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Metaphors for making sense of virtual worlds

The following paper comes from a presentation given at ECREA in 2010 and at NCA in 2011 (the version of which can be found here on the blog). I submitted this paper to a journal, but never did anything with it after it was rejected. I still think there are interesting ideas in the paper, so I wanted to share it here.

Metaphors for making sense of virtual worlds:

Utilization of comparison processes to interpret and communicate novel experiences

      1.1. Introduction

How do we make sense of the world around us? When faced with a situation that is new to us, what do we do to understand what is happening and what is required of us? Such questions have been with us for thousands of years, whether faced by individuals within such situations, or addressed by organized scientific, philosophic, cultural or other fields of thought. Coming from a trajectory of reception studies and audience studies, these situations can be any time a person chooses a new book to read, watches a new motion picture, starts a new video game, or enters a virtual world for the first time. In engaging in these activities, people bring into the situation any number or type of cognitive and emotive behaviours to help them through it. From expectations based on knowledge of the media product’s genre to information gleaned from word-of-mouth critiques, our experiences can help us make sense of the content and the technology with which we engage.

This article considers how people utilized their personal experiences to make sense of the first time they stepped into two specific virtual worlds. In an experiment for the Danish Virtual Worlds Research Project, relative novices engaged with four types of media products, including a game world, City of Heroes, and a social world, Second Life (Reinhard, 2010). The participants were interviewed about their experiences by utilizing Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology (SMM) to inform the data collection and analysis. What emerged during the study were participants making comparisons between what they were doing and either what they had done or knew of to make sense of these new experiences. In other words, they were describing their experiences metaphorically: they were making comparative statements linking two entities based on some perceived similarity or dissimilarity. They were looking for overlaps between experiences in order to transfer knowledge and/or skills from the familiar to the unfamiliar.

This article begins with defining the nature of the virtual worlds and the conceptualization of sense-making. After an introduction of the methodology and method of data collection and analysis, the metaphors are presented for how they relate to specific sense-making instances: the questions people voiced, and how they felt helped or hindered in the media engaging experience. The analysis is then used to discuss the utility of metaphors as part of the sense-making process, and how the study of people’s metaphors could assist designers to create technology and content to better facilitate people’s experiences with virtual worlds.

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My Philosophy of Media Reception Studies

Along with my thoughts on the encoding-decoding-recoding model, what follows comes from my dissertation on gendered media engagings and describes how I consider the fundamental elements of media reception and audience studies.

What are media products?      

Media products are the technologies, channels and contents that constitute our understanding of what is ‘the media’. They are the items produced for the purposes of disseminating meaning in the form of information, whether or not it is deemed to be entertaining, from one person to other(s). All three aspects are necessary in order to transmit meaning from sender to receiver; that is, a media product exists as some combination of the three. Thus, for example, the media product Orange is the New Black is a specific content that exists only in the Netflix channel which utilizes online technology. When these three aspects converge, we can analyze them as ‘texts’ in that they are created by human beings to serve human beings and are thus imprinted with the meaning-making processes of human beings that can be decoded.

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An Encoding-Decoding-Recoding Model of Media Studies

This blog posts continues the dissection of my dissertation that I began by introducing the topic of gendered media engagings earlier this year. This post focuses on a model I used in my dissertation to understand the array of media studies conducted to investigate the ways in which gender is involved in how people engage with media products. As with so many interested in understanding audience reception of the media, I have been highly influenced by the late, great Stuart Hall’s work on what has become known as the “encoding/decoding model” in media studies. Now, I, with much humility, wonder if this classic model could be improved with one more step: recoding.

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Problems with Perceptions in Fandom

Part of the process of understanding the phenomenon of fractured fandom is to gather stories that thematically reveal its nature, such as my ongoing analysis of how My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fans reacted to the feature film Equestria Girls and its soon-to-be sequel Rainbow RocksThe more stories we can gather, then the more we can learn (tweet your stories with #fracturedfandom, whether the fandom is pop culture, sport, literary, religious, political or otherwise). 

Another part of the process is to theorize from these stories the reasons for the fractures.  The session I attended at C2E2 on sexist tensions in geekdom is only one of a multitude of places in which we can have such discussions.  In my post responding to that session, I focused on answering this “why” question by examining what we could consider to be masculine anxieties about their fandom including women and feminine fan activities.  In this post, I want to add upon what was discussed at that session by bringing in a more psychological approach to attempting to answer the “why” question.

Essentially, I want to consider the issue of perceptions — and misperceptions — people have as fans, about fans, about themselves, and how these views of the world can impact how they make sense of it and act within it.

If we consider the idea broadly, then we can think of a perception as a layer between our inner self and the outer world.  We have a range of bodily sensations (i.e. touch, taste, sight, sound, smell) that are our way of knowing what is outside of use (and sometimes what is happening inside of us, such as a growling and rumbling hungry stomach or a sweaty palm of embarrassment).  However, we do not just take in these sensations to know the world unfiltered.  If you were not able to filter out what you were listening to while walking down the street, then you would not be able to listen to music and talk to someone simultaneously.  We can select what we attend to, what we filter out, in order for our sensations to not overwhelm us and thus allow us to cope in the world.

Sometimes we consciously choose what we want to attend to — i.e. your lover’s declaration of love over the football game on the television — while at other times such attention is more unconsciously determined.  I think the only reason I do not bump into more students on campus with their eyes glued to their smart phones is because, unconsciously, they are attentive enough to their surroundings so as to look up mere moments before such a collision would occur.  All of this means is that sometimes we are aware of the reasons we have for directing attention as we do, while at other times that reason may not be directly available for us to recall.  There can be a multitude of reasons for our selective attention (seriously, see all the psychological studies).  And beyond just determining what we may attend to, these reasons can also impact how we attend to them.

That is to say, the reasons can impact how we perceive of these sensations, of what is happening in the world around us or even in our own bodies.  We may perceive a sensation in such a way that it helps us to make sense of ourselves, of others, of the world.  We can interpret this thing we are attending to in a certain way given some way of thinking or feeling — some attitude — we have about that thing.  If we believe the thing to be good, then our perception will be different than if we believe it to be bad.  How we attend, perceive, interpret, make-sense of that thing will impact what we do about it.  If we perceive grilled meat to be a good thing, then the smell of it could make us hungry; if we perceive eating meat as being ethically wrong, then the smell will turn us off.

