Social researchers have often referred to race and ethnicity as separate phenomenon and ideologies. The use of race and ethnic studies as lens in purveying certain norms, traditions, values, ideas, cultures, and collective identities among others have been fundamental in studying racial prejudices, segmentation and categorization. In similar fashion, mass media are reflecting these realities in society, albeit in a distorted manner. Hence, race and ethnic groups when represented in mass media can often be exploited and abused, such as that of the construct of the West and the rest.
To help us decipher a much deeper socio-cultural issue, particularly on the argument that mass media reinforces the discourse of the West, this paper will examine two Academy Award-winning Hollywood movies, Sam Mendes-directed American Beauty (1999) and Paul Haggis Crash (2004) to study media representations. The ways in which these two representative cinematic forms reinforce the social phenomena being studied will be viewed using Stuart Halls the West and the rest concept. Halls representation and discourse models overarching impact has been acknowledged for being an appropriate approach in our understanding of the concept of the West and its relevance in creating the Orient.
The structure of this paper was geared to be a review first of the approaches used in analyzing social issues in relation to race and ethnicity, which was preceded by the rationale about why the films under study were selected in the first place, and their relevance to the subject matter being explored. The logical follow-up considered was the brief analysis of each films in relation to our social problem in order to shed light how the West and the Otherness concepts were manifested.
The analysis was followed by the dissection of power relations evident in mass media as theorized by the sociologist Stuart Hall, before showing how the unequal relations are, perpetuated then reinforced by mass media. Following these, we end with a conclusion.
Short Rationale in the Selection of Academy Award Winning Films
Selecting Academy Award-winning films is not without principle or basis. To better illustrate the ways Academy Award winners for Best Motion Picture like American Beauty and Crash reinforce the idea of the West and the Other, two components were considered: the choice of films and their unique role in the wider discourse on race and ethnicities.
According to White (2002), having been awarded Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) bestow a degree of popular prestige upon the winning films. This means, winning an Oscars allows a film earn a high credential worthy of being seen by the mainstream publics of local and international markets. Another advantage of being voted as Best Picture is renewed lease of circulation. This only means that films are guaranteed a re-run or re-distribution of the film, and allowing its mass audience watch its surface and sublimated narratives (White 2002).
Moreover, both American Beauty (Dreamworks 1999) and Crash (Lions Gate Films 2004) have benefited from their wide distribution and circulation, leading to their undeniable influential ideological roles in showing a particular image of the world to their audiences. Researches and students of sociology would find rich fabrics of economic, political and cultural discursive ideas from the narratives of these two materials. And given that scholars tend to view race and ethnic ideologies in relation to The West and the Rest these American films play crucial roles in asserting the validity of the pressure from Western ideologies. Thus, the chosen films may offer an illuminating representation of the current stage of imperialism.
Media Representation of Race and Ethnicity
There has been an agreement among social researchers that mass media and its many varied forms like cinema may be a sort mirror of our society, albeit in a distorted way. According to Wal (2002), media representation can be distorted, as well as cause a racial prejudice to be magnified. Prior to our investigation about how films like American Beauty and Crash reinforce arguments that varied forms of mass media communicate the idea of The West and the Rest, this paper delves on finding out how mass media can predict societal phenomenon.
Ethics and Race Studies. In the Powerpoint material titled Ethnicity, Race and Nation: A Cultural Approach, it was suggested that race and ethnicity can be used as a way of seeing. As in analyzing the different media representation of Western and the Oriental races, the approach can be helpful in deciphering its relations to cultural and ethnic diversity. Through race and ethnic cultural studies, researchers interested in determining the extent of distortion of media representations can look into the factors like the dimension of prejudice, composition of production crews, and discrimination in the production of Hollywood (Western moviemaking machine) films, among others. For instance, in the Hollywood Diversity Report from the Bunche Center for African American Studies (2015), it was shown that film directors belonging to the minority groups who have directed their films represent 17.8 percent of the director race chart in 2013, which was a far cry compared to the 87.8 percent white directors who directed a film.
Meanwhile, the lead roles and overall cast diversity, among others may be gaining ground in terms of their participation in the production of films in Hollywood, however, the figures remain very low (Hunt 2015). To wit, distribution of power between the white majority and other racial groups (e.g., black, Asian, etc.) remain unequal. The diversity index of Hollywood film production workforce can be viewed as a reason why racial and other minorities stereotypical portrayal continues to be reinforced.
