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Media and the Margins, Thesis Paper Example

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Thesis Paper

What roles do stereotypes and controlling images play in defining entire groups of  people in the United States and abroad?

Both stereotypes and controlling images can be understood as a means by which certain groups in the United States and abroad are conferred particular significations or representations within society. Such signification and representation can be hypothesized as having direct consequences in terms of the positions such groups occupy within society according to the perpetuation of conceptions. In order to understand this process, it is pertinent to understand how such stereotypes and images are formed, followed by the effects of this very formation.

One of the key theories of representation is found in the work of Stuart Hall. Hall’s system provides a lucid approach in which to understand the origin and the perpetuation of stereotypes and images within society. Crucial to Hall’s theory is the concept of representation. Hall’s notion of representation breaks with the traditional concept of representation in order to provide a more rigorous account of the phenomenon in terms of how it functions within society. In the “old view” of representation, the latter is understood as a “reflection/distortion of reality.” (Degiuli, Media and the Margins, 2) This function of reflection and distortion entails that the notion of representation itself already presupposes a certain masking of a truer essence of an individual or group. This traditional approach to representation can break therefore break from the presence of images and stereotypes by “measuring the gap between the true meaning of an even and how it is presented.” (Degiuli, Media and the Margins, 2) For example, representation incorporates a manipulation of the a event through a media event: understanding the true event requires understanding how the media perceives an event and then subsequently thinking this perception in terms of its real meaning. In contrast, Hall’s theory radicalizes this notion by explaining all “representation as constitutive.” (Degiuli, Media and the Margins, 3) The crucial difference between the two accounts of representation is that the latter does not assume some real essence that lies behind the representation or stereotype. In other words, the representation must be understood as creating a certain meaning, which is to say that it is “constitutive.” This entails that as opposed to a true essence, what exists in representations are “multiple interpretations” which “will never have a fixed meaning.” (Degiuli, Media and the Margins, 3) In essence, Hall is developing an account of a more dynamic picture of identity and stereotypes by understanding that there is a multiplicity of interpretations that are created by media and society: as such, the point is not to understand some true meaning that lies covered, but rather to understand how one interpretation of reality achieves dominance over another. Thus, this is what is understood as “signification”, defined as “the practice in which a culture gives meaning to something.” (Degiuli, Media and the Margins, 5) It is precisely images and stereotypes that are the creations of this very practice, which entails that signification corresponds to the meaning society gives to various aspects of society. For example, such signification is prevalent in the portrayal of various ethnic and minority groups in society: Essentially, the dominant interpretation of “ideology and power” constructs a singular interpretation to classify a certain group. Accordingly, this is how the stereotype or the image is formed.

Through an understanding of how such images and stereotypes are formed by the signification and granting of meaning, we can comprehend the extent to which the role of images and stereotypes is to define entire groups. For example, by proposing a particular interpretation as the true interpretation, media can engender stereotypes about a particular group. One example of this in the United States is cited in the academic literature as the television program “Gang Wars”, aired on the Discovery Channel. According to alternet.og, the program perpetuates “dangerous myths and racial stereotypes using sensationalized police footage to depict crimes of poverty.” (Degiuli, The Role of Mass Media, 9) Particularly, the program emphasizes the criminality present in “Black and Latino areas of Oakland, while most of the police officers on the show are white males.” (Degiuli, The Role of Mass Media, 9) From this example, we can understand both how signification works and moreover, the negative effects of such signification on particular minority groups. Firstly, the utilization of media footage in the program – in consistency with Hall’s theory – supports a certain representation that confers a particular meaning, image and stereotype to the minorities depicted in the program: They are shown as representing criminality, essentially committing violent and anti-social acts. According to the emphasis on the criminal activity of blacks and Latinos in the society, blacks and Latinos thus come to signify a negative, criminal Other, one that differs from the representation of whites as representatives of the law. Thus, the negative effect of representation is demonstrated in this example, as such stereotypes associated to criminality come to define a certain ethnic group. We can understand this effect in terms of what Baudrillard would term “hyperreality”: This hyperreality becomes the true reality, much to the same degree as Hall’s theory of representation alludes to how dominant forms of representation come to define members of society. According to Baudrillard’s concept, “what happens on television becomes reality” (Degiuli, The Role of Mass Media, 15) insofar as “television does not just “represent” the world to us; it increasingly defines what the world is.” (Degiuli, The Role of Mass Media, 15) In consequence, such representations and definitions as presented by the medium of “hyperreality” can confer negative or positive statuses to various groups within society, statuses that are then accepted by the populace as representing a true reality. Because of the widespread presence of such media technology, these images therefore play a crucial role in representing segments of the population – and in examples such as the aforementioned television series  “Gang Wars” – these images are ultimately negative.

