Critical Lenses

Adapted for Book Builder by Kassidy Hetzel

Arvada High School

English 12


Unit Objectives:


  • Strategies for self-regulating planning & drafting.
  • Strategies for collaborating with instructors, peers, and experts to plan & draft writing.
  • Characteristics of selected critical lens (e.g., Reader Response, Social Class, Gender, Postcolonialism, Deconstruction).
  • Essential elements of selected literary work.
  • Domain-specific language of selected critical lens and literary work.
  • Methods for using style guides (e.g., MLA) to accurately cite sources and information.


  • Literary perspectives function as lenses to create fields of view; a critical lens can widen an angle as well as narrow the tunnel of focus.
  • What to retain, remove, and restate are important considerations when summarizing.
  • Endless combinations of information exist for synthesis; the only limitation is a person’s imagination and creativity.
  • We can learn about the world and about ourselves when we form purposeful generalizations and sound conclusions from a variety of texts.
  • Language should be selected to influence the audience, support the purpose, and express the writer’s expertise.
  • A writer’s grammatical choices affect the way his or her ideas are received by audiences.
  • Accurate citation speaks volumes about the credibility and reliability of a document.


  • Collaborate with instructors, peers and experts to plan & draft writing.
  • Evaluate sources and information based on credibility, relevance, and appropriateness relative to selected critical lens and literary work.
  • Evaluate evidence relative to its use to address selected critical lens and literary work.
  • Summarize information that describes selected critical lens.
  • Summarize essential element(s) of selected literary work.
  • Synthesize information to support analysis of literary work through the lens of a critical theory.
  • Use a critical lens to analyze a literary work.
  • Craft an introductory section that previews the characteristics of a critical lens and the essential elements of a literary work.
  • Develop a nuanced claim that illustrates the relationship between a critical lens and a literary work.
  • Synthesize the most relevant evidence of a critical lens and a literary work, considering the expectations and perspectives of the intended audience.
  • Use subtle transitional techniques to link major sections of the text and create cohesion.
  • Craft a concluding section that articulates the implications or significance of the analysis
  • Use domain-specific language appropriate to selected critical lens and literary work.
  • Use the conventions of Standard English to write varied, strong, correct, complete sentences.
  • Seek and use an appropriate style guide (e.g., MLA) to govern conventions for a particular audience and purpose.


  • Critical lenses are used very frequently in philosophical and adult conversations.  I want you to be able to understand what is being said in a critical conversation.


  • Title Page

  • Unit Objectives

  • Universal Design for Learning Principles

  • Defining Critical Lenses

  • Marxist Critical Lens

  • Marxist Continued

  • Feminist Critical Lens

  • Feminist Lens Continued

  • Freudian Psychoanalytic Critical Lens

  • Freudian Psychoanalytic Critical Lens Continued

  • Critical Lenses in The Lion King

  • A Marxist Viewing of The Lion King:

  • A Feminist Viewing of The Lion King

  • A Freudian/Psychoanalytical Viewing of The Lion King

  • Critical Lenses in the Harry Potter Films

  • The Marxist Lens in the Harry Potter Films

  • The Feminist Lens in the Harry Potter Films

  • The Freudian/Psychoanalytical Lens in the Harry Potter Films

  • Critical Lenses in the Twilight Saga

  • The Marxist Lens in the Twilight Saga

  • The Feminist Lens in the Twilight Saga

  • The Freudian Lens in the Twilight Saga


Universal Design for Learning Principles

Defining Critical Lenses

There are many critical frameworks we should use to interpret literature, film, art, drama, music, or anything you experience.  You might study up to 15 other critical lenses in your college experience.  Three of the most useful and relevant frameworks are Marxist literary criticism, Feminist literary criticism, and Freudian literary criticism.

These lenses add insights into our lives and into the literature, film, art, drama, music, or anything else you are experiencing.  To be efficient and clear, I will use the word “EXHIBIT” to mean whatever (book, film, painting, play, song, college visit, board game, military situation…) it is that we are studying, analyzing, and examining.

Named after Karl Marx but not promoting communism, this lens helps us examine how socioeconomic factors influence the characters, plot, setting, reader/viewer, author/maker, time period, or any other aspect of an exhibit.

Karl Marx  said that human history can be studied best by looking at how the proletariat (lower, working classes; blue collar jobs) interacts with the bourgeoisie (the middle/upper classes; white collar jobs).   Louis Althusser added to this theoretical/ critical approach.  His term “interpellation ” helps us examine how we are convinced by our oppressive systems to keep doing the miserable work we do for the system (because what is good for the system leads to good conditions for the individual—which, we know is not always the case).  Althusser explored how ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) control and sculpt: family, church, work, law, school, arts, sciences…

What Marxist critics do:

A. Make a division between the “overt” (manifest or surface) and “covert” (latent or hidden) content of a literary work

B. Relate the context of a work to the social-class status of the author

C. Explain the nature of a whole literary genre in terms of the social period which “produced” it

D. Relate the literary work to the social assumptions of the time in which it is “consumed” (or read, viewed…)

E. Look for symbols that create or reveal an

    1. “individual versus exploitive system” theme
    2. “oppressive culture” theme
    3. “individual as dehumanized, mechanized, roboticized, zombiefied—only serving the larger cause; only producing for ‘greater good’” theme

F. Evaluate the systems of, in, around, about, near the exhibit

Marxist Critical Lens Continued...

