A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Making Literacy Visible in Film: A Review of Williams and Zenger's Popular Culture and Representations of Literacy

Review of Popular Culture and Representations of Literacy by Bronwyn T. Williams and Amy A. Zenger, 2007; Routledge Stephanie Vie, University of Central Florida

Enculturation : http://enculturation.net/making-literacy-visible (Published: April 8, 2014)

Most of us watch movies, but when was the last time you really noticed the literacy practices, the acts of reading and writing, that occurred in a film? Indeed, reading and writing activities take place in countless movies but it is rare that viewers truly take notice. Bronwyn T. Williams and Amy A. Zenger’s Popular Culture and Representations of Literacy, however, takes us by the hand and guides us through a collection of popular Hollywood films, showing us at each turn the literacy practices that occur in these movies. The book’s aim is to make the invisible visible and by doing so to highlight the ways that popular culture—film in particular—reflect and reproduce dominant conceptions of literacy in ways that often escape our attention (5). The authors draw from a broad pool of films with which most readers would be familiar, such as As Good As It Gets, Catch Me If You Can, Office Space, The Mummy, and many others, making the examples accessible and fairly contemporary. Their analyses note both visible acts of literacy where characters engage in the activity of reading and writing (like the journaling that frames Bridget Jones’s Diary) as well as more subtle literacies, such as those that occur in the James Bond series, which Williams and Zenger describe as “the literary artifacts of bureaucracy … files on their desks, in their hands, and in cabinets … reports, journals, or official letters” (91-92). From files to letters, literacy sponsorship to specific acts of literacy, this text ranges across a variety of literate practices and artifacts to showcase the centrality and power of literacy in film.

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Popular Culture and Representations of Literacy thus adds to ongoing conversations in our field about the shape of literacies in the twenty-first century, such as Stuart A. Selber’s (2004) Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, Cynthia L. Selfe and Gail E. Hawisher’s (2004) Literate Lives in the Information Age, and Williams’s own (2009) Shimmering Literacies: Popular Culture and Reading and Writing Online. What Williams and Zenger offer readers here that is new is a thorough focus on representations of literacy with the medium of film. As they point out in their introduction, what is important is not simply noting the presence of acts of literacy in film, for they are everywhere; instead, the crucial point upon which this book hinges is that the ways literate practices are portrayed in popular culture provide a window through which we can understand dominant narratives about literacy in our culture. Film seamlessly reproduces dominant conceptions of literacy, and frequently in ways that escape our attention (5).

This book could have been titled Representations of Literacy in Film, for film is its focus throughout (rather than popular culture in general, which is much too broad for a scholarly work like this). While much of Williams’s previous work has examined various aspects of popular culture such as television and social networking sites, here the focus is solidly on one particular area: popular mainstream Hollywood film. Early in the introduction, Williams and Zenger notice something in their close reading of a scene from X2: X-Men United that drives their entire project: “Instrumental in the scene, yet almost unnoticed in the special effects, dramatic tension, and earnest acting is the way literacy practices figure centrally in what is happening on screen” (4). They examine two literate acts in close detail: the President of the United States reads a speech that is televised in the Oval Office, and Professor Xavier of the X-Men presents the president with a secret file containing written documentation of the mutants’ persecution. As noted earlier, these literate moments are central to the action of the film, yet frequently do not catch the audience’s attention as acts of literacy; thus the extended analyses of popular film contained in Popular Culture and Representations of Literacy allows us to attend to the values, attitudes, feelings, and social relationships that emerge from literate practices.

Throughout, Williams and Zenger argue that most Hollywood films reflect their observation: While acts of literacy often drive the plot of a film, provide dramatic tension or emotional closure, or otherwise perform important roles in movies, viewers generally do not notice those specific literacy acts. Instead they focus on the setting, characters, music, plot, and other literary devices. Yet the simple act of discovering literacy at work in a film is not the point; as the authors point out, it is difficult to find a movie without any reading or writing occurring in it. From presidential speeches to secret government files, literacy practices form common tropes in film. Williams and Zenger contend that rather than simple attunement to acts of literacy that occur in film, what is more important are our interpretations and analyses of the literacy practices that occur in movies; it is through analysis that we are better able to understand the complexities of how literacy is perceived in our culture.

One of the book’s strengths may also be its weakness; that is, when examining something so broad as literacy acts represented in movies, it is easy to lose sight of depth at the expense of breadth. Generally, this book shows effective balance, and the authors admit the movies chosen for inclusion were not necessarily the most appealing, but were included because they offered representative insights into how literacy is portrayed (11). Each chapter provides a close reading of one or two films (with the exception of a chapter dealing with action movies as a genre that focuses on the James Bond series); these close readings are usually in depth, drawing from multiple scenes and events in the films, and are clearly examined by the authors. On only one occasion was a close reading almost too brief to be of much use—specifically, the chapter on literacy and social class ends with a brief reading of Office Space that spans less than two pages, leaving the reader feeling somewhat unfulfilled. The other chapters, however, present strong, clear readings of films that will likely be immediately recognizable to the book’s audience: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, As Good As It Gets, The Mummy, Catch Me If You Can, and so forth.

