Understanding media: The celebrity in the text
Understanding media: The celebrity in the text

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Understanding media: The celebrity in the text

2 Representation and the text

2.1 The semiotic approach to textual meaning

We can talk of the process of meaning-making as one where producers encode information into texts and consumers decode meanings from them (Hall, 1980). This idea of encoding and decoding implies that the process is one-way – producers create texts that are then read by consumers – but movement can occur the other way as well: texts can be created as a response to consumers’ expression of their enjoyment of existing ones and desire for similar texts (which is how producers interpret box-office figures, television ratings or top-ten lists). Features of existing texts, such as their classification into genres (science fiction, or heist movie, for example) or star image, can feed back into production, leading to certain characteristics being emphasised above others. For example, after the unexpected success of Sandra Bullock in Speed (1994), the film While You Were Sleeping (1995) was tailored as a ‘star vehicle’ to capitalise on her popularity and show her ability to play another ‘kooky’ character, but this time in the different genre of a romantic comedy.

It is important in analysing the media and in analysing celebrity not to concentrate only on the highest profile, most ‘important’ instances. We can learn much more about the regular operation of the media and of celebrity by looking at more ordinary, even trivial, cases. To understand this, think about Elvis Presley: we may all have some knowledge of Elvis, but we would learn little about everyday media uses of celebrity by concentrating on such an exceptional case.

Activity 1

Think of how you receive knowledge about and pleasure from celebrities. Is it primarily live or recorded, from performances (sporting, acting, singing) or from interviews or stories about their lives?

Although you may see celebrities physically present at a concert, a play, a sporting event or a political rally, these will almost certainly comprise the least of your encounters. For the most part your encounters are likely to be mediated electronically or through print, and these are the ones we will concentrate on here. As consumers we deal with mediated texts for much of each day; we know how to take information and entertainment from them and how to ignore them. But what do we do differently to analyse them in a more objective way?

One approach is to look at the process by which meaning is made from texts. Many tools are available (see Gillespie and Toynbee, 2006). Semiotics (the science of signs) was the system Barthes used to interpret or ‘read’ texts. This is a highly developed analytic system and we will draw on only a few of its concepts here to aid our analysis. Textual analysis is the main methodology used in this course; it includes semiotics and content analysis, although we shall be concentrating largely on the former. In conducting textual analysis in media studies we slow down our ‘automatic’ reading of a text in order to identify how it is that we make meaning from it, and also how it is that the meaning we make is likely to be similar to that made by other people from a similar culture; we may also look for major potential variants. Textual analysts do not concern themselves with idiosyncratic readings of texts, but look for common or potentially shared meanings. They do not argue that there is a single meaning for each text, but they do look for what the British cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1980, p. 134) calls the ‘preferred’ or ‘dominant’ meaning, by which is meant the one encouraged by the text, the context and the medium in which it is found.

For example, look at the newspaper photograph of the Australian cricket team celebrating a Test series win in the West Indies in 2003 (see Figure 1). The preferred reading of this photograph would probably be that the team is relaxing, having fun after working hard for victory. Since it comes from a newspaper called The Australian, we can also assume that the preferred reading is that the victory was deserved and very much something to be celebrated. However, had the newspaper been West Indian, the preferred meaning may have been different. This is a first indication that textual meaning is contextual, not once and for all. The photograph also comes from the back page of the paper which means that it is categorised as a sporting photograph, even though no actual cricket is shown. At this point we should slow down our reading to recognise that we are not dealing with a universal situation, but a convention. It is the practice of newspapers in the English-speaking, or even the Western, world to put sports news at the back of the newspaper and to regard the back of the newspaper as that which opens on the left, yet this is the front of Japanese and Chinese newspapers. While there is some causal basis for which way a newspaper opens, located in whether the writing system employed runs from left to right or right to left, there is no such causal explanation for the placement of sports news at the back of the paper (it could easily appear in the middle), yet it has become fully naturalised to the extent that those who favour sports over other kinds of news automatically open their (English language) papers from the back.

Copyright © Phil Hillyard/Newspix
Figure 1: Australian cricket team in the sea at Antigua in 2003

It is also a convention that people in newspaper photographs are named, or at least those who are the subject of the photograph are, yet only one person, Steve Waugh, is named here (note that the ‘text’ comprises the photograph and the caption). As the captain he is arguably the most celebrated. He is placed both in the foreground and centrally (the person on the left of the two holding the trophy – the other is the then vice-captain, Ricky Ponting); this placement has encoded him as one of the two most important people in the group and the naming ensures that he gets pre-eminence. Placement is an important element of the photographic code, especially for (semi-) formal shots (think of the main photograph of a wedding party and what it tells us about the relationships of those depicted). Codes are more systematised than conventions – significantly so in the case of the Highway Code, which like many codes is a system of rules.

The next element of the preferred meaning of this text to consider is that it suggests through its use of this photographic code that Waugh is pre-eminently the person responsible for the team winning the Test series. Winning is shown here metaphorically by the trophy that Waugh holds. The trophy stands in for the process of winning, in the same way in which a rose stands in metaphorically for an expression of love. Because trophies commonly represent success, they are frequent components of the image of celebrities. The Oscars are no doubt the most famous, but award ceremonies exist for most fields from which celebrities are drawn, and photographs and television coverage of award-winners provide some of the most common images of celebrity.

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