Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Media Identity

Written by: on April 3, 2014

Last week I watched the animated movie Frozen. It is a Disney adaptation of The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson. I have two girls, young adults, who just love it. I found myself being taken in also by the story and music. The theme of rejection, family pain and finding one’s identity in a world where families are hurting, I think, resonates with many people. The overall story line is moved by the love of two sisters who overcome huge obstacles that come between them. If you think that a guy going to this movie is odd, all I can say is that you probably don’t have daughters. The original story is nothing like the movie. It’s theme is more about good and evil than rejection. It also has religious overtones with the Lord’s Prayer and scripture in it.[1] The only commonality is that love overcomes evil. The original would have been a better movie.

What goes on when we participate with media? How does it affect our personal space and how we see ourselves? My early upbringing warned about the dangers of the cinema. There was a concern that it inculcates the world’s values into one’s soul. Now its seems we consume media without the least thought of what it is doing in us. Instructive for me is to realize that media is never neutral. It carries a message and it is a formative tool by its very use. The book New Media, 1740-1915 is a collection of essays on how old media was once new. Then as now, it was embedded in a social context where people responded either negatively of positively. It communicates something about us, either intentionally or unintentionally. Early Amish resisted the telephone for its intrusion into community life. They complained that it violated sacred space. While their reaction may seem antiquated, they were right that media does not come into our world neutral. It’s not just the content, but its constant presence gives us little room for the sacred.

One old technology that correlates to film is the use and reception of the telegraph. Like the movies the telegraph raised similar issues regarding personal identity and personal space in relationship to technology. Katherine Stubbs reports that, “To speak on the circuit is to create a new identity which not identical to one’s identity in the real world.”[2]  Paul Young in his article called “Media on display: A Telegraphic History of Early American Cinema”, says the telegraph expanded the community outward. It’s presence expose people to a larger world. Likewise, the cinema’s advantage was that it brought viewers out of their home and out of their controlled environment of ideas.[3]

Both the telegraph and early film were technological spectacles. They had the ability to astonish.[4] Today we are no longer astonished about the fact that movies happen, but we often go for their ability to move us emotionally, escape life and be visually impressed. Our world is enlarged as we view things we may never experience in real life; meet people we will never know and go places that are beyond our reach. It opens us up to the world and as we view the film, the world becomes open to us. As both the telegraph and early film became more accessible, people desired more and more of it. Both technologies changed the way we communicate. They also gave us greater access to more media in our lives. Young goes on to say that there are “the messages in the film and the visual messages sent by the film.” He cites three kinds of speech transmitted in film:

  1. The characters in the film to each other.
  2. The image speaking to the audience.
  3. The audience speaking back to the image as a sign of involvement.[5]

While we watch a movie we watch the characters and action of the film and are pulled in (or repulsed) by them. We may find our selves identifying with one of the characters. I was Luke Skywalker after viewing the first Star Wars movie. May children are either Anna or Elsa from Frozen. But more than that we are being spoken to. There also is a message, a social construct, being conveyed. It may be subtle, but it communicates. This is where film does its best work. It goes beyond our rational thinking and communicates at an emotional level, leaving an impact. The movie Frozen has children all over the U.S. are singing, “Let it go”. It’s the pied piper that has won their heart.

The last kind of speech, that Young says film communicates, may seem a little harder to pin down. For today’s film, where does the audience speak back to the images in film? There have been many times I wanted to speak out at a movie. Usually there is something so absurd, unbelievable or offensive that I want to yell back at the creators. We may not speak at the movies, but movie watching had become another language that we communicate by. So many discussions are fostered by it. We process it and it shapes our thinking.

So the question I have is not so much about evaluating the content of the film or any media, even though this is a big concern. Its not so much about how much media we a surrounded with, but what is it doing to the spaces we inhabit? How does it transmit who we are by what we view and how much of our identity is shaped by it? Media opens us up to the world and can be used by us to open the world to us. These are good things. But how are we letting it invade all space till be have no sacred place to reflect and encounter God mediated to us?


[2] Gitelman, Lisa, and Geoffrey B. Pingree,eds. New Media, 1740-1915 Media in Transition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003., p. 102.

[3] Paul Young in New Media, p.242.

[4] Ibid., pp.235-236.

[5] Ibid., pp.242-257.

About the Author

Fred Fay

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