All of which is to say that, psychologically speaking, how a fan perceives other fans, the fandom, and even the object of affection can impact how they act with other fans, and thus could be implicated in causing fractured fandom.

Not exactly a positive perception of fans at work here.

Not exactly a positive perception of fans at work here.

According to the panel discussion at C2E2, there remains a misperception by those in fandom that the identities of “geek” and “women” are not compatible.  Apparently the perception in fandom, which perhaps reflects the larger social and cultural perception, is that being geeky is unfeminine, or that more feminine you are the less of true geek you are because fandom is a guy thing.  And this is not just occurring within pop culture fandoms — this assumption has long been the perception in sports fandoms, which have been positioned traditionally as areas of masculinity.  So based on this perception of fandoms as masculine, women assume that to fit in they have to diminish their femininity so as to not get shit for participating in it.  And based on this perception of the larger culture/society that fandom is feminine, that might be why we have male nerds/geeks pushing back by asserting their masculinity so as not to feel threatened by the influx of female nerds/geeks (see previous post).

Additionally, perception can come in through this concept that was discussed called “imposter syndrome,” a term to describe the feeling a person will get if he or she does not feel that she is worthy of the position s/he is in.  It is the fear of being “found out” that one is not as smart or as creative or as tough etc etc as the people with whom we are working.  Which means it is a perception about ourselves and about others, and about how others are better than ourselves.  Since we perceive ourselves as not as good as those around us, we may set a higher bar for ourselves to achieve the goal because we feel we are not as worthy as those around us.

How this relates to fandom goes back to the perception that the fandom is intended as a masculine space, and that the texts and activities that constitute the fandom are directed at men.  A women then might perceive that is not like these men, is not part of the target community of the fandom, and thus may feel like an imposter in their midst.  This could mean that she is afraid of doing more in the fandom because she is afraid of being found out as an imposter.  As discussed at the panel, this perception that is the imposter syndrome can also involve and/or lead to internalized sexism, racism, etc, as the perceive perceives the difference and comes to accept it as “normal.”  Overall, this perception results in a potential shutting down of dialogue on the problems that can lead to a fractured fandom, which thereby leads to a perpetuation of the sexism, racism, and other -isms that fracture fandoms.

Many potential solutions to the issues of sexism in fandom were discussed at the panel, from the need to get members of target community, allies, to step in with their voice and power to having these allies help make marginalized voices louder by moderating online spaces to become dialogic discursive places (such as this mentioned example). The idea being that there needs to be improved empathy, identification, and perspective-taking among those of the target community who may be unwittingly perceiving the women as imposters and treating them as such.  At the same time, the panel discussed the need for more and better enforcement of anti-harrassment policies at conventions.

However, as was mentioned, push-back to such policies does exist as people don’t think the policies are necessary — perhaps because do not perceive that there is a problem, or they do not want to perceive there is a problem.  Those pushing back may not not like to think that their favorite spaces need such policing.  Fans do not want to see other fans as problematic because we are all fans, which has been increasingly positioned as a positive, as something to celebrate.  And then there is also a defensiveness as people perceive themselves as the target while they do not perceive themselves that way: “I am not that guy, so why imposing on me?”

Which brings up another perception that could be causing push-back — the perception that proving harassment could be entirely one-sided, “he-said she-said,” meaning that a woman could perceive harassment where none was intended, making the case be one of his word versus her word.  We see the same argument, the same perception, in the public discourse over rape.  And while I would never say it all comes down to misperceptions, it may be possible for such misperceptions to play a role — and if men in particular perceive the role of misperceptions, well, then they could play a big role in the push-back to these policies, and indeed to the way they treat women in fandom in general.

In the paper I heard at PCA on fake geek girls, one reason for why it occurs mentioned the idea of a compulsory heterosexual discourse.  In a sense, men see women engaging, particularly, in cosplay where they wear revealing costumes and perceive these women as wanting sexual attention from men.  The men would then believe the actions of these women allows them to objectify the women and not take their interest in the fandom seriously.  Therefore, the men may be misperceiving the reason the women cosplay, and this misperception could be impacting how the men view female fans and thus how they act towards them.  It is that old standard of “she was asking for it” that permeates and perpetuates rape culture and misogynistic extremism.

Finally, perception can work in a trickier way than what I have already discussed.  In psychology, there is a concept called cognitive dissonance.  Cognitive dissonance is the idea that sometimes a person will have an attitude — a belief and a feeling — about something but then act in a way that completely contradicts what they believe and feel.  Say you know that eating too much bacon is bad for your health, but you still order bacon every chance that you get.  Well, there is the chance then that you might feel cognitive dissonance — you may feel guilty about ordering and eating so much bacon.  That negative feeling of guilt is the dissonance — it’s the feeling bad that could also manifest in shame, embarrassment, sadness.  It is a negative state of being that we humans do not like being in.

Because cognitive dissonance is not a nice state to be in, we will find ways to alleviate it.  If you keep order and eating that bacon, then you may do an activity to alleviate the guilt, such as going to the gym every day you eat bacon.  Or you might change your beliefs and rationalize how the amount of bacon you eat is not actually all that bad for your health given how young you are.  There are a number of strategies you could employ to help you feel better about your guilt, such as stopping eating pork bacon all together.  All of this is to say that while we do not like feeling bad when our behaviors do not match our attitudes, we humans have developed many ways of changing how we perceive things in order to deal with the dissonance.

And this concept of cognitive dissonance could be applied to explain the sexist tensions in geekdom.

For example, consider how men react to women who cosplay.  The men may be attracted to the women but may think that the women do not want them so the men will objectify and belittle the women.  The contradiction is in wanting to be near the women but then acting in a way that ensures such closeness will not occur.  The resulting dissonance could then be handled by rationalizing the women ultimately do not matter or that the women are asking for such demeaning treatment.

