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Media representations of social class

How are different social classes represented in the mainstream media? 

This post looks at how the monarchy, the wealthy, the middle classes, working classes and benefits claimaints (‘the underclass’) are represented, focusing mainly on British television and newspaper coverage.

Generally speaking the ‘lower’ the social class, the more negative the media representations are, arguably because the mainstream media professionals disproportionately come from upper middle class backgrounds.

NB Social class is  a tricky concept and you might like to review it here before continuing.

Media representations of social class.png

Representations of the Monarchy

According to Nairn (2019) after WWII the monarchy developed close ties with the media industry and worked with them to reinvent itself as ‘the royal family’ and since then they have been represented in the media as a family that are ‘like us but not like us’, and the narrative of their lives is presented as a soap opera, and is part of our day to day media fabric, which encourages us to identify with the royals.

Media representations of royalty also reinforce a sense of national identity: The Queen is the ultimate figure head of the country and royal events form part of our annual calendar, as well as the fact that royals are often in attendance at other national events, such as sporting events for example.

Media representations of wealth

The very wealthy are generally represented positively in the media, for example Alan Sugar and the Dragons on Dragons Den.

The constant media focus on the lifestyles of wealthy celebrities tends to glamourize such lifestyles, suggesting this is something we should all be aspiring to, rather than focusing on the injustice of how much these people are paid compared to ordinary people.

representations wealth media.PNG
Are the wealthy generally represented positively in the media?

The Middle Classes

Middle class (higher income) families seem to be over-represented on day time T.V. especially – in shows such as homes under the hammer, escape to the country and antiques shows featuring typically very high wealth/ income families, and yet presenting them as ‘the norm’.

Most T.V. presenters are middle class, and so they are more likely to identify with middle class guests compared to working class guests, reinforcing the concerns of former as more worthy of attention.

Most journalists and editors are privately educated which means that the news agenda is framed from a middle class point of views.

The working classes

There are relatively few shows which focus on the reality of the lives of working class people.

Mainstream soaps tend to be the most watched representations of the working classes

Jones (2011) suggests the working classes are represented as feckless racists who hate immigration and multiculturalism – coverage of Brexit seems to offer support for this.

Benefits claimants (‘The Underlcass’)

Coverage tends to focus on the poverty of individuals rather than the structural features of society such as government policy which created the underclass.

Media coverage of the underclass is generally negative and they are often scapegoated for society’s problems. Benefits Street is a good example of this.

Please see this extended post for more details on how the media portray benefits claimants in stereotypical ways.

 

 

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Media representations of benefits claimants

In this post I summarize some recent sociological research which suggests newspapers and ‘reality T.V. shows represent benefits claimants in a limited range of stereotypical ways, focusing on them as lazy, undeserving scroungers engaged in immoral, wreckless and criminal behaviour.

A lot of the research below also reminds us that media representations in no way reflect the reality of being unemployed and claiming benefits in the UK.

This research is relevant to the A-level sociology media topic: representations of social class.

Stereotypes of benefits claimants in newspaper articles 

Baumberg et al’s (2012) research ‘Benefits Stigma in Britain’ analysed a database of 6,600 national press articles between 1995-2011.

Baumberg et al found an extraordinarily disproportionate focus on benefit fraud: 29% of news stories referenced fraud. In comparison the government’s own estimate is that a mere 0.7% of all benefits claims are fraudulent.

Common language used to describe benefits as ‘undeserving’ included:

  • Fraud and dishonesty (including those such as ‘faking illness’);
  • Dependency (including ‘underclass’ and ‘unemployable’);
  • non-reciprocity/lack of effort (e.g. ‘handouts’, ‘something for nothing’, ‘lazy’, ‘scrounger’); •
  • outsider status (e.g. ‘immigrant’, ‘obese’)

Language used to describe benefits claimants as ‘deserving’ included:

  • need (‘vulnerable’, ‘hard-pressed’);
  • disability (‘disabled’, ‘disability’).

In general, Tabloid newspapers such (especially The Sun) focused on representing benefits claimants as undeserving, while broadsheets such as The Guardian were more likely to focus on representing benefits claimants as ‘deserving’.

news reporting unemployment.jpg

NB – The Sun and The Mail are Britain’s two most widely circulated newspapers. 

