Representation refers to the construction in any medium (especially the mass media) of aspects of ‘reality’ such as people, emotions, experiences, places, objects, events, cultural identities and practices, social structures. In this lesson, we will explore representation as it relates to the construction of identities in media. We also discuss critical discourse analysis as a way to unpack the relationship between media representations, social action and ideologies.
In this lesson, we will explore the concept of representation as it relates to the production and consumption of mediated messages.
Representation refers to the construction in any medium (especially the mass media) of aspects of ‘reality’ such as people, emotions, experiences, places, objects, events, cultural identities and practices, social structures. Representations occur in all forms of media and entertainment – film, television, news media, music, games, animation, graphic design, literature and theatrical forms.In this lesson, we will explore representation as it relates to the construction of identities in media. We also discuss critical discourse analysis as a way to unpack the relationship between media representations, social action and ideologies.
Take, for example, Barbie in the cover image for this lesson. Together, she and her friends present as racially and ethnically inclusive. This may mean that children from racially and ethnically diverse families are more inclined to want to play with Barbie since Barbie’s culturally diverse image is now one they can relate to. But does this mean that Barbie has done her bit for cultural cohesion and is now representative of all women? Is her image relatable to a girl in a wheelchair for example? Why/why not?
This lesson will also provide us with a methodology for identifying and critiquing the ideological structures that underpin representations. This method is called critical discourse analysis. Along with semiotic analysis which we will explore in full next week, these approaches are fundamental to evaluating the media.
Why does representation matter? Well, if you think it doesn’t then most likely you (or people like you) are adequately represented by the media and thus take it for granted. It’s kind of like people with financial privilege saying, “who cares, it’s just money”. Anyone who has had to live on minimum wage would know that money can both increase or limit your opportunity according to how much of it you have. The extent to which you are represented in media can also be demonstrated to increase or limit your opportunities.
In media studies, Hartley (2002) describes representations as the “words, pictures, sounds, sequences, stories, etc., that ‘stand for’ ideas, emotions, facts, etc. Representations rely on existing and culturally understood signs and images, on the learned reciprocity of language and various signifying or textual systems. It is through this ‘stand in’ function of the sign that we know and learn reality.”
★ Representation always involves ‘the construction of reality’.
★ Reality is always represented – what we treat as ‘direct’ experience is ‘mediated’ by perceptual codes.
★ All texts, however ‘realistic’ they may seem to be, are constructed representations rather than simply transparent ‘reflections’, recordings, transcriptions or reproductions of a pre-existing reality.
★ Representations which become familiar through constant re-use come to feel ‘natural’ and unmediated.
★ Representations require interpretation – we make modality judgements about them.
★ Representation is unavoidably selective, foregrounding some things and backgrounding others.
★ Often ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ is the product of particular systems of representation – every representation is motivated and historically contingent.
Returning to Hartley: “Representations are the concrete form (signifiers) taken by abstract concepts. Some are banal or uncontroversial– for example, how rain is represented in the movies, since real rain is both hard to see on camera and hard to produce on cue. But some representations go to the heart of cultural and political life – for example, gender, nation, age, class, etc. Since representations inevitably involve a process of selection in which certain signs are privileged over others, it matters how such concepts are represented in news media, movies, or even in ordinary conversation. In fact, Richard Dyer claims how ‘we are seen determines in part how we are treated; how we treat others is based on how we see them [and] such seeing comes from representation’. It should come as no surprise then that the way representations are regulated through various media, genres and within various discourses, has been given considerable attention.”
To read this discussion of representation in full see this PDF link to Hartley, J. (2002). Communication, cultural and media studies. London: Routledge.
📝 CRITICAL RESPONSE TASK
Briefly look over this content analysis of gender representation data on character attributes and occupations in the media. Form a response to this data and post your response in the discussion forum.
Gender Roles & Occupations: A Look at Character Attributes and Job-Related Aspirations in Film and Television. Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti, Ashley Prescott, Katherine Pieper. (2010). Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, University of Southern California.
See the full report as well as extensive resources on gender and media at seejane.org/
Our identities are a combination of multiple and often quite complex systems of meaning informed in part by our own self-concept and largely by the social and cultural institutions that govern us.
Representation involves not only how identities are represented (or rather constructed) within the text but also how they are constructed in the processes of production and reception by people whose identities are also differentially marked in relation to such demographic factors.
★ Stereotypes are used to enable an audience to instantly identify and understand the meaning of a text. Basically, using a stereotype means you have to give a character less of a backstory.
★ Stereotypes are an extreme form of representation where certain aspects are focussed on and exaggerated.
