About The Show
Welcome to The Media Show. If you’re a teacher, professor, librarian, journalist, or other grown-up thinky type, this article will explain a little bit about what The Media Show is, and why we do what we do.
(If you’re not any of the above, or have taken off your thinky hat for the moment, here is a video of our puppets dancing with abandon to a silly Swedish song in the timeless style of the Caramelldansen Internet meme.)
The Story So Far
Weena Jimenez, a sixteen-year-old punk puppet with an attitude problem, has decided that she learns way more while skipping school than being bored to death in a classroom. Her more responsible older sister, Erna, runs after her to try to keep her from catastrophically messing up her life.
One day, Weena finds an abandoned closet at an advertising agency. She decides it’s a perfect place to run the YouTube show she’s always wanted to — a rage-fueled review of advertising and the ways it impacts our lives. Erna has other plans, however: she has always wanted to become a YouTube celebrity with her fan-made homages to her favorite movies and shows and her reviews of all things pop culture.
The result? A tempestuous series of episodes in which Weena catches Erna taking naked pictures for her social-networking page, Erna conspires to greenwash the show’s image, and both of them learn about spam, flame wars, photo manipulation, and copyright law.
The girls hire a college-aged Intern and put her through a brutal regime of viewing gender-imbalanced ads, among other tortures. Occasionally, their fights are mediated by Bryan, a sympathetic former employee of a TV-ratings company.
Why? Here’s why the show goes like this:
A lot of the show’s goals come back to Erna and Weena, who they are, and how they feel about the media.
While I was doing my doctorate, reading studies on media effects and media literacy, I was struck by the number of studies which started with assumptions either that media were harmful to youth behavior, or young media viewers were resistant to and even creative with the narratives media told them.
Henry Jenkins has done a lot with the latter. He has worked to dispel myths that “fans” are all willing dupes of their favorite media. Researchers following his lead have documented how fans repurpose TV and movie characters to make their own stories, videos, music, websites and so on.
Meanwhile, the big wave of “TV and video games are bad because they make kids violent and/or obese” studies were still crashing down on my classmates and I at Teachers’ College, with students from the Health Studies department coming over to Communications and Tech because a class on media and youth was required in their program.
Then, of course you had Adbusters, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Robert McChesney, Neil Postman and others. They critique the institutional structure of media, arguing that structure also had effects on the media which shape our thinking about the world around us.
It never seems that simple to me. Are *all* fans actively repurposing the shows they watch? Which are, which aren’t, and why? Is it something *inherent* about the media and technology that gives them harmful properties? Or does public discourse just keep saying that because new technologies are an easy scapegoat for societal problems? Is it possible that *sometimes* we’re trapped by the economic and technological shape of the media, and other times we can use them in rebellious ways?
By making Weena a punk who (mostly) hates all ad-driven media, and Erna a fangirl who (mostly) loves the creative expressive opportunities media and technology offer, I hoped to drive the show with debates about the impact of media and technology in our lives. (And, of course, the more complicated they are as characters, the more complex our debates can be.) Having a prompt for audience feedback at the end of most episodes also invites more perspectives than the girls (and our scriptwriters) come up with. The best example of the girls having a complicated discussion is My Hotness Is Pastede On Yey!, a history of photo manipulation throughout the centuries. Hollister Is A Cowtown and Online Predators also brought out a number of perspectives from viewers.
Why publish on YouTube? a lot of people ask. Vimeo’s prettier and classier. TeacherTube can make it into classrooms where YouTube is blocked. Other video platforms invite more high-minded discussion.
YouTube takes a lot of flak in certain quarters for being a cesspool of racist, sexist, and otherwise idiotic Internet comments. Frankly, we’re happy to be right in the middle of that.
YouTube is a hugely influential site. I’ve heard it said that in addition to being the most popular video outlet on the Web, it’s also the second most popular music site. The way it recommends similar videos to viewers makes it more likely that viewers will stumble upon our videos when they are looking for something else. For example, we’ve seen a ton of traffic on our Yell and Sell video when people have been looking for (and unable to find) an old Henson Company video titled “Sell Sell Sell.”
Our aim is to be seen, not necessarily to be seen as sophisticated; if YouTube is a destination for people looking for video content, that’s where we’re going to be. If it’s where people are arguing over whether Obama’s birth certificate is valid, you’d better believe we’d like to be there sending those people to Snopes.com and Factcheck.org.
School vs. out-of-school
One of the show’s aims is to educate outside of a school setting. Some research has shown that when teaching critical perspectives on the media, teachers sometimes inadvertently encourage a hypercritical (or simply middle-class) evaluation of what is “good” or “bad” about them among their students. Buckingham (2003) reports that students in these situations have been seen mimicking their teachers’ attitudes in class, then switching back to their usual attitudes towards media outside the classroom.
By attempting to reach people — and not just youth! — outside of classrooms, we hope that we can avoid framing our discussions in the context of a teacher’s expectations. (Our puppets curse, throw around blood and gore, and make references to Silence of the Lambs, and that also makes us less classroom-friendly. Still, some of our episodes are less heavy on the adult themes, and there are adventuresome teachers, particularly at the college level, who use our videos in the classroom anyway. And we welcome them!) Of course, we know we have our own expectations, and doubtless these come through in the show; and viewers bring their own expectations too. But we hope that being in the more freewheeling environment of online video means that people will encounter our episodes in their own homes, in the frame of their everyday lives, where they feel more comfortable engaging with them on their own terms.
Why use puppets? some people ask. A lot of them seem convinced that anyone over Sesame Street age will be dismissive of puppets. We’ve even had a few people who think we are being misleading — that by having puppets we’re promising to be cuddly, for little kids — and they’re disturbed when we start doing things like taking chainsaws to people.
There’s a few reasons. First of all, we’re far from the first show to adapt “kiddie” media for darker grown-up purposes. South Park is the prime example, of course. In the puppet world, there’s been Team America: World Police, Crank Yankers, Greg The Bunny, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Wonder Showzen, Sifl and Olly, Henson Stuffed and Unstrung… the list goes on and on, some of it grosser than other parts. (Don’t go watching Meet The Feebles as your first introduction to grown-up puppetry, for example. Peter Jackson’s not all sweet little hobbits and King Kong.)
We chose puppets because they can do things human beings can’t, and get away with it. It would mean something different if we had a human character break windows, haul out a bloody bucket of eyeballs, go naked, get eaten by a monster, or wear a fursuit than if we had Weena and Erna doing it. Having a puppet do our interviews is even a little different from having a person do them.
Why not animation, then? Animation is wayyyy more time-consuming, and we haven’t got the skills, particularly since we left EdLab, where there were a handful of competent animators working with us.
Yes, some people are turned off by puppets, and yes, that probably does limit the appeal of the show. In truth, we need to know more about who doesn’t like puppets and why, to make sure we’re reaching people who have never heard the ideas we’re spreading. At the moment, we don’t have the staff or resources to do this. But if you know a grantmaker who’d like to help us out…