Stuart Hall’s Representation theory

*this was an essay I wrote as a college assignment but I feel in light of recent events in the US, it’s actually very relevant and topical*

Human society does not exist in a vacuum. We are products not only of our gender, social status/class, background, ethnicity, and religion but also from a media perspective, we are consumers and therefore influenced by what we watch, see and hear on TV, radio, the internet and on signs and billboards.  Everything from who you vote for in an election to what you’re reading and/or listening to , the games you play, the TV programmes you watch and the car you drive is influenced by the media. Much of what we perceive to be our culture and our values is determined by the media. We believe we have free will and the ability to make choices but in reality, perhaps what we have is the illusion of choice. After all, much of what we watch on the news and read about in the newspaper is controlled and we are ‘fed’ a narrative, a version of the whole picture. What newspaper you buy or subscribe to, what films or TV programmes you watch determines what narrative you believe.

In a post-truth era,  where facts are simply deemed ‘alternative truths’, Stuart Hall’s Representation theory is important and relevant because it forces us to re-examine our relationship with the media and  to critically consider not only what we are consuming but also why certain media present information in a particular way. Hall’s theory of Representation asserts that facts and events have no meaning in and of themselves; it is the media that take these same facts and events and affix a meaning to them, with varying degrees of accuracy and distortion.  By controlling how information is re-presented, the media are reinforcing a heavily dominant, patriarchal narrative. While this is not true of all media, quite often, depending on what we read or watch, we are subtly manipulated by exposure only to a certain narrative. It is in fact a form of controlling the masses.  The theory draws heavily on stereotypes and what Laura Mulvey, in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” referred to as the “male gaze”.  The problem with this is that the consumer is simply being exposed to the ‘official’ discourse which lacks nuance and stereotypes are reductive, often negative and cliched, failing to account for individual difference. As Dyer, (1999, para.14) states,

“Who does or does not belong to a given society as a whole is then a function of the relative power of groups in that society to define themselves as central and the rest as ‘other’ peripheral or outcast.”

To illustrate the imbalance in this power dynamic, according to Forbes.com, fifteen billionaires own America’s news companies. Jeff Bezos, Rupert Murdoch, Michael Bloomberg and Warren Buffett are perhaps some of the most well-known names on the list. Between them they own the TV channel Fox News, News Corp, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Berkshire Hathaway to mention a few. There are no women or people of colour among the Forbes list of billionaire CEOs. In Ireland, billionaire businessman Denis O’Brien owns  Communicorp which operates Ireland’s largest commercial news radio stations Newstalk and Today FM. O’Brien is also the largest shareholder in the Independent News and Media group, the largest print media group which owns several national newspapers  such as the Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, the Herald and the Sunday World. The US Media company, News Corp, owned by Rupert Murdoch also owns the Irish edition of the Sunday Times and the Irish Sun as well as a number of radio stations. Another US conglomerate, Liberty Global, owns Virgin Media Ireland and UTV. When an industry is so dominated by a homogenous and influential group, how can there not be bias and agenda setting?  How can there be anything but a ‘male gaze’ in relation to issues such as politics, race, gender and social issues?

This is very evident in the context of reporting on the Middle East by Western news outlets such as CNN, Fox News and others. What stories are highlighted, how they are reported on and the language used in the reports is a deliberate strategy to assert the superiority of the West. Jaber (2016, p.69) states that,

“Western media represent and sometimes stereotype Eastern cultures and societies as inferior in comparison to Western cultures and societies. They emphasize “the West’s” political, economic, and cultural domination over “the East”. Western media represent the Other to their Western audiences through the use of different terminologies implicitly or explicitly, such as the use of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.”

The 2003 Iraq war took place when an American-led coalition army invaded the country on the pretext of overthrowing the government of Saddam Hussein and “discovering” weapons of mass destruction. This was in the context of George Bush’s “War on Terror” in the aftermath of 9/11.  As we now know, there were no weapons of mass destruction and the “evidence” provided was completely fabricated. In the US, the Iraqi invasion was called “Operation Iraqi Freedom” by the media with the subtext that the American invading forces were the good guys, the heroes and saviours of the oppressed Iraqis. President Bush claimed that Iraq was a member of the “Axis of Evil”, a group of countries that allegedly sponsored terrorism and sought weapons of mass destruction.