Part one looks at how identity is represented through and connected with literacy acts on screen; the three chapters in this section take up gender, social class, and race, respectively. These are ambitious goals, admittedly, but the authors seem up to the task. Beginning with a framework that references Stuart Hall (1996) and Louis Althusser’s (1971) discussions of identity, Williams and Zenger then provide a brief retrospective of feminist theory as applied to depictions of gender in film and apply these theoretical frameworks to As Good As It Gets to infer what this film might show viewers about literacy as a gendered practice (26). After a short recap for those unfamiliar with the film, the authors provide a close reading of many pivotal scenes of reading and writing: for example, Jack Nicholson’s author character composing part of his book at the beginning of the movie and a scene of a woman struggling to compose a thank-you note as her mother looks on. These scenes are significant because of the gendered associations of the different acts—writing a thank-you note versus writing a book—that the film later fleshes out in detail; as the authors note, the events depicted showcase underlying assumptions about literacy vis-á-vis gender that are reflected in and constructed by the characters’ representations (30). Other films showing gendered representations of literacy are briefly discussed (Girl Interrupted, You’ve Got Mail, Man on Fire, Something’s Gotta Give) to shore up the authors’ argument that many popular films divide literacy along gender lines, assigning private and emotional moments of literacy to women and professional, rational literacy to men. While different representations are of course possible (the authors close this chapter by illustrating a brief scene from Million Dollar Baby where literacy takes place in a more complex atmosphere of gender and class), their view that popular films reflect common assumptions about literacy is clearly supported through their examples.

The next two chapters in this section address social class and race, offering a similar pattern to that of the first—first, a theoretical framework; next, a brief recap of the films chosen as texts for close reading; finally, a discussion of films that challenge the dominant ideology through their representations of literacy. One limitation of the chapter on race is that race is sometimes simplified unnecessarily in terms of African-American versus white identity; the authors draw on discussions of “black films,” black underachievement, and the power of African-American discourse, but other races are mentioned infrequently. This chapter's arguments would have been illustrated in more depth had they called upon additional examples. For instance, the close reading which follows the discussion of race and literacy describes the movie Holes and highlights the literacy differences of a young white child and a young black child. This reading would have been deepened with the inclusion of another film dealing with different races.

Part two focuses on literacy and social contexts, examining literacy as power and as danger. The first chapter in this section works well alongside the earlier chapter on representations of gender and literacy because here the authors use the common genre of action films to describe how the hero effortlessly uses literacy while the sidekick or female romantic interest “acts as a literate surrogate for the action hero, doing the reading and research necessary to help the hero achieve his goals (100). For the action movie hero, literacy is power as shown through the ability to effortlessly recall needed information; for instance, M asks Bond “What do you know about a man named Scaramanga?” Bond replies with a laundry list of factual information without ever needing to consult notes or a file, then suavely ending, “I think that’s all. Why, sir?” As the authors argue, Bond and other action heroes never need to consult files, read technical manuals, or write speeches; instead, they pull from some inner wellspring of knowledge and save the day, proof that their effortless literacy is evidence of their class and social status (94).

Literacy is often a way for the action hero to suppress danger by getting the job done, yet in the end he (as the authors point out, the action hero is invariably male) can only use literacy to a point and must finish the deed through action: “Literacy is both too cerebral and too potentially feminine to be the ultimate weapon” (99), again connecting with earlier discussions of gendered representations of literacy and deepening that discussion. The authors point out that literacy not only can suppress danger but can itself be dangerous; they use Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to illustrate cultural assumptions of the threat of literacy to children. In the real world we see lists of banned books circulated in attempts to protect children from the power of the words within; in the Harry Potter universe, this fear is mirrored as books that literally can harm—biting, exploding, or in the case of the book at the center of Chamber of Secrets, killing. As Harry and his friends fight to uncover the secret of the mysterious diary found at the Hogwarts School, they must turn to books that have been forbidden because of the dangers held inside. The authors note then that viewers, particularly young viewers, may absorb conflicting messages about literacy—it is powerful but dangerous, useful but slippery (122).

