Television is that fantastic media phenomenon that provides us with pursuit at the click of the remote after a long day at the office; the cultural artefact that we can all relate to in one way or another. A large majority of us have our ‘favourite’, ‘must-see’ programmes that we religiously tune into; others simply choose to flick through the channels in hope of finding something ‘worthy’ of viewing; while many consciously choose not to watch certain programmes as they dislike them- chances being that their friends and colleagues will be talking about that programme the next day, making it almost impossible to be excluded from the discourses of social ideologies and construction that television presents.
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Each individual produces diverse reactions to television footage; whilst considering the representation of society through television media and flow, only we can conclude what we make of said footage, providing our own encoding of the text, thus possibly coming to a different supposition than another viewer of the text. Meanings are appropriated to the audience in different ways- meanings which are actively produced by the text- and whether we choose to agree with proposed meanings directly affects our own identities and representations.
Firstly I am going to consider how far television is aiming to re-produce human identity and to what extent output creates and reinforces ideologies of UK culture. I will discover how genres of programmes can have a diverse impact on the ways in which we see representation in the UK. Using Baudrillard I will revise how ‘reality’ television can persuade us to conform to a new identity and representation. I will uncover how representations are obtained, and how these might be understood by the audiences.
I wish to discover how constructed ideologies have forced us to accept specific cultural norms and values, and how television might reinforce this theory.
I will also examine how, through the use of language and signs, media representations are understood in UK culture enabling me to gain a broader perspective on how such issues are reflected and how they may influence UK identity today. Using the theories of Hall and Saussure, I will discover how the use of a common understanding of representations enables us to construct identities today.
Finally, I will look at how social class and sexuality are portrayed in television; my reason for this is that not are these matters an extremely apparent dynamic within television output, but it will enable me to correspond to Marxist theory, which I believe hold valid views to the links of power, social class and representation, allowing me to summarise how television output reflects representation.
When considering how evocative television is in the representation of the UK, many points have to be measured. Firstly we have to deliberate what the term representation essentially means. Marsen (2006:12) states: ‘A representation is a constructed pattern or design that describes or stands for something else…A representation could have a likeness with its object or it could be abstract. Language is to a large extent representational because it creates the object that it describes through words.’
Marsen is virtually saying that we construct representations through the discourses of language and dialect that we use in the UK. Relating this to the output of television, it erects the question towards what extent the system of signs within the TV flow represent how we perform as a society; investigating the theory that through the use of our common English language, this holds the basis of our cultural knowledge and understanding.
I will begin by familiarizing Stuart Hall in my essay as I believe his theory of interpretation justifies the reasons behind why we study representation, relating to television output. In his book ‘Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices’, (1997), Hall introduces the theory of the ‘circuit of culture’ in which ‘meaning is constantly being produced and exchanged in every personal and social interaction in which we take part’, (3).
New meanings are being created from the basis of language narratives in the media- establishing unique representations and ideologies.
Lyotard (1979:32) states, ‘the narrative function is losing its functors, its great heroes, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of language narrative elements- narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive…’
Hall (1979) continues with the concept that meaning is also produced by mass media, circulating meanings between different cultures. ‘Meaning depends on the difference of opposites’, (235). We recognise binary oppositions to define the diversity of representations within the world, thus have the ability to compare and criticise what would not seem a standard representation on UK television.
This connects to my initial hypothesis that television representation is reflective on the ideologies we carry out today; not only through the distinctiveness that we ‘conform’ to reflected as an ideology in mass media, but these identities are constantly being re-produced, questioning whether we are also changing to be involved in such identities, thus feeling part of a society.
‘Visual signs and images, even when they bear a close resemblance to the things to which they refer, are still signs: they carry meaning and thus have to be interpreted,’ Hall (18). How signs are decoded by the audience of the UK varies through individual interpretation; television can only produce selected images and sounds, and therefore it could be argued that it eliminates the viewer’s reality, instead providing a representation securing passivity of the audience.
‘One characteristic of the symbol is that it is never wholly arbitrary; it is not empty, for there is the rudiment of a natural bond between the signifier and the signified,’ (Saussure, 1966:68). Through the uses of encoding and decoding, connotations and denotations of texts, as a nation it could be said that because of language, we have in common a general understanding of the mediated construction of representations within television.
There are so many portrayals of identity throughout the UK today such as gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and social class (to name a few), that it is almost impossible to summarise these differences into a single generalised point. We have to ask ourselves who is conducting the representation of culture in television today; and what are the aims of the producer in representing certain characters and themes in specific ways.
