Monday, August 24, 2009

Article Reviews - Benjamin Muller

Clark L.S. (2004). U.S. Adolescent Religious Identity, the Media, and the "Funky" side of Religion, Journal of Communication, 52, 794-811.

Lynn Shofield Clark’s article on the “funky” side of religion, demonstrates how the media plays an important role in constructing religious identity for many. Where contemporary religion is rejected due to scepticism or disinterest, entertainment media has provided an alternative means for individuals to reinforce their spiritual and religious beliefs. Clark’s study aimed to analyse how the media plays a role in constructing religious identity.

It is mentioned that some scholars claim that the entertainment media is to blame for the distorted religious beliefs of some young people; however Clark argues that entertainment media provides valuable information just like religious organisations. It is television programs such as The X-Files, The Craft, and The Sixth Sense that act as a resource for religious information and imagination. Clark mentions these programs as she believes that they offer stories “of the realm beyond this world”.

A study comprised of multiple in-depth interviews, involved 262 individuals of diverse religious backgrounds. Some of the participants were interviewed regularly for more than 3 years. Researchers carefully analysed the interview transcripts and other data collected throughout the study.

It was found that the most conservative participants were most likely to separate spiritual and religious themes in the media from their own religious beliefs. On the other hand, for many of the subjects who described themselves as religious, they struggled to clearly articulate the difference between the themes in formal religion and those in the entertainment media. It was found that even when they wanted to create a boundary between media and formal religion, they often discovered that religious themes in the entertainment media were no different to practices, rituals and symbols found in formal religion. Finally some of the participants actively rejected formal religion even though they were very interested in supernatural themes found in entertainment media. One participant explained that some of the religious and spiritual themes in the media seem more “real” than what he found in organised religion.

Clark’s extensive study shines light on the way religious themes in the entertainment media are interpreted by the audience. Even fairly conservative individuals, who actively practice their religious beliefs, struggled to create a clear division between formal religion and the representation of religion in the media. Furthermore it was found that in some individuals who reject formal religions, their religious and spiritual identity and beliefs are constructed almost solely by the entertainment media.

Elliott D, (2003). ‘Terrorists we do like and Terrorists we don't like’, In PM Lester & EE Dennis, Eds., Images that Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media, 2nd Edn, London, Praeger, ch7, 51-55.

Deni Elliott’s article on the terrorists we do and don’t like, blames the media for creating an association between images of Middle-Easterners and terrorism. In this chapter of her book, Elliott argues that it is essential for the audience to be provided an alternate media that is not just serving the government’s agenda.

The media during 9/11 was full of images that provided cues to show the audience how they should feel. Elliott mentions that the most common images from 9/11 are images of the attack and the grief that followed. On the other hand, rather than showing images of the attackers, the ‘enemy’ was presented as images of celebrating women and men, wearing veils and turbans. This sort of imagery is an example of damaging pictorial stereotypes and demonstrates how the media negatively presents a group of people that the government has labelled as ‘evil’.

The symbolic connection that the media has made between a Middle-Eastern appearance and terrorism has led to countless acts of discrimination and violence against people who are of Middle-Eastern appearance. Images such as the veil and turbans have become associated with ‘evil’ and ‘terrorism’. Elliott uses the example of hundreds of Sikh men who have been attacked since 9/11, even though they have no relation to the men who hijacked the planes on 9/11.

Similarly to the way the media has used imagery to create negative stereotypes, the language used to describe terrorists also has an influence on how the audience distinguishes between terrorists they do like and terrorists they don’t like. Once again, Elliott argues that it is important for the media to not solely follow the government’s agenda. When the government labels terrorists as “freedom-fighters”, “rebels”, or the “opposition army”, the media is much less likely to present them in a negative light than when they are labelled as “terrorists”. Elliott argues that even though there is no specific difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist, the impact that the label difference has on the way the media presents a story and the way the audience receives it is significant.

Elliot’s chapter makes the power of the media in relation to stereotypes and cultural representations very clear. The importance of reporting terrorism without the backing of a government agenda is important. Elliot concludes by stating that one will never be able to understand the world we live in as long as there is a skew between the portrayals of different terrorists. For the media to have the power to dictate which terrorists are worse than others is a danger that is crucial for the audience to be aware of.

Butt. M. & Wohlmut, K. (2006). The Thousand Faces of Zena: Transculturality through Multi-Identity, in Natasha Gentz and Stefan Kramer, Eds, Globalizatoin, Cultural Identities and Media Representation. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Before the rise of the ‘new media’, action heroes were predictable and highly capable at dealing with a task through the means of a single supernatural-power or special skill. With rising globalisation, it has become a necessary skill to be able to adapt to new and challenging situations. Adaptation is not a common characteristic of a super-hero as they are simply the experts (usually the only one) at dealing with one type of scenario. Miriam Butt and Kyle Wohlmut (2006) examine the super-hero, Xena, from the television series Xena: Warrior Princess, arguing that this character goes beyond the traditional action hero, with her ability to draw from her multitude of skills to deal with a situation in a variety of ways.

It is due to the ‘Electronic Present’ that a new a type of super-hero has come about. Butt and Wohlmut argue that the essentialist concept of identity is becoming second to versatility and non-essentialism. Xena is described as being ‘multidimensional’, and acts as a role-model for the audience. Her catch-phrase, ‘I have many skills”, mirrors her performance on-screen as she approaches new cultures, enemies and difficult tasks without hesitation. Kathryn Woodward (1997), mentions that previously where versatility was looked upon with suspicion, it is now a requirement for success in a society heavy with international commerce and busy with global migration.

As a role-model for identity construction, Butt and Wohlmut summarise Xena’s adaptability in describing her as transcending identity, heroism, sexuality and geography. Xena is able to transcend identity by appealing to a wide range of audiences. As an action hero, Xena engages an audience that is looking for nothing more than excitement and battle, however, the action sequences are often based on historical events, which also engages an audience that appreciates such historical references. Unlike other action heroes, Xena must also deal with obstacles such as being sick and ‘having a bad hair day’. Butt and Wohlmut argue that routine obstacles such as these are another example of how Xena is a role-model for the electronic present.

As an attractive woman, Xena has great appeal for the heterosexual male viewer. On the other hand, Xena is also an obvious feminist role model, never relying on men, instead spending much of her time ruthlessly disposing of them. Her sexuality is also questioned and the producers of the program state that ‘the underlying homosexual subtext of the show is not unintentional’.

Butt and Wohlmut provide a strong argument for the need of non-essentialist super hero identities. It is no longer the social expectation to have a ‘one way’ identity, and Xena provides an effective role-model for diversity and adaptability.

Woodward, K., (1997). Identity and Difference. London: Sage.

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