I’ve been wondering–what makes media literacy such a powerful and tricky practice? What kind of goggles help me scan the dense landscape of images, sounds and words that surround us?
That’s when I realized that being media literate involves a whole lot of nothing. Literally, no thing. I don’t mean in a Buddhist “Everything is no thing” kind of way. (I wouldn’t go from zero to zen on our first blog trip together.) It’s that reading media messages requires noticing what’s not the thing we’re supposed to be noticing. What are you not seeing, hearing, reading? Who’s been left out? Or at least pushed to the sidelines?
It’s much like the concept of negative space in art which the Getty Museum summarizes this way: “The area around the primary objects in a work of art is known as negative space, while the space occupied by the primary objects is known as positive space.”
For example, in this drawing (left) by 19th-century Spanish painter Francisco Goya, the disproportionate amount of negative space accentuates the figure’s vulnerability and isolation. So the negative space helps the artist express something he wants us to know or feel about the primary object–the positive space–which is the man.
Okay, so that’s fine for paintings, but how does that help us read media messages? In this iconic 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson presidential campaign commercial, the camera is trained on a little girl counting the petals of a daisy she’s plucking. The negative space here is the sky around her head, possibly also the trees and flowers. Since the girl takes up much of the positive space, she’s more important than anything else in the frame. Now if we go a step further in identifying the negative space, we could say it includes adults, the city, all that isn’t children or nature. Take that one step further and consider what children and nature mean: purity, innocence, goodness, that which we want to protect.
So what is not in the picture increases the importance, and the value, of what is in the picture. Once she’s counted to ten (not exactly in order, but she’s multi-tasking so we’ll cut her some slack), a male voice begins an eerily familiar countdown. The camera zooms into the girl’s eye and dissolves into the harrowing silhouette of a mushroom cloud. While the explosion is the primary object in that frame, it’s contrasted with the primary object first established–the simple sweetness of a little girl in a field of daisies, the picture of innocence, peace, hope. Even without the soundbites of Lyndon B. Johnson and narration giving the political context, the message is clear. Daisy girl, and those who prioritize her: good; atom bomb, and the threat of nuclear war: way bad.
In a mass media universe, the primary objects tend to be the people, ideas and practices that align with the dominant culture. In this case, a little white girl picking daisies illustrates purity and innocence. Now, what if this little girl was black? Or in a wheelchair? Would we only think “innocent” or would we also think “poor” or “helpless?” And how might that influence the impact of the message?
It can be so hard to notice the negative space of our mainstream messages and what’s missing from the public eye, that one filmmaker decided to make what’s missing actually go missing. Director Sergio Arau highlighted the invisibility of Mexicans in America by making them truly invisible in A Day Without a Mexican, a mockumentary in which all Mexicans mysteriously disappear from California overnight. The non-Mexican characters, especially those who unconsciously rely on Mexican labor, only notice how vital a role our Latin neighbors play in daily life when there is no one there to cook the food, work the farms, pick up the children. The invisible become visible by becoming invisible. And by doing so, the hope is that the invisible can take up positive space, moving from the margins towards the focus of our media, our awareness, and our communities.
And whereas in artistic terms, the “negative” in “negative space” doesn’t necessarily mean derogatory, in a mass media context, by repeatedly making someone or something missing or secondary, we convey that the person or thing is less valuable, less desirable, or just doesn’t belong.
Often, what’s chosen to be primary objects in the media tap into social and cultural beliefs which are so ingrained that noticing them can be like asking a fish to describe the feeling of water. Men in leadership positions, wealthy people who are white and straight, women as caregivers…the list could go on for days. Naming the communities, ideas and realities that typically inhabit the positive space while acknowledging that which is relegated to the negative space of our media landscape may feel uncomfortable, pointless or just mean-spirited. I’d suggest this comes from a primal human impulse to belong–we don’t want to seem critical and be out of step with the mainstream, with the world we’ve always known. Back in the day, when we roamed with our tribes, not belonging meant no food, no shelter…until finally, curtains for the outcast.
Until we acknowledge what’s missing in the messages and images we encounter every day, those people, ideas and practices will remain invisible and less than. The result? Those who are unrepresented must work harder to become empowered to take up space in their own lives and communities. Those negative space ideas and practices don’t gain a foothold to become worthy of mainstream exploration or resources. Consider how we’d feel about women in the workplace, let alone the women themselves, if the image of Rosie the Riveter never existed.
Taking a cue from paintings, if we begin seeing the people and ideas that typically inhabit positive and negative spaces in the media as complementary and then see complementary as meaning equally valuable, interchangeable, we might become more flexible in our thinking and in our lives. A Latina at the head of a boardroom table in a magazine ad for JPMorgan Chase, a white father grocery shopping in a Cheerios commercial, a differently-abled person playing the summer blockbuster Rom-Com lead… the obstacles to these becoming common symbols in the media are real and pervasive.
So perhaps the first step is in our imaginations, and in our willingness to put on media-literate goggles and ask, “What’s the primary object here? Why should that occupy the ‘positive’ as opposed to the ‘negative’ space? What makes it more important than what’s left out or secondary?” It’s when we start asking these questions that we liberate our minds. By questioning what’s given, considering whether we agree or disagree, deciding whether these values support the world we desire, or help us wake up to what’s important, we can imagine alternatives that don’t yet exist. We can find the inspiration and the courage to take action in some way: to voice dissent, demand different versions of our world than what we see in the media, become more empowered members in our communities.
Angela Martenez is a non-fiction writer, documentary maker and community mediator. Follow her on Twitter: @AngelaMartenez