Questions Marxist Critics Ask:

  1. How do social classes interact with each other?  Is there greed?
  2. Do any characters climb the “social/economic ladder”?  Why?  How?
  3. Is a system oppressive to its members?  Does the system exploit its members?
  4. Are there social tensions?  Are the ruling classes happy?  Are the lower classes miserable?  Or, are the lower classes actually happier because they are not as oppressed by their upper/ruling class rigid rule system?
  5. Are the lower/working classes exploited? Does capitalism have a conscience concerning its citizens who are helpless, hopeless, powerless?
  6. Are characters given more/less freedom by their class?
  7. Are any of the characters “suffocated” by their class rules, codes, & costs?
  8. How do “uppers”/”winners” flaunt or exploit their wealth or power?

Key Terms in Marxist Literary Theory:

base                 superstructure  proletariat        bourgeoisie       

class                 interpellation   class mobility     oppression

ideology           ideological state apparatus        meritocracy


Exhibits that fit under a Marxist lens nicely:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Robots   To Kill a Mockingbird

Monsters, Inc.     Antz    1984     The Lion King    Star Trek          Star Wars

Office Space       Arvada High School (eyes are watching you!)

The Matrix Trilogy         Harry Potter Series         The Time Machine     Titanic

This lens helps us examine how gender is a factor in an exhibit.  The main focus is on how women are portrayed, how they function, behave, are limited/privileged for being women.  However, we also examine how maleness defines roles & limits men.


What Feminist critics do:

A. Rethink the canon—the accepted “greats” of all-time—to include women authors, poets, directors, actors

B. Examine representations of women in literature and film by male and female authors & moviemakers

C. Challenge representations of women as “Other”, as “lack”, as part of “nature” (whereas, men are part of “culture” and better than “natural” or “emotional”)

D. Raise the question of whether men and women are “essentially” different because of biology, or are socially constructed as different (subjugating women as “worse” than men in the important ways)

Questions Feminist Critics Ask:

1. Are there “natural” roles men and women fill?

2. To what extent are our roles created by culture?

      i.      Nature vs. nurture

3. Who puts limitations on genders?

4. Who grants privileges to a gender?

5. Examines these two statements:

    i.      A “woman” is/has ______________  (adjective, image, trait, ability…)


    ii.      A “man” is/has _______________ (adjective, image, trait, ability…)

6. Should we scrap our created gender roles and stereotypes?

7. How does a creator’s gender affect an exhibit?

8. What are the social expectations of men and women in this exhibit?

9. Are the social norms different for men and women?

10. How does society value men and women differently?  What about men is valued?  What about women is valued?

Feminist Lens Continued...

Double standards; degrading language system created by male-dominated power structure:


Women                Men  (describing the same behavior)

negative         positive             CONNOTATION

chick                = dude             binary oppositions!!!

&itchy             = tough

slut/whore       = stud

(just) cute        = cool

ditzy                = stoic, quiet

crazy                = temper


Key Terms in Feminist Literary Theory:

subjugate                     “other”                        gender roles     hegemony                    oppression                   gender exploitation                 relative meaning              agency


Exhibits that fit under a Feminist lens nicely:                    elementary schools

Harry Potter    Twilight Unforgiven (or any cowboy story)          Office Space      1984            Juno                  The Lion King    To Kill a Mockingbird        Titanic    Dukes of Hazzard         Ocean’s 11          Million Dollar Baby           The Reader      The Odyssey The Ugly Truth  300      P.S. I Love You Superbad           The Hangover   the circus
No Country for Old Men         The Road         Book of Eli      Lady Gaga                   perfume ads

The Freudian Psychoanalytic Critical Lens

This lens helps us examine how inner workings of the brain influence every aspect of an exhibit.

What Freudian/Psychoanalytic critics do:

A. Examine how each character attempts to re-achieve the narcissistic bliss we get to experience as babies; look for a possible “Oedipal complex” in any parent-child type of relationship (need not be biologically related characters; any mentor-protégé relationship may be analyzed like this)

B. Examine how each character attempts to re-achieve a narcissistic bliss of ordered predictability and familiarity (this familiarity might be chaos, as in the case of the Joker of The Dark Knight—he is familiar with chaos, so he continually seeks disorder and creates mayhem).  Some characters do things that make them miserable, as if they are determined to be miserable (the sympathy they acquire from other characters and the readers is what they have been seeking all along).

