You’ve Been Brainwashed!

By Dr. Brian C. Johnson

I’ve been teaching film appreciation courses in colleges for nearly twenty years. No questions have posed more laughs and discussion than these four questions I begin each semester with these questions:

  • What is the BEST movie of all time?
  • What is your FAVORITE movie of all time?
  • What is the WORST movie of all time?
  • What is your GUILTY PLEASURE movie? [Guilty pleasure is defined as the movie you keep watching that never gets old or the movie you secretly love but don’t tell anyone.)

Asking any of these questions is like throwing a hand grenade into the classroom. Students “lose their minds” arguing their choices. I ask these questions without asking students to qualify their selections.—simply stating titles. Try these questions as an ice breaker activity in your next RA training or blind date. You can get to know someone by the choices they make).

Movies provide an almost immediate community builder. What I love about teaching with film is how the atmosphere shifts when the lights go out and the opening scene begins. Starting a movie discussion kindles excitement. Even when discussing films they hate, students talk with passion. Artificial barriers and walls between people fall and complete strangers become friends because they realize they have more in common with each other than they imagined.

Most students take film classes thinking it’s going to be an “easy A.” It is sometimes difficult for them to imagine taking the content seriously. Most of that relates to the idea that we’ve been socialized to see films only as entertainment. A film class? Three hours simply watching movies? (I know because I used to feel the same way.

But, think about it this way, each person’s individual identity is shaped by a number of different forces, including, but not limited to, parents and other family members, peer groups, social and religious organizations/leaders, educational providers and institutions, communities, and media messages. These forces, in many ways, dictate particular meanings and interpretations of the world around us. In your life, what have these forces taught you about who you are and what have they said about people who are not like you?

Many times, these messages are not communicated verbally; they are often embedded in traditions, behaviors, activities, and the like. Of the list above of cultural shapers, few send more powerful hidden messages as the Hollywood machine. The movie industry spends billions of dollars to produce films for all ages, and they reap billions in return by a public who is thirsty for the next big hit. Our national economy, in many ways, is supported by this industry, and in like manner, our cultural identities are influenced by Hollywood images.

As we examine these cinematic influences, we will operate from the following two foundations:

  • All film is political (somebody’s sending a message to you)
  • There are no mistakes in films– everything you see is intentional. (Before a film comes to the big screen, it has been seen by hundreds of sets of eyes. If a scene doesn’t fit with the general ”message” of the film, the scene ends up in the deleted scenes or gag reel.

Media literacy is designed to explore the ways in which our individual and societal psyches are impacted by cinematic expression. In what ways do the studios, directors, actors, and the action of the films determine and reflect our national opinion, our personal values, and how do they enforce cultural ideals? What determinations can we make about race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation as they are defined by Hollywood standards? These questions and others will help us be more critical media consumers.

Think about it. Most people go to the movies to escape their reality. They make comments like “I don’t want to think about work for a couple hours.” So what happens is they sit down and turn their brains off. Sociologists argue film (and other media) are a primary form of education, yet most students slough it off as mere entertainment. Our K-12 educational system has not taught us to think critically about the films we consume, so we have not grown to be media literate. Media literacy provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, and create messages in a variety of forms with the goal to build an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.

In my experience teaching diversity concepts, students who attend smaller, semi-rural liberal arts colleges have had their lives shaped by/among homogenous groups. Consequently, they have grown up with biases they have never learned to question. My courses are about questioning our cultural shaping by examining contemporary mainstream films. I want to help students think about how they have been educated (brainwashed and indoctrinated) by films.

In case you’re wondering:
FAVORITE: Julie & Julia, The Breakfast Club
EST: (depending on the day) 12 Angry Men, Shawshank Redemption, Gladiator
WORST: The Happening
GUILTY PLEASURE: The Negotiator, Green Mile, Dude, Where’s My Car?

If you really want to ratchet up the conversation, add these four questions:

  • Who is FAVORITE actor/actress?
  • Who is the BEST actor/acress:
  • Who is the MOST UNDERRATED actor/actress?
  • Who is the MOST OVERRATED actor/actress?

Have fun!