Reclaiming Stereotypes

The phenomenon of stereotyping in the media is covered vastly in academic research. The term “stereotype” can be defined as “[…] a fixed, over generalized belief about a particular group or class of people.” (Cardwell 1996). In social psychology, the term is further detailed as (1) an aid to explanation, (b) an energy-saving device, and (c) a shared group belief. (McGarty et al. 2002: 2). But more importantly than knowing the concept behind the word, is to understand how this “class of people” is categorized. Commonly, cultural studies engage in differentiation and categorization with a wider perspective of the tendencies of, what Antonio Gramsci calls, a hegemonic society (Bates 1975: 352). Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony, which, in a simplified way, refers to the dominance of one social class over others (Bates 1975: 352), can be adapted to making sense of the stereotypical categorizations in media, because of its focus on culture and ideology. According to Gramsci, it is important to identify routine structures and value systems as part of the mechanism of cultural domination (Gitlin, 1994:517). Since it is a representation of popular culture and, therefore, holds a status of being highly influential, Hollywood cinema can be categorized as such. Consequently, stereotypes supported and perpetuated by Hollywood cinema have an impact on popular culture.
African-Americans have been subject to stereotyping throughout all of American cinema history. Even the earliest films depicted stereotyped images of African-Americans. But resistance has always been strong, with political groups and activists criticizing the narrow-sighted way of representation African-Americans have had to endure. However, regardless of the many attempts and successes in counteracting this misrepresentation in Hollywood cinema, the struggle continues, especially for women. Activism has been focussed mainly on male-representation, while African-American women have struggled to find a voice behind the veil of not only racial bias, but also sexism. However, significant steps have been taken throughout the last few decades to rectify the misrepresentation of women: Independent film productions have challenged the distorted images portrayed by the media. Directors, producers, writers and other film crew members as well as actors, actresses and activists have spoken out against stereotyping in Hollywood cinema. Furthermore, organisations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, have organized protests and challenged marketing of Hollywood films depicting stereotypical representations of African-Americans. In this way, the cinema industry has been confronted by resistance coming from the inside the industry as well as the outside.

This analysis serves to outline the continued struggle of African-American women to counteract racially and sexually biased stereotypes as perpetuated by the popular media domain of Hollywood cinema in a white-dominated, patriarchal society. Moreover, it serves to shed light on recent activism and achievements, which are now commonly referred to as ‘reclaiming stereotypes’. Resistance from within the industry will be exemplified by juxtaposing the 2009 film “Precious”, an independent production which was majorly successful, with other film productions from the same year, which serve to perpetuate the misrepresentation of African-American women. Furthermore, activism stemming from sources outside of the cinema industry will be detailed, as part of a growing mind state of contempt for stereotyping African-American women.


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Post-Agreement Irish Literature (A lecture by Dr. Heidemann-Malreddy)

Dr. Birte Heidemann-Malreddy is a post-doctoral researcher at the Bremen University. Her lecture introduces the audience to post-agreement Northern-Irish literature which represents Northern Ireland’s anxiety and confinement fears in post-agreement Northern Ireland and “forges a new literary paradigm” (Heidemann-Malreddy: 2016). Her lecture maps the generic parameters of what she terms Post-Agreement Literature, which she describes as a literature by young Northern Irish authors, which came about during the Troubles, between 1960 and 1980, in contrast to the commonly used term ‘contemporary Northern Irish literature’.

First, she introduces the poem A spider by Colette Bryce, which she feels is representative of a new generation of Northern Irish writers, which detail the feeling of being stuck in a place and time, difficult to escape.

She then goes on to introduce the audience to the background of the texts in question, by outlining a piece of text which was published in the Irish Times, one day after the Good Friday-Agreement, written by Seamus Heaney, Heidemann-Malreddy considers this the document which officially introduces the new era of literary expression which she focuses on in her lecture. She further distinguishes the writers she focusses on in her studies from others, which can all be considered contemporary writers who have grown up during the Troubles and come of age during the time of the Peace Process. The writers she focusses on are those who approach the violence of the time in a new light, not utilizing it as the dominant theme of their writing. Instead of depicting the violence explicitly, the writers she focusses on use metaphor and symbolism and other stylistic devices to transfer the reader to a level of retrospect, which conveys the past of the country, with a special focus on the signing of the agreement as symbolic for the violence thereafter. She mentions two coordinates, one being the suppressed history of conflict and the second being focussed on a future, which has already been agreed upon. Those are the parameters she bases her categorizations on.

She then investigates the language used in the actual text and design of the Good-Friday Agreement which she terms ‘flashy’ and likening the it to a “user-manual” (Heidemann-Malreddy: 2016) of political change, outlining also the opposing linguistic message, which presupposes obligation while alluding to consent. She further explains the importance of recognizing the relationship between Ireland and Britain as that of “claustrophobic intensity”, as coined by Colin Graham (Deconstructing Ireland, 93). This description makes the state of “limbo” (Heidemann-Malreddy: 2016) in which Ireland finds itself after the agreement, clear and helps in further detailing the literature of the time, in which “liminality is limiting rather than liberating”, which she terms “negative liminality” (Heidemann-Malreddy: 2016).

She exemplifies this by introducing several post-agreement fictional novels: Number Five (2003) by Glenn Paterson, The Ultras (2004) by Eoin McNamee, and The Truth Commissioner (2008) by David Park, which all detail the described feeling of being trapped in a state of anxiety.  She describes the two most recent works of fiction to exist on the plane of “negative liminality”, which express a pessimistic view. All three texts connect characters from the past to the present, which is representative of the idea that post-agreement literature tends to cling to the past.

Regarding post-agreement poetry, she then introduces a poem by Leontia Flynn, titled Berlin, which documents a trip between Belfast and Berlin and describes similarities and differences between Germany’s Berlin Wall and Belfast’s Peace Walls, separating the religious denominations of the community, which represent the divisions which must be overcome to look towards a better future of unity. Moreover, she outlines the significance of Alan Gillis’ poem Progress, which challenges the agreement more than any other, which is achieved by means of reconstruction of a bombing which took place in fictional pre-agreement Belfast, and montages images which go through the poem in reverse.

Post-agreement drama is then briefly outlined by means of examples: This Other City by Daragh Carville, and Pumpgirl by Abbie Spallen, both utilize the device of “syntactic suspension” (Heidemann-Malreddy: 2016), which includes frequent full stops, dashes, and punctuation breaks, which serve to critique the political state of affairs by means of leaving out information.

In brief, Post-Agreement Northern Irish literature uses different, implicit techniques to portray the emotional state of a country which finds itself in a state of political and cultural frozenness due to its past and predetermined future.

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Obeah and the West Indian Short Story by Janelle Rodriques

I checked out this lecture a while back.

Janelle Rodriques is currently working on her doctorate degree at Bremen University, with a focus on Postcolonial Literature. She is presenting, in her lecture, the findings of her research for part of her dissertation, which is focussed on short stories written in and around 1939 – 1950 in the West Indies in the Caribbean, specifically detailing the history and significance of Obeah spiritual belief in literature of that time.

First of all, Rodriques describes the West Indies as an Anglophone Caribbean region which was colonialised in the late 16th century. Obeah is defined as an umbrella term for a number of different syncretic African-inspired Anglo-Caribbean spiritual and faith practices developed by West- Africans in response to their dislocation and enslavement. Furthermore, Rodriques describes it as a ‘way of life’ more than simply a religious practice. Common symbolism includes feathers, candles and roots, which all hold a specific spiritual meaning. Contrary to other spiritual practices such as Santeria, for example, Obeah does not have deities. However, there are similarities as well, as both reject the views supported by the Western philosophical framework of ‘Enlightenment’, meaning that Obeah does not support the idea that scientific facts are of higher value than spiritual belief. Obeah is a belief system based on a type of fluidity which transgresses materialism and spirituality. The social significance of Obeah is primarily based on the fact that it is part of a political counter-movement against Western colonial powers and hierarchical structures prevalent in the Caribbean.  Finding its beginnings in the horrors of slavery, with the term first being established after a slave-revolt in Jamaica in 1760, Obeah was a way of life and a way of separation from western culture. It was outlawed in the 18th century and has only recently been decriminalised. Rodriques describes Obeah as “pure potential” and “spiritual energy” and explains that its fluidity makes it difficult to narrate in prose fiction.

