Connecting media priming theories to graphic design and gay rights

This week’s readings, in light of previous weeks, has given me an appreciation of the process behind social science and the challenges that media effects researchers and scholars face--the scope of the current models allow for an expanded breadth and specificity for investigating media effects, but significant limitations persist. The field fully admits that the models for understanding and explaining media effects are myopic. But, it seems that this is as much a feature of social science as it is a criticism of media effects literature. Addressing overly narrow and ungeneralizable models has to be done slowly, through incremental gains over decades, because each addition to a model is a complication that must be proven. The design process has something similar: iteration. It’s an important process for improving work, but it has a blind spot. You can slowly walk yourself down a dead-end. So, early on in the ideation process, designers will inject chaos into their process and play with the results--this trial-and-error experimentation relies heavily on intuition.

I’ve been thinking about intuition a lot lately. In social science, intuition can obviously be a dangerous trap for researchers, leading to biases and unfounded assumptions that have to be mete out. Designer’s, however, rely on intuition to guide their work. The “effects” of graphic design can’t be reliably produced without it--formulaic design fails. This semester I’m teaching a freshmen-level design class where students learn to identify and create gestalt “effects” with principles like closure, contrast, hierarchy, and implied movement. By creating a large set of studies using very basic shapes to elicit these principles, they begin to intuit how to do this.

Sometimes intuition, inspiration, and other creative things are couched in airs of mysticism, and this is unfortunate. Even if we, as individuals, can’t articulate or be fully aware of how and why we have certain perceptions and feelings, intuition can be externally understood and explained. Intuition is a type of heuristic thinking. Gaining access to that terminology was important in my professional development because a perceived mysticism originally pushed me away from art and design.

Rosko-Ewoldsen et al. have expanded my lexicon further. The general affective aggression model qualifies intuition as primary appraisal based on mental models or schema. So, to rephrase, this Bauhaus-style of design pedagogy helps students build good, versatile mental models for interpreting visual information. Then, over the course of their education, these mental models are developed into more abstract--and thus, more widely applicable--schema that they can use to apply their craft to cross- and interdisciplinary means.

This leads me to wonder how we generate and train our own our mental models at the casual level. Rosko-Ewoldsen et al. state that our mental models are under some amount of self-control. We can direct changes to them, swap out and test different ones, and apply them to information at will. They can be viewed as fast and efficient or as quick and dirty. While this fails to explain the role of circumstance, rather than intention, in the formation of mental constructs, it explains an area of filmic studies that I’ve been fascinated with since my undergraduate studies, which is the gay read.

Before the papers themselves primed my rants and tangents on intuition, I was looking forward to digging into the topic of media stereotyping because I wanted to talk about one thing: The relationship between film and the Gay Rights movement. First, these were people who did not have characters that they could identify with, but that didn’t stop them. Gay affections and cross-dressing are frequently played for laughs, and today we could (perhaps should) condemn such stereotypical portrayals, but at the time characters and scenes with these elements gave the only mirrors from which an LGBT person could see themselves. They also gave heteronormative films a “gay read,” which is applying the constructs and mental models from their personal and romantic lives to films in order to understand the characters differently and gain further mirrors for their self-identity. The best, however, were campy movies.

Campy is a term that’s hard to pin down, but it’s used to describe movies that are over-the-top in a way that’s appealing. Think, so bad it’s good. For LGBT persons in the 70s through the 90s, campy movies provided the only portrayals of gay and lesbian characters. They were usually low-budget, which gave creators some freedom to include (what were then) subversive topics. This was crucial not just for their individual identities, but also for their group identities. Communities centered around viewing these films, they gave rise to cult fandoms like that of Rocky Horror, but they also gave much more than entertainment. These communities gave a sense of normalcy, defined what it meant to be something other than straight, and were a source of the collective courage needed to come out and to pursue the political action necessary to secure a better future at a point in history when admitting this meant risking your job, your family, and your safety.

​How is that for the power of media effects? Or, for the monumental importance of fair and diverse portrayals of societal groups?

Literature reviewed
  • Mastro, Dana. 2009. “Effects of Racial and Ethnic Stereotyping.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 3rd ed. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge.
  • — —  — . n.d. “Effects of Racial and Ethnic Stereotyping,” 13.
  • Rosko-Ewoldsen, D. R., B. Rosko-Ewoldsen, and F. D. Carpentier. 2009. “Media Priming: An Updated Synthesis.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 3rd ed, 74 – 93. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge.
  • Skinner, Allison L., and Jacob E. Cheadle. 2016. “The ‘Obama Effect’? Priming Contemporary Racial Milestones Increases Implicit Racial Bias among Whites.” Social Cognition 34 (6): 544 – 58. https://doi.org/10.1521/soco.2016.34.6.544.
  • Tukachinsky, Riva, Dana Mastro, and Moran Yarchi. 2015. “Documenting Portrayals of Race/Ethnicity on Primetime Television over a 20-Year Span and Their Association with National-Level Racial/Ethnic Attitudes: TV Portrayals and National-Level Attitudes.” Journal of Social Issues 71 (1): 17 – 38. https://doi.org/10.1111/josi.12094.

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