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What is it?

When we talk about representation, we are talking about how people, things, places, religions, nationalities - or whatever - are shown in the Media. It's one of the most studied topics in Media Studies and engaging with it can open our eyes to how the Media works, how society is structured and how we ourselves form ideas about the world.


You will be engaging with questions about how women are represented in the media, or how people from different countries or religions are stereotyped. You might be thinking about how the representations of famous people are constructed or who it is who is actually making these representations and what they are trying to achieve. Most importantly of all, you will start considering the extent to which your own ideas about the world are actually constructons - built, artifical things, often influenced heavily by the Media.


You can see an example here. Although it's being quite facetious, the cartoon makes a serious point; how come Black Widow is sexualised in a way that the male Avengers are not? Why is it funny when we see men forced to pose in the way that women are expected to? Are women simply more 'sexual' than men? Why does anyone believe that? (More on the representational issues in Avengers here.)

What is Representation?

How do we discuss it?

As ever, there is a vocabulary which allows us to discuss the concept. And it's easier if we have an example to talk about.

Another example, this time focused on the representation of gender rather than the representation of race. On the right, there are two images of Keira Knightley which were intended to be used as promotion for the film King Arthur. One has obviously been edited heavily. Images in the press are routinely photoshopped, of course, but there has been much attention paid recently to examples like this where women (usually) are being made more 'attractive.' Why do you suppose people get so annoyed by it? Look at what is actually being changed. What icons are being arranged? What representation is being constructed? What is the underlying message about what it means to be 'attractive'? (You might take this further by considering who the likely audience for htis film and these images is, and whether they are likely to be affected by such representations and the ideas which underpin them.)

Start by establishing the DENOTATION. This is a slightly low-angle shot of a young black man making direct address with the camera and pointing a gun. He is wearing a couple of crucifixes and a holster which appears to be made by  Louis Vuitton. He is heavily muscled and tattooed. The background shows an urban setting. The palette is generally quite dark, with quite dramatic, almost chiaroscuro lighting on his face. A capable student could probably look at the iconogaphy, maybe organising it using Bucombe's theory, and identify this as an image from a gangster rap album.


That, of course, is all the easly stuff. What really matters is the CONNOTATION, that is, what all of this stuff actually means to the viewer. That meaning, basically, is the REPRESENTATION which is being CONSTRUCTED.


Consider a 'representation' as being an idea (or a system of ideas) made up of icons. Can you list some of the icons which create the representation here? A few examples; muscles, the gun, the urban setting. There are several more!


The overall effect of the low angle shot, the direct address, the dark palette, the muscles, tattoos and guns and so on is to create a representation of a threatening man who is prone to violence and who also embodies a strange mix of materialism (the bling) and religious belief (the crucifixes.) Is this  representation of young black men that we are familiar with? Yes, we've seen it a million times, so it's a DOMINANT REPRESENTATION.










Discussing Representation

Representation of gender

When we look at how different people are represented, one of the most basic areas to look at is gender. In recent years, the way gender, particular femininity, is represented in the media has become an extremely controversial topic. There are a few theories and ideas you will need to be famiiar with, and it's easiest to start with some examples.

Here's an exaggerated but fairly typical example of the way that women often get represented in mainstream Western media. Denotation first - a mid shot of a man (Kid Rock), making direct address whilst four women in their underwear stroke him and each other. 


Clearly, the women here are being sexualised. They are all conventionally attractive and assocaited with the iconography of willing sexuality - young, with long hair, good skin and dressed in black lingerie, so they offer a DOMINANT REPRESENTATION of attractiveness. Kid Rock's confidence and bravado suggest a dominant representation of masculinity. 


Additionally, however, the women are shown to be rather subservient and PASSIVE. They depend on the man; they are eager for his attention, and he meanwhile is very superior in the way he ignores them. The shot contributes to this - he gets to be more or less clothed, while they don't, and he gets to look at the camera (connoting confidence) while they only get to look at him. Finally, the women on the left is stroking the woman beside her. This suggestion of lesbianism seems designed to offer gratification to a male audience; there is no chance we will ever see, for example, Kid Rock stroking another man in order to gratify a female audience. 

So, clearly men and women are represented differently and a common complaint is that men are often seen as active, central characters while women are passive and secondary. In traditional Proppsian narratives of, course, the only character type who is generally female is the very passive damsel and distress. Not much has changed, it could be argued. Recently, some people have started applying the so-called Bechdel test to narratives to 'test' for sexism in representations; basically, it asks that there be a scene where two women talk to each other about something other than a man. It's surprising how many films and TV shows fail this rather simple test!


