Module 5: Studying Media Representations Objectives: After completing this module, you will be able to

My History is Your History: studies of Chicago neighborhoods

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My History is Your History: studies of Chicago neighborhoods

Street-Level Youth Media: Chicago youth study their neighborhoods
Webquest: studying an urban neighborhood
Radical Urban Theory
Metropolis Magazine

The Citistates Group
Suburbia is often represented as the idealized, pastoral, tree-lined contrast with urban worlds. However, these representations fail to capture the variations across and within suburbia, particularly the fact that many inner-ring suburbs are struggling. Students could examine how the media represents suburbia in terms of a discourse of “whiteness” as enclaves of “white lives” with little or no diversity. As Matthew Durington argues

the portrayal of suburbia as a race-neutral, homogeneous culture could be equated with the absence of diversity:

This history is reflected in popular culture such as television and film that represented the suburb as a white space. While the number of films and television shows that have served this purpose is too many to describe in this paper, both praise-songs of the suburb and critiques of it continually affirmate its existence as white space. We are not allowed to witness the contemporary multicultural suburb for what it is. As Silverstone points out, "the institutionalization of television rested on the "ordinariness" of suburban life in shows like "Leave it to Beaver" and had the effect of equating the suburb with whiteness (Silverstone 1997).
This historical representation of the suburb in popular culture established the suburb as homogenous, white and hence, with an absence of identity. The labeling of whiteness as an absent identity or a colorless void is highly problematic, because this way of thinking only naturalizes racism and power (Fusco 1994, hooks 1995). A body of work has emerged in recent years investigating the notion of "whiteness" in a more critical fashion, but outside of anthropology this analysis continues to trivialize whiteness through various cultural reads of films or haphazard linkages to larger social issues and trends.
Although the setting for these accounts of whiteness is often the suburb, a comprehensive ethnographic analysis of how the suburb is created materially and how white identity is formed and projected symbolically among its inhabitants is still lacking. This requires a research methodology that contextualizes the material development of the suburb, the way that the suburb has been represented in popular culture historically, and the means by which both of these influence identity formation in this environment.
Representations of suburbia also emphasize elements of open space, a representation that fails to address issues of sprawl and zoning, issues associated with the destruction of farm land, environmental degradation, increased congestion, and blighted development. For courses on surburbia, see the following syllabi:
Judy Gill, Dickenson College:
John Archer, University of Minnesota:
Steve Macek, Mall of America, Gale Encyclopedia of Popular Culture
Lots of links on topics related to suburbia:
Lesson plan: Sprawl: The National and Local Situation
Many small, rural towns are having difficulty coping with the loss of jobs, the decline of family farming, and the lack of younger people to support an elderly population. Representations of rural/small-town communities in films such as The Last Picture Show, Whatever Happened to Gilbert Grape, Unforgiven, In the Bedroom, and Brother’s Keeper examine issues such as the conflict between the value of familiar, supportive community ties and the remoteness, provinciality, and lack of anonymity.
Representations of rural American in the news also paints a relatively stereotypical portrayal of the issues facing rural America. A study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs and funded by the W.W. Kellogg Foundation examined coverage in 337 stories in major national newspapers and television networks news over a six-month period from January 1, 2002 to June 30, 2002. 75% of the stories focused on crime. Few stories dealt with issues of agriculture, despite the major problems facing family farmers. “One out of ten stories that framed rural America as an economically challenged or socially marginal environment” (p. 2).
Many of the stories, primarily in newspapers, but not television, examined the increasing urbanization of rural areas through sprawl, but often in terms of rural areas’ resistance to change. The report notes that:

This news agenda often left implicit the substantive characteristics attached to rural conditions or lifestyles. In keeping with this emphasis on urbanization, change was often equated with loss. Most sources who expressed opinions either opposed changes in their communities or accepted them as inevitable, and almost all predictions of the future were negative or fearful. (p. 2).

