Putting Audience Theory to Work

 In Carol Arcus, Elementary, Lessons and Ideas, Media Literate Parenting, Secondary

Putting Audience Theory to Work

by Carol Arcus

The third key concept of media education states that audiences negotiate meaning.  This means that, depending on one’s life experience and temperament, as well as various factors such as religion, gender, economic class, or race, an individual will read and use media messages differently.  A classroom of thirty 17-year-olds discussing The OC, Green Day, Marilyn Manson, or Christina Aguilera, will yield thirty different meanings, for at least as many reasons.  

Audience theory is part of a broad postmodern approach to textual studies, sometimes called the ‘cultural studies’ approach, which examines works itself as cultural phenomena – a consequence of various cultural factors, with meanings that shift according to both the writer’s and reader’s cultural position and perspective.  Meanings shift and “reality” becomes a relative term, so that romance fiction, for example, can be simultaneously a racial discourse, a misogynistic conceit, and a tale of the working class.None of this should be taught overtly in media studies.  Rather, it must be taught through classroom experience to be clearly understood.  It requires a willingness by the teacher to perhaps relinquish the traditional role and become part of the struggle. If the purpose of a lesson is to help students understand the key concept of “audience”, then they must experience and analyze each other’s responses as audience in a safe and secure environment.  This experience can be very liberating for students whose responses might otherwise be disregarded or rejected.

When doing audience work in the classroom, I offer discussion questions aimed at bringing out contrasting responses.  And for each text I put students into discussion groups that required them to respond vigorously, and then analyze their own responses and discussions.  This meant they had to, for example, after disagreeing on Marilyn Manson’s various meanings, summarize the nature of their discussions:  ‘why did you disagree?’ ‘what factors might be at work?’ – ‘age, gender, religion, race?’ ‘how did the disagreement affect your final responses?’ For the orthodox Muslim female whose religious beliefs shape a meaning about Britney Spears in a class of Britney-worshippers, this helps her (and others) understand how and why she positions herself as she does.  And a teacher who reminds students, while processing small group results in the large group setting, that individual responses depend on several factors, helps students become more open-minded about cultural issues and controversies in the contemporary world.

Students can surprise with their responses in this kind of structured experience.  In my class, students principally distinguished themselves through gender.  In the discussion of The OC (a precocious drama about privileged, small-town East Coast teens), the girls in the gender-divided group agreed that, generally, the characters never discussed the consequences of sex – that they in fact spoke little to each other about what they were actually doing and its repercussions.  As we processed those responses in the large group, a boy from the same group remarked, “What’s there to talk about?”  Was this a gender-based response, or simply an idiosyncracy?  It is interesting to note that this response engendered a fairly heated discussion between boys and girls, and led to some telling journal-writing.

Audience work seems to contradict other key media concepts – aesthetics, or commercial purposes, for example. Audience theory recognizes students’ private pleasures: TV struggles become the viewer’s struggles, and dealing with these struggles can be a vicarious and valuable experience.  (Witness the popularity of Degrassi High, for example).  But when students are confronted with the stark realities of niche marketing, pleasures can seem trivial and become guilt-ridden. How do we empower teens to recognize the commercial purposes of media industries, while at the same time maintaining their personal investment in a deeply intense and personal pleasure? Popular pleasure and teens cannot be split, even in the interest of teaching about commercial purposes.  However, it is important that students understand that sometimes their responses are shaped by agents other than personal factors.

The student whose response challenges the “norm” can understand that narratives are often shaped by external factors of marketing and ownership. My students remarked that The OC did not deal with the consequences of teen sex, and that it only contained extreme and specifically drawn characters.  As one girl remarked, “They don’t have what’s normal.”  This observation was a perfect segue into discussions of commercial purposes – that, in fact, perhaps characters are specifically drawn to reflect various facets of the average teen consumer (white, middle-class). Realism in narratives becomes a rich and complex issue when elements such as gender and race, for example, are openly discussed as factors in both audience response and marketing demographics.  Students can devise a simple diagram that illustrates how at the same time that their personal preferences depend on many factors, those factors are used by marketing forces to either attract them, or (inadvertently) ignore them.

As I often remind them, TV programming is what happens between the commercials.

Audience work is challenging, but probably the most fun for media classes.  For media components in literature studies courses, contemporary popular shows like The OC allow one to cover several key media concepts simultaneously, and make links with literature. If The OC is a cultural work, how then also is Ragtime, or The Great Gatsby, or The Joy Luck Club?  And how might its construction reflect cultural values, thus excluding or including certain audiences?  How are gender and race constructed, and how do those constructions position the reader’s response?

Media logs are a good way of handling part of the media strand in literature studies.  Sharing responses to media experiences in class extends the strand and overlaps with literature studies, the best possible outcome.  After all, a narrative is a narrative, whether it moves the reader with the printed word or with the moving image.

The eight key media concepts are (from a description by John Pungente):

  • All media are constructions.  They present carefully crafted constructions that reflect many decisions and are the result of many determining factors.
  • The media construct reality. Much of our view of reality is based on media messages that have been preconstructed and have attitudes, interpretations, and conclusions already built in.
  • Audiences negotiate meaning in media. Each of us finds or “negotiates” meaning according to individual factors: personal needs and anxieties, the pleasures or troubles of the day, racial and sexual attitudes, family and cultural background, moral standpoint, etc.
  • Media messages have commercial implications. Most media production is a business, and so must make a profit.
  • Media messages contain ideological and value messages. The mainstream media convey, explicitly or implicitly, ideological messages about such issues as the nature of the good life and the virtue of consumerism, the role of women, the acceptance of authority, and unquestioning patriotism.
  • Media messages contain social and political implications.  The media have great influence in politics and in forming social change.
  • Form and content are closely related in media messages. Each medium has its own grammar and codifies reality in its own particular way. Different media will report the same event, but create different impressions and messages.
  • Each medium has a unique aesthetic form.


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