Speaking of how television representations often come across as biased and almost undermining, Williams & Williams (2003:67) say ‘in most British television discussions there are indeed some ground-rules, expressed in abstraction in the concepts of ‘fairness’ and ‘balance’, but these are normally dissolved into actual presentation, and given little or no emphasis. What emerges is a representation of the state of ‘informed opinion’, with its own internal differences and nuances.’
Considering the diverse identities that television produces, we must consider what impact this could have on the representational identity of the viewer.
‘Realism in television can refer to an adequate relationship between what television represents and how it is represented.’ (Bignell, 2004:206).
The viewer often becomes involved when watching a television programme. A television drama, for example, often creates a high impact in the emotions of the viewer; through the use of characterising actors to represent the observer in daunting situations, or by representing the character so as to reflect the lifestyle of the viewer. An example of a realist drama is the 1960’s hit ‘Kathy Come Home’, directed by Ken Loach; in an attempt to reflect the daily life of urban UK, it represented the experiences of ‘everyday’. Drama constructs and mediates a sense of everyday identity.
Issues such as the time and channel that the programme is presented on; the ‘target audience’ of said programme or its definitive place in the television ‘flow’ can also provide theories into how television output reflects UK representation.
‘Whereas representation attempts to absorb simulation by interpreting it as a false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation itself as a simulacrum.’ (Baudrillard, 1981:6)
From this quote, Baudrillard (1981) is almost suggesting that although television reproduces representation of ideologies so as not to constantly repeat to the viewer; the repetition of ideologies withholds the notion of representation to the audience, therefore ideologies must be repeated and representations constant in order to keep the viewers understanding of ‘common’ culture. We recognise and acknowledge certain connotations that we distinguish in UK culture as representations.
As Thornham & Purvis (2005:134) state, ‘regardless of social class or gender, sexuality came to be seen as the single-most determining aspect of personal identity. Media output has often been underpinned by a heteronormative ideology.’
Sexuality is often a definitive aspect when it comes to presenting identities; take a look at how homosexual characters are stereotypically presented in genres such as soap operas or comedies; the media often choose to create an identity only representative of cultural ideologies, and therefore does little to reinforce the national representation of homosexuality, as heterosexuality is represented as the norm.
‘We need to see ourselves- all people, not just vanguard intellectuals- as active participants in culture; selecting, rejecting, making meanings, attributing value, resisting and, yes, being duped and manipulated.’ (Storey, 2006:171).
Referring to the quote from Storey (2006), it suggests how the television and the media often successfully attempts to construct our values, feelings and opinions, all through the use of proposing new ideologies upon us, or presenting representations of ambitions we should aim for, and those which we should discard. Therefore, it could certainly be argued that television, in itself, does not represent the UK, but constructs it.
Discussing the how similar the representation of the UK in television is to that of ‘real’ UK life; we must define what we mean by the term ‘real’. Reality is such a vague expression when referring to representation; surely we have no definitive proof what reality truly is.
The ‘granted centrality of identity as a basis for activity, ideologically inflected reviewing of the arts and the increased stress on the role of the consciousness and culture in our general understanding of why and how things are as they are.’ (Dyer, 1993:6). Dyer states that the reason we accept representations as they are is because of our cultural understandings through the use of language. Linking such hypothesis to Ferdinand Saussure and Stuart Hall; without language there is no representation; therefore through the commonality of language we can see the ideologies that we maintain uphold our fascination with the media.
An example would be the representation of a major celebrity within the media; the media constructs the celebrity as a referent to conform to a certain representation, making them appear in a certain way to the audience, thus objectifying the celebrity. When we see a photograph of said celebrity in a magazine, it is not the actual person that we are seeing; it is a representation of that person, shown via text using discourses of ideologies that present a depiction of an identity to the viewer- therefore how can we ever be assured of what reality actually is?
An example of the representation of reality is through the use of documentaries and reality television series such as Big Brother, in which the audience can become actively involved in the production of the show itself. Ideologically represented as ‘truthful’, reality television is still not complete real life- people are aware cameras are being used- and even if they did not know this factor, the definitive fact is that through the theory of ideology, we cannot be sure whether we construct what we deem to be representations of ourselves or we simply conform to expected ideologies, and therefore are never ‘ourselves’.
Documentary on the other hand offers what seems to be contact with the real world which has been dismembered via representation. However, documentaries are still a representation of reality; what we must also consider is that there will never be one collective view from an audience, an audience must always be assumed depending on their social context within society.
