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Lesson Plan: Film: Frontline: The Merchants of Cool

Prepared by Anne Cross


* May not be suitable for all audiences. Some profanity and sexual content.*


I Learning Objective(s)

An understanding of (1) the influence of “cool” as a social norm, and (2) peer groups and the mass media as components of the lifelong process of socialization.

II Rationale for Objectives

This film is a good complement to text-book explanations of social norms. It looks at prototypes of today’s teenager, demonstrating major differences in “cool” by gender.

III Materials

Boston : WGBH Educational Foundation ; PBS Video [dist.], c2001.

Time: 55 minutes.  Available on Netflix.

IV Procedures


(1)    Introduction

This documentary provides rich material for classroom discussion of agents of socialization, particularly peer groups and the mass media. The Merchants of Cool is a PBS / Frontline analysis of youth culture and mass-market norms.

(2)    Activity

View the film.

(3)    Discussion

Possible discussion questions: What is a “mook”? What is a “midriff”? Are these fair assessments of teen norms? How does “cool” factor into the socialization process? How does it work in different stages of life? What is the role of multinational corporations in shaping and diffusing social norms in youth culture?  How do peer groups and the mass media participate in the socialization process?

(4)    Summary

The video can be shown during one class period and discussed the next, after a brief refresher from the instructor. Classroom time: about 2 hours.

V Evaluation/Assignment

 Ask students to form small groups and to make a list of what they consider “cool” and “not cool”.  Ask if they even use those words today.  Where do these ideas come from and how do they influence how students judge themselves and each other.  How does this illustrate the social construction of self-esteem?  Following the discussion, ask students to write a brief paper (2 pages) on self-esteem and peer judgments.

VI Supplementary Readings

Erving Goffman. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor.