Quick definition: visual rhetoric is a form of communication that uses images to create meaning or construct an argument. Here's an example:

When people talk about the 2003 MTV music awards, most likely they're not talking about who won or who didn't -- they're probably talking about the now-infamous kiss between Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguillera in the opening musical number of the show.

Yes, the kiss --or rather, kisses-- were something, but if you think about, it was really just the culmination of a visual argument that was being made throughout the entire performance.

The number began with Britney and Christina in rather scandalous bridal attire prominading across the stage while singing Madonna's 1980s hit "Like a Virgin." As you can see from the photo of Madonna from the 1980s in her "like a Virgin" costume, even their dress was supposed to be a visual (though updated) echo of hers.


A transition in the music and the argument came when Madonna herself appeared -- not in "virginal" white, but in a tight black suit.

She immediately assumed a more "masculine" role in the number, dancing with both women and leading them through steps and through the lyrics to one of her new singles. The visual argument was one of progression: Britney and Christina were the new young pop stars; Madonna herself had moved on to a more mature, assertive role.

So how does the kiss fit in? As the final moment in this skit, it was at the same time narcissistic (Madonna kissing images of her younger self), heterosexual (Madonna as male kissing B & C as female) and homosexual (these were, afterall, women kissing). It spoke to how far Madonna had come in terms of her music, power dynamics, and her own sexuality. Or, you could argue, it was just a "hook" to a TV show, or a publicity stunt to drum up sales on Madonna's album.

Obviously, the kisses spoke loudly to the viewing public -- or at least one of them did. Did you ever think about why it was that the popular press ran the image of Madonna kissing Britney much more prominently than that of Madonna kissing Christina? Think about what argument one image makes rather than the other.

In analyzing images in this way, what you're doing is analyzing VISUAL RHETORIC: the way the images work on their own and collaborate with written text to create an argument designed to move a specific audience.

Image sources: http://news.bbc.co.uk/olmedia/1025000/images/_1027940_madonna150.jpg

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