By definition, all media texts are re-presentations of reality. This means that
they are intentionally composed, lit, written, framed, cropped, captioned,
branded, targeted and censored by their producers, and that they are entirely
artificial versions of the reality we perceive around us. When studying the media
it is vital to remember this - every media form, from a home video to a glossy
magazine, is a representation of someone's concept of existence, codified into a
series of signs and symbols which can be read by an audience. However, it is
important to note that without the media, our perception of reality would be very
limited, and that we, as an audience, need these artificial texts to mediate our
view of the world, in other words we need the media to make sense of reality.
Therefore representation is a fluid, two-way process: producers position a text
somewhere in relation to reality and audiences assess a text on its relationship to
Extension/Restriction of Experience of Reality
By giving audiences information, media texts extend experience of reality. Every
time you see a wildlife documentary, or read about political events in a country
on the other side of the world, or watch a movie about a historical event, you
extend your experience of life on this planet. However, because the producers of
the media text have selected the information we receive, then our experience is
restricted: we only see selected highlights of the lifestyle of the creatures
portrayed in the wildlife documentary, the editors and journalists decree which
aspects of the news events we will read about, and the movie producers
telescope events and personalities to fit into their parameters.
Truth or Lies?
Media representations - and the extent to which we accept them - are a very
political issue, as the influence the media exerts has a major impact on the way
we view the world. By viewing media representations our prejudices can be
reinforced or shattered.
Generally, audiences accept that media texts are fictional to one extent or
another - we have come a long way from the mass manipulation model of the
1920s and 1930s. However, as we base our perception of reality on what we see
in the media, it is dangerous to suppose that we don't see elements of truth in
media texts either.
The study of representation is about decoding the different layers of truth/fiction/
whatever. In order to fully appreciate the part representation plays in a media
text you must consider
• Who produced it?
• What/who is represented in the text?
• How is that thing represented?
• Why was this particular representation (this shot, framed from this angle,
this story phrased in these terms, etc) selected, and what might the
alternatives have been?
• What frame of reference does the audience use when understanding the
Race, like sex, is a set of genetically defined, biological characteristics. However,
like gender, it is also a set of culturally defined characteristics. Representation of
race in the media can consist of the same sort of rigid stereotypes that constitute
gender portrayal. However, stereotyping of race is seen as more harmful than
stereotyping of gender, as media representation may constitute the only
experience of contact with a particular ethnic group that an audience (particularly
an audience of children) may have. Racial stereotypes are often based on social
myth, perpetuated down the ages. Thus, the media depiction of, say, Native
American Indians, might provide a child with their only experience of Native
American Indian culture and characters, and may provide that child with a set of
narrow prejudices which will not be challenged elsewhere within their experience.
The need for a more accurate portrayal of the diversity of different races is a
priority for political agendas, but, as ever, it seems as though it will take a while
for political thinking to filter through to programme and film-making.
• A report on Race & The Media in the US, lengthy, but worth a read
• The Fantasy of Racial Difference in Star Trek - Is it racist to call a Klingon
violent? A sideways look at race in space.
• Whitewashing of Primetime TV - An overview of the different races (ie not
many, not much) represented in prime US TV shows
• A shorter overview of the proportions of Race Representation in the US
Most work on Race & The Media has concentrated on the representation of black
men and women. This has partly been because there is a strong African-American
counter-culture which provides viable alternative role models and demands that
they are represented. In recent years, the success of actors such as Denzel
Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Laurence Fishburne and Morgan Freeman in a
diversity of roles has meant that black characters in movies and on TV are no
longer 'stock' types. Some of the time. However, there are many negative
representations of black people, portrayals which seem deliberately designed to
inflame the fear and hatred of other cultures - how positive a representation is
the archetypal African-American gangsta? Yet these are representations coming
from within black culture itself...
• Black boys: casualties of our generation?
• Stop Whining About the Media - is black representation now 'proportional'?
• Representation of Black Men in the Movies
Attention is now being paid to the representation of other ethnic groups, notably
Asian Americans and Latinos, who represent a much larger proportion of the US
population than their TV coverage would suggest. Things are changing - on the
one hand the success of John Woo and Ang Lee in Hollywood is pushing the
boundaries back for Asian Americans, and the Latin Music Explosion of 1999 has
led to much wider acceptance of Latino performers (Jennifer Lopez is now in the
upper echelons for pay for female actors).