After defining and detailing Obeah and its social significance, Rodriques explores the topic of the short story. She illustrates that the 1930s were an important time for the short story, as a new consciousness was emerging which promoted a disconnect from western ideals and the establishment of unity among the colonised, regardless of political perspective and religion, with fiction being an important tool in counteracting the political structures prevalent at the time. This time marked the beginning of anti-colonialist literature as a political statement and although the focus lay on a regional audience, the message was to be conveyed internationally to create an even greater common consciousness of anti-colonialist sympathies. Rodriques exemplifies this by introducing the audience to a short story called A Case in Court which was written by a writer with the pseudonym ‘Pennib’ and published in The Gleaner magazine in 1939, with its language being Patoa, a mash-up of different African languages turned into a creolised English. She describes that short stories are a commonly utilized and relate to African traditions, one of the types of short stories being the Anansi story, which is also used in A Case in Court, with the protagonist being a poor, illiterate trickster who manages to outsmart the judge after being accused of practicing Obeah.

In brief, Obeah holds much significance as it is more than just a spiritual practice: it symbolises not only anti-colonialist ideals but also the liberation of the oppressed and is therefore subject to constant rejection and dismantlement by the colonial powers which it seeks to be liberated from.

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Telling It As It Is, Mr. President? The Issue of Donald Trump’s Supposed ‘Word Salad’

Successful communication asserts a common sense when it comes to social interaction. This is especially crucial in the face of the power relation between politicians and their followers. It is a common skill of politicians to be able to properly utilize communication strategies as to effectively convey a message or make use of tactics to influence followers. It can therefore be asserted that an aptness in effective use of politeness and impoliteness strategies[1] is necessary in political discourse.

The proper use of politeness and impoliteness strategies is closely tied to the language tool of manipulation (Slavova 2012: 170). Political discourse resembles a constant power struggle as well as a cooperation between those who hold power and those who the ones in power rely on to maintain it. Therefore, it is of some significance for the one in power to properly communicate with his or her supporters. This double-sided power struggle, which entails on the one hand, to assert dominance and on the other hand, to maintain positive relations, asserts a high level of aptness when it comes to proper manipulation of social interaction (Slavova 2012: 170-171).

President Donald Trump’s use of language has been subject of investigation as well as criticism. Many think that his language style is uncalculated, with a large amount of people even calling it “word salad” (Lakoff 2016). His voters have praised him for always “tell[ing] it as it is” (BBC News 2016), thereby painting a picture of sincerity. But how sincere is the recently-elected president? George Lakoff writes in a blog post on his website that “[e]very time someone in the media claims his discourse is word salad it helps Trump by hiding what he is really doing.” (2016)

This research paper aims to dispute the assumption that President Trump’s use of language is uncalculated by focussing on the utilization of politeness and impoliteness strategies in relation to political discourse, as outlined and categorized by Brown & Levinson, and Culpeper. Subject of analysis is a television interview held by ABC’s David Muir with President Trump. The analysis is an attempt to provide evidence to expose President Trump’s strategic use of politeness and impoliteness strategies to assert his power over his critics and create a false sense of balance between him and his followers.

[1] as defined by Brown & Levinson (1987) and Culpeper (1996)


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Dr. Ian Watson: First World War Poetry

I saw this lecture in 2014. Dr. Ian Watson is an independent scholar and poet who spent many years teaching at the Bremen University as senior lecturer. His lecture covers first world war poetry from Ireland, which is a topic he claims to feel intimately connected to because of his own experience, hearing stories from war veterans as well as reading poetry from the time. Watson proposes the idea that the suffering experienced during that time has created poetry that is filled with intense poetic expression.

Watson makes some important distinctions between (a) combatant and non-combatant poets, combatant poets being those who actually fought in the war, (b) survived and didn’t survive, referring to whether or not the poet made it out of the war alive, (c) patriotic or critical (anti-war), judging the sympathies of the poet in context to the war, and (d) established poets or newcomers, referring to the level of acclaim, which the poet has already come to.

