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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 characters 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 ‘moment 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
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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 readings 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

This is the preferred reading.

However, some people whose social position places them outside the text’s
specific target audience, may be more active in questioning the representations
in the text. If they generally accept the preferred reading, but challenge a few
aspects, then this is a negotiated reading.

If their values and attitudes are very different or even in opposition to the target
audience, they are unlikely to accept much – if any – of the preferred reading,
making instead an oppositional reading. For example, a teenage mum is unlikely
to accept the preferred reading of a documentary that represents teenage mums
as careless or unfit parents.

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.

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, but challenge the
representations and how they are constructed when you are studying.

Putting it into practice: Kidulthood


Hall’s theories are useful to illustrate how different audiences might make
meaning from the 2006 Menhaj Huda film, Kidulthood.

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. In the DVD’s special features, the writer of the film, Noel Clarke,
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, 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. And it is highlighting what happens in society.’

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This is an intentional approach to understanding how representation works.
Clarke appears to think that the representations made in the film mean whatever
they were intended to mean. He also suggests that representations are a
‘window on the world’ that just reflect society. But, as Media students – and in
light of what we have learnt from Hall – we know otherwise. What has been
encoded may be decoded differently by different audiences.

A quick read of the interactive users’ comments on the International Movie


Database (www.imdb.com) shows that different audiences viewed the film,
especially the extent of its realism, in very different ways.

I loved this film. I found it very truthful about young urban people
getting into fights and arguments and it spiralling out of control.
It’s kinda cool to show the rest of the world how scary it can be in
England. 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...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.
I come from E15 (East London) and the stuff in Kidulthood happens
all the time in my area.
All northerners and elsewhere don’t really realise that London is one
of the roughest, 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. Those who live near to
where the film is set appear to feel the film is realistic, in terms of its
representation of youth and their behaviour. This therefore supports Hall’s view
that the meaning made is influenced by social positioning. The final respondent
above goes further to hint at his/her understanding of representation – ‘damn you
Richard Curtis’ suggests that the 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 opening of Kidulthood merges different modes of representation, using


realist codes in production and MTV-style visual trickery, such as split and sliding
screens and cinemascope, in post-production. Kidulthood opens with a close-up
of feet playing football, covered in mud and evoking a stereotype of a schoolboy.
The diagetic soundtrack; voices in a playground, reinforce this. The film stock is
grainy, characteristic of British realist films, and the location shooting and
handheld, restless camera jumping from character to character at eye level and
in shallow focus also adds to the sense of realism. Kids chat to each other, on
phones, are smoking in the playground, giving out invites to a party and play
football, in a realist representation of ‘every day life’. The dialogue is very specific
to both region and generation, language including ‘blud’, ‘bruv’, ‘hug him up’,
‘allow it man’, ‘innit’ and ‘oh my days’ may not be understood by people outside
London’s youth culture.

But this scene is cross-cut with scenes that are more conventional of the
gangster genre. The camera is steady and close up, and the focus remains
shallow, but the subject; Trife drilling (what we later realise is) a gun, is in
contrast to the harmless goings on in the playground. The drill is shot with key
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lighting to the left, creating dramatic areas of light and dark. This juxtaposition of
genres continues, as Trife talks to his uncle in a car. Here we see further
iconography of the gangster genre – replica guns, drugs, and a menacing male
figure who dresses in heavy jewellery and a long black leather coat.

In the 12th-minute of the film, a female character Katie switches on her stereo,
and diagetic music begins, The Streets’ ‘Stay Positive’. The music bridges to the
next scene becoming non-diagetic, and different characters are shown in split
screen rolling from right to left, resembling a music video. The technique
indicates parallel action, as the female characters are shown taking a pregnancy
test and writing a suicide note, whilst the male characters are shown going for a
walk, getting a hair cut, and playing computer games. The music becomes
diagetic again as Katie’s parents begin calling her to turn it down, and the
montage ends with their discovery of her body, after she has hung herself.

Kidulthood therefore uses codes of realism to construct a representation of youth


in west London. It is important to be aware that this representation is as
constructed as any other, as choosing to represent youth in London in this way
encodes a particular ideological perspective.

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, location shooting means not having to pay for and prepare a studio),
the overall effect is that the representation looks more like ‘real life’, and as a
result, the preferred reading is that these young people are representative of ‘the
youth of today’ growing up in west London. The representations of young people
are somewhat stereotypical; themes of sex, drugs and violence are prevalent,
juxtaposed to scenes of poor parenting or youths not being understood by adults.

The target audience for the film, young people growing up in urban
environments, are likely to find these themes familiar, even if a little exaggerated
for narrative purposes. They may therefore identify with some of the characters
in the film, most likely Trife, who stands out as the protagonist in the opening
scenes when he is the only one to stand up to the bully. However, if somebody
from outside the target audience were to watch the film, they would do so from
the perspective of their own social position.

What if the people watching the film were your parents, 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, or in some cases, oppositional readings. Whilst the preferred
reading is that this is a realistic film, some may think the representations of youth
are exaggerated or sensationalised, or made up altogether. Whilst bullying
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happens with unfortunate regularity and underage smoking and sex occurs also,
it is rare for a young person to drill guns for their gangster uncle or for a pupil to
commit suicide. The codes of social-realism and gangster are merged to such an
extent that for some, the film loses its realist edge. Whilst the writer of the film,
Noel Clarke, refutes the claims of sensationalism in the DVD’s special features, 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. Whereas my thing is that it’s the opposite
way round. Society influenced the film. This film couldn’t exist if these
things weren’t happening already.

Furthermore, some may think that the film glamorises teenage pregnancy – the
only characters who are really likeable are Trife and Alisa. The climax to the
narrative is at Blake’s party, when Trife and Alisa decide to have the baby
together, and the emotional response of the audience is to feel pleasure in their
union, and hope for their future. Some of the sorrow the audience feels when
Trife dies is because he and Alisa will never have their happy family unit.

Criticisms of Hall
How can a preferred reading be identified? How do we know if we have found it,
and we are not making a personal, negotiated reading, 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.

For example, when analysing this film with my class, we discussed the costumes
of the characters in the opening scene. Most are in school uniforms, with
connotations of control and conformity, reinforcing dominant ideological values of
formal education. Sam, however, is dressed in a blue hoodie with the hood up –
and following recent moral panics around teens and hoodies, the costume
carries connotations of trouble. This, we suggested, signifies that Sam is an
antagonist. The reading appears to be obvious and transparent – but how do we
know? Maybe, when Sam’s costume was decided, 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. Perhaps we are bringing our
own socio-cultural experience to the reading, to imagine that the hoodie signifies
any more than that. So how do we know when we are making a preferred
reading, and when it is negotiated?

Lucy Scott-Galloway

This article first appeared in MediaMagazine 20.

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