The shaping influence of film and television on the spirituality
By Graham Rossiter
This material is drawn from three articles on this topic published in Word in Life (1996) and the Journal of Religious Education (2000) and chapter 15 of Reasons for Living (2006)
The headings in the study are as follows:
The shaping influence of film and television on the spirituality and identity of young people: An educational response
Story: A central concept for contextualising this study
'Story' is like an international currency used in a number of the fields concerned with personal and spiritual development. Story is thought to be an important mediator in the psychological development of children and adolescents. Its role in transmitting meaning is also considered in areas as diverse as Sociology, Literature, History, Anthropology, Aetiology, Hermeneutics, Narrative Theology, Scripture and Religion Studies. Story is also prominent in educational theory and practice, especially in moral and religious education; and in socialisation and inculturation, as well as in the processes of home and traditional story-telling. Those concerned with the communication of cultural, ethnic and religious traditions often refer to their endeavour as 'handing on the story'. 'Sharing our story' has become such a prominent theme in Christian denominational religious education, especially in the Catholic sector, that it (or a synonym) frequently appears in the titles of curricula, courses and books (Eg. Groome, 1990; Catholic Diocese of Parramatta, 1990).
Story fits into a cluster of related concepts that contains: metaphor, narrative, myth, symbol, image, analogy, genre, and worldview. And these in turn relate with spirituality and identity. Reference to story is often made when looking at processes like explanation, understanding, interpretation and social reality.
Given this prominence for story, it is essential that religious educators give special attention to the ways in which it articulates with the personal and spiritual development of young people. This study focuses on the ways individuals construct meaning and purpose by threading together their own 'personal story' while drawing on various 'cultural stories'. Traditional reference points like home, ethnicity, religion, school and nation might be expected to be key sources of images, expectations, values and beliefs about life; other no less significant sources can be peers, social and recreational groups.
Then there is the 'storying' role of film and television. Firstly, it is important to identify story as a fundamental structural element in film and television (this will be considered in more detail later). Secondly, there is the significance of film/television stories for personal development; they are relatively omnipresent and thus they have scope for communicating meaning-embedded narratives about life and the world that can eclipse the family/religious stories that have traditionally informed spiritual development and identity.
The film scholar Gerbner warned about the massive change to traditional patterns of storytelling that was enabled by film and television:
Film and television have the potential to contribute significantly to individuals' self understanding and self expression, to their ultimate beliefs about life, the world and its spiritual dimension, and relationships with others. These media can become more influential reference points for beliefs and moral values than traditional religion. This relativising of the religious story is part of the emerging pattern of a more secular spirituality in today's youth (Crawford and Rossiter, 1993, 1996B).
The influence of film and television on young people's spirituality: An educational exploration of the issues
One of the aftermaths of the 1996 massacres at Dunblane, Scotland and in Port Arthur, Tasmania, and more recently after the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado, has been dramatic community concern about a causal link between screen violence and violent crime. When it comes to addressing problems like this, the concern of parents and educators is often to try to identify the negative and harmful influences so that remedial action can be taken. This usually focuses on two things: identifying causal links between the media and harm to young people; and, exercising censorship. However, this approach is problematical. It is more politically than educationally oriented; it is like trying to eliminate moral problems by making them illegal. Also, concentrating on the negative influences is likely to be counterproductive for young people who get much pleasure from films and television. In addition, there are inherent difficulties in making an evaluation of film and television too dependent on identified causal links between watching the media and particular behaviour. For example: the debate about screen violence tends to presume that as long as there is no identifiable, direct, causal link, then violent films are appropriate for public consumption; and that if there is an identified link, then the material in question should be banned. Not surprisingly, considerable research along these lines has failed to demonstrate unambiguous, causal links. Such research tends to neglect the more subtle influence on thinking and spirituality, and on what people regard as culturally acceptable -- effects that would be difficult to identify and measure in any case.
An example of ambivalence about the personal influence of television was the decision to ban cigarette advertising. The ban presumed that the exposure of children to such advertising increases the probability of introducing them to smoking -- which is bad for their health. The facts show that this is true. When the Joe Camel cigarette ads were introduced in the United States in the 1970s, they presented Joe as a fun, cool character who naturally appealed to older children. The camel cigarette market share rose significantly and their sales to older children and young adults were proportionally much higher.
What is interesting, however, is the argument proposed by the cigarette companies: If the censorship on cigarette advertising is based on the premise that exposure of children to such advertising is harmful because it influences their behaviour, then it is hypocritical to allow so much uncensored violence on TV If the smoking ads are harmful, how can the authorities be sure that screen violence is not?
In contrast with the empirical approach described above, what is proposed here is an educational exploration of the functions of the media -- particularly under the genre of story. This is not concerned with trying to identify empirically the actual level of negative influence, but with educating teachers, and in turn, children and adolescents, to speculate about the possible ways in which film and television serve as influential cultural reference points that affect the ways they perceive, understand and value the world. This situates their study of film and television within a 'critical' education that seeks to help them become more aware of the elements of culture that can have a shaping influence on their lives (Grimmitt, 1987). Another description of this role is to help individuals "interrogate their cultural conditioning." (Hill, 1993) The aim is to help them become people who give some thought to the way that beliefs, values, ideologies, religion, education, images, advertising, parents, heroes/heroines, films, TV sitcoms etc. enter into their life structure. In other words, the approach tries to engage individuals as cultural critics. Evaluating the cultural contribution and potential psychological influence of film and television is one component of the wider study of the interface between individuals and culture. In doing this, they will at least be alerted to the issues and will have some information to help them think about potential problems. Hopefully, this will help them learn how to watch films and television with a more critical, discriminating eye -- with the capacity for entertainment not diminished; it may help them develop taste in their viewing habits. This could also be a preliminary step in action to bring about cultural change with respect to the media.
What follows will raise questions about form and content in film and television, which teachers and students should be able to investigate in moral and religious education, or within some other appropriate structure for media studies. This is not an exhaustive study of the topic; its role is introductory and practical. It will present pertinent ideas for teacher reflection and classroom use; and it will rehearse pedagogical steps.
Ultimately, what is needed to underpin and advance this work is further detailed research which synthesises findings in two areas of the literature, with implications drawn for education: 1. film, documentary and television studies (An introductory list of books on film study is given in the bibliography).; and, 2. personal/psychological change. What such research needs to generate is plausible theory on the various ways in which the form and content of film and television potentially enter into the development of young people's ideas, attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviour. The word 'potentially' is important because the educational aim is to stimulate their thinking about these complex processes and not to try to isolate causal influences for empirical verification.
The intended personal influence of propaganda film
One logical place to begin a study of the moral and spiritual influence of film is with the sort of film that was designed deliberately to have such an influence -- propaganda. The following presents ideas that can be used to launch a study of propaganda film. This study can lead to an understanding of the nature of propaganda film and of the various formats and techniques used. It can build up a set of categories that helps one identify when and how propaganda is being used -- how film content and presentation are selected to affect viewers emotions, attitudes and thinking. Within recent years a number of historical documentaries have been screened on television which include substantial footage of classic propaganda films from the Soviet, Nazi and Maoist eras, as well as from Western countries. A number of segments from such propaganda films will be examined in the videotape supplied for the study of this Unit.
The word propaganda derives from the Latin verb 'propagare' to reproduce, transmit, spread or disseminate. It implies a systematic scheme or movement to communicate and advertise a particular ideology, pattern of beliefs, values and behaviour; it often carries with it the connotation that even misleading and false information will be transmitted to promote the cause.
Historical background: Some historical background is needed to contextualise this study.
There is a long history of the use of propaganda film dating from the late nineteenth century when motion pictures were first brought to the public. It is interesting to note that the first great intentional users of films for spiritual and moral influence were the Christian churches. Large numbers of early silent films were produced on the Bible and the life of Christ to extend the faith of Christians, to invite new believers and to stimulate devotion. While the churches today would not think of these films as propagandist in the same sense that they would apply say to classic Soviet or Nazi propaganda films, it remains an interesting question to consider where those early films stand within a contemporary analysis of what makes a film propagandist. (The documentary, Jesus Christ Moviestar, 1994, shows footage of some of the earliest Bible and Jesus films.)
Popular thinking about propaganda film depends a lot on the propaganda from the early Soviet period in Russia and from Nazi Germany. However, tracing its history shows that the format became more refined and subtle; it is not entirely lacking even in some contemporary films -- as Joseph Goebbels said, the best propaganda was where people were not aware that the material was propagandist.
From the time of the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin came to regard film as one of the most important vehicles for promoting popular revolutionary ideology. He thought of film as the art form of the masses. In 1917, a special Cinema Commission was organised in Leningrad by the People's Commissariat of Education; within two years the industry was nationalised under state control. Thence the cinema of the socialist state functioned as a medium of ideology, propaganda, enlightenment, and education.
