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Our symbolic encyclopedia enables us to comprehend the narratives we are exposed to in the media. One great example of a website that collects and organizes this information is TV Tropes. Merriam Webster defines a trope as “a common or overused theme or device.” Though many think of tropes as cliches, the meanings tropes convey enable us to decode what we are presented with. A specific example we can use to dissect semiotics in television is the show Suits.
In the video reel above, one can view the scenes that set up Harvey (an attorney known as the “best closer in the city”) as “the Ace” and Louis (his peer who looks up to Harvey with a mix of respect, repulsion, and envy) as “the anti-Villain.” Though a viewer may be unfamiliar with the terms used to classify these tropes, their prior experience with these symbols enables them to comprehend the setup of the show. Meanwhile, it is clear that Mike (an associate) is supposed to be Harvey’s protege, and a viewer can guess that Harvey will be a kind of “Big Brother Mentor” to Mike.
In this way, semiotics serve as a method of communication, as the symbols we use to encode a specific message into a medium are decoded by the viewer, enabling him to receive the message transmitted. Chandler expands on this idea in Semiotics for Beginners. One point he made which I found particularly interesting was the idea of transparency as it relates to our awareness of tropes. Chandler quotes Lakoff and Johnson is saying that: “However, much of the time- outside of ‘poetic’ contexts- we use or encounter many figures of speech without really noticing them- they retreat to transparency’. Such transparency tends to anaesthetize us to the way in which the culturally available stock of tropes acts as an anchor linking us to the dominant views of thinking within our society” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). When we as viewers are introduced to these characters, not only are we reading them based on their portrayal, but we are also taking their race, gender, and age into account on a more subconscious level and integrating the cultural hierarchy into our analysis/perception of the protagonists. In the case of Suits, Louis would also be referred to as “the underdog” when it comes to the senior lawyers at the firm. Two of the three main female characters star in “serving” roles (ex. a secretary and a paralegal), and it is inferred that there are hints of romantic history between the women and their male counterparts. These tropes are so heavily embedded into our culture (and even more specifically, the symbols that occur within a coporate office environment) that to state them feels uncomfortable– they exist transparently.
It’s interesting to note that the title of the show is also a metaphor referring to both “lawsuits” and the suits that the gentlemen wear on the show (many references are made to suits [i.e. the article of clothing] in the first season). Semiotics shapes our lives from the way we make meanings to interact and communicate with one another, to the way we are entertained and advertised to.
Chandler, Daniel. “Semiotics for Beginners.” Semiotics for Beginners. N.p., n.d. Web. http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/semiotic.html.