Women have historically been underrepresented and misrepresented in stereotypical roles within mainstream media.
This post focuses on symbolic annihilation, the cult of femininity and the male gaze as examples of this, and then looks at whether things have changed in recent decades.
Under-representation and symbolic annihilation
Gaye Tuchman (1978) developed the concept of Symbolic Annihilation to refer to the under-representation of women in a narrow range of social roles, while men were represented in a full range of social and occupational roles.
Tuchman also argued that women’s achievements were often not reported or trivialised and often seen as less important than things like their looks
According to Tuchman, women were often represented in roles linked to gender stereotypes, particularly those related to housework and motherhood – a good example of this being washing powder advertisements in which mothers and small daughters are working together, while men and boys are the ones covered in mud. This post has some excellent examples of such stereotypes.
Ferguson (1980) conducted a content analysis of women’s magazines from the end of WWII to 1980 and found that representations were organised around what she called the cult of femininity, based on traditional, stereotypical female roles and values: caring for others, family, marriage, and concern for appearance.
Ferguson noted that teenage magazines aimed at girls did offer a broader range of female representations, but there was still a focus on him, home and looking good for him.
The Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation in 2006 found that there was little coverage of women’s sport, but what little coverage there was had a tendency to trivialise, sexualise and devalue women’s sporting achievements. HOWEVER, this later example may be something that has changed considerably over the last decade (see below).
Misrepresentations (myths and stereotypes)
In ‘The Mouse that Roared’ Henry Giroux argued that women were represented in a narrow, restricted and distorted range of roles.
Supporting evidence for Giroux lies in the historical representation of female characters in Disney Films – where the typical female character is a sexualised yet delicate princess who needs to be rescued by a stronger male character.
Examples of where Disney reinforces female stereotypes include:
- Snow White – who cleans the house of the male dwarves and is eventually rescued by a male prince because she is pretty.
- Beauty and the Beast – In which Belle endures an abusive and violent beast in order to redeem him.
- Ariel – who gives up her voice to win the prince with her body.
- Mulan – who wins the war almost single handed only to return home to be romanced.
This blog post from Society Pages is well worth a read on this topic.
Laura Mulvey ‘The Male Gaze’
Laura Mulvey studied cinema films and developed the concept of the Male Gaze to describe how the camera lens eyed up the female characters for the sexual viewing pleasure of men.
The Male Gaze occurs when the camera focuses on women’s bodies, especially breasts, bums and things, and spends too long lingering on these areas when it isn’t necessary.
The male gaze of the camera puts the audience in the perspective of the heterosexual men – woman are displayed as a sexual object for both the characters in the film and the spectator – thus the man emerges as the dominant force and the woman is passive under the active (sexual) gaze of the man.
The overall effect of this is that women become objectified as sex objects, rather than being represented as whole people.
Mulvey argued that the Male Gaze occurred in film because heterosexual men were in control of the camera.
Video summarizing all of the above:
This is a very useful vodcast outlining the classic theories of the poor representation of women in the media historically:
Changes to the representations of women?
The roles of women in society have changed considerably since these historical analyses of women’s representations: since the 1970s women now occupy a much wider range of roles and equality with men.
David Gauntlett in ‘Media Gender and Identity’ argues that there has been an increase in the diversity of representations and roles of women in the media since the 1970s, and a corresponding decrease in stereotypical representations, which broadly reflects wider social changes.
The representation of women in films
There have been several films in recent decades with ‘strong’ lead female characters who are fierce, tough and resourceful, and thus arguably subvert hegemonic concepts of masculinity. Arguably a watershed moment in this was the 1979 film ‘Alien’ in which the female lead character Ripley outlives her male colleagues and ultimately kills the Alien threat.
Since then a number of female heroines have featured as the lead characters in various action movies such Terminator 2, the Tomb Raider films, Kill Bill, and The Hunger Games.
However, rather than subverting hegemonic concepts of masculinity, it could be argued that such films still perpetuate the ‘beauty myth’ as all the above lead female characters are slim and attractive.
