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Goering Elizabeth M.
(Indianapolis, USA)

An intriguing but understudied aspect of intercultural communication is the communication processes through which one culture's perceptions of another culture are created and recreated. Of particular interest for this second meeting of the Russian Communication Association is the communicative construction of the perceptions Russians and Americans have of one another. From a Symbolic Interactionist perspective (c.f. Mead, 1934, Blumer, 1969), cultural perceptions can be seen as part of the "symbolic consciousness" that arises out of symbolic interaction. In other words, the perceptions one culture has of another-the stereotypes, expectations, and attitudes-are all constructed through interaction with and about the target culture. Media messages are primary sources of messages that help shape Americans' perceptions of Russians. After all, most Americans have limited direct contact with individuals from Russia; therefore, the images of Russians as represented on television and in film play a particularly important role in shaping cultural perceptions. This study uses content analysis of popular American films to explore the ways in which Russians are represented in the media and to analyze how those images contribute to the development of Americans' cultural perceptions about Russians.

Review of Literature and Generation of Research Questions

Symbolic interactionism suggests that people act towards others on the basis of the meaning they assign to them. The theory postulates further that "objects," whether they be physical objects (things), social objects (people), or abstract objects (ideas), acquire their meaning through social interaction (Blumer, 1969). According to Kuhn (1954), the only requirement for something becoming an "object" is that it be named, represented symbolically. Within the context of intercultural communication, this means that once one cultural group "names" another cultural group, that group becomes a social object, the meaning of which is constructed symbolically and interactively.

While the meaning of objects, or cultural perceptions, arise from a wide range of communicative activity, ranging from direct contact with the object to classroom, peer, or family interaction about the object, in the absence of personal contact, media plays a particularly important role in this process. Media in general and films in particular serve important sociopolitical and psychopolitical functions (Monaco, 2000). Sociopolitically film "reflects and is integrated with human experience in general," and psychopolitically, "we relate to it personally and specifically" (Monaco, 2000, p. 261). Because films are mass produced, they reach wide audiences, thus providing individual, personal connections to the worlds represented in the movies as well as contributing to the building of cultural myths that become part of a culture's shared experience. Monaco (2000, p. 282) explains, "Film has been powerfully mythopoeic even as it has entertained. Hollywood helped mightily to shape--and even exaggerate--our national myths and therefore our sense of ourself." Shaheen (2000) extends Monaco's argument, observing that films do not only create "national myths" about our self, they also create myths about other cultures.

Recognizing that "film has changed the way we perceive the world and therefore, to some extent, how we operate in it" (Monaco, 2000, p. 262), numerous researchers have examined the representations of various cultural and co-cultural groups in film. For example, Shaheen (2000) examines the images of Arab Muslims depicted in over 800 feature films in the United States and demonstrates how the dominant media portrait of the Arab Muslim as "alien, violent strangers, intent upon battling non-believers throughout the world" (Shaheen, 2000, p. 22) has created harmful stereotypes. Other researchers have focused on the media representations of African American women (Manatu-Rupert, 2000), Chicanos (Noriega, 1992), the Irish (Pettitt, 2000; Selby & Dixon, 1998), the Maori (Reid, 2000), and gay men (Shugart, 2003). I was unable to find any study of the portrayal of Russians in American cinema, particularly of how that image may have changed as political relationships between the two countries have changed. Because the mediation and remediation of portrayals of Russians are important influences in the symbolic construction of Americans' perceptions of Russians, systematically exploring those representations is a worthwhile endeavor. Specifically this study seeks to answer the following research questions: RQ1: How are Russians represented in popular American films? RQ2: In what ways do representations of Russians in the post-Cold War era differ from representations during the Cold War?


Sampling Films. The IMDb (Internet Media Data Base) was utilized to locate films for analysis. The IMDb is a searchable, web-based data base that allows the researcher to search over 385,848 movies by title, people, character, quotes, biographies, or plots. For this study, I initially used IMDb's "Character Search" function with the search term "Russian" to locate films that contained Russian characters. This search located 1197 roles. I then used three criteria to restrict the sample size: First, I limited the search to movies made since 1990, the end of the Cold War. Second, I restricted the search to theatrical release movies (as opposed to made-for-TV movies or films that were released directly to video). Third, I limited the search to movies with over $40 million in gross box office receipts in the United States. The reasoning behind the last two decision criteria is that I wanted to locate films that a considerable number of people would have seen. After all, the sociopolitical function of media only is operative if a sizable contingent of a society consumes the media message. A total of 26 films met all of the sampling criteria and were, therefore, included in the study. The list of films is included as Appendix A.

