Crime... Raggy Clothes... Factory Workers... & Rice:
"They're all the same, aren't they?" Deconstructing media stereotypes of 'Asians'.
Michael Singh, Sharon Chirgwin & Kirsten Elliott
In the context of a broader, national agenda to improve levels of 'Asia literacy' among Australian students this article reports on one aspect of a whole school action research project in Media Studies, developed at Central Queensland University, specifically focused on assisting Year 5 and Year 6 primary school students to understand the fears and desires they hold about 'Asia' and 'Asian' people. The aim was to engage them in negotiating the contradictions and complexities they identify. Taught over a four week period at Mercia Primary School in Geelong, the media studies unit incorporated Key Learning Areas of English and Studies of Human Society and the Global Environment. It engaged students in discussion, research tasks, analysis and reflection in order to critique their understandings of 'Asia' and the sources through which these understandings are continually mediated.
During the process of critical reflection, researchers investigated the ideological platform informing the planning and presentation of the unit to identify weaknesses within its rationale in order to improve those future studies of Asia which will be developed.
Students were encouraged to consider how their readings of media texts reflect prevailing representations of 'Asia' and 'Asian' people. This particular initiative was aligned with a whole-school project seeking to integrate studies of Indonesia in the primary school curriculum.
Media studies is an appropriate medium for teaching skills and strategies of critical reading in tandem with the integration of studies of Indonesia, primarily because of the obvious connections between the mass media and students and our own day to day lives. Media texts are not produced in isolation; media institutions, electronic and print media alike, are complicit in complex relationships of power and cultural identity within societies - local, national and global societies. Writers, reviewers, presenters and consumers of media texts relate to one another through a diverse array of mediated social discourses. As members of a professional education community researchers necessarily participate in these discourses as well.
Media texts often demonstrate a preference for simplified constructs of people and institutions, hence a tendency to stereotype people on the basis of markers of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual or national identity. Students were presenting similarly simplified representations in their identification of the region, the people in the region and propositions related to both of these. By making the starting point of the unit the students' own commonplace identification of 'Asia' as a homogenous entity, and initially using media texts which reflected similarly simplified constructs, the study could use these materials to enable students to develop skills and strategies to critically read on these representations.
Previous discussions and programming to integrate studies of Asia into the whole-school curriculum, with specific reference to Indonesia, has already demonstrated the professional benefits of adopting an action research framework to effectively plan, implement, monitor and critically evaluate the work being done. Futhermore, by introducing the students to the research framework they were able to trial its relevance to their studies themselves. Hence the processes involved in the media studies unit reflected the action research process itself. In this way the project could not only emphasise the important role that school and university researchers have in producing really useful knowledge but also highlight the important contributions students make in the ongoing endeavours of school based curriculum development.
When classroom discussion was directed to the images children had of "Asia", the children were forthcoming in their responses and quite willing to describe their impressions to their teacher. It was found that their impressions reflected very 'Third World' images - that the people were poor by nature, dark skinned, 'slant eyed', factory or field workers - in stark contrast to the images they would have seen if they visited Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand or Malaysia.
It was not difficult to access resources which reflected these simplified constructs of 'Asia' and to introduce students to a broader range of sources of information, some of which would highlight issues connecting Australia and Australian people to the peoples and nations identified in the Asian region.
By focusing on specific stories about people living in particular communities in specific countries of Asia the study was able to present alternative viewpoints, which meant predominantly positive viewpoints to counter the pervasively negative readings students had at present. Students were allowed time to consider whether or not specific anecdotes and life stories were also reflected in simplified constructs. Certainly access to text and film based resources relating to Indonesia, China, India, Vietnam and Japan proved beneficial to broaden students' experiences of and about people in particular countries in the Asian region.
Action: implementing the program
The foundation of this unit of work was established around regular focus group discussions. These discussions formed the basis for follow-up activities and a grounding for shared reflections on the range of stimulus material used during the unit. Initially students worked together to identify the geographical location of many countries in the Asian region, although it was found that their definition of 'Asia' did not include Pakistan, Afghanistan or Sri Lanka. In contrast, The Asia Education Foundation's definition of Asia identifies 21 nations divided into 3 geographical areas: Southern Asia, South-Eastern Asia and North-Eastern Asia. Despite the students' ability to recognise the majority of countries located in the Asian region, they maintained images and issues that identified 'Asia' as if it were a single entity. As a class it was agreed to investigate how widely these general propositions about 'Asia' could be applied. This was to be completed by testing out the relevance and accuracy of the propositions in relation to what could be found in particular countries.
