Monthly Archives: March 2012

Minutia reception analysis

Methods for understanding the moment-by-moment reception of interactive media

Oftentimes in media studies that focus on understanding media reception by the audience or the user, there is a focus on reception writ large and post-hoc. That is, there is a tendency to consider the reactions to a media product by the audience/user after the engagement has occurred and as an aggregate of engagements instead of specific situations of engagement. Such has been the tradition of self-reports that rely on recalling the experience of engaging with the media, with the oft-discussed problems of recall bound into the results: chiefly, the loss of focus on specific aspects of the engagement, due to faulty memory, inattention, or social desirability. The unique flavors of specific situations of engagement are further lost when audiences/users are asked to speak about their engagements “on average”, reducing differences in situations with the assumption that the differences within individuals are less important than the differences between individuals. Perhaps these problems were not as egregious in the era of non-interactive media.

However, when media require higher amounts of interaction, such that each choice becomes a potential pivot point for change in an engagement, then the differences within individuals can be as important as the difference between individuals. To that end, method/ologies that address how to measure media engagement within specific situations as they occur could become more desirable. Drawing on empirical applications, this paper makes the argument for learning from such method/ologies in order to understand the minutia or moment-by-moment reception that occurs when engaging with interactive media.

Worksheet

Playing Digital Games as Scaffolding

[This is a research proposal from 2005 on how a child’s cognitive developmental level could interact with digital games’ formal features.  The entire proposal, with references, can be found here.]

Introduction

The history of the mass media has born witness to a chief concern: how will interacting with this or that medium and/or its content impact our children?  So it was with film, comic books, television, the Internet, and now digital games.  The term digital games is used to refer to any form of interactive gameplay that requires a level of computer technology in order to operate, and thus subsumes games that could be found on computers (i.e. computer games), consoles or even handheld devices (the latter two are referred to as videogames).  Regardless of the actual device one uses to play the game, such games all share the characteristics of visual stimuli that are responsive to the input of the player due to the processing capabilities of the game’s programming.

It is this responsiveness aspect of digital games that has worried society and set it apart from television or any other visually-based medium.  Researchers who study television have repeatedly used social learning theory’s proposition of observational learning to explain how television could teach aggressive or other bad habits to the child viewer.  In digital games, the ability for the child to virtually perform aggressive behavior allows for a different type of learning through direct modeling, and such modeling may increase the possibility of the child engaging in the negative behavior after playing the game.  At the same time, this interactive feature, along with other aspects of digital games, has been studied as providing greater cognitive abilities due to the requirements of the gameplay.

gameyourbrain-600x270

As it applies to other media, whether or not playing digital games can have an effect may hinge upon the ability of the child to attend to and comprehend the game with which they are engaging.  This supposition arises out of research in education and media studies regarding the link between attending to some stimuli, the ability to attend the stimuli, and thus the capacity for learning from that stimuli.  Being able to perceive and comprehend a stimulus can result in higher attention, which can lead to greater comprehension and then more learning.  This attention/comprehension (A/C) cycle is also dependent upon the cognitive capabilities of the child, as some children may be more or less able to attend to and/or comprehend the content of a stimuli based on their cognitive developmental age.

While digital games do share some formal features with television and film, the level of active participation required to engage with the games sets them apart.  While some of the research then on attention/comprehension of television content may be applicable to digital games, this added dimension to the games requires approaching this medium as a unique entity.  This entails conducting research as to how well children at different cognitive development levels can interact with digital games.

The first part of this study was designed to understand how well a young child can interact with this active medium:

Research Question 1: How does the cognitive developmental level of a child interact with the specific formal features of digital games to impact the child’s gameplay experience?

As a means of understanding the comprehension aspect of the A/C cycle, as well as exploring a basic level effect possible from gameplay, this study also explored how engaging with a specific digital game may impact the child’s cognitive abilities.  In this case, the cognitive ability of interest was spatial reasoning:

Research Question 2:  Does engaging with a digital game that is based on spatial reasoning skills provide scaffolding for children of less developed spatial reasoning skills?

