The resources on this page are for educational purposes for SAE Creative Media Institute students. The audio file is a collection of summaries from various resources. See the reference list below for more details.
critical theory, Discourse, and media
Critical theory is an analytical approach that suggests we should consider the place of ideas in a more extended history of human thought, we should not take the dominant narratives for granted, or we should not accept what we have been told about the world, the present, and the past without calling it into question. (just a note that here here, I mainly mean the Western thought)
It is only possible to understand our period by looking into what came before and why. When talking about critical theory, we should know the main areas that critical theory seeks to criticize in order to offer diverse perspectives. Through this critical approach, we begin to reflect on ideas around history, law, money, sex, authorship, and human rights, to name a few. If we look at the creative media, we can see traces of critical theory in films, animations, and other media products. For example, The Matrix trilogy is inspired by the ideas around realities [real vs. virtual] proposed by Jean Baudrillard, and theories of gender, sex, and psychoanalysis can be traced in films like Fight Club or Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (Felluga, 2015, p. viii).
Before we get any further, we must first understand what critical theory is criticizing. Critical theory questions the dominant discourses and metanarratives.
You may have heard the term discourse in your studies already. Critical theory questions the dominant discourses that are reproduced and reinforced through the dominant culture. Basically, critical theory tries to help us understand how biased and hierarchical opinions have shaped our worldviews through time. These Dominant discourses range from discourses around sex, gender, ethnicity, and race, class to discourses around happiness, grief or resentment, and revenge.
Critical theory approach helps us to overturn assumptions about purity (for example, in morals), about essences (in terms of race, gender, and backgrounds), about values (in art and politics), and about truth (in law, philosophy, and history).
Let’s see what we mean by discourse in the context of cultural and media studies:
★ Discourse is described as how we think about others (including people, objects, countries, cultures, social organizations, etc.) and how we take action upon them. Discourse functions as a means to structure the mind (as in how we think) and the language (how we articulate the thinking).
★ The concept of discourse that I refer to here is derived from Michel Foucault’s ideas around knowledge and power. He explains that institutions of power define and produce the objects of our knowledge through organizing places such as universities, museums, and even prisons (Mills, 2012, pp.53-54). As a result, through the discourses they reinforce, they shape our knowledge about a topic or a person. Following the same argument, (mass) media is a means of constructing a discourse through systems of signs (symbols) and representations. These systems of meaning creation produce knowledge, which is mostly framed and reinforced by dominant ideologies.
Some Notes on discourse
★ This system of creating knowledge and meaning is shaped through an association of words and concepts that finally shape our minds about a given person/topic/place, etc. For example, our sexual identity becomes a signifier that defines who we are as individuals in a given society. In mainstream news media, people who identify themselves as ‘sex workers’ are often mentioned with a series of other words such as ‘prostitution,’ ‘morality,’ and ‘violence.’ These words are not merely words; they bring together pre-interpreted ‘knowledge’ about that person, which signifies their worth, social/economic status, and moral standards. Therefore, without any obvious judgment of a ‘sex worker,’ the news media automatically shape/reinforce our knowledge of a ‘sex worker’ and determine their place in the thoughts of a given society. This is the power of discourse; it constructs structures of thought and shapes our knowledge of a topic/person/place through the use of familiar signs and symbols, simply through language.
★ The political discourse in any given country about immigration, for example, usually puts together words such as ‘illegal,’ ‘legal,’ ‘citizen,’ ‘foreigner,’ ‘native,’ ‘violence,’ and ‘assault,’… when it is speaking of immigrants. These words bring together pre-interpreted knowledge of a migrant and connote certain meanings against the immigrant.
★ Another example of such racial/ethnic discourse is when the Australian litigation system put together ‘violent acts,’ ‘excessive alcohol use,’ and ‘drugs’ as a cluster of associated words explaining an incident involving an indigenous person. These associated words are structured within a racial discourse in which a center (here, white Australia) is defined as opposed to its margin (aboriginal/native Australia). The main issue of such discourses is that a logical fact, such as the relationship between the rise of crime and excessive use of alcohol, is combined with discriminatory views on a specific race or ethnicity. In this case, the form of knowledge that is typically sold as natural or objective is indeed based on a hidden form of racial prejudice.
As we mentioned earlier, critical theory also questions grand narratives. Grand narratives (also called Metanarratives or master narratives) are overarching stories that try to define universal standards, goals, and paths in order to explain the nature of human existence, history, and culture, even nature. But these master narratives were never neutral in their intentions. Meta narratives have always been reproduced and reinforced through institutions of power such as churches/mosques, families, universities, political authorities, etc. Therefore, meta-narratives are tools through which dominant discourses create a form of natural knowledge about everything that comes with human existence. Like all narratives, these are selective representations, excluding experiences and views of some sectors of society while including and privileging others.
Metanarratives have been around in human societies for a long time. For example, in pre-modern or per-historic times, knowledge was created and passed on through narratives or story-telling. In those times, legends and myths formed knowledge of the world, its existence, and any aspects of human life. The narrative not only explained but legitimated knowledge. This way, the worldview of the myth becomes the only truth and pure knowledge legitimizing the existing power relations and customs in the society. This form of creating knowledge through storytelling is still seen in cultural products. The credit for criticism of metanarratives goes to Jean-François Lyotard, a French philosopher. Lyotard used the term narrative to show the ways in which story-telling has defined and still defines rules and foundations that make us believe some forms of knowledge are natural and legitimate, and some others are not.