Stigmatising benefits claimants

Finally, the study found an increase in articles about benefits claimants which focused on the following stigmatising themes:

  • fraud
  • ‘shouldn’t be claiming’ (for reasons other than fraud)
  • never worked/hasn’t worked for a very long time
  • large families on benefits
  • bad parenting/antisocial behaviour of families on benefits
  • claimants better off on benefits than if they were working
  • claimants better off than workers
  • immigrants claiming benefits

More neutral/ positive themes included:

  • compulsion of claimants (e.g. workfare, benefit conditionality)
  • cuts to benefits
  • need

As with the themes of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’, Tabloids produced more stigmatising content than the the broadsheets.

negative reporting benefits claimants.jpg

Stereotypes of benefits claimants in reality T.V. shows 

Ruth Patrick (2017) has analysed the representations of those on benefits and in poverty on reality television shows such as ‘Benefits Street’ and Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole.

The number of such shows has exploded in recent years, but while they claim to provide and honest ‘realistic’ insight into  lives of Britain’s benefit claimants and those living in poverty, Patrick and others argue they are sensationalised and present stereotypical representations of those on welfare.

If we look at the opening scenes for the first series of Benefits Street for example, these featured:

  • sofas on the pavement,
  • men on streets drinking cans of lager,
  • women smoking cigarettes on their doorsteps.

Overall such shows present benefits claimants as lazy shirkers who don’t want to work, and as people who are different to the hard-working majority.

Such shows emphasize the difference between the working majority (‘us’) and the workless minority (‘them’) and invites us to identify ourselves against benefits claimants, and possibly to see claiming benefits as something which is a choice, long term and morally wrong, rather than as something which is a necessity, usually a short term stop-gap before a return work.

This interview with Jordan, who took feature in Benefits Britain as a claimant offers an insight into how negative representations of the unemployed are socially constructed by media professionals:

Jordan claims that he usually keeps his flat tidy, but was told by the producers to deliberately not tidy it up before they came round to shoot, because it would make people feel more sorry for him.

He also claims that the media crew bought alcohol and cigarettes for the shoot, and told the ‘claimants’ that if they didn’t consume them before the shoot was over they’d take them away again, which led to lots of images of the cast drinking and smoking, when Jordan claims he would only usually do this on special occasions.

Relevance of this to A-level Sociology/ Media studies….

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that newspapers and ‘reality’ T.V. present you with the reality of ‘life on benefits’ – in fact both of these sources present highly sensationalised accounts of what it’s like to actually be unemployed.

All of the above research is based on careful content analysis which picks out the main ways in which benefits claimants are stereotyped and thus represented in a limited way.

This post has only focused on representations, forthcoming posts will focus on why mainstream media professionals choose to represent benefits claimants in negative, stereotypical ways.

Sources 

 

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Representations of sexuality in the media

Media representations of sexuality have historically been mostly heterosexual, with LGBT representations being largely invisible.

Batchelor et al (2009) found that when gay representations did appear in the mainstream media, they weren’t generally ‘integrated’ into plot lines, but rather gayness was part of the plot, seen as a source of anxiety, or as a target of teasing or bullying.

Dyer (2002) observed that ‘the person’s person’ alone does not show that a person is gay, and that the media have constructed stereotypical signs of ‘gayness’ which include certain facial expressions, vocal tones, stances or clothing.

Craig (1992) identified three media signifiers of gayness

  1. Camp – the ‘flamboyant figure of fun’ – a ‘non threatening’ representation of gayness, lying somewhere between male and female and one of the most widely found representations
  2. Macho – An openly sexual look which exaggerates aspects of traditional masculinity, as exemplified by the village people.
  3. Deviant – where gay people are portrayed as evil or devious, possibly as sexual predators or who feel guilty about their sexuality. Such representations seem to construct homosexuality as morally wrong.

Research conducted by Stonewall (2011) concluded that the LGBT community were being subjected to symbolic annihilation. They found that LGBTs were disproportionately consigned to the status of comedic relief – their characters presented as something to laugh at or deride. This was especially found to be the case with representations of lesbianism, frequently presented as over-sexualised and exotic, for male’s viewing pleasure.

Out of a total of 126 hours of television programmes analysed:

  • 5 hours and 43 minutes focused on LGBT related issues or characters
  • 46 minutes portrayed them realistically or positively.

Stoenewall noted that the majority of the coverage represented gays in particular as:

  • Unhappy and distressed about their sexual orientation
  • As people who had been bullied and rejected by their families

There was very little reference to lesbians or transsexuals.

Changing representations of LGBTs in the Media 

There are several examples of contemporary shows which have LGBT characters , and in which sexuality is largely incidental to the plots in the show, and only part of the character’s identity, rather than them being subsumed by it, as was so often the case in early representations.

Probably the most obvious example of this on British Television is Doctor Who – which has featured several gay characters in recent series.

In the USA (not UK unfortunately) GLAAD conducts an annual content analysis of the representation of LGBT characters.

