Representation is a key term when applying critical discourse analysis to pop culture texts. It’s a term with several interrelated meanings.
The primary use of the term refers to the depiction of an identity group in a text. So, we’re talking about how women are portrayed in movies. And we are asking two main questions:
How are women represented in a given text? (i.e, How are women portrayed?)
Are women represented at a rate that matches actual demographic realities? (i.e., If women make up half of the total population, are the demographics of a television show or film representative of that reality? Are half the characters women?)
The second question brings up the ideas of under-representation and over-representation. If a group is under-represented, that means the group does not appear in a cultural text at the same rate it does in the actual population. For example, if a television show has ten characters and only two of them are women, that show is under-representing women. If a television show has ten characters and eight of them are women, that show is over-representing women.
Under-representation is a particularly notable issue in CDA. Groups who are not depicted in popular culture are not given a place in the cultural imagination. This can have significant effects on the kind of legislation that governments pass because voters and legislators alike will not tend to support measures to help groups that are seen as insignificant, marginal, or culturally silent. This is just one explanation of the potential impacts of under-representation. Many arguments exist in this area.
While under-representation is a significant issue, the quality and character of a group’s representation is a more common subject of comment and debate.
For instance, a film that depicts women as strong and heroic may be praised for its positive representation of women. When young girls watch the film, they are presented with a message that is empowering. Boys are affected too as they are given an image of women that may shape their attitudes about gender, leadership, and strength.
A film might be criticized on the opposite grounds. If a super-hero film were to depict every female character as a person in need of help – as a person who needs to be saved by a man – critics might say that this is a negative representation of women, training young girls and boys to believe that women are weak and incapable of acting on their own behalf.
One of the goals of Critical Discourse Analysis is to educate people about the impacts of representation and highlight the power of pop culture texts to influence the collective values and imagination of our society.
The aim is not to find new ways to criticize movies, television shows and music videos. Rather, the aim is to help us all learn to see how these texts convey values implicitly. Those values are often communicated through representation.
Identity Categories = Demographic Groups
- Racial Groups
- Gender and Sexual Orientation Groups
- Geographic/Regional Groups
- Religious Groups
- Age Groups