No Soviet leader or film maker ever pretended that film might serve any other purpose. It was national in form and socialist in content; it was utilised by the state as a tool for social control and discipline. Stalin in his speech at the XIIIth Congress of the Party stated "the cinema is the greatest means of mass agitation. The task is to take in into our hands". Elsewhere he noted "... the cinema in the hands of.... power represents a great and priceless force." (We are indebted to Ms Rebecca Huntley for supplying this material on the history of film.)
Other leaders like Hitler, Mao Tse-Tung and Winston Churchill also stated their belief in the power of film to shape people's thinking, attitudes and behaviour. For them, film was an indispensable means of propaganda, a way to inculcate ideas and morality and to ensure their uniformity. Especially during times of war or economic hardship it was essential that films conveyed the right kind of messages. Dr Joseph Goebbels considered that the view of the world that was first communicated to children would be the most influential and the most difficult to eradicate or change; his thoughts on the role of film in education flowed from this principle.
The study of propaganda film should explore the possible psychological processes through which it works on people's perceptions, imagination and feelings; this will try to identify the ways in which people are affected by what they watch. Viewing segments from some vintage 1930s-40s Nazi propaganda films, from United States war films from the 1940s and 1950s, from Leninist and other Soviet films, or from Chinese films of the Maoist period readily exemplifies the intention to use film as a means of social control. This can be used to build up a list of the characteristics of propaganda film and to help define the genre.
Optional study of video segments on Propaganda
Later you would be able to do a similar study of documentary film and you will have the opportunity to compare the two genres.
The relevance of the propaganda genre for todays young people: The study exercise here gives insight into the production and use of propaganda film. However, the intention to use film as a potent shaping influence on people's thinking and behaviour is a long way from a film like the Wizard of Oz! Commercial feature films usually share none of the propagandist aims; they are for entertainment as well as for making money for the cinema business; they are harmless! But not all agree with that judgment. For fundamentalist Muslims, especially in Iran, films and television produced in the United States are at the forefront of "the enormous appeal of Western culture [which] erodes Islamic customs and laws. . .[threatening] the very survival of Islam. . . America's popular music, video games, comics, textbooks, literature and art reach throughout the Muslim world." (Pipes, 1986). In Baghdad during the Gulf War air raids, people were still watching Disney cartoons on television. While from this perspective, feature films are propagandist and subversive, this view is not shared in Western countries. But perhaps even in the West the influence of entertainment films, and their omnipresent offspring television, which reaches the masses in the informality of their own sitting rooms (and kitchens, dining rooms, bedrooms, hospital wards etc.), is no less, but just much more subtle and complex.
So even at this first stage of the study, concerned with defining the characteristics of propaganda film, it is important to note that the boundaries between different film genres can be blurred in people's perceptions. What is entertainment for one may be perceived as subtle propaganda by another. What was effective propaganda at one period of history in one particular community might be dismissed at a later stage as false and misleading. Today's young people may feel immune to the sort of propaganda films produced during World War II -- they can readily see the distortion of the truth; however, they may not be so discerning of subtle propaganda in today's entertainment films and television.
The educational function of documentary film
The word documentary derives originally from the Latin 'docere' to teach and 'documentum' a lesson, a proof, a written instrument or official paper. The verb 'to document' meant providing written material which served as proof or evidence, as illustration or a certificate of verification that something had happened -- that it was true. Consequently the adjective documentary meant "consisting of written documents; attested and verified historically with written evidence". The term 'documentary film' was coined to describe films that were primarily about scientific, historical, archaeological, industrial or travel topics. This distinguished them from feature/entertainment films that more often than not were fictional, or which took fictional liberties with historical topics. However, the choice of term may have been more propitious than those who first coined it supposed. It is not surprising that the adjective is now used mainly as a noun; 'documentary' commonly means a documentary film. With the advent of film a new form of document emerged; it could be used as proof or evidence that something had occurred. Indeed viewers could see for themselves first hand what really happened; they could judge directly from their own observation of the evidence.
Neil Postman (1985) argued that the form and the medium of human communication shape the way people experience and describe the world, and thus the way they derive meaning and values. The origins of writing had enormous influence; the proof and evidence of 'having it in writing' still remains very forceful, especially from a legal and official point of view. But now film and television have changed what people think is 'the news'; they have changed subtly people's perception and understanding of what is real, of what 'most people' think, and even of what is the truth. Postman talks about the media influencing the prevailing epistemology -- for some people something must be true 'because they saw it on television.
The contemporary experience of documentary film and television, greatly enhancing the changes brought about by science and technology, have changed people's perception of what constitutes history and how it is to be recorded. They have a historico-scientific expectation of the recording of history that is primarily documentary -- that is through both documentary (written) evidence, and, since the advent of film, documentary film evidence.
Study of video segments on Documentary film
Objectivity, impartiality and advocacy in documentaries: The educational potential of documentaries for bringing about personal change
A key problem to be overcome with a study of documentary film is familiarity -- people tend to think they already know all about the topic. Hence there is a need to look at documentaries that raise critical issues about objectivity, impartiality and the potential to distort the truth. The examples you have looked at on the videotape will be helpful here.
If one looks at the history of documentary films in the English speaking world (particularly the social/cultural/historical documentaries), the impression gained is that they have gradually become more impartial, less nationalistic, but more political, more values conscious, more subtle in their interpretation, less afraid of criticising authority and more ready to identify ideology and evaluate it -- and as a result they have a lesser tendency to be propagandist. This seems to have gone hand in hand with a better educated and politically more astute general public. Perhaps people today are better educated precisely because of documentary films they have seen on television. Or do they watch more documentaries because they are better educated? Perhaps the two aspects go hand in hand.
Note that it took over a hundred and twenty years for a documentary to give more accurate historical insight into the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Thought provoking documentaries of World War I and World War II were produced many years after the events. Recently we have seen this change significantly. The documentary on the Falklands war was produced 10 years after the event; the Gulf War just 5 years later (these documentary interpretations are different from the daily news reports which were shown during the wars and which did not give a complete picture of what was happening). The Death of Yugoslavia (1996) was produce just a few months after some of the events -- interpreting the complex political background. What does this say about the rise of the educational power of documentaries? To what extent is the level of public cultural and intellectual thinking the influential factor? Both the art of making socially critical documentaries and the critical receptivity of the viewing public have developed over the years.
Whatever the answers proposed to these questions, one thing is clear: an education in media needs to give attention to the nature, purpose and educational influence of documentary films. Good, critical use should be made of documentary material at school -- ranging from films on nature (such as the David Attenborough series) through to documentaries on the environment, and those with a critical perspective on history, culture and politics like those discussed above. The characteristics of documentaries summarised later highlight their educational value.
It is interesting to note that film study in its own right has now become a recognised and important part of many Australian universities' programs in Arts at both undergraduate, postgraduate and research levels. In addition, some film study appears in units within disciplines such as English, History, Sociology and Law. It is time that more serious attention is given to film study by those concerned with religious and values education. At present, the film studies academics seem to have a better appreciation of the spiritual significance of film/television than the moral and religious educators. For example, one of the recent prominent texts on documentary film notes that:
This does not sound all that different from moral and religious education. Hence the importance of film study for educators involved in these areas. Also, if film and television remain a central part of young people's alternative, informal, experiential 'religious education', then their school's formal education should give special attention to studies that will enable them to derive more sense and value from the former. Their school education should help them learn more wisely from their experience.
The contrast between propaganda and documentary films
As noted earlier, examining segments of film, discussing their purposes, format and techniques, and making comparisons can help develop critical skills in film viewing and interpretation; it gives a preliminary range of analytic and interpretative categories; this helps develop alertness to the clues as to how and why a film is trying to influence viewers.
The differences between the two genres may at times be blurred. Propaganda may now be more subtle and masked with the credibility of the documentary. Some documentaries parallel the action genre in feature films by concentrating on the bizarre and the emotive to sway the audience to a particular interpretation, while remaining relatively superficial when discussing the important issues. What the comparison aims at is prompting students to be more alert and discerning in their interpretation of what they see on film and video. This will apply to social documentaries, political campaigns, and issues discussed on current affairs programs, and advertising.
Table 1 Some perceived differences between propaganda and documentary films
Commercial feature films and television: Their potential for influencing the spirituality and identity of young people
Feature films, in addition to their presence in cinemas, are now commonly watched at home on commercial videos as well as on broadcast television. Access to feature films for entertainment is now at its highest level ever.
So far the study has helped build up an interpretative scheme for theorising about the spiritual and moral influence of film based on categories drawn from propaganda and documentary films. Both of these forms are intentionally concerned with changing people personally. However, when it comes to commercial feature films, the intention to change peoples thinking and behaviour is usually disclaimed. These films are primarily for entertainment -- even though at times they may have implied moral and political messages. So it is likely that an interpretative scheme for spiritual/moral influence based on documentary and propaganda films will have only limited applicability to this genre.