If it can be found that younger children can learn new cognitive skills by engaging with digital games, and yet they are limited in doing so due to the cognitive requirements of current games, then hopefully the end result of this research would allow game designers and educators to take the next step to developing games for younger audiences.

Highlighting the attention/comprehension cycle

Learning either bad behaviors or good cognitions from the content of a mass medium is dependent on whether or not the content is even being attended to and comprehended.  Fundamental to the definition of digital games, visual attention has been shown to be important in attracting young children’s attention to the screen.  According to research, attention to a medium is an active cognitive transaction between the viewer, the medium and the viewing environment.  Visual attention can be cued into being active due to features of the content and/or medium (to be discussed shortly), and it is the very nature of digital games that creates a need for active visual attention.

Not only are digital games potentially more attractive and thus more likely to garner more attention due to the visual action inherent in them, but the nature of active participation, or interaction, necessary to further the game’s content also attracts children.  According to research, there is a predictable pattern that children are attracted to activities that allow them to have involvement or control over the content.  In the case of digital games, it is likely a child will be very active in attending to the game not only because the interaction requires it to further the content but also because they are interested in having a measure of control as allowed by the medium.

The link of attention to learning also requires consideration of comprehension.  A child cannot simply look at a page to learn about what Jane and Dick are doing.  The child needs to be able to comprehend that the words and pictures refer to Jane and Dick doing something.  Thus, in the model from attention to learning, comprehension plays a significant role.  However, the relationship of attention and comprehension resulted in somewhat of a chicken-and-egg dilemma: is comprehension necessary for a child to attend to something; does a child need to attend to something first to comprehend it; or is there an interactive nature to the relationship?

While researchers have come down on either side of this A/C cycle, some researchers maintain that attention and comprehension reside not in a linear relationship but in a cyclical loop.  This is the belief that visual attention is maintained by the viewer’s ability to comprehend the content and the need to answer questions posed by comprehensibility of the content.  When content is harder to comprehend, then attention to it may be higher, but learning from it may be lower than if the reverse was true.

As digital games have such a high level of active participation required, this interaction would engender continuous attention to the visual stimuli; thus, there is a cycle between the interaction and visual aspects of digital games to assure that the player’s attention is on the game.  This assurance should hold at all levels of comprehensibility, and possibly at low levels on incomprehensibility, where the player may remain motivated to overcome an obstacle.  However, at higher levels of incomprehensibility, frustration may mount to the point that the game is discarded, thereby breaking the A/C cycle.  The perception of incomprehensibility may vary depending on the player’s cognitive ability level as it impacts their ability to process the information of the game and interact with the game.

According to research, the control of viewing a medium is with the viewer, based on experience with the medium, familiarity with the specific program, level of cognitive development, and general world knowledge.  In specific to viewing television, they promote the idea that children have a schemata for how to comprehend television content, and that children without this schemata will not attend to the television should some alternative activity be provided.  Thus, a child’s age, which relates both to cognitive ability and overall experience with a medium, would impact the A/C cycle, and this interaction would then become dependent on the features found in either the content and/or the medium as to how well the resulting attention, comprehension and learning would be.

Formal features and attention/comprehension cycle

While sharing characteristics with other media, television is studied separately for its immediacy and interwoven nature in everyday life.  Besides this medium specific characteristic, there are other attributes of the medium that can be found across its content, and these characteristics can become perceptually salient features in that they elicit attention from the viewer, such as action, pace, visual techniques, verbal and nonverbal auditory events.  These features of television can serve to cue in the viewer when to attend to the content as well as guide how to interpret it.  These characteristics can also be found in most digital games as content features, but it is mostly the difference in medium features this study proposes to explore.

Television and digital games differ along the dimension of active participation.  While there are television shows designed to elicit participation from the audience, these programs do not allow moment-to-moment manipulation of content, an interaction possible in digital games due to the processing capacity of the computer and possibly artificial intelligence programming.  Interactivity as a feature places a demand for certain levels of biological and cognitive development from the player.

