An alumnus strives to influence pop culture
and improve superhero toys for his daughter
By Stephanie Sue Cook (MJour'18)
As Christopher Bell (PhDMediaSt’09) draws on the whiteboard, his raised arm reveals a tattoo: “Wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure.”The quote, as Bell’s students in Cultural Criticism: Harry Potter can explain, is a motto for the house of Ravenclaw.
To some, an entire college course dedicated to Harry Potter may not seem academic. Bell, who is a consultant for Pixar, writes books about popular culture and is an associate professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, argues that there is more going on than people may realize.
“I’m showing students how to take a piece of media—how to take a media text—and use that to make sense of things that are really happening in the real world,” he explains.
This is how Bell approaches every aspect of his work. He thinks critically about the deeper messages people receive when interacting with media and, in turn, uses media artifacts to discuss social issues that might otherwise be awkward to navigate.
“He completely changed my views of this world,” says Grace Gatto, a former UCCS student who took several classes with Bell. “He taught me more real-life knowledge that I could take away and apply to the real world than any other teacher I have ever had.”
Bell’s pop culture interests are vast, but, since becoming a father, much of his research examines race and gender issues in relation to children’s media and toys.
“I do activist research,” Bell says of his role advising Pixar creators. “This is the culmination of what I’ve always tried to do with my research.”
The animated film Coco, which premiered in November, will mark the first project he has worked on for Pixar. His relationship with the company formed after his 2015 TED talk, “Bring on the Female Superheroes!”
In the video, Bell uses his own experiences shopping for his daughter to discuss the lack of female superhero merchandise on toy shelves and explore the effect on children as they play and learn about the world.
The video went viral, earning more than a million views to date and igniting an online conversation about how toys are marketed to children. One of those viewers, an executive at Pixar, invited Bell to speak at the company’s headquarters, which led to his role as a consultant.
As Bell’s industry work gains traction, he remains dedicated to his students. Last July he earned the inaugural Popular Culture Educator of the Year award in the higher education category at Denver Comic Con.
For Bell, helping students learn through the films, television shows and books they love is a nod toward his own journey as a student. Bell’s mentors helped him find his niche in pop culture research while earning his PhD in media studies at CU Boulder.
“Once I was doing the work I wanted to do, and found professors who supported that, I was able to really take off,” he says.
Bell sees his work not just as research, but as a personal mission to improve the way children watch, play and interact with media.
“I’m trying to get that agenda accomplished,” Bell says. “That agenda just happens to be making media better for my daughter and, by extension, making media better for all of her friends and for all of the other kids like her.”