Their 2019 report summarizes  content analysis of 111 primetime shows with 857 series regular characters broadcast on the main USA networks (ABC, CBS, The CW, FOX, and NBC).

They found that 8.8 percent of ‘series regular characters’ were LGBT,

LGBT media.PNG

This was an increase of 2.4 percentage points from the previous year’s 6.4 percent. This is the highest percentage GLAAD has found since it first gathered data in the 2005-06 season.

Of the 8.8% of LGBT characters

  • 42% were gay men (a total of 47 characters)
  • 25% were lesbian
  • 29% were Bi+ characters make up 29 percent
  • 4% were transgender characters

The report also noted that last year, out bisexual actor Alan Cumming was the first gay lead in a U.S. scripted broadcast drama on CBS’ new series ‘Instinct’.

representation LGBT media.PNG

However, closer analysis may reveal that although representation of LGBT characters is more common than ever, these representations may not be that positive compared to straight characters. Stefania Sarrubba argues that all of the LGBT characters in Game of Thrones are killed off before the end of the series, except for Yara Greyjoy, who does something powerful at the end of season eight (takes back the Iron Islands), but we don’t actually see this: the show ends focusing on all the straight characters. 

The LGBT community and new media

The representations of LGBTs on new media are generally more positive than in mainstream media, possibly because the content is user-generated.

Social media sites have been used to generate support for same sex marriages and companies such as Facebook and Twitter seem to be broadly supportive of the LGBT community.

Facebook highligeted its support for the LGBT community with its Celebrate Pride Rainbow Filter in 2015 and there were 3.6 million tweents in 2015 that used the #lovewins relating to the Supreme Court’s decision to legalise same sex marriage.

However, research by the University of Alberta tracked all public tweets in the period 2012-15 that used four negative terms about the LGBT community and recorded 56.5 million homophobic comments.

In 2018 Stonewall recently launched its BAME LGBT Voices documentary series to give more a voice/ presence to the diverse range of ethnicities and sexualities which are often under-represented in mainstream media, one such example:

BAME LGBT media stonewall.PNG

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No More Boys and Girls

No More Boys and Girls (BBC, August 2017) BBC programme documents a 6 week experiment in gender neutrality carried out with one year 3 primary school class in primary school on the Isle of White…. Can our kids go gender free?

Doctor Javid Abdelmoneim (*) believes that these attitudes are not just the result of biology, but down to socialisation, and so establishes a gender neutrality experiment, conducted on one class of year 3s,  in which he removes all traces of gender differentiation for a 6 week period, finally testing them to see if ‘typical gender differences’in things such as self-confidence and spatial awareness have been reduced (*I recommend you check out the above profile, on Al Jazeera, he seems like an interesting character!) 

Strong Girls.png

The rational for doing this research now is that these children have lived their entire lives under the equality act, which was passed in 2010, emphasizing that men and women should be treated the same.

Thankfully, some generous sole has kindly done the BBC’s job for them and provided an effective and just service to license fee payers by uploading the documentary to YouTube, which the BBC itself only made available  for a short time on iplayer, a totally unreasonable action given the cost of the licence fee. Here is said video:

The documentary finding, however, suggest that this is far from the case, and there are several differences in terms of attitudes about what boys and girls should do, and how the teachers treat boys and girls.

The programme starts with a few clips of boys’ and girls’ attitudes towards gender, which suggests that they have very set views about what they suited to do in the future, in which various girls and boys say that:

  • ‘If a woman has a baby, the man will have to get a job to look after them.’
  • ‘Men are better at being in charge.’
  • ‘Men are more successful because they could have harder jobs and earn more.’
  • ‘I’d describe girls as pretty, dresses, lipstick and lovehearts’
  • ‘boys are cleverer than girls because they get into president more easily’.

There are also early observations of one class in which the teacher clearly uses gender specific terms for girls and boys – calling the girls ‘love’, and boys ‘mate’, for example.

But why do gender differences between boys and girls exist?

Dr Javid visits a neuro-scientist who helpfully tells us that there appears to be very few structural differences in the brains of boys and girls, and thus gender differences are not biologically determined, but exist because of socialisataion – their experiences have taught them different skills and different mental attitudes.

Research from Stanford University suggests that seven is a key age in the development of gender identity, because it is at this age that boys and girls start to develop fixed ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman, thus Dr Javid’s experiment should be able to change gendered expectations of boys and girls.

Dr Stella Something now comes in from the UCL psychometric lab to subject boys and girls to what seems to be a pretty rigorous series of activities aimed to measure….

