Representation – How it Works Part One

You already know about representation. Break down the word and you see it clearly. The Media re-presents (i.e. changes or  re-interprets) or constructs meanings about the world we live in.

There are dominant images – shared recognitions or familiar ideas and alternative images – different or unexpected recognitions or ideas.
In order to make sense of this, you need to think about some fairly difficult concepts about how society (the world and the way we live in it) actually works. We will look at two different theories of the way society functions. We call them 'models' and you should remember that they are theories and that not every society works exactly the way the theories suggest it should.
The first model is called a Hegemonic Model. Theoretically this works as follows:


.A hegemony is a system where one group is dominated by another. The dominating group achieves its domination by ‘winning’ popular consent through everyday cultural life.
In media studies terms, this model works by achieving dominance through media representations of the world. The media  ‘tell us’ what to think, what to believe and how our world ‘should be’.

This works through ideology
– a set of ideas which gives a partial or selective view of reality. For example, the ‘powerful’ rule over the ‘poor’ by promoting the idea (the ideology) of privilege and wealth belonging exclusively to a select group of people.
There is an argument that all belief systems or world views are ideological. Beliefs become ‘truthful’ or ‘natural’ and this leads to power inequalities.
The media can circulate or reinforce ideologies OR it can undermine and challenge them 

Ideologies are MYTHIC, i.e. they seem to be ‘natural’ or ‘common sense’ but they aren’t! You can talk about an ‘ideological myth’, or just a ‘mythic idea’.The way myths work is through SYMBOLIC CODES.
Advertising, in particular, draws very heavily on myth in terms of the ‘magical power’ of products.

Try to think of some ‘truths’ that shape Western ideology. (e.g. a woman’s place is in the home) How do these ‘truths’ create inequality in society? Where did the ‘truths’ originate? More importantly, perhaps, WHO made them true?

Look at advertisements in magazines and pick out some of the symbolic codes used to create myths and ideologies. 

Consider the media’s contribution to the idea of ‘Britishness’ What exactly does it mean to ‘be British’?

What are British values?How did they come into being?

Confused yet? Stick around, because it gets worse! The second model we need to recognise is called a 'Pluralist Model'. If you read a broadsheet newspaper or watch BBC 2 News programmes, you might have heard this word 'pluralist' used. It sounds difficult, but just think of the opposite of hegemony and you'll se how it works.


Predictably enough, the pluralist idea is the exact opposite of a hegemonic one. A pluralist model argues that there is diversity in society (everyone is different) and therefore there is also choice (we can choose what to believe and what not to believe.)

 So in media terms, because the audience (society) is diverse, with different points of view, the media is influenced by society. Because the media need to please the audience they will try to reflect the values and beliefs that are predominant in society. In other words, they give us what we say we want rather than telling us what to think and believe, in order to make us stay ‘in our place’. 

The hegemonic and pluralist perspectives are most clearly seen in all kinds of media representation, but the main area is in politics. (Remember BBC 2?)


Look at newspaper and television news representations of a topical issue and try to decide whether the representations of the topic are being made from a pluralist or from a hegemonic perspective. (Don’t be at all surprised if you find both) try to spot the semiotics, the signs and the codes used either to a) dominate/influence from the 'top' or b) include social diversity

Representation and stereotypes

 In simple terms, a stereotype is the application of one (usually negative) characteristic to a whole group. In the North, for example, the stereotypical representation of the native male is one who wears a flat caps and grows leeks, or keeps a greyhound. (If he is aged over sixty) Alternatively, young Northern men stereotypically wear baseball caps, large luridly coloured trainers and black and white Newcastle United sports wear to drive around in their souped-up Fords, with the music playing full blast and all the windows open. (Exaggeration, there, but you see the idea) I just applied several stereotypical ideas to a whole group of people. 

The stereotype is an easy concept to understand, but there are some points you need to consider when looking at media representations with regard to stereotyping. 

For a stereotype to ‘work’ it needs to be recognisable to the audience and when so recognised, then judgements are made about the subject. If the stereotype is negative, then the judgements will also tend to be the same. 

The predictable thing about stereotypes is that they are predictable! They create a sense of order and also provide a sense of identity (even if it is a negative one!)  

Stereotypical judgements and stereotypical media representations can (and often do) lead to different treatments of groups by other groups, (sadly, often quite discriminatory). 

