Critical Discourse Analysis

Critical discourse analysis (CDA) is one branch of cultural criticism. CDA can be described as a particular way of looking at cultural products like books, movies and television shows.

The first foundation of critical discourse analysis comes from the notion that a society’s ideology – its values and shared ideas – is communicated in its cultural products.

This is an important concept for understanding the aims and interests of critical discourse analysis, so let’s take a moment to clarify with a typical example and define some terms along the way.

Typical Critical Discourse Analysis Question: Do American movies from the early 20th century suggest that women should remain in the home, taking care of kids instead of participating in the workforce and striving for positions of power?

This question looks at American movies collectively, assessing a collection of films from the period and asking if we can see a trend regarding the representation of women on screen.

This approach treats films as an element of discourse, where we understand that these cultural products form a sort of conversation. These films are a way of talking about gender. 

This discourse then, made up of dozens films, is comprised of many voices. If we can see a trend in the way that these different voices talk about how women should be viewed in American society, we can say that our discourse is suggesting a social norm for this identity category.

A scholar approaching early 20th century American movies from this angle would be asking an implied question: Do those films reflect a sense of existing gender norms in America or do they actually help to create the sense that a “normal” or representative woman would be largely defined by her role as a homemaker and mother?

Another way to understand the project of cultural criticism is to see the scholar as investigating the idea of what would happen if the whole country watched all of those movies and in, let’s say, 75% of the films the same gender norm was presented and reinforced, so that a vision of normal womanhood became linked completely to domestic life.

What happens to the women in that society? How do these films shape their dreams, their expectations for their own futures, or their sense of how they fit into American culture?

These last questions point to an important motivation behind cultural criticism because they show us the beginnings of how cultural products, such as movies, can create social norms.

In the example we are considering, the scholar applying cultural criticism to these early American films may find that as a result of the message in the films being so consistent, the audience indeed does receive a message about what it looks like to be a normal woman. This, in turn, leads men and women both to prefer domestic females, to desire a world where women stay home instead of getting jobs in the workforce.

Norms as Social Bias

A society’s norms thus become social biases that favor what is perceived as “normal behavior” and these biases also penalize what is seen as abnormal or subversive behavior. If you stay home and raise a passel of children, in this scenario, you will be celebrated. But if you want to start a company and run for office, you will find that social biases are working against you in a variety of ways.  

Cultural criticism is interested in addressing ways that cultural products can help to create these norms and support these biases. Cultural criticism is also very interested in addressing ways that cultural products can help to change established norms and fuel social progress. 

Side-note to clarify one point here quickly: No one is saying there is anything wrong with choosing to be a mother and to dedicate one’s life to the domestic sphere. That’s not the point of a criticism of early 20th century American depictions of women. The point is that narrowly defined norms can make it very difficult for people to make choices for themselves as individuals. The point is that social pressures produced by narrow and rigidly defined norms can reduce our actual ability to choose for ourselves what kind of woman (or man) we want to be. 

So far, we’ve looked at one example of a cultural criticism question about how one film period might play into a particular social norm. 

When we take a look at a society’s wider array of norms and associated biases, we are looking at that society’s ideology – its shared values and perspectives.  

And, yes, we are doing that by analyzing films, albums, television shows, books, magazines, advertisements and the rest of pop culture. While the focus of this intellectual approach centers on entertainment products like movies, the scholar applying cultural criticism recognizes that there are potentially high stakes here.

Movies as Part of Public Discourse

Movies, collectively, can shape a society’s ideas and values.

Kodak Camera, 1907Movies can convey messages about what “normal” looks like – not just for women, but for other identity categories including race, social class, sexual orientation, age/generational groups and more.

Looking at movies as part of a larger cultural discourse, or collective conversation, we can see how entertainment can reflect the values and ideas that define a society and also shape those values and ideas.

The main idea here should be familiar, even if the terms we use in cultural criticism may be new to you.

You have heard conversations about how advertisements sexualizing women as a means to sell products can be criticized for objectifying women. You’ve heard conversations about how movies where the Black character always dies first can be criticized as a perpetuation of a negative view of the worth of minorities in America.

You’ve also heard conversations about how big budget films like Wonder Woman and Black Panther are doing positive cultural work by depicting formerly marginalized figures (women, people of color) as heroes, not just capable of saving themselves but maybe saving the whole world too. The message here is powerful, especially if the audience is made up of young women and Black people. We all want to be able to see ourselves as capable, strong and worthy of respect. It helps to have movies that help us do this.

This idea should be relatable to most of us. And it is important to note that social norms are not just about feeling good about ourselves. If norms prevail that suggest that in order to be a normal woman all females need to stay in the home, those women who choose to enter the work force will be faced with very real challenges to their presence.

Norms can quickly become biases. 

Why do people care about this? The Consequences of Social Norms & Biases

Getting hired, in that cultural scenario, would be far more difficult for a woman than for a man. That is a serious problem if we want to live in a world of equal opportunity across the spectrum of gender, race, sexuality and class categories.

So, the scholar applying cultural criticism approaches a text (or collection of texts) in an effort to identify where our society’s sense of different categorical norms come from.

Cultural criticism is founded, in other words, on the notion that cultural products matter because they have the potential to shape the way a society thinks.

One of the main goals of cultural criticism then is to offer a critique of cultural products that responds to the ideological content of these products.

This critique of entertainment products sees the artifacts of popular culture as elements of a larger cultural discourse.

The attempt is to illuminate the ways in which cultural products fit into that discourse and ways in which our discourse both reflects and determines our social norms that we believe in and that we sometimes struggle against.

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