Writing 305: The Politics of Visual Rhetoric

Ella Shohat and Robert Stam: Stereotype, Realism, and the Struggle over Representation

Image result for Stereotype of blacks

Source: www.antiracistresistance.wordpress.com

In their piece, Shohat and Stam expose how marginalized communities are underrepresented in all sorts of media outlets, coining the term for the approach “multicultural media studies.” Performing the analysis across borders, cultural communities and identities, the authors utilize this “cultural syncretism” to propose a new analytical framework.

From the beginning, it is made explicit that the critique is not particularly concerned with distortions of reality, e.g. verisimilitude, although distorted representations do have real-life effect on marginalized groups. This is also affirmed by the fact that such societal groups protest their misrepresentation. However, not all groups protest misrepresentation — sensitivity around representation is appropriate when a particular groups is not able to mobilize social forces / power to resist if it wishes to. The authors proceed to examine the different dimensions of representation: religious, political, and semiotic. These can be traced within institutions and industries overflowing with structural inequalities, such as Hollywood and the film-making industry as a whole.

Interestingly, the authors include a rich section on the limitations of the “stereotype” analytical approach they propose; its pitfalls include essentialization through an excessive focus on imagery, and moralism vis-a-vis a the spotlight being cast on individuals as opposed to a larger group / community. The issue with the latter is that there exists a “penchant for personalizing and moralizing essentially political issues” and that it misinterprets cultural practices and social institutions (811). The authors suggest that media should focus on discourses and voices instead of images and visuals. In this way, “the analytic work would be analogous to that of a “mixer” in  sound studio, whose responsibility is to perform a series of compensatory operations […] (818).

The analysis is substantial and well-structured, and the argument certainly highlights an issue of utmost importance. The authors present convincing evidence, successfully appealing to ethos. In doing so, they might have gone a bit too far with the use of jargon and overly academic vocabulary, making the text a hard read for ordinary people. The sections where sensitivity is analyzed mentions that some groups may not dislike satirical, misrepresenting accounts of their own identity. Unfortunately, the authors never further develop this possibility. Although it makes sense within the scope of the central argument, some readers may see it as a rather weakening element for the rest of the chapter. Additionally, the concluding section, where the authors highlight their suggestions for media, is somewhat shorter than the rest of the text. Moreover, while it addresses the “don’ts” of production of all kinds, it avoids any pragmatic considerations of how such limitations can be integrated into real-world production processes.

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