I had my class watch Class Dismissed on Wednesday. Boy did their heads spin....
This email is one of many that I (Pepi) have received since the 2006 release of my documentary film Class Dismissed." How TV Frames the Working Class. (1) Sent in by teachers, students, and members of activist organizations, these emails have inspired me to pursue how cultural workers such as writers, producers, and educators can make themselves more available so that if people's "heads spin" around a particular issue, there are places and faces that, in addition to the immediate learning environment, they can turn to in order to help them make sense of the material at hand and voice their insights and concerns.
The following article presents an example of how this kind of interaction can be realized. It illustrates how an alternative media form in the shape of a documentary was generated and why, and offers some creative approaches for exposing students to such resources. It also demonstrates how to create, through new interactive technologies, a more collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to knowledge and critical dialogue that transcends geographical boundaries and inspires solidarity and social activism.
The making of Alternative media
The idea of Class Dismissed was conceived at about three o'clock in the morning when, as an associate professor in the Applied Linguistics Graduate Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, I was struggling to develop a course called Language and the Media. While I was able to find fantastic multimedia materials that take up racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, and other such oppressive practices that any teacher education program like ours should expose students to, there was virtually nothing that addressed social class and representation. So in a moment of desperation I emailed Sut Jhally, the executive director of the Media Education Foundation (MEF), a radical independent film company located in an old firehouse in Northampton, Massachusetts. MEF is well known on the alternative scene for being a superb place to find educational materials that examine the media. (2)
I had been thinking for some time about how television has played a pivotal role in shaping our perceptions of the world and in particular our understanding of social class. In an effort to better understand the romanticized ideas about economic life in the United States that my adult education, English-as-a-second-language students brought with them to school, I turned to folks like Stanley Aronowitz, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Richard Butch who had done some interesting analysis in this area.
After collecting and analyzing tons of TV data, l was invited to meet with producer Loretta Alper at MEF, and we agreed to join forces in order to bring the project to life. Loretta provided brilliant technical support as the theory came rolling out. MEF funded the efforts and most of the production was done with a digital camera and Final Cut Pro (FCP) software. Software like FCP is not only affordable these days but user friendly. Students and activists should be encouraged to use it to generate their own critical media in the form of satire, news, public service announcements, and such, as we have seen a wealth of recently on YouTube.
The early production discussions were met with the realization that what we had in front of us was actually three films: one on how the news media represent labor, another on how Hollywood film portrays the working class, and a third on entertainment television. The last was chosen as the place to start the trilogy as we figured that this is where most people connect to the media, and it would thus be the most strategic way to engage the public in how corporate-driven images reinforce stereotypes that serve to justify the inequities inherent in capitalism's class structure.
Working together as coproducers and writers of the project, Loretta and l wanted the film to navigate the steady stream of narrow working-class representations from television's beginnings to today's sitcoms, reality shows, police dramas, and daytime talk shows. It was also extremely important for us that the film break new ground in exploring the ways in which race, gender, and sexuality intersect with class, rather than reducing the category to white men in hardhats, as has typically been done in the research on class in the past. But we also wanted the film to be proactive in helping the public work against corporate media's assault on the working class. (3)
Featuring interviews with media analysts and cultural historians, the film aimed to help the audience develop a conceptual framework for understanding a society that denies class stratification and celebrates the myth of meritocracy where hard work and persistence are perceived as the essential ingredients for success. And, of course, this ideology is perpetuated with no mention of any of the critical factors that inhibit upward mobility such as labor, wage, and tax laws that favor the wealthy, a public school system that is largely funded through property tax, or gender discrimination and racism--just to name a few.
It was crucial for us not only to historically trace these images of the working class but also to contextualize them within what is now a postindustrial society in the United States--one that relies primarily on service industries, knowledge production, and information technologies rather than industrial manufacturing to …