representation and essentialization

As the final extra credit discussion in the Intro to Mass Media course, I asked a few questions to try and clarify some essential teaching objectives. Three threads have been developing into awesome conversations:
Jen: “my grasp of representaion is how we view a certain (usually a minority group) of people based on the usual, stereotype image of them that the media shows us or is reinforced in our everyday lives via selective intake and selective “remembering” of incidents relating to the continuation of our own bias of a minority taht keep the cycle going and going…thats a bit vague, i cant seem to get it into a good point that comes out and makes sense…anyone else?”


Steph: “Representation is, most simply, about a stereotype, but what makes a representation different than essentialization is that a representation is always a visual image or a spoken statement or even a certain sound that is a symbol for a person (or supposed “kind” of person). Essentialization is always about identity, it’s about the who of someone, while a representation is a what. Does this help?”
Alan: “This reminds of a point I was trying to form during our discussion of Rachel’s topic on rap videos and their content.
We were discussing the representation of rap artists in their music videos and I asked if this plays a role in how this industry, its people, and the music itself is represented and possibly essentialized. We discussed that the individuals in these videos are often depicted in similar ways, with how they often look, act, and talk. I realize that this image is part of the art of rap. But is it possible that this is a false representation created by an industry to draw attention to this type of music. Perhaps not formulated by the artist at all but by the industry record label…who happens to write the checks.
Example: when I flip through the channels and I come across a few rap videos and I hear the artist, talking about money and “bitches and ho’s” and guns and violence; and I see the gold jewelry and the materialistic images of money and cars, I would likely associate “all” rap artists to this same behavior even if the others are saying completely different things. Because this is the norm for some of these videos, these images are the most prevalent, the most publicized and seemingly the most common for our culture. Am I essentializing an entire music genre by visualizing a bunch of fast cars and tons of gold jewelry and women when I hear a rap song? Is this the representation that the rap artist wants or is it promoted by the record label who finds this image to be what sells? Or both?
I enjoy rap music, but I enjoy most of it because of what is being said. Not because of what is being shown. I am afraid that this representation, these images, will hinder others from hearing the same deeply profound lyrical content that I have enjoyed for years from this genre because they have closed their minds due to the stereotypical images that are being promoted and associated to the craft.”
Steph: “I wonder, Alan, if part of what “the message” of rap is, is to get past the visual? Are they wanting us to recognize that the visual is just an image, a symbol, a representation? At the same time (paradoxically?) it is the image that generates their financial success – so of course they continue it and others seek to emulate it.
You are absolutely correct, that if/when the representation becomes “all” that people perceive, and people make judgments based upon the representation, then they are engaging in essentialization. This happens not only via mass media at the macrosocial level, but can also happen interpersonally, at the microsocial level: the very guts of discrimination.”
Steph (a related question that overlaps with the above discussion): “…what mass communication term describes the method used by the FCC to create an essentialized image of Stern? ;-)”
Alan: This “method used by the FCC to create an essentialized image of Stern” is definitely an example of agenda setting. This is the theory that implies media does not tell people what to think, but it tells people what to think about. The theory explains the correspondence between the rate at which media cover a story and the extent that people think that this story is important. The more we hear about the Stern controversy the more we see it as an important topic in our society. At the mere suggestion of indecent on the airwaves by the media it easily becomes a “hot topic” of conversation within the audience. “Is this an issue?” or “Should we be concerned about this?” The media is presenting it as an issue so I must be concerned about it…right?
Jen (edited for grammar): “What I think you are looking for in the answer is like, how does the fcc or any other organization, go about getting people to think a certain way about a person, Howard in this case. How do they get the image, get the image out there and get it to stick? Is that what you mean?”
Steph: Alan spoke of agenda setting, and I was trying to get you (plural) to think of representation. The government “represents” Howard as evil. They use particular language, certain words and phrases, over and over again. That’s what Bush does with all his policy initiatives too. Say it over often enough and people will either come to believe it or at least accept that it’s inevitable.
Alan: Hence…”Shock Jock!”
Where do you think he got that name? This term was created by the FCC and the Christian Coalition to draw negative associations to an entire industry that “they” disagree with. Howard Stern is certainly not the only one, but he’s definitely the biggest target. It’s kinda like the philosophy in an old Star Trek episode…”take out the leader and his minions will collapse around him!”
You know, I certainly don’t agree with everything Howard says. He can be crude and degrading at times. And his politics are often questionable…but when that happens…you know what I do?
I turn it OFF…
Oh yea…That’s right, I said it!
SHHHHHH, Don’t tell anybody.
If the FCC finds out about this concept…heads are gonna roll!
Steph: I agree the simple choice is to not expose yourself to those things you find disagreeable. But/and, there’s another side to “turning it off.” If everyone ignores what they don’t like, is it possible that then they (we?) can’t come to understand those things or the people who do like them?
I’m thinking of trends we discussed in politics – that people gravitate toward those sources with which they already agree, and also of Uses & Gratifications theory. Is it ultimately “good” for audience fragmentation to be so reinforced?
This is reminding me of the distinction between tolerance and acceptance. Tolerance is a kind of putting up with or enduring something not so pleasant. So, when anyone turns Howard off (or Jerry Falwell, or Louis Farrakhan, or any other extremist from the “other” side) it is because we’ve reached the limits of tolerance. In some ways, the availability of diverse views and access to them via the mass media is a tool for building tolerance through exposure.
IF we are exposed! If we refuse to be exposed, or choose not to be, then we inhibit the growth of our tolerance for difference. With limited tolerance, acceptance becomes unreachable.
I’m not saying we need to start listening to Howard (or whoever your “opposites” are) 24/7. But it does seem to me, that if we want to be citizens in a democratic society, we must be able to get past the representations – visual, auditory, linguistic: however we have been conditioned to perceive them.
Alan: “Very good point. I just wonder if by understanding differences and embracing diversity in beliefs/ideals, by exposing ourselves to alternate philosophies rather than utilizing the ostrich theory, are we, as an audience, allowing alternate messages to gradually and unknowingly become acceptable through inundation. More specifically, by opening our ears and our minds to alternate messages (that we would otherwise find unacceptable) are we truly becoming more open to these messages because we have found some truth or reason in them? Or, do we simply become so consumed by their presence that we begin to accept them as fact simply because this is what we are hearing all the time so much so that this “mainstream” information becomes the norm and we over time forget our opposition? This is obviously given in a monopolizing factor where there are no opposing messages or viewpoints. I understand that most of us would not encounter this type of vacuum, but is this a possible scenario?”

One thought on “representation and essentialization”

  1. I completely agree with Alan when he says that “by opening our minds to alternative messages are we truly becoming more open to these messages because we have found some truth or reason in them?” On a macrosocial level, even if we stop listening to these messages, it is the majority of the populatio that is going to keep these messages in a flow. However on the macrosocial level people have the power to choose what they want to hear and what they want to act on. It is our option to follow the path that society sets infront of us of it we want to make our own path. We have to stop and think of how much the power is peer pressure. It is our responsibility to determine how the media is used and what pressures we are going to let bother us. In the transmissional model it is the parents that label their children mindless for they can not distinguish what is right and wrong (life and death). I agree with Baren when he states that “the media does not do things to people, people do things with media.” We need not blame the media for our misundertsnadings about society.

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