Monday, February 27, 2017

Core Post 3: The Limits of Thinking About Representation

The three readings this week deal with race, ethnicity, representation in T.V., and the political stakes those representation holds. In “What Does Race Have to Do With Ugly Betty?” Jennifer Esposito details an episode of Ugly Betty that takes an anti-affirmative action stance. In “The Cosby Show: Representing the Race”, Christine Achman deals with the double whammy of the Cosby Show as a “positive influence” on black Americans but also used as a rhetorical tool for conservative beliefs in meritocracy. Finally, on chapter 4 of “The Transformation of TV”, Herman Gray discusses how Black representation is influenced, in part, by industry standards.
                Obviously, representation is still a huge subject in the entertainment and the art world. As all three articles point out, this is due to the fact that the mainstream entertainment industry lacks diversity, or, when diversity is present, said diversity is usually pernicious stereotypes or used against poor people of color. In other words, representation matters.
                What these articles—and other readings on representation—lack is a more nuance, deeper understanding of the politics of representation; only Herman Gray attempts to complicate this issue, but only sparingly. Representation is a myriad of factors, and should not be just limited to “good representation” or “bad representation” depending on the political stakes; furthermore, the conversation also leads to a myth of progress, as in “Black representation is getting better and better every century” (change does not always mean better, but that’s another argument). As Stuart Hall’s “Encoding and Decoding Television” article points out, what is said and what is read can be two completely different stories.
                So, how does one complicate the politics of representation? Acham and Esposito looks at the social-political-historical context of Ugly Betty and the Cosby Show, and those are a great start. As a person who consistently researches and engages with the politics of representation, I pose the following questions to begin complicating this aspect of research:
-How do we move beyond “good” or “bad” representation?
-In what ways is digital media challenging our notions of what representation is or is not?
-How does power (besides identity power) influence the frames and lens of stories?
-Which stories are considered legitimate and why? What makes a legitimate “black” story?
-Could TV or media ever be radical? What attempts have been made to do so?
-How does the history of U.S. entertainment continue to influence what is seen on the screen? After all, nothing comes out of a vacuum.
-What is the relationships between creator, industry, culture, and consumer?

These are just some of the questions I ask as I continue on my quest to stop limiting myself to “good” or “bad” representation. 


  1. I don't have answers to these awesome questions that you pose at the end of your post but I wanted to jump in and say that I was thinking a lot of the same things going through the reading for today's class. This sort of well-historicized but essentially "good" or "bad" representation in some of the pieces debate seems incomplete. That aspect of complicating what representation means and if it is something to even strive for are questions that I'm interested in my own research as well. I'm especially interested in the power politics at play in the move to urge more queer people, POC, religious minorities etc to tell stories rather than have stories written about them. Would that formation 'fix' the representation 'problem'? I'm not sure. I think that it is partially the powers of production/industry (that you bring up in your last question) that complicate an easy fix. Really interested to talk more about this, great questions!

  2. Thanks for this post, Kadeja. As I’ve been preparing my presentation for this week, I have thought a lot about complicating the politics of representation as well. The questions you pose are good ones (and hard ones) that I am invested in—particularly because representation often masks and organizes political energy around neoliberal and market logics. I agree that Herman Gray perhaps gets the closest to providing sustained nuance in his argument about black representation on television. For another course I took last year, we also read Gray’s other article “Subject(ed) to Recognition” (published in American Quarterly 2013) that makes more explicit how representation is limited and potentially problematic in our contemporary neoliberal moment. He does a great job in the article with tracing how market logics become embedded in the articulation of social relations that politics of representation/recognition bring forth.

    To add to your list, I also want to suggest, perhaps obviously, that regardless of how we engage with the politics of representation, we must also render representation complex and consider the axis of gender and sexuality (alongside class and race). I mention this because I was disappointed in the Esposito piece to a degree. She does a decent job placing Betty’s “latinaness” alongside Marc’s whiteness in order to explore Marc’s. She only briefly mentions Marc queerness as another element—but then almost seems to use it as a soft counterpoint to her own argument. What would have been more rich is if she unpacked how Marc’s queerness helped consolidate his whiteness. This is particularly important given that many queer studies scholars have shown how mainstream (white) LGBTQ politics perpetuate very insidious notions of “justice” both domestically and globally.