For another example, consider how men react when women, especially, demonstrate the sexist representations of women in the texts of the fandom.  The men may be (one can hope) agreeing that sexualization and sexist representations are bad, but then they also like the sexualization because they find it attractive, meaning they also like the text with the sexualization and want to continue to engage with text.  The contradiction is in how they view the sexualization and how they want to engage with it.  Ultimately, to deal with this dissonance, they may vehemently disagree that the sexualization is bad (that is, change their belief) or they may attack and belittle those arguing it is bad to sexualize (that is, enact a specific behavior) in order to belittle the argument itself, so as to not have to consider it any more.

Overall, I want to reiterate that these are just theories and ideas for how psychology and the science of perception could be causing the types of sexist tensions in geekdom that in some way cause fractures in fandoms.  Whether it is just basic misperceptions or more complicated cognitive dissonance, I do not think the psychological angle is enough to explain everything that is happening.  I think a social and cultural psychological angle could help, as we look to understand how the society and culture in which the fans exist are determining how they are making sense of their fandom.  Because the perceptions we have about ourselves and each other are often informed by what our society and culture says our beliefs and feelings should be.  They are inextricably woven together.  And in order to fully address the “why” question of fractured fandom, we will need to be able to look at this woven tapestry of, for example, cultural and social messages about gender appropriateness and our own sexist perceptions of people.

The Oddness of Old Comic Books

(This post originally appeared on Clearance Bin Review.  I am reposting it here given my interest in studying the morality of superheroes as well as my interest in understanding how people make sense of texts as they engage with them.  I also believe there is something to be said about the importance of the nature of the media technology through which the content is displayed; understanding the rhetoric of the interface can help us understand what is represented in the content and how people receive the content.  More on that later…)

I didn’t start reading superhero comics until the 1990s.  In fact, I didn’t get interested in superheroes at all until after the animated series for The X-Men and Batman.  I vaguely recall the Superfriends cartoon (and notice that I make a difference in calling it a cartoon), but if you remember it or have ever seen it, then you’ll probably understand why it didn’t really inspire me to care about superheroes.

I was a country girl without regular access to a comic book store, or any store for that matter, so I had no way to pick up floppies until I could start driving.  Before then, it was our family’s trips to Waldenbooks (oh how I miss you!) that allowed me to peruse their scant collection of floppies.  And the 1990s was before the rise of the trade collections in the various superhero universes.  My first real experience with floppies was scouring antique stores to find all of the issues that detailed the first clash between Bane and Batman — a series I still own to this day, even as I’ve sold off most of everything else, which included an X-Men 1990s-2000s collection, and a collection of the first year of The X-Files comic from Topps.

Which is all to say that I’ve haven’t read many of the comics from the 1980s or earlier, with my acquaintance with any decade’s output exponentially diminishing the further back in time they go.  My familiarity is with the Modern Age of comics, and not the Golden, Silver or Bronze Ages.

So whenever I do foray into those olden years, I always have the same question: what the hell was going on?

Two things in particular stand out to me when I read earlier comics: the content and how you read them.  And the further back in time you go, the weirder both seem when compared to the modern comics sensibilities.

For example, a number of people recently have been pointing out some of the absurdity and oddness that occurred in earlier comics.  Christina Blanch has discussed the downright misogynistic way Lois Lane was represented in early Superman comics.  Blogs such as Pleated Jeans have indicated the hilarity of the writing found in older comics, such as this panel that, taken out of context, seems to infer the long-standing belief of Batman and Robin’s real relationship:

Superdickery rests its foundation on displaying out of context panels and floppies covers that seem to indicate superheroes being abusive, mean, or just outright dicks.  While many of these images can be read with sexual innuendo (which may or may not have been intentional on the part of the original author), others are funny/disturbing given our modern attitudes towards gender equality, such as this one fromYesButNoButYes where the now feminist icon Wonder Woman is portrayed in the then acceptable femininity ridiculing way:

What we see in these examples are two things.  First, you have the writing style of the earlier comics being vastly different than the writing style of modern comics.  The language used was different, from exclamations like “great Caesar’s ghost!” or the famous “holy anything, Batman!” reflecting the lack of any type of curse words or potentially scandalous slang.  These comics came from an era in which comics producers were still abiding by the Comics Code Authority, instituted in 1954 as a response to the (faulty and false) allegations from Fredric Wertham about the corruption of the youth of the day by comic books.  The content, and thus language or writing, found in comics had to be more “wholesome”, which meant you had some truly bizarre fantastical stories with language that sounded more like Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver than any flesh-and-blood real life boy.

Second, this was also the period before any real reformation of civil rights and equality for women and minorities in the United States.  There was no real concern and outcry, like there is today, about the representation of non-whites and non-males.  Stereotypes abounded, sometimes resulting in some truly garish representations that make even conservatives wince today.  Much has been written about Wonder Woman’s early representation: she was a warrior woman, strong and independent, but the subtext of bondage ran throughout, with her as both the perpetrator or the victim, and perhaps playing to the fantasies of men, thus undermining her strength and status as a role model.  It would take the cultural revolutions of the late 1960s and into the 1970s for this aspect of comics content to start to become the modern content we know today.  (Even then, every generation seems to forget about the problem of displaying women as sexual objects, as DC Comic’s latest 52 relaunch has led to much outrage over the portrayal of their superheroines.)

But there is another reason that I find early comics so weird to read, and it relates to their writing techniques.  As artist and analyst Scott McCloud has pointed out in his book, Understanding Comics, when we read comics, we are reading the panels and then making inferences between them in the “white space” that borders panels.  The content of the panels gives us information about what is going on in a particular segment of time-space, and each segment can be different from one another, anywhere from a few seconds and a few feet to eons and parsecs.  The panels give us the gist of what is happening in the story, but it is up to us to fill in the white space with our ideas about what happens between these segments of time-space.  To do so is to learn how to do so: it is to develop the skills to read panels based narratives just as much as one develops the skills to read a text based narrative.  Which means that the less familiar you are with how to read a comic book, then perhaps the more help you need to do so.  This help can come from people who have had more experience than you, or it can come from the comic book itself, in the way that the content is given.

