One Year In! Surviving the new AQA Media Studies syllabus. Information for students and teachers. The Surgery, The Voice, Metroid Prime 2, van Zoonen, Gauntlett!

IMPORTANT NOTE: I only teach half the course. My notes are therefore based on only half of the CSP and theoretical areas.

If you are a student you have probably been asking yourself why the new course keeps on asking you to look at antiquated media products (have you heard? Michael Jackson is making a music video! Aliens are invading New Jersey! Run for the hills!) or even asking you to look at ones that have ceased to function (BBC Radio 1’s “The Surgery”). There are even CSP’s that have really concerning flaws – I promise to write more about the online version of “The Voice” newspaper below and in an article with an exemplar.

More concerning is that we live in a world where media is, quite literally, a battlefield (the Russian concept of hybrid warfare calls for media to be used against enemies) and the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Brexit revelations has shown us this in living, vibrant colour.

Just to add a cherry on top new media forms are completely restructuring audience and producer relationships. Vloggers out-audience T.V. shows, games outperform films and are turning into, probably, the narrative form of the new century and Instagram stars have monetized the business of daily life.

None of this is being explored by students studying the new course.

There are lots of reasons why the new AQA syllabus sucks and it isn’t all their fault. The reform of A level subjects meant that all exam boards had to lock down their syllabuses, No more student (or teacher) choice about what you study. This requires the board to choose the theory areas and the Close Study Products about three years before the actual exam. It isn’t really a problem for, say, English Literature (what will Shakespeare write next?) but it is a looooong time in this business. In many ways you could say that the reforms have killed Media Studies raison d’etre (that’s reason to be in posh). Unless media students are actually looking at contemporary media products then this becomes a form of historical enquiry and we all become historians.

Here are the big problems with the CSPs and theorists so far (and in no apparent order).

1: The Surgery.

This radio show is now deader than dead. You can still visit its corpse (like a preserved communist leader) in clip form here. This is less helpful than you think as a lot of the radio-stuff (pop music and the like) is not here so it sounds just like chatter. A way to get a handle on the feel of a whole show can be found here. Listen to the use of music to glue the show to the station, the use of music beds and the use of effects.

I will write an exemplar answer soon for this CSP.

2: The Voice (online).

I first became suspicious when The Voice didn’t cover Bristol’s St Paul’s Carnival. This is the biggest carnival after Notting Hill. It hadn’t run for a number of years but roared back for a 50th anniversary bash. 100,000 people on the streets, a helluva party (I wuz there) and extra, Windrush-generation poingniancy.

The biggest black-British event that week.


No coverage in The Voice (Britain’s Favourite Black Newspaper)!


Somebody at AQA has fond memories of what The Voice used to be as a newspaper twenty years ago. After the death of Val Macalla in 2002 it was bought by The Gleaner organisation in Jamaica. These days it only has one journalist and is kept barely alive by its Jamaican owners who link The Gleaner’s content to The Voice. It mostly processes press-releases (which is a process known as churnalism).

This is a terrible CSP.

There is no reporting or investigation of crimes against and affecting the black community (which was the old Voice’s thing) – in fact news, as a section, doesn’t exist. It has no leadership in the investigation of The Windrush scandal (That award goes to The Guardian) and it even has, that marker of true shite, a motoring section (where motor-company publicity is turned into advertainment for a community that is twice as likely not to use a car (according to DOT stats).

This is made even more awful by the fact that this is a CSP for the next round of exams too!

My advice here is to make sure that your exam responses make it clear that you know the shortcomings of The Voice. That it doesn’t really represent, or connect with, its chosen audience anymore.

I will write an exemplar answer soon.


At least the exam has games. I have lost count of the times I have talked to Media teachers in the past who have said that they didn’t look at games with students. It has always been a bit like talking to someone in 1947 who thinks that cinema is a bit flash-in-the-pan. “It’s all very entertaining but it isn’t going to last. Give me a good radio-serial any day!”

It’s just that the games are so old! They don’t really connect to the contemporary gaming experience. Limited consideration of the way narrative is handled in games now. No consideration of indie game production, limited consideration of online experience and no space for thinking about the new para-gaming experiences (vloggers, twitch and eSports).

Oh and the Metroid packaging material that AQA linked to was in Dutch (way to go on the quality control there). I asked and they sent me other material.

It’s still a terrible CSP though. Not even as good as the very long-in-the-tooth Tomb Raider CSP. It’s on an obsolete platform and is a slightly forgotten franchise although there was an announcement of a new game (Metroid Prime 4) at E3 this year.
There is a good T.V. tropes page to help explore narrative and genre features.



For you to download and use. You can thank me later.

4: Liesbet van Zoonen!

She seems like a really nice person but Van Zoonen is not a key media name. Her book (Feminist Media Studies) was published in 1994 and has never been a key text other than as a synthesis or round-up of ideas up to that point. She’s not really in the same league as bell hooks. And 1994 is ancient history; the internet was in its infancy and you would have to wait eleven years before YouTube would be invented (16 years for Instagram).

As such she is not really talking about the media landscape of the CSPs you are looking at.

To use van Zoonen (some notes).

Van Zoonen builds on Stuart Hall and Laura Mulvey.

Her work looks at encoding and decoding (Hall).

It also looks at the way women are looked at differently in media products (Mulvey).

