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  • Lisa Patti

Free writing

Chapter 4 of Writing About Screen Media discusses the value of free writing (45-6) – a practice that I incorporate into all of my media studies courses (and in almost every class meeting). When I distribute the first free writing prompt each semester, I also distribute a set of general guidelines for free writing that includes the following suggestions:

-Take intellectual risks. -Ask questions.

-Practice using key terms from the assigned readings.

-Engage in a scholarly discussion.

-Experiment with your writing style.

For writers who are struggling to understand complex ideas from the assigned readings, free writing presents an opportunity to identify key concepts and summarize critical arguments. For writers who have a stronger command of the assigned material, free writing allows them to engage and challenge critical arguments and to hone their writing style. For all writers, free writing invites them to take intellectual risks in a low-stakes writing context.

For the first free writing exercise in my senior seminar on stardom, I share passages from two of three assigned essays – Roland Barthes’ “The Face of Garbo,” Zadie Smith’s “Hepburn and Garbo,” and Kobena Mercer’s “Monster Metaphors: Notes on Michael Jackson’s Thriller” – and ask students to select one of those passages to analyze. Smith and Mercer each cite passages from Barthes’ essay, so this free writing exercise allows students to assess one writer’s direct engagement with another writer’s work as the students establish their own critical voices. When we discuss their free writing responses in class, we move from separate discussions of Smith’s essay and Mercer’s essay to a comparative analysis of the ways in which each writer mobilizes Barthes’ work toward a different critical end. Free writing enables the development of close readings, critical arguments, and experiments with style.


“This face was memorably described by the philosopher Roland Barthes, who identified it as a transition between two semiological epochs, two ways of seeing women. Garbo marked the passage from awe to charm, from concept to substance: ‘The face of Garbo is an idea, that of [Audrey] Hepburn an event.’ There was something essential, Platonic and unindividuated in Greta’s face. She was Woman, as opposed to Audrey, who was a woman, whom we loved precisely because her beauty was so quirky, so particular. Garbo has no quirks at all. A close-up of her face appears to reveal fewer features than the rest of us have – such an expanse of white – punctuated by the minimum of detail, just enough to let you know that this is flesh, not spirit. Her vulnerable, changeable face is what comes prior to the emphatic mask of a beautiful woman – she is the ideal of beauty that those masks attempt to capture. Post-Garbo, we have taken what resonated in Garbo’s fluid sexuality and mystery and hardened it, made it a commodity.”

-Zadie Smith, “Hepburn and Garbo” (p.160)

“In ‘The Face of Garbo’ Barthes sought to explore the almost universal appeal of film stars like Chaplin, Hepburn and Garbo by describing their faces as masks: aesthetic surfaces on which a society writes large its own preoccupations. Jackson’s face can also be seen as such a mask, for his image has attracted and maintained the kind of cultural fascination that makes him more like a movie-star than a modern rhythm and blues artist. The sexual and racial ambiguity of his image can be seen as pointing to a range of questions about images of sex and race in popular culture and popular music. If we regard his face, not as the manifestation of personality traits but as a surface of artistic and social inscription, the ambiguities of Jackson’s image call into question received ideas about what black male artists in popular music should look like.”

-Kobena Mercer, “Monster Metaphors: Notes on Michael Jackson’s Thriller” (pp.313-4)

Choose one of the passages above and explain how the author engages Roland Barthes’ description of Greta Garbo’s face in “The Face of Garbo.” How does Barthes’ analysis of Garbo resonate for the authors as they assess star images in a contemporary framework?

Works cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Face of Garbo.” Stardom and Celebrity, edited by Sean Redmond and Su Holmes, Sage, 2007, pp.261-2.

Mercer, Kobena. “Monster Metaphors: Notes on Michael Jackson’s Thriller.Stardom: Industry of Desire, Routledge, 1991, pp.300-16.

Smith, Zadie. Changing My Mind. Penguin, 2009.


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