COM 200 CLASS NOTES:
An Example of the Structure of a short Essay
Elliot Gaines, Ph.D.
(I. Introduction) Power of Mass Media Stories
The power of language can be located embedded in entertainment. For example, the meaning of a word or a phrase that defines an everyday practice can be used in a sitcom to negotiate understandings of appropriate situational behavior. Despite Gitlin’s observations that television scripts are written in simplistic language in order to "go down easier," and "make fewer demands" (57), mass media stories still function in powerful ways similar to a persuasive essay. As Gerbner suggests, media tend to replace traditional face-to-face communication with mass produced programs that serve the traditional functions of stories, and "weave the seamless web of the cultural environment that cultivates most of what we think, what we do, and how we conduct our affairs"(10).
For example, consider one of the story lines from a Seinfeld rerun (Fox, 4/26/01). The subject of the story addresses a question about a formal definition of dating.
(II. Evidence)"Is Elaine "dating?"
Elaine meets a guy that bets her a dinner that Dustin Hoffman was in "Star Wars." The guy loses the bet and takes Elaine out to dinner. When she relates the incident to Jerry, Seinfeld comments that this guy found a dating "loophole," and managed to take her out on a date without actually asking. Thus he avoids a possible rejection, and any implied obligations and commitment associated with dating. The emerging question is, what constitutes a "date?" At first Elaine maintains the idea that it was just a bet, but then the guy sets up several subsequent situations to arrange to go out with Elaine without actually asking her out for "date."
One Saturday night, the guy’s parents show up to join he and Elaine for dinner. When she confronts him about the implications of "meeting the parents," he feigns that he just thought she would like to meet them, still denying the event was a "date." However, Elaine reveals her own point-of-view by refusing to kiss her “non-date” good night.
Simultaneously, Jerry was dating a beautiful young woman. The story line surrounding her revolved around the idea that she was so pretty that men could not say no to her. Jerry recognized this, and used her ability to do things like to get tickets to a sold-out film, and to talk a traffic cop out of giving him a speeding ticket after he was caught going over 90 mph.
Elaine’s "date" had arranged to get Jerry some Cuban cigars as one of his non-dates with Elaine. When the cigars turned out to actually be a poor quality product from Peru, Jerry sent his irresistible girl friend to get his money back. Elaine spots the two of them together, and Jerry’s girl friend asks Elaine to tell the guy what the "M" in "Richard M. Nixon" represents. When Elaine says it stands for "Millhouse," we realize that he has just arranged a "date" with Jerry’s "irresistible" collection agent. In the end, Elaine and Jerry lose their respective boy friend and girlfriend.
(Conclusion)) Cultivating Meaning Through Entertainment
Typical of a Seinfeld episode, separate stories involving the individual main characters impact the plot. In this case, there was a question about defining a common cultural practice. Jerry’s earlier observation regarding the dating "loophole" suggests there are complex implications to a common ritual practice. Based on this understanding, calling the situation "dating," implies certain meanings and responsibilities. As Gerbner says, "Stories socialize us into roles of gender, age, class, vocation and lifestyle, and offer modes of conformity or targets for rebellion" (10). In spite of the apparent intention for the Seinfeld program to be viewed as entertainment, such television programs depend on cultural conventions as a source of humor, and thus engage in discourse reinforcing pre-existing values, beliefs, and practices.
Gerbner, George. "The Stories We Tell." Readings in Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture. Ed. Kimberly B. Massey. Mountainview CA: Mayfield Publishing. 1999. (10-20).
Gitlin, Todd, George. "The Dumb Down." Readings in Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture. Ed. Kimberly B. Massey. Mountainview CA: Mayfield Publishing. 1999. (55-57).
Seinfeld, Jerry. 2001. The Jerry Seinfeld Show. rerun on Fox 45, Dayton, OH, 25 April, 2001.