Lets talk about some Semiotics

Hello hello everybody! My name is Alison Chandler and I am currently a second-semester senior at Towson University majoring in mass communication with tracks in public relations and advertising as well as minoring in political science. Throughout my college career, I have experienced several different mass communication classes that have stressed the idea of media literacy.

Wait a second… you’re probably wondering what even media literacy even is.

Media literacy essentially stresses the importance of being able to decipher all the messages you are receiving at any given point while consuming media, whether it be a TV commercial, a film, the news, or basically anything else you can consider to be media.

With that being said, I chose to enroll in a media criticism course in order to strengthen my media literacy skills. Media criticism attempts to critically understand all forms of media through culture and symbols. Although this area of study contains the word “criticism”, that does not mean that we are always using this practice in a negative manner. Media criticism may simply just be used to understand why it is that the character in an advertisement is wearing the clothes that they are wearing or why that can of soda is placed in it’s particular location… if you’re catching my drift.

This all might sound quite complicated, but the practice of media criticism is almost essential that we have some sort of understanding of these concepts in order to decipher all of the messages we are receiving each and every day. Considering the media is expanding and changing almost constantly and basically controlling our lives, we need to take all of its hidden messages and make some sort of sense out of them. It is also important to keep in mind that we should be entirely objective when criticizing the media. This makes sense because our own personal opinions may get in the way of what is important within that said media.

Sometimes we might not even realize the impact of the media on our society. Douglas Kellner made the point that the media has the power to shape our lives. Although this might seem like a simple concept, it really is wild when you more about it. We are constantly allowing different forms of media to influence the way we live our lives. Whether it be the way we dress, speak to our peers, or activities we participate in, so much of it is influenced by the media we consume.


For the sake of this blog post, I am going to be talking a little bit about the ever-so popular television show, The Office. This is the American version of an originally British broadcast. The Office is a mockumentary, meaning that it is in the style of a documentary where characters speak to the camera interview style and often look at the camera to evoke certain emotions. The Office is about a paper company, called Dunder Mifflin, in Scranton Pennsylvania. Most of the show is about the staff at the company and all of the crazy things that happen on and off the job. This show is extremely funny and often highlights events that would never happen in a work place. Below I have an example of some of the craziness:

All joking aside, this show truly does provide some real cultural insight that we might miss if we aren’t looking to deep into it. We can look at the concept of semiotics to understand the deeper meanings of a show such as The Office.

Semiotics are studied in order to use the signs within the media to understand social meaning. Such “signs” are often used in every form of media and are present in order for us to understand reality.


Hopefully you’re catching on to where I am going with this. Every single piece of this can be picked apart and assigned meaning. These signs are usually things that most people might not even look into to understand what they are representing. In semiotics, everything means something.

We can also use the structuralist approach to examine that same poster of characters from The Office. The structuralist approach uses the entirety of the “text” or media, whichever you prefer, to understand the meaning of the parts within that same text.

Okay so that was confusing so you’re probably looking a little bit like this:

Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 8.32.58 PM.png

BUT… Don’t fret because it really is not that complicated when you break it down. Basically, our lives are full of structures. Some examples are language and actions. So if language is the structure, we can use a sentence to understand the words within itself. You see where I’m going with this? We use big structures to understand small elements.

When were talking about that first image of the entire cast, we can use the syntagmatic approach of structuralism to analyze its parts. The syntagmatic approach uses the meanings of each sign in order to construct a whole.

When applying this practice to this particular show, we are able to see some red flags almost immediately. Just within the image we are able to detect certain signs. Most of the people in this image are men. This sign may be representing how currently within society, we are well aware of the overwhelming majority of men within the workplace. Since this show tends to parody the real world, we can assume that this was done on purpose in order to stress this societal issue. If we examine the man in the green-gray suit in the front of the image, named Dwight, we can see that he is crossing his arms. This small gesture may indicate that he is a very serious and seemingly uptight person, which is true within the show. Some other signifiers include the clothing that is worn. Most of the people in this image are wearing business or business casual attire, signifying that they work within the office (no pun intended). The one character to the left of the image who is not wearing the same type of clothing, we can assume does not work within Dunder Mifflin just based off of this one aspect.The expressions on everyone’s faces are also signs to represent their personality, whether it be serious, perplexed, or even bored.

We can also use a paradigmatic approach on this poster as well. When we talk about paradigms, we are referring to a group of signs that may be different, but represent something larger as a whole collectively. Paradigms are different, but the same, if that makes any sense.

Within that poster, there are several paradigms. Gender is a huge part of this when we consider binary oppositions, which help us understand concepts based off of what they are compared to their opposites. We know that most of the people are men and not women simply because we understand that they are not women. They have different clothing, hairstyles, and mannerisms.  We understand that the man on the far right is not an office worker because his clothing is not that of a professional. We know that these characters are in the room of an office because it is not an open field, or a gym, or any other setting other than.. well.. an office. I could go on and on about even the smallest pieces of this photo, but hopefully you understand what I’m talking about.

These comparisons may seem like total common sense, but they help us make sense of our reality as well as the reality of the media we consume. We almost always perform these functions involuntarily, but when you start to pick it apart and think about it while it is happening, it is completely fascinating. Now hopefully when you look at posters such as these or consume other sorts of media, you are compelled to look at the small signs that used to mean nothing to you.

So by now, you’re probably asking yourself, “why on earth should I care about semiotics and structuralism and all these silly little details if I’m just watching a show to kill some time ?”.

My answer for you ties into what we talked about earlier. Media literacy. When we pick apart the symbols and little things within any media “text” we are making sense of it. By doing this we are digging deeper into the meaning of what we are consuming and thus becoming more media literate. Like I said before, this skill can tie into absolutley everything, whether it be a shampoo commercial or your favorite show on Netflix, you can pick apart all of the signs and symbols and turn them into meanings to better your understand of what is truly happening. By analyzing the media we consume we can totally avoid information overload where there is just too much going on and we start to not take anything in whatsoever. So with that being said, you can finally understand the media you are consuming in any which way.

So I know that was a ton to take in but hopefully now you are able to understand the purpose of media criticism even slightly more than before.


Until next time!




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