An assignment on representation

Dear students,

The following notes provide a little revision on the concept of representation, and on how things/people are represented, and gives several examples of how a representation might be discussed.

How things/people are represented

  • To represent something is to show it, to portray it, to communicate it, through some kind of language (there are many kinds of languages).
  • To talk about how something is represented is to talk about how it is shown, portrayed, or communicated.

Lets have a quick look at a few examples

  1. Traffic commands represented by traffic lights.

Traffic commands like stop, wait, get ready, go, slow down are basically represented by three colored lights (red, green, amber).

There are more commands than lights, but the three lights are sufficient to communicate the commands because of the way they are used (the how of their representation).

If we were to talk about how the lights represent a range of traffic commands, we could explain that their organization on the basis of the principles of difference and sequence makes their commands intelligible.

For example,

  • red represents stop because it is different from green and amber.
  • amber following green is a sequence indicating it is time to slow down.

Altogether we can say that the lights have been coded by the logic of traffic management which requires that people obey a range of commands. The way they have been coded is through the principles of difference and sequence.

If we wanted to take this example further, we could argue that the representation of traffic commands has become increasingly helpful. In China, many traffic lights now provide a numbered countdown (from ninety to zero), so people know how long they have to wait, and can prepare to get ready. This extra sequence feels very helpful if you are waiting at the lights (if you just had a red light instead, you wouldn’t know how long you have to wait).

Shenzhen traffic offense display screen

But we might also talk about the way that representations related to traffic commands have also become more punitive and inescapable. For example, in some cities there are now large video screens showing images of people who have broken the traffic rules. This kind of representation works to shame people into obeying the commands.

2. Foreigners and national selves represented by political discourse (for example, the words of Donald Trump).

We might talk about the way that discourse (way of talking) of Donald Trump is full of negative representations of foreigners and positive representations of Americans.

In Trump’s political discourse, bad foreigners are represented as posing a serious threat to good American citizens.

His dichotomy between bad foreigners and good Americans works to associate particular characteristics as negative threats to an imagined American way of life.


This political discourse is coded by the principle of difference. The kind of difference being used to organize the opposite terms is cultural racism.

So if Donald Trump’s discourse was the subject of one of our podcasts, we could first describe what the discourse is and how it works (as above).

Then, if we were to discuss this discourse further, we could talk about its effects. We might discuss policy effects, including nationalist and protectionist policies like migrant-exclusion and trade wars.

Or we might talk about social effects like the rise of racist discrimination and violence, including the great increase in the number of hate crimes. We might talk about the way that racist coding has become part of popular talking among some American social groups, and how this is being opposed by different forms of counter-discourse.

We might talk about why (or even whether) it matters:

Q. Why would we, as English major students, do any of this (analyzing Trump’s culturally racist representations)?

A. Well, one answer would be to argue that language does not exist independently of the culture it is used in, and if we are studying American English, for example, we can’t claim to understand the language if we don’t understand the culture it is embedded in, and the way that culture is contested and changing over time.


Betty Page, American pin-up
Tai hao le.

3. American femininity represented by barbie dolls, pin ups, and advertising photos of good housewives

Children’s toys, pin-up photos and pictures, and adverts featuring housewives have all been key representations of femininity in popular American culture.

Barbie dolls represent womanhood as something associated with the colour pink, with prettiness, something like a present, something ‘princessy’. Feminists argue that the dolls are representations that encourage little girls to aspire to a model of womanhood in which they are pretty, a present for their man, and a princess towards their father figure. Pin-ups are representations encouraging people (men and women) to value women to the extent that they are desirable sex objects. Housewife adverts are representations that reinforce the idea that a woman’s place is in the home, where she should be happily subservient.

Each of these forms of representation was key to 20th century American popular culture, and together they worked to reinforce particular ideals of what femininity or womanhood should mean or be.These representations are coded according to sexist and sexualizing principles.

So, if this was a topic for one of our podcasts, we would start with something like this description of what the representations of femininity are, and how they work (the principles they are organized/coded by).

If we were to talk about this further, we could discuss the way the representations related to social practices, the way they have been contested by feminists, and then how those contests have in turn been contested again (for example, by modern misogynists, or by post-feminists).

We could do that by looking at their representations in, for example, political discourse, or art, or movies, fiction etc.Think, for example, of the more recent (21st century) representations of women given in the movie Atomic Blonde, or Captain Marvel and other recent superhero movies.

Further reading on representation

If you need to further revise what we have learned about the concept of representation this semester, you might like to read lesson two again (the lesson is about representation concepts). I am sending it again to our wechat groups.


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