This post shares some tips for integrating media literacy activities in lessons with your gifted students.
Where Are All the Women?
The Academy Awards have been around since 1929 and yet only one female director and one female cinematographer have ever won in their categories. Let’s think about that for a moment. This sad fact is not a testament to the lack of talent of female artists; it’s a testament to the lack of representation in the film industry.
The truth is that women have always made integral and inspiring contributions to media production. Did you know the boom mic was invented by a woman in the 1920s? Check out Dorothy Arzner’s many accomplishments here.
- Alice Guy was knighted in the French Legion for her film contributions, which included opening her own studio “The Solax Company” in 1910.
- Lois Weber was the first woman to direct, write, produce and star in a major motion picture. A few of her films inspired riots and were banned in the 1920s.
- Maya Deren basically created the independent film movement, establishing alternative distribution and screening venues.
If you didn’t know these key historical figures in cinema, you’re not alone. It is important that our gifted students see the full landscape of contributions by all individuals to the art form, and that they think critically about who creates the stories and images we see. As a media teacher who offers classes in International Baccalaureate Film, television production, and sports journalism, I work to encourage all my students to be creative storytellers and critical explorers aware of gender representation.
Much of our students’ understanding of gender and sexuality is influenced by what they see in films and television. For better or worse, media is a giant influence in our gifted students’ lives. If we are to help gifted students think critically about gender stereotypes, we first must help them ask questions of the film industry. Critically questioning media representation will help our gifted students in other areas of learning such as English Language Arts, sociology, and cultural competency. Here are some activities I recommend.
How do you explore gender representation when teaching media literacy?
Share with us below!
Exploring Media and Masculinity / Femininity
For this activity I ask students to analyze and discuss which TV and film characters influenced their understanding of masculinity and femininity. It’s key to have already established an emotionally safe classroom founded on respect. I do this by having an established structure to the way conversation will go. It is important that trust is already build between the class and yourself. It might also be helpful to break the class up into smaller groups.
- A good bellwork question for this lesson might be “Which characters did you want to grow up to be and why?” Ask them to think about the shows they watched as young kids if they are struggling to think of characters.
- Next, ask students to make a list of three characters they feel best embody masculinity or femininity. They can choose whether to do the activity with masculinity or femininity. If students ask you to define masculinity or femininity, respond by saying, “This activity should rely on your personal sense of what masculinity or femininity is and not on a textbook definition.” The goal is not to find a strict definition of masculinity or femininity (that activity would be futile) but to have students investigate where and how they’ve developed ideas on gender and what role media has in those ideas. Discourage students from looking up definitions.
- Have the students list characters with screen grabs or photos of the character. Students will now list the ways these characters embody masculinity or femininity. Students should list how these characters embody their gender
- and physically.
- Have the students pair and share in small groups. Guide the students in conversation with the following questions.
- In what ways do the students’ characters embody what it means to be masculine or feminine in their relationships?
- How does this character interact with love interests, friends, bosses, and other individuals?
- What does this character’s job and economic status tell us about masculinity or femininity?
- What about the way this person walks, looks and talks? What does that tell us about gender identity?
These questions will give your students the opportunity to think about their own feelings of gender and media representation in small groups before sharing with the larger class.
End the conversation by
- Asking students to reveal their definitions of masculinity and femininity.
- Ask students whether their definitions have changed during the course of the conversation, and why.
- Ask students if they can think of any characters who don’t portray their gender in a conventional or expected way. Here’s Common Sense.org’s link on films that defy gender stereotypes and a link on female characters that defy gender stereotypes.
Putting Art to the Bechdel Test
The Bechdel Test is a way to determine if a film has good representation of women. The Test comes from one of Alison Bechdel’s comic strips where a woman says she won’t see a film if the film doesn’t have two or more women talking to each other about something other than a man. I find this activity really gets the students in my classes excited.
The rules are simple. In order for a film to pass the Bechdel Test the film must have
- two women (with names)
- who talk to each other
- about something other than a man.
The Test gained popularity in the early 2000s and people have created variations on the rules. There’s a whole website that keeps track of what films pass the test.
- Before explaining the Test, have your students write their top five favorite films on a piece of paper.
- Now show the comic strip to the class. Have the students discuss why these rules were created and what we might learn from looking at film through these requirements. It might also be helpful to give students a list of classic films that don’t meet the requirements. There are tons of lists online. Here is just one link I found.
- Ask your students if it is important to pass the Bechdel Test. Bechdel has her own misgivings on the popularity of the test that she never meant to be taken seriously.
- Now have the students go back to their favorite film list and determine if those films pass the test. Have students share their results before embarking on finding films that do.
- Lead a discussion with this question: “If the vast majority of media has been created by and for a single gender, what effect does this have on gender minorities that don’t see themselves represented?”
Who’s in The Room?
This differentiated learning activity gets students researching female representation in film careers. Start this activity by presenting facts about gender representation in film. An interactive way to do this is to give students access to this link. This link provides a lot of data on the inequality of women in production roles.
Break students up into groups so they can research gender representation in these four different categories: writers, directors, cinematographers and editors. Ask students to use the link you’ve provided but to also do their own research.
After giving students time to do research have students present their findings to the group.
Questions to start conversation can include:
- What are the consequences of having a limited spectrum of experiences expressed in the field you’ve researched?
- Why is there a lack of representation of women in the field you researched?
- Are there efforts to remedy this lack of representation? What are some examples?
- How has representation in the field you’ve chosen to research changed over time? (It’s interesting to note that the role of editor used to be mostly female because it was thought that women’s smaller hands were more capable of cutting film…this isn’t to say that back then those female editors had the same level of importance as editors today. Here’s a really cool video on that subject.)
- How are the works of women in your field different than that of their male peers? Can you tell the difference? Is it a significant difference?
- What does female representation look like when it comes to your chosen field?
IndieWire put together their list of top 100 films by female directors here.
Another important film you might also wish to share with your students that explores these issues is “MissRepresentation,” a 2011 film addressing how cinematic representation of women affects young women.
Above all, challenge your students to seek out films by women as a way of expanding their experience of the world.