Representation | Race/Ethnicity in American TV Dramas

Race is a way of classifying individuals and groups on the basis of physical characteristics, predominantly their skin colour; ethnicity refers to the culture of people in a certain geographical region. Both these classifications are deeply cultivated in media of all kinds, but they are especially visible in TV dramas.

The extract I am going to analyse was taken from the American TV drama The Wire, which aired from 2002 to 2008. In this extract, there are three characters – all young black men. It starts with a fast panning shot, which turns into an establishing shot following D’Angelo as he walks to his friends, Bodie and Wallace. The scene is set on a vacant lot amongst many brick apartment buildings. Music is heard as if playing from a stereo somewhere in the scene, so it is a diegetic sound. It resembles early ‘90s hip-hop. All the shots in the extract appear to be handheld shots, albeit well stabilised.

As soon as the action begins, racial stereotypes come up every second. The three characters all wear clothes associated with African Americans: baggy jeans, hoodies and large dark-coloured jackets. One character is sitting on a broken chair, while the other two men sit on plastic crates. When D’Angelo greets the other two, Bodie hands him a paper bag with money earned from a drug deal – the drug trade is mainly associated, stereotypically, with black people.  Ar first, the three discuss their drug dealing business. The youngest, Wallace, has dreadlocks – another characteristic linked to their race.

Wallace and Bodie are playing checkers on a chess board, for which D’Angelo mocks them and offers to teach them how to play chess. This shows that he is educated to some extent, which society considers unexpected from a man of his race. However, he uses a few heavy swear words in the scene. He explains his friends what the chess pieces can do and what the purpose of the game is: “this the kingpin, a’ight?”, “he ain’t gettin’ no hustle”. This kind of slang is used all throughout the extract, which is another stereotype about the African American race. On one hand, the explanations D’Angelo gives are basic, as if he was talking to a small child, but on the other hand, they are molded to Wallace’s and Bodie’s understanding of the world from their position as drug dealers: the rook, or castle, is referred to as “the stash”. This draws the other men’s interest, as they make remarks about D’Angelo’s descriptions. He then gets to the pawn, “the soldier”, as he calls it after looking at it, reflecting for a second. When he talks about the pawns “fighting”, he slams the one he’s holding on the board, to make it clear that they are bold and courageous (“they like the front lines, they be out in the field”). Bodie refers to the pawns as “little bald-headed b*tches”, but following D’Angelo’s explanation, both him and Wallace start identifying with “the soldiers”. Wallace asks “how do you get to be the king?”, to which D’Angelo replies saying no piece can change what it is, except for the pawn – “he get to be queen” if it reaches “the other dude’s side”. Bodie keeps focusing on getting to the end with the pawn, although D’Angelo says that’s not the goal of the game. The former says “So if I make it to the end, I’m top dog.” Using the first person while talking about the pawn makes it clear that he feels like he is a pawn himself – just another soldier in the drug-ridden area they live in. When talking about “the game”, they might not be referring to the actual chess game, but about the drug game, their everyday reality. D’Angelo states that the pawns “get capped quick, they get out the game early”, to which Bodie replies, while shifting his position on a chair to a more imposing one – “Unless they some smart*ss pawns.” This is how the extract ends, the last line conveying the fact that Bodie wants to do more in life than be a low-life drug dealer, he sees the greater picture and wants to escape from the situation he’s been in, most likely, his entire life.

Panning and tilting shots are used all throughout the scene. Wide and medium dolly shots are used to show the three men during their discussion and many close-ups are used to focus on one character when he is talking. As far as sound is concerned, all sounds used are diegetic – the characters can hear them: car horns, police sirens and helicopters (most likely law enforcement) are clearly audible in the background.

In conclusion, the African American race is represented quite comprehensively in this extract, which manages to encompass a plethora of race-related stereotypes, while also showing that the pattern, the norm, can be broken.

Representation | Gender in American TV Dramas

The extract I am going to analyse is taken from Season 1, Episode 1 of the Netflix original series House of Cards, directed by David Fincher. This is an American drama that first aired in 2013.

Although it is barely a 4-minute extract, it shows 3 women in different positions: a self-confident, powerful woman who supports her husband in his career, a 20-something year old tomboy (girl who exhibits characteristics or behaviors considered typical of a boy), and a secretary who takes her position as a sex object seriously and accepts it.

The extract begins with a two shot of a man (played by Kevin Spacey) and his wife. They both sit on the backseat of a luxurious car which is crusing the streets at night. The woman gives the man fashion recommendations and gives him approval for his choices. Stereotypically, it is considered unusual for a woman to exert power over a man, but this scene breaks that stereotype. The two are seen as equal as they hold hands romantically. Piano music starts playing at that moment, which is a non-diegetic sound.

