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  Representation, in communication studies, means the way in which signs are used to convey meaning, and refers to the construction of meaning within any system of communication: speech, writing, television, film, newspapers, video or academic discourse. It is through systems of representation that ideologies formulate and frame the things which concern them. The meanings within a particular system alter over time to accommodate change and challenge. As such, feminism is itself a system of representation with a matrix of meanings that pivot around the central notion of equality for women.

In the past, representation (in the form of speech and writing) was taken to be an objective measure of ‘reality’: a device mediating between our experience and the external world. This notion was overturned by, among others, Ferdinand de Saussure, Wittgenstein and Jacques Derrida, who in different ways argued that representation does not mediate between experience and ‘reality’, but, instead, that systems of representation categorize and determine our experience. In collapsing the distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ they considered that notions of truth were the product of particular systems of representation.

Theories of representation are particularly important in feminism. One of the main projects for feminism was, and is, the task of uncovering hidden negative representations of women in language and in the media. But after the work of de Saussure and Derrida, especially, Elizabeth Cowie posed the question: how should we deal with representations of women if no fundamental truth could be accessed under patriarchal misrepresentations of women? Cowie and other feminists chose to deal with this question by highlighting the way in which representations are produced, and the way in which they formulate themselves as truth.

Many feminist theorists have used psychoanalysis to help explain how women are positioned within systems of representations. Jacqueline Rose, for example, argues that within the ‘phallic’ order ‘woman’, as a sign, represents difference and loss a usage which underpins the ‘phallic’ representational order. She argues that the representation of women as archaic and primordial, which often appears within feminist texts as a means of escaping the patriarchal construction of feminity, secures instead the ‘phallic’ order by replicating its representation of women as ‘other’. Rose emphasizes, as does Cowie, the role of fantasy and the unconscious as one of the means by which we acquire gender identity within a representational system in which the phallus is the primary signifier. The unconscious factor, they suggest, has been left out of many feminist explanations of sexual difference, which see sexual difference only in terms of external forces. TK

See also Marxist criticism.Further reading D. Lusted, The Media Studies Book.



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