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Media Representations of women

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.

Katniss Everdeen – a positive representation of women?

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…

  1. It has to have at least two (named) women in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. 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.

Positive representations of women in 2019?

 

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.

A Level Sociology of Media Bundle

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my A Level Sociology of the Media Revision Bundle which contains the following:

  1. 57 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within the sociology of the media
  2. 19 mind maps in pdf and png format – covering most sub-topics within the sociology of the media.
  3. Short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – three examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ questions and three of the 10 mark ‘analyse’ with item questions, all take from the specimen paper and the 2017/2018 exam papers.
  4. Three essays and essay plans, taken from the specimen paper and 2017 and 2018 exam papers.

 

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Social Action Theories for Second Year A Level Sociology – A Summary

We can divide sociological theories into two broad types: structural and action theories.

Functionalism, Marxism and Feminism are all structural theories, are interested in ‘society as a whole’ and ask ‘societal level questions’ such as ‘what functions does education perform for society and the individual’? (Functionalism) or ‘why does injustice exist’ (Marxism and Feminism)? They seek to understand the actions of individuals by looking at the structure of wider society and generally believe that ‘society shapes the individual’.

Interpretivism.png

Sociologists who adopt social action perspectives usually reject the view that society has a clear structure that directs individuals to behave in certain ways. Some social action theorists do not deny the existence of a social structure, but see this structure as rising out of the action of individual; others argue that there is no such thing as a social structure. For the purposes of Second Year sociology you need to know about four Action Theories – all of which have slightly different views on the relationship between social structure and social actions.

Max Weber is generally regarded as the founder of social action theory – he believed that we need to develop an empathetic understanding to uncover the personal meanings and motives individuals give to their own actions, and that this was crucial to understanding how social structures changed over time. However, he also believed that we could make generalisations about types of motive people had and that these general motivations were influenced by the wider society – thus he is half way between structure and action theory, rather than a pure ‘social action’ theorist.

George Herbert Mead developed ‘Symbolic Interactionism’, and he put more emphasis on the role of the active individual than Weber.

For Mead, there is still a society ‘out there’ which constrains human action, in the sense that there are a number of pre-existing social roles which people have to take on in order to get by in society. However, individuals have considerable freedom to shape their identities within and between these social roles.

Mead also argued that everything about society is open to multiple interpretations and meanings – the same institutions, social roles and individual-actions can mean very different things to different people. For Mead, individuals are constantly interpreting and re-interpreting each other’s ‘symbolic actions’ – and this is an ongoing, complex process – if we want to understand human action we need to understand the micro-details of how people interpret other people’s actions, and how their re-actions are in turn re-interpreted and so on.

In order to truly understand why people act in the way that they do, we need to understand people’s ‘self-concept’ – their identities, there ideas about the ‘generalised other’ (society) and micro-interpretations.

Erving Goffman’s developed Mead’s work in his Dramaturgical theory of social action – he argued that the most appropriate way to understand people is to view them as if they are actors on a stage – people use props (such as clothes and body-language) to project idealised images of themselves to a social audience – people have multiple identities which change according to the social setting and the audience they find themselves performing in front of. As well as the social world, the front stage, we all have backstage areas (mostly the home) where we prepare for our social performances, and reflect on how good or bad our performances have been, and plan to change them accordingly. For Goffman, individuals are very active and manipulative, and we may never actually get to see people’s real identities unless we spend considerable time with them during their day to day lives.

Labelling Theory focuses on how the definitions (meanings) people impose on situations or on other people can have real consequences (even if those definitions are not based in reality) – and argues that people in power generally have more ability to impose their definitions on situations than the powerless. For example, parents, teachers and the police generally have more power to make labels stick and make these labels have consequences compared to working class youths. Labelling theory criticises both Mead and Goffman, arguing that while we need to look at micro-level interactions and meanings to examine labelling, we still need to understand where people are located in the power-structure of society to fully understand the process of labeling and identity construction.

Sources

Most posts are adapted from standard degree and ‘A’ Level text books such as Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives