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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Dangerous discourses : deconstructing 'diversity' in the film Dangerous Minds Hadford, Kathleen Walter


The aim of this thesis is to deconstruct and analyze the ways racial and ethnic diversity is represented as a problem for a white teacher in the popular film Dangerous Minds (1995). In this American-made film, the "problems" arise from interactions between the white teacher and her African American and Latino students, two groups that have historically been figured as dangerous in the American context. Much of the research in multicultural teacher education in the United States and Canada (although with different "problem" groups in Canada) similarly frames diversity as a problem for teachers. Where multicultural and antiracist research has struggled over the meaning and significance of diversity in the classroom, cultural studies offers a more critical and complex perspective, without polarizing multiculturalism and antiracism. In addition to analysing the meaning and significance of this film's representation of diversity, my cultural studies approach asks: what language, images, emotions, and sounds combine to make this film's representation of diversity acceptable and popular to a large, varied audience? What contradictions or complexities of this representation are simplified or normalized by the film's narrative, music, characters, and other various elements? My analysis attempts to show how the discourse of diversity is shaped, negotiated, and contested in one popular cultural form as an example of the larger hegemonic struggle that frames diversity as a problem for teachers. The notion of diversity as a discourse, which structures this thesis, is informed by Dorothy E . Smith's conception of discourse as a set of historically-situated relations organized and determined by the economic and social relations in which it is embedded (Smith, 1988, p. 55). I employ a semiotic analysis, which according to Leslie Roman (1988), recognises the socially and historically situated interpretant to be active in the process of making meaning of signs. My semiotic analysis examines the film's visual images, organization of shots, music, narrative, characters, emotional effects, and other elements that produce meaning (elements identified by Christine Gledhill (1997) and Richard Dyer (1993)), in an attempt to determine the societal codes the film privileges. Through three main codes - difference, authority and control, and white knight redemption - the film promotes an ideology of need fulfillment and cultural deficit, in which the teacher manages student behaviour and offers help in order to save them from their home lives. This redemption narrative assuages emotions of guilt over the very real structural inequalities and white privilege represented to various degrees throughout the film and magically resolves all the critical and sometimes disturbing questions that were raised and left unanswered throughout the film. These questions concern material and structural inequality, student voice and empowerment, and the power of individual, gendered teachers to affect significant change. My analysis attempts to bring these questions back to the surface for a more complex and critical consideration. By analysing the function of the film's three main codes, this thesis politicises the film's representation of diversity and shows how these codes advance notions of need fulfillment, cultural deficit, and meritocracy. By examining the elements of the film that are used to evoke a desired response, this thesis demystifies a representation of diversity that has become normative and taken-for-granted. By drawing out the complexities and contradictions in the text, this thesis complicates normative conceptions of diversity. The questions raised through this process of politicising, demystifying, and drawing out the complexities of this text offer direction in the struggle to define and understand diversity.

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