There are various models which attempt to describe the relationship between audiences and media texts. Among those models which conceptualize active audiences are the concept of polysemy and the encoding/decoding model. These models suggest that while media producers can embed meaning in texts, audiences can interpret texts in myriad ways which may or may not align with the producers’ intended or preferred meaning.
I consider myself a fairly active and critical consumer of media. Much of my interest in actively analyzing narratives can be traced back to Matt Guion and his Books vs. Movies series on YouTube, which compares film adaptations to their literary source material. The first of these I ever watched compared Disney’s The Little Mermaid to the short story by Hans Christian Anderson that inspired it.
I love The Little Mermaid. Matt criticizes it pretty harshly (but fairly, I think). After watching his video, I viewed the film differently, but I continue to be very fond of it. Interestingly, an article by Chyng Fen Sun and Erica Scharrer looks at students’ resistance to criticism of Disney’s film. The students’ professor compared and contrasted the film and the short story, analyzing both. Many students did not change their mind about the film, despite the criticism presented. Sun and Scharreer identify a few themes among the students responses including:
- Liking supersedes analysis
- “It makes me enjoy the film more”
- Different stories: like comparing apples and oranges
- Separation of enjoyment and analysis
This article was fascinating to me, because many students responded to criticism of The Little Mermaid in much the same way I had, settling on negotiated reading of the film that allowed them to continue to enjoy it.
Disney is well known and often criticized for its portrayals of young women in their fairy tale films. Ariel, like many Disney heroines, is young, beautiful, focused on finding love, and ultimately lacks agency in the story. I know this is problematic, but I still love the story, just like I love Pretty Woman and It Happened One Night and a whole host of films with problematic tropes.
Media-encoded messages about gender can be so persuasive and so deeply ingrained in us from a young age that we continue to enjoy these kinds of films even after analyzing them. After all, the happy ending tells us that it is right and good for the prince/millionaire/Clark Gable to get the girl in the end, and we want the happy ending.
“Chapter 6 Consuming Popular Culture: The Role of Gender,” Gender and Popular Culture, Katie Milestone & Anneke Meyer (2012)
Chyng Feng Sun, K., & Scharrer, E. (2004). Staying True to Disney: College Students’ Resistance to Criticism of The Little Mermaid. Communication Review, 7(1), 35–55.