Critical Lenses on Popular Culture: Using Literary Theory to Engage Students in Analytical Writing

By Shannon Falkner

While English Language Arts classrooms will always be grounds for introducing students to literature and asking them to write about those readings, what if we also invited students to introduce us to the texts they love — the ones they’re already talking and thinking about? What if we offered them opportunities to analyze the newest Avengers film or the US Women’s Soccer Team’s performance in the World Cup or that Youtuber’s channel they love to watch? Topics like these lend themselves to interesting, engaging analysis that, with support, can prompt students to think critically about sociopolitical issues they already care about.

In his 2018 book Why They Can’t Write (2018), John Warner tells readers, “In 2016, for the first time, a majority of fifth through twelfth graders reported being either ‘not engaged’ (29 percent) or ‘actively disengaged’ (22 percent). Over one-fifth of all students fifth grade or older have effectively checked out of school almost entirely.” 

Warner advocates that writing should be “a process that allows us to think and respond to the world at large.” He says writing “must be open and exploratory” (Warner, 2018). Unfortunately, because of the history of English Language Arts as a discipline, writing has become synonymous with literary analysis in many classrooms, a less-than-thrilling topic for many high school students.

Popular movies or fashion trends aren’t “academic” in comparison to canonical literature. It’s important, however, to recognize that our students take these topics seriously — and so do many academics in the field of semiotics and cultural studies. More importantly, if teachers don’t provide students the opportunity to rigorously analyze the cultural texts they’re already consuming, we risk losing out on a real opportunity to help students apply the analytical skills they’ve learned in English to the world they inhabit and become critical consumers.

In recent years, our public conversations about identity issues — things like gender and sexuality, race, and class — have become much more nuanced and complex. The concept of “implicit bias” has become a feature of much instruction around issues like racism, sexism, or classism. Implicit bias (or unconscious bias or reflexive bias) is an unconscious attitude or set of beliefs one holds about a particular group, which the individual may not consciously agree with yet nonetheless impacts the way that individual conceives of or treats members of that group. (Malcolm Gladwell discusses this type of bias in his 2007 book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.)

So, where does implicit bias come from? Gladwell points out that it often comes from the media we consume: that cop drama where the “strong female” character stops going into the field once she becomes a mother or that sitcom where the “low class” neighbors always provide the comic relief. Whether we like it or not, those depictions seep into our brains and influence the way we think about women or about working class people. 

One way to counteract implicit bias is to teach students to apply critical lenses to that media to expose those implicit (but insidious) messages about gender, sexuality, race, and class. In giving students the analytical tools to notice and identify these implicit messages, we can help them critique – and begin to dismantle – those messages. And by having students apply those analytical lenses to the media they already consume, we ensure that students are becoming critical consumers of the content that figures most prominently into their own media landscapes. One way to start this work is through cultural analysis, which teaches students to think critically about the objects and practices of everyday life and apply the same rigorous analysis to these “texts” that they would apply to other academic writing tasks, like literary analysis (Maasik and Solomon 9-13). 

Cultural Analysis

When I first introduce cultural analysis, I invite students to choose a “text” to analyze. A “text” might be…

  • a cultural object or creation: single objects or creations (such as Range Rovers or commercials that sell Range Rovers)
  • a cultural practice: the ways people do particular things (such as watching television, or eating out, or driving)
  • a cultural development: changes that occur in culture; “trends” (like high-waisted jeans or the popularity of Pokémon) (Maasik and Solomon, 2018)

I encourage students to think about what the “text” they’ve selected illustrates about our culture and its values, fears, desires, or idiosyncrasies. Encouraging students to consider a text’s context (Where does it appear? Of what systems is it a part? Are there other things that are like it that exist? How is it different than other things like it?) can help them come to some interesting insights about the text itself. 

We often spend some time analyzing a nontraditional text together — the classroom desk. In analyzing the desk, students notice that it has the chair connected to the desk, that it doesn’t have drawers, that they are all the same. I encourage students to engage in “overdetermination” — rather than settling for one “truth” about our culture that this text reveals, I ask students to look for many plausible explanations for the text’s significance and introduce readers to each of them. Students will note that the desk is a sign of the school’s distrust of students because it doesn’t give them any privacy since there are no drawers; they’ll say it shows the way that all students are expected to be the same and follow the same script because all the desks are the same; and they’ll say that the desk represents the way that students are controlled in schools — “we can’t even lean back in our chairs because they’re attached!” Now, they’re getting the idea: a text can mean a lot of things, so long as writers offer plausible explanations, logic, and evidence.

I’ve seen scores of reluctant writers engage with their analytical writing and effectively analyze texts once I opened the door to analysis of popular culture. From Ethan’s essay on water bottle stickers to Cameron’s essay on white sneakers as a trend, I’ve seen many students create engaging original analysis with this approach. To extend this approach, teachers can use Allison Marchetti and Rebecca O’Dell’s book Beyond Literary Analysis(2018) which includes a helpful rationale and guidance for this kind of writing in school. 

