Stuart Halla beginners’ guideIn the latest in her series on key thinkers, Lucy Scott-Gallowayexplores the seminal work of cultural critic Stuart Hall, whoseideas about the ways in which audiences/readers make meaningfrom texts have been hugely influential on studies of the audience.She applies his theories to the recent film Kidulthood.Essentials Stuart Hall is a leading sociological thinker of the late 20thand early 21st centuries, whose writings often encompass mediaperspectives. Though generally thought of as a sociologist and culturalstudies theorist, he taught media studies in London in the early sixties.Rather than exploring how texts make meaning, as was thepredominant practice of his analytical forerunners, for Hall, the meaningof the text is not inherently in the text itself. No amount of analysis canfind the text’s one true ‘meaning’, because different people whoencounter the text will make different interpretations.On the surface, this certainly seems to make sense. After all, we don’tall like the same characters in our favourite TV shows or films, or dislikethe same. But we are all seeing the same representations. Thetechnical and symbolic codes that construct the representations weperceive are the same – that is, the denotation is the same. But fromthere, what the producers want us to think and what we actually thinkmight be two very different things. This reading, according to Hall,depends on our social positioning – for example the level of oureducation and experience, and what our occupations are.Reception theory This approach to textual analysis puts mostemphasis on the audience – meaning is made at the moment ofconsumption. At that moment, the individual audience memberconsiders the representations presented to them in the context of theirown values, opinions and experiences. Therefore, people with similarsocio-cultural backgrounds are likely to make similar readings of thesame texts.It follows then, that if the audience’s values, opinions and experiencesare similar to the producer’s, then they are likely to ‘read’ the meaningof the text in the way it was intended – or at least very close to it.Encoding/decoding model Stuart Hall took this new attitude towardsaudience consumption, which considered audiences as not only activebut also a group of individuals rather than an undifferentiated ‘mass’,and developed the encoding/decoding model. This model was based on
the view that meaning is the result of a communication process, thestages of which he called ‘moments’. The first is the ‘moment ofencoding’, the second the ‘moment of the text’ and the third the‘moment of decoding’.Moment of encoding – the creation of the text, when forms, structures,codes and conventions are used to construct a text with an intendedmeaning. Moment of the text – the symbolic existence of the text as it ispublished or broadcast – the focus of semiotics. Moment of decoding –when an individual with a unique set of values, attitudes andexperiences encounters the text. Regarded as more the moment of‘creation’ than the first stage.Preferred/negotiated/oppositional readings Readings of texts aredependent on who the audience is, and what their social position is,because this influences their interpretation of the denotative codes.However the number of readings isn’t necessarily infinite – Hallsuggested there are limits to the readings that can be made.When the text is created, the producers encode a meaning, which they(probably) intend. This is the reading likely to be made by the targetaudience, as they would be most likely to share and accept the text’sideologyThis is the preferred reading.However, some people whose social position places them outside thetext’s specific target audience, may be more active in questioning therepresentations in the text. If they generally accept the preferredreading, but challenge a few aspects, then this is a negotiated reading.If their values and attitudes are very different or even in opposition tothe target audience, they are unlikely to accept much – if any – of thepreferred reading, making instead an oppositional reading. Forexample, a teenage mum is unlikely to accept the preferred reading of adocumentary that represents teenage mums as careless or unfitparents.The difference between what is encoded (the intention of the producer)and what is decoded (the meaning made by the audience) is known byHall as the margin of understanding.The same person may even read the same text in different ways if theyencounter it in different contexts – do you ‘read’ texts the same in theclassroom as you do at home? You may make a preferred readingwhen you are at home, consuming a text for entertainment and pleasurefor example, but challenge the representations and how they are
constructed when you are studying.Putting it into practice: Kidulthood Hall’s theories are useful toillustrate how different audiences might make meaning from the 2006Menhaj Huda film, Kidulthood.The film is set in West London and recounts a ‘day in the life’ of a groupof school kids the day and the day after a classmate commits suicidedue to bullying. In the DVD’s special features, the writer of the film, NoelClarke, responds to the question: What’s your response [to the claim] that Kidulthood makes bullying and ‘happy slapping’ cool? ‘I don’t really care to be honest, because I know that the film’s not promoting or justifying anything it’s merely ‘there’…it’s just a film that’s out there. And it is highlighting what happens in society.’This is an intentional approach to understanding how representationworks. Clarke appears to think that the representations made in the filmmean whatever they were intended to mean. He also suggests thatrepresentations are a ‘window on the world’ that just reflect society. But,as Media students – and in light of what we have learnt from Hall – weknow otherwise. What has been encoded may be decoded differently bydifferent audiences.A quick read of the interactive users’ comments on the InternationalMovie Database (www.imdb.com) shows that different audiencesviewed the film, especially the extent of its realism, in very differentways. I loved this film. I found it very truthful about young urban people getting into fights and arguments and it spiralling out of control. It’s kinda cool to show the rest of the world how scary it can be in England. I’ve grown up on an estate in Chatham and I can honestly say that what you see in this film is really what it’s like...apart from they are so much younger. I found this film a waste of 2 hours and the END may as well be the BEGINNING as it fails to get my interest or take me anywhere. I come from E15 (East London) and the stuff in Kidulthood happens all the time in my area. All northerners and elsewhere don’t really realise that London is one of the roughest, crime-ridden places in the world! Damn you Richard Curtis!The main factors that appear to influence the way meaning is madefrom the film are the ages and locations of the audience members.Those who live near to where the film is set appear to feel the film is
