Thus far, we have shared with you a bit about what intercultural communication is, some important concepts, and how scholars study this phenomenon. Now we want to spend the final part of the chapter looking at a major context for intercultural communication—-the media. There are other contexts as well, such as interpersonal relationships and organizations, but we will leave these to your own investigation or in a class devoted to intercultural communication.
Looking at texts or media artifacts (these are specific television shows, films, books, magazines, musical artists, etc.) is both a fun and important area of study for intercultural communication. Since most people spend much of their free time taking in some form of media, such as going to the movies with friends or turning on the T.V. at the end of a stressful day, it is an arena that has a great deal of influence and impact over its audience. As you also remember, the media is also the location and source for much of the critical cultural research.
Specifically, what critical theorists tend to look at are the artifacts of popular, or pop culture? At the time this book first came out, bands such as Creed and Wilco; the television programs Friends, West Wing, and Sex and the City; and the films Bowling for Columbine and The Two Towers were all pop culture artifacts. Now, popular bands, television shows, and movies are very different. Popular culture is defined as “those systems or artifacts that most people share and that most people know about” (Brummett 21). So, while you may not listen to or watch the examples listed, chances are that you are at least aware of them and have a basic idea of the plot or content. Popular culture is distinct from high culture, which includes events such as the ballet or opera, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the L’ouvre, or listening to classical music at the symphony. These activities, unlike the artifacts mentioned earlier all require something to have access. Namely money. Attending the ballet or opera takes considerably more money than purchasing songs on iTunes.
The fact that most of us participate to some degree in consuming popular culture is one reason to study it. Another is that it is an area of struggle for representation—-specifically about cultural identity issues. By looking at the numbers and characterizations of ethnic minorities in television and film we can see the dominant culture’s attitudes about them. This is because the dominant culture is the group in control of media outlets and represents groups in particular ways. Representation refers to the portrayal, depiction, or characterization of particular cultural groups. A related term is that of symbolic annihilation which refers to the fact that “women and minorities are underrepresented in media content and that when they are represented they are marginalized, trivialized, or victimized” (Valdiva 243).
Let us walk through an analysis of a scene in the 2001 film, Spiderman, to illustrate these concepts.
The female character, Mary Jane, is walking home from work one dark and rainy night. She has neither an umbrella nor proper rain gear so her white shirt and clothes are drenched and cling to her. (Prior to this scene she has been portrayed as the “girl next door” with little or no sexuality.) Her path home takes her through an alleyway where she is quickly surrounded by a group of men of color. One of the men pulls a knife and there is the threat of rape or other violent attack. She does not attempt to fight back but is frozen with fear. But as is the case with superheroes, Spiderman arrives just in the nick of time to save the damsel in distress. After he saves her, she and Spiderman, who, while hanging upside down from a building, share their first kiss.
So, what is going on in this scene? Can you identify examples of representation or symbolic annihilation? There are issues concerning both gender and race in this scene. First, she is portrayed as weak, unable to take care of herself, and in need of a man to save her. This is characteristic of images of women in film. Second, in terms of race, the “good guys” or “innocent victims” are White and the potential attackers are nonwhite. This too represents a stereotyped portrayal of young men of color as criminals or gang members. Finally, and perhaps the most dangerous message in this scene, is the equation of female sexuality, violence, and romance. As her white shirt clings to her, her breasts are revealed in a sexual manner, next she is almost attacked, and then she is sweetly and romantically kissing Spiderman. If you were nearly raped by a group of strangers would you be feeling romantic? Thus, this short scene illustrates how images (we did not even discuss the dialogue) work to unfairly and inaccurately portray groups of people.
By looking to the media scholars can discover what images of various cultural groups are prevalent in a society and the stories that are told about various cultures. As active citizens we can make choices about what media images we decide to consume, accept, or reject. As knowledgeable communicators we can critique the images we see rather than accept constructed and artificial media images as normative or “just the way things are.” For as you learned in the first section of the book, language, symbols, and images are not neutral, but are subjective interpretations of a person’s or group of people’s interpretation of reality.