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home MS4 Exam Questions MS3 Specifications media texts representations audience REPRESENTATION
The board would like us to study the following:

• the role of selection, construction and anchorage in creating

• how the media uses representations

• the points of view, messages and values underlying those

Candidates will be expected to have studied a range of representations of:
• gender
• ethnicity
• age
• issues
• events
• regional and national identities.

At its most basic, the term 'representation' refers to the way images and language  actively construct  meanings according to sets of conventions shared by and familiar to makers and audiences.

Conventions form part of our cultural knowledge - we know 'what to do' with the media products we come across even if we don't do it - and the conventions used are as familiar to the participants of a particular culture as the meanings they make.  
Assumptions, 'common knowledge', common sense, knowledge, widespread beliefs and popular attitudes are all part of the context of meanings within which representations are produced and circulate.  

They also form the basis of our own cultural knowledge, varied though it may be.  This context and our individual ranges of knowledge, values and attitudes is governed in turn by a system of power that offers varied legitimacy to these meanings, ideas and responses.
In this system, there is an hierarchy in which some meanings come to be dominant and others marginalized.

Approaches to representation incorporate the way the media use conventions, how audiences make meanings from them and how representations work and are used within  a cultural context.

There can be no absolute version of 'how things are' but only many competing versions, some of which are more highly regarded than others in society and hence are circulated more widely.

In looking at the media as 'representation' we may examine the versions that have currency, the elements that are repeated across them and the relation to common-sense definitions we acquire as participants within a culture.  

We study narrative, visual structures, character or whatever, to get at something else - the way in which meanings are offered to us and our part making sense of them for ourselves.
(The Media Student's Book   G. Branston & R. Stafford  1996 copies in the library)


The different questions one might ask of representation have been usefully set out by Richard Dyer in "TV and Schooling"  Put simply:

1    What sense do representations make of the world?  What are they representing to us and how? Semiotics, codes, conventions, discourses, language itself, both semantic and iconic, ideology, messages overt and covert, propaganda, bias, agendas, newsworthiness, censorship.

2    What are typical representations of groups in society? Gender, race, age, religion Stereotypes? Statistically correct?

3    Who is speaking, for whom?  White middle-aged men with degrees, The role of Institutions?  Individuals?  Democracy?

4    What does this example represent to me.  What does it mean to others who see it? Audience   reception theory?   Aberrant  decoding?

Irish stereotypes

If we are to believe the common typing of Irish people they are stupid and 'tick as well as fightin' drunks.
If we are to believe the Irish tourist Board the Irish are the most hospitable people on God's green earth living a lifestyle which is almost Mexican:

Manana, shure ders no word in the oirish that that suggests dat class of urgency..

They are all great talkers (the crack) living their lives entirely in mellow public houses wit' the young ones getting up regularly to "riverdance" like frenzied puppets.

The tourist board has also been typing the Irish countryside itself with its lush rural "forty shades of green" while the rain that makes the lush green is never pictured or mentioned. Clearly the Irish tourist economy needs a stereotype, perhaps all wannabee tourist/heritage nations do, but the simplifications are obvious.
But are they damaging?
This cartoon contrasts Florence Nightingale, the Civil War nurse, with "Bridget McBruiser", the stereotypical Irish woman.
Irish jokes are a class of jokes, generally based on a stereotype of the Irish people as drunkards, dullards, incompetent, sexually naive or overly fecund or a combination of all or some of these characteristics. Such jokes are, perhaps surprisingly, popular in Ireland.
Irish jokes have recently been reclaimed by the Irish themselves and reversed to ridicule the (usually English) joke teller, e.g.

   Q: Why are Irish jokes so simplistic?
   A: So Englishmen can understand them.

What are stereotypes?

“Stereotypes are not actual people, but widely circulated ideas or assumptions about particular groups.  They are often assumed to be 'lies', and to need to be 'done away with' so we can all 'get rid of our prejudices' and meet as equals.  The term tends to be much more derogatory than 'type' (which means very similar things.)…………….

Stereotyping is a process of categorisation necessary to make sense of the world, and the flood of information and impressions we receive minute by minute.  
We are all prejudiced, in its root sense of 'pre-judging' in order to carve our way through any situation………
We all employ typifications in certain situations.  We all belong to groups that can be typified, and stereotyped.”

   (The Media Student's Book   G. Branston & R. Stafford  1996, copies in the library.)
“Stereotypes act as a shorthand for delineating character.  Though they may involve some truth about the social realities of people's lives (Dyer 1993), they are limiting because:

   *    they suggest that particular characteristics are shared by many people

   *    they suggest that these characteristics are part of the nature of these people (that is, they are genetic/biological) rather than connected to any social realities

  *    in many instances stereotypes are used perjoratively by dominant groups to describe subordinate groups.”
(Media and Society  M.O'Shaughnessy  1999. copies in the library)
Branston and Stafford reiterate the second bullet point, putting it this way:

Another key point about stereotypes is that they can take something that is an effect of a group's situation and encourage audiences to feel it is the cause of that group's low status.

The example they give is of the Hollywood stereotypes of black slaves before the civil war.  Two features of the stereotypes were:  a shuffling walk and musical rhythm, and a tendency to burst into song and dance readily.

“To say that these demeaning stereotypes embody a grain of truth may seem in itself insulting, but consider the following facts: Slaves on the Southern plantations on the 19thc would have their calf muscles cut if they tried to run away (the shuffling gait of the stereotype)  and Slaves were given hardly any education or cultural opportunities (Hostile use of the stereotype demeans efforts to make music and dance out of very simple resources to hand.)
Most criticism of stereotypes make the following assumptions:

·    That the Media has a responsibility to be 'realistic' and represent groups of people as they actually are (as if 'reality' actually can be agreed upon.)  Whereas audiences may seek escape etc.

