Reading Media through The Lens of Food: An Approach to Understanding Media Texts for Laypeople
Nutrition today has taken a prominent place in public discourse, with nearly everyone choosing a new health philosophy, diet, lifestyle, or dogma. This nutritional enlightenment has likely occurred because we are dying. People are realizing that unless they do something about their personal health, no one else will. But there is another great threat that is killing our brains and perhaps our souls much faster than even our high substantive, low nutritive foods. It is our media, including television, cinema, music, social media, and more.
There was once a day in which food was scarce for most of the world’s population, even a majority of Americans. But now, more people die in the United States from eating too much than from starvation. The same is now true in media, but the change has been swifter, and the abundance of options, exponentially greater! We can now stream movies, videos, and music at little-to-no cost. Even people struggling to pay their bills and put food on the table enjoy smartphones and various media subscriptions. It’s no wonder the word “binge” is now used to describe how many now prefer to consume their media content: all in one hit! Could you imagine what would happen if you gave an entire family unlimited sweets for only $9.99 per month?
-How We Talk about Media-
We have become accustomed to using a specific and rather bland use of vocab words to describe the intrinsic value or lack thereof of a given media text. For example, when your friend tells you they saw a movie last weekend, you probably pose the question, “was it any good?” To which they likely respond affirmatively or negatively based on whatever criteria they value, which they probably explain. “Oh, it was terrible! The visual effects were bad, the acting was cheesy, and I didn’t understand the plot at all!” And upon hearing this review (depending on what you think of this particular friend’s taste), you may decide to not attend a showing of the movie in question. Please note the use of the words, “bad,” “cheesy,” and other adjectives that denote an opinion. This is usually the beginning of every film review, and often, is the end as well.
In more critical or commercial circles, the analysis may appear to be somehow more authoritative. Rotten Tomatoes will give a percentage rating based on an aggregate of several online movie reviewers. MetaCritic has a less forgiving algorithm. Roger Ebert established the one-to-four stars rating scale. And most simple of all, the thumbs-up/down scale, which brings us back down to the question of, “was it good or bad?”
So, how can we talk about media in a way that does us more good? Well, there are many lenses through which a particular text can be analyzed, and they all depend on what we value. For example, a very religious person may read a film or song through a spiritual lens, judging what the text seems to be saying about the meaning of life, the life hereafter, and the value of the human soul. They may also place it against specific religious doctrines to which they subscribe. This can be an effective way to understand a text. Other “lenses” which are commonly adopted to read texts through are feminism, economic, racial, and political (such as Marxism or democracy). These are all valid lenses through which to understand media texts more deeply. An example for me was the recent film Mary Poppins Returns (Marshall, 2018). I found this film easiest to read through the lenses of feminism, spirituality, and economy. I rather liked how the film could be interpreted through the lens of feminism. With women being categorized into the two mutually exclusive camps of “cold but competent” or “warm and incompetent,” I felt encouraged by the depiction of Mary Poppins, who embodies the competent qualities of a true British nanny, while fostering a warmth and motherliness that defies female stereotypes. My wife even found this depiction personally inspiring in her efforts to both love and educate our two kids while also pursuing professional and educational goals for herself. At the same time, I couldn’t agree with the Marxist paradigms of solidarity, along with the film’s bumbling depictions of conspiringly greedy capitalists. You may ask, “so did you like it? Was it good?” To which, in this case, I would respond, “Sure, I liked it. And I think it agrees with some of my values, but not with others. I think you could see it and we could talk about it!” I’m not always so intellectual or benevolent, but on a good day, that’s how I might respond…
-Drawing on the Food Metaphor-
The purpose of this post is to offer a new lens through which all of us can judge our media by, without resorting to something as rigid as ups and downs, goods and bads, stars or percentages. How about food?
What I mean is, what does the media text feel like after you consume it? Does it make you think, or does it just offer a sugar rush? What does it taste like? Etc.
The best example I can think of is the film The Greatest Showman (Gracey, 2017). After the film was over, I just felt like I had sugar injected into me through an IV. Now, you may want to ask me, “did you like it? Was it any good?” I would say, “kind of.” I promise I don’t say that about every film! But this film did some really cool things, and some honestly not cool things. But before we jump into that, I want to read it through the lens of food.
I would describe this movie as pure sugar. Not a very sugary pastry or dessert, just sugar. But why? Well, they share many of the same qualities. Sugar is really tasty to most people, more so to those conditioned for it. If you haven’t had sugar at all for thirty days, it’ll probably give you a headache. Now, sugar in one sitting won’t kill you. It’s not poison. But it also isn’t going to do you any good, and over time, it will make your body slow and tired. The Greatest Showman was full of astonishing imagery, entertaining musical numbers, a “message” that was palatable to every human on the planet except satanists and antisemites, and beautiful-looking actors. But it also takes historical liberties that cross the line of social irresponsibility, particularly in its misrepresentation of the incredible Jenny Lind (who never made a move on Bailey, and left the tour only after 2 years of exhausting travel that made Bailey tons of money). But now, most people will remember her as the seductress in a period pop musical. All that said, it was pretty fun to watch, and I think the filmmakers were trying to be constructive, despite their irresponsible narrative decision-making.
If all you watch or listen to or read is the Greatest Showman or like-material, you’re going to make your brain sick with sugar-overload. But is there no place for cinema like this? I think there is. But remember, a balanced diet includes vegetables (maybe tragedy?), grains (some drama?), and sushi (Japanese cinema?). It’s not a perfect system, and you can think of it how you like, but it helps me remember that all media has an effect on my brain, just like all food has an effect on my body. I cannot just eat whatever I want and pretend like I’ll experience no consequences. And there’s room for all different kinds of food in my diet, from many different countries, food groups, and flavors.
When you start to really appreciate subtle flavors and healthier media, it can be really exciting--just like a lifestyle change in your food! I have found that the more I dig into media I never thought I’d like, I’m surprised by masterpieces frequently! There is so much good in the world! And it can do more than just entertain. It can inspire, educate, challenge, strengthen, and even change us. In fact, I submit that it always does; either to the strengthening of our resolves, the questioning of our biases, or the unseen planting of cognitive dissonance, every media texts presents an artist’s world view for us to judge. When you take full responsibility not only for what you watch, read, and listen to, but for how you think, analyze, and understand it, you’ll experience personal growth and satisfaction at many turns.
Tip: The next time you watch a film, listen to a song, or read some literature, ask yourself (or the person with you if there is one) what food could the text be compared to? Why? How does that fit into your media diet?