For example in testing the proposition that 'Asia is an area of the world that is unchanging', the first task required students to identify those source materials which informed their impressions. The role of the media was then studied to see how it succeeded in presenting particular images about Asian peoples and the countries in which they live. For example, a television advertisement for washing machines, which shows women of India scrubbing their clothes on the banks of the Ganges, proved an excellent stimulus for investigating issues relating to stereotyping as well as a very useful precursor to tasks aimed at developing and applying critical reading skills to a wider range of print and non-print material.
Small group discussions were used to have students consider a range of possible readings of the advertisement. In these groups students discussed several focus questions such as, 'What is the commercial saying about people in India?'; 'What assumptions is it making?'; 'In what ways could the commercial be detrimental to India and people of India, in the eyes of Australians?'; and 'How might it influence our ideas that 'Asia' remains locked in a rural, technologically unsophisticated, unchanging world?'
Students summarised, in note form, the collated and consensus responses of their group to each of the focus questions. In the process of completing these tasks, students had the opportunity to question the 'truth' of what they were 'reading' in each of the focus texts.
Students then participated in similar activities as other propositions were investigated. In each case, students read media texts which supported their propositions but they also read alternative representations of nations and people in the Asian region. For example, Julia Fraser's book The Sultan is at Home: Jess in Indonesia presented students with the anecdotes of an Anglo-Australian girl meeting people in Jakarta, Yogyakarta and some areas of the island of Bali. Similarly, video presentations like Chong Lee's China informed students' discussions, broadening their experiences of and about people living in particular countries of Asia. It was on this basis that students were then required to review and qualify their initial propositions, for instance that 'all Asians are poor' and 'crime is rampant in Asia'.
Having established a platform for students to critique the negative representations and simplified constructs of 'Asia' they were then introduced to a project task, requiring them to present a report of a specific country in a brochure format. The students were asked to highlight positive images about the particular Asian country they were researching. They completed this task with brochure reports on Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, Korea, India, and one student focused on Bali, a province of the Republic of Indonesia. Each student highlighted the attractiveness of the country for holiday makers.
Maintaining thorough programming details; observing and collating records of students' work and their evaluative remarks; and recording personal responses to the planning and implementation of the unit; assisted the researchers to monitor the unit as it progressed and hence, inform the review and subsequent planning for the next stage of the project. It was found that students generally developed a willingness to participate more actively in focus group discussions as they became familiar and comfortable with the format and forum in which they were encouraged to offer informed opinions, to carefully consider alternative opinions and to explore their ideas on issues they considered relevant to the focus questions.
Students' remarks were regularly collated, summarised and later reviewed by the students themselves. These review tasks presented students with the opportunity to reflect on their expressed opinions and, with guidance, they were able to reason how and why they held these particular views; how and why they had already changed; and how and why they may change further in the future. By the end of the unit, the students were better able to subject their three initial propositions under scrutiny. Some students were beginning to critique a text in terms of its ideological platform.
Typical of students' comments recorded at the beginning of the unit of work were the ideas that there is a lot of crime in Asia; that Asia has very serious laws; that Asians eat a lot of rice; that Asians have raggy clothes; that Asians have loose fitting clothes; that a lot of Asians work in the fields; and that lots of Asian people work in factories. By the end of the unit, the students were saying that the media in Australia was playing a significant role in projecting narrow and simplified views of 'Asia' which they themselves had initially taken as accurate.
The students then began to explore possible reasons why these representations were usually couched in negative terms or images. In their evaluative review of the unit students were remarkably thoughtful. For example, one student reflected that 'the media stereotypes Asia because they don't want Asia to look good because they are the Eastern culture and we are the Western culture so they don't want Asia to be promoted.' Another suggested that 'the media thinks if they show the bad side it will make the Western culture look better'.