• Asian Stereotypes - A memo demanding some action from Hollywood
producers who keep resorting to stock Asian characters
• A Discussion of the above memo
• An overview of Asian portrayals from The Media Portayal Project
• Redefining Asian American Masculinity - lengthy review of American Sons,
containing much relevant comparison with eg) The Joy Luck Club
There is anxiety expressed in the UK about the portrayal of ethnic minorities,
particularly in soap operas.
• TV 'failing ethnic minorities'
• Asian runaway bride story 'not racist'
What follows here is opinion, not fact. It will probably be of no use to you in your
essays. HINT: Why not develop your own ideas on this topic?
After gender and ethnicity, age is the most obvious category under which we file
people, and there are a whole range of judgements which go along with our
categorisation. We quickly deem other people too old, or too young, or criticise
them for being immature or fudd-duddy. We criticise mature women for going
about as mutton dressed as lamb, and young girls for tarting themselves up as
jail bait. Film stars who start to show signs of aging in their forties are swooped
on with cries of horror by gossip columnists ("Movie star gets wrinkles... and her
tits start to sag" shocker!!) while those who succumb to the surgeon's knife are
written about with equal distaste ("Movie star can't raise eyebrows and her tit's
DON't sag" equal shocker!!!). Thanks to the media, we appear to live in an age
obsessed world: a world obsessed with youth and its attendant beauty. Old
people are often subject to the most rigid stereotypes of all (old = ugly, weak,
stupid). The future looks pretty bleak for all of us. I can't even find any other
websites which deal with age and representation. By denying that ageing is a
natural part of the process, we condemn ourselves to an eternal adolescence
(God! No!) and do not acknowledge that our tastes may grow and change. Will
you still want YOUR MTV when you're 80?
Things are changing, however; as the baby boomers of the 1950s and 1960s
move on towards their 'Third Age', they demand the same consumer comfort they
have always done, and also demand the right to see themselves fairly
represented on TV. There have been some high profile representations of the
elderly in recent years (and I'm not talking about Bruce Willis playing Ross's Dad
in "Friends"). US sitcom The Golden Girls is perhaps one of the most famous,
centring on 4 female characters all determinedly over 50 (and it can make Sex &
The City look like Sesame Street - I'd back Blanche over Samantha any day!!!
Just glance through this episode guide to see what i mean). Soap operas too have
their part to play in eroding stereotypes - usually because the audience of soaps
has a relatively high 'grey' segment. Old people can provide a deeply comic
element to television ("I don't believe it!") whilst balancing the humour with
frightening vulnerability and pathos. We're all going to die, after all.
Soap is no exception. Ralph and Harry were the two best characters EVER on
Brookside (Why oh why doesn't www.brookie.com have an archive), Harold gave
us a lot of laughs on Neighbours, and Percy Sugden's cantankerous nature kept
audiences entertained for years on Corrie. Two of the most powerful Old People in
Soap, have, however, been the inimitable Dot and Ethel off EastEnders. Dot has
lived a life that would make Job weep, with a no good bigamist husband, a
murderous junkie son and now Ashley, the grandson from Hell. Ethel, on the
other hand, was a hell-raiser till the end, and even her slide into terminal cancer
could not quell her zest for life. Her dignified death, screened in late autumn
2000, was riveting viewing.
Old people on TV rock. You heard it here first.
Disability in the Media
Semantically, the word "disabled" causes much debate. The 'dis' suffix is a
negative one, implying reversal, and disabled heads a list in the dictionary of
many negative words - disappoint, discard, disconsolate, discourage, disintegrate,
dismay, disrepute etc etc. That same dictionary defines the word "disabled" as
meaning "Made ineffective, unfit or incapable". Quite rightly, those members of
the population who find themselves labelled thus feel tarred with a distasteful
brush. The word implies that they are unfit for anything, that they are incapable
of effectiveness in any field. Verbal codes aside, the iconography surrounding the
word suggests a similar plight, hence the European Union symbol:
Here is someone who is not simply "in" a wheelchair (are all disabled people in
wheelchairs? I think not...), but who relies on the structure of the chair to give
them arms. It is small wonder that the word "disabled" immediately connotates
wheelchairs, and concepts such as broken, dependent, pitiable etc etc.
Given the semiotics of the situation, it is small wonder that media representation
of the disabled is limited and laregely stereotypical. if the word "disabled" can be
represented in such a simple symbol as the one above, we are reducing a large
and diverse group of human beings to something less complicated than your
average roadsign. While great strides have been made in recent decades in the
representation of gender and race, there are still many prejudices attached to the
representation of disability.
Or difability - the differently enabled, as our PC friends would have us speak.
