How characters of different cultures and racial group are represented in soap operas
Misrepresentation and underrepresentation of people from different culture and race in soap operas (Muvhango and Generations) and how these representations might construct alternative cultural identities in multicultural society like South Africa.
This paper intends to examine how culture and race are represented in South African television industry; the focus is derived on South Africa’s oldest and most watched soap operas; Generations and Muvhango. Culture and race are some of the crucial terminologies in South African history and because of this reason they are deeply explained in this paper. The paper also defines representation from a philosophical point of view to a media point of view this then leads to the critical detailed analysis of how culture and race are represented in South African television paying special attention to two best soap operas.
Key Terms: Representation, culture, race, soap opera, Muvhango, Generation.
Representation of reality may refer to simile, similarity and symbolization of the world when we take it as a transformation of myth (summers: 1996). The idea of representation at its simple level involves our understanding for the action of representation and how we define that act. Representation is important in terms of familiarising oneself; people identify themselves by means of their mimetic abilities and perceive a state of mutual equality. Most importantly representation focuses on how people are portrayed or presented in the media.
Culture refers to people’s way of life or the way a group of people or things and can be transmitted from one generation to the next. Culture may also refer to the shared patterns of behaviour and interactions. Race refers to a vast family of human beings, generally of common blood and language, always of common history, traditions and impulses, who are both for the accomplishment of certain more or less vividly, conceived ideals of life (Appiah, 1992:29)
Race has been used historically to signify origin, ‘stock’ or pedigree, breeding population or gene pool (Gates, 1986:22). A soap opera is a genre that plays at a specific time daily usually about four or five times per week and they focus on the daily happenings within our societies. This study will do an in-depth analysis and interpret two of the greatest South Africa produced soap operas which are; Generation and Muvhango. The misrepresentation and underrepresentation of characters from different cultures and races in the media will be discussed not forgetting the impact of such representation in a multicultural society.
The South African population refers to themselves in four different categories of race; Black, white, coloured and Asia. The definition of the word race in South Africa is the same as referring to skin colour or ethnicity. However, the word race may appear a little bit harsh and explicit to a western reader, despite this as a group we have chosen to use this word in order to be as clear as possible because in South Africa the use of the expression ‘skin colour’ can lead to confusion amongst South Africans since they are used to the word race in their/our contexts.
On a historical note soap operas had its origin in the 1930s in America in the guise of day the radio serials. These serials were sponsored by giant soap powder manufacturers like proctor, Colgate and Palmolive (Hobson, 2003:7). According to Dorothy Hobson (2003:7), after radio became a mass media in the thirties, American manufacturers embraced it as an opportunity to expand their markets.
Robert C. Allen (19850 postulates that the term “soap operas” probably originated in the entertainment press of the late 1930s, the term came from its connection to soap manufactures. Soap Operas were also occasionally referred to as “wash board weepers” (Allen, 1985; 8-9). According to Allen the “opera” acquires to Hobson (200;8-9) , the first producers of a successful soup opera were Frank Hummert and his wife Anne Ashenhusrst, they produced a soap opera called Betty and Bob October 1930.
According to Christine Gledhill (2003; 343) relevant points when considering the form and structure of soap operas include: Particular broadcast genre, narrative structure, character types and modes of expression. Although not all soap operas share identical features, some features are inherent to this particular broadcast genre. As stated by Gledhill, narrative structure and aesthetic devices are also important when studying a specific genre.
The study of Soap opera representation of social class, race, culture and other social character has been continuous since research has begun in the early nighties’ and this has evolved within the framework of communicative theories applicable over the years and varying on the basis of the contextual interest imprinted upon them. This brings us to the issue of misrepresentation and underrepresentation.
Establishing that the media have the power to dictate which representations of ethnic minorities are chosen and circulated in the public arena, research into minority representation has revealed two fundamental issues underlying the area which are culture and race. This is investigated by Hall (1997) who observes that although negative representations are circulated by contemporary media forms, they have been intrinsic in the development of contemporary western culture.
Hall argument maintains that the Eurocentric principle have remained within contemporary discourses and underling current representation of “race” e.g. Ross (1996) identify articulated in early film such as, the happy slave, the noble savage and the entertainer (Bogle, 1994) were adopted and perpetuated by television .She suggested these representation conformed to white viewers preconceptions of black people of what blacks were and how these should behave (1996:88).
Furthermore .Ross claims that ethnic minorities are subjugated by media representations as, not only programme content, but specific perspectives and issues portrayals of ethnic minorities in the media bind ethnic minority representation in a system that prevents the development of ethnic minority characters and experience beyond the established stereotypes.
However, while Ross acknowledges that some “improvements” in images of black people in television and popular film had made throughout the 1980s as Andrew Pilkington (2003) minority ethnic groups exemplified by such text. Therefore such representations expands the range of racial representations and the complexity of what it means to be blacks , thus challenging the reductionism of misrepresentation and underrepresentation. (Hall, 1997; 272-273).
The concept of black as threat and black as problem are also apparent as Jim Pines (1989) observes, in crime dramas pine noted that black criminals are involved in naturalised black crimes; using examples of street crime and prostitution as well as black heroes are similarly ‘Ghettoised’ in that they are portrayed as agents of law within black culture, dealing specifically with black issues e.g. the way Cosmo and his sister Lucy lives their lives in Generation.
The perception that soap operas engaged with race issues in a more sophisticated manner and it cannot be rejected. Although the presence of blacks in mainstream drama is often seen as important break with the sitcom tradition e.g. the character of Chopper in Generation was created to amuse people more especially when considering his life it was a joke. The conventions used to structure black imagery into the narratives have tended to revert to more popular racial and social stereotypes. (Pine, 1989:70)
Racial and cultural representations are evident in television; however these representations have also been proliferated through all forms of popular culture. E.g. Bourne (1989) argues that when blacks characters enters the narrative schema, the character remains marginalised to the plot structure, and continues to be represented in a stereotypical ways and were underused and undervalued.
Kabena Mercer (1989) states that this narrow repertoire of black representation results in the majorities belief that all black people are like that, while simultaneously denying diversity and difference within the black population. He also stressed that a lack of alternative black imagery burdens each image within the role of being representatives. This is of particular significance to ethnic minorities as media representations can impact negatively on the perception of ethnic minorities in social reality.
Media is a powerful tool which is used to represent what is happening in the society. In the society we have different cultures which are represented by the media. However the media somehow misrepresent and underrepresented some of these cultures for example in soapies like Muvhango and Generations some of the cultures and racial groups are being misrepresented and underrepresented daily.
All soap operas have similar themes, characters and story lines; there is always a villain, a town gossip, a rich family, a poor family, never-ending love triangles, murder, sec and scandal. But what has always been familiar about soap operas is then perpetuation of negative stereotypes in a very non-realistic television world. Yet, in recent years soap operas have begun to incorporate marginalised groups and more realistic storylines, possibly in an effort to boost deceasing ratings. This has included people of different race and colour, disabilities gays and lesbian and characters living with HIV.
Muvhango is a soap opera that construct alternative identities based on what is in the society more especially in Thathe, this soap opera promote cultural identities of Venda speaking people and it usually reflect their ways of doing things e.g. The way different people praises the chief when they enters his palace reminds them about their proudly past of peace and harmony where their customs and traditions were practiced purely.
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