Perhaps, more importantly, there was a recognition of the contradictions in media representations of 'Asia' and the consequent ambivalences felt by students. 'The media sometimes makes Asia look as if they are not as wealthy as other countries', one student reflected 'and other times will show the wealthy area so I'm not really sure'. The indication from classroom discussions and student journals was that students were beginning to read media representations of people and places critically - questioning what they had otherwise taken for granted. Despite these demonstrated gains in critical reading and an articulated recognition of a certain degree of complexity about 'Asia', however, students continued to misuse the term 'Asia' to represent as a homogenous entity the culturally, linguistically, politically, economically and socially heterogeneous countries and peoples of this diverse region. Hence, on the one hand the researchers' reflective journals recorded positive outcomes such as 'Overall I was pleased that this unit enabled the children to become more critical of what they read, see on TV, and hear on the radio', while on the other the student self-assessment records suggested that they recognised the study as a discrete unit of work and not one that had further application to other areas they were doing either at school or in their lives outside of school. Students were asked to write down any further questions they had about 'Asia'. The majority of them wrote that they had no further questions. They indicated that the unit of work had been interesting, they had learnt a great deal, enjoyed preparing and producing their brochures and no longer had any questions to ask!
Reflection and Supplementation
Integral to the action research process is the work of critical reflection. This work serves not only as a critique of the unit already enacted with students but, more importantly, as preparation, for our next stage of curriculum action. In this project the aim was to find out how the unit of work had enhanced the children's and the researcher's understandings of the countries and people in 'Asia' and whether students were developing and applying the critical reading skills and strategies as designed. To do this a critical discourse analysis was applied to the planning, monitoring and evaluation notes taken by researchers during the project. It was considered that critical discourse analysis was an appropriate tool to reveal the discursive practices linking, for example, planning texts with texts outlining the selection and adaptation of resource materials and the monitoring records. Specific references to these records were used to reveal possibilities for supplementation where this could better deliver on unit aims.
The contradictions between the stated aims and objectives and what we found the time, our experience and resources led us to negotiate with the students, is possibly best reflected by our shifting position on whether 'seeing is believing' and our complicity in continuing a predominantly 'orientalist' view of what studies of Asia involved.
On the one hand researchers were guiding students to interrogate advertising images of women in India and by inference and feedback discussions were suggesting that these 'visuals' were suspect, and misrepresenting, while on the other hand researchers used alternative 'visuals' and sanctioned them for the 'positive' images they presented. In hindsight, researchers were not only limiting the opportunities to apply and develop critical reading skills but, where critical readings were guided, were limiting the project to a deconstructive exercise.
This was in clear opposition to the intended reconstructive and hence positive and transforming experience of what studies of Asia might be, namely an experience which could influence children's recognition of their own abilities to act in affirmative and pro-active ways. Becoming aware of these contradictions, however, allowed researchers to make sense of the children's evaluative remarks, which indicated a sense of closure and completeness of their learning in this area. Students may need to be assisted to transform their readings and understandings of media texts in ways that could benefit the negotiation of good relations between the peoples of Australia and the countries of Asia.
Similarly limiting was the range of alternative texts presented to students in an attempt to challenge predominant images of Asia. While there was a clear shift from negative to positive portrayals, these representations were still flawed as they persisted in viewing the peoples and the countries of Asia as Other, and in this way distant to the Australian experience. Classroom discussions had already revealed this to be incorrect. For example, one girl in the class had Indian heritage and had experienced life in India on trips there with her parents. Yet another child had an uncle who was married to a woman from Malaysia. The researchers' own experience gave them much closer relationships with the peoples and nations of Asia than any of the resource material being used in the classroom activities.
Supplementing the discursive resources of the children by reading in the local community connections with people and countries of Asia could be an initial step to better addressing a transformation of the Orientalist discourse so prevalent in Australian studies of Asia. In addition, supplementing resources designed, planned and produced by people of Asian background could inform students' own rearticulation and transformation of negative stereotypes of media texts. There needs to be a greater emphasis placed on the participating and ongoing application of critical reading skills if teachers are to assist students to negotiate their learning. Likewise, teachers need to maintain a critical approach to reviewing and planning work to inform understandings about ideology, issues of power relations and identity, and to test actions against rhetoric. This media studies unit served as a small, but nonetheless significant opportunity for researchers to engage in a manageable and yet incremental improvement in their understandings about how to integrate Studies of Asia into the curriculum in ways that promote critical reading. n
We are especially grateful to Helen Henry, Principal of Mercia School, under whose leadership the work reported in this paper has been initiated and sustained.
Michael Singh, Associate Professor of Education, Central Queensland University.
Sharon Chirgwin, Teacher of the combined Year 5-6, Mercia Primary School, Geelong.
Kirsten Elliott, ELICOS and community Indonesian language courses, Central Queensland University Language Centre.
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