In earlier comic books, we find examples of the authors providing this help, through the ways their characters spoke, to each other and to themselves, and through the use of an omnipresent and omniscient narrator.  Some of the out of context panels we find funny now are funny because much of what the characters say or think in the panel is there to provide the reader with information that the reader may not have inferred from reading previous panels or even that very panel.

Characters provided a lot more exposition in the past than they do now.  And if characters didn’t provide it, then it was up to the narrator to help us understand what is going on, where it is going on, and when it is occurring.  Take for example the different uses of such narration from three time periods in Marvel comics, and how the narrator, who is not one of the characters, provides insight into what was happening or what the characters were thinking.

For the Fantastic Four, the narrator provides information that increases the suspense for the reader.  For the X-Men, the narrator provides information as to what different characters are thinking and feeling, helping to create empathy for the reader.  For the Avengers, the narrator has disappeared, allowing their dialogue and the visuals to demonstrate the drama of the situation.

Now, all of these have different authors, and there is something to be said for different authors having different writing styles.  But these examples are also illustrations of the general trend in comics over the past six decades.  Increasingly the narrator has disappeared from comics pages; also disappearing is the preponderance of dialogue between characters or character’s inner monologue that explain what is going on.  The focus has been increasingly placed on the visuals of comic books, relying on character expressions or film style composition to relay information that previously would have required narrators, dialogue or monologue.

The lack of such text-based exposition tools perhaps also highlights that authors believe comic book readers are literate enough to understand what is happening without having to so explicitly tell them.  Many of these modern comic books are being written for fans who have grown up reading comic books, and so they know the techniques for telling stories through panels: they have the skills to read the visuals and do not need the hand-holding provided for by the text-based exposition tools.  However, this means many of today’s comics are not being written for a younger audience who many not be as skilled.

While there are still titles out there catering to a younger audience, such as the Disney titles or the ever-present Archie comics, many of today’s kids really like the superheroes they see in the movies and on television.  But it would be hard for a child to pick up a copy of today’s Avengers, X-Men or Batman and make sense of it: because of the language used, the framing of the narrative, the lack of such text-based exposition tools, and even the reliance on serialized continuity.  With the comics industry bemoaning the death of floppies and a continual drop in their overall consumer base, perhaps they should revisit the older comics for the techniques they employed for bringing in readers and helping them through the stories.

Just as long as they do not include the silly language, outdated moralities and stereotyped representations.  Some things deserve to remain in the past.

Men and Their Engagements with Stereotypically Feminine Media Products

The following is an excerpt from the paper I will be presenting at the 2014 Central States Communication Association Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  This paper presents a new analysis from the data collected for my dissertation on gendered media engagings.  With the help of my undergraduate research assistant, Kevin Miller, we were able to conduct this thematic analysis on how the men of the dissertation’s sample perceived gender in relation to their reasons for starting, stopping, and continuing cross-gendered media engagings.  This excerpt focuses on the analysis presented in the paper.

In the beginning of the 21st Century, in the United States, it appears more acceptable for women to cross the gendered boundaries than men.  While not a completely sanctioned act, such transgression by women may be due to feminist calls for women to be the equal of men in how they are treated (Jacobson, 2005).  However, there has not been a similar call for men to be the equal of women: to be the stay-at-home dad, to cry openly, to prefer fashion over sports, and so forth (Harris, 2007; Jhally, 1999).  As such, there continues to be higher cultural sanctions against men for gender transgressions, which would also apply to men enjoying media meant for women.

The purpose of this study is to focus on men’s selections and interpretations of cross-gendered media products.  The goal is to understand how a man’s perception of gender and what is appropriate for either gender is related to their reasons for engaging with media products they saw as meant for women.  The hope is that by understanding how men see gender not as an absolute but as an interpretation during their engagings, we can better understand what leads them to engage with media products the industry has deemed as not for them.  The study’s approach considered gender as an interpretive frame that is learned from society and culture and performed by how they engage with gendered media products.  Thus, how a person views himself in accordance with what is appropriate gender behavior may impact how gendered media are selected and interpreted.


Interviewing process.  As the study’s goal was to understand the processes of media engagings, it was necessary to conduct an interpretive investigation of their actual media engagings.  By focusing on specific situations of media engagings, the person’s experiences and evaluations of the gendered media were thoroughly probed for how they made sense of what happened in the situations.  Using Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology (SMM) (Dervin & Foreman-Wernet, 2003), an in-depth interview was constructed that asked people to recall their experiences for four types of gendered media engaging.  The interview was constructed as a combination of SMM Life-Line and Micro-Element interviewing protocols (Dervin, 2008).  The Life-Line protocol asked interviewees to recall all of their gendered media engagings over the course of their lives.  The Micro-Element protocol asked interviewees to recall specific aspects of how they made sense of selected media engagings, such as their questions at the time, their emotions, their ideas, their sense of self, and so forth; these specific aspects are referred to as sense-making instances. SMM provided the interview protocol and template for data collection, but data analysis proceeded with thematic analysis on specific sense-making instances.

The sample consisted of 22 men.  Most of the men were undergraduates at a large Midwestern university with five being solicited to participate outside of the university setting but still residing in the Midwest.  The majority were Caucasian, with only two self-identifying as Hispanic.  Their ages ranged from 19 to 44 years-old at the time of the interviews in 2008.  The majority reported that they were single, with four in a relationship and three married at the time of the interview.  Participation ranged from being interviewed by the primary investigator — in person, over phone or instant messenger — to interviewing themselves via an in-depth open-ended questionnaire; all methods of participation included the same questions in the same order.

