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Demon in a Dress?

Angelique Nairn, Deepti Bhargava
Published: 5 October 2021

Abstract: Introduction The term monster might have its roots in the Latin word monere (to warn), but it has since evolved to have various symbolic meanings, from a terrifying mythical creature to a person of extreme cruelty. No matter the flexibility in use, the term is mostly meant to be derogatory (Asma). As Gilmore puts it, monsters “embody all that is dangerous and horrible in the human imagination” (1). However, it may be argued that monsters sometimes perform the much-needed work of defining and policing our norms (Mittman and Hensel). Since their archetype is predisposed to transgressing boundaries of human integrity (Gilmore), they help establish deviation between human and in-human. Their cognition and action are considered ‘other’ (Kearney) and a means with which people can understand what is right and wrong, and what is divergent from appropriate ways of being. The term monster need not even refer to the werewolves, ogres, vampires, zombies and the like that strike fear in audiences through their ‘immoral, heinous or unjust’ appearance or behaviours. Rather, the term monster can be, and has been, readily applied as a metaphor to describe the unthinkable, unethical, and brutal actions of human beings (Beville 5). Inadvertently, “through their bodies, words, and deeds, monsters show us ourselves” (Mittman and Hensel 2), or what we consider monstrous about ourselves. Therefore, humans acting in ways that deviate from societal norms and standards can be viewed as monstrous. This is evident in the representations of public relations practitioners in media offerings. In the practice of public relations, ethical standards are advocated as the norm, and deviating from them considered unprofessional (Fawkes), and as we contend: monstrous. However, the practice has long suffered a negative stereotypical perception of being deceptive, and with public relations roles receiving less screen time than shows and films about lawyers, accountants, teachers and the like, these few derogatory depictions can distort how audiences view the occupation (Johnston). Depictions of professions (lawyers, cops, journalists, etc.) tend to be cliché, but our contention is that fewer depictions of public relations practitioners on screen further limit the possibility for diverse depictions. The media can have a socialising impact and can influence audiences to view the content they consume as a reflection of the real world around them (Chandler). Television, in particular, with its capacity to prompt heuristic processing in audiences (Shurm), has messages that can be easily decoded by people of various literacies as they become immersed in the viewing experiences (Gerbner and Gross). These messages gain potency because, despite being set in fictional worlds, they can be understood as reflective of the world and audiences’ experiences of it (Gerbner and Gross). Tsetsura, Bentley, and Newcomb add that popular stories recounted in the media have authoritative power and can offer patterns of meaning that shape individual perceptions. Admittedly, as Stuart Hall suggests, media offerings can be encoded with ideologies and representations that are considered appropriate according to the dominant elite, but these may not necessarily be decoded as preferred meanings. In other words, those exposed to stories of monstrous public relations practitioners can agree with such a position, oppose this viewpoint, or remain neutral, but this is dependent on individual experiences. Without other frames of reference, it could be that viewers of negative portrayals of public relations accept the encoded representation that inevitably does a disservice to the profession. When the representations of the field of public relations suggest, inaccurately, that the industry is dominated by men (Johnston), and women practitioners are shown as slick dressers who control and care little about ethics (Dennison), the distortions can adversely impact on the identities of public relations practitioners and on how they are collectively viewed (Tsetsura et al.). Public relations practitioners view this portrayal as the ‘other’ and tend to distance the ideal self from it, continuing to be stuck in the dichotomy of saints and sinners (Fawkes). Our observation of television offerings such as Scandal, Flack, Call My Agent!, Absolutely Fabulous, Sex and the City, You’re the Worst, and Emily in Paris reveals how television programmes continue to perpetuate the negative stereotypes about public relations practice, where practitioners are anything but ethical—therefore monstrous. The characters, mostly well-groomed women, are shown as debased, liars and cheaters who will subvert ethical standards for personal and professional gain. Portrayals of Public Relations Practitioners in Television and Media According to Miller, the eight archetypical traits identified in media representations of public relations practitioners are: ditzy, obsequious, cynical, manipulative, money-minded, isolated, accomplished, or unfulfilled. In later research, Yoon and Black found that television representations of public relations tended to suggest that people in these roles were heartless, manipulative bullies, while Lambert and White contend that the depiction of the profession has improved to be more positive, but nonetheless continues to do a disservice to the practice by presenting female workers, especially, as “shallow but loveable” (18). We too find that public relations practitioners continue to be portrayed as morally ambiguous characters who are willing to break ethical codes of conduct to suit the needs of their clients. We discuss three themes prevalent as popular tropes in television programmes that characterise public relations practitioners as monstrous. To Be or Not to Be a Slick and Skilful Liar? Most television programmes present public relations practitioners as slick...
Keywords: archetype / person / ethical standards / negative stereotypical / Fawkes / derogatory / distort / stereotypes / contend / Johnston

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