If one is to understand the potential spiritual influence of feature films, then the analysis will need to move into theory about unintended consequences. The focus should not be limited to the possible effects of particular films because most of the personal influence may occur slowly and subtly over years of viewing. In other words, it could be the culture of entertainment films that is influential. How they might communicate attitudes and values needs to be investigated. We suggest that understanding the storying role of films will be a key to such an analysis.
In the light of comments made at the beginning of this part about the primal story telling role of television, it is important at this stage to bracket feature films and television together for the analysis. Later, attention will be directed specifically to television because of its omnipresence in the culture and because of the strong orientation of television to commercial advertising.
Also relevant to this discussion is the educative function of film/television. While specifically educational programs are akin to the documentary genre considered earlier, entertainment oriented film/television makes an enormous contribution to peoples education. They occasion much new knowledge for viewers; they give them vicarious experience of cultures, ethnic groups and places that would otherwise not be within their cultural horizons; they introduce viewers to different perspectives on contemporary issues; they help develop historical perspective.
What follows will consider various psychological mechanisms through which film and television might influence the spirituality and identity of viewers. It complements and extends our earlier discussion on the role of religious education in overcoming 'media naivety' in Part 3.
Relationship with documentary and propaganda film
Commercial feature films are, in the main, very different in character and purpose from the propaganda and documentary films discussed earlier. Their aim is to entertain and to be a commercial success.
Historically or politically oriented feature films can have documentary (and even propagandist) characteristics to varying degrees. For example: A feature film may be subtly propagandist if the unarticulated, but presumed worldview reinforces a particular ideology (see the earlier comments about the attitude to United States films in Iran). Also, the idea of evangelising for a cause is not unknown in movie producers and directors. Hence, some familiarity with the characteristics of propaganda and documentary films, as discussed earlier, is a prerequisite for a critical evaluation of feature films and television. Correspondingly, an understanding of the purposes and techniques of feature films helps with an evaluation of documentary films because documentary film makers also make use of narrative techniques and effects to enhance the impact of their films.
The storytelling role of films
Storytelling, in the view of many film makers, is the main fabric of feature films. It is central to their audience appeal and their entertainment value. Film storytelling, while not the only style used in films, was taken to a new level when television was introduced to the majority of homes in the developed nations -- limited, but significant access to television also came to other countries. Television advertising also contributes to story telling and entertainment, and depends on them to an important extent for its success.
What is known as the classical Hollywood style of film making, which has left a lasting impression on films made in the English speaking world, and beyond, has its principal emphasis on story. Their structure, techniques and appeal are built on the presumption that "everybody loves stories". Understanding how films are crafted to make the narrative more effective for the audience is one track into speculation about their personal influence. Also, the universal appeal of story-line films made in the United States, an appeal that cuts across many cultural and national boundaries, suggests that they have an international level of influence. Some commentators regard film/television as the principal means, along with popular music, through which there has been a degree of 'Americanisation' of culture throughout the world. In this sense, the United States has conquered the world through its films and music! This influence is also evident in clothing fashions, consumer goods, language, metaphors and slang, and in aspects of life-style. As noted before, much of the antagonism of fundamentalist Muslims for the United States is because popular Western culture and life-style wash over their world through film, television and music, tending to erode traditional Muslim beliefs and practices.
Constructing a story through film is a highly skilled art form. Everything is done to make the film involve the viewer in the narrative. But the technical ways of achieving this tend to be almost invisible except to the skilled eye. The aim is to get the audience so thoroughly involved with the story, so identified with the characters, that they do not notice the set design, the camera angles or the editing -- the perfect style is invisible! Part of learning how to 'read' what is happening in films involves the skill of identifying the artwork in the film's construction and reflecting on its function.
The United States film director Martin Scorsese commented on film storytelling as follows:
The sound track, especially the evocative music, and the contrasting silences, contribute to this effect. The sound track is thought to be more effective when the audience is not specifically conscious of the music; or, if they do advert to it, it is considered to be effective if they feel that the music enhances the mood and emotion of the film action.
The audience enters the world of the story; more precisely, the film draws them into the 'worldview' of the characters -- seeing how they see what is happening, feeling what they are feeling, presuming the same beliefs and values that are operating in the background. Special attention is given to the emotional point of view of the main characters.
Osmosis of values from films and television?
Just how much people in general, and impressionable children in particular, can absorb in the way of values from identification with film characters and film worlds is an open question and impossible to determine. However, it is useful to consider a general process of personal learning in which individuals, even in a relatively unconscious way, can take on the values and worldviews that are operating behind the scenes in films.
To follow and understand the story in films, viewers need to enter the worldviews and value systems that form the fabric of the narrative. It is possible to learn values from this experience just as they learn from exposure to values in real life. When a film is over, viewers disengage from the story and presumably, their own worldview and values resume the normative position. However, if an individual does not have a relatively well developed set of beliefs and values (whether religiously motivated or not), or if there is a vagueness and fluidity in them, then perhaps they will be more prone to identifying with those in films and television.
The values and worldviews operative in films are usually not articulated; they are presumed background. If viewers have not learned to identify and articulate the underlying values, then they will go relatively unnoticed and not scrutinised; and because of this, they are potentially more influential. For example, in many films the story presumes that casual sexual relationships are a natural and taken-for-granted part of a fist date. The film is not arguing a case for this view; it is presenting that view as reality. And reality is hard to argue against. If people do not have their own code on this issue, then it is not improbable that they can drift along with a film's inherent values (or lack of positive values) to some extent. They can get the impression that most other people share that view; it looks attractive, fun filled and not harmful; and this seems to give a popular justification of casual sexual relationships that can in turn affect their behaviour. When they are in a situation where some decision about casual sex is required, they may lean towards the film reinforced view that "this is OK." Thus, the value systems from the film world can form individuals values by default.
Sometimes the value matrix in films may not so much be the source of values for a particular viewer but a reinforcement of values he/she already has. An example: One five year old girl, whose personality was considerably more aggressive and boisterous than that of her siblings, said that when she grows up she wanted to become a gladiator like those in the television program. It could be that the Gladiators program (or nowadays, Battle Dome, Roller Jam, or World Championship Wrestling) was more of a cultural reinforcement and validation of her aggressive orientation than its cause. Screen violence could affect people in the same way. If screen violence has a cultural acceptability as public entertainment, then for some, it could serve as a cultural validation of violent behaviour.
An educational response to the presumed worldviews in films and television proposes that individuals learn firstly how to identify the presumed values in a film/program and to see how the behaviour of the characters is meaningful and consistent with those values; then they can call into question how realistically that view represents reality; finally, the values can be appraised in the light of other standards -- for example, the rights of people in democratic countries, human values and Christian values.
The activity of 'deconstructing' a film story (sitcom or television commercial) to highlight the presumed values is a valuable one educationally. This is central to the skill of being able to 'read' film and television -- subjecting them to the same type of evaluation that one might apply to a novel -- identifying plot, characterisation etc.
The social reality of film and television
Another way of putting the above argument is to suggest that film and television have a spiritual and moral influence through their communication of social reality -- what people think real life is about. The film/television images and stories can build up expectations about lifestyle. For some young people, the social reality within their own home and school calls into question what is projected by the media. However, for those who do not have this support, their lifestyle and attitudes can be more vulnerable to the social reality they perceive on the screen.
Meeting viewer needs and interests
Different sorts of story film are developed to meet the needs and moods of movie goers: love stories, musicals, Westerns, comedies, murder mysteries, science fiction, thrillers, horror stories etc.
Escapism and idealism through virtual journeys
One of the attractive aspects of watching story films is the opportunity to take a virtual journey to a place and a lifestyle that are different from what people are used to -- this can be pleasurable escapism. For some viewers, the greater the distance created between the world of the film and their ordinary situation the more they like it.
Alternatively, some of the appeal of a film can be through its offer of a place and lifestyle that are attractive. Film makers implicitly invite viewers to share the virtual reality they construct. Just how personally influential such viewing might be is difficult to estimate. At least, films give people the experience of virtual travel and provide them with initial information (and stereotypes) about other countries and other lifestyles.
The film as fable: Making a moral message
Films can have a moral influence because they are like fables carrying moral messages. The messages may be overt; or they may be implied, like the unspoken, presumed worldviews that were referred to earlier. The messages may be positive or negative.
Story films, like fables, have characters with whom people can identify. In this sense, popular Hollywood films have become the new international fairy tales of the twentieth century. Along with home, school, peers and other reference groups, films may make some contribution to the development of personal ethics.
Television drama/sitcoms as 20th century morality plays
Elsewhere we have described medieval morality plays (Crawford, 1991, vol. 5 ) These were productions in the town square that helped medieval Christians sort out their moral identity. The various motivations and moral pressures affecting them were often personified as characters in the plot. It was like Medieval Kohlberg!