To apply her ideas you need to look at the way power and discourse shape media production and reception.

Discourse, in cultural studies, is related to the way we use it about people talking.

If you imagine lots of people talking about something they share the same language. Therefore they share lots of the same ideas.

It is the same with concepts (like gender, or sexual orientation – especially sexual orientation). Unless you have the words (and concepts) to describe something you can’t talk abut it. That explains LGBTAQI+ as without terms of reference it is hard to have meaningful dialogue.

In Media Studies the big discourses are class (Marxism), gender (feminism), sexuality (queer studies), race, post-colonial studies and psychology (Freud onwards).

These discourses are constantly happening and are constantly getting tangled up in each other – leading to new issues, debates and theories.

Key discourses affecting gender representation.

  • Motherhood and fertility
  • Domesticity
  • Sexuality, sexual behaviour and sexual availability
  • Power and control
  • Patriarchy
  • Sorority (female friends)


How many discourses in one product!


Images (representations) mean something. We can decode them.

Compare and contrast:

Three U.S. lawyers with Pauline Black (U.K. Ska singer).

Both representations are linked to discourses about patriarchy, power and control, sexuality and sexual availability.

What do the clothing choices (alone) say about:

  • Competence?
  • Compliance?
  • Ideology and beliefs?


Competence: Sober colours – reduce feminine display. Competence in law seen as masculine. Suits are modifications of masculine attire. Key differences to emphasise adherence to gender norms.

Compliance: Following rules.

Ideology and beliefs: Adhering to social rules shows belief in the system. Corporate but with tiny touches of individualism.

The lawyers are presented as a sorority. Sexual availability is subtly signified (through necklines) but controlled (not the lack of overt make-up). Control, competence and conformity is highlighted as this is a male-dominated sphere (patriarchy).

Pauline Black:

Competence: Tightly controlled colour and tailoring signify competence. Modification of masculine attire but without usual feminine alterations.

Compliance: Tailoring, gloves and hat signify non-compliance. Anachronisms (out of time) Connotations of displays of street wealth and power. Transgresses gender norms.

Ideology and beliefs: Clothing reflects Jamaican immigrant rude-boy style. The result is highly individualistic.

Pauline Black’s representation highlights her ultra-competence in a patriarchal sphere in a way that feels transgressive. It highlights the intersectional discourses of race, gender and culture. It downplays all conventional sexual signification and ramps up traditional masculine power display.


Tiny details are noticed!

Now listen to/watch this and dance around the room like Pauline!


You can say that van Zoonen goes further than Mulvey in that she is interested in the reasons why a representation has been created. Consider the images of two pro-surfers.


The discourses of femininity and sexuality mean that the representation of the woman is significantly different from the man. Neither image is of them surfing but they are about them as surfers and imply ability and focus. The male image uses the media language of power (low angle, muscle display and direct look) whereas the female image uses the language of femininity and sexual display (eye-level shot, long hair, coy or peek-a-boo look, shoulder and buttock display). The female image reduces the potentially emasculating threat of a competent woman whereas the smiling face of the male image is the reassuring factor in the other image. What van Zoonen is interested in is why the photographer and subject in the second photograph wanted to create their encoded image. What are the discourse pressures that shaped it?

A final example is closer to the exam.


The discourses of femininity,  sexuality and sexual availability have shaped the Women’s Health image (note the use of self-touch as a combined cover-up and also a sexual signifier). The Men’s Health cover links bodily display to the discourse of power (and violence – check out the reference to the U.S. Army Rangers).

5: Gauntlett and Identity.

This is almost funny. David Gauntlett is the board’s favourite academic. They luurve him! But even he is surprised that they have chosen him as the face of Identity.

“Possibly, or probably, whoever wrote the specification was thinking of my book Media, Gender and Identity (2002, second edition 2008), which is certainly relevant in this context, and which I am told is liked by some Media Studies teachers. That book also includes helpful explanations of other theorists on the list, such as Judith Butler. But it’s also rather an old book now, and therefore isn’t talking about today’s media landscape.”

“In my talk at the BFI conference, then, I sought to show what Gauntlett things you could talk about which would be both relevant and recent. It turns out this is ok, because although I don’t package what I do at the moment in terms of ‘identity’ and ‘representation’, the work is still about those things, but in different ways. Making is Connecting is all about how people build a stronger sense of self-identity through creative practices – in other words, through creating their own representations – and make meaningful networks and relationships through that creative work.”

David Gauntlett 2017.

There is a quite useful piece by him, and film of a lecture here.

You will find on that page, and in the video, some good ways to adapt his ideas to the new syllabus.

In Conclusion-y-ness.

In AQA’s defense (sorta). The new course gives you many more tools for looking at media. Some of the choices of focus-theorist may be a bit odd  but the new course does, quite comprehensively, tackle areas of concern.

If you can make it through the course, and are still interested in Media Studies, then you will be a much better university media student than students from the old course.

And if the next few years are in any way way like the last few we are going to need all the tooled-up, savvy and attentive Media Studies we can get (even though nobody seems to know it yet).


This is (metaphorically speaking) you. Learning media theory. Ready for the coming media-apocalypse. Or Mediapocalyspe if you like portmanteau words.

Oh and please like, comment, leave feedback or follow me. This will help me improve my service to you and make this a more useful thingamabob!

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