As Reilly-Smith (2015, p.62) states,

“The political campaign consisted of a series of stories released to the media by the George W. Bush Administration to convince the public that the continuing war on Iraq was necessary, even though no weapons of mass destruction (ostensibly the reason for the war) had been found.”

In reality, after a protracted conflict which resulted in thousands of civilian and military deaths, many Iraqis stated that they had been far better off under Saddam’s dictatorship than they were after the invasion. However, for TV stations and newspapers reporting on the war, it was a bonanza with US news coverage of the war

“enhanced by embedded reporters, who sent back live pictures of military advances while military commentators on television news programs explained tactics. Steve Schifferes, of BBC News Online, reported on 18 April 2003 that the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News cable channel increased its audience by 300 per cent to an average 3.3 million daily viewers during the conflict.” (Reilly-Smith, 2015, p.62)

The immediate aftermath of 9/11 would certainly have been a bad time to be a Muslim in the US or in Britain and particularly a Muslim with a beard. Muslims from certain countries were regarded with suspicion and mistrust and there was a spike in hate-crimes around this time. Media depictions of Muslims in some newspapers actively reinforced this negative sentiment and interestingly, press releases from Muslim organisations that condemned terrorism received little media coverage. Some publications in Britain such as The Sun went as far as publishing misleading headlines such as “1 in 5 Brit’s Sympathy for jihadis” and The Times claimed Muslims were “silent on terror”. (Versi, 2016).

In more recent years, following the Syrian war, Fadi Jaber conducted research examining the representation of the Syrian Humanitarian disaster in The Guardian and The New York Times. In contrast to the Iraq war where Western journalists reported from the front lines, the global media relied now upon local Syrian citizen journalists and selected and translated “specific quotations and narratives for publication and circulation.”(Jaber, 2016,p.67) The reporting by both newspapers seems more sympathetic to the civilian population and the suffering of refugees but depicts the Syrian security forces and the regime in a harsh light.

The Guardian newspaper intends to represent the brutality of the Syrian security forces and draw the attention of its readers to a particular aspect of the SHD and to emphasize the dominant ontological narratives which narrate the suffering of Syrian residents as a result of the Syrian regime’s brutal actions against Syrian citizens and protesters….In effect, the Syrian narrators in The Guardian’s translated narratives and quotations are represented as victims of the Syrian regime and its brutality, which is dominated in most of the SHD narratives. (Jaber, 2016, p.75)

According to Jaber, The New York Times also emphasized the heavy-handedness of the Syrian forces against civilians and protesters as well as the details of the privations refugees were subjected to. However, they also underlined the simmering ethnic tensions within the country, which to a Western reader, might only serve to reinforce this perception of the Other and underscore the differences between Syrians and Westerners, rather than the similarities.

“It is relevant to mention that some news texts in The New York Times include Syrian citizen journalists’ narratives which contain quotations and phrases that show ethnic tensions such as “we are going to kill them [referring to the Alawites] with our knives”, “I hate the Alawites and the Shiites”, “All the Alawites are security agents. After the revolution, we want to kill them”, and “Sunnis are Muslims, and Shiites and Alawites are the ones who kill us”, and the repetitions of words “Sunnis”, “Alawites”, and “Shiites”.”(Jaber, 2016, p.78)

It’s also worth pointing out that though ethnic or tribal tensions also exist in the West, for instance, between the Democrats and Republicans in the US and between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, they’re never actually referred to by Western media as “tribal” or “ethnic” tensions.

Another loaded issue in the media and one which is often misrepresented is the race issue. In the US, with its history of slavery and institutional racism, it has become very polarised. A common (mis)representation of black people and Hispanics in the media is that of poor, angry, violent criminals. As El-Burki (2017, p.106) states,

“…for many, and in particular for white Americans, media representations provide evidence that makes social inequality appear to be the natural outcome of variations in the culture of different racial groups”.