Given a familiarity with these plays, it is not difficult to see the similarity with many contemporary film/television dramas and sitcoms, and talk shows. Comparisons with medieval morality plays can be a useful starting point for considering the de facto moral reference points that television provides for viewers.
The talk shows like Donahue, Oprah Winfrey, Sally Jessie Raphael and Jerry Springer, especially where people who have hurt each other in the past are brought onto the show for confrontation and possible reconciliation, are like twentieth century morality plays. Viewers can vicariously join in the production comparing their judgments with those that come from the audience. From the point of view of television spectacle, the most successful programs have lots of confrontation and so called in your face comments from the interviewees and the audience; also popular are those which generate a lot of emotion.
The talk shows are good examples of what William Kuhns (1969) would describe as television apparently taking on functions that formerly were the province of religions and the churches. The talk show hosts are like contemporary high priests presiding over the moral discernment process. The Judge Judy program is like the old Catholic confessional. The penitent confesses sins. Sometimes there is conflict in determining truth and justice -- and the judge gives the penance. There may not be absolution but there is a sense of resolution.
Ongoing soap operas and sitcoms can also be interpreted as contemporary morality plays. The characters personify various moral (or immoral) approaches to life. It is not improbable that to some extent they can serve as influential moral exemplars for individuals who are gradually working out their moral identity.
This phenomenon also illustrates Postmans (1985) theory that television is trivialising human discourse. An entertainment focus is now becoming important for perceiving and interpreting the proceedings of the law courts. The O.J. Simpson televised trial and more recently the videotaped evidence of President Clinton before the Starr Grand Jury are examples of television taking over human discourse for entertainment purposes. It is not surprising then that election campaigns have also become ongoing television drama (or sitcoms, depending on how they are perceived).
Film/television and the imagination: Learning through imaginative identification and imaginative rehearsal
Imagination is the capacity to make mental images. Individuals can construe a great range of fantasy situations. Dreams can be thought of as the unconscious imagination that occasionally breaks through into consciousness. Imagination is often regarded as a synonym for creativity; being able to imagine new formats can be the spark for ingenuity; or it can be a precursor of personal change. Individuals can do an 'imaginative rehearsal' of possible future change, trying themselves out in new situations and testing the imagined possibilities of new ideas in practice; if they are comfortable with the imagined change, they might then take steps to achieve it. In this sense imagination is important in human behaviour and development. Because of its prominence in learning, motivation and human development, imagination is also important in education.
Imaginative identification is a natural and commonly used process through which an individual empathises with the situations of others; it involves imaginatively 'standing in their shoes', seeing things as they see them. It can be a mechanism for learning new attitudes and values. If the individuals with whom one identifies are felt to be admirable, then there is more chance that they will be emulated. Characters who are repulsive are less likely to be perceived as good role models. What is of concern, however, is where young people may be attracted towards the film bad guys. Also, people's own feelings in the imagined situation can help them understand the emotions and behaviour of others. Imagination can help with learning empathy and sympathy -- and thence respect and tolerance.
Imaginative identification is a learning process that children and adults use all the time, especially in their own character development; they can imaginatively test potential 'new selves', wearing the same characteristics, emotions and values of the individual with whom they are identifying. Imaginative rehearsal is much the same process, with the emphasis on trying oneself out in the imagined new circumstances. Children can learn by role playing in an imaginative way different behaviours, value positions and commitments. Both of these processes are central to the clarification of emotions and values. A discussion of how to use these processes effectively in classroom religious education is provided elsewhere (Crawford and Rossiter, 1985: chapter 6).
Imaginative identification and imaginative rehearsal are important parts of children's learning through storytelling and reading novels. Film and television enlarge the scope for this learning significantly. They greatly extend the cultural and personal territory that children and adolescents can explore vicariously. Enhancement of people's cultural horizons is perhaps the single most important educational feature of film and television. Many emotional and value laden issues can be made accessible to young people through examples in film and television. In turn this can sensitise them to the values dimension in what they watch. Students also need to consider the nature of imaginative identification and imaginative rehearsal so that they can be more conscious of their potential as personal learning processes that operate both in real life and when people watch films and television.
While film and television provide children with ready access to a wide range of potential role models, this also probably helps them to become more discriminating about whom they see as worth emulating. A recent pilot survey by the British curriculum authority on values in education and in the community yielded data on the perceptions of different groups as role models for young people. Children from key stages 3 and 4 (primary and junior secondary) commented on the results of a survey of public opinion given below. These perceptions were probably very much influenced by what the children saw on television.
Survey of the community and of school pupils on values. (From a pilot survey returned by 569 school pupils from primary and junior secondary classes to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, London. 1996)
Question: "How far do the following people set a good example for young people?"
Results from a survey of the general public:
Story and imagination: The role of film/television in both enhancing and diminishing the imagination
When an individual reads a novel, the initial process is linear and logical -- reading a succession of words. The writer uses words so that readers can be drawn into the story, imagining that they are intimate observers of what is unfolding. Their imagination is stimulated to construct images of the action as they follow the story; it is like a computer processor that converts the words scanned off a page to mental pictures and felt emotion for the internal screen. When a story is being read, the imagination does a considerable amount of this work. It takes a certain level of literacy to be able to enjoy reading.
When a story is told through film, the saying "little is left to the imagination" is a good description of what is happening. Not only do viewers not have to read the text, they are presented directly with a wealth of visual images -- the imagination does not have to work so hard on image creation. Does this stunt the imagination that is exercised when a story is read or listened to? Perhaps. However, the images in a film can stimulate the imagination by giving it many images that can be recalled. Perhaps it is through this influence on the imagination, especially through the embedding of images which can be influential in their own right, that film exercises a subtle, relatively unconscious influence on people's thinking, motivation and behaviour. This applies just as much if not more to television; the implanting of images seems to be a key psychological process in television advertising -- it is not an appeal to reason, but to the attractiveness and desirability of images as an inducement to buy. The imagery in film is also effective in stimulating the emotions.
Michael Warren (1992:2) has described the media enhancement of imagination as follows:
When a book is read, a certain amount of active mental work and discipline are needed to convert the written words into an emotionally engaging story. Film and television have a more direct, experiential way of engaging viewers -- they can become involved with much less effort; they can do this in a relatively passive fashion. This is why it is easier to be captivated or distracted by film/television. All one needs to do is open one's eyes and listen, and be drawn into a story.
Media orchestrated imagination: A way in which film and television can have an influence on young people's behaviour and personal development
This section develops the ideas introduced earlier on imaginative identification.
When it comes to shaping behaviour and personal development, the imagination functions like a 'pathfinder' or 'trailblazer' through which individuals imagine what they could be like and try out what they might do before they actually have to do it. This can influence their idealism by helping them explore the best possible world. Imagination can show the way ahead for personal change -- which might be facilitated by favourable imaginations and inhibited by unfavourable ones. Active imagination is a continuing experiment in self understanding and self expression; hence it is an important part of identity development.
While imagination is an intrapersonal function, its content is not completely determined by internal drives or emotions. Warren argues that "the actual production of various imaginations is less a psychological than a social reality, the end result of networks of persons and agencies seeking to imagine the world for the young." (1992:3).
This thinking has consequences for psychological theory about human behaviour and development -- as well as for media studies. It complements the theories that ascribe power to genetically driven developmental tasks such as those proposed by Freud and Erikson; and to theories that stress personal interaction like Rogerian theory or Transactional Analysis. The impetus for behaviour and personal development can be energised from within the individual; however it can also be subtly conditioned by external cultural elements like film and television which are not always acknowledged as socially constructed agents of change.
Warren (1992:2) stressed the need for educators to pay more attention to the role played in the personal development of adolescents by the imaginations of life generated by film/television. He drew attention to the power wielded by those who manufacture those imaginations.
An educational response to this problem would be to ensure that students learn how to identify and evaluate not just the imaginations of life presented on television, but the ways in which these are manufactured and marketed.
Film and television as sources of images, stereotypes and myths
Through their function as contemporary fables, but perhaps even more so through the images they provide, film and television have a great capacity for shaping popular myths and stereotypes. Through these, particular ideologies and values can be promoted almost imperceptibly. Of great importance are gender stereotypes that can have an influence on how men and women relate. Attitudes towards homosexuality, premarital sex, marriage, divorce, and one parent families can be influenced just by the ways that these are presented and accepted on the screen. It is much more common now to have divorced and gay/lesbian characters in television programs than was the case in the 1960s. The interesting question remains: is this just a reflection of what society is like? or does it somehow contribute to the current situation.
Another example is the stereotypes for minority groups. Note the earlier discussion about stereotypes of North American Indians, and how they relate to feature films since the 1890s, and to recent documentaries that have sought to highlight the Indian point of view.