Thus, we can understand controlling images and stereotypes, in their employment of representation, meaning and hyperreality, as essentially delimiting the possible views of minority groups within a society, often to a radically negative extent.

How has the depiction of Arabs and Arab-Americans changed over time in Hollywood? Please use examples from both the book and the documentary “Reel Bad Arabs”.

One of the exemplary cases of how forms of media are able to represent a people according to the construction of negative meanings and a negative hyperreality is demonstrated in the Hollywood portrayal of Arabs and Arab-Americans. Particularly, the academic literature notes subtle changes in the perception of Arabs within America, according to precise historical and geopolitical events over time: these events thus have a direct effect on Hollywood accounts of Arab-Americans and, in consequence, engender various shifts in representation.

To understand this phenomenon, it is pertinent to comprehend how Hollywood has traditionally worked as a creator of representations. Since Hollywood and film in general offer a narrative form and content, they serve as a prototypical example of a medium that may disseminate certain interpretations of particular groups. Particularly, Hollywood “has contributed to the creation of stereotypes that in turn have generated simplified notions of race and ethnicity.” (Degiuli, Race and Ethnicity, 11) In other words, representations as produced by Hollywood create a bare minimum level of meaning, stripping away complexity in order to describe, for example, specific races, and ethnicities. However, while this stripping away of complexity in itself can be understood as a negative trait, it is also crucial to understand how Hollywood employs social stereotypes as central to their simplifications. Thus “Hollywood has helped the kernel of truth inherent to all stereotypes to become a simplified and over-generalized way to understand entire groups.” (Degiuli, Race and Ethnicity, 11) By exploiting stereotypes that already exist within society, Hollywood essentially takes these stereotypes and makes them central to their depiction of certain racial and ethnic groups. This simplification, therefore, turns a vulgar negative stereotype into a dominant way of defining and understanding segments of society. Moreover, the fact that many of these stereotypes are in fact racial or ethnic in nature, becomes all the more dubious a form of representation, when thought in conjunction with approaches in the academic literature that observe the social construction of race. Particularly, it is the notion of “race as a social construct” that demonstrates how Hollywood essentially perpetuates this own social construction. Insofar as a social construct is defined as “any phenomenon ‘invented’ or constructed by participants in a particular culture or society,” (Degiuli, Race and Ethnicity, 4) this suggests that race and ethnicity are symptoms of stereotypical representations within society: as such, Hollywood can be viewed as a supportive medium for such social constructs.

Such a function of Hollywood as a perpetuator of social constructs – with an emphasis on negative characteristics – is made explicit in the treatment of Arab-Americans after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Before the attacks, the depiction of Arab-Americans was almost non-existent, insofar as they were considered to be an “invisible group.” (Degiuli, Arabs and the Media, 3) After the attacks, however, Arab-Americans subsequently became a “highly scrutinized community.” (Degiuli, Arabs and the Media, 3) This high scrutiny is precisely reflected in the means by which Hollywood has shifted its representations of the Arab-American, as chronicled in Dr. Jack Sheehan’s book and film Reel Bad Arabs. The archetypical example of such a shift is found in Hollywood’s perpetuation of the image of the Arab as terrorist: this is exemplary of how such an increasing negative public significance has been conferred to the Arab American.

Nonetheless, Sheehan stresses that such a negative representation of the Arab cannot merely be traced back to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Particularly, it is  White Europe’s traditional relation to Arabs that foreshadows such representations, insofar as the Arab is represented as the “bad Other” to Europe. For example, according to Said, the European ‘Orientalists’ “have, over time, created a stereotyped image of the East in order to conquer, manage it and define it as Other.” (Degiuli, Arab and the Media, 4) By depicting the Arab in this way, Orientalist approaches in Europe thus created a certain representation of the Arab which was essential to their own geopolitical objectives.

In Reel Bad Arabs, Sheehan emphasizes this continuity of negative representations of Arabs from Europe to modern America in order to understand how such an orientalism is continually operative in the dominant majority’s treatment of the Arab. Thus, various representations of Arabs, such as harem members, nomadic thieves, or in the latest incarnation, terrorists, demonstrate the consistent negativity White Europe and America assign to the Arab, representations, which only differ according to various historical and geopolitical circumstances. In other words, while the various particular contents of the Arab have changed over time, what is crucial to Sheehan’s work is that the general form of the Arab as a negative figure in the European and American consciousness has remained an invariable depiction. Furthermore, after the 9/11 attacks, this negative representation has become more pronounced according to the now lucid role the Arab plays in the media as the primary antagonist of America, in contrast to previous primary antagonists, such as communists. The shift towards an “Islamophobic” consciousness is thus a reflection of how certain negative representations can begin to gain prominence in a society – although such negative representations may always be present – at a given moment according to particular historical and political circumstances.

