A Discussion on the Mental Image of Representation

Topics: Image

White men cannot dance, black men are great basketball players, and if you want a good accountant, you better look for a Jew. Each of these statements provides an example of the power of representation. Each is a consequence of a mental image that we have concerning these subjects. Although we may not fully accept the truth of these statements, these images nonetheless form the basis of our understanding of the subjects. Any additional information about the subject will be either a subtraction or addition from these base images.

Although we may question or even outright reject these automatic representations, rarely do we consider their origin, and even more rarely the fact that they are a result of a system of media production that exists for making a profit and not for providing accurate portrayals.

Representation concerns the relationship between a subject and the way that subjects this presented. At the most, basic level representation is the extent to which a depiction accurately reflects the subject.

However, this presupposes that a subject has a concrete, a true form that is measured against.

It can be understood that the representation is a mental image we have formed about a subject that pretends to tell us the essential qualities of the subject. It’s a mental shortcut.

Individuals are all highly unique, with their likes, dislikes, abilities, and opinions, but representations identify some common attribute about a group of people, typically their race, gender, or sexuality, and then based on that one commonality prescribe many other common attributes shared by all members of that group and “natural” to that group.

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Each of these representations is a culmination of the effect of years of portrayals we have been presented by the commercial media. Through television, film, and music, we are presented with ideas about how groups of people act, think, and feel, that are then reinforced through repetition to such an extent we internalize them. A representation is separate from the actual subject, instead of providing an artificial reconstruction of the subject that reduces certain characteristics while accentuating others.

The most commonly thought of as an example of representation is the stereotype.

Stereotypes are mental structures that provide the expectations, beliefs, and knowledge about a human subgroup (Gorham 2004). It is from such stereotypes we get the idea that, for example, Italians are passionate, or Germans are logical. Stereotypes are produced through a cyclical process involving the media, the subject, and the audience. A process that occurs when a media producer, such as a television show, is determining which characters to feature in its story, and how they should behave.

One of the most unfortunate known facts about stereotypical representations is that they can be strongly based on fear, the fear of the unknown. When something new is shown to a current majority, it may seem strange, almost alien, and like this something that should be avoided and feared. One of the biggest examples I can think of is the stereotype of Asian people within current popular media. Asian American stereotyping mainly started with fear in the 19th century, called “yellow peril” which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “a danger to Western civilization held to arise from the  expansion of the power and influence of eastern Asian peoples.” Because of this, for the public to have eased, some negative stereotypes were created about Asian Americans, from their heavy accents to their “apparently” obviousbuck teethh (which is still an outlying stereotype). Also, when I think of Asian characters, this may sound terrible, but I do think of the character from the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” which embodies all the characteristics above. It shows that… “The cycle of oppression is [a] theory…. describing the stages of socialization and their relationship to oppression. According to the cycle, during our early years, we receive misinformation, and biased history, as well as stereotypes…. [and] we internalize what we have learned and through this internalization we collude with the socialization process” (Holtzman). However, this does not just fall withnegative stereotypese. Asian Americans currently have a few “positive” traits that are attributed stereotypes, such as being smart, diligent, hardworking, studious, etc. Having these kinds of stereotypes can also, unfortunately, be harmful and shows “Once more, then, we see the self-fulfilling nature of stereotypes” (Snyder 1995). To top this all off, the power of the stereotypical Asian is so powerful in your mind, that I bet that you as a reader have forgotten completely about an Asian country, which also is heavily stereotyped, AND because of that, is considered a whole ethnicity. I will mention in the next paragraph what the country/group of people is.

The media perpetuates specific representations by the portrayal of characters as having the same traits across different shows. Such shows don’t just reflect commonly held beliefs about human subgroups; they actively form these beliefs by repetition. For example, when you think of a prototypical Indian character in the media or pop culture, what do you think of? Stereotypes have transcended from being a stereotype in real life, to even morphing with interpretations of these characteristics into permanent evidence of bad stereotypes. Such stereotypical characteristics as Indian characters working at either a gas station or a 24/7 mini mini-mart, may sound stereotypical, but it’s so far engraved in society, that when I asked myself the question of what is an Indian character that doesn’t fit this stereotype and is currently popular/not unknown, I was drawing a major blank. All my mind could keep traveling to be the character Apu on The Simpsons. This line of thinking is extremely danger dangerous in thee that… “…if the images and portrayals of groups in mass media enhance or reinforce our tendency to interpret information in stereotypical ways, then the media are inadvertently helping make the problem of prejudice and discrimination worse” (Gorham 2004). This information can be strongly related to correlating instances in real life, as it’s not very uncommon for a racist person, whether they openly choose to be intense tionally racist or not, may poy something along the lines of ‘Thank you, come again henhe most stereotypical New Delhi Indian accent that they could muster from hearing Apu on The Simpsons saying, who is also, ironically of it all, voiced by a white man. Thus, stereotypes, while they may be efficient means of breaking apart our world into manageable chunks, have a tremendous power to influence the way we interact with each other and understand the world, in ways that can be highly negative and limiting.

Representations that exist in the media serve to provide a limited palette of options for us to choose from when considering human subgroups and ideas, options that are constituted through the dialectic process toward the conceptions that those with the most power want us to have.

These same representations are then reinforced to the extent that we take them as “natural,” short-circuiting the process of discovery, and trying their best to fix meaning that is inherently unfixable. Representations give us the meaning to the events and people around us, a meaning that is created by a process to which we are implicated, but which is often not to our benefit or the benefit of the subjects being portrayed, but to advance political and

commercial agendas.


  1. Gordon, Bradley. “Consideration of Media Effects: The Social Psychology of Stereotypes” Race/Gender/Media: Considering Diversity Across Audiences, 1e, 2004.
  2. Snyder, Mark “Self-Fulfilling Stereotypes,” Race, Class and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study, ed. Paula S. Rothenberg. New York: St. Martin Press, 1995
  3. Holtzman, Linda. (2014). Media messages: what film, television, and popular music teach us about race, class, gender, and se. ARMONK: ME SHARPE.

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A Discussion on the Mental Image of Representation. (2022, Jun 21). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/a-discussion-on-the-mental-image-of-representation/

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