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Create space for humor in critical media literacy

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Digital media are an important tool for expanding access to knowledge and skills. But digital content and platforms can also depict power structures. From white supremacist tweets to ableist TikTok algorithms, oppressive ideologies are popping up all over the internet. Young people need critical media literacy practices in order to learn to recognize and challenge the oppressive ideologies underlying digital media and technology.

However, young people are already using digital media to organize for justice and to contradict power. How can educators build on what students learn on social media to support and sharpen critical media skills? To answer this question, we first need to know more about how students use digital media for justice-oriented purposes. I turned to LGBTQ + YouTube to investigate how young people oppose different oppression of race, gender and sexuality.

Critical media literacy on social media is serious work, but it can also be fun. Humor is almost ubiquitous on LGBTQ + YouTube, with reaction videos modeling a common form of critical humor. LGBTQ + reaction videos often react comedically to discriminatory media such as right-wing political advertising. I began to wonder: How do YouTubers who watch anti-LGBTQ + and anti-black media and react comedically to it achieve critical media literacy? And how does humor work in reaction videos?

Humor as a political possibility in digital culture

Through a multimodal analysis, I found that humor promotes political opportunity and supports critical media skills. I see political possibility as the feeling that social change towards a more just world is possible. This opportunity for transformation is vital for marginalized young people who are confronted with injustice on a daily basis.

Humor also plays a central role in the critical media literacy of YouTubers. Moments of humor defuse hatred and strengthen the capacity to act in order to withstand social injustice. The satire and parody in these videos challenge the ideologies that underlie repressive digital media and do important intellectual and political work. Viewers can learn movements for anti-racist, anti-homophobic and anti-transphobic actions. Humor as a display of joy, exuberance and care also lays the foundation for a better world.

While humor may permeate new media, the use of humor to respond to injustice is not new. Queer and Queer of Color activists and artists have long used humor to break hatred and create community. As scientist Danielle Fuentes Morgan has argued, satire subversively exposes the unethical violence of white supremacy and anti-blackness in black communities. Reaction videos expand these practices of satire and parody to undermine phobic ideologies, build power, and cultivate joy.

Use humor in justice-based teaching

From YouTube to the classroom, humor has a place in learning about social justice. Here are some ways educators can promote humor as a political opportunity:

Develop a vision to appreciate humor. Develop a broad vision of how to evaluate humor practices as a political option. Build on the experiences, identities and knowledge of your students and take into account the socio-political context of learning. Consider better understanding how fun digital media like TikTok videos make up for students as learning places.

See and support student digital activism. Marginalized students use social media to advocate for social justice in their communities and online. Notice and find ways to support students’ daily work, resist, and transform oppressive ideologies towards a more just future. On the one hand, consider what knowledge the students have about social injustice and what wishes they share for a better world.

Analyze everyday digital texts critically. To instill critical media literacy, bring in the digital media texts that students encounter on social media. Integrate the analysis of comedic multimedia texts such as reaction videos, memes, multimedia collages or other forms of anti-repressive remixes. You can ask students to submit digital texts (videos, memes, pictures, etc.) from their daily activities on social media.

Integrate satire and parody into critical pedagogy. Educators engaged in critical pedagogy could include parody and satire as forms of critical resistance in the pursuit of educational freedom. Through this approach, you can better understand the role of humor in critical literacy that young people learn online, and empathetically sharpen these practices with educational help.

Design media production with digital mentoring texts. Involve students in digital media production that incorporates the media they may encounter online, such as reaction videos. I tend to see media production as an iterative cycle to engage, explore, reflect, do. Get involved with mentor text, in this case a reaction video like the one from YouTuber Mac Kahey, aka MacDoesIt. Discover other videos or posts of this type on social media. Think together about what the students would have noticed, thought, felt, liked, and done differently. Try it out by making a video that takes up and transforms the practices you’ve seen.

Every educator must incorporate the important practices of social justice work and critical media literacy into their teaching. By exploring these principles through the lens of humor, students will gain valuable lessons on how to combat hatred, create community, and speak out against potentially difficult topics in ways that keep the mood going.

Addie Shrodes is a PhD student at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy in Evanston, IL. Her dissertation examines the role of humor, play and protest in the critical digital literature of trans and queer teenagers. You can follow her on Twitter @AddieShrodes.

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