When Little Britain is the reality, not the fantasy

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Media studies - now there's something a Tiffany or Daisy-Moon could study.

Nothing too taxing and, well, faintly glamorous. Films and television and stuff. Tiffany could colour her hair purple, and Daisy-Moon could wear spangly tops above a bare midriff and they could hang out in college. See, Tiffany wants to be a film director and Daisy-Moon fancies something in radio.

Media studies has a big image problem. It's popular for a start, and that has to be suspicious. To its critics, it suggests edutainment, the pink marshmallow end of the curriculum, where the most taxing analysis involves writing a couple of paragraphs about the second demise of EastEnders' Dirty Den. If training and education are marketed like commodities, with customers urged to come on in and snap up a course today, the media studies brand is considered more supermarket value-pac than Harrods food hall.

If Tiffany and Daisy-Moon do come to college, they are disabused of their notions of an easy time. If we are successful, they spend a year learning some pretty sound skills on which they can build, skills which provide a platform for work or, more commonly, further learning. Our NQ media course serves learners well. In fact, the more I teach media studies, the more urgent seems the need for every single learner in our college to benefit.

The learners I see may have grown up in a media-rich environment, but that doesn't make them expert consumers. In fact, they are highly vulnerable.

Bombarded by information and spin, by images which are shaped and fashioned to order, our young people are drawn into the candy floss world of instant celebrity, of bite-sized information and easy, uncritical reading, listening and watching. Saddening, but wholly predictable, was the fan club of screaming teenage girls who waited to catch a glimpse of the convicted murderer Luke Mitchell. He's just another fanciable celebrity. An icon on their television screens.

Television exerts the greatest influence. Disturbingly, many young people don't understand what they are watching. Nor are they aware of how information is selected, or can be manipulated. Kurt Vonnegut's narrator in Slaughterhouse-Five understands the glamorising effect that film has. Mary, the wife of his wartime buddy, insists that "wars were partly encouraged by books and movies", so he promises her not to include parts for John Wayne or Frank Sinatra in his book.

Later, the hero of the book, Billy Pilgrim, watches a Second World War film backwards. Here we have a narrative, not of bombing and destruction, but a story of making good where bombing crews fly backwards, sucking up the fires, restoring buildings and cathedrals.

I showed one class a video about damaging stereotypes. Old people in comedies were portrayed as bumbling and stupid, and teenagers as thick and prone to violence. None recognised the point of the video. Each accepted the stereotypes as valid representations.

Think our young people understand irony and satire ? Think again. Harry Enfield's Loadsamoney and Warren Mitchell's Alf Garnett were misinterpreted by many in their time and now the medley of characters in Little Britain are frequently taken at face value.

It is vital that we teach our learners to avoid being damaged by what they watch. We need to spin the image of media studies.

Dr Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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