Defining Representation

Representation is a critical concept not only in postcolonial studies and academia, but in the larger cultural milieu. The term itself can be defined in many different ways. Often, we think of representation primarily as “presence” or “appearance” where there is an implied visual component. Representations can be clear images, material reproductions, performances and simulations. We understand them to be re-presenting a particular “real” thing; however, the relationship between the thing and the representation of the thing is one that has engaged philosophers, linguists, historians, and artists for centuries. In a different context, we use representation to denote the relationship between a politician and her/his constituency. A single person is endowed with the responsibility of representing many citizens; this is the foundational principle of representative democracy. For this discussion, we are highlighting the visual, political, and artistic elements of this concept.

Representations — these ‘likenesses’– come in various forms: films, television, photographs, paintings, advertisements, and other forms of popular culture. Written materials — academic texts, novels and other literature, journalistic pieces — are also important forms of representation. Yet how can simulations or “impressions on the sight” be completely true? How does one judge the accuracy or truth-content of a representation? Or rather, how does one interpret or read the representation? (See Essentialism) Edward Said, in his analysis of textual representations of the Orient in Orientalism, emphasizes the fact that representations can never be exactly realistic:

In any instance of at least written language, there is no such thing as a delivered presence, but a re-presence, or a representation. The value, efficacy, strength, apparent veracity of a written statement about the Orient therefore relies very little, and cannot instrumentally depend, on the Orient as such. On the contrary, the written statement is a presence to the reader by virtue of its having excluded, displaced, made supererogatory any such real thing as “the Orient.” (21)

Representations, then can never truly be real or objective. Instead, they are constructed images, images that need to be interrogated for their ideological content.

The Post-Colonial Critic, 1990
The Post-Colonial Critic, 1990

In a similar way, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak  makes a distinction between Vertretung and Darstellung. The former she defines as “stepping in someone’s place … to tread in someone’s shoes (108).” Representation in this sense is “political representation” (108) or a speaking for the needs and desires of somebody or something. Darstellung is representation as re-presentation, “placing there” (108). Representing is thus “proxy and portrait (108)” according to Spivak. The complicity between “speaking for” and “portraying” must be kept in mind (108). She also addresses the problem of “speaking in the name of”: “It is not a solution, the idea of the disenfranchised speaking for themselves, or the radical critics speaking for them; this question of representation, self-representation, representing others, is a problem”(63). Spivak recommends “persistent critique” to guard against “constructing the Other simply as an object of knowledge, leaving out the real Others because of the ones who are getting access into public places due to these waves of benevolence and so on” (63).

If there is always an element of interpretation involved in representation, we must then note who may be doing the interpreting. Ella Shohat claims that we should constantly question representations:

Each filmic or academic utterance must be analyzed not only in terms of who represents but also in terms of who is being represented for what purpose, at which historical moment, for which location, using which strategies, and in what tone of address.  (173)

This questioning is particularly important when the representation of the subaltern is involved. The problem does not rest solely with the fact that often marginalized groups do not hold the power over their own representations; it rests also in the fact that representations of these groups are both flawed and few in numbers. Shohat asserts that dominant groups need not preoccupy themselves too much with being adequately represented. There are so many different representations of dominant groups that negative images are seen as only part of the “natural diversity” of people. However, “representation of an underrepresented group is necessarily within the hermeneutics of domination, overcharged with allegorical significance” (170). The mass media tends to understand representations of the subaltern as allegorical, meaning that since representations of the marginalized are few, the few available are thought to be representative of all marginalized peoples (See Postcolonial Novel). The few images are thought to be typical, sometimes not only of members of a particular minority group, but of all minorities in general. It is assumed that subalterns can stand in for other subalterns. A prime example of this is the fact that actors of particular ethnic backgrounds are often cast as any ethnic “other.” Some examples include Carmen Mirandain in The Gang’s All Here (1943), Ricardo Mantalban in Sayonara (1957), Rudolph Valentino in The Son of the Sheik and Sarah Shahi in The L-Word. This collapsing of the image of the subaltern reflects not only ignorance but a lack of respect for the diversity within marginalized communities.

