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Representation Presentation

November 29, 2010

Download Link: 41552210-Representation



Every time we encounter a media text, we are not seeing reality, but someone’s version of it. This may

seem like an obvious point, but it is something that is easily forgotten when we get caught up in

enjoying a text. If you see a picture of Princess Diana kissing her boyfriend, you may find it unsurprising

that the picture has been altered and does not show the reality of the situation, but in fact we should

bear this in mind whatever we encounter in the media and everything in this booklet will follow from this

idea – the media place us at one remove from reality: they take something that is real, a person or an

event and they change its form to produce whatever text we end up with. This is called mediation.

You should be looking for this with any media text. Think about a new album by your favourite group, for

example- this is not just the sound of a few musicians playing together in a studio. Instead, the reality of

the sound that they might make has been mediated before it reaches you.

Engineers and producers have re- modelled the sound and artists have packaged the album.

Newspapers and magazines have reported the group and created a context for the album so that most

people probably had an opinion about it before it came out. Once again, whatever sound the group

made in the studio has been highly mediated before it gets to you. If you ever go to see a comedy show

recorded for the television, you will see the process of mediation in action. What might end up as a half

hour broadcast, will be recorded over an entire evening – jokes that might seem spontaneous when

watched on the TV will have been endlessly repeated until “just right”. The studio audience will have

been trained into laughing in exactly the right way by warm up men and the text that finally reaches the

public will also be given context by use of soundtrack music and computer graphics. The whole

experience of hearing a few jokes will have been mediated.

Of course, most of us are aware of this- we know that what we are seeing in a film or a soap isn’t realwe

just allow ourselves to forget for the time that the programme is on that it is a fiction. At the same

time we all have ideas in our heads of some kinds of texts which might be somehow less mediated- it is

obvious that a fictional programme isn’t real but when we encounter something like the television news,

we are more likely to believe in the straightforward nature of the “truth” we are receiving.

In fact, the news is just as sure to be mediated as anything else- someone has decided that these are

the few news items that are the most “newsworthy” and has chosen the shots that are used to tell the

stories, the graphics that will go with them and the tie that the presenter will be wearing which will

distract you so much while you are watching. Whatever version you get of what has gone on will end up

being highly mediated- very different from the experience of someone who was at the scene- as you will

know if you have ever seen a news event taking place

Mediation- three things to look for

1. Selection- Whatever ends up on the screen or in the paper, much more will have been left out- any

news story has been selected from hundreds of others which the producers decided for you were less

interesting, any picture has been chosen from an enormous number of alternatives.

2. Organisation- The various elements will be organised carefully in ways that real life is not- in visual

media this involves mise-en-scene and the organisation of narrative, in the recording of an album the

production might involve re-mixing a track. Any medium you can think of will have an equivalent to

these. This organisation of the material will result in…

3. Focusing- mediation always ends up with us, the audience being pushed towards concentrating on

one aspect of the text and ignoring others. If you are watching a film the camera will pan towards an

important character, in a tabloid the headlines will scream, for your attention. It can be easy to ignore

how different from our everyday lives this is. If you are walking through a field, you are unlikely to see a

sign saying, “Look at this amazing tree.” You make your own decisions about what is worth our

attention. The media text, through mediation, tries to do this for us.

This kind of task is actually very important because in the hands of experienced media professionals the

practice of mediation can be transparent- we do not notice it happen and are fooled into thinking that

we are experiencing some kind of reality. Once again remember-

All media texts involve mediation which you should train yourself to look for.


The result of this process of mediation is that we are given a version of reality which is altered- those

are never the real people that we are seeing but representations of them which have somehow been

created. It is time now to look at this idea of representation and how it happens.

What is representation?

The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions of the word:

1 To represent something is to describe or depict it, to call it up in the mind by description or portrayal…

to place a likeness of it before us in our mind.

2. To represent also means to symbolise, stand for, to be a specimen of or to substitute for; as in the

sentence, “In Christianity, the cross represents the suffering and crucifixion of Christ.”

It is worth thinking about each of these for a moment- the first one is the more straightforward- the

media are in the business of describing things to us- they represent people and types of people to us so

that we end up feeling that we know what they are like


Test this out for yourself- what is your opinion of any of the following- Liam Gallagher, Michael Jackson,

Princess Diana, fans of Star Trek, Peace Protesters.