Combatant poets were Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke, Lt. General John McCrae, and Isaac Rosenberg, who also fall under the category of non-survivors, while those combatant poets who survived are Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden and Laurence Binyon. Non-combatant poets were Jessie Pope, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, and Sir Henry Newbolt.

Critical poets were Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Robert Graves, D.H. Lawrence, Isaac Rosenberg, Rudyard Kipling, and Thomas Hardy, while Jessie Pope, Rupert Brooke, Lt. General John McCrae, and Sir Henry Newbolt were non-critical of the war. Kipling was non-critical until 1910, experiencing a change from being highly nationalist and pro-war to a more liberal view, when his son was killed in the war.

Watson chooses three war-critical poets to focus on in the lecture: Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas. Both Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen did not survive the war. Siegfried Sassoon, however, managed to exit the war alive. Watson highlights the differences between these three war-critical poets by setting them is contrast to poets who supported the war. He also outlines the differences between those poets who survived and those who did not by comparing their work.

After briefly introducing the audience to a pro-war propaganda poem by John McCrae from 1915, which utilizes symbolism a to convey a patriotic message, Watson shows the audience what he calls the most iconic first-world war poem: For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon. After that he discusses Vitai Lampada by Sir Henry Newbolt, which expresses pro-war sympathies, metaphorically turning the endeavour of war into a sports event, which would appeal to youngsters.

Watson then describes the difference between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Own, who dealt with the war very differently, not only because of their unlike background, Sassoon being from the upper class, and Owen from the lower class, but also the fact that Sassoon survived, while Owen died in the war. However, Watson explains that, after meeting Owen, Sassoon was highly influenced by Owen’s work. Sassoon engaged in a type of angry anti-war satire poetry. In comparison, Wilfred Owen’s poems are of a more realist nature. Watson describes the difference between Sassoon and Owen as one of satire versus compassion. While Sassoon shows a more privileged perspective of the horrors of war, but still highly critical of the war, Owen’s work details the horrific events that took place in a more realistic light. A further anti-war poet whom Watson introduces the audience to is Edward Thomas, whose poem As the team’s head-brass, details how Britain changed due to the war.

In brief, Watson’s lecture introduces the audience to the different kinds of Irish First World-War poetry and the different perspectives from which it is told.


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#BlackLivesMatter Activism and Popular Music as a Challenge of Racial Profiling and Police Brutality

When we look at the history of African-American protest, one of the most prevalent issues being challenged is racial profiling and institutional brutality. And when the topics of racial profiling and institutional abuse of power, namely police brutality, are discussed, two facts become abundantly clear: (1) the two are closely related. The tendency of police in the United States to show a bias towards specific groups and the even more disturbing tendency of police officers to use unnecessary physical force against those specific groups unfortunately tend to go hand in hand. (2) The issues are not as recent as some would think, with the major evidence of this being the ubiquity of said matters in popular African-American media culture throughout history.

However, it is important to acknowledge one fact: Movements and reactions to fight racial profiling and police brutality against African-Americans have become increasingly strong with activist groups having managed to use popular media to their advantage to spread a message of awareness and resistance. The fact that almost all modern liberal news providers have sections for the coverage of issues related solely to African-Americans proves that there has been a surge in media interest in the matter as well as the movements which are created as a counterculture to the popular zeitgeist of apathy and obedience to a system which still promotes institutional racism and shows a terrifying tendency to systematically disregard the lives of African-Americans.

Music has always played a major role in the fight against racial bias, especially covering issues of racial profiling and police brutality. From Jazz to Rap music, African-American musicians have, for many years, chosen to use music as a way to challenge political and institutional systems and have been successful in spread their message of discontentment and anger. The discontentment is directed not only at a system which expects obedience from groups it chooses to disregard and systemically prejudge, but also at one which discourages support for their cause. Apart from entertaining people, music is often used as a tool to help people either see the misrepresentation of the African-American community and to encourage changes or to help people who are at odds with their own identity, see that they are, in fact, being misrepresented and prejudged and how to go about finding healthy ways of dealing with those feelings and fighting the issue.

