Hello, my name is Tyler Hare and I am a senior at Towson University in Maryland. Here at Towson, I am studying mass communications with a track in advertising. My major has allowed me to take a variety of classes that touch on creating media and advertisements in creative and efficient way. While finishing my last semester here, I am taking a Media Criticism course that explores the fine details of the media-saturated society that we currently live in.
What Is Media Criticism?
Media Criticism can be described as an attempt to understand media texts and the messages that they convey. Media text refers to any media that can hold a message such as television programs, news, and print advertisements. Media texts contain messages that can range from obvious to very hidden, sometimes making the job of critiquing them difficult. To make this process easier, media criticism offers tools that can be used to take apart a message for better analysis. Through the application of various theory’s and practices, we can investigate the symbols and meanings buried within media that may not be visible to the casual consumer. This process often follows a systematic pattern of selecting a text, describing the message, analyzing any patterns, interpreting a meaning, and finally evaluating the impact on society.
Why is Media Criticism Important?
Whether we like it or not, media helps shape society on cultural, social, and even economic levels. The media overhaul is becoming even more relevant with the growth of internet and mobile device trends. Millennials relationship with media compared to earlier generations is significantly stronger. This shows how the bond between media and the consumer is only growing with time. This flourishing relationship is a perfect example of why media criticism is so important to healthy media composition. Without media criticism, society would be blindly consuming information without any type critique or judgement made on what they are looking at. Media Criticism allows for us to analyze media and then relate our findings back to the media consumption habits of both others and ourselves.
The best way to understand media criticism is to actually work through the process. I am going to provide an example of how someone would analyze a media text using certain methods. In our class, we heavily focus on television programs because television has a very powerful impact on society. Television has the ability to entertain, inform, educate, and interpret information better then may other media mediums. For my example, we will be looking at the FX television show It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is a comedy sitcom that follows five friends who own a bar together in Philadelphia. While the bar is what brings them all together, the show is more centered on the characters various schemes, which are usually extremely self-centered and destructive at the core. This show does not shy away from shining a comedic light on the terrible and selfish qualities that some people possess. The five main characters consist of Mac and Charlie, two childhood friends who come from a rough past, Dennis and Dee, an extremely self-absorbed pair of twins, and their stepfather Frank, who has descended in his old age to life of squalor even though he is financially very wealthy. This show has been on for 12 seasons and is one of the longest running sitcoms ever on television. Throughout the years, the show has created extremely elaborate back story’s and personalities for each of the characters. Unlike other sitcoms, there are many running story arch’s throughout the entirety of the show. Things do not reset after each episode; the choices and actions of these characters carry over and consequences are seen in later episodes. Each of the core five characters have motivations and tendencies that constantly repeat themselves throughout the series, creating some of the best character development seen on a sitcom. What the show does best is takes these characters with unlikeable qualities and pins them against a very unforgiving reality.
One of the most basic ways of analyzing media texts is through semiotics, which I will be using to take a look at the deeper messages of It’s Always Sunny. Semiotics is a text centered approach that allows users to analyze the meanings of signs and symbols buried within a text. The meanings of these signs and symbols can directly relate to how society and culture is constructed. For the purpose of explaining semiotics, I will be analyzing the signs presented in the image below from the shows Christmas episode. For context, in this episode Mac and Charlie (two on the left) revisit their childhood memories of Christmas, while Dennis and Dee (two on the right) try to teach their step father Frank (middle) “A Christmas Carol” type lesson in the error of his ways.
The viewer can use signs, also called signifiers, to get a better idea of who the character is demographically or psychologically. Clothes are a good entry signifier to get an easy look at the background of a character. In this image, you see that Mac and Charlie are dressed casually in very cheap looking clothing. This signifies their placement in the lower class and their laid-back style towards life. On the other hand, Dennis and Dee are wearing nicer clothes and are dressed a little more upscale. In the show, Dennis and Dee are not particularly wealthy, but they both try desperately to appear upper class and better than their friends. Frank is wearing a yellow sports jacket, signifying his love for flashy things and his wealth. Clothing also plays a part in defining gender. The male characters are all seen wearing baggy clothing that signify masculinity, while Dee is wearing a short dress that shows of her legs, which signifies femininity. The items in each character’s possession also help signify the character’s actions within the episode. Mac and Charlie are holding toys from their childhood, signifying their nostalgia of past Christmas’s. Dennis and Dee both have chains, which signify their actions in trying to recreate “A Christmas Carol.” Lastly Frank has a racing helmet, which signifies the Lamborghini that he buys in the episode.
John Fiskes Codes of Television
Now that semiotics has been explained, I will now explore John Fiskes Codes of Television, a way of categorizing existing social codes that are placed in a television program. These codes are separated into three levels, reality, representation, and ideology. For this part, I will be referencing a scene from the same Christmas episode, which can be watched here. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpVh3UKpNm0).
The first level is reality encoded by social codes. These are codes may include appearance, behavior, sound, and speech. In this scene, Franks behavior shows that he is a very spiteful person because he is trying to teach his children a lesson by buying their dream gifts for himself. He also talks in a very calm and collected manner because he knows he has the upper hand and is succeeding in making his children angry. On the other hand, Dennis has a yelling outbreak and has trouble controlling his emotions. This is a characteristic that follows him throughout the entire show. Both Dee and Denis show gestures of anger and resentment because of the money their father has, whom he refuses to share with his children.
The second level is representation encoded by technical codes like camera, lighting, sound, editing, and music. In Its Always Sunny, like many sitcoms, the lighting is very bright. Since the bar is the main meeting place for all the characters, the lighting shows how open and communal the bar is. Also, the lighting from the neon lights create the atmosphere that is expected from a bar setting. While not present in the clip, the theme music for the show is very lighthearted, signifying that the show itself shouldn’t be taken too seriously because it’s a comedy.
The third and final level is ideology encoded by things like race, class, materialism, and capitalism. This clip perfectly explains this level in relation to Frank and his children. Franks expensive purchases, like the designer bag and Lamborghini, signify that Frank is wealthy and of upper class. In reality, Frank enjoys living in the lower class and takes his wealth for granted. This is signified by how he stuffs his designer bag filled with messy snack foods, which would destroy the inside of the bag. He is playing off the extreme materialism of his children, who desperately want the things he owns without working for them.
In conclusion, media criticism is important because signifiers embedded in media don’t only replicate reality, but they also create reality. Everyone consumes media and is influenced by it one way or another. Everyone has a favorite character, a role model or aspirations that are fueled by television. It is important to understand that the way people are portrayed in the media is carefully planned and strategized. By being a conscious viewer, you can understand what is reality and what is just a façade created for entertainment purposes or to sell a product.