Images of the Dis/Difabled
In magazines, the only images of the disabled we tend to see are those in charity
advertisements, and their disablity is the main focus of the representation. Often
we are encouraged to pity the person represented, or give them support in
another way. Ideologically speaking, dis/difabled is not considered sexy, and does
not sell stuff. More power then to Benetton, with their use of a Downs Syndrome
Disabled sport is seen as a very poor relation to its so-called able bodied
counterpart. The Paralympics receive a derisory level of coverage (and, oddly
enough, sponsorship... hmmm) but you can check out their website here.
Likewise in the movies, disability is seen as a great storyline - one to inspire pity
in audiences and Oscar nominations from your peers. Think Tom Cruise in Born
On The Fourth of July (Best Actor nom, Best Director win), Russell Crowe in A
Beautiful Mind (Best Actor nom, Best Picture win), Leonardo di Caprio in What's
Eating Gilbert Grape (Best Supporting Actor nom) and Audrey Hepburn in Wait
until Dark (Best Actress nom). These actors are applauded for their fine
performances, as though the representation of disability were a particularly
dangerous and skilful thing. While Tom Cruise is prepared to strap himself into a
stunt wheelchair, genuinely dis/difabled actors do not get major parts. Amputees
get good work in Hollywood as stunt persons, particularly when a film such as AI
needs limbless people to attach prosthetics to, but their name is never going to
go on the marquee. This is fundamentally wrong - we can only accept the
beautiful people pretending to be incapacitated. Is this the equivalent of white
actors 'blacking up' to play Othello?
Yet there are exceptions: stand up comedian, actor and model Francesca
Martinez suffers from cerebral palsy but sees no reason why she should not follow
a career in showbiz. A successful actress, with several seasons of Grange Hill
behind her, she has won awards for her comedy. Read an Observer interview with
her here, and check out her profile on the Grange Hill site.
One of the most popular representations of disability on TV in recent years has
been South Park's Timmy, the rebel in a wheelchair. DVDs featuring Timmy-
based episodes sell well, as does the Timmy plush doll (featuring a detachable
wheelchair). Timmy suffers from hydrocephalus, is misdiagnosed as having ADD,
and is only able to say one or two words (initially, just his own name, but he
graduates to being able to utter the name of his beloved pet turkey - Gobbles).
Timmy's Home Page (Unofficial)
• Paddy Doyle - lively view of the representation of Disability, and among
other things, Sex
• Ed Jupp - A disabled actor who actively campaigns for equal opportunities
in the entertainment industry. He has appeared in a whole range of
movies and TV shows (links from his site).
Gender is perhaps the basic category we use for sorting human beings, and it is a
key issue when discussing representation. Essential elements of our own identity,
and the identities we assume other people to have, come from concepts of
gender - what does it mean to be a boy or a girl? Many objects, not just humans,
are represented by the media as being particularly masculine or feminine -
particularly in advertising - and we grow up with an awareness of what
constitutes 'appropriate' characteristics for each gender.
You will find a thorough academic introduction to the topic here and a full set of
You can construct your own table of 'typical' male/female characteristics, as
perpetuated by the media. Try to list at least ten for each.
Typically masculine Typically feminine
How might the following objects be 'gendered' through advertising, given that
both sexes will use the product?
n • toilet
• a sports • bottled
g pape • deodorant?
• cigarettes? y • trainers? • an airline?
Sport (as those of you who did GCSE Media will know) is one area where there is
a gulf between the representation of male and female participants. Read what
Year 11 had to say about gender issues and the recent Olympics coverage here.
It is undeniable that the media shapes our conceptions of what it means to be
male or female. We encounter many different male and female role models in the
course of a day's media consumption. The issue is, that although these different
role models may at first glance appear to be very varied, do they actually
represent enough of a range of men/women? Are we simply given variations on a
stereotype that become sub-stereotypes in themselves? By adopting role models
and parading them through the media as people it is desirable to 'be', are we
stunting individual growth?
Read about the British government's role model campaign here. Do you think it
has had any effect?
Representations of Femininity
Feminism has been a recognised social philosophy for more than thirty years, and
the changes that have occurred in women's roles in western society during that
time have been nothing short of phenomenal. Click here for a brief set of
definitions. Yet media representations of women remain worryingly constant.
Does this reflect that the status of women has not really changed or that the
male-dominated media does not want to accept it has changed?