But you need to remember some points: 

Media representation can do one or more of three things: 

Representation and Gender 

If we define ‘male’ and ‘female’ all we are doing is a biological classification, but if we think about the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ we have to think about social constructs. Put simply, the words have very specific connotations of what is ‘natural behaviour’ for each sex. In other words, society has constructed (made) a set of ‘truths’ about what is the ‘right’ way for a man or a woman to behave.
The media, of course, have had a hand in this construction, because of representation, which is an integral part of the encoding of any media text.
Take, for example, the idea that a woman is judged by her appearance more so than a man. If you doubt that this is ‘true’, then look at any text made for women and see how many feature fat women, old wrinkled women or women with greasy hair. You are unlikely to find many and those you do, will probably be featured as ‘sad’, ‘old’ or ‘disadvantaged’ in some way.


Collect a number of suitable media texts that represent women and look at the connotations of the representational codes used. Do the same with male representation and see if there is any real equality between the sexes. 

‘The Gaze’ 

In the 1970s, Laura Mulvey began some very interesting research on the way in which women are represented in film. She theorised that the cinema is largely ‘masculine’ and that women are controlled by the male ‘gaze’. The idea is that a woman’s body displayed on screen, makes the (male) viewer a kind of voyeur, who experiences intense erotic pleasure from looking at her. This ‘controls’ the woman and makes her an ‘object’ of the gaze (the man). You need to remember that the cinema was (and still is) is largely a male-dominated industry, so it follows that men are in control of the making of the cinematic texts – for men!
Before you dismiss Mulvey’s ideas as feminist ranting, think about the pornography industry, where the sole reason for the texts is to look (to ‘gaze’) for erotic pleasure; or the tabloid newspapers with their topless page three models. Who reads them? Who looks? Why?

 The Gaze reversed? 

Until fairly recently, men were not portrayed in the same erotic, overtly sexual way, in order to be looked at and ‘controlled’ by women. On the contrary, ‘masculine’ portrayal was quite ‘respectable’ and usually in the contexts that would not threaten  ‘traditional’ masculinity.In gay culture the male body was openly displayed for erotic pleasure, but it is only fairly recently that the media has begun to represent men as ‘sex objects’ for women to look at. 


Collect examples of ‘male’ magazines, like ‘Arena’ or ‘GQ’, or ‘FHM’. How are male bodies represented? Are the images for the male gaze or the female gaze?

Do the same exercise with some  ‘female’ magazines. Is there a difference? How do you account for the change? 

Gender Roles 

In many media texts you will see specific and very recognisable ‘gender roles’. In other words, men and women behaving, or being portrayed in a predictable or stereotypical way.

In the cinema, for instance, the male hero traditionally makes things happen, while the female is a kind of ‘reward’ for the task being completed. Alternatively, the male hero ‘targets’ the female in some way. This is predictable, and audiences often expect it to be the case.

The female role or a female narrative is often confined to domesticity – she searches for a man or cares in some way for others. Of course this, like so many other ‘traditional’ ideologies, is beginning to change, with roles in some ways being ‘reversed’. Think of films like ‘Thelma and Louise’, or the dreadful Schwarzenegger movie when he becomes pregnant. (So bad I can’t remember the title!) 

In magazines, also it has been traditional for women to be instructed in ways to ‘achieve’ motherhood, or physical perfection. Look at some of the magazines for women from the earlier part of the 20th century and you will see how specifically they target the idea of being a ‘better’ wife, or a ‘perfect’ mother. The basic message focuses quite clearly on ‘Him/Home/Looking Good.’ 

To say that this has totally reversed is not, alas, the case, but there is a move, especially in magazines targeted towards young audiences, towards at least acknowledging that women can be aware of issues such as assertiveness and independence. 

In addition, it can also be seen that there is a current trend in media texts towards the portrayal of ‘weak’ or incompetent males, who are ‘bested’ in some way by strong, assertive females and we must not forget the representation of the ‘New’ or ‘Renaissance’ Man, which arrived in the 1980’s (but seems to have disappeared to be replaced by the ‘New Lad’ of the Millenium!)  


Just for fun, make a list of the current stereotypes of males and females represented in three different generic texts. Look at HOW they are represented, then say WHY you think they have been represented in this way. Lastly have a go at defining audience response to them by AGE/GENDER/SOCIAL BACKGROUND.

© V Pope 2002