The role of the educator here is to help students uncover and name the functions of film and television in developing myths and stereotypes, and in supporting particular ideologies. If these functions remain unnamed, their existence is hidden and their potential influence is greater because their implicit, relatively invisible messages cannot be evaluated. A critical education involves identifying examples of film myth-making and testing the validity of the myths as well as their underlying values.
This sort of critical deconstruction is important for evaluating the marketing strategies behind television commercials. This will be considered later.
Heroes and heroines
Film/television has a capacity to influence spirituality, especially that of children, through the heroes and heroines it provides. In addition, the industry promotes the star status of its actors off the screen. Other celebrities also acquire star status even if they are not actors. Eg. Royalty, the Princess of Wales, sporting stars, music stars. The personal lives of the stars can influence those who emulate theme as role models. The stars can be perceived as larger than life, like icons of individuals own romantic hopes for life -- like fantasy templates for their own aspirations.
In a sense, identification with the stars can nourish narcissism or preoccupation with the self as centre of the universe. For example, numerous little, comparatively unimportant people are often killed in action films while the hero/heroine remains somehow invincible, almost immortal. These images can reinforce for viewers the importance of self and a self-centred preoccupation with their own concerns. What happens to others does not seem to matter so much -- they seem less important and more disposable in the greater scheme of things. This imagery also supports a hope for immortality and protection from the misfortunes of life. It could be that this identification is part of the reason people get upset if the star is killed in a film; they are even more upset when the star dies in real life. The death of a star we like or with whom we identify is a shocking reminder of our own mortality. These linkages may have contributed in some way to the widespread grief at the untimely death of people like James Dean, Kurt Cobain, John and Robert Kennedy, and Diana Princess of Wales.
Considerable attention is given to identification and spectatorship in the academic field of film studies -- how viewers identify with screen heroes/heroines; how they project their own hopes onto them etc. Films are constructed to maximise the effects of these processes. It seems essential then that educators have a basic understanding of these processes as part of the interpretative background that they bring to religious and moral education.
Sensitivity of children to implicit messages in the media
Any media education, whether formal at school, or informal in the home, will need to work out what level of critical analysis is appropriate for use with young children. Critical methods in interpretation can more readily be used with older children and teenagers. Young children are more impressionable and their personal defences are not so well developed; however, educating them in media awareness cannot be postponed until they are older.
One media skill that young children have to learn is called 'adult discount'. This refers to the ability to differentiate the real world from the make believe world of film and cartoon. Before they learn adult discount, children's view of the real world can be populated by all the characters (animals and monsters etc.) that appear on film and television.
Adult discount does not come naturally; it has to be learned. By the time of mid-adolescence, most young people have enough experience of film and television, and have enough skills of interpretation, to be able to make the distinction easily. However, this is not the case for young children. This makes them much more susceptible to transferring values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviour from the screen to their real life. Especially if they have no other strong spiritual input, young children may learn some of the earliest and fundamental aspects of their spirituality from television. This is also a concern because it is difficult to change attitudes and values that are ingrained at an early age.
The educational importance of addressing the situation of young children was emphasised in comments on the media by Pope John Paul II (1979:46).
Like soft wax on which every tiny pressure leaves a mark, so the child is responsive to every stimulus that plays upon his/her imagination, emotions, instincts, and ideas. Yet the impressions received at this age are the ones destined to penetrate most deeply into the psychology of the human being and to condition, often in a lasting way, the successive relationship with self, with others, and with the environment... ... any pretence of maintaining a 'neutral' position [with regard to the influence of mass media] and of letting the child grow up in its own way merely disguises a dangerous lack of interest under the appearance of respect for the child's personality.
Action films: cinematic adrenalin, and the potential relationship between film violence and violent behaviour
In the past 20 years the genre action film has been become increasingly prominent in films made in the United States. Great sums of money are spent in their creation -- often on sets that are exploded, crashed, burnt and destroyed in ever more spectacular ways! These are the 'cinematic adrenalin' films which appeal to the enjoyment of the vicarious experience of thrills, danger, excitement and violence -- where viewers remain secure in the knowledge that they can walk away from the experience without physical harm. Such films draw on the same psychological mechanisms that operate when people ride a roller coaster, ghost train or the more recent spectacular movie rides, or where their feelings are aroused when they witness a car smash, a fire or some other disaster. This was discussed in Part 3.
One commentator claimed that the structure of action films was very stereotyped -- a sequence of repeating whammos and zingers. The whammo is the spectacular action (fights, car chase with multiple crashed cars, explosions, killings, eruptions, monster appearances etc.). These need to come regularly and consistently during the film to keep the viewers involved and their adrenalin appetite satisfied. In between whammos are the zingers -- usually bursts of smart dialogue that make the viewer feel good or amused.
The prominence of action films is a useful starting point for considering possible links between film violence and violent behaviour. While debate about the V Chip approach to the problem needs to be acknowledged and appraised (including film classification, censorship and microchip regulation), as suggested in the introduction, a different approach base on student speculation is proposed here.
Through questions like these, the film study can occasion a more wide ranging consideration of the nature of violence at personal, family, community and environmental levels using the discussion of violence on the screen as the starting point. It is not likely that students will come up with convincing answers and consensus in response to all of the questions. There will be no way of verifying their ideas empirically. However, the study hopefully will exercise their minds about the nature and meaning of violence in their lives and in society.
The 'evangelising' purpose of particular film directors
Having been brought up with film and television since birth, many young people today develop an affinity with them as 'their' natural media; they constitute an extended world populated by film and music stars which serves as a prominent cultural reference point. Young people can spend a lot of time not only in watching the media and listening to pop music, but in thinking about the world of film and music; what the stars are doing often interests them.
For some, this interest in the media world goes further. These are the ones who are familiar with the names of directors and producers; they know about Lucasfilm, Industrial Light and Magic, and other special effects companies which use high end Silicon Graphics workstations for digital effects; they are the ones who remain at the end of films to scrutinise the credits. Conversations with such young people show their familiarity with the evangelising purpose of film directors.
For example, one such group of young Australians, after watching Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator II: Judgment Day in a theatre in Berlin (the German dialogue did not seem to impede their following the plot!) discussed with us James Cameron's evangelising purpose. They pointed out the director's prominent feminist theme of the 'strong woman'; the principal actress, who eventually overcomes the bad terminator, wore sleeveless tops, showing her strong physique to advantage; they knew that she worked out in a gym for months before shooting the film to build up her arm muscles; this same strong woman theme was even more prominent in Cameron's earlier film Aliens, in which Sigourney Weaver played the tough Ripley. Then they pointed out Cameron's anti-violence theme: it was possible for the human spirit to overcome great evil and violence -- epitomised by the terminator as the supremely efficient high-tech killing machine -- but humans might have to use violent methods to overcome this evil. The group then speculated on what the film would have been like had it been made by other directors. They proposed that Paul Verhoeven would have included male and female terminators having violent sex; Spike Lee would have made all the 'bad guys' white and the hero and heroine black; Peter Weir would have had the terminator sit on a fence enjoying the view of wheat fields glistening in the sunset; and Woody Allen would have had the terminator say "I don't think my mother would approve of this!"
This discussion suggests that it may not be too difficult to enhance in young people their almost natural disposition to look more carefully into the purposes and processes of film making. While this may not be so effective with those who are below average in intellectual ability, they are still capable of a relatively sophisticated critique of film and television production.
Any film/television studies that help students learn how to evaluate productions from technical, artistic, entertainment and other perspectives (like values) will be an important component of their education that will help them address questions about the personal influence of the media.
An example film study illustrating issues in spirituality and identity
The New Zealand film Once Were Warriors (1995) has a level of graphic violence that would be grounds for caution about showing it at school. However, for adults, the harrowing story of the urban Maori family of Jake and Beth is a valuable one to use in a film study of identity issues. The approach to interpretation given here might be applied to other films.
The French sociologist Bourdieu wrote about 'life structure' as a way of looking at people's lived out identity. This suggests that observation of behaviour gives insight into people's self understanding -- that there is congruence between the two. This principle is natural to people's interpretation of the narratives they see on film and television. Characters' identity are inferred from their behaviour and dialogue.
Another principle that is relevant to interpreting identity is prominent in this film: individuals draw on various cultural elements to shape and sustain their sense of identity; some identity resources are external (Eg. support of peers, cultural and ethnic traditions, particular cultural images and stereotypes, keeping up a particular image through externals, particular style of dress, particular style of speech) while others are more internal and personal (Eg. personal ideals, values, commitments, spiritual beliefs). We propose that spiritual health is fostered by an identity that is firmly grounded in personal/internal resources; whereas identity problems can occur where individuals are too dependent on external identity resources. This is particularly the case where the identity resources to which the individual turns are physically and psychologically damaging both to themselves and others.