Finally, this first chapter in part three examines literacy myths through examinations of literary authors as represented in film. The myths they outline are threefold: authors are quirky, unusual, and not like us; as a result, they often suffer for their art (the cliché of the tortured artist); and finally, as artists, their genius comes from within and cannot be taught. Movies such as Sylvia, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Shakespeare in Love, and Finding Neverland show how these myths shape our cultural understanding of authors as troubled artists. Sometimes the authors are redeemed by a muse (Finding Neverland, Shakespeare in Love, Finding Forrester) while other times things end tragically (Sylvia, The Hours)—and again, the difference often, though not always, lies along gendered lines. The second chapter deals with the trope of literacy as savior familiar to writing instructors, which shows up in films like To Sir With Love, Educating Rita, Dead Poets’ Society, Dangerous Minds, and many others. Williams and Zenger posit that these films are appealing because they draw on the myth that literacy is easy, transformative, powerful, and fulfilling, what Harvey Graff (1987) has termed a “strong theory of literacy” (qtd. in Williams and Zenger 147). Become literate, these films promise, and the world will open up for you. And this idea hits at the very heart of what writing instructors frequently believe: “What we would like to believe we offer is the possibility of becoming a better person through literacy [and] the nobility of what we do” (159). It is fitting to close the chapters on close reading on that note as the likely audience for this book are instructors and scholars of writing; as much as we teach our students to be thoughtful and critique the messages sent through the media, it is important to remember that we too are susceptible to the seductive sway of literacy myths portrayed through popular culture, and the authors effectively remind us of our vulnerability to this particular myth. All movie viewers—whether teachers or not—are subject to the impact of literacy images and the attendant ideological messages about gender, race, class, and so on that can become naturalized, perhaps unexamined, through the medium of film—unexamined, that is, until we are made aware of these subtle messages through a book like this.

Ultimately, Williams and Zenger have put together a well thought-out examination of multiple literacy myths that carefully and critically reads Hollywood films and is informed by relevant scholarly work. But where do we go from here? In my mind, an effective scholarly work must attend to what we often call the “so what” question: So what should the reader be able to take away from this work? Williams and Zenger very early on attend to the “so what” question successfully by noting that the often invisible literacy practices in mainstream Hollywood movies, widely distributed and viewed throughout the U.S. and beyond, showcase views of reading and writing that are connected explicitly to race and class, gender and sex, institutional hierarchies and cultural capital. These pervasive representations of literacy mirror common understandings of reading and writing in our culture, thereby assisting in the creation and replication of those understandings. Anticipating this “so what” question, the authors close the book with a section titled “Does it Matter what Happens at the Movies?” Drawing on Deborah Brandt’s assertion that literacy is a significant force in shaping and reproducing culture, here movies figure as one way this cultural reproduction happens. First, we can see how certain literacy practices are normalized through popular culture; second, we can view how desires and anxieties about literacy are reproduced and internalized by viewers (167-8). As writing instructors, we can pay careful attention to these representations of literacy (both by ourselves or with our students) and more closely examine assumptions in our culture about the definitions of literacy, its impacts, and its goals. In other words, I think one of the most useful aspects to take away from this book is that we should continue bringing popular culture into our classrooms to examine the assumptions reflected within; given the bombardment of media that students face, it is not enough (as many scholars of rhetoric and composition have noted) to simply train students to analyze and create academic essays—they must become adept at reading and writing popular media to reach their fullest potential in navigating today’s media-saturated world.

Overall, Popular Culture and Representations of Literacy is both enjoyable and scholarly; readers will likely take pleasure in examining familiar movies throughout, observing previously unnoticed acts of literacy with the help of the authors’ careful readings of specific scenes. At the same time, the authors rely on a wide range of theoretical lenses and perspectives, aptly showing readers (who could certainly include undergraduates) the interdisciplinarity of cultural and film studies. They acknowledge their limitations; in a book of this length (170 pages) it is impossible to attend to every issue connected to literacy in film, so Williams and Zenger offer potential areas of research for the future. For example, how have literacy practices represented in movies changed over the years? Similarly, how do non-mainstream movies produced outside of Hollywood showcase literacy? Finally, how might other viewers read these films; in other words, might there be alternative readings or might viewers’ personal backgrounds and values influence their personal interpretations of what is happening onscreen? These limitations offer interesting avenues for others to build upon Williams and Zenger’s analytical work. One minor quibble I have with the book is the irony of the multiple grammar and spelling errors visible throughout a work on literacy; several simple errors were jarring enough that I had to re-read a sentence to grasp its meaning. But, setting this minor irritation aside, Williams and Zenger have produced a book well worth the attention of scholars and teachers connected to literacy. By entreating us to make the invisible visible for ourselves, noticing how literacy is represented via film, we are reminded once again of what Cynthia Selfe (1999) has called “the importance of paying attention” to literacy and its effects.

Works Cited

Selber, Stuart A. Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.

Selfe, Cynthia L. Technology and Literacy in the 21st Century: The Importance of Paying Attention. Carbondal: Southern Illinois UP, 1999. Print.

Selfe, Cynthia L, and Gail E. Hawisher. Literate Lives in the Information Age: Narratives of Literacy from the United States. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004. Print.

Williams, Bronwyn T. Shimmering Literacies: Popular Culture and Reading and Writing Online. New York: Peter Lang, 2009. Print.