Coding the Films. The 26 films that met all of the selection criteria noted in the previous section were content analyzed, using a coding scheme loosely modeled after Kuhn's (1954) dimensions of self identity. Specifically, the Russian characters in the movies were coded on each of the following aspects of identity: roles and statuses (e.g., occupation, economic status, education, group affiliations), personality characteristics (e.g., trustworthiness, integrity, likeability, etc.), interests and aversions, and goals. Coding was completed by two coders, who refined the coding system until they were able to achieve 80% agreement in their coding results.

Data Analysis. The results of the content analysis are being used to construct a profile of the ways in which Russians are represented in popular American movies. This profile will subsequently be compared with a profile of the representation of Russians typical in movies made during the Cold War.

Preliminary Results

Although the content analysis is not yet complete, preliminary findings indicate several interesting trends in the data. First, the range of representations of Russians in American films is considerably broader in the post-Cold War era than it was during the Cold War, when Russians were primarily presented as members of the military, the KGB, or other governmental agencies. While this depiction is not absent from the 133 films produced since 1990 that include representations of Russians, the more recent films also show Russians in a wide variety of occupations, including taxi driver, nurse, doctor, journalist, school teacher, hooker, engineer, fighter, dancer, writer, reporter, hearse driver, pilot, translator, accountant, etc. In other words, Russians are visible in every walk of life, not just as participants in military and espionage operations. Interestingly, in some ways as Russians have become more visible in popular American films, they have simultaneously become less visible as a cultural group. They often are no longer cast as "Russians"; rather, they are neighbors, shop owners, service workers, acquaintances, friends, etc., who just happen to be Russian.

A second trend that appears to be emerging in the data is a reconfiguration of Cold War era archetypes. Although Russians are depicted in a wider variety of roles than during the Cold War, the old archetypes of "Russian-as-spy" or "Russian-as-fighter" are still evident; however, increasingly the representations of these more traditional roles construct a new identity for Russians. For example, the Russian fighter pilots in "Independence Day" are shown as working with rather than against Americans to defeat the common enemy, the alien invaders. Unfortunately, the depictions of Russians in post-Cold War movies are not always positive. In 14% of the movies included in this study, Russians were presented as "thugs," "goons," or Mafiosi. A third trend emerging in the data is the emergence of new archetypes of Russian identity. For example, the representation of the artist struggling to make it in the "free world" is becoming an increasingly common image in post-Cold War American movies. Finally, the early data analysis suggests that contemporary representations of Russians in American film may serve a different function than they did during the Cold War. In the 60s, 70s, and 80s, presenting Russians as "the enemy" played an important function in helping America define its own identity. Russians were presented as the "Them" against whom the "Us" could be defined. Post-Cold War movies seem to present Russians more pluralistically, with many identities, both positive and negative, and with these revised (re)presentations, Americans' cultural perceptions of Russians are continuously being shaped and reshaped.

Works Cited

    Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
    Kuhn, M. & McPartland, T. (1954). An empirical investigation of self-attitudes. American Sociological Review. 19, 68-76.
    Manatu-Rupert, N. (2000). The filmic conception of the black female. Communication Quarterly, 48, 45-50.
    Mead, G.H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    Monaco, J. (2000). How to read a film: Movies, media, multimedia, 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
    Noriega, C.A., ed. (1992). Chicanos and film: Essays on Chicano representation and resistance. New York: Garland Pub.
    Pettitt, L. (2000). Screening Ireland: Film and television representation. Manchester. UK: Manchester University Press.
    Reid, M.A. (2000). A few black keys and Maori tattoos: Re-reading Jane Campion's The Piano in postnegritude time. Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 17, 107-116.
    Selby, E.F. & Dixon, D.P. (1998). Between worlds: Considering Celtic feminine identities in 'The Secret of Roan Inish." Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 5, 22-42.
    Shaheen, J. G. (2000). Hollywood's Muslim Arabs. Muslim World, 90, 22-43.
    Shugart, H.A. (2003). Reinventing privilege: The new (gay) man in contemporary popular media. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 20, 37-52.

Appendix A: Films Content Analyzed for this Study

The Abyss, 2001
Air Force One, 1997
Armageddon, 1998
Blade, 1998
Castaway, 2000
Cats and Dogs, 2001
Contact, 1997
Crimson Tide, 1995
Enemy at the Gates, 2001
Godzilla, 1998
Goldeneye, 1995
The Hunt for Red October, 1990    
Independence Day, 1996
The Jackal, 1997
JFK, 1991
K19: The Widowmaker, 2002
Lara Croft Tomb Raider, 2001
Miss Congeniality, 2000
Mr. Deeds, 2002
The Peacemaker, 1997
A Perfect Murder, 1998
Ronin, 1998
The Saint, 1997
Schindler's List, 1993
Space Cowboys, 2000
The World is Not Enough 1999

Text it word Text in Word

    About author:

    GOERING Elizabeth M.
    Department of Communication Studies
    Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis
    Indianapolis, IN 46202
    e-mail: bgoering@iupui.edu


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