Casting & Representation

A recent activity I did with a Year 12 Media class who are working towards their L3 BTEC qualification raised some interesting bias. The students have created a pre-production for a new Netflix series that they were pitch. They needed to cast their shows, and had unlimited budgets to do so.

To facilitate some brainstorming around this, I gave them a slip of paper to write a brief character bio to find an actor that fits. The class then roamed the room, and made casting suggestions on each slip, folding it over each time so they could not be influenced by the other suggestions. The outcomes of this activities were fascinating. Here are some observations:

  • Of the 42 characters that there were bios written, the gender split was 50-50. (However, the class is 80% female).
  • The bios were prompted to suggest age, gender, appearance, occupation, … No student mentioned anything about class, sexuality, or disability. Gender was treated understand as binary, with no one making any offers about diverse expressions of femininity or masculinity.
  • If the ethnicity was not stated on the sheet, all the suggestions of actors were white.
  • All characters appeared to be middle-class or upper middle-class based on their descriptions. No narratives explored issues around class.
  • While there were a lot of teenage characters, the most common suggestions for these characters were older actors like Zac Efron (30), Michael B Jordan (31), even Ryan Reynolds (41). Students struggled to remember the names of actors under the age of 25.

This was an unscientific study, but as these findings came clear and the dialogue around them developed, I felt as though a lot of reflection and examination of personal bias was going on.


A new approach to Representation

I’ve spent a good several hours over the last couple of days devising a new way of presenting my unit on representation of the family unit. In this topic we look at a number of sitcoms that present the idea of the American family from ‘Father Knows Best’ in the 1950s through to Modern Family in 2009. Looking at the representation in the shows and connecting this to the society that it reflects is a challenge. Students have to have a sense of curiosity and discovery in order to get their head around a time that was not our own and not make the traditional mistakes of making wild generalisations. 

These problems have often ended up resulting in largely teacher directed units. I would use strict powerpoints and make my points and then lead activities that explored these points. I’ve really become distanced from this form of teaching and as a result I’ve devised a unit that removes me from the front of the class and emphasises critical curiosity and student choice. 

For each week of the unit I have devised a table with three columns. Each columns has up to four activities. This is the table for week one:

Teacher/Class Time:

a) Class brainstorms – the family unit is represented in… the family unit is represented as…

b) Viewing: Father Knows Best, S01E10, ‘Typical Father’

c) Class Discussion of hypodermic needle theory and “Idealised family that viewers could relate to and wish to emulate.”

d) Viewing: ‘The Evolution of Family Structure and Values through Television’


Select-Directed Tasks:


a) Research: what is the stereotypical family image? Where does this stereotype come from? Who decides what it is?

b) Read p. 58 of the blue book (Media Studies: Achievement Standards L2)

c) Read and Learn important terms and concepts from the definition google doc.

d) Answer Questions on Father Knows Best and the Evolution video

e) Read ‘A brief history of moral panics’ pp. 287-9 in Senior Media


Extension Opportunities:


a) Production Information from imdb on S01E10, ‘Typical Father’

b) Research: Look into 1950s American society. Find academic writing about the status of the American Dream, and American families.

c) Read the rest of the representation chapter in the blue book (pp. 55-71)

d) Viewing: Another episode of Father Knows Best, e.g. ‘Grandpa Retires’

The idea is that during the week I will run the Teacher Time when appropriate, and the rest of the time the students will complete tasks from the other columns. These tasks range from researching a question or concept, reading a particular reading, answering questions in a google doc, or viewing related material on their devices. 

My challenge is now to sell this a get a strong buy in from the class. I’m convinced that this can produce better learning outcomes, (perhaps not results, but you never know) and it heightens so many skills that I value and the curriculum values. Tracking progress is a major concern, and I’m going to look at ways of doing this successfully.