★ In texts, stereotypes are characters who are ‘types’ rather than complex people.
★ Stereotypes are usually negative representations; one-dimensional assumptions.
★ Stereotyping is often evident when there is a power imbalance between members of society. For example, disadvantaged minority groups such as disabled people or ethnic minorities among others, often have stereotypes associated with them.
Cultural norms and ideologies underpin most of the media we consume. As such, whenever someone or something is being represented in the media, we must be mindful of the ideologies, meanings and values implicit in that representation. Various interests operate to ensure that particular representations are manifested in accepted ways. Clearly, this gives great power and responsibility to media institutions as the representations, to some extent can influence our attitudes and perceptions of the social groups depicted.
● Ideology is a set of beliefs and ideas that are presented in a media text.
● Dominant Ideologies are those which are accepted and understood by the majority of people.
The image below illustrates some of the dominant ideologies (i.e. misconceptions) about the relationship between women’s personality traits and their body size. See if you can name any media (TV, film, popular music, video games etc where you can identify these explicit or implicit assumptions in the text.
📝 CRITICAL RESPONSE TASK
Now take a look at the graphic below and choose 2 television shows from those listed and answer the following questions.
● Who or what is being represented?
● Is there evidence to suggest that stereotyping is present?
● What ideologies are being upheld or challenged?
We will use your responses to lead our in-class discussion, so please make sure that you come prepared with thoughtful responses.
Critical Discourse Analysis
What is it?
According to French poststructuralist philosopher Michel Foucault, discourse is a system of representation. We see that ‘discourse’ (a group of statements) is a way of representing the knowledge about a topic at a particular historical moment. Discourse constructs the topic. It defines and produces the objects of our knowledge. It also influences how ideas are put into practice and used to regulate the conduct of others. So the meaning is constructed through discourse, nothing has any meaning outside of discourse.
★ Discourse is described as a set of statements for talking about or discussing a particular topic becoming the condition for social practice and action.
★ Discourses ascribe meaning to the practices of particular identity groups and social reality becomes constructed through this symbolic system of representations.
★ Dominant discourses generally work to legitimise and reproduce power relations.
★ The constitution of the social world occurs through the processes of text production and consumption, or what we call discursive practice.
★ Discourses are communicative events involving ideological statements and patterns of representation which generate and circulate a set of norms.
★ Critical discourse analysis scrutinises the relationship between discourse and ideology (a set of beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that constitute a perspective on the world).
★ Critical discourse analysis is particularly concerned with the ways power and inequality are enacted, reproduced, and resisted by media texts.
Here’s a short example of critical discourse analysis in action
The Associated Press, a news service subscribed to by news outlets all over the world, distributed a story about the first Obama Administration State Dinner. In the story, sent in by Elisabeth R., Samantha Critchell describes Michelle Obama’s dress as ‘flesh-colored’. This is what happens when white people are considered ‘normal people’ and black people are considered a ‘special or Other kind of people’. “Flesh-colored” becomes the skin color associated with fair skin and darker-skinned peoples are left out of the picture altogether. (see Wade, 2012)
Critical discourse analysis has sought to subvert traditions that were seen to involve inaccurate and disempowering representations.
🎥 CRITICAL VIEWING TASK
These media examples both identify and summarise some of the more problematic representational discourses and ideologies operative in both media texts and society.
First, watch the short video critiques below and identify the stereotypes that combine to form a symbolic system of representation highlighted in each case. Write down in your notes then form a response to each video that scrutinises these representations. Your response may be a short written statement of criticism that refers to other instances in the media where you can see these stereotypes perpetuated or you may choose to find a media example that subverts the stereotypes or dominant narratives illustrated here in relation to race, ethnicity, gender, (dis)ability and sexuality.
It would be ideal if you could engage with all 5 videos in this way. But if you are short on time, make sure you form a complete response to at least two.
It’s really important that you share your response with the class so we can work with them in your tutorial. You can do this either via posting your written commentary to the discussion forum, or sharing links to the videos you find with class, which can be done either via the discussion forum or class Pinterest board.
📚 READING TASK
Your prescribed reading for the week explores Stuart Hall’s theory of encoding/decoding media representations. The reading can be found at this link. Hall, S. (1993). Encoding, decoding. In S. During (Ed.), The cultural studies reader (pp. 90-103). London: Routledge.
📌 VERY PINTERESTING!
If you’re delivering your dialogue on this topic and need a little inspiration, be sure to make use of the resources on the relevant SAE Media and Cultural Studies Pinterest boards linked below. Here you will find links to texts, images, audio, video and other media that help you make more sense of the subject.