Understanding Social Commentary

By learning how to identify and understand social commentary students can flex their critical thinking skills.

By Nicole Fuller


Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 17251805, French

You might be surprised to find that the movie “Avatar,” the novel Animal Farm, and the song “Born in the USA” all have something in common. Each of these works is an example of art used to make social commentary. A social commentary, as the term suggests, is a comment on society, and not just a comment, but often a criticism. The criticism can be in the form of a comment on societal behavior or human nature, or can refer to a specific situation or trend in an area of the world at a particular point in time. For example, the anti-war songs of many American folk singers in the 1960's were social commentaries. These songs were written to express and communicate the views of the American public about various facets of the Vietnam War, including the US’s participation in the war and the treatment of veterans upon their return home (the later sentiment is expressed in the lyrics of the Bruce Springsteen song mentioned above). While social commentary doesn’t have to be political in nature, it often is, since many social issues are a result of a particular political structure or leadership style. 

An Example of Social Commentary

The painting above is an example of social commentary. With this painting, Greuze sought to make a comment on patriotism during wartime. He explores how serving one’s country in battle, a seemingly honorable decision, is not always the right one. This dramatic scene depicts a father who is angry with his son because he has just enlisted in the army, and will leave a family of women and children to struggle with only an elderly, infirm man left to support the household. This painting is a criticism of the social pressure to choose national loyalty over familial responsibilities.

Types of Social Commentary

Social commentary can be direct and literal, or conveyed in a figurative means through symbol, image, and story, leaving the interpretation of the message up to the reader or viewer. A direct form of social commentary can be seen in sermons or political campaign speeches written to appeal to the listener’s sense of morals and justice about a given situation in society. Comedian George Carlin uses a direct method of social commentary, employing humor as a vehicle for his criticisms of religion, government, racial issues and gender politics.

When social commentary is made through visual art, film, literature and music, it is most often an indirect form and requires Return of the Dinosaurs, 2011reflection and interpretation to understand (an example of this type of social commentary can be seen in the painting above). The modern artist Chris Jordan has created visual art-as-social-commentary exhibits called "Running The Numbers" and "Running the Numbers II." The piece to the right by Chris Jordan is called “Return of the Dinosaurs, 2011.” It is six feet tall and based on a painting by John Sibbick. Up close, you can see that Jordan’s version of the image is made up of 240,000 plastic bags, “equal to the estimated number of plastic bags consumed around the world every ten seconds.” The significance of the dinosaur motif then becomes apparent, as it helps Jordan make a comment on global social behavior--un-checked consumption of single use plastic bags--that is working to the detriment of our environment and could result in our ultimate extinction. Click on the picture to the right and zoom in on the image to see its magic revealed.

Why Teaching Social Commentary in the Classroom is Valuable

Lessons involving social commentary naturally require students to exercise higher-level thinking skills, including analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, and can be used in an English, art or social studies classroom. Being able to evaluate and write about other people’s ideas, and the message they are seeking to convey, is a skill colleges expect students to have. Lessons in social commentary provide a platform to develop students’ “They Say/I Say” writing muscles.

In addition, bringing social commentary into the classroom has the potential to produce students who think critically about media entertainment and avoid the typical passive media consumption common in today’s youth. Social commentary can be found in a variety of places, including the music and movies students crave. When students listen to a song or watch a movie, the message being conveyed can be received, understood, and appreciated in ways that go beyond literal comprehension of a story, revealing to them the deliberate “conversation” being made between the artist, and them, the audience.

By teaching students about social commentary, you can help them grow into adults who think about the messages being sent. They can become natural and habitual analytical thinkers, not just blind consumers. With enough practice, they may even become social commentators themselves! What follows are more social commentary lessons.

Social Commentary Lessons:

Statement of Principles

In this lesson students use critical thinking skills to discuss Neoclassical art pieces, and make their own work of art that serves as social commentary.

Social and Political Commentary in Art

Students choose a topic they care about and make art-as-social commentary. Various examples of student art are provided as models of inspiration.

The Mexican Muralist Movement

This lesson explores the social and political commentary in Mexican murals and the role of visual art as an effective form of communication.

Language Arts Novel Guide – Pygmalion

Students use a novel as a means of analyzing social commentary.

New York City – Passionate About Shakespeare

Students explore how sections of Shakespeare’s plays work as social commentary when seen through the eyes of various audiences from different historical and social contexts.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: The Novel as Historical Source

Comments made by author Jane Austen on the status of women and the nature of class in 19th century England are explored in this lesson that could be used in a English or social studies classroom.

The Rise and Fall of the Jim Crow Era and Its Impact on African American South 1870’s-1960’s

This lesson uses primary source material, such as film, oral history and visual imagery to examine economic, political, legal and social issues faced by the Southern Black Community during the Jim Crow Era. This would make a wonderful complement to a unit on the novel To Kill A Mockingbird.

Poetry as Social Commentary

Students discuss the definition of social commentary and analyze several suggested poems for its attributes. This lesson provides an opportunity for the introduction of a poetry slam.

Hip Hop and Bruce Springsteen

Students analyze song lyrics to identify their social and political commentary, and use the highest level skill in Bloom’s Taxonomy--evaluation--to compare the social messages in the culture of hip hop music to those of more established musical forms. The process in this lesson can also be applied to movies and T.V. shows.

Musical Cares

Students explore the social commentary in John Lennon’s “Imagine” as it relates to the time when it was written and its relevance to modern wars and trends of terrorism in current events. A list of many other pro-peace songs is provided.