The Problem with “Misrepresentation”

Misrepresentation blog post

 Anastasiya Titarenko is a rising Junior pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Religious Studies and minoring in Educational Studies. She is currently living in Accra, Ghana, and will be spending the next six months traveling to Ukraine, Italy, and New Zealand.

“YOU’RE going to AFRICA?!”

“Wow, I’ve always wanted to go to Africa and help the poor.”

“Where is Ghana?”

“Are you going to go on a safari? You better send me pictures.”

There are just a few of the responses I received when people heard that I would be spending five weeks in Accra, Ghana this summer. Americans (and perhaps Westerners in general) have earned a reputation for not being very conscientious of the world, and are said to consider the continent of Africa to be one homogenous entity plagued with poverty, AIDS, and the animals seen in The Lion King. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as “the misrepresentation of Africa,” and is argued by scholars to be the result of twisted literature (i.e. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad), television, journalism, and other forms of media.

If you would like to read more about this “misrepresentation,” I encourage you to Google it. You will find many TED Talks, dissertations, and op-eds on this topic. I, however, would like to explore it from a different (perhaps more unpopular) angle.

To represent something is to reproduce it in a different form. Take, for example, a geographic map, which seeks to reproduce a specific place. Imagine, for a moment, that you were planning to take a self-guided walking tour of Chicago and you needed a map. What would a “good map” look like for this occasion? To start, it would have to be a map of Chicago. It would have to be a convenient size for me to carry around and refer to while walking. It would probably have streets labeled, museums, monuments, and historic places indicated, and perhaps a few good places to eat marked.

These characteristics make it a “good map” only because they serve my interest: they represent the geographic location in a way that helps me navigate the area. The cartographer responsible for the creation of this “good map” – just like any person tasked with the representation of any thing, in any form – must choose what they include and exclude from their representation. Not every tree, blade of grass, stop sign, or house can be included.

If a “misrepresentation” is an inaccurate depiction of something that exists in the world, then to not misrepresent something is virtually impossible. Just like a cartographer developing a map, choices must be made about what to include and exclude in every piece of media.

What is fascinating, then, is that not every piece of media is classified as a “misrepresentation.” I would like to venture to say, then, that the classifier “misrepresentation” is used only when something is represented in a way that does not serve the classifiers interests. It would be like the map for a self-guided walking tour of Chicago lacking street names: it is still a map of Chicago; it just doesn’t look like what you want it to look like.

All of that being said, I am not advocating for everyone to repress their gut-reactions and merely shrug their shoulders when a piece of media represents something in a way they do not agree with. Rather, we should pay attention to these reactions and consider why we have them – consider the institutions we have been a part of and the media we have digested that has impacted our perceptions. Finally, we must consider what our responsibility is in the representations we manufacture.

Whether it is an article about Africa or a map of Chicago, every representation brings with it a set of consequences (some with more at stake than others). When I wear my ‘amateur scholar of religion’ hat, I propose that we refrain from making value judgments on representations and shift our focus to the question of why some representations are considered more legitimate than others.

The “News” Askew

The News Askew Blog Image

Image from Creative Commons: Public Domain

The following is cross-posted from RELephantUA, the class blog for the REL Captsone Seminar. Be sure to check their blog for more great posts studying religion in culture.

By Chris Beacham

Yesterday afternoon, a swarm of protesters marched to the steps of the United States capitol to protest the undue influence of money in politics and corporate lobbying. The group peacefully approached the capitol building, and many were quickly arrested, including a journalist for the popular show “The Young Turks”. There were many reactions on social media, some considering that this could be the beginning of the next “Occupy Wall Street” movement. The revolution that Bernie Sanders has encouraged during his campaign seemed to be percolating. No matter what your politics are, in the United States, it was the most interesting story of the day.

The media did not cover it. Not even a little. I was checking the major news stations as it was happening, and there was no coverage or mention of what was happening. It reaffirmed something to me that has unfortunately been on display throughout the 2016 election: the media is selecting and neglecting, and thus, creating its own narrative. The narratives delivered by each news outlet are constructed for ideological or entertainment purposes. There is a strong argument to be made that unbiased, information-driven news no longer exists.

MSNBC and Fox News are both partisan, and on opposite sides of the political spectrum. This is common knowledge. If my politics are more liberal, there is a good chance I will seek out MSNBC to reaffirm my positions and have my “information” filtered through that ideological perspective. The same goes for Fox News if I am more conservative. For both of those situations, you are selecting a narrative more than selecting an outlet for information.

The irony is that, CNN, the major 24/7 news network that I believe attempts to be politically neutral, is the most problematic. For the past year, CNN has neglected nearly everything else happening in the world and in this country to mostly alternate coverage between Trump, the election, and ISIS. In other words, fear, drama, and more fear. There are few exceptions to this pattern.

Obama gave an interview in Chicago this past week on his Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, and the conflict on constitutionality between him and the Republican congress.  It was an important interview being held at the university where the President previously taught constitutional law. CNN showed the President walking onto the stage, acknowledged this was taking place, and then cut back to talking heads arguing about Trump.

