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Creating Room for Humor in Critical Media Literacy

By Addie Shrodes
 | Feb 05, 2021

Digital media is an important tool for broadening access to knowledge and skills. Yet digital content and platforms can also reproduce structures of power. From white supremacist Tweets to ableist TikTok algorithms, oppressive ideologies show up everywhere online. Young people need critical media literacy practices to learn to identify and challenge the oppressive ideologies that undergird digital media and technologies.

That said, young people already use digital media to organize for justice and speak back to power. How can educators build on what students learn on social media to support and sharpen critical media literacies? To answer this question, we first need to know more about how students use digital media toward justice-oriented ends. I turned to LGBTQ+ YouTube to examine how young people resist intersecting oppressions of race, gender, and sexuality.

Critical media literacy on social media is serious work, but it can also be funny. Humor is nearly ubiquitous on LGBTQ+ YouTube, with reaction videos modeling a common form of critical humor. LGBTQ+ reaction videos respond, often comedically, to discriminatory media like right-wing political advertisements. I began to wonder: How do YouTubers who watch and comedically react to anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-Black media perform critical media literacies? And how is humor functioning in reaction videos?

Humor as political possibility in digital culture

Through a multimodal analysis, I found that humor nurtures political possibility and supports critical media literacies. I approach political possibility as the sense that social change toward a more just world is possible. This possibility of transformation is vital for marginalized young people who may encounter injustice every day.

Humor also plays a central role in the YouTubers’ critical media literacy practices. Moments of humor defuse hatred and amplify agency to resist social injustice. Satire and parody in these videos challenge ideologies that undergird oppressive digital media, accomplishing important intellectual and political work. Viewers may learn moves for anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-transphobic action. Humor as a performance of joy, exuberance, and care also lays the foundation for a better world.

Although humor may saturate new media, the use of humor to respond to injustice is not new. Queer and queer of color activists and artists have long used humor to disrupt hate and create community. As scholar Danielle Fuentes Morgan has argued, satire in Black communities subversively unmasks the unethical violence of white supremacy and anti-Blackness. Reaction videos expand these practices of satire and parody to subvert phobic ideologies, build power, and cultivate joy.

Using humor in justice-oriented teaching

From YouTube to the classroom, humor has a place in social justice learning. Here are some ways educators can nurture humor as political possibility:

Develop a vision to value humor. Develop an expansive vision for how you can value practices of humor as political possibility. Build on the experiences, identities, and knowledge of your students and consider the sociopolitical context of learning. Consider making a point to better understand how funny digital media such as TikTok videos are meaningful to students as sites of learning.

See and support student digital activism. Marginalized students are using social media to get involved in social justice activism in their communities and online. Take notice of and find ways to support the everyday work students take up to resist and transform oppressive ideologies toward more just futures. For one, consider what knowledge students hold about social injustice and what desires they share for a better world.

Critically analyze everyday digital texts. To teach critical media literacies, bring in the digital media texts that students encounter on social media. Incorporate analysis of comedic multimedia texts such as reaction videos, memes, multimedia collage, or other forms of anti-oppressive remix. You might ask students to submit digital texts (videos, memes, images, etc.) from their everyday activities on social media.

Incorporate satire and parody in critical pedagogy. Educators engaged in critical pedagogy might incorporate parody and satire as forms of critical resistance in the pursuit of educational freedom. Through this approach, you can better understand the role of humor in critical literacies young people learn online and compassionately sharpen these practices with pedagogical assistance.

Design media production with digital mentor texts. Involve students in digital media production that engages the media they may encounter online, such as reaction videos. I tend to approach media production as an iterative cycle to engage ➝ explore ➝ reflect ➝ make. Engage with a mentor text, in this case a reaction video like that from YouTuber Mac Kahey, aka MacDoesIt. Explore other videos or posts of its kind on social media. Reflect together on what students noticed, thought, felt, liked, and would have done differently. Try it out by making a video that takes up and transforms the practices they saw.


Every educator needs to incorporate the important practices of social justice work and critical media literacy into their instruction. By examining these principles through the lens of humor, students connect with valuable lessons in how they can counter hate, create community, and speak out against potentially heavy topics in a way that keeps spirits high.


Addie Shrodes is a doctoral candidate in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. Her dissertation work examines the roles of humor, play, and protest in the critical digital literacies of trans and queer teens. You can follow her on Twitter @AddieShrodes.

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