The scene that follows takes place in the newsroom of the Washington Herald. After showing two men in the office break room / kitchenette, there is a wide panning shot of a young, short woman (Zoe) as she heads towards the aforementioned break room. String music is playing throughout the beginning of this scene. Zoe waits for her boss, Mr Hammerschmidt, to walk out of the room to seem as though she unintentionally bumped into him. He doesn’t even remember her name, although she had been working there for some time. The other man, Lucas, bows his head, ashamed by the situation. Zoe proceeds to ask him, who also appears to be one of her superiors, whether or not Mr Hammerschmidt remembered his name at first: “Did it take him a year to remember your name?” Lucas disproved another gender stereotype when he answered “Longer.” People would stereotypically think that a boss who is so condescending would be more demeaning to women, perhaps not even acknowledging their existence, but the fact that he acts the same towards both genders put Zoe and Lucas on an equal ground.

However, Lucas still is Zoe’s superior, so when she asks to be given a different assignment, Lucas refuses bluntly. During their dialogue, some low-angle shots show Lucas in a position of power. This technique might be used to show that women cannot be powerful, which has always been a common stereotype in society. The fact that she speaks up for herself, demanding to be put on a higher level (to be moved to the online department of the publication – “my own blog, first person, subjective, 500 words”), together wth the strong language she uses at the end of the dialogue, shows that she is not satisfied with her current status and she wants her career to advance. Other than the low-angle shots, some medium close-ups are used throughout the dialogue.

The third and final scene of the extract is about a man, who appears to be a politician – or at least involved in a political party – and his relationship with his secretary. In the beginning, the man, who is tall and bald, walks into his office with his jacket and briefcase in his hand, and is greeted by his secretary with some papers. He is informed that he has an important guest, Mr Chapman, in his office and proceeds to greet him. This is all shot from waist level, with some panning used as the man walks, and some ambiental music is playing (non-diegetic). Mr Chapman seems angry that the man did not comply with some of his requests, while the latter is very calm and friendly during their conversation. Over-the-shoulder shots are used in the dialogue after the man sits down. His secretary calls and he excuses himself to take the call. He acts as if the President-elect was calling, news that change the expression of Mr Chapman from anger to respect. His secretary, on the end of the call, is sensual and sounds like she is sexually turned on, telling him that she “wants” him and describing sexual activities. A close-up shot is used when the woman is shown talking. Stereotypically, secretaries are frequently seen as sex objects, but usually men (their bosses) throw sexual advances at them, not the other way around. Therefore, this is not an entirely stereotypical scene and, once again, shows a woman being in control.

In conclusion, this extract from House of Cards is not a traditional display of stereotypes, but uses some distorted versions of gender stereotypes about women, twisting them so that they might as well be disapproved.

Representation | Class in American TV Dramas

Shameless – Season 2, Episode 10 (click here to watch the extract)

The scene begins with Fiona storming into the room, while the father is sitting on an armchair that is flipped over, snorting what looks like cocaine and grunting. This is a long, handheld shot, that moves from the father to the young woman, as she walks in. A conversation between Fiona and her brother unfolds, both being angry. Over-the-shoulder handheld shots are used all throughout the conversation, some shots being wider to include the father, who is sitting beside the two. During their conversation, a few working class stereotypes are presented: the brother said he had to bail one of their siblings out of jail – frequent encounters with the police are thought to be common amongst lower/working class people. It is obvious that the father has drug problems, but he says he’s late to a meeting – the way he says it while walking out is condescending, showing that he feels he is king of his house. They also have money problems, the young man telling Fiona that Monica (their mother) had spent all the money they saved. When the yelling becomes more intense, showing feelings of despair or fear, the camera sometimes closes up on the face of the person who is talking. As the two walk into the kitchen, with the brother following Fiona, still shouting, the camera follows them, being out of focus for a second. The handheld technique used shows authenticity and, in a way, chaos. The kitchen is extremely messy, with dishes and various objects scattered all over the counter; the brother actually says, with great emphasis, that “the sofa is in the kitchen!”