As a university lecturer and a black Muslim woman, El-Burki seeks to educate her students about cultural racism, a perspective which appears in the media in

“very covert, subtle and context-appropriate ways.”  (2017, p.106)

She states that in the main, her students are from wealthy, white, privileged backgrounds and that interactions with non-whites in their experience are limited to employees in their homes and businesses or their socioeconomic peers, a point which she maintains makes them particularly vulnerable to the messages in the media that perpetuate stereotypical characterisations and the notion of racial equality via race harmony tropes. She goes on to assert that because of these representations by the media, many of her students feel that

“race is no longer a determining factor in the everyday experiences of marginalised groups” and that “a continued experience of inequality is based on personal choices rather than institutionalized inequality.” (2017, p.110).

An incident which occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 highlighted the ugly nature of race relations in the US and the focus of various news organisations reporting on it. A rally by white supremacists to protest against the removal of a statue of Confederate icon General Robert E. Lee became violent when a car was driven deliberately into a crowd of people protesting against racism. White Supremacists clashed with counter demonstrators and thirty-five people were injured at the rally. Three people also died. Afterwards, media coverage differed on what aspects of the incident to cover with left-leaning publications such as The New York Times and CNN emphasizing President Trump’s refusal to condemn the behaviour of the white supremacists after he stated that there were “good people on both sides”. Fox News, a right-wing news channel, highlighted the fact that the ‘alt-left’ bore some of the responsibility in the violent clashes which occurred and in a programme presented by Sean Hannity, defended the President stating that the “Destroy Trump establishment media” were out to discredit  him despite the President “repeatedly condemning” the white Supremacists and the violent acts that took place. Trump, himself no admirer of the media, lashed out at journalists present at a rally in Phoenix for condemning his response to the Charlottesville events, calling them “dishonest” and stating that “they make up stories” and “have no sources”.

Another interesting aspect of the Charlottesville events was how the various media covered the protests and the protestors themselves. There is a general tendency amongst even the relatively liberal sections of the media to see protestors as a ‘public nuisance’ and often depict them as idealistic but disorganised. This is a trope which Ron Bishop examines at length in his dissection of how Time magazine depicts the protestor in their 2011 Person of the Year issue. Citing Todd Gitlin (1980, p.122) he mentions that there was always a general tendency amongst reporters

“to cover ‘the event, not the condition; the conflict, not the consensus; the fact that ‘advances the story,’ not the one that explains it’”

and that often the coverage

 “revealed a near-obsession with counting the number of protesters at each event. Arguments were reduced to descriptions of signs and chants.” (Bishop, 2003, p.3)

While Bishop’s examination of the Time magazine issue concerned protests which had happened around the time of the Arab Spring uprising and how Time had chosen to portray this, there are perhaps some general assumptions that one can make about how protest and protesters are covered by the media. He points out that,

“Journalists marginalize groups that pursue unpopular causes or that challenge hallowed ideas and institutions. Groups lacking money and other resources receive less coverage than well-heeled groups. Activists are portrayed as deviant and erratic and as seeking out violent confrontation with law enforcement (Bishop, 2003; Gitlin, 1980; Hertog & McLeod, 1995; Small, 1994). Journalists tend to interview only the spokespeople for activist groups (Goldenberg, 1975).” (Bishop, 2003, p.2)

If we take that point and reflect on events of the last two years in Ireland and elsewhere around the globe, a year in which Extinction Rebellion protestors took to the streets to raise public awareness and galvinise governments into action on climate change, there seemed to be the perception in some quarters of the global media that the protesters were simply crazy hippies causing a distraction and were not to be taken seriously.  In Dublin, there was a lot of emphasis on the disruption that they were causing to traffic and movement around the city. In Britain and elsewhere, those interviewed by TV and radio outlets were the more idealistic, radical members of the group who were then sometimes depicted as unrealistic and naive in their demands. The founder of the movement Roger Hallham, was reported by The Guardian  (Connolly & Taylor, 2019) and several other newspapers over some comments which were taken out of context about the Holocaust. If any members of the public might have been inclined to agree with Hallham’s environmental concerns prior to this, they just might have been alienated after his comments over the Holocaust…..

