Media Moment: My Media Literacy Mother
“No one should make you feel like a natural woman, Kristelle. You feel how you feel, don’t give that power to someone else.”
“Yes mom, I know, just singing along.”
“Well, you need to think about what you’re saying as you sing – just because something is catchy, doesn’t mean it’s right, or truthful to you.”
“Yup, thinking about it, mom, and how it’s not really fun to sing along anymore…”
Media literacy wasn’t a term I knew until college, but it’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, thanks to my mom. Loosely defined, media literacy is an evolving set of skills that allow us to better understand media’s influence in our lives, i.e., how the movies, music, TV shows, books, video games, advertisements, etc. affect us and why. As MediaSmarts eloquently states, media literacy “skills include being able to access media on a basic level, to analyze it in a critical way based on certain key concepts, to evaluate it based on that analysis and, finally, to produce media oneself.”
Growing up, I got media literacy lessons from my mom. Every. Day.
And for a long time, I wasn’t a fan. When I was in elementary school, my brother and I loved oldies music, especially songs from the 1950s and 1960s. I haven’t done a formal analysis, but it seems like most of the billboard hits from these two decades weren’t exactly empowering to women, and my mom pointed out every lyric that conveyed a power imbalance in gender roles or that diminished the value of education or self-worth.
For example, Let’s Live For Today by the Grass Roots, a song I particularly enjoy, was parsed apart by my mother every time it came on the radio. She prodded me to explain why having a carpe-diem-like attitude with no future thinking was a positive…I eventually concluded that it was not. And why the lady in the song should follow the man’s simple life plan, which was, as she pointed out, not really a plan at all. I eventually concluded that the couple should probably break up and that the fictional lady in scenario should be free to generate her own, actual plan for her future based on her wants and needs.
My mom’s media literacy lessons weren’t just reserved for music. I was an extremely sensitive child, and this was especially true when it came to media. Movies, TV shows, commercials – anything that was remotely scary would leave me questioning the safety of humanity, questions I reserved for my mother, often in the middle of the night when I was too afraid to sleep. In an effort to prevent these fears, my mom would screen movies and shows ahead of time, providing me with access to watch those she felt wouldn’t cause Kierkegaardian levels of dread. But even my mom couldn’t shield me from all the commercials and movie previews with scary scenes or the media I was exposed to at school and at my friend’s homes.
Her second course of action was to help me learn how media were made and who the people were behind it. She bought family passes to the Museum of Science, where we always went to the visual illusions exhibit. There, she’d explain the exhibits about the magic of the movies, which scientifically broke down how the visuals we see on screens are actually created and who was behind it. She’d loop these lessons back whenever there was something remotely frightening in my view, pointing out all the corn syrup blood, marking the use of puppets in Indiana Jones, and even adding color-commentary about directorial motivations.
My mom also empowered me to create my own media. For Christmas when I was six, I was given a cassette player and recorder with a microphone. My sensitivities as a child equaled my flare for dramatics, which meant that every long car ride turned into sessions in my mobile sound studio where I DJed my own radio show with my co-host brother. These shows involved long explanations about my song choices, including lyric analysis and if they were or were not in-line with my own life journey. The shows also included a fair amount of karaoke, which is why no one outside of those car rides is allowed to listen to them.
When I was older, I was given a camcorder, which I used to make short films and music videos with my friends, (my loyal brother sometimes acting as the crew.) These would be followed by my own solitary film analysis segments, where I’d explain my vision behind each film and how I crafted each work. I am forever grateful that I did not grow up with TikTok, as I’m not sure how I’d fare having those videos in a public domain.
It wasn’t (somewhat embarrassingly) until college that I realized my media literacy education was not a standard parenting practice. I was baffled that “media literacy” was even a form of education – doesn’t everyone’s mom or dad teach them those skills? Turns out that the answer to that is “no,” and in today’s post-truth era and with our rapid advancements in technology, we need to be teaching media literacy skills formally, empowering over-burdened (and often media-illiterate themselves) parents and educators with the knowledge they need to teach today’s children.
Ultimately, my mom’s media literacy lessons both stuck with me and keep inspiring me. This is true in small ways; I ended up lip-syncing to Aretha Franklin’s Respect, instead of the aforementioned A Natural Woman in my high school’s Senior Show, and in big ways as I consider media literacy education one of the most important aspects of my professional work. But truly it’s every day – I can’t help but listen to music, watch movies, scroll social media, or do most things without hearing my mom’s kind, prodding words reminding me to think about and evaluate it all. And I love doing just that.
– Kristelle Lavallee Collins, MA, Senior Content Strategist at the Digital Wellness Lab
– Edited by Brian Keller