A primary skill in being able to engage in this interaction is the ability to coordinate what one sees with the movements of one’s hands in order to properly interact with the stimuli.  According to Piaget, such hand-eye coordination, a sensorimotor skill, can provide the foundation for later cognitive abilities, which is why the attainment of this skill is located within the first few years of life.  This is a skill attainable via non-mediated experience, like all the skills related to television and digital game features.

Another feature and skill is divided attention.  Divided visual attention is the need for dealing with simultaneous events at several locations on the screen.  While it may be useful in television viewing to pick up incidental or peripheral information, divided attention is imperative in digital games where any part of the screen may require the player’s attention at any time or else the game is over.  In fact, those with more experience playing digital games do indeed show better ability at being able to spread their attention around the screen, an ability that has useful real-world applications.  This divided attention informs another cognitive requirement, parallel processing, which refers to taking in information from various sources simultaneously and incorporating this information into a coherent whole.

The ability to coalesce information from across the screen leads to another aspect of gameplay.  The rules are not all spelled out and often times the fun of the game, that which draws players to it, lies in the challenge of determining the way to succeed.  Not only does the player need to understand the content patterns, but the player must be able to understand how to coordinate the interactivity skills as well as how to attend to the variety of visual information being supplied.  Inductive comprehension then occurs in regards to both content and medium features.  Digital games are thus a confluence of numerous elements that demand and facilitate different forms of participation and activity.

But like television attention and comprehension, the chicken-and-egg scenario again arises.  Are these skills necessary for engaging successfully with the game, or can they be manifested by interacting with the game?  Or could it be that some necessary level of skills is required to even begin to engage with the game, but then through engagement these skills can be heightened?  As others have speculated, younger children may not have enough real-world perceptual experience to properly comprehend formal features as representing certain types of information.  As discussed in the A/C cycle, that could then mean the player would be less likely to attend to this content, which would further weaken their comprehension and their capacity to learn from the game.

While engaging with computers and digital games may increase cognitive skills, the content may be too abstract or too symbolic for preschoolers and young children to be able to cognitively handle, let alone master.  Digital games also require active participation, and television researchers acknowledge that while children can and do engage in active viewing of television, this is a strategy that develops across time through experience.  If the game features elements based on cognitive skills the child as not yet mastered, then their attention will be diminished by the lack of comprehensibility they find within the game.  Thus, the features of the game’s content as well as those of the medium itself may prevent younger children from successfully engaging with the game.

Hypothesis 1a: Less cognitively developed children are expected to perform worse and like the game less than more cognitively developed children when playing the chosen game, Tetris®.

Hypothesis 1b: Children who have more digital games and overall computer experience should perform and like the game best.

As mentioned above, a fundamental feature of gameplay is the need for divided attention to be able to monitor all parts of the screen.  However, children may also be likely to engage in selective attention, wherein a certain aspect is focused on while other information is filtered out as irrelevant.  Research has typically shown that younger children are less able to selectively attend than older children, but this does not mean the child will be able to effectively divide attention either.  While the younger child may look all over the screen, it is unclear whether or not this would improve their gameplay.  A younger child may randomly look at one spot at a time when they should be looking somewhere else.

Hypothesis 2:  Younger children will spend more time looking at various random locations on the screen than older children.

Research Question 3: How will differences in using selective attention versus divided attention impact gameplay outcomes and evaluations?

Learning from digital games

Social learning theory predicts that children can learn behaviors and cognitions if they observe said activity being positively modeled.  This theory has long been applied to mediums that allow only observation; however, digital games are not one of these media. Greenfieldsuggested there were three types of learning: enactive, done through use of the body; iconic, done through use of a visual system; and symbolic, done through the use of words.  All three types of learning are possible from digital games, coinciding with social learning theory, but it is the enactive possibility that contains both concern and promise.  Digital games could be a tool for socialization, based on the theorizing of Vygotsky about the possible use of cultural artifacts and tools to be used to improve cognitive abilities in children, or how society can teach their youth by example rather than rote instruction.  Being interactive could allow digital games to be a source of enhanced learning, but virtually embodying the cognitions and behaviors of some game characters could also increase exposure to risky, inappropriate content.

