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Reception Theory - Stuart Hall

… a beginners’ guide In the latest in her series on key thinkers, Lucy Scott-Galloway explores the seminal work of cultural critic Stuart Hall, whose ideas about the ways in which audiences/readers make meaning from texts have been hugely influential on studies of the audience. She applies his theories to the recent film Kidulthood. Essentials Stuart Hall is a leading sociological thinker of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, whose writings often encompass media perspectives. Though generally thought of as a sociologist and cultural studies theorist, he taught media studies in London in the early sixties. Rather than exploring how texts make meaning, as was the predominant practice of his analytical forerunners, for Hall, the meaning of the text is not inherently in the text itself. No amount of analysis can find the text’s one true ‘meaning’, because different people who encounter the text will make different interpretations. On the surface, this certainly seems to make sense. After all, we don’t all like the same charact ers in our favourite TV shows or films, or dislike the same. But we are all seeing the same representations. The technical and symbolic codes that construct the representations we perceive are the same – that is, the denotation is the same. But from there, what the producers want us to think and what we actually think might be two very different things. This reading, according to Hall, depends on our social positioning – for example the level of our education and experience, and what our occupations are. Reception theory This approach to textual analysis puts most emphasis on the audience – meaning is made at the moment of consumption. At that moment, the individual audience member considers the representations presented to them in the context of their own values, opinions and experiences. Therefore, people with similar socio-cultural backgrounds are likely to make similar readings of the same texts. It follows then, that if the audience’s values, opinions and experiences are similar to the producer’s, then they are likely to ‘read’ the meaning of the text in the way it was intended – or at least very close to it. Encoding/decoding model Stuart Hall took this new attitude towards audience consumption, which considered audiences as not only active but also a group of individuals rather than an undifferentiated ‘mass’, and developed the encoding/decoding model. This model was based on the view that meaning is the result of a communication process, the stages of which he called ‘moments’. The first is the ‘momen t of encoding’, the second the ‘moment of the text’ and the third the ‘moment of decoding’. Moment of encoding – the creation of the text, when forms, structures, codes and conventions are used to construct a text with an intended meaning. Moment of the text – the symbolic existence of the text as it is published or broadcast – the focus of semiotics. Moment of decoding – when an individual with a unique set of values, attitudes and experiences encounters the text. Regarded as more the moment of ‘creation’ than the first stage. Preferred/negotiated/oppositional readings Readings of texts are dependent on who the audience is, and what their social position is, because this influences their interpretation of the denotative codes. However the number of readin gs isn’t necessarily infinite – Hall suggested there are limits to the readings that can be made. When the text is created, the producers encode a meaning, which they (probably) intend. This is the reading likely to be made by the target audience, as they would be most likely to share and accept the text’s ideology

. making instead an oppositional reading. responds to the question: What’s your response [to the claim] that Kidulthood makes bullying and ‘happy slapping’ cool? ‘I don’t really care to be honest. I loved this film. they are unlikely to accept much – if any – of the preferred reading. Those who live near to where the film is set appear to feel the film is realistic. But. If their values and attitudes are very different or even in opposition to the target audience. What has been encoded may be decoded differently by different audiences. I found it very truthful about young urban people getting into fights and arguments and it spiralling out of control. In the DVD’s special features. However. And it is highlighting what happens in society. Noel Clarke. The difference between what is encoded (the intention of the producer) and what is decoded (the meaning made by the audience) is known by Hall as the margin of understanding. but challenge the representations and how they are constructed when you are studying. Kidulthood.apart from they are so much younger. I found this film a waste of 2 hours and the END may as well be the BEGINNING as it fails to get my interest or take me anywhere.’ This is an intentional approach to understanding how representation works. but challenge a few aspects. The final respondent above goes further to hint at his/her understanding of representation – ‘damn you Richard Curtis’ suggests that the . especially the extent of its realism.. For example. A quick read of the interactive users’ comments on t he International Movie Database (www. the writer of the film. This therefore supports Hall’s view that the meaning made is influenced by social positioning. Putting it into practice: Kidulthood Hall’s theories are useful to illustrate how different audiences might make meaning from the 2006 Menhaj Huda film.imdb. some people whose social position places them outside the text’s specific target audience. I’ve grown up on an estate in Chatham and I can honestly say that what you see in this film is really what it’s like. The film is set in West London and recounts a ‘day in the life’ of a group of school kids the day and the day after a classmate commits suicide due to bullying. then this is a negotiated reading. I come from E15 (East London) and the stuff in Kidulthood happens all the time in my area. a teenage mum is unlikely to accept the preferred reading of a documentary that represents teenage mums as careless or unfit parents. in terms of its representation of youth and their behaviour.com) shows that different audiences viewed the film. It’s kinda cool to show the rest of the world how scary it can be in England. If they generally accept the preferred reading. crime -ridden places in the world! Damn you Richard Curtis! The main factors that appear to influence the way meaning is made from the film are the ages and locations of the audience members. may be more active in questioning the representations in the text. Clarke appears to think that the representations made in the film mean whatever they were intended to mean. in very different ways. All northerners and elsewhere don’t really realise that London is one of the roughest.This is the preferred reading. He also suggests that representations are a ‘window on the world’ that just reflect society. The same person may even read the same text in different ways if they encounter it in different contexts – do you ‘read’ texts the same in the classroom as you do at home? You may make a preferred reading when you are at home. consuming a text for entertainment and pleasure for example. as Media students – and in light of what we have learnt from Hall – we know otherwise. because I know that the film’s not promoting or justifying anything it’s merely ‘there’…it’s just a film that’s out there.

