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Entertainment and/or/not education

This book examines queer characters in popular American television, demonstrating how entertainment can educate audiences about LGBT identities and social issues like homophobia and transphobia.
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  Entertainment and/or/not education Alan McKee Ava Parsemain’s book The Pedagogy of Queer TV  , the latest volume in the Palgrave Entertainment industries series, explores the ways in which television teaches audiences about queer issues, queer cultures and queer people. In doing so, this important book raises a vital, much broader, question: What would ha ppen if we abandoned the whole ‘media effects’  tradition of studying entertainment and instead turned our attention to the study of entertainment’s education? That is to say: if we stop asking, ‘ how was a consumer impacted by entertainment  ?’  and i nstead ask ‘ what did she learn from it, ?’  how might our approach to culture change? The relationship between entertainment and education is currently a vital one for academic researchers, not only for instrumental reasons like improving vital practices such as sex education, but also to help us understand broader questions about how culture works. The Palgrave Entertainment Industries series addresses entertainment as a distinct cultural system, asking how it works and what we can learn from it. In this book, Ava Parsemain takes a case study of entertainment and (queer) education about sex to explore the ways in which education through entertainment differs from –  and might even offer us innovative ways to improve –  the education offered by formal teaching institutions such as schools and universities. In a previous book in this series I proposed that we might take a broadly tripartite taxonomy to understanding the relationship between culture and its audiences:    The educational model of culture: you must   consume this text or you will fail the course;    the arts model of culture: you should   consume this text because it is good for you;    and finally, the entertainment model of culture: What texts would you like to consume? (McKee 2016, p. 33)  In the realm of sex education, entertainment is often held up as the bad object, the cause of negative ‘media effects’   on young people’s sexual development (see for example Brown & Bobkowski 2011; Collins et al. 2004; Eyal & Kunkel 2008; Kunkel, Cope & Biely 1999). Much academic research on sex education tends to assume that parents (Collins et al. 2004, p. e288) and schools provide a positive ‘corrective’ (Fisher & Barak 1989) to the assumed negative teachings of the entertainment media about sex. The fact that this assumption is common among academics as well as journalists and popular audiences may obscure the fact that there is little evidence that the sex education provided by schools and parents is in fact any better than that provided by entertainment. Research into the sex education provided by parents in Australia, America and the UK consistently shows that many parents are simply not providing sex education in any meaningful way; and when they do so are presenting messages that sex is negative. As one study with fourteen and fifteen year old Australians notes: It was clear from the focus groups that the majority of parents do not talk to their children about sex in any substantive way. Focus groups allow us to see not just what people say but how they say it. It was a recurring theme in these groups that when asked whether their parents had addressed a particular aspect of sexuality education with them, members of the group would simply recite, one after the other, ‘No’, without any hesitation, caveats or discussion: Fac: And again do your parents talk to you about sex at all? 8.F.3: No. 8.F.4: No. 8.F.5: No. 8.F.2: No. 8.F.1: Kind of but not really, like they’ll just be like don’t have sex because you will get pregnant (McKee, Dore & Watson 2014, p. 658) In schools, young people describe the sex education they receive as being about ‘mechanics’ (Carmody 2009, p. 42) , ‘plumbing’ (Carmody 2009, p. 59) ‘puberty, procreation and penetration’ (Sorenson & Brown 2007, p. 34):  13.F.6: It’s not –   it’s all scientific though, it’s not more . . .   13.F.2: It’s not in relation to your life. It’s just . . .  13.F.4: Yeah. 13.F.6: Education about the disease. Fac: Okay. 13.F.6: Yeah, and how it works. And how it works in your body. And I’m, like, ‘Yeah, stuff that.’ You wouldn’t really talk about in everyday life.  13.F.2: Yeah. 13.F.6: But, ‘This works like this because of the two x -proteins and all that stuff like that’.  13.F.4: Yeah. 13.F.6: You wouldn’t say that in an everyday conversation . 