In Once Were Warriors, identity can be used as a lens for exploring the beliefs, values and behaviour of the main characters. From this perspective, Beth and Jake, and their three eldest children Nig, Grace and Boogie are all expressing a search for personal identity in different ways, drawing on different resources as they do so.
The film portrayed the struggle of individuals for a satisfying self understanding, self expression and sense of self worth in a sub-culture of violence and oppression. The character Boogie articulated one of the messages coming through the film: confronting moral degradation needs inner strength and values; like spiritual (and theological) principles they help with interpretation of the problem as well as providing the courage and motivation needed to take action.
The spiritual dimension to life as portrayed in film and television
The case is argued here that film and television have become an influential moral and spiritual reference point for young people, providing source material for the building of their spirituality and identity. Educators need to understand this function so that they can do what is possible to address the situation. They cannot change it; but their work can help students to become more critically aware of its potential influence on them.
Much of what happens on film and television, in the drama and sitcoms, and in the milieu of advertising can give the impression that life goes on without a spiritual dimension. Hence one of the problems to be considered by educators is that the social reality associated with film, television and advertising lacks adequate acknowledgment of a spiritual dimension to life. Also, the treatment of religion can be so stereotypical as to be negative. People who measure life expectations according to this social reality may not have enough meaning to sustain them, leading to the syndrome of anomie or alienation from life.
This does not imply that 'more religion' is the solution. It could be that the decline in participation in formal religion is because religions too suffer from a similar problem as the media: they may not be giving people adequate solutions to the spiritual issues of the time. The words and concepts around traditional religious beliefs and dogmas may not be perceived as relevant enough to be credible.
Hence it could be that both the way religions present themselves and the way that life is presented in film and television are both deficient in the meaning/purpose interpretation of life that they offer. These deficiencies could contribute to the high levels of purposelessness and alienation that both adults and young people experience today, also contributing to the high rates of suicide.
The culture of television and its influence on education at school
As noted elsewhere in this Unit, the writer and critic Neil Postman has a long history writing about education and the media. In 1969 he coauthored Teaching as subversive activity, in which the cultural possibilities resulting from a critical inquiring education were explored. In Teaching as a conserving activity, written a decade later, he proposed that education had a thermostatic function in society; that it needed to compensate for rapid social change with an emphasis on cultural conservation by concentrating on its role in handing on an the intellectual, literary core of culture. This meant complementing and compensating for television which had become the de facto primary source of education -- the "first curriculum" as he called it.
In the earlier section on documentary film, reference was made to Postman's book, Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business (1985) There he argued that television, as with earlier major changes in communication media like writing and the printing press, changed the ways people experienced and described the world, and consequently how they derived meaning and values. The thesis of the book proposed that the fundamental entertainment focus of television has trivialised human discourse because many areas of life are now perceived and interpreted mainly from the perspective of a television culture.
In his book Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology, (1993) Postman proposed, along with other arguments, that there is a clash between the literary culture, which, in the main, still operates in school education, and the television culture in which children and adolescents are immersed. The former culture represents the world of the printed word with an emphasis on "logic, sequence, history, exposition, objectivity, detachment, and discipline". While the latter emphasises "imagery, narrative, presentness, simultaneity, intimacy, immediate gratification, and quick emotional response" (Postman, 1993:16). He goes on to say that:
Not all would agree with the epic proportions in Postman's picture, but the point he makes is valid and the relationship between the two cultures should be given more explicit attention by teachers.
Postman's interpretation is also useful for the distinctions it makes between teaching/learning styles.
He wondered what the extrapolation of these styles would lead to, hinting that computer based learning might raise egocentrism to the status of a virtue. He considered that in addition to economic implications, film/television influenced the ways in which people perceived reality, and that these were central to understanding diverse forms of social and mental life. He also stressed the effects of new media on the overall ecology of the learning environment -- that technological changes in education were neither additive nor subtractive, but ecological. One significant change generates total change.
Postman's hypotheses are stark and represent an extreme position. But they are helpful for confronting educators with the changing circumstances of school students and they can stimulate creative responses to the problems. Teachers who are more conscious of their pupils coming from a learning environment dominated by film and television will better address the different ways they perceive life, judge things to be important and seek entertainment -- this has inevitable consequences for teaching/learning at school. Teachers cannot presume that all children and adolescents will fit comfortably into the school culture of literacy. But they should not sell the literary culture short because it is still regarded by many as the part of cultural heritage for which the school is particularly responsible -- a valuable complement to the media culture and also a valuable position for critiquing the dominant media culture. So the school would not only represent and hand on some of the literary aspects of tradition -- the intellectual culture -- but should provide the context and impetus for students to become cultural critics of other major sources of input into their spirituality and identity such as film and television.
Cultural agency: Action based on critical reflection on the potential personal influence of media
A critical evaluation of cultural elements like film and television can lead young people to become agents of cultural change, even in a small way that involves being more discriminating about the elements that they allow in for entertainment and education.
In his book, Communications and Cultural Analysis: A Religious View (1992), Michael Warren draws on the sociological theory of the Welsh sociologist Raymond Williams for his evaluation of the personal influence of film and television. Note that one chapter from this book was examined in Part 2 of this Module.
Warren considers that a principal problem with any evaluation of cultural elements like film and television is that they tend to be taken as cultural givens or products rather than as cultural processes. If accepted as givens, then they are taken for granted and not so accessible to analysis and evaluation. But if they are considered as socially constructed processes, then the production processes themselves are more open to analysis and critique. Hence, those responsible for structuring the imagined possibilities of life as portrayed in the media need to have their work scrutinised. This does not mean that there is a subtle conspiracy in which media industry executives are deliberately moulding people's expectations of life in a manipulative way to support their market purposes. However, he notes that "the specific imaginations are planned, produced and communicated, but the precise way they come together to create an overall sense of reality may not have been planned by any single person or group." (Warren, 1992:3).
For educational purposes, students can be encouraged to track through some of the ways in which media personnel can orchestrate contributions to the fund of imaginations projected in film and television. Judgments can be made about the meaning and value of the marketed imaginings. The process they critique here is not the same as the propaganda considered earlier. However, the idea of a subtle advertising propaganda is not all that inappropriate when one considers the well orchestrated purpose of swaying young people in a direction that is going to lead to their purchasing particular items to meet needs and interests. Warren calls for educators, and their students, to pay more attention to the process and to evaluate the media imaginations that are being offered for consumption. This also acknowledges that personal needs and interests themselves can be subtly media conditioned.
Warren's proposals imply that the personal influence of film/television on children and adolescents is neither inevitable or inexplicable. "Whatever their complexities, they are social products whose production can be studied. From this angle, influences operating through media such as film, radio, television, advertising, music and fashion become visible and able to be analysed." (1992:3)
Warren also noted that particular religious world views are sustained by the social interaction of faith communities. The faith community can help its members in considering the authenticity and relevance of their own imaginations of the world and of human development, and whether or not these are meaningful to young people, and whether or not these imaginations offer a critique of culture.
This sort of critique was recommended to young adults by Pope John Paul II. He encouraged them:
Commercial advertising on television: Its contribution to 'retail' spirituality and identity
In commercial feature films and television drama and sitcoms (as with most content programs on TV), the intention to bring about personal change is usually disclaimed -- this material is for entertainment. Their nature and purpose are different from those of propaganda and documentary film. However, when it comes to television commercials there is a change. Supported by all the techniques and formats available within the film industry, television advertising sets out to bring about personal change in viewers -- to increase the probability that they will buy the advertised products. This is like making use of the expertise of feature film production for propaganda-like purposes. Also, as the logical basis for advertising is to provide information that will inform people's consumer buying, there are links with the information-oriented purposes of documentary film.
One film critic referred to the successful 30 second television commercial as the pinnacle of achievement of motion pictures. Within that brief time span there is a miniature film, with introduction, world view, story and conclusion, that communicates a message to viewers.
The cryptic four line advertisement for a motor vehicle in the daily classifieds is crammed with relevant information. The format is poor literature, but it is functional. In television the formats for advertising are many and varied, from the simple to the grandiose, from the literal to the highly symbolic. Also, television commercials are not limited to functional information about products. Experience has shown that functional information may have little to do with the success of a commercial -- it may be more about selling lifestyle images such as being chic, being savvy etc. with the advertised product being linked with those images.
What follows will look at television advertising from the perspective of its potential links with spirituality and identity.
Image and imagination
As one advertisement stated "Image is everything". Much of the storyline and emotional appeal of effective commercials depend not on words and information but on image. The commercial may project an image -- say, of the modern, attractive, sexy, smart, successful male/female -- and will link this image with a particular product. The attraction of the image is intended to initiate subconscious associations with that product. Similarly, the commercial may seek to link the image associated with the product with the romantic image of self that viewers might have. Here advertising is more about selling potent images than about the function of particular products -- it is the images that have retail potency.