Other news media outlets have excessively covered the election and Trump as well, but they still seem to have retained a balance between election coverage and other significant news that happens every day. However, CNN’s narrative is that the 2016 election is the most important thing taking place in the world right now, and that the center of international concern is a twitter argument between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. CNN is also selecting the most dramatic stories (sometimes repeatedly for weeks), sensationalizing them, and then bringing people on the program to argue with each other for our entertainment. It is not educating, enlightening, or even communicating important information, more than it is creating a worldview and perpetuating it throughout the day.

Recognizing how a narrative is being built is an important facet of learning to deconstruct. Through deconstruction, we take nothing on face value, and contemplate why and how things are being represented. If I were to listen to CNN, I could assume ISIS is close to world domination, the global concern is over what Donald Trump said this week, and Bernie Sanders is too on the fringe to get the democratic nomination. The “news” is not not information, but narratives, and these narratives need to be constantly challenged.

A Tired Old Joke

 New Girl cece and mom

The following is cross-posted from RELephantUA, the class blog for the REL Captsone Seminar. Be sure to check their blog for more great posts studying religion in culture.

By Liz Long

In TV, the same jokes have a habit of popping up over and over again in different shows. Someone falls in love with their work partner. Someone has two dates to the same event. Everyone’s family is dysfunctional. They’re tiring, boring plots that we’ve seen several times before on several different shows.

New Girl recently employed what I find to be the most frustrating and un-funny recurring joke: white guy picks up the wrong non-white woman.

liz blog

Nick picks up the wrong South Asian woman on Fox’s New Girl.

In the season 5 premiere, Nick is tasked with picking up Cece’s mom from the airport. But-shocker!-he picks up the wrong person. Fans of the show will recall that this should not be the first time Nick has met Cece’s mom-ostensibly, he met her at Cece’s wedding in season 2. Despite this, and despite the fact that Cece’s mom speaks perfect English (and the woman he picks up doesn’t speak English at all), Nick manages to basically kidnap another South Asian woman and take her to Cece’s engagement party.

As I’ve said before, this is hardly the first time this joke has been employed. The other scene that sticks out most to me is from Arrested Development, when Michael thinks he’s giving Lupe (also a woman he’s met several times before) a ride to work, but actually picks up a different Latina woman.

Arrested Development Liz Blog Post

Michael picks up a woman who is not actually his mother’s housekeeper on Arrested Development.

Why do we see this joke over and over again? And why are the men in these shows able to completely ignore the fact that the woman in their car is terrified of them?

Racial minorities are frequently made the butt of jokes on television. This joke is yet another example of it. The minority character’s pain is translated into a joke, rather than taken seriously (much like we see in reality!).

New Girl seems to have somewhat of an issue with its portrayal of immigrants. Tran, Nick’s silent, old, Southeast Asian friend, is a perfect example of Jane Iwamura’s “Oriental Monk” trope (a topic which I have blogged about in the past). This is somewhat surprising, given the show’s complex and well-rounded portrayals of several other minority characters (particularly Winston and Coach, two black men, and Cece, an Indian woman). These characters, however, are natural-born citizens. Often, the show uses humor to address the stereotypes assigned to these characters. For instance, in season 2, Winston reminds Schmidt that he is black, regardless of whether or not he fits into stereotypes about black men. Given the show’s history with characters of color, it is possible that this joke is intended as social commentary on the idea that all South Asian/Latino/insert-minority-group-here people look the same. However, in the context of the episode and the show as a whole, it doesn’t appear that this is so. In previous episodes, social commentary was clearly made. By the end of the episode, the joke is flipped back onto the non-minority character. In a sense, it is the non-minority character’s insensitive actions which become the joke, rather than the minority character. In this instance, the joke reversal doesn’t really happen. Nick realizes that he’s picked up the wrong woman, but that’s about all that happens. We never see an apology from Nick to this woman.

To me, this joke represents a trend seen too often in reality. We as Americans fail to listen to minority voices. We don’t even ask for their names. We laugh at our mistakes, but don’t do anything to correct them. But as long as jokes like these remain pervasive in the media, the problem won’t go away. Our treatment of minorities will continue to just be a funny joke.

“Tonight We May be Showmen; Tomorrow We’ll be Servicing Your Cars”

Picture 3A few days ago I was online discussing with a grad of our Department how advertising works in media — i.e., how it is not difficult to understand the content of, say, a newspaper, website, or television as simply serving the role of bringing the eyes of readers or viewers (in fact, let’s just call them consumers) to the ads which finance the medium in the first place. (In this day and age of cable fees and Netflix or Hulu subscriptions it’s likely hard for some to believe that TV was originally just cast broadly, like seeds [aka “broadcast”] over the so-called airwaves for free and anyone with an antenna and receiver [that is, a television set] got it for free.) It’s an old analysis, of course, one I first recall thinking about in earnest when watching, “Manufacturing Consent” back when the film first came out, in Toronto, back in 1992. (The entire documentary is here.)

To sum it up we can quote Chomsky himself: Continue reading