Audience theory


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Audience theory

  1. 1. Exam revision sheet – Media Studies A2 level Q1(b)Audience theoryThe Hypodermic Syringe theoryThis media theory is all about the way an audience receives a text. Essentially, theaudience are passive receivers of media messages that they interpret uncritically.The theory is popular when there is a moral panic, such as the case of JamieBulger, a toddler, who was brutally murdered by two other children. During the courtcase, it was mentioned that one of the boy’s father had rented the film Child’s Play 3in the days leading up to the murder. The tabloid newpapers seized on this andblamed the film for corrupting the two children, despite there being no evidence thatthey had ever actually seen it. The link was questionable at best and ridiculous atworst. Most people can see the difference between reality and texts; only a smallminority indulge in aberrant decoding of texts.A good historical example of the hypodermic syringe effect was when Orson Wellesstaged a radio show that reported in a very realistic way, a Martian invasion of NewJersey and New York on October 30th 1938. Welles warned listeners that theproduction was a fiction based on a work of literature (H.G. Wells’ War of theWorlds), but people who tuned in after the warning thought they were actuallyhearing a real account of an invasion. There were scenes of panic; traffic jamsleaving city centres, and even some looting. The audience were uncriticallyaccepting Orson Welles’ narrative and responding. The day after the show Welleswas forced to make a public apology. One question that needs to be addressed isthat of the influence of context. In 1938 many people expected a terrible war andthere were fears of an impending war, even in America. Did the general air of panic,stoked up by the media, create the perfect setting for Orson Welles’ famous stunt?A good example of a contemporary application of the hypodermic theory is theconnection between anorexia nervosa and media representations of ideal bodies.This has been exhaustively researched for women, but can also apply to men whosee ‘six packs’ and ‘pecs’ as essential and so spend a fortune at the local gym inorder to appear like the idealised versions of masculinity seen in magazines such asMen’s Health.The hypodermic syringe theory is part of a wider media issue called the effects anduses debate. The early exponents of the effects theory were known as the FrankfurtSchool, and they analysed the power of the mass media in capitalist societies suchas the USA and in totalitarian societies such as Nazi Germany. Drawing on Marxistmethodology, the Frankfurt school emphasised the power of the media to influence alargely passive audience; to inject ideologies that supported the status quo andthose who benefited from it – the elite.Connected with the wider effects debate was the growing fear of the influence oftelevision on society in the 1960s. Groups were set up in the US and UK to monitorthe effects violent or sexually explicit material was having on audiences. One suchgroup was the National Viewers and Listeners Association, which has becomeMediaWatch. These groups want to see much greater awareness in the generalpublic about the power and influence of the media in our society.
  2. 2. Exam revision sheet – Media Studies A2 level Q1(b)Another dimension of the effects debate is connected with psychology. The famouspsychologist B.F. Skinner coined the term behaviourism, explaining that people’sbehaviour could be critically influenced by psychological manipulation. If dogs can bemade to drool when a bell is rung for food, could people become more peaceful anddemocratic if exposed to positive messages in the media? Advertisers were quick tosee a profit from modifying consumers’ buying behaviour in favour of their clients’products rather than their competitors’ A famous experiment that was conducted byBandura and Walters in 1963 was the ‘Bobo doll’ experiment. Children watchedadults attacking a doll on film, and were then filmed copying the behaviour when leftalone with a similar doll. Violent behaviour was being learned and refined in theyoung by watching media texts – this was fuel for those who wanted to censor themedia and possibly led to age restrictions on certain violent or explicit material.Critics of behaviourism and of Bandura’s work have pointed out a number ofproblems:Uses and GratificationsThe Hypodermic Syringe theory is generally discredited today. A more recent modelof audience is that of uses and gratifications, which suggests that there is a highlyactive audience making use of the media for a range of purposes designed to satisfyneeds such as entertainment, information and identification. In this model theindividual has the power and she selects the media texts that best suit her needsand her attempts to satisfy those needs. The psychological basis for this model is thehierarchy of needs identified by Maslow. Among the chief exponents of this modelare McQuail and Katz.The main areas that are identified in this model are:a) the need for information about our geographical and social world (news anddrama)b) the need for identity, by using characters and personalities to define our sense ofself and social behaviour (film and celebrities)c) the need for social interaction through experiencing the relationships andinteraction of others (soap lives and sitcom)d) the need for diversion by using the media for purposes of play and entertainment(game shows and quizzes).The active audienceMore recent developments still, suggest that there is a decoding process going onamong the active audience who are not simply using the media for gratificationpurposes.Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding theory says there are three ways audiences caninterpret a media text. Media institutions encode their texts with their ownbeliefs/ideology. These messages are then decoded by an audience. An audience