No doubt each product has a mundane function. But the highly advertised product may also have an added mystique. Television advertising (also in magazines and newspapers) sustains a 'designer label' 'superior brand' industry. Buying a distinctive label/brand enables an individual to identify with the mystique of the product -- this is like retail enhancement of identity. "You pay for the name."
As discussed earlier with reference to feature films and television, the appeal to the imagination is also a central part of television advertising. Images that are attractive to self expression and self understanding can be embedded in the imagination where they can influence people's thinking, motivation and behaviour -- with retail consequences that are desirable for the advertiser. It is not an appeal to information or reason, but to the inherent attractiveness and desirability of images as an inducement to buy.
This sort of critical deconstruction is important for evaluating the marketing strategies behind television commercials. In the commercial, within thirty seconds, there is an attempt to activate, and appeal to, images and emotions, desires and values that will be effective in prompting viewers to buy -- and intelligently exercise their prerogative as well-informed consumers! The myths appealed to will range widely from a simple 'enjoy' to 'look beautiful and irresistible' to 'caring' and 'environmentally friendly'. A study of the psychology of advertising is essential for critical media studies.
Imaginations of the self which originate from outside the person are important for identity development because identity is strongly influenced by social interaction. Michael Warren argued that there is a need for more scrutiny of the ways in which television advertising manufactures self imaginations for commercial purposes. We quote here in full two paragraphs of Warrens which have already been referred to in part, in the earlier section on films and imagination.
Some perspective on psychology and market research in the service of advertising and consumerism
Educators wishing to explore the potential spiritual and moral influence of advertising, especially on television, should become more familiar with the psychology of advertising and the market research that supports it. It is built on the premise that advertising can change people, particularly their 'retail' habits. Such habits relate to values and identity -- as Karl Marx wrote "As individuals express their life, so they are." (Quoted in Postman, 1993:21)
One useful discussion of the topic comes from Michael Warren (1994). He considered the late 1970s studies by the Stanford Research Institute (California) where market-research analysts studied the purchasing habits of households to guide product development and advertising. Using what they called the 'VALS typology' (short for Values and Lifestyles Program), they divided the population into four main groups, including nine lifestyles based on people's self-images, aspirations, and the products they bought and used.
The surveys set out to document the ways people thought of themselves in society and the distinctive patterns of buying that helped reinforce that image. With this knowledge they could 'anticipate' consumer needs and wants. They has already recognised that many in the community -- the market target -- had negative attitudes towards ostentatious consumerism and money as a measure of a person's life, even though such materialism was by no means dead; they were dealing with an increasingly environmentally conscious and politically correct marketplace. Because people's values affected their spending habits, market research needed to know these values and how to appeal to them. In this light, they articulated the new "central problem in advertising" as follows:
Although somewhat dated, the VALS typology is a good example of the sophistication of market research and advertising psychology. Interestingly it did not use the words "poor" or "poverty". It highlighted the link between lifestyles/attitudes and consumer spending. Related research was able to predict, on the basis of U.S. postcode an individual's likely attitudes, probable household inventory, leisure-time activities, media habits, and consumption patterns for over 700 categories. It is unlikely that such research and market psychology are now less sophisticated than they were in the late 1970s.
The culture of advertising
Particular television commercials in themselves may have negligible influence on spirituality and identity. What may be influential is the overall culture of television advertising -- its omnipresence and the way it washes over viewers continuously. Some of the built in assumptions of the advertising industry are:- consumerism, competition, the importance of image, meeting human needs through purchase of consumer goods etc. -- they can project a social reality of materialism and self-centredness. It can create and sustain the myth that externals are important for individuality and identity and that particular consumer goods can always enhance them.
Promoting brand labels for distinctiveness of identity may be more concerned with economics and business progress than with human identity and human welfare. Viewers wants which may be more whimsey than anything else can be appealed to as needs which must be met. Television advertising is synonymous with seduction. A credit card is touted as a key to a free and creative lifestyle -- "with power to do what you want, and to be who you want to be". In buying perfume a woman may be buying "hope". In buying a deodorant a man may be buying "a powerful lure for women".
For the culture of television advertising, self expression is all about consumerism; individuality is all about particular brands; freedom is all about the capacity to buy; and power is all about the capacity to choose from the wealth of products available. Shopping is even proposed as retail therapy.
What is written here about advertising needs to linked with an understanding of identity. This can show how the advertising industry is alert to the possibility of playing on identity needs to sell products.
The term 'retail identity' can be applied to individuals where a more than normal weighting in their self expression and self understanding is given to the purchase of particular consumer goods which have a high image loading in the advertising industry. For example, someone wants not just a good safe car, but purchases a flashy red Mercedes sports vehicle because they want to participate in the image its carries.
Retail identity is not so much a formal identity but a colouring of one's self expression with media orchestrated images. For example, where one goes beyond buying good cosmetics for skin health to include the additional feeling of identifying with the lifestyle image projected for the favoured products by television/magazine advertising; or when buying a particular men's deodorant the individual enjoys the feeling in the advertising myth that women are attracted by it uncontrollably -- this may be a further benefit to the extinguishing of bacteria sodden body odour. There is often a good measure of humour in the advertisements; but this does not eliminate the play on the unconscious.
This discussion is not saying that the purchasing of consumer goods is bad; neither is it dismissing the value in brand satisfaction. What it is proposing is that is that media orchestrated images may at times enter too strongly into people's self expression. If this becomes exaggerated, then individuals would be depending too much on media advertising and image for their identity, self esteem and general well being. In this instance, the consumer goods have become much more than functional -- they have assumed a role in providing identity satisfaction.
Also, effective exploitation is occurring; the advertising is successful because it has associated identity needs with the buying of particular products. Products are linked through images with lifestyle, appealing to identity needs for retail purposes. This is discussed further below.
Television advertising and the seduction of freedom and individuality
The themes of freedom and individuality are highly prized in our culture -- they are of great importance in the expression of identity. They are celebrated in the media, especially in television advertising which proposes them as taken for granted ideals to which all should aspire.
What becomes ambiguous, however, is the link between these ideals and the advertising of distinctive consumer products (C/f the discussion in part 3 above) Television commercials will extol the ideal of individuality while at the same time proposing that to buy a particular product will give the buyer an instant ready made individuality solution. This implies that the 'in' brands of clothing, shampoo, pimple cream, fast food, all the way to fast cars will express one's unique individuality authentically. A retailed enhancement of a personal sense of individuality is promoted at the same time as the individual is 'seduced' into accepting a prepackaged public individuality, which is in part created by the media and the leisure industries and product manufacturers. Television fuels people's desires for individuality but subtly draws them away from their own individuality towards a public conformity to the images and lifestyle it projects. And this has great commercial significance for the businesses that market the relevant products; in a sense they have a slice of the retail identity market. This is the 'commodification of identity' where the consumer market sells ready made identity components that can be attached to the individual like clothing. Television commercials' capacity for promoting public individuality is like another of Marshall McLuhan's prophecies coming true:
If the identity of individuals becomes too dependent on externals like the public images in television commercials, then they may come to wonder if they have any inner identity at all.
Michael Warren spoke of young people in this situation as being "imprisoned in a world of immediate experience". He considered that education should attempt to expand their experience beyond the television inspired world of immediacy through a wider study of culture. This could help them escape
What then is the aim for the educator dealing with theses issues? Key principles are:
The other issue that also needs consideration is that of freedom. There is a danger that the culture of television advertising can imply an exaggeration that the main component of human freedom is 'consumer' freedom -- the capacity to choose and buy from the great range of goods and services that are available.
On reading this discussion about the influence of media on individuality and identity and how the marketing of consumer goods is involved, one might wonder: "Is there some conspiracy going on to seduce the young?" This sounds paranoid because we presume that there are not groups of people in business and the advertising industry who are colluding to consciously change the moral face of the community. Michael Warren (1992:2) explains it as follows:
Though I use the word "orchestrate" I am not describing a conspiracy but, rather, the way initiatives can come together and coalesce. Specific imaginations are planned, produced, and communicated but the precise way in which they come together to create an overall sense of reality may not have been planned by any single person or group.
Television commercials and the projection of images of unattainable perfection
One commentator suggested that anorexia nervosa is a television disease. She claimed in pre-television times it did not seem to be such a problem. It could be that the culture of television advertising and the film industry generally proposes in its human models an unattainable perfection that can never be reached by average people.
Paralleling what appears on television, on almost every page of magazines for women and girls the photography gives this message of unattainable perfection. For many women the frustration in not being able to look like the slim female models with the perfect skin and hair, may not trouble them too much and it does not shake their preparedness to continue buying the products that might help them aspire to that perfection. But for a few, particularly adolescent girls, the love/hate frustration with this imagery may lead to paranoia which drives them to excessive anxiety about their appearance and eventually to the conditions of anorexia.
