Panicky helpity, help, help! There’s a bug in AQA Media Studies A level Paper 2: Questions which ask you to “evaluate . . . theory” – the pitfalls and how to (possibly) avoid them. Exemplar answer on the validity of reception theory, Oh Comely and Men’s Health.


This page will discuss one of the questions in AQAs exemplar assessment material. This is the only paper 2 available and may have been reserved for use as a mock paper.

That said there is a problem with it and teachers and students should be made aware of this.

If you’re a student you won’t have looked at the mark scheme. If you are a teacher you might have done. This does look like it was drawn up by someone who, possibly, has a bit of an axe to grind (or just dashed it off) and hasn’t really thought things through properly.

The mark scheme spends a lot of time thinking about resistant readings for Oh Comely but not for Men’s Health (which seems a bit odd since it is the magazine more likely to be picked up second-hand given its 1.8 million copy circulation compared to the 25 thousand circulation of Oh Comely).

The mark scheme also claims that (of Oh Comely):

• Resistance likely to be found in rejection of assumptions about social class, niche aspect of the representations based on income and lifestyle.

• Negotiated readings may come through the audience’s agreement with feminist approach of the magazine but resist its focus on niche, culturally privileged demographics.


Let me just do some maths.

Men’s Health has four people represented pictorially (two pictured twice). All are white. One is wearing mountaineering equipment and the other ski-wear. Last time I checked these were signifiers of, oh, I dunno, “cultural privilege”. (I hear Alpine sports are all the rage in the slums of all the major world cities).

Oh Comely has eight people depicted (two twice). One is a Somali, Muslim school-girl. Another was a detained child asylum-seeker. This just reeks of “cultural privilege” doesn’t it! If you can’t detect my sarcasm your sarcasm detector is probably broken and you need to get it fixed. The Oh Comely extract has three people of colour represented and five of the eight belong to culturally marginalised groups.

BTW if you want to know how shoddy AQA’s quality control over this exam, and mark-scheme, is check out this gem (with a superb lack of punctuation too) when giving advice on the how students can use Men’s Health:

• Role of magazine in promoting a particular view of masculinity – how resistant can an audience be.

I dunno AQA. Is “pretty resistant” a good enough answer?

Knowledge is power!

New exam syllabuses have bugs. They all do. Examiners sometimes ask students to do something which seems simple but turns out to be much more difficult on closer inspection. This is especially true in subject areas that do not have a long tradition to draw upon.

Media studies is especially vulnerable to this as it is an academic discipline which is has only existed in universities for the last 40 years (the Open University opened a course in 1977) and in schools as a formal qualification since 1986 (as a GCSE).

That is why this question appears in Paper 2.

02     According to reception theory, ‘the media attempts to transmit specific messages to audiences, but audiences are free to interpret these messages in a variety of ways – or even reject them’.

How valid are reception theory’s claims about audience responses? You should refer to the CSPs Oh Comely and Men’s Health in your answer.             [25 marks]

When I first looked at this I kinda skimmed it. I know. Bad.

I read “reception theory”, yadda-yadda-yadda, CSPs “Oh Comely and Men’s Health”, de-der-de-der and then I assumed that it was a question where you applied reception theory to the job of analyzing the two magazine extracts.

Then I read the mark scheme.

Then I read the question again.

This question is asking you to say whether you think reception theory is a good tool for interrogating media audience/product relationships.

Oh – and it is asking you to do it using a few pages of a couple of magazines to do it.

If you don’t see the problem here let me illuminate you.

Look at this picture.


This is a picture of Professor Stuart Hall happily sporting a holey jumper.

Stuart Hall. The person who invented reception theory.

Stuart Hall. The Jamaican born, Rhodes Scholarship, Oxford University educated, founder of British Cultural Studies.

Stuart Hall. The man who used his knowledge of Marxism, his experience of racism and his really, really amazing mind to, pretty much, kick-start the subject you are studying.

It took him decades of study to create reception theory.

And this question is asking you to evaluate his work.

I mean. No disrespect. But you didn’t even know Marxism was a thing until a few weeks ago. And you couldn’t have told anyone the difference between the superstructure and the base. Possibly you still can’t (F.Y.I. for real Marxists it’s all about the base).

You aren’t equipped to take him on.

And you have to talk about the magazines.

Which is odd because you have to evaluate a theory which explains how audiences receive and respond to media texts by looking, not at some audience data, or interviews with focus groups or something, but by looking at some media products.

Which is a bit like trying to write a newspaper review of a restaurant by only looking at the menu.

