By: Sophia Possidente
Photo Credit: Sophia Possidente
Theo Reinert is a senior at UMBC and the current president of the Media and Communication Studies Counsel of Majors, also known as MCSCOM. I spoke to Theo about his goals for the club, as well as his personal experience as an MCS major. We also discussed his independent research project, favorite classes, and experience interning for the podcast Kaleid.
Q: What inspired you to study Media and Communication?
A: I came to UMBC as an English and Philosophy double major, and I just wasn’t feeling it after a while. I realized that I wanted to go more towards other forms of humanities, and I loved the communication aspects of English and Philosophy. I gave MCS a try, and it really stuck with me.
Q: What is MCSCOM? What are your future plans as president?
A: MCSCOM is the council of majors for Media and Communication Studies. We’re a club that’s meant to support the students in the major. We’re here in order to connect students, get them more involved on campus, and develop their own professional growth. In the past we hosted a panel of students who completed internships, where they were able to talk about the experiences they had. We also had an event where MCS faculty watched a movie and commented on it; as people who study media, they were able to give a lot of insight into how they thought things were represented, which was really interesting. In the future, we also hope to have events with alumni, events to connect students for creative projects, essentially anything to get people involved. It’s hard for a lot of commuters and freshmen to make connections on campus, so I definitely want MCSCOM to be one place where they can do that.
Q: Tell us about your senior research project on toys and gender. What inspired this topic, and why is it important to study childhood objects?
A: Starting last semester, I knew I wanted to do independent research, but I wasn’t sure on what. I talked to my research advisor Dr. Loviglio about some things I was interested in, and I realized something that came up a lot was media targeted towards children. As a child, I was always oversaturated with media – whether it was on TV, what I played with, or what my parents interacted with – and they were all things that shaped who I am today. One of these things was toys, something we don’t really think about in regards to how we were shaped growing up. One thing I really remember from my childhood is how toys shaped my perception of gender. I wanted to do research into how toys today reflect the landscape of gender and these ideologies, because recently we’ve been more open to non-binary identities, yet you still see a lot of toys that are gendered. What is the difference between what we’re seeing in political discourse and what’s actually going on the production of toys?
Q: What has your research process been?
I’m going to do a semiotic analysis, which is looking at the symbols in toys, or how they’re visually coded. A lot of research looks at words or how things are phrased, but you don’t really see the actual act of playing with the toy or what the toys are coded as culturally. Whether it’s pink for girls and blue for boys, or even the actual structure of the toys, there are questions to ask about how meaning takes different shapes and forms.
I’ll also be looking at affordances, which are the kinds of possibilities a toy can offer. For example, a toy on wheels can afford pushing and pulling. Hair on a doll affords being able to style hair, but not motion like toy vehicles. It gives you different opportunities to play. By analyzing what kinds of toys Wal-Mart is selling as a mass producer of consumer objects, I get to see a reflection of how we view gender.
Q: What are some of the most interesting things you’ve learned from the project so far?
Something interesting is that a lot of girls' toys are immobile; they’re not meant to move. In contrast, a lot of boys' toys are geared more towards motion: Nerf guns, scooters, ATVs, Hot Wheels, scooters… things that actually move. If you look at the language that each of the toys use, a lot of the toys for boys refer to being fast, being powerful, being ferocious. And you realize that a lot of the language used for girls’ toys is based on looks; it looks cute, it looks fun… things along the lines of attractiveness. It teaches certain things about how a child should think of themselves. If a boy reads more radical language – things that are very status-quo shaking – how does that teach a boy to take risks versus a girl? What does that mean for a girl? How can she instantiate her own will when valuing looks is constantly reinforced? It’s a lot of little things like that that you don’t really think about until you’re playing with a doll and think: “why can’t I do x, y, and z? Why don’t producers want me to do x, y, and z?”.
Q: You also interned for the podcast Kaleid – what was that like?
A: I did my internship with the Imaging Research Center last fall, and each of the interns were tasked with taking one media artifact that was personal to us and discussing how it affected certain aspects of our lives. For my episode, I talked about how media – specifically television – shaped my ideas of gender, sexuality, and race. It was a very enlightening experience; I got to talk with Dr. Bond at the University of San Diego about how media affects queer identities. He brought up something interesting called symbolic annihilation, which is the idea that the absence of a representation in television is actually incredibly hurtful because it essentially means that you don’t exist. I think that that insight – and just the whole idea of the academic structuring and terminology around representation – is really enlightening for someone who didn’t have representation growing up and who continues to struggle with that. Being able to connect research with mass audiences is something Kaleid tries to do, and something that I think is a really great mission for them to continue doing.
Q: What is your favorite MCS class?
A: My favorite MCS class is MCS 333. That class made me realize how much I love theory, specifically the ideologies behind things and the invisible structuring that guides our lives. It made me realize that that’s what I want to study in the future. I’m kind of a nerd for theory, and it really clicked with me how a lot of the problems we experience are invisible and more culturally based. MCS 333 helps you realize the different kinds of power relations that exist in your society, whether you can physically see them or not.