Shohat also suggests that representations in one sphere — the sphere of popular culture — affect the other spheres of representation, particularly the political one:

The denial of aesthetic representation to the subaltern has historically formed a corollary to the literal denial of economic, legal, and political representation. The struggle to ‘speak for oneself’ cannot be separated from a history of being spoken for, from the struggle to speak and be heard. (173)

It cannot be ignored that representations affect the ways in which individuals are perceived. Although many see representations as harmless likenesses, they do have a real effect on the world. We must ask what ideological work these representations accomplish. Both the scarcity and the importance of minority representations yield what many have called the burden of representation. Since there are so few images, negative ones can have devastating affects on the real lives of marginalized people. We must also ask, if there are so few, who will produce them? Who will be the representative voice of the subaltern? Given the allegorical character of these representations, subaltern writers, artists, and scholars are also asking who can really speak for whom? When a spokesperson or a certain image is read as metonymic, representation becomes more difficult and dangerous.

Solutions for this conundrum are difficult to theorize. We can call for increased self-representation or the inclusion of more individuals from marginalized groups in the act of representing, yet this is easier said then done. Also, the inclusion of more minorities in representation will not necessarily alter the structural or institutional barriers that prevent equal participation for all in representation. Focusing on whether or not images are negative or positive, leaves intact a reliance on the realness of images, a realness that is false to begin with.

This brings us again to Spivak and her famous question, ‘”Can the Subaltern Speak.” In this seminal essay, Spivak emphasizes the fact that representation is a type of speech act, with a speaker and a listener. Often, the subaltern makes an attempt at self-representation or perhaps a representation that falls outside the “the lines laid down by the official institutional structures of representation” (306). Yet, this act of representation is not heard because it is not recognized by the listener, perhaps because it does not fit in with what is expected of the representation. Therefore, representation by subaltern individuals seems nearly impossible. However many artists and activists who are committed to critical political and cultural resistance still work to challenge status quo representation and the ideological work it does, despite the structural failure of such subaltern speech.

In the senses discussed, representations are ideological tools that can serve to reinforce systems of inequality and subordination and sustain colonialist or neocolonialist projects. A great amount of effort is needed to dislodge dominant modes of representation and subvert and challenge hegemonic ideologies. Self-representation may not be a complete possibility, yet is still an important goal.


  • Shohat, Ella. “The Struggle over Representation: Casting, Coalitions, and the Politics of Identification.” Late Imperial Culture. Eds. Roman de la Campa, E. Ann Kaplan and Michael Sprinkler. New York: Verso, 1995. Print.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Ed. Sarah Harasym. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.
  • —”Can the Subaltern Speak.” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. C. Nelson and L. Grossberg, eds. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1988. 271-313. Print.


Author: Ann Marie Baldonado, Fall 1996
Last edited: October 2017


  1. Gregory Sovik Reply

    I like what this article delves into, but found its claims to be a bit presumptive. For example, regarding the passage about actors being cast as characters who are any ethnic “other”: In this sentence, the author mentions a few examples, one of which I am thoroughly familiar with – that of Sara Shahi in L Word. Having watched every single episode of “L Word” ever to have aired, I’ll speak to that character. The woman Sara Shahi plays is Carmen, a lesbian Mexican girl, living in L.A. and working as a deejay. Over the course of the show, we get to see Carmen in many different dynamics, including her family dynamics: We get to know her, thus, as a native Angeleno Mexican girl with a large, close-knit, Mexican family that upholds various Mexican traditions as well as a member of a group of gay women of various ethnicities – Black, Jewish, Mulatto, White, etc. It is hard for me to imagine the role of Carmen being one that is instead cast as, say, a Pakistani girl or a Japanese girl or “any ethnic other”. Even if the role was conceived of as such (and I have serious doubt that this author actually knows first-hand whether or not this was the case), the role of Carmen certainly grew into a distinctly Mexican one. This, of course, as far as I’m concerned, makes it somewhat irrelevant just how vague the character’s conception may or may not have been – especially, since, in truth, precious few television characters are completely and fully realized in all of their inevitable detail when they first enter into an ensemble cast.
    Furthermore, the simple truth is that one can – and so many people love to – complain endlessly about any omissions or oversights in the representation of minority characters in the larger world, but one should also be savvy enough about the limitations of the forums / mediums in which the representation occurs, and also the biases inherent in their own ideas about the minority group (especially if it is their own), to achieve some perspective with regards to what would be a reasonable expectation to have when they encounter such representations. And, if they are still dissatisfied, to have the drive and the motivation to proactively get involved and enact change in whatever way they feel is substantive and viable. As they say, “talk is cheap”…

    • I think the author point is less about how Mexican culture was represented on the L Word but that Sarah Shahi is of Persian, Iranian, and Spanish (as in from Spain) descent but was cast to play a Mexican. Thus, people of color are able to stand in for all people of color and that in itself is problematic.

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