Symbolic annihilation is used to highlight the erasure of peoples in popular communication. George Gerbner coined the term to describe the “absence” (1972, 44; Gerbner & Gross 1976), “condemnation,” or “trivialization” (Tuchman 1978, 17) of a particular group in the media. Generally applied to women and racial and sexual minorities, symbolic annihilation points to the ways in which poor media treatment can contribute to social disempowerment and in which symbolic absence in the media can erase groups and individuals from public consciousness.
To illustrate, popular communication often overlooks, stereotypes, or ridicules black people, who have been confined to the roles of coons, mammies, jezebels, brutal bucks, etc. (Bogle 2001). Language use in the media also contributes to the trivialization and condemnation of racial groups such as black people in popular communication. For example, in a critical, cultural analysis of the news, it was concluded that reporters may ignore the effects of (neo-)colonialism by describing African countries as “third world” and “underdeveloped” rather than “overly exploited.” Comparatively, the US and western Europe are referred to as “first world” and as “superpowers” (Moore 1992). Survey research has exposed how Native Americans also experience symbolic annihilation through absence. However, when included, Native Americans are treated by the media as a monolithic group of “Indians” – lazy, savage, stupid, drunk, etc. (Merskin 1998). Arabs, too, experience representational absence and condemnation. They are largely invisible unless they are depicted as villains, terrorists, sexually wanton women, or corrupt oil sheikhs (Shaheen 2001). Symbolic annihilation has been extended to examine, for example, academic literature and census reports where distinct racial and ethnic groups such as Eskimos, Aleuts, and Native Americans have been homogenized and thus symbolically annihilated through the use of categories and descriptors such as “Non-Whites” (Ohye & Daniel 1999).
A discursive analysis of the news and popular magazines reveals that racial groups escape condemnation only when aligned with the purported value system of “Americanized whiteness,” as witnessed by the model-minority stereotype of economic success some Asian-Americans encounter (Chen 2004). Otherwise, Asian-Americans face symbolic annihilation as ruthless gang or “triad” members, whose primary contribution to culture is the martial arts (think The Karate Kid). The media are becoming aware of their power to influence the public’s knowledge and beliefs about races and ethnicities. As a result, media disclaimers stating that images do not represent any particular racial or ethnic group have been linked to the films Godfather (Italians), Scarface (Cubans), and Year of the Dragon (Chinese).
While the assumptions underlying the development and application of symbolic annihilation are key to our understanding of the relationship between media and social reality, in the scholarly literature they have not been well interrogated. While Gerbner and Gross (1976) simply repeat Gerbner’s basic definition of symbolic annihilation, their beliefs about the relationship between media and reality differ in subtle but important ways. Gerbner’s (1972) chapter explicitly situates the media as symbolic agents that do not mirror society but operate to maintain power; Gerbner and Gross (1976) suggest that because television content is presented in a context of realism, viewers will regard it as such. The combined effect of its underlying assumptions and its frequent use as shorthand for “bad representation” is that symbolic annihilation is limited in its ability to address more complex popular communication representational concerns. For example, non-stereotypical and seemingly “positive” television situation comedy characters such as the African-Americans Julia of Julia and the Huxtables of The Cosby Show have been criticized for being “white Negroes” and assimilationist (Jhally & Lewis 1992). Symbolic annihilation as a concept is ill equipped to address nuanced representational concerns.
Still, symbolic annihilation’s strong connotation should prompt important questions regarding the relationship between representations of race, media ownership, and racial groups’ participation in image-making. Overall, the concept of symbolic annihilation of race is powerful in that it elucidates exceptionally well the destructive consequences of poor or absent media attention. When using this compelling turn of phrase, scholars must continue to interrogate more broadly how infrequent and inadequate depictions contribute to groups’ social and political efficacy and how these depictions might be remedied.
- Bogle, D. (2001). Toms, coons, mulattos, mammies, and bucks: An interpretive history of blacks in American films, 4th edn. New York: Continuum.
- Chen, C. H. (2004). Mormon and Asian American model minority discourses in news and popular magazines. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.
- Gerbner, G. (1972). Violence in television drama: Trends and symbolic functions. In G. A. Comstock & E. Rubinstein (eds.), Television and social behavior. Vol. 1: Content and control. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, pp. 28–187.
- Gerbner, G., & Gross, L. (1976). Living with television: The violence profile. Journal of Communication, 26, 172–199.
- Jhally, S., & Lewis, J. (1992). Enlightened racism: The Cosby Show, audiences, and the myth of the American dream. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Kama, A. (2002). The quest for inclusion: Jewish-Israeli gay men’s perceptions of gays in the media. Feminist Media Studies, 2, 195–212.
- Kielwasser, A., & Wolf, M. (1992). Mainstream television, adolescent homosexuality, and significant silence. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 9, 350–373.
- Merskin, D. (1998). Sending up signals: A survey of Native American media use and representation in the mass media. Howard Journal of Communication, 9, 333–345.
- Moore, R. (1992). Racist stereotyping in the English language. In M. Anderson & P. Hill Collins (eds.), Race, class, and gender: An anthology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, pp. 317–329.
- Ohye, B. Y., & Daniel, J. H. (1999). The “other” adolescent girls: Who are they? In N. Johnson, M. Roberts, & J. Worel (eds.), Beyond appearance: A new look at adolescent girls. Washington, DC: APA Books, pp. 115–129.
- Shaheen, J. (2001). Reel bad Arabs: How Hollywood vilifies a people. New York: Olive Branch Press.
- Tuchman, G. (1978). Introduction: The symbolic annihilation of women by the mass media. In G. Tuchman, A. K. Daniels, & J. Benét (eds.), Hearth and home: Images of women in the mass media. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 3–38.
- Tuchman, G. (1979). Women’s depiction in the mass media. Signs, 4, 528–542.