Then we arrive at the mainstream audience of dominant media, such as Hollywood fares. It has often been cited that the composition of these paying publics are comprised of predominantly white race, which is a reason films are directed in such form and style palatable and consistent to the norms and interests of the viewers. In the same The 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, the report reflected the stereotypes in the roles portrayed by other nationalities, where majority of the actors cast in these films are Whites or Caucasians. According to Hunt (2015), out of 172 movies there was only one out of 10 leading roles in films went to minorities. He commented that this is a stark contrast to the number of Latinos residing or living in the state, whereby it have surpassed whites as the largest racial-ethnic group.
Hence, not only has using race and ethnicity concept as a lens of seeing and understanding the world around us gained relevance in discourses. There is little to no doubt then that the same were used in labeling certain broader concepts, relationships or groups. For instance, being white has become a cultural ideal and not being white can mark you as belonging to the rest or an outsider. Historically and culturally, an individual, group or races belonging or associated with whiteness are valued more highly or above those belonging to the marginal races.
Stuart Halls Cultural Studies Model of Representation and Discourse. In hope of exposing the control of representation, Stuart Hall who was department head of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the University of Birmingham in England in the 1960s, has drawn on multiple disciplines and academic traditions to help establish culture studies as a new discipline. Among the four core ideas that Hall promotes, one of his chief concerns is with representation (Morley & Kuan-Hsing 1996). Halls definition of representation is dissimilar with the dictionary meaning of the word, which refers to the same as one that represents or is represented: as a: likeness, picture, model or other reproduction (Merriam-Webster 2002). For him, representation is not merely a reflection but an activity or an act of reconstruction (Morley & Kuan-Hsing 1996).
Such conceptualization is applicable for our investigation on the distinction and difference between the West and the Orient through two Hollywood movies, namely American Beauty (1999) and Crash (2004). For instance, the movie American Beauty is not merely a film that reflect the nightmare of American Dream and suburban culture. The elements and themes of that film evoke striking and intriguing imagery that allows for reconstruction of the surface image projected in the screen. American Beauty is not merely about these things but so much more. In Halls representation cultural studies concept, he posits that there is an underlying reason sometimes larger purpose that are embedded in almost every image that are produced or distributed for mass consumption. Hence, as well as the surface appearance or its images denotative meaning, there is also a much-deeper, myth-like connotation to consider (Morley & Kuan-Hsing 1996).
Moreover, representation in light of cultural studies are to be viewed as an activity that is comprised of ideological recreation geared to meet the specific interests of individuals or groups of people who control the media (e.g., Hollywood moviemaking machine). Discourse, as proposed by Hall, meanwhile can be used for studying/critiquing larger dimensions of culture. It is different with representation in the sense that the latter is merely concerned with single images. More specifically for Hall (1996), discourse refers to a group of statements which provide a language for talking about a particular kind of knowledge about a topic In this sense, discourses are produced through language and practices (Hall 1996).
The discourse about the West has been one of the examples that Hall discusses so extensively. Historically, after the distinction between the East and the West has been initiated, the West was viewed as more progressive, more modern, more sophisticated, and more. The distinction was traced to assertions that the West is a superior model toward which the Oriental or Rest must strive. According to Morley & Kuan-Hsing (1996), this discourse places pressure upon the West to act in assisting the Rest to move up the ladder of social, economic, and political structure. They added that the West/Rest discourse and implicit Western superiority are being positioned in discussions whenever terms like third world countries, globalization, and modernization prop up (Morley & Kuan-Hsing 1996).
American Beauty (2000) and Crash (2004)
American Beauty, which was directed by an American filmmaker Sam Mendes and have had its World Premiere via the Toronto International Film Festival in September 11, 1999, has been intended to be an independent film geared for an international audience. Its box-office and critical success has helped its Oscar campaign, which eventually led to its surprising Best Motion Picture win. During its re-run, American Beauty became one of the highest grossing films beyond the North American shores. It was also shown in France, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Germany, and United Kingdom, among many more countries.
Around its chosen milieu of contemporary America, the film was able to paint the wide-array of social realities and crises of contemporary suburban America which Casey McKittrick (2001) summed up as a film about high ambitions, true definition of success, sexuality, gender, race and minority group relations, midlife crises, pedophilic tendencies, difficulties of many suburban families, and more. This paper then explores how the films critique of contemporary suburbia and the shallowness of the American Dream, American Beauty is that kind of film wor...
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