  1. Their levels of self-esteem
  2. Their perceived intelligence
  3. Their understanding and levels of empathy
  4. Their levels of assertiveness
  5. How good they are at resisting impulses
  6. How much vocabulary they have to describe their emotions
  7. Levels of classroom behavior, hyperactivity and

The basic findings (which are corroborated by the class teacher) are that:

  • Girls underestimate their levels of self-esteem, intelligence and assertiveness: three times as many boys overestimated their perceived intelligence, and girls were more likely to underestimate it. 50% of the boys described themselves as ‘the best’, compared to only 10% of girls.
  • Boys cannot seem to express their emotions – girls were more able than boys to provide ‘similar words’ to describe every emotional cue-word given to them, except for anger.
  • Girls tendED to describe themselves through words about looks (such as ‘pretty’ and ‘lipstick’)

The Control Group

Another, very similar year 3 class which had a regular 6 weeks of teaching was also tested alongside the experimental group to act as a control.

The Experiment 

Dr Javid turns up on day one and tells the pupils about the experiment – he basically tells them he wants to ensure than boys and girls are treated the same, because they can all do as well as each other, and he then gives them a load of signs saying such things as ‘girls are strong’ to challenge gender stereotypes, which they put up around the classroom.

For further details you’ll need to watch the programme…. for now – I’ll update with the rest when I get time!

Notes

The school where this experiment took place is Lanesend Primary School, on the Isle of Wight, with 300 boys and girls aged 5 to 11,

http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/proginfo/2017/33/no-more-boys-and-girls

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Do teachers stereotype students according to sex and gender?

GCSE and A level statistics show us subject choices are very gendered – even in 2017, boys tend to choose typically male subjects and girls tend to choose typically female subjects.

Interactionist theory points to teacher stereotyping and labeling as one of the main explanations for these gendered differences in subject choice, but what evidence is there that teachers stereotype pupils along gender lines?

This 2017 Online Survey by Accenture found evidence of gender stereotyping and bias around STEM subjects:

  • Almost a third (32%) of young people think that more boys choose STEM subjects than girls because they match ‘male’ careers or jobs. The perception that STEM subjects are for boys only is the primary reason that teachers believe few girls take up these subjects at school.
  • More than half of both parents (52%) and teachers (57%) admit to having themselves made subconscious stereotypes about girls and boys in relation to STEM, and over half (54%) of teachers claim to have seen girls dropping STEM subjects at school due to pressure from parents.

teacher stereotyping.jpg

Sampling:

This research was based on a sample of  8,644 people in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, including 2,793 boys and 2,667 girls aged 7-16, 909 young men and 875 young women aged 17-23, and 1000 parents and 400 teachers.

The fact that this research is only based on a sample of 400 teachers, and the fact that the sample is online and random, raises questions about how generalisable these findings are to the wider population of teachers. We simply don’t know!

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Gender Norms and Stereotypes – A Visual Representation

Men are simple and straightforward: they just want quick sex with porn-star lookalikes, exaggerate the number  of sexual partners they have to gain status and need women to give them space to get on with the important matters of  football, beer and sleeping.

Women are more complex. They prefer wining, dining and love-making, feel the need to downplay their number of sexual partners for fear of slut shaming, and their ultimate goal in life is to manipulate a man into giving them the babies they have an obsessive need for.

Or maybe not…

In a recent book ‘Man Meets Woman’, visual artist Yang Liu presents some binary pictograms depicting the roles, relationships, and clichés of male and female experience.

Yang Liu says of the project:

“We are living in an age of constant social change, in which the subject of the sexes … is rapidly evolving in people’s consciousness. Each generation re-assesses and questions the role models currently in place…

It is interesting to see how Man/Woman clichés have indeed changed in our daily lives and to what extent the attributes that were assigned to the sexes in the past, often centuries ago, are still relevant in today’s society. And to consider which desirable role models are already rooted in our thinking but are still in the process of transformation”.

Below are some of the pictograms taken from the text, look at them consider the questions at the bottom of the post.

Love and Sex 

love and sex

The Sexual Double Standard

sexual double standard

Sexual Experiences

sexual experiences

Perfect Evening 

perfect evening

Perfect Partners 

ideal partners

Babies

babies

 

  1. To what extent do men and women themselves still conform to the traditional (binary) gender norms (stereotypes) depicted in these pictograms?
  2. What do you think the transformative potential of such visual art is? (How effective a technique is this for getting people to break free of binary-thinking where gender is concerned?
  3. Is it a good thing for women and men to start thinking and acting in more gender-diverse ways (breaking through binary stereotypes.

 

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