Speaking of Media Literacy

By | Wednesday, October 07, 2020 Leave a Comment
Since I was speaking about media literacy the other day, have you considered that probably the best media literacy teacher we have had in our lives was Mad Magazine?

How so? Well, media literacy is the ability to critically look at and analyze media. It's being able to sit down to watch TV or a movie, and understand why it's presented the way it is, or why the actors are portraying their parts in a certain way, or what the broader socio-political context of the piece is. It's the ability to understand the media you're consuming, not just consume it.

Mad version of Temple of Doom
So how does Mad teach media literacy? Primarily through their parodies and satires. The films and shows they lampooned frequently contained heavily meta-textual references. A prime example I recall from my youth was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I had enjoyed the movie as a child when it came out, but the Mad version contained a scene in which Steven Spielberg and George Lucas appear about 2/3 of the way through. The two talk about the progress of the film as its creators and dream up the mine car chase as a way to keep the action moving along so fast that nobody will realize that they don't have much of a plot. It wasn't until reading that that I realized just how flimsy a premise the movie had, and how a film's creators can add in big, flashy sequences that aren't anything more than big, flashy, hollow sequences.

The other thing Mad did for my media literacy, particularly when I was even younger, was to provide a cultural touchstone with US culture more broadly. I didn't actually see all the movies they made fun of, but I was aware of them, their basic plots, and probably a particularly scathing analysis of the them through the pages of Mad. Other cultural references seeped in as well. I recall a Mort Drucker piece in which he created the "perfect" politician by taking bits and pieces of particularly famous ones. Linocoln's beard, Ted Kennedy's shock of white hair, Carter's lips... I got a civics lesson in notable politicians YEARS before I paid attention to politics. (The punchline, by the way, was that all the parts, when assembled properly, looked like Mr. T.)

The fact that Mad kept poking fun at American culture in a critical and intelligent way (admittedly, amid some sophomoric gags and general sillyness) it required its audience to look at what it was parodying with the same critical eye. "It's funny because it's true" is a kind of verbal shorthand that speaks to how a good comedian can cast light on the absurdities of a culture through exaggeration, but that phrase could also well be applied to Mad. They regularly skewered media of all sorts through comic exaggeration, and the only way to really understand what they were doing was to understand what they were really criticizing.

You know, I read Mad as a kid only sporadically. But I have to admit that I did not realize until years later just how significant even those few issues I read really were!
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