Representation refers to the construction in any medium (especially the
mass media) of aspects of ‘reality’ such as people, places, objects, events, cultural
identities and other abstract concepts. Such representations may be in speech or writing as
well as still or moving pictures.
The term refers to the processes involved as well as to its products.
For instance, in relation to the key markers of identity -
Class, Age, Gender and Ethnicity (the 'cage' of identity) -
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. Consider,
for instance, the issue of
'the gaze'. How do men look at images of women, women at men, men at men
and women at women?
A key in the study of representation
concern is with the way in which representations are made to seem ‘natural’. Systems of
representation are the means by which the concerns of ideologies are framed; such
systems ‘position’ their subjects.
Semiotics and content analysis (quantitative) are the main methods of formal analysis of representation.
- Semiotics foregrounds the process of representation.
- Reality is always represented - what we treat as 'direct' experience is 'mediated' by perceptual codes. Representation always involves 'the construction of reality'.
- 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.
- Realists focus on the 'correspondence' of representations to 'objective' reality (in terms of 'truth', 'accuracy' and 'distortion'), whereas constructivists focus on whose realities are being represented and whose are being denied.
- Both structuralist and poststructuralist theories lead to 'reality' and 'truth' being regarded as the products of particular systems of representation - every representation is motivated and historically contingent.
Key Questions about Specific Representations
- What is being represented?
- How is it represented? Using what codes? Within what genre?
- How is the representation made to seem 'true', 'commonsense' or 'natural'?
- What is foregrounded and what is backgrounded? Are there any notable absences?
- Whose representation is it? Whose interests does it reflect? How do you know?
- At whom is this representation targeted? How do you know?
- What does the representation mean to you? What does the representation mean to others? How do you account for the differences?
- How do people make sense of it? According to what codes?
- With what alternative representations could it be compared? How does it differ?
- A reflexive consideration -
Why is the concept of representation problematic?
Comparisons with related representations within or across genres or media can be very fruitful, as can comparisons with representations for other audiences, in other historical periods or in other cultural contexts.
Approaches to Teaching Representation
- Thematically: e.g. class, age, gender, ethnicity, or more broadly via identity, stereotyping, ‘prejudice’ (typically racial) or ‘bias’ (typically political); also topics such as royalty, motherhood, childhood, nationhood etc.
- Generically: e.g. ‘bias’ in news, class in soap operas or sitcoms, gender in ads.
- Media-specifically: e.g. in TV, film, comics, magazines (mags useful for representations aimed at specific audiences)
Television is... the most rewarding medium to use when teaching representations of class because of the contradictions which involve a mass medium attempting to reach all the parts of its class-differentiated audience simultaneously... Its representations of class can perhaps best be approached by teaching how class relations are represented and mediated within different TV genres and forms (Alvarado et al. 1987: 153)
Constructivism vs. Objectivism
Contemporary theories of representation stress the construction of particular realities. Teachers who focus on ‘bias’, ‘prejudice’ or ‘stereotypes’ risk implying that there is a single unchanging ‘true’ reality.
Four Key Themes in Racial Representations
(Alvarado et al. 1987: 153)
What key themes are there in relation to class, age and gender?
The study of specific examples is central in teaching about representation.
the section in the MCS site on Representation.
For gay representation in film, see
my list of 'gay-interest' films.
- Alvarado, Manuel, Robin Gutch & Tana Wollen (1987)
Learning the Media.
- Diawara, Manthia (1998) 'Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and
Resistance'. In Leo Braudy & Marshall Cohen (Eds)
Film Theory and Criticism.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 845-54
- Dines, Gail & Jean M Humez (Eds.) (1994)
Gender, Race and Class in
Media. Newbury Park: Sage
- Dyer, Richard (Ed.) (1977)
Gays and Film. London: British Film Institute
- Dyer, Richard (1990)
Now You See It: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film.
- Dyer, Richard (1993)
The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation. London: Routledge
- Dyer, Richard (1997)
White. London: Routledge
- Dyer, Richard (2000) 'White'. In Robert Stam & Roby Miller (Eds)
Film and Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 733-51
- Ferguson, Robert (1998)
Representing Race: Ideology, Identity and the Media. Oxford: Oxford University Press
- Friedman, Lester (Ed) (1991)
Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema. Urbana: University of Illinois Press
- Gaines, Jane (2000) 'White Privilege and Looking Relations: Race and Gender
in Feminist Film Theory'. In In Robert Stam & Roby Miller (Eds)
Film and Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 715-32
- Gunter, Barrie (1995)
Television and Gender Representation.
London: John Libbey
- Hall, Stuart (1997)
Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Newbury Park, CA: Sage
- Hall, Stuart (2000) 'Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation'.
In Robert Stam & Roby Miller (Eds)
Film and Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 704-14
- hooks, bell (1992)
Black Looks: Race and Representation. London: Turnaround
- Macdonald, Myra (1995)
Representing Women. London: Arnold
- Neale, Steve (1993) 'The Same Old Story: Stereotypes and Difference'. In
Manuel Alvarado, Edward Buscombe & Richard Collins (Eds)
The Screen Education Reader London: Macmillan, pp. 41-7
- Nichols, Bill (1981)
Ideology and the Image: Social Representation in the
Cinema and Other Media. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
- Russo, Vito (1987)
The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies.
New York: HarperCollins [highly recommended - there's also
an extremely useful video of the same title which is based on this book and
includes lots of clips from mainstream movies]
- Stam, Robert & Louise Spence (1985) 'Colonialism, Racism and Representation'.
In Bill Nichols (Ed)
Movies and Methods, Vol. 2. Berkeley:
University of California Press
- Tagg, John (1988)
The Burden of Representation: Essays on
Photographies and Histories. Basingstoke: Macmillan
- Threadgold, Terry & Anne Cranny-Francis (Eds)
Feminine, Masculine and Representation. Sydney: Allen & Unwin