Adapted by Liz Delf, Rob Drummond, and Kristy Kelly
When Mad Max: Fury Road came out in 2015, it was lauded as a powerful feminist film. No longer was this franchise about men enacting postapocalyptic violence; now, there was an important place in that universe for women. A similar phenomenon surrounded Wonder Woman in 2017: after dozens of male-fronted superhero movies, one would finally focus on a female hero exclusively.
Some people, though, were resistant to this reading of feminism in film. I found myself in regular debates after each of these releases about what it meant to promote gender equality in film: Does substituting a violent woman for a violent man constitute feminism? Is the leading woman in a film a feminist just by virtue of being in a female-fronted film? Or do her political beliefs take priority? Does the presence of women on the screen preclude the fact that those women are still highly sexualized?
These questions, debates, and discussions gesture toward the interpretive process. Indeed, most arguments (verbal or written) rely on the fact that we each process texts and information from different positions with different purposes, lenses, and preoccupations. Why is it that some people leave the theater after Mad Max or Wonder Woman feeling empowered and others leave deeply troubled?
Interpretation is a complex process that is unique to every reader. It is a process of meaning making that relies on your particular position as a reader. Your interpretive position is informed by several factors:
- Your purpose
- In the same way you have a rhetorical purpose in writing, you often have a purpose in reading, either consciously or subconsciously. What are you trying to accomplish in this encounter with a text?
- Your background
- Your lived experiences have trained you to perceive texts with certain assumptions. This background is a blend of cultural, educational, geographical, familial, ideological, and personal influences, among many others.
- Your posture
- The stance you assume relative to a text will contribute to what meaning you make as you read, think about, and write about that text. This relative position might be emotional (what mood you’re in while reading) or contextual (what situation you’re reading in) and may also be impacted by your background and purpose.
- Your lens
- Related to your purpose, lens refers to the way you focus your attention on particular ideas, images, and language to construct meaning. Toward what elements are you directing your attention?
It would be simpler, perhaps, to acknowledge that we will never all agree on an interpretation of a text because of these differences. But the stakes are higher here than simply, “Is Mad Max: Fury Road feminist?” Interpretation gets down to the very way we encounter the world; it is about all our biases and flaws; it is about truth; it is about building new knowledges and dismantling institutional oppression. In other words, analytical interpretation is not so esoteric as slotting texts into labels like “feminist” or “not feminist.” It is a practice of thinking critically, examining our sense of community and communication, and pursuing social justice.
Analysis, then, is a practice of radical noticing (like description): it invites you to attend to the details that add up to a complex reality. But analysis also involves the conscientious focus of your attention, or a lens. Just like reading glasses can bring these words into focus, an analytical lens brings specific ideas, words, or patterns into sharper focus, making them easier to process and interpret.
Sometimes, especially in English classrooms, analysis of a text is referred to as close reading. Importantly, close reading as a technique is not a magical key to meaning, not a supersecret decoder ring for a deeply encrypted code. Rather, it is a means to unpack a text and construct a unique, focused interpretation. Close reading is an iterative process: by repeatedly encountering, unpacking, and discussing a text, you can develop an analytical insight through guided and focused interpretation of its meaning.
In an analytical situation, your readerly purpose might determine your focus: for example, if you’re trying to convince a friend that Wonder Woman is a feminist film, you would keep your eyes peeled for images, words, and other markers that align with such an interpretation, like situations featuring independent powerful women or an equitable ratio of dialogue spoken by female characters versus male characters. It is important to note, though, that good analysis embraces curiosity and allows you to notice elements that might contradict, complicate, or nuance your original purpose: in addition to finding evidence in support of your interpretation, you should also be aware of characteristics that push back against your expectations.
Radical Noticing: Seeing What’s on the Page
When we were early readers, we were trained to encounter texts in a specific way: find the main idea, focus on large-scale comprehension, and ignore errors, digressions, or irrelevant information. As Jane Gallop discusses in her essay “The Ethics of Reading: Close Encounters,” this is a useful but problematic skill. Because we engage a text from a specific interpretive position (and because we’re not always aware of that position), we often project what we anticipate rather than actually reading. Instead of reading what is on the page, we read what we think should be (7–17).
Projection is efficient—one email from Mom is probably like all the others, and one episode of The Simpsons will probably follow the same trajectory as every episode from the last twenty-odd years. But projection is also problematic and inhibits analysis. As Gallop puts it,
When the reader concentrates on the familiar, she is reassured that what she already knows is sufficient in relation to this new book. Focusing on the surprising, on the other hand, would mean giving up the comfort of the familiar, of the already known for the sake of learning, of encountering something new, something she didn’t already know.
In fact, this all has to do with learning. Learning is very difficult; it takes a lot of effort. It is of course much easier if once we learn something we can apply what we have learned again and again. It is much more difficult if every time we confront something new, we have to learn something new.
