Especially when it comes to analyzing how gender and race/ethnicity are represented, visuals are a good starting place for students. Within the process of designing advertisements, websites, and magazine covers, for example, there are many decisions about human difference that designers need to take into account. Additionally, designers may indicate subtle hints about what they and their viewers regard as “normal” as well as about what types of people hold cultural, economic, and social power. Controversies erupt over the use of images, therefore, when other groups of people reject these assumptions or worry about the use of stereotypes or the implications of how those who lack power are represented. A 2008 Vogue cover, which showcased LeBron James grabbing Gisele Bundchen, sparked an online debate about how African American male athletes are depicted in the media. More notoriously, Time magazine editors were criticized when the mug shot of OJ Simpson appeared on the cover of Time with Simpson’s skin color dramatically darkened, the Time editor responds to the criticisms in a July 4, 1994, letter to readers.
Recently, critics have been discussing a new Facebook application targeting Indian male consumers that allows them to see what they would look like with paler complexions. A good way for students to begin, thus, even before moving to the activities below, is to have students investigate these debates by doing simple Internet searches. How are people framing these debates over how gender and race/ethnicity are represented? What are the typical types of claims that are presented? What do these claims tell us about human difference?
This activity makes the power of the media, advertising industry, and visual culture obvious for students. It asks students to analyze advertisements and visuals for what they say about men and women in the United States. After choosing an advertisement or visual that depicts men and women, students analyze the design characteristics and the details of the advertisement in order to make interesting and surprising points for their readers. Students analyze the ad or visual like a detective or researcher and look for their hidden meanings. Students find examples from the ad or visual in order to make interpretations about what an advertisement is telling its audience about men and women, including
• their roles (what they should or should not do)
• how men and women should act
• how men and women should relate to each other
• what men and women should think is important
• what men and women should believe about themselves
• how men and women are different
• what connotations, assumptions, or stereotypes are made about men and women
This activity also allows students to practice the important and widespread academic writing strategy of showing readers the obvious or literal meaning and then revealing the more hidden and surprising interpretation. For example, students may come across an advertisement selling an SUV, the obvious meaning of which is the following: the ad is selling an expensive SUV by appealing to middle-class men in their 40s and 50s. The student then may uncover a more surprising interpretation about the ad, investigating what it says about its primary audience or about the assumptions or stereotypes it is using. Students may realize that this SUV ad is saying something about these older middle-class men who may feel nervous and less powerful because of the competition from younger, more attractive, successful, and wealthy men; the SUV, therefore, helps to counter these fears and make these men feel more powerful.
Students search the Internet and image databases for photographs, art work, or other visuals, the Wikimedia Commons may be a good place for students to start, that help illuminate a topic or question related to human difference. Students should choose at least three images. For each one, students write a paragraph that explains why it is included in the collection: What does the image tell the audience about the human difference topic or question? What is significant about the image?
Students should then write an introduction to their image collection, in which they introduce the human difference topic or question, explain its significance, and then show, overall, how the images work together to represent the topic or question.
1See Chapter 3 of Cynthia Debes et al.’s Writing Communities and Identities for additional activities related to conducting a visual analysis.
2Adapted from Cynthia Selfe’s (Ed.) Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers. (Hampton P, 2007).