Recent evidence suggests that the problem of anorexia is now beginning to affect adolescent males as they become more conscious that there is a body image for them to aspire to.
Television advertising: What is being sold?
When people think of television advertising, TV commercials come to mind. However, this is only a part of the television advertising structure. To get the full picture the question "What is being sold?" needs to be answered. The most obvious answer is "The manufacturers pay the TV company to have their advertisements broadcast." This is true, but the more fundamental answer is that "The television company sells a statistically measured viewing audience to the advertiser. It is ratings that are sold." It comes as a mild shock to viewers to find out that in a sense they are being sold to advertisers! Their viewing patronage, measured by regular ratings research, is the commodity of exchange. So while the perspective of the viewer is often "putting up with the commercials to get the program", the perspective of the commercial television channel is "The programming is the mere overhead cost to secure commercial ratings."
The responses of viewers thus have a place in the economics of television advertising. Viewer correspondence has some power to bring about change.
Industry regulation and the ethics of television advertising
The following example illustrates some of the issues.
In 1996, the head of the Viewer Services division of the CBS television network in Los Angeles explained to visiting religious educators the work of his section. It served as a 'watch dog' over commercials as well as over the content of programming so that no inappropriate material was broadcast for public consumption. Members of the section were chosen to reflect different backgrounds (Eg. a teacher, a health professional, a parent etc.) They were required to separate their own personal views and commitments from their professional role. He said that the boundaries to what is acceptable on television are continuously changing. The section also took into account comments from the viewing public. Letters to the television network about their advertising and programs numbered about 500,000 items annually. (A different section had oversight of news and public affairs programs.)
One apparent difficulty with the work of the section was the absence of any systematic set of values to guide their judgment. So in effect, the standards were set by what the viewing community seemed to be able to tolerate without too many complaints. A frivolous comment was made that violence would be acceptable as long as it "did not make people sick or give them nightmares". So the viewer services was not really an ethics committee for the protection of public standards, but more of a lookout group to protect the network from mistakes that might cost them revenue. They were to counsel against content which would hurt ratings and upset the advertisers who were paying for their ratings slots.
An example of the group's review of content was an episode of Walker Texas Ranger in which the criminal shot two policemen in the police station before shooting an informer being detained in a cell. The review group suggested that there was too much gratuitous violence. The result: the edited version had one of the shootings of policemen cut. The violence was justified by the idea that the 'bad guys' had to be made look very bad so that, by contrast, the 'good guys' would look really good
Another example involved scenes from the soap The young and the restless. In one scene a woman said to another: "If sex were like fast food, then there would be golden arches in front of your bed." The script was checked with McDonalds (an important advertising client) to see whether they would be offended. McDonalds executives were not troubled by it -- they were pleased to think that the McDonalds arches had achieved the status of national icons. However, in another scene, one actor threatened another with the words "If you do that again I'll kick you in the McNuggets!" This quip was judged to be offensive to McDonalds and potentially threatening to the McDonalds advertising contracts; the phrase was deleted without any need to consult with McDonalds.
If these examples are typical of television generally, then the ethical effectiveness of self regulation might well be questioned. It would then be up to public opinion in the form of letters to the company to set the moral tone. How ethical television advertising becomes will then depend on the ethical sensitivity of its viewers and their preparedness to take action.
Helping students understand something of the shaping personal influence that film and television can have on them is an important part of their school education. While often critical, many young people are relatively naive as regards both the overt and subtle capacities of film and television to affect their thinking, imagination and feelings, their liking for fashion and particular leisure pursuits, and the potential targets of their spending. All of this relates to spirituality and identity.
This discussion has proposed one systematic sequence for study and theorising about this sort of influence. If it can enhance the background thinking of teachers on the issues, then this will be a valuable step towards helping students acquire more knowledge and skills to interpret what is happening in film and television. In turn this can help them to be more alert to the possible mechanisms of personal influence they experience.
The desired outcome for young people from the study proposed here is that they learn to bring a more informed, critical background to their thinking about film and television. This is not trying to 'protect' them from the effects of the media, but to help them develop their own 'educated' response. In turn, this sort of education may help them develop what might be called an 'educated spirituality and identity' -- that is, where some relevant information and reflection go into the process of development.
Atlas, J. 1984, Beyond Demographics: How Madison Avenue Knows Who You are and What You Want, The Atlantic Monthly, October, 49-58. Quoted by M. Warren, 1994, Life Structure or the Material Conditions of Living: An Ecclesial Task, Paper presented at the Annual conference of the Association of Professors and Researchers in Religious Education of Canada and the United States, Chicago.
Catholic Diocese of Parramatta, 1991, Sharing Our Story: Religious Education Curriculum (Guidelines for Religious Education in Secondary Schools), Catholic Diocese of Parramatta, Parramatta (Sydney).
Crawford, M.L.., 1991, A History of Christianity: From St Paul to the Middle Ages, E.J. Dwyer, Sydney.
Crawford, M.L. and Rossiter, G.M. 1985 Teaching Religion in Catholic Schools: Theory and Practice, Christian Brothers Province Resource Group, Sydney.
Crawford, M.L. and Rossiter, G.M. 1988 Missionaries to a Teenage Culture: Religious Education in a Time of Rapid Change, Christian Brothers Province Resource Group, Sydney.
Crawford, M.L. and Rossiter, G.M. 1993, The Spirituality of Today's Young People: Implications for Religious Education in Church-related Schools, Religious Education Journal of Australia, 9, 2, 1-8.
Crawford, M.L. and Rossiter, G.M. 1996A, School Education and the Spiritual Development of Adolescents: An Australian Perspective, in R. Best (Ed.) Education, Spirituality and the Whole Child, Cassell, London.
Crawford, M.L. and Rossiter, G.M. 1996B, The Secular Spirituality of Youth: Implications for Religious Education, British Journal of Religious Education, 1996, 18, 3, 133-143.
Gerbner, G. 1992 The Challenge of Television, Unpublished paper quoted in M. Warren, Communications and Cultural Analysis: A religious view, Westport, Connecticut, Bergin and Garvey.
Grimmitt, M.H. 1987, Religious Education and Human Development: The Relationship Between Studying Religions and Personal, Social and Moral Education, Great Wakering, McCrimmons.
Groome, T. H. 1990 Sharing Our Faith, San Francisco, Harper & Rowe, 1990.
Hill, B.V. 1993, Is Value(s) Added Education in the National Interest? Harold Wyndham Memorial Lecture, NSW Institute of Educational Research. (A discussion of the future of values education in the light of new employment oriented competencies movement in Australian education.)
Kuhns, W. 1969, The Electronic Gospel: Religion and the media, Herder and Herder, New York.
McLuhan, M. 1967, Understanding the Media, London: Sphere Books (1st Edition, 1964).
Nichols, B. 1991, Representing Reality, Indiana University Press, Bloomington
Pipes, D. 1986 Fundamentalist Muslims between America and Russia, Foreign Affairs, 939-961.
Pope John Paul II, 1979, Children and the Media, Origins, 9, 3 (7 June 1979), 33-47.
Pope John Paul II, 1984, Homily, University of Laval Stadium Quebec City, Canadian Catholic Review, October 1984, 323-325.
Postman, Neil and Weingartner, Charles 1969 Teaching as a subversive activity, Penguin, Harmondsworth.
Postman, Neil 1979, Teaching as a Conserving Activity, Delacorte Books, New York.
Postman, Neil 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public discourse in the age of show business, Heinemann, London.
Postman, Neil 1993 Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology, Vintage Books, New York.
Warren, M. 1982, Why Johnnie and Joannie Can't\Don't Care, in Youth and The Future of the Church, Blackburn: Dove Communications, p. 104.
Warren, M. 1992, Communications and Cultural Analysis: A Religious View, Bergin and Garvey, Westport Ct.
Warren, M. 1994, Life Structure or the Material Conditions of Living: An Ecclesial Task, Paper presented at the Annual conference of the Association of Professors and Researchers in Religious Education of Canada and the United States, Chicago.
Film Studies: Some examples of relevant writings in the area of film studies are:-
Nichols, Bill 1991, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
Nichols, Bill 1981, Ideology and the Image, Social Representations in the Cinema, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
Barnouw, Erik 1993, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (2nd Edition), Oxford University Press, New York.
Corner, John 1986, Documentary and the Mass Media, Edward Arnold, London.
Cuthbert, David 1989, Film and Propaganda in America: A Documentary History, Greenwood Press, New York.
Monaco, James 1981, How to Read a Film: The Art, Technology, Language, History and Theory of Film and Media (Revised Edition), Oxford University Press, New York.
Bennett, Tony (Ed.) 1981, Popular Television and Film: A Reader, BFI Publications in association with Open University, London and Milton Keynes.