Peterson, 2004).  For instance, our students learn how White corporate leaders have attracted more and more boys and men to the world of gaming over the course of the last decade. Male game designers and corporate marketers sell games and generate advertisements that are supposedly congruent with boys’ and men’s interests and worldviews. Most gaming texts are colored with typical masculine visions and narratives of violence, sex, and power (Cooper & Weaver, 2003). Equally pernicious, they reinforce to youths false stereotypes of women and minoritized citizens, as games frequently contain “violently negative portrayals of African Americans, Latinos  and women” (Kilman, 2005). The whole nature of the so-called technological revolution is considered to be inextricably linked with White middle-class, Western culture. One of Carr’s African-American students commented that anonymous internet colleagues with whom he spends hours engaged in intricate web-based games are always “shocked” to discover that he is not White when side-bar discussions take place.

We  also encourage students to examine additional segments of media culture, such as professional wrestling, Disney, rap music, clothing, and cartoons, and come to a rich understanding of how kids are often pushed by corporate executives to enter the adult world at a younger age (Peterson, 2004). Young children are often forced to confront adult or teenage concerns in most aspects of today’s mass media, such as sexuality, violence, explicit language, and drug use (Macedo & Steinberg, 2007). For instance, large-scale corporations are marketing images and products to very young children, which force them to grapple with issues related to their appearance, weight, and, significantly, with pleasing members of the opposite sex (Linn, 2008). They also learn that commercial and material forms of entertainment take precedence over getting involved in spending their time “working for the public good” or interacting with their peers through creative forms of play, activities that “develop intellectual freedom and divergent thinking” (Linn, 2008).


We also nudge our students to take a step back and reflect upon how youths are represented in various mass media outlets, such as on newscasts, in magazines, through advertisements, and in popular culture. Generally, our students find there are few positive representations of youths in the corporate media. Instead, they find that corporate executives and politicians use mass media outlets to make consumers and voters view youth as inherently “violent, dangerous, and pathological,” and frame them as the “source of most of society’s problems” (Giroux, 2004). Yet, we find it imperative that our students understand why there has been such a backlash against youths, and, similarly, recognize who ultimately benefits from these jaded characterizations. By examining the scholarship of several transformative intellectuals, seeking to extend the work of media critics, such as Chomsky (2008), McChesney (2008) and Macedo (2006), and Macedo and Steinberg (2007), students unravel how the mainstream political structures within the neoliberal framework have been on a campaign to scapegoat youths for social and economic problems, such as poverty, crime, and the alleged decline of North America’s educational system. From this vantage-point, we both seek to shed a light on the salience and the role of inequitable power relations in shaping the social construction of youth identity. Critical pedagogy (Freire, 1973; Kincheloe, 2008; McLaren & Jaramillo, 2007) offers a means to focus on political literacy, the lived experience of marginalized groups, the potential for social justice, and the myriad ways that power becomes a tool to disenfranchise, disembody and de-structure the human condition. Ultimately, the foray into critical media literacy is a clarion call for a more robust democratic experience, one that considers social justice and critical student engagement (Lund & Carr, 2008). The discussion of youth culture, therefore, leads to a natural linkage with the nature of democratic participation in society. 


The debilitating discourses and narratives that numb, mollify and obfuscate youth culture are designed to help the elite forces gain the public’s consent to implement policies and practices that concentrate wealth and power. For instance, many large corporations have continually characterized urban youths as aberrant, violent, dimwitted, and lazy so as to convince the public that youths are not deserving of social entitlements, such as health care, public education, and housing (Giroux, 1998). Rather than having the state provide social support for our children, most voters in the United States (of the roughly 50-60% who actually participate in elections) have willingly or unwillingly endorsed neoliberal ideologies, which allow these transnational corporations to implement policies that hold youths accountable for their “transgressions.” For instance, most of the public has opted to have corporations implement “kill and drill” teaching strategies and standardized forms of assessment, advertise and sell their products to children in exchange for providing schools with a small pool of resources, and fold in zero-tolerance policies, security equipment, and private security guards to quell the growing spate of youth violence committed in schools (Casella, 2008; Kozol, 2005; Giroux, 2004). This happens rather than supporting policies aimed at improving youths’ educational performance and fostering their social development, such as providing resources to repair crumbling school facilities and purchasing textbooks and technology, hiring qualified teachers, reducing classroom size, providing quality preschool education for all learners, and designing curricula that focus on promoting critical thinking skills, building community, eliminating hate, and focusing on peace and social justice. Media literacy is sadly lacking in the classroom, in general, which raises concerns about how students will become actively and critically engaged in democracy (Carr, 2008).