Using Baudrillard’s Intervention theory (1981), he speaks of a simulacrum in which he calls the ‘hyper-real’, of which there is no original. Representations of experience are mediated to the audience through the use of imagery; television strives for ‘reality’, reproducing identities and new found representations of how we should live our lives. Individuals then consume lifestyle produce that equate with that ideological representation. The media produce an ‘ideal’ for the masses to conform to.
Contrasting to this is the Marxist viewpoint in which it is argued that television is in fact constructed around the framework of social order; therefore the knowledge and power dynamic patterns often shift between social classes, thus reinforcing representations.
Caughie (2000) speaks of such an instance in new found television drama introduced post 1956, where the central theme was focused around the dislocations of class ability. Caughie (2000:85) states ‘It was a generational identity that seemed new to television, drawing on the culture of commitment and experiencing at first hand the contradictions of class.’ This occurred right up until the first screening of Coronation Street in 1961, thus offering the fact that social class representations were indeed purely reinforced by the media.
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Althusser (1984, cited Purvis & Thornham, 2005:75) speaks of television acting as a ‘hailing’ device towards the audience that is difficult to be separate from. Television interpellates the viewer in such a way that it is difficult for them to turn off, transforming the viewer into a subject shaped by an ideological process of representation.
‘The image which Marxism offers of capitalism is that of a system frozen in its fixed modes of representation, yet mobilising a desire which overturns all representation,’ (Eagleton, 1996:61). Representation of class then, through the eyes of Eagleton (1996) is one which is not only an ‘out of date’ Marxist theory, but is portrayed in the media in such a way that we can no longer escape from these ideologies of class; a collective class consciousness that we are all aware of reflected through television.
‘Representation in the mediated ‘reality’ of our mass culture is in itself power; certainly it is the case that non-representation maintains the powerless status of groups that do not possess significant material or political power bases.’ (Seiter, 1989:131).
Relating this quote to Marxist theory and hegemonic social class; through hierarchies, Seiter is stating that in television, the ruling class- the bearers of existent supremacy- do not request mediated evidence, whilst the working class- those at the lower stance of the hierarchy, are relatively ignored by the media. Prohibiting and insertions of such class judgements holds a direct influence on how we view and decode the representations we are presented with in television today; creating a paradigm where identities and representations are obtained, mediated and reproduced by the viewer.
After examining how representative UK television output is of the identities of the UK itself, I have come to a number of conclusions. Although television often attempts to construct a believable representation of society as it is today, the way that such representations are interpreted depends entirely on how the audience choose to decode the text.
Programme producers constantly need to conjure up new ideas so to keep the general audience interested- this could mean producing new formations of representations that use unexpected ideologies; producers are in competition with one another to cater for the audience’s acquired taste; by playing on representation stereotypes or reinforcing previously implemented ideologies, it involves the audience in some way.
Siegler, (1994, cited 2000:23) states on the bearing of television programmes, it is ‘what makes the whole thing very precise and empirical, and at the same time totally absurd and unpredictable’ that captures the viewer’s attention.
Using the theories of Hall and Saussure, I can see how the cultural understanding of language is vital in understanding how representations can be formed and perceived in contemporary society today. Not only is this relevant in the way we subsist our lives, but is also extremely evident in the production of television programmes. UK television output changes with society; when new ideological norms and values are absorbed, television attempts to reflect this.
Relating this to postmodernism, we can contemplate the fact that television not only reflects ideologies created by culture, but enforces brand new ideologies, forcing additional representations to be formed. Lyotard (1979:39) sees postmodernism as ‘an internal erosion of the legitimacy principle of knowledge.’ Therefore, it is questionable whether postmodern television presents a welcomed world of new representations, or whether it simply offends our already imposed knowledge of ideologies, creating new identities.
He continues, ‘if we accept the notion that there is an established body of knowledge, the question of its transmission, from a pragmatic point of view, can be subdivided into a series of questions: Who transmits learning? What is transmitted? To whom? With what effect?’ (48). This clarifies that it is impossible to know how the audience will decode certain television texts’ thus ultimately it is questionable as to whether television both reflects and produces representations in the UK.
Arguably, I can see to an extent how representations are used to reflect a certain stance on society, but at the same time, using the Marxist theory of social class, I can see how representations can sometimes be enforced negatively, and the viewer can either choose to accept and believe it, or oppose it.
Overall, I can say that television output in the UK can sometimes represent the UK to a certain extent, through the notion of conforming to certain ideological expectations and values. However, in many ways, it creates false representations of identity and confirms stereotypes, promoting certain feelings and creating a false ideology towards the viewer. Reality television also emits false representations of the UK, as it is never real; it is only an edited representation of what we think is real.
UK television therefore is the main bearer and producer of representations within the UK.
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