The study involved a 2x2x2 factorial design.  The interviewees’ self-proclaimed gender was one factor.  Another factor asked them to recall their experiences with media meant for women and those meant for men.  The interviewees determined the gendered nature of the media products; the senior author, as primary investigator, did not impose any definitions of what was meant by gendered media, as only examples were offered.  The final factor was one of time.  Interviewees were additionally asked to recall gendered media products that they engaged with once and only once (Used Only Once), and those that they engaged with repeatedly over some span of time (Used Repeatedly).  For analysis purposes, this paper focuses on men’s recollections of cross-gendered media products Used Only Once and Used Repeatedly.  All the men had at least one experience for these two types of engaging, resulting in 44 experiences to be analyzed.  The generic nature of the media products they discussed in these situations is relayed in Figure 1, which indicates that the vast majority of these genres match with traditional conceptualizations of gendered media, as previously discussed.


For each specific type of engaging – Used Only Once and Used Repeatedly — the interview protocol was structured to elicit various sense-making instances of their cross-gendered media engagings (see Senior Author, 2008).  First, the interviewee discussed why they saw the media product as being directed to one gender and not the other.  This question measured the interpreting of the media product as meant for men or meant for women.  After getting this interpretation, the next series of questions focused on: what led to the engaging, what led them to use this product only once or repeatedly, and how they saw the issue of gender appropriateness relating to their previous answers.  The first two questions measured the selecting of the media product, while the third question measured the perception of gender in their reasons for engaging with the media product.

Coding process.  The analysis focuses on answers to specific sense-making instances: their reasons for starting the engaging (Why Started), their reasons for stopping (Why Stopped) or continuing (Why Continued) the engaging, and how they saw issues of gender appropriateness relating to those reasons (How Saw Gender).  To find patterns in what men were saying as their reasons and perceptions of gender, and to link those two sense-making instances to one another, a thematic analysis was conducted.  In iterative turns through the interviews, the primary investigator located themes in their reasons and their views on gender appropriateness.  Codes were produced to represent these inductively identified themes, and the codes were used to develop a codebook that was given to the research assistant, who is the second author on this paper.  The junior author, an undergraduate research assistant, coded those interview answers in two passes, and the primary investigator followed with a third coding pass.  After each pass, the two coders discussed the resulting codes, until all coded responses were agreed upon.

The first set of codes reflects the themes in the men’s answers to what led them to start engaging with the cross-gendered media product.  These themes were developed by considering their answers in both types of engagings, allowing for a comparison of their answers whether the media product was engaged with only once or repeatedly.  Certain themes indicate more of a voluntary nature to the start of the engaging, such as Satisfying, Seeking and Being Surrounded.  Others indicate the start of the engaging being more coincidental, such as Stumbled into it.  The final subset appears to be indications of having the engaging, in some way, forced upon them by those they were with, such as Brought to It and Being with Another.  The distinction is in the extent to which the engaging was completely the choice of the man, or if it was partially due to the situation he was in.  The frequency of these themes across the two types of engagings is illustrated in Figure 2.


After asking the men to discuss what led to the start of the engaging, they were asked to discuss what led to stopping the engaging in the Used Only Once type, or to continuing the engaging in the Used Repeatedly type.  During the grounded coding of these responses, it appeared that the reasons given to the Why Stopped and Why Continued questions had thematically similar answers, allowing for the creation of a codebook with similar codes yet different valences.  While codes for the Why Stopped answers may be seen as a negative, those for the Why Continued may be seen as a positive.  In the Used Only Once engagings, these reasons could be seen as hindrances, as obstacles to their further engaging with the media product.  Whereas in the Used Repeatedly engagings, the reasons were more seen as helps, or facilitators to further their engaging with the media product.  These codes’ frequency of occurrence is in Figure 3.


The final sense-making instance analyzed was how they saw gender appropriateness in relation to these reasons for starting, stopping and continuing.  These themes are meant to illustrate how men were considering what was more or less appropriate for one gender compared to the other.  This coding scheme was developed for and applied to both types of engagings, for Why Started, Why Stopped, and Why Continued.  Figure 4 illustrates the frequency with which these themes occurred with the three sense-making instances.


In the following results sections, these codes are presented for how they relate to one another across the sense-making instances.  For the Used Only Once type of engaging, the thematic analysis illustrates the links between the reasons the men gave for starting and stopping their cross-gendered media engagings, and how those reasons related to how they interpreted what is appropriate for a gendered individual.  For the Used Repeatedly type of engaging, these thematic analysis demonstrates the links between the reasons given for starting and continuing such engagings, and how those reasons relate to issues of gender appropriateness.  All of the men’s recollections from the interviews are reported using pseudonyms and pertinent demographic information from the time of the interviews to illustrate their reasons and interpretations of their cross-gendered media engagings.

Engaging with Cross-Gendered Media Products Only Once

Sam, a single 22 year-old Caucasian, discussed the self-help, fashion magazine Cosmopolitan for this type of engaging.  While partly something that just happened, he took advantage of the situation due to a particular goal.

Well, I was just sitting there, and I was, well, I might as well just take a look.  I wasn’t in a relationship but getting into college it’s like, hey, you’re trying to make yourself as appealing to women as possible, and you want to see what they think and what articles would apply to them.  And I was more looking at, as far as, like, the dating and relationship and how to be a nice attractive guy, and I ended up looking at more of the like how to please yourself type deal and started thinking it could come in handy in certain situations.

Sam was recalling a time when he looked through the magazine with the idea that doing so could possibly help him learn how to attract a women.  He had seen it lying around, and thus had Stumbled into It, but in deciding to pick it up he was Seeking it out to determine if there was any useful information in it to be had.  As someone new to college, and thus the college dating scene, he was looking to gain insight that could benefit him.  It was perhaps this reason, the utility sought from the magazine, that led him to not consider gender appropriateness as part of why he started the engaging.

Not really, because I wasn’t really paying attention to the larger context of the magazine.  I was more just looking at stuff that would be beneficial to me trying to become more attractive to a woman.

For Sam, there was No Connection to Gender in his reason for starting the engaging.  However, the issue of gender appropriateness did factor in his reason for stopping the engaging.  After a while, the magazine had No New Information for him.

Well, because I read it and most of the stuff about relationships and dating and, you know, just being able to hold a conversation were things that I’d already gathered.  You know, how to please a woman in bed type of deal was something that was good information.  I don’t need to read it again and again.

Once the magazine stopped being useful to Sam, he had no reason to keep reading it.  At the same time it seems, according to his recollection, that he became aware of the inappropriateness of his engaging with it.