In recent years there has been an increase in media interest in the matters of racial profiling and police brutality as well, largely due to technological advances such as smart phones and cameras making it a lot more likely to catch police in the act of physically assaulting or even killing African-Americans. Such as was the case with Trayvon Martin, a young African-American whose killing encouraged people all over the United States to come together in an attempt to assemble a countermovement against racial profiling. This movement started as a hashtag on the social media forum Facebook and was called #BlackLivesMatter.

The movement encouraged musicians in the American music industry to challenge institutional systems in an attempt spread awareness of people losing their lives due to racial bias. It can be claimed that this recent increase in activism has a lot to do with mainstream music scene while the music scene is profiting from the exposure of the matter. This almost symbiotic relationship between the social activism behind #BlackLivesMatter as the major representative of modern day ‘black’ protest and the mainstream music coverage of the matter and how both have created social change will be shown in this analysis by investigating some prevalent examples.


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“Reflections on how to read Africa”. A lecture by Dr. Louisa Uchum Egbunike

Dr. Louisa Uchum Egbunike is a lecturer at the Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, who presented her fascinating lecture at Bremen University in 2016. Her focus of research is African literature, specifically Nigerian literature and its authors. The lecture topic is representative of her PhD thesis topic ‘The Igbo Experience in the Igbo Nigerian Novel’, which proposes that African literature tends to utilize specific techniques to challenge the way in which Africa and Africans are seen and understood. One way in which this is achieved is proverbs, which Dr. Uchum Egbunike highlights in her lecture. She puts specific focus on Igbo proverbs from Nigeria.

Dr. Uchum Egbunike explains that, in West African oral tradition, proverbs are a commonly used form of artistic and philosophical expression. Usually highly metaphorical, proverbs are used to “illustrate ideas, reinforce arguments and deliver messages of inspiration, consolation, celebration and advice” (Uchum Egbunike: 2016), and often connected to philosophical concepts, which give the reader a specific insight into the world they represent by means of implicit conveyance. In this way, proverbs add something special to language, which specializes and focusses meaning to convey a sense of the environment they stem from.

To exemplify the use of proverbs in Nigerian literature, Dr. Uchum Egbunike introduces the audience to author Chinua Achebe, a prominent Nigerian author, poet, critic and professor. One such utilized proverb in Achebe’s work is “Onye ije isi awo ihe ama”, which Uchum Egbunike explains as being representative of an idea that, by far, exceeds the literal translation. She explains that the proverb supports multiple assumptions: Firstly, it details the Igbo experience of the traveller, who is commonly understood within the Igbo community as someone who has something very special to offer to his environment. Secondly, the proverb introduces the construction of a hierarchy which is based on the perceived wisdom and worldly knowledge of the traveller. And thirdly, it suggests the idea of a fixed homeland, portraying the Igbo people as homebound and showing patriotic sentiment. This is further detailed in Achebe’s novel No Longer at Ease (1960), which Uchum Egbunike describes as representative of the described sentiment conveyed in the proverb. The novel tells the story of an Igbo man who leaves his home to study in Great Britain. While telling his story, the novel details the protagonist’s feeling of being pressured to perform, and the tensions created by the sense of distance. Uchum Egbunike describes that the protagonist comes to an understanding of himself as a Nigerian person, which is largely due to the distance from home offering him a new perspective.

Uchum Egbunike also details another novel which is exemplary of the idea portrayed by the proverb: Our Sister Killjoy (1977) by Ghanaian author Ama Ata Aidoo. The novel tells the story of a young Ghanaian woman who studies in the UK. It strongly utilizes the idea of returning home, explicitly and implicitly, and is closely linked to Ghanaian history, while expressing strong sentiments against the historical disruptions caused to Ghana by the slave trade, with a specific focus on Ghanaian women. Uchum Egbunike theorizes that Aidoo makes use of symbolism such as the Sankofa, which symbolizes a return, and utilizes choppy typography to instil a feeling of “structural anarchy”, which is functional as a textual subversion of structural norms, to rebel against white male centred narratives, while constantly alluding to the idea of the travel strengthening the sense of home.

In brief, Dr. Uchum Egbunike illustrates clearly in her lecture that West-African proverbs are vast in meaning and are commonly used to convey philosophical concepts in a simplistic way.

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