Hey Media nerds! Today we’re talking Narrative and Ideology. Narrative and Ideology is probably the first thing you’ll study in VCE Media Units 3&4. In this outcome, you’re going to take a look at a couple of stories and the societies that have shaped them.
When it comes to Narrative and Ideology, if it’s part of the outcome, it could be part of the exam…so it really pays to familiarise yourself with this outcome by unpacking the key knowledge and key skills.
If you haven’t already, make sure you download a copy of the VCE Media Study Design from the VCAA website and print out the pages that relate to Units 3&4 Media so you can annotate it as we go along.
Narrative and Ideology is essentially the study of stories and the societies that shape them.
This idea of narrative, or story, is one of the most important concepts in Media. By studying this outcome, you’re going to learn more about how stories are structured and told. This is one of the reasons many students choose Media in the first place—they love film, they love TV and they want to learn more about narrative to improve their own storytelling. In my class, I use this outcome to impart a whole bunch of screenwriting wisdom drawing on books like How to Build a Great Screenplay, Story, Save the Cat and Film Art. It’s an opportunity to learn what makes a great, well-structured story.
You’ll also look at how these stories have been shaped by ideologies. One of the things I love about media is the way we study popular culture. You can have a robust, intellectual discussion about Black Mirror, Avengers: Infinity War or a schlocky horror comedies like Happy Death Day. One of the ways we discuss these works of popular culture is by interrogating the way they comment on, reflect on, develop, reject or ignore ideologies or shared systems of belief. It’s quite possible we could learn more about our society from the Marvel Cinematic Universe than from the works of Shakespeare.
When you’re unpacking this outcome, start by taking a look at the preamble before the key knowledge and key skills. Again, if it’s part of the outcome, it could be part of the exam.
The outcome starts with a fairly general statement about the importance of narrative. The next few sentences touch on the complex relationship between societies, ideologies, narratives and audiences. The outcome states that ideologies “frame the nature, form and structure of narratives.” To put it very simply, these stories are created by people who exist within a society. The films and TV programs they create, whether they support or challenge these shared systems of belief, are shaped by ideologies.
These stories—which might comment on, reflect on, develop, reject or even ignore ideologies—become part of a discourses or discussion as audiences engage with these media texts. Just think of how The Last Jedi contributes to a discourse on feminism or Black Panther has incited discussion about race in superhero films.
The preamble also notes the important role that media codes and conventions play in audience engagement, consumption and reading. This outcome will hopefully make you more articulate about the media you consume. You’ll be able to explain why stories work or why they don’t, the best part is you can take this knowledge and apply it to your own storytelling.
The preamble mentions some other factors that might influence the construction of narratives.
Stories are shaped by the time and place in which they are created.
They’re shaped by society and culture. Nosedive, an episode of Black Mirror, is quite obviously a reaction to our societal obsession with social media. Godzilla, which was released in 1954, is a product of Japan’s post-war anxiety about nuclear science. Modern Family is shaped by attitudes towards modern families. The terms society and culture are very similar and I often use them interchangeably. Society refers to a group of people living in the same geographic area whereas culture refers more specifically to shared ideas, customs, and social behaviour.
Ideological context refers to those systems of belief that exist in the time or place that a narrative is created. Aliens is a product of its ideological context. The rise of feminism in the preceding decades paved the way for characters like Ferro, Vasquez and Ripley.
Institutional context is about the media institution that produces a narrative, the film studio or streaming company. You can bet that any company investing millions of dollars in a movie will at least have a little influence on the film.
The outcome ends with an outline of the types of narratives you might study. Keep in mind that one of these must be produced within the last five years.
Now on to the key knowledge and key skills. The key knowledge is all the stuff you’ll need to know when you’ve finished studying this outcome. In this video, we’ll unpack the key skills because you’ll notice that each of these dot points
The first dot point asks you to explain the characteristics and construction of media narratives. When it comes to construction, I teach my students about three act narrative structure. The term ‘characteristics’ is a little trickier. The characteristics of a narrative are determined by the media form and its consumption. Think of it this way: television was traditionally very dialogue heavy because writers understood that viewers were often distracted. Likewise, the narrative structure of television drama was traditionally influenced by advertisements, featuring mini-cliffhangers that would encourage the viewers to return after the break. On Netflix, serial dramas often feature compelling cliffhangers because the company understands that audiences enjoy consuming several episodes or entire seasons at once. Form and consumption shapes the characteristics of narratives.
You are also going to discuss how audiences from different periods of time engage with and consume media narratives. In my class, we use Aliens as an example. When Aliens was released in 1986, Ellen Ripley (played by Sigorney Weaver) was a strong female character with agency who defied the traditional depiction of women in science fiction and horror films. At the time, hyper-masculine stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone dominated action films. When it was released, Variety magazine praised the film’s varied representation of female characters including Vasquez. Between 1986 and the present day, audiences have been exposed to a greater number of complex female characters with agency. While Ellen Ripley in Aliens, remains an influential female character, would the character appear as groundbreaking to a modern audience? Make sure you consider how people from different periods of time might engage with or consume the media narratives you are studying.
During this outcome, you’re going to take apart these stories and discover what makes them tick. You’ll be studying how media codes and conventions combine to tell stories. You might analyse how a character is constructed using codes like camera and acting; the role that setting plays in the narrative or maybe even how the story is resolved using media codes.
You’re going to analyse the relationship between narratives and their ideological and institutional contexts. Who produced them? How were they distributed or marketed? How were they consumed and read by audiences? Again, these films are cultural artefacts, they are produced by people who exist in a society, they are consumed by audiences and become part of the conversation, part of the discourse on these big ideas.
You’re also going to look at how these ideologies shape media narratives. In the case of Get Out, Jordan Peele reshot the final scene of the film. Get Out was written during the Obama era and Peele was attempting to “call out” the simmering racism that still existed in America. In the original ending, the main character is sent to prison for murdering a white family. He called this ending the “gut punch” that the world needed. By the time he was shooting this scene, he says it was quite clear that racism was being discussed, so he opted for the more optimistic ending.
You’re also going to discuss the relationship between narratives and audiences, including how they engage with, consume and read these stories. Engagement focuses our attention on how filmmakers use media codes and conventions to craft an enthralling and entertaining story. Reading is about how the audience makes sense of or decode these codes and conventions. And finally, consumption is about the way we experience media narratives – it’s about the physical environment, the technology, as well as the knowledge and expectations we bring to these stories.
That’s it! I hope your brain is leaking out your ears. While this might seem overwhelming, keep in mind that it takes a whole semester to teach this stuff to my students. if you’ve got questions, take a look at the study design, talk to your teacher and good luck.