I guess it was kind of like, a light turned on.  Because most guys don’t do this, and I started to realize…I don’t know, maybe a guy is supposed to be more of a prick and that he’s supposed to impose himself on a girl, whereas a girl is never really supposed to approach a guy.

Sam’s seeing the magazine as no longer useful appears to have been linked to his thoughts over how men and women are supposed to be, as he Discussed Stereotypes about dating behaviors by indicating what he thought is Appropriate for Men.  His saying “a light turned on” gives some indication that these thoughts about gender appropriateness may indeed have been partially influential in his no longer finding the magazine useful.

Like Sam, Barclay, also a single 22 year-old Caucasian, did not see a connection to gender when discussing why he started watching the 1990s sitcom Golden Girls, but he did discuss of number of gender appropriate issues in his reason for stopping the engaging.  Barclay recalled having started watching the series because of his mother, who was watching the series and thus controlling the television.

I was just kinda…like when I work late I always want to get up later than my mother does.  She’s waking up usually before the sun’s out.  Especially on weekends, I’ll get up pretty late.  Oh, about 8 or 9:00, most of the time.  Especially if I’m home during school quarters, and have homework and stuff, I’ll kinda go off and do homework. … It kinda happened on me.  I certainly don’t watch it by myself.

Barclay’s initial encounter with the Golden Girls was recounted as due to his mother’s watching the series, meaning that, for Barclay, he was Brought to It.  He even tried to indicate that watching the show would not have been his choice when he said he would “certainly” not watch it by himself.  While this assertion might seem to be an indication of seeing gender in his reason, it was not really mentioned here.

I’d have to say no.  Old women talking much about relationships.  It’s three old ladies talking to each other and men bashing once in a while.  Basically what it is.

At least at this point, Barclay saw No Connection to Gender, or, at least, no connection that was strongly related to why he started watching the series.  This would change upon discussing why he stopped engaging with the series.

I can’t relate to it.  I certainly don’t want other guys to catch me doing it.  Lifetime network actually says it in some of their promos, it’s for women.  I kinda take that to heart.  And my mom doesn’t like that either, so.

Barclay mentioned a number of reasons: he thought that Self Cannot Relate, as was mentioned first; he was worried about what other men would think, and thus he was Seeking Relationships with Men; and he mentioned the way the series and the network it was on was meant for women, indicating that he Saw Gender Differences.  The concern over wanting to maintain his relationships with his friends became the focus for how he saw gender appropriateness as an issue in his reasons.

I guess so, but not actually by my parents, more by the other guys at school, that men really shouldn’t be watching Lifetime.  Us guys shouldn’t be watching Golden Girls, or admitting to it.  I have a feeling some might, but none of us would ever admit to it to each other.  I think it says that men have to be hard, tough, macho.  It’s kinda related to that.

Barclay appeared to have been very concerned with how his friends would have reacted should they learn what he was watching, as watching Golden Girls was seen as Inappropriate for Men.  When further questioned about why that is, Barclay went on and Discussed Stereotypes of how men are supposed to be, as he learned of it from his society and upbringing.

Engaging with Cross-Gendered Media Products Repeatedly

Oliver, a single 44 year-old Caucasian, recalled his use of the cookbook The Joy of Cooking as the cross-gender media product he had engaged with repeatedly.  The first time he used the cookbook, it was out of necessity, as an injury his mother sustained led to his needing to develop new skills.

My mother threw her back out, and it was Thanksgiving, she’d thrown her back out.  She was so stiff, that when she dropped her keys all she could do was stare at the keys, I had to pick them up for her.  When she got home, we already had a turkey we were going to cook, and I said, “You know what, let me do it.”  She was upset, she couldn’t do it, I said let me do it.  She kinda got this look of horror on her face, because at that time all I could do was cook hamburgers.  I saw the book and figured I’d just look in the book, and follow everything that they suggested, which is what I did.  And it turned out good.

Oliver recalled a Seeking reason: he was met with the requirements of the situation, which led him to need to find a way to solve a problem.  He turned to the cookbook as the potential solution.  As with Sam, perhaps the utility sought in the media product offset the interpretation of the reason as relating to gender appropriateness.

Not at the time, no.  To me it was more like a tool.  Not that this was meant for men or women, just for someone who wants to cook.

Oliver saw the beginning of his engaging with The Joy of Cooking as being Not Gender, About Humanity; that anyone who wants to cook can find the book useful in achieving that goal.  Unlike Sam, Oliver found the cookbook to be continually useful to him, providing New Information as he sought to learn how to cook other dishes, which led to his continuing to engage with it.

To help myself, because if I want to learn to cook something right, it gives you the basics. That’s where it’s most helpful.  Instead of winging it or watching a TV show that I have to rewind all the time.  At least I can just look at the words and rely on that.

At yet, even the continuing utility of the media product could not completely outweigh the interpretation – even if just in hindsight – that this was a media product more meant for women.

I don’t know – it made me look, like hindsight being 20/20, what used to be thought of what a woman should be or do.  That’s the only thing that crossed my mind.  I don’t know if it’s appropriateness but more like what … I’m drawing a blank on the right word.

In thinking back over his use of The Joy is Cooking, Oliver could Discuss Stereotypes, especially those that associate women as being in charge of the household’s cooking.  However, his saying “what used to be” indicates that it is more a reflection on American society and culture, and less about endorsement of those stereotypes.  Since the social and cultural stereotypes exist, this perhaps is what led him to label the cookbook as a media meant for women.

Elliot, a married 31 year-old Caucasian, recalled repeatedly watching a number of makeover reality shows with his wife.  Like Barclay, Elliot indicated that the first time, he was Brought to It due to his wife’s control over the television: “I’m sure I was sitting down to watch TV with my wife and that’s where the remote ended up.”  Elliot indicated that his wife was the one deciding what they would watch, and that it was her choice to watch these particular shows.  He did not indicate that it was something forced on him, unlike Barclay, who appeared more concerned with the ramifications of the engaging than Elliot.  Additionally, while Elliot saw Genders Different in how he viewed gender appropriateness relating to why he started watching the shows, this interpretation did not rise to the level of stereotypes or norms of appropriate behavior.