C. Explore the ways the libidos (sex drives) of the author, reader, character(s) work to influence the exhibit.

D. In the Freudian tradition and manner, psychoanalyze all people involved in the exhibit.


Questions Freudian/Psychoanalytic Critics Ask:

  1. Is the id winning in any character?
  2. Do any characters represent the id, the superego, or the ego?
  3. Are any of the characters repressing any of their true urges, dreams, or goals?
  4. Are there any sexual symbols?  (Freud researched and forced us to recognize our biological hard-wiring.)  Do these symbols imply anything about power?
  5. How are the characters seeking stages of narcissistic bliss?
  6. What is going on in the mind of any character in an exhibit?


Key Terms in Freudian Theory:

superego             id                                            ego                  oppression Oedipal complex                     condensation               phallus repression

dream interpretation    displacement               narcissism        denial

narcissistic bliss                       Freudian slip                            envy                 guilt

Exhibits that fit under a Freudian lens nicely:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest   Lord of the Flies           The Lion King    Office Space

The Dark Knight            Gran Torino                  The Odyssey   To Kill a Mockingbird     Life of Pi

Critical Lenses in The Lion King

A Marxist viewing:

           We get frustrated.  Mufasa is only in power because he is physically strong and male.  We realize Scar should be in power: he is smarter.  Scar is the only one not given a really cool African name.  Mufasa would rather teach Simba how to pounce, attack, and fight than listen to an important bulletin/report from Zazu, his senior advisor/cabinet member.

           Timon and Pumba are bachelors who reject their oppressive societies that expect them to be responsible, fatherly, hard-working, and good for the reproducing the modes of production.

           Marxist: Can be viewed as the upper class (lions) trying to maintain power over an unhappy lower class (hyenas). The lower class resents the privileges of better food and hunting grounds that the upper class maintains. This conflict causes a rebellion, which disrupts the normal social order causing chaos and destruction.

A Feminist Viewing of The Lion King

  • Reveals that Nala should be the one in power.  She can physically whip Simba (when they are young and when they are mature); and physical domination is valued in this society.  She is more loyal, responsible, intelligent, diligent, and unselfish than Simba, who is pretty pathetic. 
  • Shows how subservient all the female lions are.  They do all the work, get none of the credit, and must share partners.  Mufasa has at least ten sexual partners he gets to enjoy and impregnate.  Sarabi is demure, passive, pretty, a dutiful possession.


A Freudian/Psychoanalytical Viewing of The Lion King

  • Shows Pride Rock as a phallic symbol of male prominence and domination. 
  • A Freudian lens also shows us the reasons Simba stays with Timon and Pumba.  These two bachelors are free from responsibility and offer a sort of narcissistic bliss that Freud theorized we are always trying to re-achieve after we lose the bliss we once experienced as babies (completely cared for; without responsibility or stress; not inhibited or judged or oppressed by society yet). 
  • The Lion King is also a lot like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a highly psychological play with Oedipal leanings.


Critical Lenses in the Harry Potter Films

Marxist lens:

Does Ron Weasley eat excessively because he comes from a poor home—and he needs to feel full?  Does he eat greedily because he has never been able to?

Is Harry Potter special for any other reason than he won the genetic lottery and was granted a certain gift, never having done anything to earn this gift?

Much discussion has exposed JK Rowling as an obvious Marxist, attempting to pollute the minds of our youth with Communist propaganda. The “pure-blood” Slytherins represent the aristocracy, who believe that “magic” (i.e. capital) should be in the hands of a privileged elite. The “clever” Ravenclaws represent the bourgeoisie, who collude with the aristocracy in the suppression of the petty-bourgeois Hufflepuffs and the proletarian house-elves. The brave Gryffindors (who wear red Quidditch robes) and Dumbledore’s Army represent the Red Army, the true army of the proletariat. 

Feminist lens:

We see Hermione Granger as undervalued, unassertive, mocked for being smart

Freudian lens:

Are the broomsticks phallic symbols?  We know that witches rode brooms in folklore, so why is it mainly men who are featured on broomsticks in Quidditch?

Does Ron Weasley eat excessively because he cannot control his id?  Is he giving in to his primal urges?

Critical Lenses in the Twilight Saga

Marxist lens:

Bella is a poor kid with only her father to support her.  “Edward” is an extremely “rich-sounding” name.  The vampires are wealthy, educated, and powerful (even a medical doctor).

Feminist lens:

Bella is needy, reliant, dependent, subordinate, protected (the exact opposites of what Edward Cullen is).

Freudian lens:

How does desire for ________ and sex influence this narrative?

Is being a vampire a state of narcissistic bliss? = immortality and endless wisdom, feed gluttonously, lust, power over all, danger, taste, class, strength, speed…