September 26, 2007

When Connotation and Denotation Don't Match

In the above picture, it is clear there are two people. Based on the understandings of symbols, we comprehend this photograph a certain way. If we look only at the actual image itself and attempt not to infer meaning from it, we are led to describe it in certain ways. To take this photograph literally, then, is to acknowledge it as iconic. As Barthes writes, "At the level of literal message, the text replies--in a more or less direct, more or less partial manner--to the question: what is it?" (p. 39). Add to this a layer of questions--What are the signifiers? What is signified? What does the image present and how are we able to encode or decode it? What happens when the photo is read from a dominant/hegemonic position, a negotiated position, and an oppositional position?
The above photograph, taken from the movie "Boys Don't Cry" features two women, although just by looking at what is actually visible in the picture, it would be difficult to make that distinction. Since Hilary Swank's character (the one on the right) has purposefully been coded to be read as male. Particularly when it comes to hair and dress styles, so much of our culture has encouraged us to encode our appearances in order to sign for our particular gender, race, and class. Take, for example, how easily it is to create trouble in an upscale restaurant by entering without the proper dress code. Or, imagine the meanings created by a women in an Islamic country dressing in Western clothing. Although an image (a picture of a skirt) can simply denote a particular object (a skirt), its meaning is almost always changed depending on the context the object is in relation to (such as a woman or a man in a western country versus a woman or a man in an Islamic country).
Although Hall addresses more of the ability of a person's own experiences allowing them to read an image differently (through dominant, negotiated, or oppositional readings), he still does not establish how particular cultural and identity contexts establish a meaning. Of particular importance, as this photo demonstrates, is the capacity for the body to also be symbolic. Taken as such, the body of Hilary Swank is also a sign, but what it signifies depends not only on our reading of her body (which gives a new heaviness to the panoptic gaze) but also how she reads her body herself. The body as a sign is an important understanding, one that shapes every relationship between individuals. Particularly humorous to me is the different cultural readings of body parts, and what it means in terms of human interactions (such as the idea of Eskimo kisses being when one individual rubs the tip of their nose on the other individual's nose).

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