Returning to Bishop, he concludes by saying that,

“while Time’s chief purpose was to celebrate the success of recent protests in an attempt to satisfy its readers, it ended up also providing a how-to guide for socially acceptable protest. Achieving cultural relevance now requires that protestors, in short, join the professional ranks. They can do so, Time’s POY issue suggests, by following these instructions derived from the ideology suggested in its content.” (2003, p.7)

What one can draw from this is that there is a particular, socially acceptable manner in which to protest and a template or paradigm that media publications and outlets will often follow when reporting on protests around the world. Whether or not the grounds for protesting in the first place are legitimate or not matter less than the fact that the status quo is being challenged and that, for the wealthy billionaires who control the media in the first place, cannot be a good thing.

One final and important aspect of Stuart Hall’s Representation theory that I wish to examine is how it relates to the depiction of women in the film, advertising and TV industry. I mentioned previously that the largest media corporations were owned by billionaires, all of whom were men and the movie industry, particularly in Hollywood, is also largely male-dominated. This naturally affects how women are depicted. Historically, women have simply been portrayed within the rigid, gender-defined roles society has given them- as mothers, nurturers, care-givers and housewives. This stereotype is very prevalent in laundry adverts, even today. The car industry has often used provocative, scantily clad images of women in TV adverts to sell cars. For instance, in 2013, the French car manufacturer, Renault produced a controversial advert which deployed the use of attractive women dressed only in their underwear to advertise the Va-Va- Voom effect of their new car. The advert was humorous and risqué and the company did produce a similar advert targeted at women where attractive boxer-clad models surrounded the car and flirted with the female driver but in any case, neither advert ever made it to TV screens as there had been numerous complaints about the ‘objectification’ of the women in the first ad.

 In films, particularly those made by Disney and Warner Brothers, women are rarely leads. They’re mostly side-kicks, love-interests and team-members. An actress over the age of 35 will have difficulty getting interesting roles, other than those where she plays the part of someone’s mother. To obtain many acting jobs, a woman needs to be not only persistent, ambitious and talented but also blessed with good looks. The emergence of the #MeToo movement in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment against the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein came about when some actresses revealed how they had been forced to endure unwanted sexual advances in order to obtain movie roles. As Mulvey (1975.p 808) states,

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly.”

In 2009 Disney bought the Marvel franchise for $4.5 billion. The Marvel films are mainly targeted at men and young boys which might explain the prevalence of young, highly sexualised actresses and the dearth of female superhero toys such as Princess Leia and Gamora from “Guardians of the Galaxy”. As Molina-Gúzman (2016, p.440) affirms,

“Hollywood, as a globally dominant producer and purveyor of cultural representations, is a significant site for studying contemporary contestations over ethnic, racial, and gender difference and how those conflicts speak to changes in broader relationships of power. Throughout his scholarship, Hall foregrounded the political significance of studying media representations of differences generally, and ethnic, racial, and class differences specifically”

In a 2015 Guardian article, actress Emma Watson talked about sexism in the film and TV industry saying,

“I have experienced sexism in that I have been directed by male directors 17 times and only twice by women. Of the producers I’ve worked with 13 have been male and only one has been a woman. But I am lucky: I have always insisted on being treated equally and have generally won that equality. Most of the problems I have encountered have been in the media, where I have been treated so incredibly differently from my male co-stars.”

Watson’s comment on how she was treated differently refers to the tendency of many media reporters to focus on her appearance and dress, rather than her thoughts about the film, the role and upcoming projects.

To conclude,  Stuart Hall introduced his theory of Representation in the early 1970s and while much of what he believed to be true about the media and its representation of women and ethnic minorities is still true today, there has been some progress and some alternative narratives and representations. The #MeToo movement and calls for female directors, greater diversity in Hollywood and the movie industry in general is welcome and needed and media news organisations such as Al Jazeera and France 24 offer different perspectives and showcase documentaries and report on issues which are often ignored by mainstream media. Recently, TV programmes such as “Homeland”, “Killing Eve”, “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Watchmen” feature strong female leads and tackle issues such as politics, mental health, oppression, gender roles and race. The Independent film sector also contributes some diverse and worthy products. However, by and large women and ethnic minorities are still vastly under -represented where it counts, at the decision-making level. Until this changes,  it will only be by actively seeking out alternative viewpoints and representations that we will be exposed to them.

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