I got pulled into this sea of opinion by David Buckingham’s post “Reading Rihanna: the burden of representation” and was immediately impressed by a number of statements being made about representation here. The key notion, which I will unpack a little through some of his key quotes, is the idea that representation is not a devisive struggle between binaries. I struggle in teaching representation to not have student make statements which can be paraphrased as “therefore this is good” or “therefore this is bad”. Getting them to understand the nuance in any text is a challenge, one which Buckingham suggests also exists for the mainstream media commentators.
The controversy itself is symptomatic of what I have called the ‘opinion economy’: the premium is on strong opinions, instantly and forcefully expressed, rather than any more nuanced consideration of the issues.
I really like the idea here of the opinion economy. There’s a commercial element here. A headline that screams a particular angle will get far more readers than a headline that suggests it will be a fair and reasonable account of all the relevant issues.
while most conservative critics confine themselves to raging against the immorality of the behaviour that is shown, more liberal critics are preoccupied with the politics of it all…As this implies, much of the debate takes the form of a litmus test. Either the video is revolutionary and empowering, or it is degrading and woman-hating. Either it is a manifestation of oppression, or it is a critique of it. And if it is not one thing, it must surely be the other…one of the recurrent rhetorical moves in this debate is to silence one’s opponents by invoking the checklist of oppression and thereby challenging their right to speak.
This idea recalls my recent visit to see Best of Enemies (which I briefly reviewed here). One of the key themes running through the documentary was the devisive state of American politics where the Democrat Vs Republican split has eroded the space required for genuine debate and issue navigation.
The problem here lies in the assumption that one can extrapolate directly from a reading of the text to an assertion about how an audience will interpret it – and by extension what (political, moral or psychological) effects it will have. A positive message (as identified by an expert critic) will have positive effects, while a negative one will have negative effects. And while we (the experts) might be able to identify a range of possible interpretations and hidden subtexts, the average person is only going to read it in one way. Yet without any evidence from audience research, all such claims are groundless.
I’ll be sharing this quote with all my student before they write about representation. The need for evidenced based investigation of the effect of media representation is essential to engaging with the nuances of any media text, rather than launching into the “checklist of oppression”. This is a huge challenge, one that I’m looking forward to when I teach the representation of the family unit in US Sitcoms later this term.
A key task for media educators is surely to encourage students to question the terms of debates like this – to identify and challenge the underlying assumptions, to seek out better evidence, and to move beyond the endless rehearsal of instant opinions.