·    That only irrational or ignorant prejudice could possibly account for stereotypes.  Where as creative use of stereotypes can become a celebration of a particular group that members of that group seek to identify with (eg. instead of Ali G encouraging us to simply laugh at gangster rapper wannabes from non-black middle class  British backgrounds he also celebrates and thereby encourages the social phenomena.)

·    That the media has huge powers to socialise people into beliefs (a hypodermic model of audiences) when perhaps audiences are capable, as Tessa Perkins suggests, of holding a stereotype without believing it or acting upon it.

·    That audiences immediately relate the stereotype signifier to the referent.   Where in fact they may be reading the stereotype in relation to other signifiers within a  well understood genre.  (So that when we see Harry Enfield's camp 'suit you' sales assistants we do not take this signifier and relate it to all gentlemen's outfitters, rather we read it within its media framework, looking at how Johnny Depp reacts to it when he has a walk on part and perhaps see it as a logical extension of John Inman's 'Are you Being Served' character.  

Certainly they demonstrate the freedom that the media gives to camp characters to talk crudely about women and sex.  (A freedom that politically correct heterosexual men don't enjoy.)
A Joke?

“I knew it was the mother-in-law 'cause when they heard her coming the mice started throwing themselves on traps”.  

Les Dawson

What factors do you have to consider in deciding whether this joke is 'just a joke' or whether it is also potentially socially damaging?
Top ten stereotypes of black Americans
1933                                1995
1  Superstitious          Athletic
2  Lazy/Slovenly          Rhythmic/Musical
3  Happy-go-lucky       Unintelligent/Ignorant/Stupid
4  Ignorant                 Poor
5  Musical                   Loud
6  Ostentatious           Criminal
7  Very Religious         Hostile
8  Dirty (physically)     Very Religious
9  Naive                     Loyal to Family
10  Unreliable             Dirty (physically)  
Positive  Stereotypes are not always negative.  The Irish tourist board propagates a positive stereotype of Ireland.  A land of friendly drinking, music, greenery and 'the crack'.  This stereotype also helps to sell Guinness on St Patrick's day.

You can hold a stereotype of your own social group they don't have to be about other people.  Ie  We could all use t' ee by gum Yorkshire stereotype and we may even recognise people we know in parts of it - we may even identify with it and find identity/community in it.  Certainly when I'm in the company of Southerners I flatten mi vowels like mi cap!

Oppressed   Stereotypes are not necessarily all about oppressed social groups.  We can have stereotypes of High Court Judges.  (Though they are in positions of power and could complain if they took offence.)

Audiences and Media producers can hold a stereotype without necessarily believing it (or all of it)  We all recognise the 'Hallo Hallo' style Frenchman but we don't believe it.  Perhaps we are more likely to believe stereotypes when we can't readily 'reality check' them  i.e. if you've never been to France and never seen a French film or met a Frenchman maybe you're more likely to believe the stereotype.

Not all parts of all stereotypes are false.  Cowboys do wear hats - although the idea that they ride horses may now be out of date, they perhaps use quads to get around?  (Perhaps the true parts make you susceptible to believing the false parts?)

Complex and Simple   
Stereotypes are not all simple.  The example Perkins gives is of the 'dumb blonde' she is childlike and knowing, innocent and manipulative.

Holding a stereotype and even believing all or part of it does not necessarily make you act in ways that oppress other social groups.  In an extreme example, an audience might hold racist Asian stereotypes to be true but they are not necessarily going to vote NF or abuse actual Asian people.

While it is true that stereotypes often lag behind the times that produced them, it is not true that they are unchanging.  They do adapt and develop as society changes and/or audiences get bored.

Just as not all stereotypes are at the expense of oppressed social groups neither are they all at the expense of minorities.  We have stereotypes of men for example.


1. Stereotypes are always erroneous in content

2. They are pejorative concepts
3. They are about groups with whom we have little or no social contact; by implication, therefore, they are not held about one's own group
4. They are about minority (or oppressed) groups
5. They are simple
6. They are rigid and do not change
7. They are not structurally reinforced
8. The existence of contradictory stereotypes is evidence that they are erroneous, but of nothing else
9. People either 'hold' stereotypes (believe them to be true) or do not
10. Because someone holds a stereotype of a group, his or her behaviour towards the group can be predicted
Nine Qualifications to what seems like common sense about stereotypes:
With italics from Mrs S
Here follows Tessa Perkins' NINE qualifications, we, of course, supply a mnemonic in this case it concerns a very naughty bear but not while in the UK
Tessa Perkins

Academic who scrutinised stereotyping in the media

Paul Marris
Thursday November 4, 2004
The Guardian

In 1987, Tessa Perkins, who has died of cancer aged 62, was appointed a senior lecturer in communication studies at Sheffield City Polytechnic, now Sheffield Hallam University. By the early 1990s, Tessa had become the founding academic in a distinct undergraduate programme, embracing both critical and creative work on the media.

Her academic roots were in sociology. She brought that discipline - and a commitment to creative expression and socialist and feminist politics - to her involvement in film, cultural, communication and women's studies.

Increasingly, Tessa had come to consider questions of the media directly. In 1978 she had written a landmark paper, Rethinking Stereotypes, which is still anthologised today, and her death has robbed us of what she had long been working on, her mature statement on media stereotypes. It was a theme that brought together the strands of her intellectual work: new social movements, identity and representation - and the struggle against the cultural reproduction of the conditions of material oppression.