Movie posters are a type of representation. As we have discussed in class, representations can reflect the values of those who created them and the society in which they were produced. It’s interesting to note that, over time, as women have gained greater equality, the way women are represented in movie posters has changed considerably.
In order to compare such representations, we need to describe how they have been constructed making reference to the appropriate codes and conventions. Movie posters communicate meaning in two ways, through written language and images. These images often take the form of illustrations, photographs and computer generated imagery. Here is a list of codes that movie posters frequently use:
• written language
• photographs and illustrations
– camera angle (overshot, high angle eye level, low angle, undershot)
– shot size (extreme long shot, long shot, full shot, mid shot, close up, extreme close up)
– visual composition
– body language
Semiotics tells us that signs can have both denotative and connotative meaning. The denotative meaning of a sign is what it literally means. The connotative meaning of a sign is what we associate with it. This varies from person to person. Nevertheless, there are widespread cultural connotations attached to signs. Think about the colour black. Depending on the context, this is a colour that is usually associated with funerals and death. When you describe a representation, you need to describe what is in the representation, referring to appropriate codes and conventions.
Describing a representation means explaining how a text has been constructed. It involves identifying the codes that have been used in a representation and describing the meaning that these signs carry.
A SAMPLE ANALYSIS
This analysis of the representations compares the posters for The Wolf Man (1941) and Serenity (2005).
Over the last seventy years, movie posters have represented women in a variety of ways. As values towards women have changed, so too has their representation in these media texts. The poster for The Wolf Man (1941) represents the female character as helpless and incapable of defending herself. The female character is positioned in the bottom third of the poster, sprawled helplessly across the ground, her posture and facial expression contribute to this representation. Her eyes are closed and her expression blank as if she has fainted in the presence of the werewolf. The colour and style of her dress – elaborate, ruffled and pink – contributes to a sense of femininity. Her hair appears to be carefully styled. There is a strong juxtaposition between the representation of this female character and the Wolf Man. Whereas the female character has been represented as delicate and feminine, the Wolf Man is menacing and domineering. In this representation, the werewolf towers over the defenseless woman. Compared to her elegant and feminine appearance, the werewolf is represented as dark and savage, lips drawn back in a snarl. Many horror and science-fiction movie posters during this period represented women as weak and defenseless. It wasn’t until much later, as values towards women changed, that women showed greater independence and strength in these representations. The poster for the film Serenity is a considerable contrast. There are three women represented in this movie poster. One of them – a character called River – is in the foreground of the image. In contrast to the poster for the Wolf Man, in which the character is represented as weak and defenseless, the image of River is constructed to convey great strength and independence. She is crouched in a martial arts with menacing blades clutched in each hand. The deadliness of these weapons is accentuated by a lens flare on the axe which glints savagely. She stares straight ahead, a look of determination and strength etched into her face. There are also two other women in this representation. Both of them are also holding weapons, putting them on equal footing with the males in the poster. Whereas there was a strong contrast between the representation of men and women in The Wolf Man, the females in this representation are constructed to appear equal to and, in one case, stronger than the males, showing how values towards women have changed since the early days of American cinema.
This analysis has a number of strengths, it:
• compares representations
• uses the phrase ‘representation’
• refers to specific parts of the representation – such as the figure’s body language – and the meaning this conveys
• compares parts of individual representations, such as the representation of a male and female within the poster
• acknowledges the link between changing values and changing representations.
A good analysis will identify particular codes and the meaning they create. You might use phrases like:
• The colour red in this representation is used to convey a sense of…
• The lighting in this photograph signifies…
• This camera angle creates the impression that…
• This colour has connotations of…
• This colour is associated with…
• This use of shot size creates the impression that…
• Guns are a symbol of violence and aggression which creates the impression that…
ADVICE FOR DESCRIBING REPRESENTATIONS
• Plan out your response before you start writing. You should think about how the subject is represented, identifying important codes that convey meaning. Individual signs have two levels of meaning—denotative and connotative. When you see an image of a gun, for example, it’s just a picture of a weapon. On a connotative level, however, we associate particular ideas with that gun—violence, aggression, anger, control. When you are writing about representations, the connotations of a particular sign become very important. Colours are a prime example. Black, for example, is a sombre colour that is often associated with funerals and death. White, on the other hand, connotes purity and innocence. You understand what signs mean, it’s just a matter of identifying them and explaining what they connote. Some good synonyms for the word connote: signifies, conveys, implies, symbolises, represents. You might write, for example: ‘The colour of Angelina Jolie’s dress in this representation is important, contributing to the overall representation of her as strong and independent. The colour black, in this context, conveys strength, elegance and sophistication. It has very different connotations to the colour pink which was often used in earlier representations of women, such as the poster for The Wolfman.’
• Describe representations using clear language. Do not use words or terminology that you are unfamiliar with.
• Ensure you use the language of representation—including the words representation, construction, codes, conventions and values.
• Start off with a topic sentence that describes the representation overall and gives a plan for your analysis, e.g. ‘In the poster for Mr and Mrs Smith the female character, portrayed by Angelina Jolie, is represented as strong, confident and independent. This representation is constructed using a number of symbolic and technical codes—such as colour, clothing, facial expression and mise-en-scene.’ Each of the codes that you list will become a paragraph in your analysis.
• Codes can be symbolic and technical. A gun, for example, is a symbolic code that conveys power and aggression. A high angle, on the other hand, is a technical code which conveys helplessness or insignificance.
• Be specific about the use of a particular code and how the viewer reads that code. ‘In this representation, the colour of Angelina Jolie’s dress is significant. The colour black connotes power, authority and sophistication. This is a marked difference to earlier representations, such as the poster for The Wolf Man in which the heroine is wearing a pink dress, a colour traditionally associated with femininity.’
• If you are word processing an assignment, the title of films should be italicise, e.g. The Revenge of the Creature. The first word and all important words in the title must be capitalised. If you are writing the title of a film or book in an exam situation, instead of italicising the title, put the name into single quotation marks, e.g. ‘The Revenge of the Creature’.
• Always refer to people by their surnames, e.g. ‘In this representation Jolie and Pitt are almost symmetrical which conveys a sense of equality.’
• Do not write in a personal manner. This is an analysis. You should avoid terminology like ‘I think’ or ‘we see that’.
• Don’t include irrelevant detail, e.g. ‘this tells you a little but about what the storyline should be about.’
Describe how representations of women in movie posters have changed over the last seventy years. Select four movie posters from above, two from old films and two from more recent movies. Compare how the females in these images are represented, referring to the appropriate codes and conventions of this form.
SAMPLE STUDENT RESPONSES
Check out these sample assessment tasks to help you successfully describe these representations.
Criterion 1: Describe representations in media texts;
Criterion 2: Compare the construction of different representations in media texts and across media forms.
Criterion 3: Analyse representations within the context of institutional practices, media history and cultural values.