The best analogy I can think of is that you have been given a spanner. You’ve learned how to use the spanner. You have learned to take apart complicated things with the spanner and explain how they work. Now you have to take apart a bicycle. It’s a really interesting bicycle and you are impressed with it’s design and engineering. It took you hours to disassemble . . .  and now you have to write a review of the spanner!

English Literature doesn’t have questions like this. It always asks you to explore meaning in texts, sometimes lots of texts and sometimes considering context (possibly by applying tools of thought).

English Language might ask you discuss an academic debate but it doesn’t ask you to critique people who have got a bunch of degrees using your limited cultural experience (or cultural capital if you want to be technical).

Even I hesitate to take on a question like this (and in cultural capital terms I’m a flippin’ multi-millionaire).

Oh – and the board hasn’t said anything about whether this is a representative question. Is there always going to be an “evaluate . . . theory’s claims” question in paper 2? (I wonder if there is a pattern – one theory question, one issue question and one debate question?) As it stands the other questions ask you to analyse the CSPs using theoretical approaches, so who knows?

Basically I think this paper is a bit broken. I think you either have to disagree with Hall or disagree with the premise of the question.

If you are a little bit confused here let me help to explain Hall’s theory. There is an example of it in action here too.


  • Based in neo-Marxism, Hall is one of the founders of the British School of Cultural Studies.
  • Power consistently strives to fix meaning to support its agenda.
  • Individuals receive meaning, but remake it minute by minute.
  • Meaning is constantly changing.
  • Meaning cannot be fixed.
  • It is imperative to critically interrogate the meanings of media representations.

Hall recognised that producers encode meaning in texts and considered the merits of three possible models:

  1. Reflectivist: The representation mimics the world and attempts to reflect reality.
  2. Intentional: The producer intends a set of meanings and uses a shared code to impose meaning on the messages they produce.
  3. Constructionist (or constructivist): Meaning is not inherent in the system. The users can’t fix meaning and construct meaning using concepts and signs.

The constructivist model is the one he felt was best:

“Constructivists do not deny the existence of the material world. However, it is not the material world which conveys meaning: it is the language system or whatever system we are using to represent our concepts. It is social actors who use the conceptual systems of their culture and the linguistic and other representational systems to construct meaning, to make the world meaningful and to communicate about that world meaningfully to others.” (Hall, 1997)

As a result he saw that there were different modes of audience reception.

  • Dominant reading- reader fully accepts the preferred reading (audience will read the text the way the author intended them to) so that the code seems natural and transparent. The text reflects the beliefs and ideas of the audience.
  • The negotiated reading – the reader partly believes the code and broadly accepts the preferred reading, but sometimes modifies it in a way which reflects their own position, experiences and interests.
  • The oppositional reading – the readers social position places them in an oppositional relation to the dominant code. They reject the reading. They may also subvert the reading. This is a conscious response.

Here’s an example:


Dominant Reading – Pre-teen boy.

Accepts the preferred reading. “Transformers is amazing. It’s such an epic film. So many explosions! I want to go out and buy a Sh**ton of merchandize!” Extends to those who enjoy the film as an exercise in nostalgia or simple entertainment.

Negotiated Reading – 18 year old U.S. male.

“I known this is a fantasy film but the U.S. military is badass. Look at them fighting alongside giant robot car-things. Only the U.S.A. has the technology and guts to fight space-alien robot vehicles. I don’t see any other human force being depicted. Megan Fox is hawt! – USA, USA!” (Goes out and enlists. Honestly there was a spike in U.S. recruitment with the Transformer movies, just like with most other Michael Bay films).

Oppositional Reading – Anti-war protester.

“This film is an example of U.S. power and political attitudes. Violence is the only solution within the narrative. Good and evil are grossly simplified. Is it a coincidence that the U.S. special forces encounter the deceptacons in the Middle-East (Iraq war reference perhaps). All the attitudes (to masculinity, women, violence etc.) are regressive and perpetuate real-world attitudes.

Or another:

lv islnd

Dominant reading –

Accepts the preferred reading. Loves the show. Sees it as aspirational (would like to be one of the contestants). Finds the contestants attractive. Enjoys the unfolding drama. Thinks the show presents them with the blueprint for a better life.

Negotiated reading –

Guilty pleasure. Finds the show hilarious. Laughs at the attitudes of the contestants. Thinks the show is a way of symbolically annihilating people who put emphasis on shallow beauty.

Oppositional reading –

Thinks the show is essentially evil. Thinks the show promotes the idea that validity as a person is linked to beauty. Finds the lack of diversity (body-type and sexuality) a bit sinister. Thinks the show has been created to make the audience feel anxious about their looks and buy into the beauty/health industry.