Representations of women across all media tend to highlight the following:
• beauty (within narrow conventions)
• size/physique (again, within narrow conventions)
• sexuality (as expressed by the above)
• emotional (as opposed to intellectual) dealings
• relationships (as opposed to independence/freedom)
Women are often represented as being part of a context (family, friends,
colleagues) and working/thinking as part of a team. In drama, they tend to take
the role of helper (Propp) or object, passive rather than active. Often their
passivity extends to victimhood (see the discussion of the misogynistic
PantyRaider below). Men are still represented as TV drama characters up to 3
times more frequently than women, and tend to be the predominant focus of
The representations of women that do make it onto page and screen do tend to
be stereotypical, in terms of conforming to societal expectations, and characters
who do not fit into the mould tend to be seen as dangerous and deviant. And they
get their comeuppance, particularly in the movies. Think of Alex Forrest (Glenn
Close) in Fatal Attraction or, more recently, Teena Brandon/Brandon Teena
(Hilary Swank) in Boys Don't Cry. America seems to expect its women to behave
better than their European counterparts - British viewers adored the antics of
Patsy & Edina in Absolutely Fabulous, but these had to be severely toned down
(less swearing, NO drugtaking) for the US remake, High Society (which was a
Discussions of women's representation in the media tend to revolve around the
focus on physical beauty to the near-exclusion of other values, the lack of
powerful female role models, and the extremely artificial nature of such
portrayals, which bear little or no relation to the reality experience by women
across the planet. It would take almost a whole A-level course to cover these
representations and the issues surrounding them in depth (if interested, do
Womens or Gender Studies at uni), but you might want to start by reading the
• Women's Body Image in the Media
• Media Report to Women - a roundup of issues
• Images of Women in Computer Games - a discussion of PantyRaider
• Raw Nerve - Offensive representations
• Deadly Persuasion - the power of advertising (lengthy, but worth a read)
• The secrets of marketing to women - the startling econmic truth
Representations of Masculinity
'Masculinity' is a concept that is made up of more rigid stereotypes than
femininity. Representations of men across all media tend to focus on the
• Strength - physical and intellectual
• Sexual attractiveness (which may be based on the above)
• Independence (of thought, action)
Male characters are often represented as isolated, as not needing to rely on
others (the lone hero). If they capitulate to being part of a family, it is often part
of the resolution of a narrative, rather than an integral factor in the initial
equilibrium. It is interesting to note that the male physique is becoming more
important a part of representations of masculinity. 'Serious' Hollywood actors in
their forties (eg Willem Dafoe, Kevin Spacey) are expected to have a level of
'buffness' that was not aspired to even by young heart-throbs 40 years ago
(check out Connery in Thunderball 1965).
Increasingly, men are finding it as difficult to live up to their media
representations as women are to theirs. This is partly because of the increased
media focus on masculinity - think of the burgeoning market in men's magazines,
both lifestyle and health - and the increasing emphasis on even ordinary white
collar male workers (who used to sport their beer-gut with pride) having the
muscle definition of a professional swimmer. Anorexia in teenage males has
increased alarmingly in recent years, and recent high school shootings have been
the result of extreme bodyconsciousness among the same demographic group.
``He [Charles Andrew Williams] e-mailed us and told us that he just wanted to
come home and that it was just awful over there. They were teasing him, calling
him 'country boy.' He didn't dress right, he didn't look right. He was skinny, they
called him gay,'' she [a friend's mother] said. " Full Story Here
As media representations of masculinity become more specifically targeted at
audiences with product promotion in mind (think of the huge profits now made
from male fashion, male skin & haircare products, fitness products such as
weights, clothing etc), men are encouraged (just as women have been for many
years) to aspire to be like (to look/behave in the same way) the role models they
see in magazines. This is often an unrealistic target to set, and awareness of this
is growing. Read about the increasing influence of men's magazines here and
Whilst some men are concerned about living up to the ideal types represented in
magazines, others are worried by what they perceive as an increasing anti-male
bias in the media. There is growing support for the idea that men are
represented unfairly in the media - read a selection of articles here and here.
• Masculinity in Crisis - essay
• Journalism of Gender
• Masculinity in advertising - essay
• Men & Magazines - site maintained by PhD student Ross Horsley
This constitutes the representation of individuals from a certain geographical area.
This geographic area isn’t defined in size but by the setting or area a certain show
takes place in. For instance, friends takes place in New York, how do these characters
represent New Yorkers or how do certain settings and situation represent life in New
York. Does it seem true to the city they are living in or are they
masking/misrepresenting the city. This is very interesting to analyse when the creator
is an outsider, a stereotypical representations can easily be formed; Rumble in the
Bronx. Regional identity can be seen