How Useful Are Theories Of Narrative In Helping Us To UnderstandMedia Texts ?

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Narrative theories are a means of looking at a media text in more depth, helping to reveal how a text is constructed and the ideologies that lie behind it. To demonstrate how useful narrative theories actually are for readers of media texts, a selection of four have been used and applied to the television documentary ‘Painted Babies’, a programme based on child beauty pageants in America. The theories are Todorov, Levi-Strauss, Barthes and Prop. They all help to analyse a text in great detail, exploring specifically the belief that all media texts follow certain rules in the way in which they are constructed.


Todorov’s theory claimed that all media texts are constructed to follow the pattern of an equilibrium, a disruption and a closure. When applied to ‘Painted Babies’, this seems to be correct. The equilibrium is the two children that the programme focuses on, Brooke and Asia, practising for the beauty pageant. The taking part in the pageant is the disruption that is going to somehow change the current situation and finally, the closure (or the ‘new’ equilibrium) is Brooke’s triumph against Asia’s defeat. This also brings in Levi-Strauss’ theory of binary oppositions. Jane Treays, the film maker has shaped the ending by using a long lasting camera shot showing Brooke to be miserable and slightly resentful, a real closure following the hard work that was put in by her throughout he programme. Treays has ended her story with Brooke’s win, without showing the long-term effects on her family, the prizes or the consequent publicity. Nor has she chosen to show what happened to Asia’s family � instead she has only allowed us to see short clips of celebrations. This could be because Treays knows that the audience are not likely to be too happy about Brooke’s win and (using Prop’s theory of Asia being the hero) she is not keen on the idea of showing too much of Brooke and her celebrations. One flaw in this idea is that of whether or not the viewer wants to feel angered and feel like they have witnessed a ‘scandal’ of sorts (is this why so many people tune in to programmes that are previously billed as ‘controversial’ ?) The reason as to why Todorov’s idea comes in useful when looking at ‘Painted Babies’ is that it not only allows us to revise the story and the construction of the programme, but it also helps to show how a character has developed throughout a particular story. It shows the effects that a disruption and closure has on certain people and this allows us to really understand characters.


Another theory, mentioned before, is the Levi-Strauss theory, which looks at binary oppositions within a media text. It is particularly useful when looking into ideologies within a text. In ‘Painted Babies’ there are many binary oppositions apparent. They include beauty against ugliness (the idea that “little girls should be beautiful”) - this itself is an ideological response from one of the judges of the beauty pageants. It really helps readers to understand the beliefs these people have and how they view society in general. This is important because it contributes to our knowledge of the programme’s topic, by looking at ideological statements, we can see why these people have staged such a pageant. Another binary opposition is rich against poor. When looking at Asia’s family and their financial situation ( voice lessons in the car and dance routines in front of the fridge in the kitchen) Brooke’s family have a lot more money in comparison, seen when she makes a four hour journey every week to professional voice lessons and practising her routines on a specially built stage in their house. Again, this is another look into the characters on our screens and contributes towards how we feel about them. Age against youth is another binary opposition, the prime example obviously being the parent’s lust for victory over their children’s. So is success and failure � another ideological view � should little girls as young as five be made to experience this at such an age or is it “a long term investment in her future” as Pam said of Brooke? The obvious binary opposition is Brooke versus Asia- the main focus throughout the text, which needs no further explanation other then that it creates characters to ‘guide’ us around the world of child beauty pageants in a story form. Jane Treays showed all these binary oppositions throughout the documentary successfully. The Levi-Strauss theory has proven useful in relation to ‘Painted Babies’, because it has shown the beliefs that characters in the text have, for example; showing the people that bring their children to such pageants and why they do it. It reveals what sort of people they are that these young children are growing up amongst.