Women, clearly, are often judged primarily on their physical attractiveness and 'attractiveness' itself is not a flexible concept - 'attractive' women are thin, often with exaggerated sexual characterisitics (breasts, buttocks, even lips), with long glossy hair and perfect skin. This is a dominant representation; it is what is 'normal' in the media. Obviously, it's largely impossible for most women to achieve or even come close to this sort of perfection, and when the artificiality of it is revealed, it can cause uproar. When the unphotoshopped image of Beyonce, above on the right, was released, showing that her skin was actually pretty much the same as that of most people, it was considered worthy of much attention.


This insistence that women in the media be 'beautiful' can become ridiculous at times. The Ralph Lauren advert on the right famously photoshopped a model (also seen unphotoshopped on the left) to the point where her head was actually wider than her pelvis. This is a relatively extreme example, but such artificial constuctions of impossible physical standards are absolutely the norm in certain parts of the media; and they can become a problem if audiences, particularly younger, more vulnerable audiences, don't realise that they are actually impossible to replicate in real life. (You should be aware of the concept of AUDIENCE MODELLING whereby audiences copy what they see or read in the media.)



Gender representation in Music Video

Your turn

So, how come women are sexualised in this way and men aren't? One theorist called Laura Mulvey explained it via her idea about MALE GAZE. It's a simple, but very powerful idea; basically, that since the majority of people working in the media are male - the writers, designers, directors, camera operators - then it is to be expected that what they make will be made from a male point of view and with a male audience in mind - that is, with a male gaze. This is not necessarily deliberate, but rather an unavoidable consequence of having an industry dominated by men. (Note: Mulvey was writing in the seventies.  Male Gaze is still an extremely useful theory, but the situation in terms of gender representation in the media and elsewhere has obviously shifted a lot in that time.) Examples are easy to find; look at the Black Eyed Peas video here and you'l be quickly become aware that the woman in the band is sexualised and OBJECTIFIED in a way the men are not. While they are getting ready, she is lounging around half-naked and so on.

So, Mulvey tells us that women are all too often sexualised in media representations. A related idea is the virgin/ whore dichotomy, a Freudian idea which has since been dveloped by various people. This tells us that it doesn't really matter what women do in a narrative since all that actually matters is their sexual behaviour. They are either actively sexual ('whores') or 'good girls' who resist sex or reserve it for marriage ('virgins.') Regardless of what else they do, this aspect will determine whether the audience is positioned to like them or sympathise with them or not. (Note - again, this theory is quite old now. Things have changed a bit!)There is an infamous 'double standard' at play here since women are judged in this way but men aren't. A very obvious example can be found in Taylor Swift's 'You Belong to Me' video. There are two representations of femininity in the video'; one 'good' and one 'bad.' The 'bad' girl is punished for beying openly sexual. The 'good girl' is rewarded - note the symbolic wedding at the end. The man, meanwhile, can apparently do whatever he wants and not be judged at all.

The problem with all of this is that it can lead to artificial beliefs about what women are 'supposed' to be like - if we accept that the media affects the way we think and view to world, then we probably need to be aware that representations are not real; they are artificial constructs and we need to understand that we do not need to live up (or down) to them. In many places, this is regarded as a very real danger; in France, for example, extremely thin models are no longer allowed to work. The focus has been on women so far, but as times change, it should be noted that men are increasingly feeling the same pressures to look a cerain way and match a certain ideal of masculinity. Again, it is largely based on artifice (see the photoshopped pictures of Justin Bieber on the left), and it has been said that a recent rise in eating disorders amongst men might  be related to these relatively new representations.



Alternative representations often pass into the mainstream and become domnant. For example, several years ago it became more common to start representing women as both sexually attractive and confident and dominant. This reflects changes in the ways society thinks about femininity (when we study and discuss how the media reflects social change, we call it, unimaginatively,  REFLECTION THEORY.) Bands like The Spice Girls were completely based on this new idea. They called it 'Girl Power' - Media students call it POSTFEMINISM.

This postfeminist representation, once pretty alternative, is now very dominant. We see it everywhere; women who combine conventional female attractiveness with physicality and toughness more traditionally associated with men. In some cases, the representations are also very sexualised, but in such a way that the woman herself is being actively rather than passively sexual, so we see that women are taking charge of their own sexuality. Jessica Jones is a popular example from television; Bayonetta is a more extreme example from gaming.

dominant and alternative representations

We have focused so far on DOMINANT representations. Obviously there are ALTERNATIVE representations also. An example might be the image on the right; it's taking a lot of iconography commonly associated with men - the powertools, goggles, even the bold 'masculine' font, low angle shot and so on - and applied it to a woman instead.


Alternative representations are sometimes used to distinguish artists or media texts from more mainstream texts; in this way, they might appeal to an audience who don't like to think of themselves as mainstream. Marilyn Manson is a hard rock musician, and this is a genre which is commonly associated with rebellion and, thus, is particularly fond of alternative representations. The image here shows how he has constructed representations of masculinity which involving icons more commonly associated with women.

