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Thinking about representation

Understanding the role of conflict and change in providing a strong structure to your story is vital, but they come with a variety of critical implications.

Pitting characters or themes against each other, giving shape to adversity and to overcoming it, guides how we look at or upon characters or themes. Put simply: the creation and resolution of dramatic conflict often relies upon and reinforces stereotype and the status quo, intentionally or not. There are a number of ways of thinking about this.

In this step we’ll visit the key ideas and theorists associated with unpicking questions of ‘representation’ in film. We talk about cinema and film but these theories apply just as much to your creating of your short film for digital audiences.

Defining the ‘baddie’

Where in Week 1 we noted the familiar representation of the hero in Hollywood film, we can now add to this the fact that the ‘baddies’ in film have tended to come, historically, from certain groups. There are a whole range of examples but, to name but a few, think of the independent woman of 1940s and ’50s film noir or the European/non-white male of 1980s and ’90s action cinema.

A still from a black and white film. A domestic living room scene. Walter perches, looking at Phyllis who sits comfortably in an arm chair. Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944)

Closure can often be used to seal the fate of such ‘baddies’ who must be punished for their sins or simply for their non-conformity. The killing of the femme fatale at the end of the story - all the way from Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity to Madonna in Body in Evidence - carries with it the full force of a return to moral order and re-balancing of gender as the required ultimate equilibrium.

Structure and representation

Thus structure can be seen as ‘ideological’. It privileges certain characters, qualities and experiences, in highly conventional and socio-political ways. In other words, we cannot think about story structure - about determining its journey and resolution - without thinking about gender, race, class etc. This privileging is not just taking place on the surface of the film, in the text, if you like, via characterisation and stereotype, but through what has been thought of as the ‘unconscious’ of the film.

So when we think about getting our audience to connect to a story and its characters - as Week 1 encouraged us to do - we must now consider the implications of the connections that we’ve encouraged.

Male agency and Hollywood cinema

One of the key people to discuss how film ties us into a system of looking which privileges male agency and objectifies women was Laura Mulvey. She was writing in reference to classical Hollywood cinema, in, broadly, the first half of the 20th century, but it is easy and fruitful to apply her ideas to any visual narrative including your own.

In her seminal article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ she explored the ‘patriarchal unconscious’ of film, but for our purposes here, what she called the ‘male gaze’ is all important.1 According to Mulvey, the gaze of the camera objectifies female characters and identifies with male characters and, subsequently, so do we.

The camera trains our look to desire the female and aspire to be the male. So, for Mulvey, the female star is objectified not just through the content of the film but through how she is always framed as a spectacle for ‘erotic contemplation’.2 She is there to be visually or voyeuristically enjoyed: always ‘connoting to-be-looked-at-ness’.3 The male protagonist feeds the story, the female feeds the eye.

Mulvey’s work, much admired and contested, has been hugely influential in understanding the representation of gender and sexuality on the big and small screen. However, there are other important ways to think about the ideological workings of the gaze: how the camera ‘objectifies’ and constructs otherness in relation to alternative coordinates.

Eurocentric cinema

Robert Stam and Louise Spence, writing in the film journal Screen in 1983, focused on how film ‘others’ its characters or subjects along racial and national lines.4 They spoke of the medium’s imperial legacy stemming from the late nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth century.

This legacy determined how photographic technology and early film, both as anthropological ventures and Hollywood narrative, developed precisely as ‘Europe constructed its self-image on the backs of its equally constructed Other - the “savage”, the “cannibal”.’5

In other words, film as a medium and industry has its roots in an evolving Eurocentric imagery which assumed and reinforced the centrality of the white subject. Such a legacy was later summarised by E. Ann Kaplan as cinema’s ongoing ‘imperial gaze’.6

Reflecting on the points made in this article how does your story negotiate stereotyping?

Also think about how your camera will have us look at your characters, especially those frequently objectified on screen? What might you do to avoid the pitfalls of ‘othering’?

Please share your thoughts on each of these three questions in the comments area.

1. Mulvey, L. (1992) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ [1975], in The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality. London: Routledge, 22-34.

2. Mulvey, L. (1992) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ [1975], in The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality. London: Routledge, 27.

3. Mulvey, L. (1992) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ [1975], in The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality. London: Routledge, 27.

4. Robert Stam and Louise Spence, ‘Colonialism, Racism and Representation’, Screen, 24.2 (1983), pp.2-20.

5. Robert Stam and Louise Spence, ‘Colonialism, Racism and Representation’, Screen, 24.2 (1983), 11.

6. E. Ann Kaplan, Looking for the Other: Film, Feminism and the Imperial Gaze (New York: Routledge, 1997) 78.

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This article is from the free online course:

Digital Storytelling: Filmmaking for the Web

University of Birmingham