Explain what the concept of Othering means and, in addition, how some of the minorities we have studied have experienced this process. Please offer specific examples.

The concept of Othering can be primarily understood as a form of representation, stereotyping and role definition within society, according to the appropriation of various socially constructed images of a particular segment of society. Nevertheless, the concept of Othering differs in how it forms representation, to the extent that it creates a profound difference between, for example, a dominant segment of population and another segment of population, as the Other essentially represents the permanent ideological exclusion of the minority segment from what is construed as the mainstream: Concomitantly, this Other contributes to the formation of the identity of this mainstream or dominant group. That is to say, we can understand the concept of Othering as the utilization of two different contents within a singular social construct, such that Othering helps affirm the identity of the majority group, as they begin to define themselves in terms of what they are not, i.e., not-Other, that is, in terms of whatever characteristics or stereotypes they have attributed to the Other.

The concept of Othering designates the absence of what Jurgen Habermas would call a “public sphere.” Insofar as Habermas defines the public sphere as “an area in social life where people can get together and freely discuss and identify societal problems” (Degiuli, The Role of Mass Media, 14), Othering can be exposited as the exclusion of a certain group from this very area of social life. This exclusion is similar to what Habermas would call the “public opinion”, which is created “through manipulation and control”. Hence, the Other appears as Other according to the very manipulation and control of various stereotypes and representations within a society, usually in service to dominant groups, be they ethnic, racial, economic, etc.,.

In this regard, understanding the various experiences of various minority groups is exemplary to understanding the concept of Othering and how the Other is created within society. For example, the experience of African-Americans in the United States can be cited as one of the classical examples of the Other in American society. As Ralph Waldo Emerson notes: “Since the beginning of the nation, white Americans have suffered from a deep inner uncertainty as to who they really are. One of the ways that has been used to simplify the answer has been to seize upon the presence of black Americans and use them as a marker, a symbol of limits, and a metaphor for the “outsider.” (Emerson) What Emerson here identifies as the outsider is perfectly compatible with the notion of the Other: by defining themselves in relation to an excluded African-American community, the white Americans were able to create an identity for themselves through such a negative relationship, that is to say, by defining themselves against some pre-determined social constructive notion of what blacks represent. As Emerson continues, “Many whites could look at the social position of blacks and feel that color formed an easy and reliable gauge for determining to what extent one was or was not American.” (Emerson) As such, the Other was crucial to determining in the eyes of the majority white population the notion of an American – in other words, an American was a non-black. This process, therefore, demonstrates how the social constructive identity of the majority group is just as dependent on a social constructive relationship to the Other as is the identity of the minority group. In essence, all such identities according to the concept of Othering rely on forms of social constructs, representations and meanings, whether they are majority or minority groups.

Roediger notes such a process present in the treatment of White European ethnic groups who were not part of the Anglo-Saxon majority. For example, Roediger observes that only Slavic immigrants “worked blast furnace jobs, which were ‘too damn dirty, and too damn hot for a white man.” (Roediger, 49) Accordingly, the Otherness of these immigrants were defined according to the fact that they held specific jobs that the majority Anglo-Saxon population would not: as such the Anglo-Saxon population is simultaneously defined through the Other, as their identity is defined in the negative terms of what they will not do.

Accordingly, the concrete experience of various groups in the United States demonstrates how the concept of Othering is an active component in the formation and distribution of representations within American society. Nonetheless, it is crucial to not merely understand Othering as the representation of a specific minority group according to a stereotypical identity. Rather, Othering captures the reciprocal part of the representational gesture, as Othering always affirms the representation of the majority group, or the group that perpetuates the representation of the minority, insofar as this majority group thus comes to be defined precisely in terms of what it is not, that is to say, in terms of being the not-Other.

Works Cited

Degiuli, Francesca. “The Role of Mass Media.” CUNY Staten Island,

Degiuli, Francesca. “Media and the Margins.” CUNY Staten Island.

Degiuli, Francesca. “Orient and Its Dangers: Arabs and Islam.” CUNY Staten Island.

Degiuli, Francesca. “Race and Ethnicity.” CUNY Staten Island.

Ellison, Ralph. “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks.” Accessed at: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=574

Roediger, David R. “Popular Language, Social Practice, and The Messiness of

Race.” In: Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White. New York, Basic Books, 2005. 35-54.

Shaheen, Jack. dir. Reel Bad Arabs. Media Education Foundation.

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