The report noted that rural America was therefore portrayed:

….as a vestige of our past facing an uncertain future, a place being buffeted by its close encounters with the physical and cultural mainstream of

contemporary urban society. It was not associated with agriculture so much

as open space and the real or imagined qualities of small town living. The

coverage was largely episodic, failing to contextualize events in terms of the broader qualities or issues associated with rural life. As portrayed in the media, rural America is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t learn

enough to decide whether you wanted to live there. (p. 3).

W. W. Kellogg Foundation Study: Perceptions of Rural America in the Media
Another key institution shaping rural life is the Wal-Mart discount store. Wal-Mart often moves to a rural area and uses low prices to undercut stores in small towns, resulting in these stores closing. They can do this through their low wages paid to largely part-time workers. The also use advertising campaigns to promote themselves as supporting local communities through charitable programs and providing jobs in high unemployment areas.
Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town: PBS documentary about the experience of a small Virginia town coping with plans for the development of a new Wal-Mart.
Jim Hightower, “How Wal-Mart is Remaking our World”
Wal-Mart Myths and Realities
Wal-Mart Watch
To portray their own representations of these places or spaces, students could create their own photographic or video representations, producing a montage of images that serve to either challenge or reaffirm certain prototypical representations of these worlds. For example, in the

Street as Method project, students engaged in writing activities about specific aspects of their cities. Students were asked to note instances of decline or growth, as well as public places in the cities and how they functioned to foster a sense of community.
Rachel Klein and Javaid Khan, The New York Times lessons: Reality Film: Creating Documentaries About Students' Everyday Lives
Rachel Klein and Tanya Chin, Sacred Space: Learning About and Creating Meaningful Public Spaces (“In this lesson, students consider the two finalists in the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's contest for architectural designs for the site of the World Trade Center. Students then create their own designs for a meaningful public space, then critique each other's designs.”)
Virtual field trips: online explorations of places
Students can engage in studies of place through virtual tours of places. For a book chapter on setting up and conducting virtual tour, see Bellan & Scheurman, 2001. They discuss conducting a virtual field trip to Ft. Snelling, Minneapolis, MN:
Urban Field Trip: Lincoln, Nebraska’s Historic Haymarket
2003 Geology Field Trip, Baraboo, Wisconsin
Virtual tours of lots of sites
Virtual tours: Chicago

Further reading about place/space in the media:

Bale, John. "Virtual Fandoms; Futurescapes of Football."

Carney, G. (Ed.) (1995). Fast Food, Stock Cars, and Rock-n-Roll: Place and Space in American Pop Culture. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Couldry, N. & McCarthy, A. (Eds.) (2003). MediaSpace: Place, scale and culture in a media age. New York: Routledge.

Fraim, John. "Battle of Symbols: Space vs. Place"

Gauntlett, D. (1997). Video Critical: Children, the Environment and Media Power. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Hochman, J. (1998). Green Cultural Studies: Nature in Film, Novel, and Theory. Boise: University of Idaho Press.

Ingram, D. (2000). Green Screen: Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Lauter, P. (2001). From Walden Pond to Jurassic Park: Activism, Culture, & American Studies. Durham: Duke University Press.

MacDonald, S. (2001). The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Martin, D. G. (2000). Constructing place: Cultural hegemonies and media images of an inner-city neighborhood. Urban Geography 21(5), 380-405.

Morley, D. (2000). Home Territories: Media, Mobility and Identity. London: Routledge.

O'Neill, E. "The Dichotomy of Place and Non-Place in You've Got Mail."

Owens, L. (1997). Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Rosembaum, J. (1995). Moving Places: A Life at the Movies. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Zonn, L. (Ed). (2000). Place Images in the Media: A Geographical Appraisal. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Links related to studying place/space

Megasite: lots of links on place/space
Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (extensive bibliography):
Center for American Places
City Lore; Placematters

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