Using Critical Lenses

Most students have little trouble selecting a text they care about for analysis, but coming up with insights about nontraditional texts is challenging work for young writers. One of the most effective ways I’ve discovered to enhance students’ critical thinking and analytical power in relation to these texts is to introduce them to critical lenses, or literary theories, to apply to their analysis (Appleman, 2015 and Tyson, 2014). The lenses work as a critical scaffold to enable students to see and notice important aspects of their writing topics. The literary theories that have served students best, and seem to me to be increasingly necessary in a political moment fraught with economic inequality, sexism, and racism, are the Marxist, the feminist, and the postcolonial lenses. As an example, I explore the Marxist theory in detail below. In class, we explore all three lenses.

Example: Marxist Theory

After students have written one analytical essay on a cultural text without the use of a critical lens, and I feel confident that they understand the value and processes involved in writing about popular culture, we’ll move into Marxist theory first. 

Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today has chapters dedicated to this theoretical lens, as well as others (2014). Tyson provides a succinct and engaging overview of each theory in her book. With older students, I’ll also have them read the chapter on Marxist theory, and we’ll discuss them. With younger students, it works better if I simply ask them to think about class depictions in a text.

Next, we read some mentor texts in which professional writers have analyzed a cultural object, practice, or development by paying particular attention to depictions of class and status. 

Before students write, I’ll show them clips from popular movies or TV shows (or music videos) and ask them to pay attention to depictions of class and status. The question I’m always asking is simply “What do you notice?” I find that students start to see things in these texts that otherwise wouldn’t command their attention. 

For example, when students viewed this Jennifer Lopez video through a Marxist lens, they noticed that the singer’s power is displayed through her wealth: her yacht, her fancy cars, her clothes. Many students commented on the problematic nature of asserting a message about women’s empowerment through the markers of material wealth. They also noticed that her backup dancers wear t-shirts that read “Blessed,” suggesting that those who have money are somehow deserving, while those who don’t, somehow aren’t. One student suggested that the opening speaking lines reverse the traditional power dynamics between the all-powerful record producer and starving artist: the artist and her friends seem to be in control of the album’s concept here rather than the producer. Another student commented that, in the end, the whole video is just a dream, which shows that the artist really doesn’t control the content of her video after all, further emphasizing how she lacks power or status as the artist. 

Then, I invite students to analyze their own self-selected text through a Marxist lens. I’ve found that it’s helpful to introduce the terms “marginalize” and “valorize” and ask: Who is marginalized in the story? Who is valorized? I’ve also found it useful to introduce the term agency, and ask students to consider who has agency and who doesn’t. 

Ryan, a senior, has been watching The Simpsons for years, but, in applying the Marxist lens to the series, he begins to question its depiction of Homer as not only an idiot, but a specifically working class idiot:

Homer, his friends, and his family are all part of Springfield’s middle/lower class, while characters such as Homer’s boss, Mr. Burns, and Mr. Burn’s associate, Smithers, are part of the upper class. Homer’s lack of intelligence, credited to the “Simpson gene,” a gene that makes every male in the family incredibly stupid, is what has made the sitcom so popular. In fact, it is what The Simpsons is best known for. While watching the series, however, viewers must stop and ask whether Groening’s depiction of Homer Simpson’s intelligence applies to a one in a million idiot, or is it instead an unflattering reflection on the much less severe (compared to Homer), simplemindedness of the working class that Homer is a part of as a whole?

When students are able to read texts with a critical eye, we know that they are on their way to being critical consumers of media, an essential component of being literate in today’s world, and a deeply necessary practice if we are to dismantle systems of oppression that have operated for centuries in our national politics and discourse.

Applying critical lenses to analyze popular media also helps students discover that they don’t need the teacher to point out what matters or what’s important in a particular text. Here’s Sydney’s introduction to her analysis of The Hunger Games:

It was not until I saw a post on Instagram on how people who only fight over the two main love interests [in The Hunger Games] are missing the entire point of the book by a long shot…[I]t wasn’t until my English teacher told us to look at things through a Marxist lens that I realized what the Hunger Games was really all about.

Now, whenever I turn on the movie, all I see is the oppressiveness of the fascist government that is the Capital and “president” that is Snow. I see the distinction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat cut so clear that I hit myself in the head for not seeing them before. The whole movie (and book series) revolves around a lower-class, female protagonist trying to upend her country’s political system.

It’s through the combination of critical lenses and application to real-life texts that students are able to really begin to “read” their world and discover things in it that they didn’t know were there before — and do so independently, without the teacher pointing out each “important” detail. 

Real Purpose, Real Writing

Writing about the texts they care about through critical lenses that help them articulate complex sociopolitical ideas enables students to access what all writers need: real purpose they believe in. John Warner notes, “Purpose means we believe that what we are doing is important and meaningful to ourselves, to the world at large, or both” (2018). I love that my students’ words are out there on, and that people are reading them, commenting on them, and engaging with their thinking. What better affirmation is there for students to see that their voices have merit and value? What better motivation is there for students to write than knowing that their words inspire, challenge, and engage others in dialogues they care deeply about?

Works Cited


Shannon Falkner has taught English Language Arts for 16 years, both in California and in New Jersey. She currently teaches at Chatham High School in Chatham, NJ. Shannon holds a Masters degree in Literatures in English from the University of California, San Diego, and she is a teacher consultant with the National Writing Project at the Drew Writing Project/Digital Literacies Collaborative in Madison, NJ. Shannon also spends time advocating for climate literacy and educating the public about climate change through the Climate Reality Project.

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.


One thought on “Critical Lenses on Popular Culture: Using Literary Theory to Engage Students in Analytical Writing

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