In most of these cases it is unlikely that you know these people personally- what impression that you

have of them must come from the media. They have given us descriptions that have affected our views

of these people. The second of the two dictionary definitions is slightly more difficult but also useful. A

representation is something that symbolises something else. The example the dictionary gives of the

cross is an obvious one, but in the media you can find plenty of others. Liam Gallagher, as he is

represented in the media is not just the singer in Oasis, but also a symbol of many things which some in

the media think is wrong with young people in England today- drug-taking, hooliganism lack of

originality etc.


What, if anything, are the following people used as symbols of? Mother Theresa, Princess Diana, Hugh

Grant, Jordan and Hitler- can you think of any other examples of people who have become symbols.

Society, the individual and representation

Of course it is too simple to talk just about the media mediating reality and creating representations- we

need a more subtle understanding of the process. To get this I will look briefly at some different ideas

people have had about how representation works. You could broadly separate these into three:

The Reflective view of representing

According to this view, when we represent something, we are taking its true meaning and trying to

create a replica of it in the mind of our audience- like a reflection. This is the view that many people

have of how news works- the news producers take the truth of news events and simply present it to us

as accurately as possible.

The Intentional view

This is the opposite of the Reflective idea. This time the most important thing in the process of

representation is the person doing the representing- they are presenting their view of the thing

they are representing and the words or images that they use mean what they intend them to

mean. According to this theory, if you see a picture of an attractive person drinking a can of

Coke in an advert, it will have the same meaning to you as the advertiser intended- go away and buy


The Constructionist view

This is really a response to what have been seen a weakness in the other two theoriesconstructionists

feel that a representation can never just be the truth or the version of the truth

that someone wants you to hear since that is ignoring your ability as an individual to make up

your own mind and the influences of the society that you live in on the way that you do so. This booklet

will broadly be taking a Constructionist approach to representation so it is worth me spelling out this

idea again.

Any representation is a mixture of:

1 The thing itself.

2 The opinions of the people doing the representation

3 The reaction of the individual to the representation

4 The context of the society in which the representation is taking place.

Here’s an example of how this works:

If you’ve seen the film Independence Day. You may have been amused or annoyed at the way that

British People were represented as upper class idiots. If you consider the different parts of the

Constructionist approach to representation, they would work like this:

1. There must be some British people who the producers either encountered in reality or in

other media texts.

2. They formed an opinion of them that they were stuck up idiots which they used as the basis

of their representation.

3. As an individual watching this, you chose whether to believe the representation was valid or not.

4. In doing this, you were influenced by the fact that you are yourself British- an American

watching the film would probably have come to a different conclusion.


The last two parts of this equation- the individual and society are an enormously difficult area

which you will cover in more detail later in the course. You may find that you end up covering

them in your other subjects as well- the study of personality and the individual is Psychology

and the study of Society is Sociology and you should feel free to try to apply anything that you

learn in these subjects to the media.

For now it is worth thinking about the influence of society on what representations we receive. If you

think of one of the representation I mentioned earlier, that of Fergie, you can see that the idea of

society having a view of her is obviously a simplification. In society there are ardent royalists and

republicans, people who hate loud women and those who respect them- a multitude of views- so how

can we say that society has an influence on our views of someone.

The truth is that amid all this confusion of opinions, some kinds of ideas dominate and are

shared by a majority of people. We call views about how things should be and how people

should behave an ideology and if an ideology is shared by the majority of people in a culture it iscalled

the dominant ideology.

The group of ideas that make up the dominant ideology in Britain are not something that

remains static- they change as new ideas enter the are encountered and people discuss them. For

example the dominant ideology in Britain used to be anti- gay but this is happily changing at the


Here are some things that are generally agreed to be part of the dominant ideology in Britain:

P eople should put their families first.

People should work for their money and not show off too much about how much they


Women should behave modestly.

Women should look after their appearance.

You may not agree with all of these morals, but if I am right that they are part off the dominant

ideology, the chances are that they are the feelings of most people -perhaps this explains why

Fergie has a problem!

