What is Media Criticism?

Hello everyone, I’m Tyler Beard and I’m making this post in order to help you understand what media criticism is and why it’s so important. This is a term that is bigger than just a simple dictionary definition. There are a lot of things that go into the subject that aren’t understood by many people.

Understanding Media Criticism

For example; when I hear “media criticism”, I think of someone criticizing certain movies or shows and giving their opinions. However, media criticism is even deeper than that. It’s the way to see just how the media tries to influence our everyday lives and how it affects us. We don’t realize just how much we’re influenced by the media and how we let it control our lives. Media criticism is a way of understanding how the media tries to use this control and how we can pick out where it happens in media texts.

Just think about how much we use social media in our lives. When you wake up, you turn on the TV, check your phone and maybe read a newspaper while eating breakfast. Right there are three different uses of social media and you’ve just begun your day! It doesn’t stop there though, as you continue to use your phone throughout the day, checking Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. You’re using social media almost every five minutes, meaning you’re being influenced by the media all day long. This is why media criticism should be taken seriously and why there are a couple of tools that need to be understood.

One of these tools offered by media criticism is cultural pedagogy. This was defined in my MCOM 352 Media Criticism class as “understanding media as a source of cultural education”.This means that it’s a tool on how to use the media as a way to learn. An example of this is using your phone. Almost everyone has a smart phone that allows people to use Twitter and other forms of social media on there. You are able to understand that this is a way for the younger generation to interact and learn by using cultural pedagogy. This tool allows us to find a good use of the media and how we can learn from it.


Another tool we can get from media criticism is actually almost the opposite of cultural pedagogy. The term is called critical media pedagogy and is defined in my MCOM 352 class as “a way to help us resist media influence and to increase one’s freedom/individuality”. An example of this is with ads. How many times do we see ads that have skinny girls and we are supposed to think women should look like that? We can use critical media pedagogy by understanding that the ad doesn’t show a good example of how women look. We can keep our individuality by understanding that women are beautiful in all kinds of unique ways and we can resist the social norm of just thinking skinny girls are sexy.


A Look into Breaking Bad


There are many media texts that can be analyzed, but one of my favorite shows happens to be Breaking Bad. The show is about a high school teacher named Walter White that has a normal life, until he finds out that he has cancer. He has a wife, a newborn child on the way and a teenage son with cerebral palsy. Walter panics at the fact of possibly dying and leaving behind nothing for his family. He starts talking with his ex-student Jesse, who is a minor drug dealer, and the two begin a meth lab together. Their business grows and as the seasons go on, Walter begins to realize he can’t get out of the business; even though he finally becomes cancer-free.

The show has been watched by millions and has won many awards. While it’s a thrilling show to watch; it’s also a production that has valuable ways to use media criticism

Using Semiotics/Structuralism

I’m going to use semiotics/structuralism to give an understanding on what Breaking Bad does to influence the audience. Semiotics, according to my MCOM 352 class, is “the study of how social production of meaning is constructed through a system of signs. Structuralism, according to MCOM 352, is “the study of the systems of relations between the various elements of an underlying structure”.

The way to apply semiotics to this show is to find the signs that give the show meaning. For instance, we look at things like language, character, interactions, etc. in order to make judgments on what the media is portraying. It’s important to use semiotics because it’s the way to look for signs in the show and just what it’s trying to teach us.

Here is a link on broader view of semiotics: http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/S4B/sem01.html

Structuralism is applied and paired with semiotics by putting everything together. An example would be to connect a character’s tone with his/her actions. It allows the audience to make connections and look at the bigger picture of what the media text is telling us. Once you have this down; you’ll be able to judge any media text. So how about we try this out with Breaking Bad?

Analyzing Breaking Bad

Let’s start by taking a look at Walter White’s character. In the first few seasons, you feel bad for Walter because he has been diagnosed with cancer and might leave behind his family. He begins to cook meth and you sympathize with him because as an audience; you want Walter to live and make money for his family. In other words: you find it okay that he provides many people with drugs because you want him to live. How crazy is that? The show actually finds a way for us to feel empathy for a drug provider.

walt 1

By using semiotics, we can see just why we sympathize with Walter. The first signifier we look at is meth. Our first understand is that the drug is a terrible thing. But when we see the meaning of meth, which is Walter making meth in order to make money for his family; we then gain sympathy for Walter. This is exactly how semiotics works and how the producers of Breaking Bad want you to feel.

As the seasons go on; you begin to have a different perception of Walter. The show has a different take on its main character, as he starts to show a darker side. He becomes a murderer and someone that doesn’t want to get out of the drug business. Walter becomes hated by his family, friends and his partner Jesse. The show was able to completely change our opinions on how we view things. At first, we thought it was okay for Walter to be a drug producer because he was doing it for his family. We then start to think it’s not okay for Walter to do it because he becomes greedy and neglects his family. This is a perfect example of how media texts can shape our views. Just through Breaking Bad, you have the view of thinking it’s okay for someone to be a drug provider and then as the show changes; you’re opinion also changes.

walt 2

Let’s trying using structuralism with this part of Walter’s character. We first feel sympathy for Walter because he had cancer and was trying to help his family, but then we lose that sympathy. This happens through the connection of Walter’s business and change. His personality completely changes after he becomes hardened by the meth business. We connect this personality change with the mistreatment of his family and his greed, which gives us the idea of no longer liking his character.

Another element of Breaking Bad that shapes our view on culture is all of the acts of violence in the show. The show results in a ton of deaths and gives the impression that people can get away with murder easily. Walter and Jesse end up killing over 20 people in the show and never even come close to being caught for it. This gives the impression that you can get away with murder easily in our culture. It’s an example of how much influence the media has over us and how it plants these ideas in the audience’s heads.

By using semiotics, we see the signs of Walter and Jesse murdering people in order to keep their business thriving. Then the signified part is how Walter and Jesse commit these murders and get away with it, which gives us the meaning that murder is easy to get away with. See how semiotics can be used in almost every instance of the show?


One final element of the show that influences culture is the power of the male figure. Walter is the clear man of power in the show, as he controls almost everything. However, there are many other male figures that hold power in the show, like Jesse, and Walter’s brother in-law has a huge role as well. The women in Breaking Bad have minor roles in the show and are seen as helpless. It goes to the show that Breaking Bad gives the perception that men are dangerous with the power that they have. It also gives the perception that women are fragile and helpless under the power-craze that the men pertain.

We can use structuralism here to make a meaning out of this. First, let’s take the element of the men being in power. Walter runs his drug business with Jesse and both have control throughout the show. These men are also murderers and ruthless. Now let’s take the element of the women staying at home and not fully understanding what is going on in the drug business. By connection these two elements, which is the definition of structuralism; we understand through the show that the men have the power.

So What?

So why is analyzing Breaking Bad to a huge extent and going over media criticism important? Because we need to be able to understand just what the media is trying to teach us and put out to us. Breaking Bad is a fantastic show, but we need to see just what messages the show puts out there and what we take away from watching it. We need to see just what kind of influences it has on the public and how the show gives us a perception on certain things, like drugs and violence.

We need to be able to see what the media is trying to influence us with. If we do this, then we can choose what to take in from the media and what to ignore. By using media criticism, we are able to rule the media instead of letting the media rule us.

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