Dominant and alternative representations

A final example of this postfeminist representation and how it crept into the mainstream as society started to become more sensitive about the way women were being represented can be seen in these images showing the evolution of Lara Croft's character. Note how she goes from being a cartoonish male fantasy-figure to something much more athletic and realisitc; part of this is to do with the avialability of better graphics, but it also reflects changing attitudes (and a growing female audience for games.)

representation of race/ Ethnicity

We also commonly look at the representation of race and ethnicity. Again, it helps to know why this matters, and an example might help. OJ Simpson was an extremely famous sportsman and actor in the US in 1994 when he was charged with the murder of his ex-wife and her new partner. His police photo (on the  far left) was reproduced on the cover of Time magazine, as shown here.

Note how the image has been darkened and shadows added.

Why was this done? The obvious effect seems to be to make him look ‘meaner’ or ‘darker’ and, ultimately, more likely to be guilty of his wife’s murder. This caused an enormous scandal and Time were ultimately forced to issue an apology. Subsequently, laws were introduced making such photo manipulation illegal in the media.

Why was this so offensive? The magazine producers seem to be making a link between Simpson’s colour and violence; the darker he is, the more violent he is likely to be. In representational terms, they are making his colour into an icon - black skin, it seems, indicates violence. Such ideas and representations, of course, have been around for a long time, and it is rather surprising to see a respected publication like Time reinforcing them.

Race and Ethnicity

TOKENISM and MEDIA INVISIBILITY are other issues associated with the representation of different ethnic groups. Traditionally, many groups of peope were simply entirely absent from the Media - it was rare to see black, or Asian, or gay, or disabled people, for example, and when they were represented, it tended to be in very stereotypical ways.


It might still be the case that these groups, and others, are still under-represented, although there is more pressure on the Media to be more representative now. A common problem now is that members of ethnic minorites are used in a TOKENISTIC way, that is, in a thoughtless and ultimately patronising way which is intended to suggest inclusivity where none actually exists. In the Microsoft ad on the right, a black man has been included in the office scene. The company's actual commitment to inclusivity in reality was brought into question, though, when he was photoshopped out for the Polish version. (Unfortunately, they left him with black hands.)


Recent controversy about media invisibility and Oscar selections perhaps shows that the issue of racial representation is becoming more openly discussed.

One aspect of that increased awareness is a backlash against the underrepresentation of Asian actors in mainstream film and, particularly, the failure to think of Asians or Asian-Americans as potential lead roles. One response was 'starring John Cho' - read about it here.

representation of stars

The final area of representation we look at concerns the way famous people are represented. Richard Dyer's STAR THEORY  is the chief idea here. Dyer's idea, focused mainly on his study of movies, was that 'stars' are not 'real people' so much as they are texts, constructed by institutions, designed to appeal to audiences. That is, there is such a person as Justin Bieber, but the person we think of AS Justin Bieber - bratty, talented, rebellious, romantically entangled with Selena Gomez and so on - is almost certainly a media invention. We do not know the 'real' Bieber, merely what we are shown by the people responsible for creating and protecting his image. He is, then, a representation.

Star Theory

With this idea in mind, we might use it to approach texts like that on the left. When his career started, Bieber was represented very much as a young, innocent 'hearthrob.' Everything in his appearance, his behaviour and his music was directed to add up to this PREFERRED READING; it was all controlled, just as we would control the elements in any other sort of text. However, audiences grow up, and so do famous people, and there is only so long we can maintain the young, innocent image. So with texts like this, Bieber and his managers are beginning the process of changing his representation - turning him into a different star, one who will appeal to a different demographic. They appropriate iconography associated with rebellion and punk rock (the jacket, hair, shirt,chain and facial expression are all pinched from Sid Vicious, the most famous punk of them all...) and start a process of changing the connotaions we associate with 'Justin Bieber.' This is when he started to get tattoos, fight with photographers, spit on fans and so on.How much of that was real and how much was all part of a constructed image? That's the point - we don't know, and we are best advised to approach it all as a constructed representation. 

Since pop music is an area which needs to be particularly aware of the changing requirements of their audience, it is easy to find examples of stars who change their image - their STAR PERSONA, Dyer calls it - to match the needs of their audiences. Here, for example, we see how both Britney Spears and One Direction 'grow up' as their careers progress, expressly in order to maintain the interest of their core audience who are also growing up! Again, we see that their personas - the way in which they are represented - is not their actual personality; it is an artificial construct and as such it can be changed at any time.

Star Personas of Jennifer Aniston and Donald Trump.

DISTINCTION* BONUS - dyer's utopian theory

Student Work - Representation in Music Videos

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