Realism & Representation

As you know, every time we come across a media text, we’re not seeing reality, but instead someone’s interpretation of it. The media take something that’s real, manipulated its form to suit a specific purpose, and we end up something very different to the original. This is the process is of mediation (Northallerton College).

An example of this is television show, The Glass House. The punters sitting in the studio audience will see something very different to what ends up eventually getting aired. The seemingly spur-of-the-moment jokes will have been practised repeatedly; the crowd will have been warmed up and trained on how to laugh plus additional audio and computer graphic will have been added in post production. The whole experience of hearing a few John Howard jokes will have been mediated extensively (Northallerton College).

This type of consideration is relevant whether analysing a newspaper or TV news program (and you think to yourself “how true is it?”), criticising a film or television drama (“how lifelike is it?”) or even when evaluating advertisements (“can that stainless steel knife really cut a shoe in half?”) (Dover).

If you look at the definition of the word “media” – which is defined as a medium for carrying or communicating information (Wikipedia 2006) – Chinese whispers, or the telling of a joke springs to my mind. One joke can be told a million different ways by a million different people. More relevantly: one news story can be conveyed very differently by different TV crews or newspaper reporters.

Something worth thinking about though is whether or not it’s even worth raising the issue of ‘realism’ these days? I mean, doesn’t everyone already understand that the reality presented by the media isn’t really real? Isn’t it just a method of intellectualising about forms of fashionable entertainment which weren’t really meant to be read into so deeply or taken so seriously (Dover)? A story of a man getting hit in the groin with a football may have been just a funny narrative in the authors mind, and yet a media studies student will be able to tear the story to shreds and write pages and pages of complex analytical garbage.

That said, it’s probably better to be aware of the prevalence, influence and social effects of the content that’s being (or not being) presented to us as a “real” and “true” (Dover). That way we can develop an understanding of not only how the media operates but also why they operate, retaining a sense of “critical distance” (Dover). Was the film I, Robot made simply to entertain kids or rather to sell more Audi cars, Converse shoes, JVC CD Players and increase FedEx’s clientele? Sociological, political, cultural and ideological influences all determine the way in which the media presents reality to us, as do other influences such as financial and economic factors as shown in the previous example (Dover).

There was a point in the past though, when the term ‘realism‘ was considered outdated and the significance of realist approaches less relevant (Branston & Stafford 2003). Some theories suggested that there is no ‘real’ to represent and that realism is, in effect, just an illusion (Osborne 2001). But now days, with reality TV invading primetime and the insistence of trying to create exact replicas of the past (such as Jackson recreating New York in King Kong), questions of realism have returned with revenge (Branston & Stafford 2003).

With realism back in the limelight, we can once again start to put it under the magnifying glass. One of the main problems concerning realism is the idea that any representation is a selection, and therefore elements have been specifically selected or ignored for inclusion and arranged in whatever manner the creator so desires. For example, in the build up to the 2001 Federal Election the Australian government told the public that a group of Iraqi asylum seekers threw their children overboard, backing their claims with photographs to help fuel the government’s campaign to demonise asylum seekers trying to reach the country. It was later revealed that the public weren’t shown the bigger picture – the refugee’s boat was sinking and no one was in fact thrown in – they jumped.

But even if we were able to include every single itty-bitty detail and possess a completely objective perspective, we cannot convey reality in words because words are just signs – arbitrary signifiers that have no logical relationship to what they symbolize, and therefore cannot clearly and objectively represent reality (Lye 1997). Even the word ‘reality’ has its problems – it’s far too comprehensive and encompasses way too much to be of any real use as well as restricting our very sense of what ‘reality’ actually is (Lye 1997).