There have been numerous studies exploring the link between violent video games and aggression in the player.  Both correlational and causal research has found a link between playing violent games and either acting, thinking or feeling aggressive.  The main concern lies in the active participation aspect of video games, which is said to lead to increased learning due to rehearsal and repetition.  Research has found that immersion in a virtual reality game lead to higher levels of aggressive thoughts as well as physiological arousal.  But immersion and interaction are two related but distinct forms of cognitive engagement with a digital game.

Other studies, looking specifically at interaction, have compared playing a digital game to watching someone else play the game.  If a child’s ability to interact with a violent game would be more likely to increase aggression, then there should be a difference between these two children.  However, this has not been observed to be the case.  This difference between interaction and observation was also found in the context of more positive results.

While perhaps just a stepping stone between exposure and negative effects, another branch of digital games research has looked at how the use of such technology can foster cognitive skills like visual and verbal intelligence.  Use of computers and digital games have been found to improve children’s ability to comprehend spatial relations, fine motor skills, premathematical knowledge and even self-concept.

Scaffolding was a concept derived from the work of Vygotsky to describe how a more cognitively advanced tutor could instruct and aid in the development of certain skills for a learner.  As long as the learner is within a proper zone of proximal development, which would be a cognitive developmental level advanced enough that the new task is not completely impossible, then this gradual instruction process should allow the child to further their development, possibly even reaching new abilities faster than would have occurred without the scaffolding.  The concept, applied to the education field since the 1980s, has been studied most recently with the possibility that computer technology could provide similar results in classrooms where the teacher may not be able to interact with each child individually.

As a computer technology, digital games may provide this same scaffolding in the context of informal learning and entertainment.  Digital games can model behavior needed to overcome an obstacle, such as learning how to manipulate shapes to fit with other shapes or where to point a gun to kill a bad guy.  Not only does the game allow the player to enact these behaviors and abilities under a reward-punishment framework, but often this modeling occurs over numerous attempts, and it is this repetition that can ingrain these behaviors and abilities in the player.  Thus, in order to successfully interact with a digital game, a player must be able to model the encouraged behavior or ability, which may require numerous repetitions in which the behavior or ability is refined.

For this particular study, the debate between good and bad effects is set aside to focus on spatial abilities and attention.  Three important factors to spatial representation: spatial relations ability, capacity to rapidly mentally transform objects; spatial visualization; ability to deal with complex visual problems which require imagining the inner movements of objects; and perceptual speed, ability to rapidly encode and compare visual forms.

Digital games may aid in the formation of these skills through repetition and trial-and-error experience, which is a part of scaffolding.  This has been found, but among older children who theoretically would have already acquired an understanding of these spatial abilities.  Children in Piaget’s preoperational stage have difficulty with spatial problems and may be less likely to be able to engage with a digital game for which this ability is necessary (Hypotheses 1); that is, the game may be less comprehensible, requiring more attention and resulting in less learning.  However, children at a later period of preoperational may be able to further their spatial abilities by engaging in such a game, and thus the game would serve as a scaffolding device.

Hypothesis 2a: Repeated exposure to the digital game should improve the child’s spatial abilities when compared to control group of same level, but the child would not increase to meet with different level.

Hypothesis 2b: Children at the end of preoperational should show the most improvement in their spatial abilities after playing the game.

Raging Bull: Sounds of Obsession

The academic society calls cinema a visual art because it captures moving some slice of reality and from it creates a piece of art through manipulations of time and space.  Rarely is cinema referred to as an auditory art because the main focus in experiencing a movie is commonly in watching how the film represents reality.  The sound of a “talkie” is therefore regarded as a tagalong, an expected companion to the reality as it is seen.  One would expect a car crash in real-life to produce some type of sound, and the same expectation is applied to the big screen.

However, sound can play an important part in helping express the narrative of the film by creating a pathway through which the viewer experiences the film’s reality.  Sound can direct attention, establish mood, and even distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys.  Sound can be an expected partner to the visual, but it can also be unexpected (ex., two cars crashing together sounding like a quacking duck.)  The unexpected sound can change the viewer’s experience of the narrative.