giving out invites to a party and play football. The opening of Kidulthood merges different modes of representation. The Streets’ ‘Stay Positive’. juxtaposed to scenes of poor parenting or youths not being understood by adults.audience member feels that director Richard Curtis’s representations of London in romcom films such as Love Actually (2003) have given those without first-hand knowledge an inaccurate view of London. the overall effect is that the representation looks more like ‘real life’. But this scene is cross-cut with scenes that are more conventional of the gangster genre. the preferred reading is that these young people are representative of ‘the youth of today’ growing up in west London. and the focus remains shallow. In the 12th-minute of the film. ‘bruv’. Kids chat to each other. The camera is steady and close up. The diagetic soundtrack. It is important to be aware that this representation is as constructed as any other. Kidulthood opens with a close-up of feet playing football. young people growing up in urban environments. in a realist representation of ‘every day life’. . The film stock is grainy. The music becomes diagetic again as Katie’s parents begin calling her to turn it down. Trife drilling (what we later realise is) a gun. and the location shooting and handheld. is in contrast to the harmless goings on in the playground. The dialogue is very specific to both region and generation. reinforce this. using realist codes in production and MTV-style visual trickery. as choosing to represent youth in London in this way encodes a particular ideological perspective. restless camera jumping from character to character at eye level and in shallow focus also adds to the sense of realism. Here we see further iconography of the gangster genre – replica guns. This juxtaposition of genres continues. drugs and violence are prevalent. as Trife talks to his uncle in a car. ‘hug him up’. The technique indicates parallel action. Kidulthood therefore uses codes of realism to construct a representation of youth in west London. and different characters are shown in split screen rolling from right to left. The music bridges to the next scene becoming non -diagetic. voices in a playground. characteristic of British realist films. who stands out as the protagonist in the opening scenes when he is the only one to stand up to the bully. The codes of realism used include: • On location shooting • Point of View shots • Low resolution film stock • Naturalistic lighting • Handheld camera • Eye level camera angles Although some decisions may have been made for economic reasons (low resolution film stock is far cheaper than the alternative options often favoured by Hollywood. and diagetic music begins. creating dramatic areas of light and dark. they would do so from the perspective of their own social position. and a menacing male figure who dresses in heavy jewellery and a long black leather coat. ‘allow it man’. and playing computer games. drugs. However. and as a result. a female character Katie switches on her stereo. location shooting means not having to pay for and prepare a studio). after she has hung herself. The target audience for the film. The representations of young people are so mewhat stereotypical. even if a little exaggerated for narrative purposes. resembling a music video. covered in mud and evoking a stereotype of a schoolboy. but the subject. are smoking in the playground. They may therefore identify with some of the characters in the film. whilst the male characters are shown going for a walk. as the female characters are shown taking a pregnancy test and writing a suicide note. on phones. language including ‘blud’. The drill is shot with key lighting to the left. themes of sex. are likely to find these themes familiar. and the montage ends with their discovery of her body. in post-production. if somebody from outside the target audience were to watch the film. most likely Trife. getting a hair cut. such as split and sliding screens and cinemascope. ‘innit’ and ‘oh my days’ may not be understood by people outside London’s youth culture.

when Sam’s costume was decided. reinforcing dominant ideological values of formal education. For example. The codes of social-realism and gangster are merged to such an extent that for some. This. and when it is negotiated? Lucy Scott-Galloway . the costume carries connotations of trouble. and hope for their future. Furthermore. some may think that the film glamorises teenage pregnancy – the only characters who are really likeable are Trife and Alisa. when analysing this film with my class. Whereas my thing is that it’s the opposite way round. or in some cases. it was chosen only because a hoodie is a casual item that signifies nothing more than the suggestion that Sam is not a pupil at the school where the scene is set. it is rare for a young person to drill guns for their gangster uncle or for a pupil to commit suicide. and we are not making a personal. The climax to the narrative is at Blake’s party. Whilst the preferred reading is that this is a realistic film. Sam. to imagine that the hoodie signifies any more than that. with connotations of control and conformity. or made up altogether. Perhaps we are bringing our own socio-cultural experience to the reading. we suggested. when Trife and Alisa decide to have the baby together. Some of the sorrow the audience feels when Trife dies is because he and Alisa will never have their happy family unit. refutes the claims of sensationalism in the DVD’s special features. some may think the representations of youth are exaggerated or sensationalised. Criticisms of Hall How can a preferred reading be identified? How do we know if we have found it. unless the producers tell us what it is? Would they tell us the truth? David Morley (a theorist in audience studies) has suggested that the preferred reading is the: reading which the analyst is predicting that most members of the audience will produce. So how do we know when we are making a preferred reading. Society influenced the film.What if the people watching the film were your parents. This film couldn’t exist if these things weren’t happening already. negotiated reading. signifies that Sam is an antagonist. and the emotional response of the audience is to feel pleasure in their union. Whilst the writer of the film. the film loses its realist edge. The reading appears to be obvious and transparent – but how do we know? Maybe. Noel Clarke. is dressed in a blue hoodie with the hood up – and following recent moral panics around teens and hoodies. oppositional readings. I think he fails to give enough credit to his own imagination: Some people have said that this [film] will influence society and influence young people. Whilst bullying happens with unfortunate regularity and underage smoking and sex occurs also. however. or even grandparents? Would they think the same as you? What if the people watching the film were conservatives living in rural environments a long way from a city? Would they find these characters and events believable? These are the people who might make negotiated. Most are in school uniforms. we discussed the costumes of the characters in the opening scene.