Describes the signs that stand in for and take the place of something else. It is through representation people know and understand the world and reality through the act of naming it. Signs are manipulated in order to make sense of the world.
This means that media texts 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.
So why do we pay attention to these biased interpretations of reality?
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 reality (your job).
Signs make help us decipher what exactly is being re-presented. Signs are the smallest piece of meaning we can use to decode meaning. Almost anything can act as a sign and more than one sign makes up a code. For example:
Write a list down of all the ways in which you believe a particular social group can be represented.
Gender The representation of men and women. 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.
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. Men are still represented as TV drama characters up to 3 times more frequently than women, and tend to be the predominant focus of news stories.
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.
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 drug taking) for the US remake, High Society (which was a flop).
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.
Male characters are often represented as isolated, as not needing to rely on others (the lone hero). If they submit to being part of a family, it is often part of the resolution of a narrative, rather than an integral factor in the initial balance.
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 growing 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 body consciousness among the same demographic group.
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 & hair care 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.
We quickly deem other people too old, or too young, or criticise them for being immature or fuddy-duddy (conservative and dull). We criticise mature women for going about as mutton dressed as lamb, and young girls for tarting themselves up as jail bait.
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.
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 US sitcom The Golden Girls is perhaps one of the most famous, centering on 4 female characters all determinedly over 50 (and it can make Sex & The City look like Sesame Street.
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 whilst balancing the humour with frightening vulnerability and pathos. We're all going to die, after all.
Ethnicity, 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.
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 .
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...
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.
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. Or are they only concentrating on one tiny part of the population that lives within New York?