To summarise why the exam question is broken:

  1. You are being asked to go beyond the skills of analysis (looking at things to see what they are made of), synthesis (putting together ideas built out of things you have learned) and synopsis (bringing together a wide range of study into one argument) which are all features of most A Level humanities subjects.
  2. You are being asked to critique, not media products, but the tools used to analyse them (which is a much higher order skill and is usually handled by university graduates and post-graduates).
  3. You are being asked to produce this evaluation using a tiny sample of media product to use as evidence (which may not allow you to say anything meaningful about key parts of the theory).

Now for the hepl-y bit!

So if you are handed a turd-burger question like this how can you stop yourself from looking like a prize idiot?

  1. Use the old PEE structure to organise your paragraphs. Your POINTS (P) will always take words from the question so that you don’t waffle on and slip into just analysing the CSPs using the theory (WHICH YOU ARE NOT BEING ASKED TO DO). Your EVIDENCE (E) comes from the CSPs (which is a bit tricky as I will show) and your EVALUATION (er E – again) will focus on the theory itself, and its validity.
  2.  Don’t try to point out flaws in the theory. You’ll just wind up showing the examiner the gaps in your knowledge and understanding and your lack of cultural capital. Instead focus on the things that that the theory allows you to see.
  3. Unless it’s effects theory.
  4. Because it’s old and everyone learns the limitations of effects theory when they learn about effects theory (like how it assumes that audience members are passive and homogeneous – all the same).
  5.  Make sure you consider the huge variations in production and reception contexts (such as variation in audience). How many different reasons might there be for producing or consuming a text? How many situations? How many potential meanings? If you are considering the validity of a theory you can’t assume that it fits your experience only.

Given that how would I answer the question?

02     According to reception theory, ‘the media attempts to transmit specific messages to audiences, but audiences are free to interpret these messages in a variety of ways – or even reject them’.

How valid are reception theory’s claims about audience responses? You should refer to the CSPs Oh Comely and Men’s Health in your answer.             [25 marks]

One of reception theory’s claims about audience responses (made in the above quotation) is that audiences are free to create meaning out of  material which has been encoded by the producer. Stuart Hall, who created reception theory, underpinned his work on Saussurian semiotics, which treats words and images as part of a system of meaning generation. Evidence of this sort of framework for encoding meaning can be seen on the front covers of the two magazine products. Men’s Health clearly utilises a colour palette which is designed to be both masculine and promote ideas of health (blue for medicine and black and grey for masculinity) whereas the hand-written typeface of Oh Comely is designed to promote thoughts concerning craft and individuality. Given that reception theory coincides with semiotic theory (and other branches of linguistics) it would seem that reception theory’s claims are extremely valid when considering the encoding of information. Given also that both magazines seem to have niche audiences (men who think physicality is important to their masculinity and women who are creative and want to read about a wide variety of people – Des Tan, who co-founded the magazine calls it “a magazine about people”- respectively) it would seem unlikely for producers not to “attempt to transmit specific messages to audiences,” and wider consideration of related media industries, such as advertising, would also seem to uphold reception theory’s claim.

Another claim made by reception theory is that audiences are “free to interpret these messages in a variety of ways”. Given that I only have the magazine extracts to use as evidence it is hard to see how I could be able to ascertain the variety of reader interpretations possible but I can see that readers with a large amount of cultural capital should be able to resist the messages about masculinity in Men’s Health (where the use of the Hollywood star Vin Diesel and the section on ski-wear both help to link physicality to aspirational ideas about affluence and happiness). Such an oppositional reading would view the magazine, as a whole, with suspicion as being regressive and preying on the current crisis in traditional masculinity. It would be possible for a reader to selectively consume the magazine to produce a negotiated reading (focusing on the more practical sections such as the articles on fitness classes or bread consumption) where they cut out the lifestyle articles (it would also be possible to imagine that some audience members  selectively consume the images of muscly men for their own scopophilic sexual pleasure – so it would seem that the possible variation in meanings is fairly wide). Given that the magazine had a circulation of 1.8 million in 2014 there is a strong indication that many people accept the preferred reading of the magazine (where physicality and success are linked) and part with their £3.99 to consume it.