Proving hope and inspiration to our students: Subverting the mass media’s power over life

After our students have sifted through critical scholarship examining the mass media’s role in generating and perpetuating social inequalities, have implicated political and economic leaders in using media outlets to blame youths for social and economic problems as well as commodifying their childhood and education, and have interrogated how their own identity is structured by knowledge they consume in the world of entertainment and in other corporately-controlled outlets, they often yearn to find ways to eradicate corporate control over our children, our institutions, and our lives. By pointing to the cultural work of hip hop and punk pedagogues, students often see it is possible to confront the social actors who have used the mass media to corporatize childhood, exploit labor power and resources across the globe, and vilify the Other for social problems that emanate from their creation of unjust policies and practices. To take one example, the former lead singer of the punk rock group Dead Kennedy, Jello Biafra, remains active in the struggle to dismantle the corporate hegemony over the production of knowledge and control of the world’s resources (“Jello Biafra”, 2007). In 1999, he organized protests and formed a band (No WTO Combo) to stop the corporate elite’s ubiquitous quest to reap more profits by moving their organizations and relationships across the globe through the mass media and institutions, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). He speaks regularly to youths across the US about the effects of living in a world predicated on consumption and greed. His activism is also reflected in his organization, Alternative Tentacles. This enterprise signs punk artists committed to social activism, distributes books and DVDs by well-known transformative intellectuals, such as Angela Davis, Howard, Zinn, and Noam Chomsky, provides information on current political issues, and builds political networks that expose the corruption tied to the Bush regime, corporate conglomerates, and mass media outlets.

The cultural activism of other socially conscious artists in Canada has guided our students to implement classroom activities to position their own students to become media literate citizens and to voice their doubts about corporations controlling their childhood and schooling. For instance, the 411 Initiative for Change in Canada consists of a cadre of artists who volunteer their time within K-12 schools to “educate youth, generate interest and encourage action on social issues and challenge negative stereotypes set forth in the media” (“The 411 Initiative for change”, 2008). Many of our students emulate the artists’ work by having their students engage in letter-writing campaigns to challenge the mass media’s debilitating representations of youths, create music and art that focus on issues relevant to young people, such as domestic violence, peer pressure, gangs, racism and poverty, and also generate after-school activities. This allows students to articulate their concerns over politicians using the mass media to sway the public to support policies and practices that hinder their intellectual development while eradicating their teachers’ professional autonomy through such measures as high-stakes examinations, charter schools, and merit pay.


Two examples of critical media work

In this section, we briefly elucidate two examples of how we attempt to reinforce and extend our students’ media literacy skills. Porfilio asks students to examine the commercialized messages youths receive through products and services within the context of K-12 schools. Through fifteen hours of fieldwork, students examine corporately-produced examinations and test preparation materials, critique messages youths receive on commercialized newscasts, such as the advertisements and banter packaged as “news” by Channel One, which over 8 million youths and their teachers must watch each day in the US, and reflect upon the slogans and messages students confront on classroom walls, on billboards, and on clothing worn by their classmates. They then present their findings from the fieldwork. Most students state that they were not aware of the extent of corporate and political influence over the lives of our youths. They also feel that in-service teachers and their students failed to problematize what agendas are being promulgated through instructional materials as well as through corporate slogans and products. Our discussion ends by sharing strategies to bring awareness to parents, in-service teachers, and youths about commercial and political interests hijacking childhood and schooling. Students highlight the work of progressive organizations that have tried to block corporations from targeting children through products and services, which have brought awareness to the insidious nature of corporate involvement in schooling, and which have generated teaching strategies and materials to help youths think about the socially-mediated nature of their childhood.  