Such is the case in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull where through unexpected and unusual sound the narration is spun.  Certain repetitions and parallels of different sounds through the progress of the plot give the viewer the omniscient ability to glimpse the workings of the main character’s head and thus allow the viewer to experience the story on a more subjective level.  The viewer witnesses Jake La Motta’s life from his point of view and learns why his life deteriorated into violence  because of an obsession with a woman.

Read the rest of this entry

So, Why Did the Media Fail You?

[This post comes from a 2005 research proposal studying how the media was perceived as hindering people.  The entire proposal, with full citations and references, can be found here.]

Broadcasting or traditional media have been studied by the uses and gratifications perspective (UGP) to uncover the reasons people use traditional media (television, radio, newspapers, even film), and as a means of understanding how the gratification of the need can result in the media affecting the user.  The perspective is concerned with how an individual’s motives generate expectations of the media, which leads to certain types of media use in the hope of gratifying the initial need, while at the same time possibly resulting in other consequences.  UGP is essentially an umbrella, describing a research interest, and by itself does not theorize the why’s and how’s of the relationship between the need, the user and the media.  It has instead served as the paradigmatic foundation from which various media choice, use and attributes theories have sprung.  While UGP has focused on creating typologies of gratifications sought and obtained, there has been less research in the paradigm as to how traditional media fails to gratify the user or the context from which the motivations to use the media arise.

The purpose of this study was to investigate what led media users to be dissatisfied with their interaction with the media.  Possible reasons may be found in the characteristics of the medium, its message, the situation, the situation-specific needs of the user, or some combination thereof.  As this study focused on the content analysis of an already completed qualitative/quantitative interview, the main goal was to understand the perceived characteristics the users saw as the cause of their dissatisfaction.  This goal was chosen to empirically and theoretically illuminate certain aspects at the core of UGP that have remained in the dark, as well as providing insight into the practical application of the mass media in everyday life.

What UGP tells us, and what it doesn’t

While UGP has been criticized for being atheoretical, the perspective has generated a number of theories designed to explain the relationship between an individual’s needs, their media use and the effects of this use on themselves and subsequent media interactions.

Read the rest of this entry

Interacting with an Gender Ambiguous Computer Entity

[From a 2005 research proposal that went no where, but can be found here.]

From Feminine to Masculine, and the In-Between

How we perceive the people around us will impact how we interact with them everyday.  Commonly, what we can expect from an individual is primarily based on the person’s appearance, as visual cues can trigger certain stereotypic or experiential information stored in our memory or schemas.  The perceptions triggered by visual cues can be modified by subsequent information from the individual’s behavior or situational cues surrounding the individual.  Whether we like it or not, research has consistently shown that humans are prone to judge a book by its cover.  One main piece of information humans gather to facilitate their interaction is based upon how they perceive the other person’s gender, as gender is a main schema with a variety of psychological traits and behaviors attached to it.  If we have an idea as to the gender of the person we are interacting with, then we can better predict how they will respond to what we say or do.

Read the rest of this entry

Ugetsu, Intertextuality, and the Western Spectator

I want to start off by taking what may be a radical position on how I am conceptualizing film or really any media text.  I’m going to take the position of stripping these texts of their accoutrements, designer labels like “entertainment” versus “new” or “high culture” versus “low culture,” and instead I am going to focus on an underlying genetic structure: the text as an information source, whereby the information could be put to any use the user requires of it.  With that being said (and understanding I may have to defend, amend, and possibly sublate my position), I am interested in how the user of the text (in this case, the spectator of the film) understands and uses the text.

I state all of this in order to interrogate how the Western spectator may understand the information presented in a text like Ugetsu, which relies on Japanese conventions and intertexuality in creating the narrative and the structure of the portrayal.

Read the rest of this entry

Buffy and Public Discourse on Women’s Health

After Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended it’s television run, Joss Whedon inked a deal with Dark Horse Comics to continue the storyline in comic form.  What started with “Season 8″ in 2007 has since become “Season 9″.  The current season finds Buffy in a world without magic, balancing living as a young, working gal in San Francisco with being a slayer of the vampyres.