Let’s relate this back to the Constructionist view of representation. If you see an article in one of the

tabloids about Fergie jetting off on some holiday leaving her children behind and indulging in toesucking,

you are likely to be all the more shocked and disgusted because her behaviour goes against

what the dominant ideology suggests women should do. Also because representations often act as

symbols of other things, you will also be likely to think that her behaviour shows exactly what is wrong

with the royal family/ single women / the unemployed (delete as appropriate!)

Many constructionists believe that this itself has an effect on what the dominant ideology

actually is- after all the dominant ideology is only the belief of the majority of people so if you

and others like you end up even more sure that rich people shouldn’t flaunt their wealth as a

result of seeing the article, then the dominant ideology has become a bit stronger.

You could see the whole process that the constructionists describe as being a kind of

negotiation. Over the years representations are accepted or rejected by the majority of people

and the dominant ideology is gradually changed.


I’ve spent quite a long time dealing with society and how it effects the process of representation, it’s

worth now looking in more detail at what is going on in the other parts of the process- the individuals

and the media and their relationship with what is being represented. This brings us on to the question of

stereotypes- another word which is maybe worth a dictionary definition:

A standardised, usually oversimplified, mental picture or attitude that is held in common by

members of a group.

A stereotype is a simplification that we use to make sense of a real person or group which is

much more complicated. In reality there are many different kinds of Germans who are all

individuals, but it is much easier to fool ourselves into believing that all Germans cheat with

beach towels and eat strange sausages. The example that I have just given may seem

harmless, but in fact it is arguable that it is racist. Stereotypes are potentially highly dangerous but

stereotyping itself is impossible to avoid- it is a natural function of the human mind- something that we

all do in order to survive mentally in the confusing world around us. The following theory explains how it


Representation- How we stereotype:

Implicit Personality Theory

Finish the phrases below:

1. John is energetic, eager and (intelligent/stupid)

2. Julie is bright, lively and (thin/fat)

3. Joe is handsome, tall and (flabby/muscular)

4. Jane is attractive, intelligent and (likeable/unpleasant)

5. Susan is cheerful, positive and (attractive/unattractive)

If you compare your answers with those of others, the chances are that they will be exactly the same.

There is no logical truth based reason for this- it is simply part of the way that we

stereotype. The fact that we naturally see the world in this kind of shorthand way with

connections between different character traits, allows the media to create simplistic

representations which we find believable. Implicit personality theory explains this process.

As humans we use our own unique storehouse of knowledge about people  when we judge


Our past experience is more important than the true features of the actual personality that  

we are judging.- traits exist more in the eye of the beholder than in reality.

We have each a system of rules that tells us which characteristics go with other


We categorise people into types (e.g. workaholic, feminist etc.) to simplify the task of

person perception

Once we have in our minds a set of linked traits which seem to us to go together, they form

a pattern of connections that can be called a prototype. In other words the mix of traits that

we may consider “typical” of feminists are a prototype of what a feminist is like to us.

If we encounter someone in reality or in the media who seems to fit neatly into a prototype,  

we feel reassured. It confirms our stereotyped view- we do not need to think further.

Also once a few of the traits seem to fit our prototype, we will immediately bundle onto the

person the rest of the traits from the prototype even if we do not know if they fit them in


Research has shown that if we find people who do not fit into our prototypes, we will form

very strong often impressions of them- it is surprising to us and disconcerting- it forces us to

think more deeply.

On the other hand, if it is at all possible, we will try to twist the truth to fit in with our

prototype, often ignoring traits which do not fit into our neatly imagined pattern of

characteristics. This will particularly happen as time passes and we have time to forget

things that do not fit in. This can lead to enormous differences between our perceptions of

people and the reality.

All of this distortion happens naturally in our minds before the media have had their chance

to simplify and distort. We do a lot of the business of stereotyping ourselves. It is almost as

if we conspire with the media to misunderstand the world

So stereotyping is something that we all do- a natural part of the way our minds work and not in itself

necessarily a bad thing. If, for example, you were a teacher attempting to plan out a

course which would be suitable for your class, you would need to work from the basis of a kind of

stereotype of the needs of “typical” students. Having said this, even in cases where

stereotypes are valuable like this, the good teacher would have then tried to go beyond the

stereotype and looked for exceptions.