Reading what one expects to find means finding what one already knows. Learning, on the other hand, means coming to know something one did not know before. Projecting is the opposite of learning. As long as we project onto a text, we cannot learn from it, we can only find what we already know. Close reading is thus a technique to make us learn, to make us see what we don’t already know, rather than transforming the new into the old. (7–17)
Analysis as “learning,” as Gallop explains, is a tool to help interrupt projection: by focusing on and trying to understand parts, we can redirect our attention to what the author is saying rather than what we think they should have said. In turn, we can develop a more complex, ethical, and informed understanding of the whole.
Perhaps the most important part of analysis is this attention to detail. If we assume that every word the author published is intentional (in order to avoid speculation about authorial intent), then we can question the meaning and impact of each word, each combination of words, each formal feature of the text. In turn, you should pay special attention to words or forms that surprise you or confuse you: the eye-catching and the ambiguous.
Symbols, Patterns, and References
There is no definitive “how-to” guide on text wrestling, but I often ask my students to direct their attention to three particular elements of a text during their interpretive processes. When you draw connections through the following categories, you are actively building meaning from the words on the page.
A symbol, as you may already know, is an artifact (usually something concrete) that stands in for (represents) something else (often something abstract).
Here are a few examples in different media:
- In Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign logo, the O, of course, stands in for the candidate’s last name; the red lines seem to suggest a road (implying progress) or maybe a waving American flag; the blue curve represents a clear, blue sky (implying safety or well-being); the colors themselves are perhaps symbolic of bipartisan cooperation or, at the very least, the American color palette of red, white, and blue.
- In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” the titular black cat symbolizes the narrator’s descent into madness, alcoholism, and violence and later his guilt for that descent.
- The teaspoon used to hypnotize people in the film Get Out (2017) symbolizes wealth, power, and privilege (a “silver spoon”), suggesting that those structures are tools for control and domination.
Patterns are created by a number of rhetorical moves, often in form. Repetition of phrases or images, the visual appearance of text on a page, and character archetypes might contribute to patterns. While patterns themselves are interesting and important, you might also notice that breaking a pattern is a significant and deliberate move.
- The episode of the TV series Master of None titled “Parents” (season 1, episode 2) tells the respective stories of two immigrant families. By tracing the previous generation of each immigrant family through a series of flashbacks, the episode establishes a pattern in chronology: although the families have unique stories, the pattern highlights the similarities between these two families’ experiences. In turn, this pattern demonstrates the parallel but distinct challenges and opportunities faced by the immigrants and first-generation American citizens the episode profiles.
- In Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” each line of the first stanza contains ten syllables. However, the following stanzas contain occasional deviations—more or fewer syllables—creating a sense of disorder and also drawing emphasis to the pattern-breaking lines.
A reference is a connection a text makes to another text. By making a reference (whether obvious or hidden), the referencing text adopts some characteristics of the referenced text. References might include allusion, allegory, quotation, or parody.
- C. S. Lewis’s classic young adult series, The Chronicles of Narnia, is a Christian allegory. The imagery used to describe the main hero, Aslan the lion, as well as a number of the other stories and details, parallel the New Testament. In turn, Aslan is imbued with the savior connotation of Jesus Christ.
- The TV show Bob’s Burgers makes frequent references to pop culture. For instance, the fictional boy band featured in the show, Boyz 4 Now, closely resembles One Direction, *NSYNC, and Backstreet Boys—and their name is clearly a reference to Boyz II Men.
- “Woman Hollering Creek,” a short story by Sandra Cisneros, deals with the dangers of interpersonal violence. The protagonist refers frequently to telenovelas, soap operas that set unrealistic and problematic assumptions for healthy relationships. These references suggest to us that interpersonal violence is pervasive in media and social norms.
In addition to looking for symbols, patterns, and references, you might also focus your analytical reading by using a sociocultural critical lens. Because your attention is necessarily selective, a limited resource, these lenses give you a suggestion for where you might direct that attention. While it is beyond the scope of this book to give in-depth history and reading practices for different schools of literary criticism or cultural studies, the following are common lenses applied during textual analysis.
As you engage with a text, you should look for touchstones, tropes, or symbols that relate to one or more of the following critical perspectives:
- Gender and sexuality
- How does the text portray the creation and performance of gender? How many people of different genders are included in the story? Do the characters in the text express gender according to traditional standards? How do characters resist the confines of gender? How much attention, agency, and voice are allowed to women, men, and nonbinary or genderqueer characters?
- What sorts of relationships—familial, friendly, romantic, sexual, and so on—are portrayed in the text? How do these relationships compare with the relationships of the dominant culture? How much attention, agency, and voice are allowed to LGBTQIA2S+ people?
- How does the text represent people with disabilities? Does the text reveal damaging stereotypes or misconceptions about people with disabilities or their life experiences? Does the text illuminate the social/environmental construction of disabilities? How does the text construct or assume the normative body?
- Race, ethnicity, and nationality
- How does the text represent people of color, of minority status, and/or of different nationalities? What does it suggest about institutionalized racism and discrimination? How does the text examine or portray cultural and individual identities? How do the characters resist racism, xenophobia, and oppression? How do they reproduce, practice, or contribute to racism, xenophobia, or oppression?
