On Image Representation and Linguistic Performance in Sexual Violence News on Mainstream Media

İpek Çınar
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‘Representations are productive: photographs, far from merely reproducing a pre-existing world, constitute a highly coded discourse which, among other things, constructs whatever is in the image as object of consumption - consumption by looking, as well as often quite literally by purchase. It is no coincidence, therefore, that in many highly socially visible (and profitable) forms of photography women dominate the image. Where photography takes women as its subject matter, it also constructs "woman" as a set of meanings which then enter cultural and economic circulation on their own account.' (1)


There is an issue that although it makes me very uncomfortable for a long time, I cannot put into words the cause of this discomfort, so I am trying to read more about it. I am trying to focus on news and image production methods (which leave a bad taste in the mouth) in mainstream media about the news on sexual violence. They are on the news, billboards, mailboxes at any time and any place and the sharp edge of them is always coming down right on my lap. These sharp edges cannot be easily identifiable. Therefore, these images almost always sexualized the women by emphasizing the victimization of the person who is being attacked. Moreover, the language of the news overflow with words like ‘helpless', ‘weak', ‘drama', or sensational phrases like ‘twisted in the pain', ‘being raped for days'.   

In this article there will be no image, I must warn you beforehand. Although I am aware of how compelling it is to read an article without images, the idea of reproducing these images once again is sickening me. My only concern is talking about several key names and concepts of media and cultural studies in order to explain such a sensitive issue better. These keywords helped me a lot through my struggle with putting this into words, and hopefully, they will have the same effect on other people who have a question mark in their mind, or it will cause to create one.  

By the end of 2016, I had started to take the course that I benefited most in my undergraduate education. I haven't been a bright student since my high school years which necessitated something beyond the basic knowledge of mathematics and grammar. The title of that course was "Media and Opinion" and I stumbled upon the wonderful book that I had heard about but never opened its cover until that day: "Dialectic of Enlightenment".

In their book, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno define culture as an industry and look into this so called industry from a negative perspective. According to this, "culture industry" is a manipulation spiral whose effect and integration are ever-increasing. (2) "Integration" needs a little more detail. Especially, the writers focus on television and radio programs, state that the dose of violence in these programs and the dose of violence in news are very close to each other. Thus, what we watch in the news and what we watch in television programs integrates and one recalls the other. If we look from the side, the sensational contents of the news such as; "where the person was going", "what was her outfit" or "how old was she", causes reader to approach violence as a concrete and personal incident. By this mean, reader would relax with his/ her own "external" perspective and avoid to approach sexual violence as a social fact. Here, we should also mention the effect of catharsis which Susan Sontag explains in her book "Regarding The Pain of Others". People who look at the horrible images experience a kind of relief caused by the feeling of being distant from horrible incidents. This relief and appeal increase the desire to examine the incident as if it was a television program. (3)   

After that, Adorno adds a new layer to the "culture industry" by putting "collective unconsciousness" next to it. Again he gives the television programs as an example and states that the principle of visuality provided by television (often bypassing the concept) targets the subconscious mind. In other words, said programs not only are considered with their superficial message, but also with their hidden messages by the human mind. At this point, I should emphasize that the message given on the sublevel is more effective than the obvious one. For example, emphasis on women's sexuality by the images creates the perception that this is a reason in the occurrence of the incident. Or if the victim is a sex worker; her profession is always emphasized by the details such as her fee, how many people she had intercourse with. These details are given with relatively sexy pictures of the woman. With this, what is aimed to be created in the reader's mind is that s/he will be safe as long as s/he keeps his/her hands "clean". Perhaps that is why subconscious bypasses this sub-message but the images and/or the chosen words still disturb the reader. Hence, the bad taste in the mouth.

One of the main dynamics of this "culture industry", that I mentioned in the beginning, emerges right at this point. Stuart Hall deals with this problem in a much more clear and direct way with the encoding/ decoding theory: media does not reflect the images but presents them. In doing so, it selects/constructs/forms the incidents and phenomenons which can serve the dominant ideology. (4) At this point, the main problem is that keyword is not "reflect" but "present". The images on the news are handled with an extreme awareness neither by the reader nor the newsmaker. On the contrary, a fait accompli policy is always dominant in newsmaking. Decoding some of the news that emphasizes the sexuality of the reader I have exemplified before would be; "What was she doing in the street at that time of the night?", "What was she wearing during the incident?", "Did she had an acquaintance with the attacker beforehand?" This gives the media (and through it the reader) the right to forgive/ accuse, a right only the person who has been assaulted may have. I think this point is quite important: the reader and the media gain the right to explain and to blame/ forgive the incident by themselves.

If pointing a moral for this story is necessary; images and words used by the media in the sexual assault reports are definitely not selected unconsciously. It should be kept in mind that violence is not a result of personal animosities, but rather of a systematic phenomena, and on the basis of this phenomena lies the demand to dominate women. (6) Fortunately, we are beginning to see the reflections of awareness about this issue in our daily life.  For example, in the period of time that I started to write this article, above and beyond the media and journalism field, a brand new improvement was made in the photography front. #wearehere movement banged its fist to the table both in front and behind the lens. It started its journey by saying that "... male perspective restricting women's living space, objectifying women's bodies in photographs, and persistently overlooking women as subjects, has to change…" (7) The elbow room of this movement is quite extensive and deserves a further scrutiny. (However, I would have felt bad if I have not mentioned it) In the end, rather than opening a door, this article puts the key(words) into the hole, these kinds of ideas and articles should develop and grow; for each of them can support one another by simply piling up.  


1. Kuhn, A. (2013). The power of the image: Essays on representation and sexuality. Routledge.

2. Adorno, T., & Horkeimer, M. (2014). Aydınlanmanın Diyalektiği. Istanbul: Kabalcı.

3. Sontag, S. (2004). Başkalarının Acısına Bakmak. Istanbul: Agora Kitaplığı.

4. Öney Doğanyiğit, S. (2012, August 24). Medya İzleyici Çalışmalarında Kültürel Çalışmalar ve Stuart Hall'ın Katkısı. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/serayney/medya-izleyici-alimalarinda-kltrel-alimalar-vestuart-


5. Sargın, A. (2006, October 31). Piyasa, Ana-akım Medya ve Kadın Bedeni.

Retrieved from http://bianet.org/bianet/kadin/87140-piyasa-ana-akim-medya-vekadin-Bedeni

6. Tabur, M. & Tümer, Ö. (2011, March 26). Medyada Cinsel Şiddet Temsilleri ve Kadın Odaklı Habercilik. Retrived from https://bianet.org/biamag/kadin/128887-medyada-cinsel-siddet-temsilleri-ve-kadin-odakli-habercilik

7. K. (2018, June 14). Kadın fotoğrafçılar objektifi cinsiyet ayrımcılığına yöneltti. Retrieved from http://kaosgl.org/sayfa.php?id=26021