The third theory that could be applied to ‘Painted Babies’ in relation to how useful it is as a narrative is Prop. This is the idea that every text is like a fairy tale, complete with the right characters and events. This is useful again because it helps the viewer to understand the story by comparing it to a fairy tale. In this case the story does not seem to have a happy ending � depending on how we feel towards the characters. Treays has constructed and presented the story so that we like Asia more and she is seen as the moral hero who loses out to the ’real’ hero (Brooke). The villains in this particular story are definitely the parents of both little girls. As readers of this particular text and providing we have enough knowledge on the subject and regarding our moral connotations in society (we know it’s not right to subject children to this) � we can see that the parents are in the wrong and are only out for themselves. “ Grandma needs a new car” Asia’s grandmother is swift in pointing out when discussing Asia’s potential winnings. Other characters in this surreal fairytale that Treays has constructed could be Tim (singer) being seen as the prince and the judges being the helpers. Whatever way it is looked at the story does seem to read like a fairytale, right up to the ‘crowning’ of the Supreme Queen. Prop is useful in ‘Painted Babies’ and in media texts alike because it allows us to look closely at a character in a text, their development, their role in the story and how that story will progress for the people in it.


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The final narrative theory to be looked at is Barthes theory. This is when readers of a certain text are able to crack certain codes �(enigma and action). This gives them a sense of satisfaction and a reason for reading that text. Action codes consist of actions which audiences (through their cultural knowledge) understand to connote certain things. One example of this from ‘Painted Babies’ is near the end, when the results of the pageant winners are being announced. Treays deliberately leaves the camera on Brooke’s family whilst the results are being read out. This is a sign that we expect Brooke to win, as the shot is there to show the delight in Pam and Bunny’s face. Another action code or codes are the fact that the children are wearing so much make-up and dressing the way they do, we are expecting a tacky show that is severely lacking in taste and is typical of our stereotypical view on American culture. Disadvantages of Barthes theory are that it can spoil endings. If an audience are already familiar with action codes, surely this will spoil the story. The only way Barthes can therefore be useful is when expectations aren’t met in texts. Another disadvantages with Barthes (and indeed with most of the theories) is that there is a danger of looking too far into a text and could mean we lose sight of the plot while analysing too deeply and the fact that Brthes codes occur in really similar texts. Barthes is useful however when the constructed nature of the text is not immediately obvious. Action codes are not all, Barthes also concentrates on Enigma codes, which are often used by producers to keep the audience interested by giving them puzzles to solve throughout the text. In ‘Painted Babies’ for example, there is always the question of who’s going to win the beauty pageant and what fate the other child will receive and the question of how these children will perform having watched them painstakingly practice for so long before. These are questions that provide us with great mystery until Treays reveals them to her audience. The pleasure of cracking these codes makes reading a text that bit more enjoyable and that is why the Barthes theory is so useful for different media texts.


The four above theories of narrative have been applied specifically to a television documentary but they are useful in all areas of the media. For instance, in a film like ‘Blade Runner’, there is an obvious equilibrium, disruption and closure so Todorov’s theory is proved correct. The idea of binary oppositions is also proved apparent with good against evil and humans versus the unknown. Levi-Strauss’ theory is helpful because we are able to see the ideologies behind ‘Blade Runner’, the fear of technology and the future etc. Prop is useful when studying the characters in ‘Blade Runner’, as it would be for virtually any other media text take a soap such as ‘Eastenders’ or ‘Neighbours’ for example. Sometimes however, Prop genuinely doesn’t fit a text �so the theory renders completely unsuccessful and not particularly useful. Barthes generally works for all texts because the producers put them in to keep their audiences happy. By cracking codes it sometimes increases tension and makes reading a text an enjoyable experience. This is useful, not necessarily for the audience, but definitely for producers.


To conclude, it is obvious that narrative theories are useful in media texts to a great extent. Whether it is looking into the ideology behind a text and being able to understand why certain people behave in the way they do as the Levi-Strauss theory proves, an example of such being Pam Breedwell’s response about Brooke’s education. “This (the beauty pageant) is her education”. Or looking at the text using Prop, allowing the readers of ‘Painted Babies’ to look at the characters and story in more depth. Or equally, using either Todorov or Barthes’ theories can also allow us to look into a text and really understand both the text from the viewpoint of those that created it and those that feature in it. From Painted Babies, it is obvious that Jane Treays wanted to give us an insight into a world which she found both immoral and distasteful � and yet allowed her readers to look for the good in certain characters- namely Asia and her family. Without the knowledge of the narrative theories, readers of Painted Babies would only be able to look on the surface of the text, without being able to really understand the connotations of certain scenes � or even why we are watching it in the first place ( Barthes codes give us pleasure in watching certain texts). They are important in helping us to understand a media text and are extremely useful, not just for ‘Painted Babies’ but for media texts in general.











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