This balancing act, emblematic of the series and character as a whole, climaxed in a controversial event in the February issue.  Making Whedon seem clairvoyant, it even refers to, and thereby is involved in, the current political and public discourse in the United States surrounding women’s health issues.

In my latest column as Dr. Geek for Clearance Bin Review, I review this controversial event.  Warning: it is a spoiler if you have not been keeping up with the trades for the comic series.  And, also warning, it is very disappointing what they did after all of this talk.

I’ll admit it.  I liked Joss Whedon’s 1992 Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie.  I did not see the movie when it first premiered: I saw it a couple years later.  When, I do not recall completely.  What I do recall is that I had already been watching The X-Files and had fallen completely in love with the series.  For me, what these two very different genre pieces shared was their portrayal of a strong woman in a man’s world.  A man’s world in terms of their respective universes: the G-men and the Helsings.  And a man’s world in terms that they were strong female leads that were not scantily clad eye candy for teenage boys or boy-men in genre pieces that have seen this hypersexualization be the norm for far too long.  Being a teenage girl who loved the scifi and fantasy genres, but did not want to be that kinda gal, I was immensely drawn to these women.

When Buffy reemerged in the far superior television series bearing the same name, with a much more fleshed out conceptualization of a female Slayer, and a much better actress playing her, I was in college, but still I was drawn to her.  I have been a loyal Buffy fan, and Whedonite, since.  Meeting him and making him laugh is one of the highlights of my time in Los Angeles.

Now, this is not a piece to extol the many reasons why Buffy is a feminist icon: an entire subset of academic studies focuses on the topic.  What I want to discuss in this piece is what happened in this month’s issue of the comic book series that took up Buffy’s story after the television series concluded.  Thus, what I want to discuss is a spoiler for anyone who has not been keeping up with the monthly issues – or has not heard the controversy about this most recent issue.  The reason I want to tread into such spoiler country in this column is because of how eerily prescient the issue is for the current political discourse of the United States.  And what hot button social-cultural-political topic is this issue a part of?

SPOILER ALERT

.

.

.

Abortion.  Women’s health.  Contraceptives.  The right to choose.  You know, just this little topic we’ve seen exploding all over the campaign trail and the news for all of February.

In the February 8th issue of the comic series deemed the 9th season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy deals with the truth that came to light at the end of the previous issue.  It would seem that after a heavy night of partying in issue #1 of this 9th season, Buffy became immensely drunk – as can happen to a woman who is, after all, still in her mid-20s – and apparently slept with someone of the opposite sex, a man she cannot recall.  At the end of the January issue, after having to deal with a new threat to herself and vampires alike, she learns that this one-night stand has left her pregnant.

The February issue is then a journey for Buffy to discuss this matter with her nearest and dearest, to gather their opinions on what she should do.  Concurrently, the issue also tells us more about the only known Slayer to have actually been pregnant and decided to keep the child: Nikki, the Slayer of the 1970s, the last Spike killed, and the mother of Robin, with whom Buffy has a lengthy conversation in the issue.

Buffy seeking advice from Nikki the Vampire Slayer’s son, Robin.

Through these two parallel storylines, the reader is presented with multiple arguments for and against a Slayer – not just a woman, but a woman with such a great responsibility and threat on her life – having a child.  This story-arc is yet the latest in the ongoing tension the Buffy series has explored that has questioned whether or not the Slayer can have a “normal” life.

The question over the “normal” life, quite common in other genre pieces (think any superhero story, or even the struggles of Scully and Mulder), reflects a tension in our society and culture.  A tension that is largely one only women have to deal with: the choice between having a family and having a career.  While there are undoubtedly men in our country who wrestle with this problem, their struggle is seen more as individual issues.  For the women of our country, after the feminist movement, this individual issue became heightened into a social, cultural and political one.  It is the question of how does the woman, still seen as the primary caregiver in a family, balance the needs and demands of her family with the needs and demands of a career that is more than just a job?