No, the show has both a male and female host, so I suppose in that way, it shows the way that the issues concern…I don’t know quite how to put it.  How male clothes also can be put together…not something that is an exclusively male concern, at least among the professionals in the field.  I guess the fact that the contestants are primarily – I think exclusively female suggests that men don’t need, don’t have the same need or appreciate or warrant or what have you, the same treatment.  So I guess that would be a question of what’s appropriate for men versus women.  Other than that I would say, not really.

Such a lack of concern over gender was also seen in his reason for continuing to watch the shows.  Elliot recalled many reasons for not stopping that included finding the product useful to him in different but related ways.

It’s popular with other members of the household, but I find it engaging enough to watch, as opposed to ignore.  If the host of the show were to, you know, get their own talk show or host the Tonight Show or whatever, I wouldn’t tune in on their strengths.  It’s not that I feel I’m being particularly well entertained in that regard.  But the show works, and the pleasure of the grateful recipient of the makeover, and her just moving through that arc, and plus the ability to again expand my knowledge about women’s wear, that pertains to me as a gift-giver to my wife, and the father of a daughter, I suppose that has some benefit.

Elliot’s reasons for watching the shows include: Appreciating Product, when discussing enjoying the narrative arcs of the women; New Information, such as learning what the women of his family might like; and Seeking Relationship with Women, which related to New Information, as a way to maintain those relationships.  The personal enjoyment for and perceived utility of the shows might have helped him overlook any concern of gender appropriateness in his continual engaging with them.

No, it’s not about appropriateness.  I just don’t think there’s enough pleasure or interest to it for men to…that would make a guy care.  It’s about motivation more than appropriateness.

Elliot did not see continuing to watch these makeover reality shows as something that only men or only women should be allowed to do; the matter for him was not about appropriateness and social norms, but more about the content perhaps not offering something for men, and thus men not choosing to engage with it.  For Elliot, his continuing to watch the shows was Not Gender, About Choice.

Connections Between Sense-Making Instances

The previous analysis sections feature qualitative examples of the men’s reasons for engaging with their gendered media products and how they saw gender appropriateness.  From these examples, the connections between sense-making instances start to reveal potential commonalities about the impact of seeing gender when engaging with a media product not meant for one’s own gender.  Another way to illustrate these commonalities is by charting the frequency with which the How Saw Gender codes occurred in relation to the Why Started, Why Stopped, and Why Continued codes.  To clarify these connections, the How Saw Gender codes were combined to represent two abstractions: Interpreted Gender Relevant (the first six codes) and Interpreted Gender Irrelevant (the last three codes).  This abstraction allows for the frequency charts to demonstrate the connections in a more succinct manner.  Figure 5 shows how frequently these abstracted themes for the How Saw Gender codes related to the reasons for why they started their engagings, while Figure 6 shows the frequency of these abstracted themes for why they stopped or continued their engagings.

Fig5 Fig6

These frequency analyses illustrate some patterns in how men saw gender appropriateness in relation to their reasons for the engagings.  Seeing issues of gender appropriateness appeared to be common in the reasons the men gave for starting the engagings, whether it would be an only once or repeatedly type of engaging.  The only time there was no mention of seeing gender was when they discussed Seeking out the media product in the Used Repeatedly engagings.  It may be that the perceived utility of the media product meant they offset or downplayed the issue of whether or not they should be engaging with it.  Additionally, the ratio of Interpreted Gender Relevant to Interpreted Gender Irrelevant was apparently reduced when the men in the Used Repeatedly engagings reported starting due to Being with Another and Stumbled Into It; here gender may be downplayed because gender was already on display in the heterosexual nature of the relationships in the former, and because the beginning of the engaging was seen as something that just happened in the latter.  The ratio seemed to increase in the Used Only Once reasons of Being with Another and Satisfying, and in the Used Repeatedly reason of Being Surrounded.  All of these results could be due to the initiation of the engaging due to the women in the men’s lives, and their gendered nature would be transferred to the nature of the media product and thus the engaging.

As for the men’s reasons for stopping or continuing their engagings, they apparently Interpreted Gender Relevant more often when they were discussing how they could relate to the content of the media product or how they were focusing on their relationships to other gendered individuals in their lives.  Thus, whether it was the Used Only Once or Used Repeatedly type of engaging, if the men said they were stopping or continuing because of the men or women in their lives, they seemed to see gender associated with these reasons.  If they saw that they could not relate or could not gain anything new from the engaging, then issues of gender appropriateness were not offset or downplayed.  However, when the men saw their reasons being more about what they did or did not like or prefer about the media product, then they appeared to be more likely to see gender as irrelevant to why they stopped or continued the engaging.


Overall, all of these men, at some level, were struggling with issues of gender appropriateness and how they should engage with something deemed to be stereotypically feminine.  Thus, there were many times when their reasons for engaging were related to interpretations of gender and gender appropriateness that align with social and cultural gender norms.  However, there is some indication that the perception of utility of the gendered media product and the focus on personal affinities for the gendered media product may help offset, downplay or otherwise reduce the concern over being appropriate given these gender norms.  When the focus was more on themselves, on their personal affinity and situated needs, the men may have been able to overlook or ignore the social and cultural conventions.

Thus, the less men saw engaging with the media product meant for women as being about other gendered individuals in their lives, and the more they saw the engaging as being about themselves, then the less they were concerned about issues of gender appropriateness in their reasons for engaging with the cross-gendered media product.  This conclusion could usefully draw on the concept of priming, social schemata, and schema theory (Fiske & Taylor, 1991).  Perhaps the conclusion to draw from these connections between the reasons for engaging and the interpretations of gender appropriateness is that we tend to only think about gender when we are primed to do so.  Unless something happens to have us think about gender, that particular mode of thinking, or socially informed schemata, may not be activated, and we may relate to the media product based on some other schemata, such as any based on personal affinity or situated needs.