  3. 3. Exam revision sheet – Media Studies A2 level Q1(b)can choose to agree with the message intended by the producer or view the textdifferently:Preferred reading: The message the producer intends the audience to receive.Negotiated reading: The audience accepts some of the intended message butinterprets some areas differently.Oppositional reading: The intended message of the producer is rejected entirely bythe audience.Mode of addressStill in line with the active audience idea is the concept of mode of address. Thisrefers to the way that a text speaks to us in a style that encourages us to identify withthe text because it is our kind of text. For example Friends is intended for a youngaudience because of the way it uses music and the opening credits to develop asense of fun, energy and enthusiasm that the perceived audience can identify with.This does not mean that other groups are excluded, merely that the dominant modeof address is targeted at the young. Mode of address can even be applied to entireoutputs, as in the case of Channel 4 which works hard to form a style of addressaimed at an audience which is informed, articulate and in some ways a specialisedone. Newspapers, too, often construct their presentation to reflect what they imagineis the identity of their typical readers. Compare The Sun and The Guardian in thiscontext.Male Gaze theoryLaura Mulvey is an academic who approaches media texts, mainly film, with afeminist, psychoanalytical approach; a woman’s point of view and a psychiatrist’sperspective. Mulvey wrote a very influential article called ‘Visual Pleasure andNarrative Cinema’, published in 1975, stating that the representation of women infilms is closely connected with the pleasure men receive when they look at abeautiful woman. This pleasure relates back to the male child’s first experiences of awoman, his mother. Mulvey’s point is well illustrated in the work of the great Britishfilm director, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s women are always beautiful, andstrangely, often end up as passive victims. Male film directors enjoyed depicting thetorture of women because it fulfilled deep seated psychological needs. Many filmswere essentially directed by and for ‘peeping toms’. Mulvey wanted to see morepositive representations of women on the screen, ones that empowered them, ratherthan ones that enforced negative stereotypes of helplessness and dependency.Mulvey identified two ways women are looked at with a male gaze in cinema:Sadistic-voyeuristic - enjoyment in seeing the woman punishedFetishistic - woman as object of fantasy and desireAccording to Mulvey, most mainstream Hollywood film invariably adopts the positionof the male’s gaze: camera shots linger over legs, lips, breasts, but do not follow thesame cinematographic rules when focusing on men. Men are often represented as
  4. 4. Exam revision sheet – Media Studies A2 level Q1(b)active, women as passive. Cultivation theory states that by slowly dripping ideologiesinto audiences’ minds, they adopt them without realising what is happening. Themale gaze is so manifest in many media texts that women are made more passive.Mulvey’s position is that to put the picture straight, male scopophilic (watching)pleasures need to be denied; mainstream Hollywood has to go, to be replaced withavant-garde film making, which can empower women and bring down the patriarchaldominance in media production. When traditional narrative film making has ended itsdominance of the industry, then women can start to create film that embodies thefemale gaze, and audiences will be freed from the shackles of patriarchy.Critics of Laura Mulvey point to the popularity of ‘patriarchal’ texts with both genders;many women are not bothered or even conscious of any male bias in film: they wantto be entertained, not empowered. Similarly, critics such as Carol Clover havepointed out that it is possible to identify positively with female characters on screen –‘the final girl’ in horror films is used by Clover as an example of this. Terje Skjerdalobjects to the way Freudian psychoanalysis is used by Mulvey to understand film,and her dismissal of all mainstream Hollywood production as patriarchal, pointing totexts such as Thelma and Louise (1991) as evidence that gender issues can berepresented positively and can empower women, just as effectively as avant-gardecinema. Some mainstream texts such as Ridley Scott’s horror Sci-Fi text Alien(1979) represent women as powerful, capable and highly competent, in the form ofSigourney Weaver’s Ripley, who alone among the crew of a space ship with a killeralien on board manages to kill the alien and survive. Other critics point out thatMulvey can be seen to reinforce patriarchal heterosexuality by presupposing theviewer is a heterosexual male.