Many other issues are related to this question.  Chief among them has been the issue of contraceptives and abortions: the ability for women to have more control over just when they become that caregiver and have to balance those opposed roles of mother and career.  Thus, when Buffy finds herself pregnant, and questioning whether she is ready – or even capable, given her particular “vocation” – to have a child, after already failing on the use of contraceptives, she is left with only one other option to consider: whether or not to get an abortion.

This consideration is what leads her, at the end of this issue, to seek out Spike, who may or may not be the father, and ask for his help in obtaining an abortion.

Buffy seeking help from Spike, her one time (and future?) lover.

Both Whedon and series writer Andrew Chambliss have discussed their decision to have this storyline.  For Chambliss, the decision was rooted in Buffy’s emotional journey as a young woman and a Slayer.  For Whedon, speaking to Entertainment Weekly, the decision was also rooted in a desire to provide an approach to abortion that is not commonly seen in pop culture.

As would be expected, the issue lit up fan discussion boards, blogs, and comments sections across cyberspace.  Even mainstream media sources, such as USA Today in the US and The Guardian and The Daily Mail in the UK, have covered the issue.  Progressive commenters have commended Whedon for taking the stance and endorsing this storyline.  Conservative commenters have questioned Whedon’s storytelling and handling of the topic.

Among the fans, their reactions run the gamut of opinions seen whenever a news item about abortion is posted.   There are those who support the portrayal of Buffy deciding to have an abortion and laud Whedon for his choice as a storyteller.

Reactions from overseas via The Guardian.

Then there are those who do not support abortion and decry the decision Buffy is making in the issue.

Reactions from the blog The Mary Sue.

Finally, there are those who do not necessarily come out for or against abortion, but question the decision as it relates to their understanding of the canon the decision comes out of.

Reactions from mainstream press USA Today.

All this being said, and still being said across cyberspace, having Buffy decide to get an abortion is most likely not going to sway pro-life supporters to suddenly start accepting abortion as an acceptable course of action.  Nor will it do much to create dialogue between the extreme sides in this debate.

However, Whedon was not attempting to solve the debate by having Buffy make this decision.  He said the storyline is a response to representations of young women in pop culture accidentally getting pregnant and then not seriously wrestling with the question of whether or not to get an abortion.  In this issue, the word “abortion” was not even mentioned until the end.  Instead of being a very covert “after-school special”, the issue was a long exploration of Buffy’s options, of her search to determine what is the best course of action for her, as juxtaposed with the same soul-searching Nikki undertook some four decades earlier.  Nikki ultimately choose to have her child, had even vowed to give up her destiny, but in the end her “career”, for lack of a better term, was her calling, and she died because of it.  Her death left Robin emotionally scarred, but, yes, he was alive because of her choice.  The issue is a reflection of what Buffy has always been, as a character and as a television series: a focus on what it means to be a woman in modern times, balancing the demands placed on her with what she wants to do and what she feels capable of doing.

Whedon is right (imagine, me, a Whedonite, saying that!): we do not talk much about abortion in our pop culture.  While there are instances of portrayals that are frank, reasoned, and well thought out, they are few and far between.  Maude in 1972 had a more realistic appraisal of abortion as a woman’s choice, and that was before Roe vs. Wade made abortions legal in the United States.   Since it has been made legal, the issue has become too political, and too personal, for too many people for the pop culture machine of Hollywood to want to touch it.

And that is unfortunate.  We cannot have a modern society if we do not have a modern, mature conversation about the issues we face, including the ones we disagree most on.  And for many people who have not experienced abortion first- or even second-hand, they learn about this issue through the ways it is represented in the media.  Pop culture is a part of the public discourse: Whedon, through Buffy, is participating in this social and cultural discourse by creating discussion through this storyline.

Yes, he has a particular point-of-view that aligns with liberal sentiment on the issue.  But there are just as many, if not more, media personalities who espouse the opposite sentiment openly in their media products.  They have just as much right to be a part of this discussion as do the fans blogging and commenting on the media they create.  What they also have is an obligation to help shape this discussion through fair, truthful, and just representations.  What we have is an obligation to do the same in our conversations with one another.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 631 other followers

%d bloggers like this: