Ideas for Teaching Representation

The following activities can be used in your classroom to develop your students’ understanding of representation:

1. Current Affairs programs like Today Tonight and A Current Affair often present stories in a very simplistic manner. There’s always a bad guy—whether it’s noisy neighbours, bad tenants or a shonky car salesman. Record an episode of one of these programs and find a segment that features such a representation. Describe how these people are represented using camera techniques, acting, mise-en-scene, editing, lighting and sound.

2. Make a compilation of clips featuring villains from different films such as The Joker in The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008), Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) or Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007). Show the clips to students and encourage them to write about how these characters have been constructed using cinematic techniques. As an extension, have students storyboard and shoot a short sequence during which they play a villain.

3. James Bond films have been around since Sean Connery took on the role in Dr. No (Terence Young, 1963). During that time, values towards women have changed considerably. Compare representations of the female characters in the early Bond films like From Russia with Love, Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice to much more recent films like GoldenEye and Casino Royale. What are the differences and similarities between these representations of gender? Do they reflect changing attitudes to women and gender roles?

4. Collect educational videos like Your Family (1948) from How are the families in these films represented? Have students make a video compilation of these representations with a voice over describing how families were represented during this period.

5. Television sitcoms are terrific representations of both family and gender. Select episodes from different eras and compare these representations. Episodes of the television sitcom ‘Leave it to Beaver’ are great examples of texts that reflect dominant values towards gender and family in the 1950s and early 1960s. It’s an interesting activity to compare these with episodes of 1980s sitcoms like The Cosby Show and Family Ties. There are two episodes that are particularly worth looking at. A 1985 episode of The Cosby Show called ‘Clair’s Case’ features some interesting representations of gender that reflect the values of this period. In the episode, Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashād) represents her daughter in a court case against a mechanic. Meanwhile, Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby) is frustrated by his attempts to teach his children how to do housework. The 1986 episode of Family Ties titled ‘Engine troubles’ deals with similar themes of gender. When Elyse Keaton (Meredith Baxter-Birney) and her son Alex (Michael J Fox) take a night class to learn how to repair their, she tries to convince him that she’s just as capable as men when it comes to repairing cars. Representations in these programs can be compared to more contemporary programs like Modern Family.

6. Record an evening of news bulletins. Log the length and topics of segments in a news bulletin on every station. Create an infographic illustrating your findings. How do different stations represent the day’s news differently?

7. How real is ‘reality television’? Like all media texts, reality television programs are constructions-. The participants in these programs are constructed as characters through a process of selection, omission and construction. Find several episodes of a reality television program like Survivor or America’s Next Top Model. Watch several episodes in class and encourage students to take note of how the participants in these programs are constructed as characters.

8. Make a compilation of clips featuring heroes from different films. Explain how these heroes are constructed using various cinematic techniques. Has the representation of heroes changed over time? In the book Blood, Guns, and Testosterone, Barna William Donovan writes about how the representation of male action heroes have changed over time.

9. Advertising often features interesting representations of gender, family and race. There are a number of places online where you can obtain old television commercials. AdView is a collection of more than 1,500 commercials provided for free by the Duke University Special Collections Library through iTunes U. Similarly, is also a good source of old commercials.

10. Students can select a celebrity or public figure and make an annotated example of how they are represented in the media, sharing their findings with the class.

11. It’s always interesting to see how the media represents those living on the fringe of society. Explore how emos, goths, punks, rebels and hipsters are represented in the media. You might start by looking at films like Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause before more recent representations of outsiders.

12. Music videos are not just selling songs – they’re also selling ideas about love, sexuality and gender. Watch the current crop of top ten music video and explain how men and women are represented.

13. In the documentary Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo said: “In a hundred years of movies, homosexuality has only rarely been depicted on the screen. When it did appear, it was there as something to laugh at—or something to pity—or even something to fear. These were fleeting images, but they were unforgettable, and they left a lasting legacy. Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay people … and gay people what to think about themselves.” How is homosexuality represented in contemporary film and television. Look at examples like American Beauty andModern Family.

14. 9/11 was a defining event of this century. Examine how 9/11 has been represented in films like World Trade CentreFlight 93 and Loose Change.

15. The media is often accused of beating up and sensationalising stories. Brainstorm a list of the techniques of sensationalism – such as hyperbole, the use of slow motion and dramatic music. As a class, see if you can find examples of sensationalism by examining a week of newspaper and television reporting.

16. The media is filled with representations of politicians – from political cartoons to satirical YouTube videos. Select two prominent politicians and examine how they have been represented in a range of media forms.

17. During the Cold War, Russians were often represented in the American mass media. In the 1965 episode of Gilligan’s Island titled ‘Nyet, nyet’, two Russian cosmonauts land on the island. From Russian with Love is another classic film that features representations of Russian villains. Collect examples and show them to your class.

18. In 2007, a report by the Islamic Human Rights Commission found that representations of muslims in the media are overwhelmingly negative. “A report by the Islamic Human Rights Commission argues that films as diverse as The Siege, a portrayal of a terrorist attack on New York starring Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis, the Disney film Aladdin and the British comedy East is East have helped demonise Muslims as violent, dangerous and threatening, and reinforce prejudices,” wrote Lucy Ward in The Guardian. Find some examples and share them with your class. Check out the documentaryReel Bad Arabs

19. Examine how the working class is represented in British films like Brassed OffThe Full Monty and Billy Elliot.

20. In 2005, film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl‘ as a label for women in film who have no live of their own and exist solely to bring out the best in the male lead. Examine the representation of Manic Pixie Dream Girls in films like Elizabethtown and Garden State.

21. How is disability represented in the media? Look at examples like Forrest Gump and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

22. National identity is always an interesting source of representations. In Australia, for example, we often cringe at the way we’ve been represented in film and television – from the episode of The Simpsons called ‘Bart vs Australia’ to Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. Examine examples of how your nationality has been represented in the media.

23. A stereotype is a media image that is repeated so often that it eventually comes to represent that group of people. Scour the media for examples of stereotypes. How might a stereotype be damaging?