13.F.4: No. 13.F.2: ‘Did you know that the protein coating of AIDS changes that’s why they can’t cure it?’  13.F.4: Yeah, exactly (McKee, Dore & Watson 2014, p. 656) There exists an extensive academic literature identifying the most important elements of sex education for young people. They want to understand the emotional side of physical intimacy –  how to start, manage and if necessary end relationships, and understand the place of love and physical intimacy in them (Allen 2008, p. 573; Buckingham & Bragg 2004, p. 56; Carmody 2009, p. 59; Department for Education and Employment 2000, p. 11; Halstead & Reiss 2003, pp. 33, 120; Parks 2010; Tacchi, Jewell & Donovan 1998, p. 12). And they want to understand how to make physical intimacy more pleasurable for themselves and for their partners (Allen 2005, p. 60; 2008, 573; Buckingham & Bragg 2004, p. 56; Carmody 2009, pp. 59, 60; Fine & McLelland 2006, p. 328; Halstead & Reiss 2003, pp. 33, 194; Parks 2010; Sorenson & Brown 2007, p. 34). Neither parents nor schools are providing substantive education about these issues. In this context young people inevitably turn to entertainment for information: and the  entertainment media end up doing more sex education than perhaps their producers –  or parents, teachers and academics –  would like. And particularly –  as Ave Parsemain makes clear –  for those of us growing up queer the entertainment media have consistently offered more varied and more positive representations of our sexuality and relationship possibilities than parents and schools have done. There was no homosexuality on the school curriculum in Scotland in the 1970s, nor in my mother’s attempts to explain reproduction to me. But there were glimpses in the world of entertainment –  the irreverent femininity of John Inman on the sitcom  Are You Being Served  , the camp grandeur of game show host Larry Grayson or the strange acceptance of gender confusion at the end of Some Like it Hot  . This was perhaps not ideal sex education for a young gay man –  but it was better than anything that formal education had to offer at the time. As Ava suggests then, entertainment might do better –  or certainly, more –  teaching about what it means to be queer than parents or schools do. Even accepting that this is the case, though, there are challenges in thinking of entertainment as education. There remain difficulties in bringing these forms of culture together. It is true that there exists a recognised genre –   ‘entertainment education’ –  which uses entertainment modes for purposes of health promotion and social marketing. But even when the two terms are brought so resolutely together, there remains a tension. On the one hand, entertainment is ‘audience - centred culture’ (Collis, McKee & Hamley 2010, p. 921), commercial production that aims to give audiences what they will want. Entertainment producers thus have expertise in reaching audiences and providing them with content they want to consume. By contrast - and although the fundamental basis of education as the transmission of knowledge implies no particular relationship between the educator and the learner (and some traditions have actively tried to share power with students (Freire 2000[1970])) - it is generally the case that in Western cultures of formal learning, ‘the understanding of classroom power that prevails for most people … focuses on the opposition between teachers and students’ and ‘assigns power to the teacher’ (Manke 2009[1997], p. 1). Given these different orientations it is not surprising that there remains an ‘ intrinsic tension between  entertainment and education’ (Bouman 2002, p. 238) –  between ‘truth’ (the speech domain of educators) and ‘communication’ (the realm of entertainment   producers). Buckingham and Bragg, speaking to young people about how they learned about sex, love and relationships from popular media, noted that they were likely to reject worthy programmes that they saw as ‘preaching’ to them (Buckingham and Bragg 2004 , 162). Indeed: …. the overt imposition of moral lessons …. is precisely [the] kind of approach that leads some viewers to perceive [entertainment] as preaching and lecturing and to reject them on these grounds. (Buckingham and Bragg 2004, 168) Entertainment products such as soap operas don’t preach to their audiences. Rather, they let young people work things out for themselves: they ‘encourag[e] viewers to make their own judgments, rather than simply commanding their assent’ (Buckingham and Bragg 2004 , 168). Herein lies the tension: the more that entertainment engages young people by letting them make up their own minds, the less likely it is to have a single clear d idactic ‘message’ that all viewers will agree on. And conversely, the clearer the educational message, the less dramatic and engaging the entertainment is likely to be (Bouman [2004] 2007)(Singhal and Rogers 1999, 76). John Hartley, whose work on the Uses of Television  is one of the most important contributions to thinking of the pedagogies of entertainment, notes that ‘if TV is teaching, there needs to be some reformulation of the concept of teaching itself’:  Concepts of entertainment, citizenship, life-long and distance learning, and domesticity need to be brought to bear on the understanding of teaching itself. Teaching and learning need to be seen as non-purposeful activities of a society, not outcome-oriented institutional practices (Hartley 1999, pp. 45-46) And what forms of education could better challenge a purposeful and institutional approach to pedagogy than queer sex education? It is at this point in the debate that Ava’s  book makes a fascinating intervention in our thinking about forms of culture and their relationships with their audiences. Taking the empirical approach that characterizes the Palgrave Entertainment Industries
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