Carr uses the mainstream nightly news as an example of how the media can shape the context for teaching and learning. In one activity, he divides students (usually graduate students who are already teachers but this can work with undergrads as well) in to five groups of roughly 3-4 persons. Each group is to watch the same newscast from the angles requested of them through the instructions prepared by the Instructor. For example, one group watches the news as they normally would, a second group looks for any evidence of racialization and racism, including who is delivering the news, a third group dissects the news form the political vantage-points offered, a fourth group looks for the cadence of the news (when do things heat up, get excited, or wind down), and the last group evaluates the news from a more quantitative angle, timing the portions and examining the content therein. After watching the news during the de-briefing phase, one group after the other, a robust discussion and analysis takes place. What we find is fascinating, that the mainstream news, the one that informs us daily of our reality, our politics, our society and our popular culture, is, generally speaking, relatively vacuous, if not harmful.

Although people start the course believing that they are relatively media literate, according to the entrance survey that Carr gives them, by the end of the course they are questioning their own media literacy, not to mention that of the schools and that of their students. As they become more observant of the media, they start to question why we, as a society, know so much about Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, and, yet, most Americans are unaware that the US has troops in Afghanistan, or about myriad issues and concerns that shape the American identity. The students then start to critique how little the media is actually discussed, let alone critiqued, in schools. Moreover, they interrogate the effect of not being more politically and media literate, especially in relation to being able to critique and speak out in society, which appears to be a highly valued cornerstone to the American identity, according to research conducted by Carr (2007, 2008). A significant component to this process is that students begin to understand the notion of bias, that everyone has a bias (for example, not supporting pedophiles would be a bias), and that politics must, necessarily, mean having more than a Republican and a Democratic perspective. The point of this activity is not to establish the right or wrong answer but, rather, to get educators and students thinking about their own implication in education, particularly their political involvement (Freire, 1973). Some students conclude that the mass media betrays the public trust, that is too enveloped in the corporate interest to delve too deeply into the real issues, and, significantly, they find that almost all of the mainstream news is homogenized, staid, inoffensive, and, strikingly, the same, which constrains rather than facilitates a politically literate public.


This paper has argued for a more vigilant understanding of youth culture, one that is more diverse, fluid, dynamic and engaged than what is portrayed in the mass media. At the same time, it is important to note that the media serves to shape youth identity, which then has a significant effect on education and the lived experience of youths. Consumerism, materialism and individualism are values that are uncritically taken up in and through the media but which serve to mussel debate and critical engagement. More than just an academic observation, we are concerned that media illiteracy will have a nefarious effect on democracy, especially in regard to social justice, which should be the essence of a democratic society. The two activities contained in this paper need not be replicated in order to challenge media illiteracy; what is important is that educators are aware of the effects of the mass media, and that appropriate and critical approaches to teaching and learning to address media misinformation, manipulation, propaganda and an entrenchment of neoliberalism are conceptualized.


Many things can be done to counter the trend of not critically assessing the influence of the media. Various standards and reforms should include guidelines for media literacy, and the curriculum should be more focused on the qualitative experience of understanding and critiquing the media, in addition to producing and constructing media and technological-based projects that strive to be more connected to the diversity of youth experiences. Literacy should not be evaluated and understood in narrow terms but should embrace a more holistic, critical vantage-point (Freire, 1973; Kincheloe, 2008; Provenzo, 2005). Educators, including in teacher-education programs, should be resourced, trained and encouraged to become critically engaged, meaning that alternative vantage-points, methods, strategies, assessments, and experiences should become part of the educational journey. Ultimately, a critical examination of democracy, one that extends well beyond elections (Lund and Carr, 2008), should become a part of the renewed vision for media literacy, with a sharpened view on the youth experience, one that challenges subservience, consumerism, and patriotism (Westheminer, 2007). 

In sum, we find that there are many variants, angles and manifestations of youth culture today, which renders the teaching and learning of all subjects extremely dynamic and contested. Importantly, we find that the process of public education does not systematically fully incorporate into the formal curriculum the plurality of identities that would best serve to more fully engage students in education.  Youths seek authentic and meaningful experiences in and through education, the absence of which can create tension and serve to disengage some groups and individuals. At the same time, a critical pedagogical experience in the classroom as well as within the school culture can be validating and motivational in bringing together diverse student representations that are not always portrayed, or portrayed in a positive light, within the formal learning context. A critical assessment of the mass media can lead to a more enriching and fruitful democratic experience for all of society. Our conclusion, that political literacy needs to be a clearer and more strident focus of the educational process, leads to further questioning of the neo-liberal model of education, which, arguably, has constrained the vastly expanding horizons of youth culture, and, as a consequence, the essence of democracy.




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