- Social class and economy
- How does the text represent differences in wealth, access, and resources? Do people cross the divisions between socioeconomic statuses? Are characters of greater status afforded more power, agency, or freedom in the plot events or in the text more generally? How do exploited people resist or reproduce exploitation?
- Ecologies and the environment
- Does the setting of the text represent a “natural” world? How does the text represent nature, ecosystems, nonhuman animals, and other living organisms? Does the text, its narrative, or its characters advocate for environmental protection? Does the text speak to the human impact on global ecological health?
- What is the relationship between the characters and the setting, historically and culturally? Does the text take place in a currently or formerly colonized nation? Which of the characters are from that place? How have the effects of colonialism and imperialism influenced the place and its indigenous people? How have subjected, enslaved, or exploited people preserved culture or resisted colonialism? How does the text represent patterns of migration—forced or voluntary?
Some texts will lend themselves to a certain lens (or combination of lenses) based on content or the rhetorical situation of the author or reader. Bring to mind a recent movie you watched, a book you read, or other text you’ve encountered; by asking the questions above, determine whether that text seems to be asking for a certain sociocultural perspective.
The original chapter, Interpretation, Analysis, and Close Reading by Shane Abrams, is from EmpoWord: A Student-Centered Anthology and Handbook for College Writers
- This chapter opened with a discussion of Mad Max: Fury Road. Choose another movie and identify two or more popular interpretations. What does the movie have to say about gender, power, society, or something else? Can it be read multiple ways?
- If a movie or other artifact can be interpreted in multiple ways, how does that impact its power in the culture? Does it make it more interesting or less persuasive?
- Are symbols always crafted and created by people? Are there “naturally occurring” symbols?
- Pathos practice. Find a photograph (digital or printed) that has some sort of emotional gravity for you: it could be a picture of a loved one, a treasured memory, a favorite place, anything that makes you feel something. On a clean sheet of paper, freewrite about the photo in response to the following prompts for three minutes each:
- Describe the photograph as a whole. What’s happening? Who is in it? Use vivid descriptions to capture the photo in writing as best you can.
- Zoom in on one element of the photo—one color, shape, object, person, and so on. How does this part relate to the greater whole?
- Zoom out and describe what’s not shown in the photo. What’s happening just out of frame? What’s happening just before, just after? What are the emotions you associate with this moment?
- Now, trade photos with a friend or classmate who’s also working on this activity. Repeat the same freewrite prompts and compare your responses. What do the differences indicate about the interpretive process? About context? About the position of the reader and the limitations on the author (photographer)?
- Advertising visual rhetoric. Advertisements are one of the most common forms of visual rhetoric we encounter on a daily basis; indeed, advertisements are more and more prominent with the growth of technology and increasingly tailored to the target audience. The ads we encounter often blend language, images, sound, and video to achieve their intended purpose—to convince you to buy something. To practice analysis, you can close read an advertisement or advertising campaign.
- Choose a brand, product, or corporation that you find interesting. One that I’ve found especially engaging is Levi’s 2009 “Go Forth” advertising campaign.
- Try to identify the subject, occasion, audience, and purpose of the advertisement. Often, there is an obvious or declared answer for each of these (the subject of the Levi’s campaign is “Levi’s jeans,” and the purpose is “to make you buy Levi’s jeans”), but there are also more subtle answers (the subject is also “American millennial empowerment,” and the purpose is also “create a youthful, labor-oriented brand”).
- Identify what parts of the advertisement contribute to the whole: what colors, shapes, words, images, associations, and so on does the ad play on in order to achieve its purpose? Do you notice symbols, patterns, or references?
- Interpret the observations you collected. How do the parts contribute to the whole? What might you overlook if you weren’t paying close enough attention?
- Radical noticing promenade. This exercise encourages you to focus on details as a way to better understand the big picture. You will need a notebook and a camera.
- Take about twenty minutes to wander around an area that you often spend time in: your house, your neighborhood, the halls of your school, and so on. Walk slowly and aimlessly; this exercise works best when you don’t have a destination in mind.
- As you wander, look around you and focus on small details—a piece of garbage on the sidewalk, the color of that guy’s shoes, the sound of a leaf blower in the distance. Record (using your camera, notebook, or both) these small details. When you return to your desk, choose three of these details to meditate on. Using descriptive writing, spend a few minutes exploring these details in writing. Then consider what they might reflect about the place where you promenaded—the piece of garbage might indicate that the neighborhood is well maintained but not pristine; the leaf blower might reflect a suburban American commitment to both manicured lawns and convenience.
For a fun and rewarding deep dive into analyzing literature and other texts, see Thomas Foster’s How to Read Literature like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading between the Lines.
Gallop, Jane. “The Ethics of Reading: Close Encounters.” Journal of Curriculum and Theorizing, vol. 16, no. 3, 2000, pp. 7–17.