This is probably something we should all do when we encounter stereotypes- be aware that just as with

the process of mediation the stereotypes involve selection, organisation and focusing of the complicated


The four parts of a media stereotype

How can the media build a stereotype?

With any group of people, there will obviously be an enormous number of things that can be

used in a stereotype, but because stereotyping is a form of simplification, normally the most

obvious things are used. These are:

1. Appearance- this can include, physical appearance and clothing as well as the sound of

the voice. e.g. “all teachers wear dreadful old clothes”

2. Behaviour – typical things that people in this group might do. “Grannies like to knit”

These first two features of media stereotypes are the same when we make our own stereotypes. They

simply involve us thinking of something that may be true of some of the group in question and applying

it to all.

The third feature of media stereotyping is peculiar to the media:

3. The stereotype is constructed in ways that fit the particular medium

This is more difficult to understand but it is crucial for you to look for it. If you watch a film such as

Silence of the Lambs and then look at the tabloid coverage of Fred West, you are seeing the same

stereotype ( the typical Serial Killer) being used, but there are obviously big differences which will

depend on the specifics of the media used:

The film will use close ups of the killer’s leering face, soundtrack music and reaction shots of

terrified victims to create their version of the stereotype.

The newspaper will use emotive headlines, blurred pictures of victims and police mug-shots of the killer

along with shocking text and interviews with survivors.

In each case the text will create a stereotype which it’s audience will find familiar, but it will do it in very

different ways.

4. There will always be a comparison whether real or imaginary with “normal”


The features which make up a stereotype are always those which seem somehow different from everyday

behaviour. In fact you could almost start any stereotyped description by saying: “this group are

different because they…….”

Of course the idea of what is normal in any society is an absurdity and therefore in order to

make it clear to us that the stereotyped characters are not behaving “normally” there will

frequently be “normal” people used to act as a contrast to them.

So, to use my earlier example, Jodie Foster is used in Silence of the Lambs to give the

audience someone to compare Lecter’s behaviour with. On the news, tales of striking workers

(another stereotype) are always contrasted with interviews with “normal” people who are

suffering as a result of their actions.

The normal person will act as a representative of us in the text- at the same time reflecting what we

might feel, or telling us what to feel depending on your point of view.

Changing representations – Countertypes

Many of you may have seen the recent blockbuster film Independence Day. In this film there is a

character played by Will Smith who is clearly intended to be a positive and strong hero. As such, he

goes against many of the previous negative stereotypes of black people in American films. In one crucial

scene from the film we see him responding to the danger of an alien’s attack by simply kicking it.

Some of you may also have seen another recent blockbuster film — Mars Attacks. In this there

is also a black hero who also responds to the attack of a bunch of aliens by punching one of

them. Both of these films were made virtually simultaneously — how can we explain the fact that they

end up containing what are almost identical scenes? In both cases, the representation of black people in

these films has probably resulted from the very best of intentions. The films’ producers were probably

tired of years of negative stereotyping of black people in the movies and wanted to create a new

representation. So, instead of showing black people as criminals or as animals they have represented

them as noble heroes who get straight to the point and take no nonsense. They have also emphasised

the humour of these characters and have made sure that they are attractive enough to act as macho

role models.

One analysis of this would be to say that they have created a new kind of stereotype — a

positive stereotype which could be called a countertype. In the same way as a traditional

stereotype was made by selecting the negative behaviour of some members of the group, the

countertype homes in on some features which are positive. However the countertype is still very much a

stereotype — it is still a simplification of the enormous diversity that must exist in the population of black

Americans. As such, although it is an improvement on a negative

stereotype, it is still not the whole truth and many black people would probably still find it very

annoying in the way that it limits their behaviour.

Can we ever avoid stereotypes?

You will probably be able to find Countertypes whenever there is a group being represented

positively for the first time by the media. It seems as if the media find it difficult to adapt to

change and will always use the old techniques of simplification even if they’re trying to be nice

about someone. This has led some people to question whether it is ever possible to create a

representation that is free of stereotypes. If you think back to implicit personality theory, it

should be clear how natural the process of stereotyping is to us and how attractive we find this

simplified view of the world. However, if we are aware of this tendency in our own minds, we must be

able to at least try to avoid it and to recognise it in the media texts that we are

presented with.


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