The Bechdel Test
The Bechdel Test is a simple test which presents a quantitative analysis of the representation of women in relation to men in film. To pass the test a film has to pass three tests…
- It has to have at least two (named) women in it
- Who talk to each other
- Above something other than a man
The website above allows you to search for films which passed the test by year, and there is clear evidence that female characters are more visible and independent year on year, but there are still many films which do not pass this simple basic test.
The representation of women in Game of Thrones
At first glance, there seem to be a number of positive female characters in Game of Thrones – the assassin and ultimate killer of the Ice King Arya Stark being the most stand-out example, with other positive female characters including Daenerys Targaryen, Cersei Lannister, Brienne of Tarth, Sansa Stark (once she gets through her abusive relationship).
However, various feminist commentators have argued that all of these positive representations are let down by the end of series eight with Brienne falling apart emotionally because of her love for Jamie Lannister, Daenerys literally going mad, Sansa apparently being strong because of her previous abusive relationship (rather than in spite of it), and with all the anonymous women cowering in the crypt during the battle with the Ice King, while all the anonymous men are outside fighting.
A further Feminist argument is that all of these women are portrayed as strong individuals who are strong because they adopt male characteristics, and ultimately it is male violence which wins the day rather than more diverse forms of feminine power.
The representations of women in the news
In 2015 the Global Media Monitoring group conducted quantitative content analysis of 1960 sources covering 431 announcers and reporters.
They found that:
- The overall presence of women as sources was 28%.
- Compared to 2010 data, the number of women sources as a proportion of all sources, had decreased by 3 per cent.
- Women continued to remain largely confined to the sphere of the private, emotional and subjective, while men still dominate the sphere of the public, rational and objective.
- Women were significantly under-represented in hard news stories and in all the authoritative, professional and elite source occupational categories and are, instead, significantly over-represented as voices of the general, public (homemaker, parent, student, child) and in the occupational groups most associated with ‘women’s work’, such as health and social and childcare worker, office or service industry worker.
Looking at the function women performed in stories, their contribution as experts (20%) and spokespeople (25%) were low, instead, they were mostly called upon to voice popular opinion (54%) or speak from their personal experience including as eye-witnesses or speak from their own subject position.
The persistence of the Beauty Myth?
Tebbel (2000) argues that women are under more pressure than ever before to conform to the Beauty Myth. She argues that the body and faces of real women have been symbolically annihilated, replaced by computer manipulated, airbrushed, artificially images.
Killborn argues that media representations present women as ‘mannequins’ – size zero, tall and thin, and with perfect blemish-free skin.
Orbach further argues that the media continues to associate slimness with health, happiness, success and popularity
The representations of women in advertising
Some recent evidence seems to challenge the persistence of the Beauty Myth….
There seems to have been progress in this area in recent years. In 2015, Protein World launched its ‘Beach Body Ready’ advertising campaign, and while this clearly reinforced the Beauty Myth stereotype, it prompted a significant backlash with several of the advertisements being vandalised, and many women posting images of their ordinary bodies on social media as a criticism of the overt body shaming involved with Protein World’s advert.
Since 2015, there has been an increase in the diversity of representations of women in advertising, for example:
- Dove‘s Real Beauty‘ campaign72 featured a diverse range of body shapes and ethnicities.
- Sport England has been running its successful ‘This Girl Can‘ campaign since 2015, which has since evolved into the ‘fit got real’ campaign:
In 2017, The Advertising Standards Authority launched new guidelines on avoiding gender stereotyping in advertising and in 2019 banned two ads from airing in the UK because they reinforced gender stereotypes.
Finally, UN women has recently launched its ‘Unstereotype Alliance‘, which challenges gender stereotypes in advertising on a global scale. Supporters of this initiative include advertising industry companies such as Unilever, P&G, WPP, Diageo, Google and Facebook.
Signposting and Related Posts
This material was produced primarily for A-level sociology students studying The Media option as their topic option, but it should also be of interest to media studies students.
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