realistic, in terms of its representation of youth and their behaviour. Thistherefore supports Hall’s view that the meaning made is influenced bysocial positioning. The final respondent above goes further to hint athis/her understanding of representation – ‘damn you Richard Curtis’suggests that the audience member feels that director Richard Curtis’srepresentations of London in romcom films such as Love Actually(2003) have given those without first-hand knowledge an inaccurateview of London.The opening of Kidulthood merges different modes of representation,using realist codes in production and MTV-style visual trickery, such assplit and sliding screens and cinemascope, in post-production.Kidulthood opens with a close-up of feet playing football, covered inmud and evoking a stereotype of a schoolboy. The diagetic soundtrack;voices in a playground, reinforce this. The film stock is grainy,characteristic of British realist films, and the location shooting andhandheld, restless camera jumping from character to character at eyelevel and in shallow focus also adds to the sense of realism. Kids chatto each other, on phones, are smoking in the playground, giving outinvites to a party and play football, in a realist representation of ‘everyday life’. The dialogue is very specific to both region and generation,language including ‘blud’, ‘bruv’, ‘hug him up’, ‘allow it man’, ‘innit’ and‘oh my days’ may not be understood by people outside London’s youthculture.But this scene is cross-cut with scenes that are more conventional ofthe gangster genre. The camera is steady and close up, and the focusremains shallow, but the subject; Trife drilling (what we later realise is) agun, is in contrast to the harmless goings on in the playground. The drillis shot with key lighting to the left, creating dramatic areas of light anddark. This juxtaposition of genres continues, as Trife talks to his uncle ina car. Here we see further iconography of the gangster genre – replicaguns, drugs, and a menacing male figure who dresses in heavyjewellery and a long black leather coat.In the 12th-minute of the film, a female character Katie switches on herstereo, and diagetic music begins, The Streets’ ‘Stay Positive’. Themusic bridges to the next scene becoming non-diagetic, and differentcharacters are shown in split screen rolling from right to left, resemblinga music video. The technique indicates parallel action, as the femalecharacters are shown taking a pregnancy test and writing a suicidenote, whilst the male characters are shown going for a walk, getting ahair cut, and playing computer games. The music becomes diageticagain as Katie’s parents begin calling her to turn it down, and themontage ends with their discovery of her body, after she has hungherself.
Kidulthood therefore uses codes of realism to construct a representationof youth in west London. It is important to be aware that thisrepresentation is as constructed as any other, as choosing to representyouth in London in this way encodes a particular ideologicalperspective.The codes of realism used include: • On location shooting • Point of View shots • Low resolution film stock • Naturalistic lighting • Handheld camera • Eye level camera anglesAlthough some decisions may have been made for economic reasons(low resolution film stock is far cheaper than the alternative optionsoften favoured by Hollywood, location shooting means not having to payfor and prepare a studio), the overall effect is that the representationlooks more like ‘real life’, and as a result, the preferred reading is thatthese young people are representative of ‘the youth of today’ growingup in west London. The representations of young people are somewhatstereotypical; themes of sex, drugs and violence are prevalent,juxtaposed to scenes of poor parenting or youths not being understoodby adults.The target audience for the film, young people growing up in urbanenvironments, are likely to find these themes familiar, even if a littleexaggerated for narrative purposes. They may therefore identify withsome of the characters in the film, most likely Trife, who stands out asthe protagonist in the opening scenes when he is the only one to standup to the bully. However, if somebody from outside the target audiencewere to watch the film, they would do so from the perspective of theirown social position.What if the people watching the film were your parents, or evengrandparents? Would they think the same as you? What if the peoplewatching the film were conservatives living in rural environments a longway from a city? Would they find these characters and eventsbelievable? These are the people who might make negotiated, or insome cases, oppositional readings. Whilst the preferred reading is thatthis is a realistic film, some may think the representations of youth areexaggerated or sensationalised, or made up altogether. Whilst bullyinghappens with unfortunate regularity and underage smoking and sexoccurs also, it is rare for a young person to drill guns for their gangsteruncle or for a pupil to commit suicide. The codes of social-realism andgangster are merged to such an extent that for some, the film loses itsrealist edge. Whilst the writer of the film, Noel Clarke, refutes the claimsof sensationalism in the DVD’s special features, I think he fails to giveenough credit to his own imagination:
Some people have said that this [film] will influence society and influence young people. Whereas my thing is that it’s the opposite way round. Society influenced the film. This film couldn’t exist if these things weren’t happening already.Furthermore, some may think that the film glamorises teenagepregnancy – the only characters who are really likeable are Trife andAlisa. The climax to the narrative is at Blake’s party, when Trife andAlisa decide to have the baby together, and the emotional response ofthe audience is to feel pleasure in their union, and hope for their future.Some of the sorrow the audience feels when Trife dies is because heand Alisa will never have their happy family unit.Criticisms of Hall How can a preferred reading be identified? How dowe know if we have found it, and we are not making a personal,negotiated reading, unless the producers tell us what it is? Would theytell us the truth? David Morley (a theorist in audience studies) hassuggested that the preferred reading is the: reading which the analyst is predicting that most members of the audience will produce.For example, when analysing this film with my class, we discussed thecostumes of the characters in the opening scene. Most are in schooluniforms, with connotations of control and conformity, reinforcingdominant ideological values of formal education. Sam, however, isdressed in a blue hoodie with the hood up – and following recent moralpanics around teens and hoodies, the costume carries connotations oftrouble. This, we suggested, signifies that Sam is an antagonist. Thereading appears to be obvious and transparent – but how do we know?Maybe, when Sam’s costume was decided, it was chosen only becausea hoodie is a casual item that signifies nothing more than thesuggestion that Sam is not a pupil at the school where the scene is set.Perhaps we are bringing our own socio-cultural experience to thereading, to imagine that the hoodie signifies any more than that. So howdo we know when we are making a preferred reading, and when it isnegotiated?Lucy Scott-GallowayThis article first appeared in MediaMagazine 20.top