An example of such naturalized ideas is the metanarrative of motherhood. The concept of the ideal mother or the good mother. Based on this metanarrative:
“…Such a Mother is required to be totally selfless in her devotion to her children and, as the emotional and domestic pivot of a family, […] carries the primary responsibility for the well-being of the family”. And these attributes are the ones that are celebrated as “the superpower abilities” which come natural to “a good mother” (1998, pp.38-39).
Critical theory refers to such metanarratives as social constructs that can be challenged in favor of alternative models. In this case, critical theory questions this universal view on motherhood, arguing that such metanarratives create an imagined standard for being a mother that ignores the individual and personal experiences and conditions of that person. Lyotard questions all grand narratives in favor of what he calls little stories (1994, p.32). Following this idea, instead of, for example, saying, “Playing violent video games leads to violent acts,” there should be a little narrative that “playing violent video games by players with certain mental conditions might lead to violent acts.” Finally, grand narratives create a collective goal, a path to reach that goal, and systems of monitoring the progress or failure in reaching the goal. In addition, meta-narratives paint the whole picture of a particular period or era with the same brush and marginalize little stories. Critical theory aims to spot those forgotten stories to revive and retell them.
For example, a grand narrative like religion, which has been historically manifested in world religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, creates systems of behavior, worldviews, goals, and paths you have to follow to reach salvation and redemption and finally cope with the systems of discipline and punishment.
By deconstructing such metanarratives into smaller narratives now, in 2023, we can conceptualize ideas such as being a queer priest. A concept that could have had violent, traumatic, and radical reactions from different institutions of power like the church, the governments, and even any given family less than 20 years ago. Now we can openly talk about people like Rev. Dawn Bennett, a queer woman Lutheran pastor in Nashville, United States, who openly practices their religion as a queer person (Eugenios, 2021).
This is not because time has passed and people have grown! However, since the 1950s, there have been deconstructive models of thinking, such as critical theory, that attempted to stop the overriding power of dominant ideologies, grand narratives, and discourses.
Let’s take the concept of revenge in films and see how creative works apply critical theory as a method to question/address grand narratives and dominant discourses.
Films like Django Unchained by Quintin Tarantino and A Girl with a Dragon Tattoo by David Fincher both touch on the idea of revenge as a central concept. However, their critical approach is very different.
Django Unchained is centered around a slave getting revenge on the colonial slave owners. Applying the critical theory approach, we can see that this is not just a personal revenge of someone whose family was taken away from them. It is connected to the complex, deep history of avenging the colonial power and slavery in the United States. So, one reading of the film would be that revenge is perceived as the revenge of a whole community from the colonial power.
Some critics and audiences have criticized the film for being a “white man’s slavery revenge fantasy” or a white man’s fetish with the colonial past and racial violence,” or some have addressed the “lack of ethics” in Quentin Tarantino’s films in general: Whether Nazis or luxurious American slave owners, for Tarantino they are merely available movie tropes—articulate monsters with a talent for sadism. But, the film’s stylized violence and manipulation of history centering around the theme of revenge creates a sense of justified punishment, a triumphant formation of black heroism against white brutality. It surely mocks the grand narrative of white supremacy.
A Girl with a Dragon Tattoo
The main theme of the film adaptation by David Fincher is revenge. The main character, Lisbeth Salander, avenges those abusing their power in the corporate world. So, applying critical theory in discussing the theme of revenge in this film, we also need to discuss the perspective of the creator on gender, assault, and big corporations, plus ethics. Then, we can suggest a possible understanding of their approach to revenge and the aesthetic and artistic choices through which they convey this idea. The film surely questions the grand narrative of patriarchy and masculinity. At the same time, as a common audience, we might enjoy the film without thinking of these grand narratives. Merely taking revenge gives us a feeling of relief that connects the themes of the film to ethics and aesthetics. One central question here can be, “Can revenge be ethical?” how? (To hear more on ethics and aesthetics, please listen to the audio recording titled mediated violence, ethics, and Aesthetics).
Remember that applying critical theory in analyzing and understanding media artifacts always includes addressing the approach or worldview of that media work in discussing the dominant discourses and grand narratives they are displaying. In the cases of Django Unchained and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, if we want to talk about the theme of revenge, we also need to discuss the worldview of the creators regarding discourses and grand narratives they associate with revenge. One attaches the theme of revenge to the discourses of race and slavery, and the other associate’s revenge with the discourses of gender and ethics.
Hope this summary was helpful. Have a great week!
Lucas, R. (1998). Telling maternity: Mothers and daughters in recent women’s fiction. Australian Feminist Studies, 13(27), 35-46. https://doi.org/10.1080/08164649.1998.9994885
Lyotard, J. (1994). The postmodern condition. The Postmodern Turn, 27-38. https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9780511570940.003
Mills, S. (2003). Michel Foucault. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203380437
Nashville’s 1st queer female Lutheran pastor tells LGBTQ faithful, ‘God has not let go of you.’ (2021, June 1). NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/nashville-s-1st-queer-female-lutheran-pastor-tells-lgbtq-faithful-n1268943