When she finds out their mother tried to make Ian (their brother) enlist in the army, she runs upstairs to the mother’s room, with tears in her eyes. As soon as the dialogue between Fiona and her brother comes to an end, gloomy guitar music starts playing. When the woman enters her mother’s room, she starts shouting and blames her for what she had done. The mother rolls over in bed, not willing to get up, and starts crying. Fiona goes downstairs quietly and walks back into the kitchen. Right as she exits her mother’s room, a bird’s-eye-view shot is used to show both the mother in bed and Fiona walking out the door. When Fiona enters the kitchen, an establishing shot is used to show her walk in while also showing the clutter and the mess in the room. There are dirty clothes on the sofa, a newspaper, a laundry basket and some clothes thrown on the floor. The counters are again filled with dishes. A worm’s-eye-view shot is used to show Fiona walk towards the middle of the kitchen. A few cuts in rapid succession switch from this shot, to a couple of medium shots and then to a bird’s-eye-view shot. These shots appear to be a bit slowed down, conveying the fact that time is no longer of essence. Fiona starts kicking a washing machine while also crying and grunting, while another quick succession of worm’s-eye-view, bird’s-eye-view and slow-motion medium shots is shown. The kicking ends with a close-up shot of her shoes – fancy high-heeled shoes, another sign of her no longer being a working class woman. She cries while leaning against the washing machine. The music is no longer solo guitar, with a violin being introduced as the scene calms down. Fiona then takes off her jacket and starts cleaning up the kitchen, putting the dishes back into the cupboard. Again, slow-motion shots are used to show the fact that she has a lot of tedious work to do, which will take a lot of time. The camera slowly backs out of the kitchen, showing the entire setting from another room, ending in an establishing shot showing the living room in which the extract started. Once again, the armchair is flipped over, there are chairs on the table and a lot of junk thrown around. This shows the family’s instability and lack of control over their living environment.

The entire house has very warm, but low-key lighting, so it looks dark, eerie and perhaps sad. This, together with the sad music, ties in perfectly with Fiona’s display of emotions and with the family’s situation: a distant father who has a drug problem and always has something better to do than help his relatives, an angry brother who does whatever he can to keep the house together, a depressed mother who finds retreat in the loneliness of her bed, crying and not helping in any way, only making the situation worse (“she tried to convince Ian to enlist”, “you could’ve killed Carl”, “you promised me…”; she had to be bailed out of jail).

Fiona appears to be better dressed than her brother and father and she seems to not know what had been going on around the house, so she must have been away for a while, possibly to try to get our of the life they were all living. In this extract, she acts like the guardian angel of the family, having ascended from the lower class to gain a slightly higher social status.

Examples of Media Remixes

1)  Eminem – Sing for the Moment (song)

  • contains the melody and chorus from Aerosmith’s Dream On;
  • Joe Perry of Aerosmith plays the guitar solo at the end of the song, and a sample of Steven Tyler singing the chorus of “Dream On” is used as the chorus for this song, and Eminem says “sing” when Tyler starts to sing the chorus and Eminem also says “sing with me” and “come on” in the chorus.

2)  A meme:

  • painting of God cropped and added to a color background, then text was added on top

 

 

 

 

3) Graffiti piece changing the wall’s appearance.

Semiotics | Movie Posters

  1. Trainspotting (1996 film)

  • Signifier #1: Man with sweat dripping from his face.
    • its connotation: People who do drugs end up looking like this.
  • Signifier #2: The man’s eyes are colored.
    • its connotation: He is still alive, but just barely.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Fight Club (1999 film)

  • Signifier #1: Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) looking straight into the camera, his hand firmly clasping a bar of soap
    • its connotation: confidence, aggression; his hand is almost in a fist, so it is related to fighting
  • Signifier #2: Main character (Edward Norton) making weird face in the background
    • its connotation: he has gone crazy and he is the master-mind of everything (because he is behind the other character)

 

 

 

  1. Shallow Grave (1994 film)

  • Signifier #1: Three people holding each other, laughing and looking down
    • its connotation: they are plotting something and are not entirely sane
  • Signifier #2: Spiral staircase
    • its connotation: life going down the drain
  • Signifier #3: Woman wearing low-cut top
    • its connotation: sexual attractions

Brief character description and short movie scene

Character description:

I was born in the US to Iraqi parents. For as long as I can remember, kids in school avoided me and girls were afraid to be alone in a room with me.

Although I practise my religious rituals in the privacy of my own home and never bring up topics related to religion in everyday conversations, people instantly write me off as a bad person – a terrorist – just for being Muslim.

Every time I am in an airport, people give me suspicious looks and I am never given the benefit of the doubt when the TSA starts searching me aggressively.

If I sit on a park bench next to an old lady, she usually moves to another bench, just because I have darker skin and a beard.

 

Movie scene:

INT. AIRPORT CHECK-IN DESK

HASSAN approaches the check-in desk and places his luggage on the scale. The middle-aged lady at the desk asks for his passport and calls a coworker to take a look at it himself. When the coworker arrives, she whispers something in his ear and they both look at HASSAN suspiciously.

HASSAN (in perfect English)

‘Is everything alright?’

The lady looks at her coworker and expects him to respond. He looks back at her.

LADY AT CHECK-IN DESK (handing HASSAN his passport)

‘God bless you, son!’