In modern times, in reaction to the rise and struggles of feminism, there has been a concurrent rise and struggle over the definition of masculinity.  The concern with the “crisis of masculinity” in Western societies and cultures is emblematic of the reactionary approach taken to the empowerment of women.  As men struggle with what they “should be,” the struggle manifests in what they “should do.”  If the struggles result in anti-women sentiments of Western men, then this includes views on anything feminine, and toward any men seen as acting or consorting with anything feminine.  The pressure to not be seen as doing anything feminine was definitely felt by a number of men in this study.  If men in general cannot be comfortable confronting the stereotypes associated with cross-gendered media engagings, then how can we expect them to be comfortable in other stereotypically feminine spheres of life, such as being the primary child-care provider or the secondary income earner?  If they cannot be comfortable with something so seemingly trivial as engaging with a media product meant for women, then how can we expect them to be comfortable when crossing the gendered line in more serious matters?

While there does appear to be a pattern of men being less concerned – or at least portraying themselves as such – about gender for personal reasons, there was also a high amount of being in such situations only because of their relationship with women.  It is possible that the men’s engagings were due more to the women they were with than to their own personal affection for the media product, similar to the finding from Harris et al’s (2004) study on dating couples and romantic films.  Our goal should be for men to feel as comfortable engaging with media products meant for women as we want women to feel engaging with media products meant for men – so that men will seek them out on their own, and not via a situation involving women.  There is some indication in this study of that possibility, if the men can find value in the product or in the process.  It may take being introduced to such media products in situations when they already feel comfortable, such as with people they respect and for whom they have affection.  However, if they do not see value, then they may transfer the usefulness of such engagings to those they are with, rather than to the media product.  It may be that they need to see value in engaging with the media product to help them become generally more comfortable with media meant for women.

Such transference may be most likely to occur with heterosexual men seeking to create or maintain a relationship with a romantic partner; it would be necessary to see if homosexual men make the same transferences.  Indeed, homosexual men may be less likely to feel constrained by the need to maintain certain interpretive and performative behaviors that align with notions of traditional masculinity, and thus may be less likely to be affected by the “crisis of masculinity.”  Their reactions to these gendered media products could be different from those discussed in this study; even how much importance men ascribe to adhering to such hegemonic notions of masculinity could impact their engaging with these gendered media products.  The men in this study were not asked to identify their sexual orientation, which is a limitation in need of address.  Further research should consider these factors when understanding the connections between the reasons for engaging and the interpretations of gender appropriateness.

Further analysis of the interviews could also help to show whether or not what was found in this particular aspect of the situation was common throughout the situation.  That is, did the reasons men gave for their engagings, and how they interpreted gender appropriateness related to those reasons, relate to the other sense-making instances that were involved in the situation, such as questions they had, emotions they felt, their sense of self, conclusions they drew, and so forth.  If gender continues to be overcome, downplayed, or ignored when the men are discussing all aspects of the engaging, then this theorization would be strengthened.  If not, then their interpretation of gender may be more complexly interwoven with their actions than accounted for by this analysis.

Additionally, women’s cross-gendered media engagings should be studied to see if they were also reporting a similar phenomenon of personal affinity and situated need, and thus downplaying the role of gender.  However, this phenomenon might be less seen with women because they might have less of a concern about appearing against the norm than men do.  From the original analysis of these interviews (Senior Author, 2008), no woman ever indicated fearing the same types of social ramifications that the men did; indeed, that finding was the impetus for this analysis.  Women may be more willing to continue to talk about gender, even in the cross-gendered media engagings, because they have more social allowance to do so.  Men, on the other hand, may be downplaying it in order to cope with the portrayal of themselves as repeatedly returning to something others may think they should not be returning to; the additional analysis discussed above may help us clarify this matter.

Exploring the Trauma of the Spanish Civil War at the Intersection of Fantasy and Reality

Guillermo del Toro — when he isn’t thrilling us with hellboys or kaiju — has given us some of the most intensely personal and fantastically dark films to explore how we cope with living.  In The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, according to Christopher Olson’s interpretation, del Toro is utilizing fantasy tropes to illustrate how children cope with some of the worst fears imaginable: war and death.

via Exploring the Trauma of the Spanish Civil War at the Intersection of Fantasy and Reality.

Adolescents, Media Use, and Identity Formation

A long time ago, when I first started graduate school, one of my primary research interests was the role the media plays in forming people’s identities.  At the time, I researched everything I could on the psychological and sociological underpinnings of identity formation, to try to understand how the media could be involved in this process.  I have not done much to follow-up on this line of thinking, as I became more interested in understanding media reception as situated sense-making.  But I do like to share my thoughts on these matters, in case they help others.  It’s rough, but the core ideas are there.

Originally conceived: February 2004

Basic Paradigm: One’s psychology is determined by the physical limitations of the brain, as determined by one’s unique genetic structure, as a depository and processor, which both shapes and is shaped by social influences and cognitive capabilities, which may be obtained via behavioral training and other learning techniques, but also serves as the platform from which higher functions can occur, such as metacognition, and from which subconscious functions of a more psychodynamic level can occur, with possibly unconscious effects. (a)


Psychology will then act as a filter through which: (b) one’s changing biology will be interpreted and evaluated, and; (c) one’s changing social/cultural environment and situation will be interpreted and evaluated.

Read the rest of this entry

The Whats, Hows and Whys of Film Spectatorship

Earlier this month, Christopher Olson and I presented at the 2013 SCMS conference work I started in my graduate school and he is helping me finalize and expand.  These are some preliminary thoughts about approaching the study of how spectators engage with films.

This presentation (SCMS13_presentation_022513) comes from an interest we have in trying to understand how spectators make sense of films and what leads to differences and similarities in the reception of the same film.  In this presentation, we address the cognitive and affective theoretical approaches to film spectatorship and reception that informed our approach, as well as the apparent lack of studying the actual reception processes.  We then outline the method that was designed to measure the moment-by-moment or minutia reception process, as well as discuss a pilot project to employ this method, and we conclude with our thoughts for applications of this method.

This image is an example of how this method allows for the comparison of moment-by-moment reception between two different film spectators.



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