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Cultural Engagement in Communication and the Arts: Once Upon a Time (A Theory)

By Lorene M. Wales - June 6th, 2017

Who we are deeply affects how we engage culture.

 

Once upon a time…I was a little girl, seeing my first movie, In Search of Noah’s Ark (1976). I was so astounded by the images, I knew God was calling me to work in film. Yep, not Star Wars, which came out a year later, but a documentary about a boat (okay, THE boat!). Just 39 years later, I’m now an educator, author, and culture-maker.

So when trying to tackle how we engage culture, I look back at how it all started for me and realize I’m not that same awestruck girl. I believe there is no single, right way to engage culture and no lone worldview. We, as educators in cinematic arts (and the rest of the university faculty), engage culture differently, sometimes even contrarily. These variated approaches are because we bring all of ourselves, our history, our upbringing, our memories and sometimes our baggage to this task. Active audience theory argues that we don’t just receive information passively but are actively involved, making sense of what we see within our own contexts. I believe this is true, but I would add to this theory, and maybe call it the “Once Upon a Time – Active Audience Theory.” 

See, as a woman, I view a superhero in a movie differently now than when I was a girl. Then, I saw a future husband; now, I see a guy in tights. The first time I saw Forrest Gump, I loved it; now, as the mom of a son with an intellectual disability it’s just... discomforting. And, as a Christian woman, I used to see women in film and aspire to be the heroine. Now, I also see the stereotypes, injustice, violence and objectification that have existed throughout cinematic history and wonder about the long-term impact of such stereotypes. 

My moment of engagement was different in my childhood and young adulthood, based on who I was at each of those distinct periods of life.  And, it is different today based on who I am now. Who we are changes, and it should change. "When I was a child…I understood as a child, (1 Corinthians 13:11). When I was a little girl in the 1960s I saw the world through rose-colored glasses, now I engage culture as a more informed woman, mom, Christian, and educator. I engage differently than others, and that’s okay. Knowing who we are in those moments is integral to how we see and judge the mass of media we encounter every day. If we think about who we were, once upon a time, we can see growth and maturity in how we engage. For me, perspective on cultural engagement came through movies.  For you, maybe it has been through a book or a Broadway play. Something grabbed you at some point in your life and you/we have been honing that culture relationship ever since. If we contemplate our history, upbringing, memories, and baggage, we can see the change and what our worldview is today. In truth, we engage as God made us, as unique beings who are constantly growing and changing within a world that does the same.

“Once upon a time” not only looks at what might be our idyllic past but informs us how we’ve grown to engage culture today.  My recommendation is to embrace culture based on this examination and you will discover how you uniquely engage culture. 

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