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The Fringe Benefits of Symbolic Annihilation

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FlowTV News-Last semester I spoke with an undergraduate student, now pursuing graduate study in journalism at Columbia University, about his Filipino heritage and the near absence of Filipino representation on television in the United States. Despite a deeply rooted historic presence in this country and high levels of participation in mainline U.S. institutions like the military, Filipinos barely exist on U.S. television. Recent screen history features a handful of familiar Filipino faces whose biracial positionality allows for flexible casting; actors like Lou Diamond Phillips, Phoebe Cates, and Vanessa Hudgens have portrayed popular charcters, although not necessarily coded as Filipino. Singer Bruno Mars, who currently enjoys pop stardom, commented to the New York Times on skepticism he garnered from record labels early in his career: “I guess if I’m a product, either you’re chocolate, you’re vanilla or your butterscotch. You can’t be all three.”2

My student and I talked about how the lack of Filipinos in general market media exemplified a key idea of Gerbner’s3 notion of symbolic annihilation: if a group has no representation on television, they will not exist in the public consciousness and issues important to that community are never mentioned within frameworks of public deliberation. Tuchman and others added to the idea in the 1970s, and it became very useful in understanding the relationship between the symbolic and the real, especially in the cases of ethnic minorities, women, and queer representation. For the discussion with my student, the core idea behind symbolic annihilation meant that because Filipinos are absent in news discourses and as characters on scripted programs: no positive role models exist for Filipino youth; issues pertaining to the Filipino community are not made available for consideration by the larger public; and Filipinos are not rendered as part of the national imaginary.(Full Story)

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