As far as I can see most resistant readings to Oh Comely magazine’s encoding would be rooted in patriarchal and regressive hegemony. It would see the wide variety of female experiences and identities represented as a challenge to the function of women in patriarchy (to be decorative, maternal,  domestic and even gender-stable – the presence of the gender-fluid Ash Allan is highly progressive). Iceberg press’s magazine is a niche product (with a 25,000 copy circulation) which mostly reaches its readership by direct subscription. The glowing reviews it receives in YouTube blogs like screensandquills and Kayleigh Cooper demonstrate that there is a clear appetite for the preferred reading. For there to be resistant readings of this product you would need to have to imagine a situation where the product fell into the hands of a resistant reader; which given the small circulation would seem unlikely. The middle-class stylings of the front cover-model (British Racing Green clothing, pastoral background and tailored clothing) would fit the readership which is, according to the publishers, creative, female and in their late twenties and so would not be a start for an oppositional reading but might cause the consumer rejection of the product on the stands of WH Smiths for potential readers outside the niche demographic (however the magazine represents a wider range of identities).

As a result of the consideration of reception theory’s claims about varieties of interpretation using the magazine CSP extracts it is very hard to make judgements about their validity. Unlike passive media (billboards) or broadcast media (traditional T.V. and radio) it is unlikely that readers who are resistant to the products would receive the encoded messages and then produce oppositional readings. Consumption of these products is highly selective. It is also hard to find evidence in the extracts for ways in which audience members would produce negotiated readings beyond conjecture. Men’s Health magazine has a large enough circulation that it may be consumed passively (in a waiting room for example) which would allow the circumstances for an alternative reading, even the rejection of the preferred message referenced in the question, but looking at media products is not an effective mechanism for judging the validity of Hall’s theory.

So there’s an answer.

Does it get a band 5?

Like I said you either have to take issue with Hall’s theory or you have to take (limited) issue with the3 question itself (but being careful to still show that you know, and understand the theoretical framework, the theory in detail, the CSPs in detail and have the ability to analyse them).



• Excellent understanding of the theoretical framework of media that is demonstrated through critical engagement with the nuanced aspects of the claim and how media products transmit messages.

• Excellent, detailed and accurate application of knowledge and understanding to evaluate reception theory’s claim

• Evaluation is insightful, thorough and critically informed

• Judgements and conclusions regarding the validity of reception theory’s claim are perceptive and fully supported with detailed reference to specific aspects of the set magazine products

• Consistent highly appropriate use of subject specific terminology throughout.

I reckon it does the job! But the only way to do it is to stick closely to the question and, in this case, see the flaws in the question itself (which allow you to demonstrate your conceptual knowledge and knowledge of the CSPs). I have never written an answer where I had to challenge the question so much, ever!

My real fear is that not only are A level students unsuited to this task (in just over 30 minutes too) but that this sort of question is wholly inappropriate for a the sensitivities of the subject. Are young male students going to be asked how valid feminist theory’s claims are? Are white students going to be asked how valid are theories of ethnicity and post-colonial theory? Are students, who are only a few years on from puberty, and may be struggling with issues of gender-performativity going to be asked how valid are theories of gender-performativity?

When I taught English Literature nobody asked students if Marxist interpretative frameworks were a valid tool of enquiry using The Great Gatsby for evidence.

When I taught Theatre Studies nobody asked if Artaud’s practice was valid using Marat/Sade as evidence.

When I teach Film Studies nobody asks students whether auteur theory is a valid way of looking at film – students might be asked to explore how the films demonstrate auteur signature but they don’t have to evaluate the theory.

In Media Studies theories are tools to help us understand what is happening both in texts, across industries and between producer and audience. They have been constructed by people more skilled, wider read and more qualified than us. Our job, at A level,  should be to use them well.

5 thoughts on “Panicky helpity, help, help! There’s a bug in AQA Media Studies A level Paper 2: Questions which ask you to “evaluate . . . theory” – the pitfalls and how to (possibly) avoid them. Exemplar answer on the validity of reception theory, Oh Comely and Men’s Health.

  1. Pingback: Panicky helpity, help, help! There’s a bug in AQA Media Studies A level Paper 2: Questions which ask you to “evaluate . . . theory” – the pitfalls and how to (possibly) avoid them. Exemplar answer on the validity of reception theor

  2. Pingback: Media Studies is being treated differently to other A levels. Why? – and what it means for teachers and students. – Mr G's English, Film and Media.

  3. Ben fennell

    Really appreciate this article! I 100% would have waffled for two pages applying Halls theory to Oh Comely and Men’s Health – i shall be wary of any similar questions in the upcoming paper 2.


    1. Thanks. Still angry that you have to do a question which is so obvs a bolt together of “evaluate” (which all A level students now have to do) and theory understanding. Good luck.


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